Entertainment | The Atlantic
The Leftovers: Meet Me in St. Louis
April 24th, 2017, 12:04 PM

Each week following episodes of the third and final season of The Leftovers, Sophie Gilbert and Spencer Kornhaber will discuss HBO’s drama about the aftermath of two percent of the world’s population suddenly vanishing.

Sophie Gilbert: Spencer, am I right in thinking that last week there were no opening credits for the show? No OG string-horror as frescoes get sucked up into the sky, no Iris DeMent cajoling us to just let the mystery be? Which only made it more disorienting in this week’s episode, “Don’t Be Ridiculous,” when the show opened to the jazzy tones of David Pomeranz’s “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Me Now,” which is also … the theme tune to the popular ’80s sitcom Perfect Strangers. It was jaunty. It was contagious. It made me want to grab an extra-large soda and ride on a rollercoaster with Patrick Duffy and Suzanne Somers. In another similarly idiosyncratic anomaly, the writing on the episode was credited to Tha Lonely Donkey Kong and Specialist Contagious, which seem to be names you might get out of a … Wu Tang Clan generator.

(I have no idea if Perfect Strangers was popular or not, it didn’t make it all the way to England and so I have never heard of Mark Linn-Baker outside of the context of The Leftovers, where, you might remember, he was depicted as having departed in Season 1 along with the three other regular cast members from the show. Then, in Season 2, he was revealed to have faked his departure and was located in Mexico eating tacos. Apparently this was because Mark Linn-Baker gave a really good audition for The Leftovers for another role but Damon Lindelof couldn’t cast him because he’d already departed him. Which I guess is why Jennifer Lopez and Pope Benedict have never popped up as guest stars.)

This episode turned out to be the Nora Episode, which, in keeping with Nora episodes of the past (I’m still completely messed up by Season 1’s “Guest”), meant it was emotionally wrenching. If you didn’t cry at the Wu-Tang Band revelation I don’t think we can be friends. But that’s for later. First, there was the very old man up on the plinth in Jarden’s town square, who, out of nowhere, leaned over the railing on the side of his perch and fell headlong to his death. Nora was left to interview his wife, the woman from Season 2 who paid Matt thousands of dollars to beat a man with an oar (no sign of Brian, though). That woman was, of course, Brett Butler from Grace Under Fire. And she offered a few details about the nameless, very old man: that he wanted to suffer, that she was once arrested trying to crucify him (as per his wishes), and that she truly believes he gave himself to God, and was thus departed only a few days before the seventh anniversary.

Nora, of course, couldn’t let this lie go. For one thing, it’s her job to investigate fraudulent claims of departures. For another, having lost her entire family on October 14, she presumably has low tolerance for people who pretend their loved ones departed rather than died. So she compelled Matt to tell her what really happened, and he revealed the cover-up, and poor Brett Butler, who desperately wants to believe there’s meaning in this cruel, hollow world, was left staring at a blown-up posterboard of her dead husband’s face on the autopsy table.

But you know who also wants to believe there’s meaning in this cruel, hollow world? Right. The same person who, going off of just a phone call, presented herself at Mark Linn-Baker’s hotel room in St Louis. What a perfect scene this was: Linn-Baker, reading off his cue cards like he’s hawking life insurance on infomercials instead of encouraging strangers to get fatally blasted with neutron radiation. Nora, gazing at him, her face mutating from hope to skepticism to pity. “I think you may be suicidal,” she told him, at which point Linn-Baker’s voice cracked. “What happened was arbitrary, it was purposeless,” he countered. “I didn’t do anything to deserve this. So no, Nora, I don’t want to kill myself. I want to take some fucking control.”

Which is pretty much what everyone wants to do in this show, right? The elaborate coping mechanisms Nora talked about surely include getting blasted with radiation and choosing to be crucified by your wife; they also include driving to Kentucky unannounced to see your former adopted daughter, and getting tattoos of bands you don’t like to cover up your children’s names so you don’t have a permanent visual reminder of what you’ve lost. We could ponder all day how ridiculously good Carrie Coon is as Nora, but the moment where she admitted to Erika (Erika!) what she’d done broke my heart. But then, in a classic Leftovers flip, it was followed by a scene of the two of them, bouncing on the trampoline to the sounds of “Protect Ya Neck (The Jump Off),” their faces full of lightness.

Of course, nothing perfect can last, so going home Nora had to face the sight of Kevin doing his self-suffocation thing again, then asking her to have a baby. Bad timing or worst timing? And not to propagate the Nora Cursed thing, but this episode resurfaced the fact that Matt and Nora’s parents died in a house fire when they were children, which—along with Matt’s childhood cancer—makes for the grimmest backstory I think I’ve ever encountered. No wonder Nora uses humor to deflect pain. (Can holy balls be busted?) Spencer, what did you make of Nora’s journey, and the surreal jump to Australia, and the cheery weatherman who predicted hellfire and locusts, and the four horsewomen of the (near) apocalypse? Were you happy to find out what happened to Lily?

And, if I told you I had a picture of me and a killer whale, would you believe me?

Spencer Kornhaber: Sure I would believe you. In the annals of amazing images from The Leftovers, “person with a killer whale” might not rank in the top 50. But the sight of Kevin and Nora cleaning up the pillar guy’s vacated penthouse might. It seemed the vision of a perfect, loving couple: sharing work and breezy jokes and confident new hairstyles. Maybe people after the Departure can have it all.

But things weren’t so domestically blissful by the time Nora discovered Kevin with a bag on his head and then LOLed at his proposal to have another baby. When they both insisted to each other that they were happy, it was kind of a beautiful, horrible moment, right? After everything they’ve been through, the stability and mutual support they’ve now found “should” make them happy. But something’s wrong.

This episode focused on two ongoing emotional problems for Nora. One was seen in her merciless inquiry into the old man of Miracle, leading to the latest of her many contemptuous outbursts toward exploiters of the Departure. Remember when she screamed at the superstar memoirist in the hotel bar at the DSD convention in Season 1? Or, in Season 2, when she dissed Erika’s fragile superstition regarding Evie’s disappearance by sneering, “That’s pathetic”? As she sees it, using what happened on October 14 as a “coping mechanism” for run-of-the-mill grief is an affront to what she went through. Yet her zealotry toward her job is verging into vindictiveness, and if anyone should respect the value of “coping mechanisms,” it’s Nora. After all, when in the privacy of a hotel room she, like this episode’s fraudulent widow, smokes cigarettes.

The other roiling undercurrent tonight was that Nora, despite outward appearances and assertions of okay-ness, is deep in grief. The loss of Lily reopened a wound that likely hadn’t fully closed in the first place, bringing her to a tattoo shop to memorialize children who’d disappeared 6 years earlier. She thought better of it, continuing her long-running insistence on remaking her personal brand into something other than That Tragic Woman. But the cover-up here is more ridiculous than the crime. She’s now stuck explaining the Wu-Tang Band to strangers for the rest of her life. She’s having to act like it’s normal to be showing up at playgrounds in Kentucky.

Both of these ongoing internal sagas—her punishing crusade for truth, and her losing battle with loss—seem to meet in the strange and strangely unsettling subplot with Mark Linn-Baker. Certainly it’s plausible, given what we’ve seen of her commitment to fraud-busting, that she’d take these drastic measures of spontaneous intercontinental travel so as to nullify scammers taking advantage of post-Departure grief. But with all the smoldering anguish indicated in this episode, it’s also plausible that she deep down holds hope that “LADR” (“low amplitude Denzinger radiation”) is real, and that she can climb—er, use—it.

What makes Linn-Baker’s pitch so striking is, in part, that a radiation-related theory of Departure might dovetail with Nora having been told that her tragedy was “a matter of geography” and “lensing.” If she carries energy that vanishes loved ones, maybe it’s also interfering with touch screens and maybe it can be harnessed for interdimensional travel. Or maybe—probably—this is all nonsense. By heading to St. Louis and/or Melbourne, she’s avowedly on a mission to enforce reason, but there’s a look in her eye hinting that she’s more compelled by the unreasonable.

All of which speaks to some incredible attributes of this show: the way that emotion truly is the driving plot engine, the way that abstract questions are rendered concrete, and the way we’re made to have empathy for even the strangest behaviors. Regarding the sequence of a grey-haired Australian (the storied Scottish actress Lindsay Duncan) drowning an unpleasant police chief named Kevin, there will be, for now, no clarity about its literal meaning. We can speculate that the Book of Kevin has gone viral Down Under, possibly thanks to Kevin Senior. But all we can safely say we know is that the need to reconcile unspeakable feelings and irrational beliefs with cold, hard reality can lead to mistakes—a tattoo, or even a murder.

The Fact of Feeling in Robert Frost’s ‘Directive’
April 24th, 2017, 12:04 PM

Robert Frost once described his initial joy in making a poem as “the surprise of remembering something I didn’t know I knew.” As a method of getting at the truth, poetry has no claims to scientific rigor—and that’s not why I read it. Rather, I think of poetry as the fact of feeling: what happens when experience transcends received forms of knowledge. Much of the pleasure I take in reading poetry is discovering, through the beauty of language, human truths that I feel but cannot utter.

Such is the case with Frost’s “Directive,” which I love for its depiction of a grief so enormous and incomprehensible that it can only be understood through the story the speaker tells. It’s a story of the impossibility of wholeness and the inevitability of loss—of how humans’ carefully built structures of order and meaning must give way to the indifferent natural laws of death, erosion, and decay:

The height of the adventure is the height
Of country where two village cultures faded
Into each other. Both of them are lost.
And if you’re lost enough to find yourself
By now, pull in your ladder road behind you
And put a sign up CLOSED to all but me.
Then make yourself at home. The only field
Now left’s no bigger than a harness gall.

First there’s the children’s house of make-believe,
Some shattered dishes underneath a pine,
The playthings in the playhouse of the children.
Weep for what little things could make them glad.
Then for the house that is no more a house,
But only a belilaced cellar hole,
Now slowly closing like a dent in dough.

Read On »

An Uneven Tribute to The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
April 24th, 2017, 12:04 PM

In the first moments of the HBO film The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, you learn about the miraculous clump of cells that changed medical science forever before really learning about the person who made and was killed by them. In 1951, a 31-year-old African American woman named Henrietta Lacks learned she was dying of cervical cancer. She sought treatment from a then-segregated Johns Hopkins Medical Center in Baltimore, where a piece of her tumor was removed without her knowledge for ongoing research. To their delight, doctors found that Lacks’s cells could do something they’d never seen before: They could survive and reproduce in a laboratory indefinitely. This immortal cell line, dubbed “HeLa” (for Henrietta Lacks), allowed scientists to carry out experiments they couldn’t perform on a living person, effectively leading to the birth of the biomedical industry.

The story of Lacks, her cells, and her family came to mainstream recognition when the writer Rebecca Skloot published her runaway bestseller The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks in 2010. The book documents Skloot’s efforts to track down Lacks’s family to learn more about the woman herself, whose identity had been obscured for decades while companies profited off her cells. Now, the HBO film adaptation, directed by George C. Wolfe and starring Oprah Winfrey, aims to bring that story to an even wider audience by focusing on the more personal, and less scientific, elements of Skloot’s book.

But at just 92 minutes in length, Wolfe’s movie is at one immediately obvious disadvantage. Regardless of how familiar the viewer is with Lacks—and the complex intersection of family history, race, and medical ethics her story embodies—it feels as though plenty of important context has been left out or given too little space. Take the first four minutes, when the film tries to condense 60 years of history into a breezy montage of old-timey reenactments, photographs, newspaper clippings, and animated timelines. It makes sense, of course, to start with a quick overview and fill in more details later. But The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks doesn’t make the wisest use of its time in the occasionally meandering narrative that follows, a shame given the enormity of the life it aims to unpack.

Rose Byrne plays Skloot, a young, white journalist from Portland trying to get in touch with Lacks’s children and siblings 40 years after her death for a book she wants to write about Henrietta’s life. Skloot seems aware of her fraught position as an outsider—there are unavoidable white-savior overtones to her mission of telling Lacks’s story to the world, a fact the film doesn’t shy away from (Skloot herself is a co-executive producer on the project). Eventually, Skloot gets a hold of Lacks’s daughter Deborah, played by Winfrey, and their complicated relationship goes on to form the narrative backbone of the film.

Not wanting to make Skloot the protagonist of the movie, Wolfe shifts much of his attention to Deborah, who’s in her 50s and saddled with a host of ailments, both physical and emotional. Only a few years old when her mother died, Deborah endured poverty and abuse for much of her young life. As an adult, she learned that her mother’s cells were donated without her consent, which led her family to seek restitution and compensation for Henrietta’s donation—to no avail. After years of being taken advantage of and condescended to by con artists and doctors (who were conducting blood tests on Henrietta’s descendants to further their research), Deborah has little trust or good will left for strangers interested in her mother.

After so much disappointment, Skloot arrives, professing honest motives. She wants to shade in the humanity of a woman whose contribution helped countless lives—and whose experience fits with America’s legacy of exploiting black bodies with impunity. Eventually, Deborah’s (understandable) suspicion is outweighed by her desire to finally answer some of the small-seeming questions she’s had about her mother for years: Did she breastfeed me? Did she like to dance? And then the more troubling questions: Can she feel pain when scientists prod at her cells? Are there clones of her walking around somewhere? (The film indicates that researchers had never bothered to address these issues with the Lackses because of racist assumptions about their intellect.)

Winfrey’s performance as Deborah gives The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks its one bit of genuine brilliance. After cautiously agreeing to help Skloot, Deborah swings wildly between unquenchable excitement for the project, distrust toward the writer and her motives, grief about her mother’s death, and confusion about Henrietta’s supposedly “immortal life” that seems to be benefiting everyone but the people she left behind. Winfrey manages these hairpin turns of emotion with grace and fury. She perfectly navigates the physicality of the role, whether shuffling along determinedly with her cane, barking at Skloot, or welling up at a new memory of her mother. In the film’s devastating climactic sequence, set during a storm, Winfrey is both thunder and lightning, blinding and shaking viewers to their core.

Beyond Winfrey, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks has the markings of a standard TV movie, though there’s a clear mismatch between form and content. (There’s no easy beginning-middle-end arc here, so it’s odd when the film tries to loosely impose one.) Deborah and Skloot’s journey—tracking down family members, lost documents, and scientists—follows a slightly muddled chronology that zips through major developments while lingering on smaller interactions. The writing often lands with a thud, as when Deborah and Skloot have an awkwardly brief parting conversation that takes place through an open car window (“I’m thinking of going back to school, getting certified to become a nurse’s aid.” “That’s fantastic!”). But the rest of the capable cast, which includes Courtney B. Vance, John Beasley, Reg E. Cathey, do their best with what they’re given.

To its credit, the film emphasizes how institutional racism shaped the careless and often demeaning treatment Lacks and her children received, and how it served the interests of powerful and wealthy institutions. Abundant flashbacks of Lacks as a young mother (Renée Elise Goldsberry), though at times maudlin, are moving because of what these memories mean for Deborah. For those seeking a good primer of Lacks’s story, there are more concise options, and the HBO film is far from a suitable substitute for reading Skloot’s book. (While two of Lacks’s sons were consultants on the film, other family members have been steadfastly opposed to it.) But for those interested in Deborah, and her hunger to know more about the famous mother she never knew, Winfrey’s humane and riveting performance may make this adaptation worth a watch.

Silicon Valley Looks to Re-Invent the Internet
April 24th, 2017, 12:04 PM

In its fourth season, Silicon Valley is facing the same problem many an established tech brand comes up against after a few years on the market: how to stay relevant? After charting the travails of Richard Hendricks (Thomas Middleditch) and his Pied Piper company through various booms and busts, the HBO sitcom could have started to get stale, relying on the same mix of broad tech satire and foul-mouthed monologuing that’s carried it until now. But Silicon Valley thrives on self-awareness, and there’s no better evidence than the opening of this season, which comes to a simple conclusion: All of Richard’s progress up until now should be liquidated.

This is a “soft reboot” season, one that largely abandons the minutiae of Pied Piper to embark on new adventures, shake up some of the show’s typical alliances, and generally expand each character’s motivation beyond trying to get venture capital and become a billionaire. This shift feels both necessary and satisfying, even if you’ve so far been invested in the success of Richard’s inventions (mainly, a piece of compression code that allows for the near instantaneous sharing of big files). Silicon Valley remains one of the funniest, darkest, smartest shows about the attraction, and limitations, of the American Dream, but by resetting itself, it also manages to stay strangely gripping.

Part of the weird appeal of Silicon Valley comes from how it plays almost like an action thriller at times and a cut-throat boardroom drama at others. In the new season, Richard’s Pied Piper has mostly collapsed after an internal battle with its puffed-up CEO Jack Barker (Stephen Tobolowsky) and the failure of its main product, a Dropbox-like service that proved too confusing and tech-minded for regular users. The company is now in the hands of Richard’s stoned mogul buddy Erlich Bachman (T.J. Miller), and is surviving only because of the surprise success of one of its peripheral features, a video-chat service.

As we begin Season 4, there’s actually hope for the video-chat to take off, in a conventional sense—Richard and his fellow programmers Dinesh (Kumail Nanjiani) and Gilfoyle (Martin Starr) could raise some venture capital, restructure the business, and try scaling up their popular product. But the show’s creators Mike Judge, John Altschuler, and Dave Krinsky know that’s no fun; Silicon Valley has spent long enough satirizing the endless cycle of pitch meetings and legal battles that come with chairing an emerging software company. So the wheels come off the remnants of Pied Piper very quickly—and in imaginative ways.

The point of Silicon Valley, too, has long been that its main character defies many industry stereotypes. Richard doesn’t crave power, except when it grants him the independence to pursue his projects. He’s completely incompetent at running a tech company: He is bad at delegating responsibility, has a horrible sense for marketing, and lacks the desire to discipline or exert control over his employees. He’s a socially awkward nerd, yes, like many programmers in Northern California, but the failure of Pied Piper in the third season dealt a final blow to whatever notion Richard had that money and success equaled happiness in the tech business.

Indeed, Richard is beginning to take on some qualities of the eccentric tech legends of his industry; at one point in the season, he walks into the room fully clothed, with his bottom half soaking wet—because he wandered into the pool in a fit of inspiration, he tries to explain (Dinesh and Gilfoyle look on with the same nonplussed stares they usually give him). Richard has long been my biggest problem with the show, not because of Middleditch’s performance (he’s so perfectly awkward, it can be painful to watch him have a simple conversation) but because he’s such a charisma vacuum at the center of the show, and one so prone to making bad decisions.

This season is finally addressing that by making Richard almost dangerously odd, rather than a regular old introvert. When challenged by the idiotic venture capitalist Russ Hanneman (Chris Diamantopoulos, making a triumphant return) to explain his actual passion project, Richard speaks of building “a new internet,” one using his algorithm to provide super-fast service at no cost, free of government interference or spy technology. It’s both demented and wonderful, the perfect kind of shoot-the-moon idea for the show to hang its hat on, and one broad enough that it can intersect with every colorful character in Silicon Valley’s ever-growing ensemble.

There are plenty of other side-plots to revel in from the three episodes provided to critics. The continuing petty adventures of Hooli CEO Gavin Belson (Matt Ross, a stand-in for every fatuous celebrity tech exec you can think of) see him butting heads with Jack Barker this year, primarily over the specific flight patterns of his private jet. The soft-spoken accountant Jared (Zach Woods) gets plenty of chances to shine as he is separated from Richard’s side, as does Dinesh (Nanjiani, primed to become Hollywood’s next comedy leading man), who’s given a brief run in a leadership role. The most delightful thing about Silicon Valley after four years is its continued inventiveness—and finally, through Richard, it’s found an entirely new project to captivate fans this season.

Poem of the Day: ‘Gabardine’ by Ted Kooser
April 23rd, 2017, 12:04 PM

From our October 2009 issue, here’s Ted Kooser’s “Gabardine” in its entirety:

To sit in sunlight with other old men,
none with his legs crossed, our feet in loose shoes
hot and flat on the earth, hands curled in our laps
or on our knees, like birds that now and then
fly up with our words and settle again
in a slightly different way, casting a slightly
different shadow over our pants legs, gabardine,
blue, gray, or brown, warmed by the passing sun.

This poem exemplifies the conversational style for which the former poet laureate is known—and which seems perfectly suited to a lazy Sunday afternoon. For more, you can read Kooser’s “Two,” from our May 2013 issue.

Passion and Paradox in John Donne’s ‘Batter My Heart, Three-Person’d God’
April 23rd, 2017, 12:04 PM

John Donne begins the fourteenth of his Holy Sonnets with a demand that surprised me with its intensity:

Batter my heart, three person’d God, for you
As yet but knock breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend
Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.

Donne himself was a man of apparently conflicting pursuits and passions: He not only wrote many love poems, but also delivered some of the most influential sermons ever penned in English. In Sonnet 14, his speaker, addressing the Trinity, seems to wrestle with an angel and argue with a partner at once, wrangling abstraction and spirituality in visceral, bodily terms.

The poem’s formal excellence lies not in appearing effortless, but in actualizing immense effort, doubt, and strain. Fine, hairline cracks appear in the sonnet’s form—the occasional extra syllable, for example—as it drags readers inexorably from line to line, and from one phrase of its unusual argument to the next. The poem, like the poet, generously accommodates tension, paradox, and even outright contradiction to achieve a final unity.

It’s a piece worth keeping posted on your wall as a reminder to continue pushing and being pulled by whichever gods batter your heart.

Poem of the Day: ‘Projection’ by Howard Nemerov
April 22nd, 2017, 12:04 PM

In “Projection,” from our May 1967 issue, two-time poet laureate Howard Nemerov muses about map-making and artistic possibility:

They were so amply beautiful, the maps,
With their blue rivers winding to the sea,
So calmly beautiful, who could have blamed
Us for believing, bowed to our drawing boards,
In a large and ultimate equivalence,
One map that challenged and replaced the world?

Read through some of Nemerov’s other poems in our archives to hear more of his thoughtful and often witty voice.

Kendrick Lamar and Female Cartoonists: The Week in Pop-Culture Writing
April 22nd, 2017, 12:04 PM

Kendrick Lamar’s Holy Spirit
Hua Hsu | The New Yorker
“The considerable pressure put on Lamar has been unfair, and Damn rejects the notion that he has all the answers. Still, within hours of its release, there were theories, which proved to be untrue, that on the first track Lamar represents his death, and that a follow-up album, in which he is resurrected, would come out on Easter Sunday. It feels like a relief when the renowned New York DJ Kid Capri, a voice from a different era, pops up between tracks to play the role of the hype man, as though to remind you that what you are listening to is still hip-hop, not holy scripture.”

Why We Love to Believe the Myth of Everyday Cooking
Maria Bustillos | Eater
“Because cookbooks are works of art and artifice, just like any other writing. They’re the fruit of an effort to create certain effects, to make a certain impression. It’s that impression we are after when we read and make use of a cookbook—its romance, its ethos, and its way of thinking about not just cooking, but living.”

Kara Walker’s Next Act
Doreen St. Félix | Vulture
“It’s been nearly three years since the Sphinx, and Walker has spent the time interrogating what it means to make monumental and political art—representational or abstract—on the terrain, sites, and buildings in which the lives of black people have been compromised in some way. That is, how to exhume the traumas and delights of an environment rather than fabricating scenes out of black paper—and how to guide the problem of how people look.”

How Female Cartoonists Are Changing Mainstream Publications
Hazel Cills | MTV News
“The ‘sameness’ of cartooning doesn’t just occur on a hiring and commissioning level, but in the illustrations themselves. In 2015 a study conducted by the journal Proceedings of the Natural Institute of Science found that over 70 percent of characters depicted in New Yorker cartoons are white men, with women disproportionately depicted as moms, wives, and assistants. And many female artists find themselves playing down aspects of their work that are too feminine, too queer, or too diverse to meet a traditional look of mainstream comics and illustration.”

The Heart of Whiteness: An Interview With Rachel Dolezal
Ijeoma Oluo | The Stranger
“There was a moment before meeting Dolezal and reading her book that I thought that she genuinely loves black people but took it a little too far. But now I can see this is not the case. This is not a love gone mad. Something else, something even sinister is at work in her relationship and understanding of blackness.”

All Eyes on Vibe Magazine’s 1996 Death Row Cover
Justin Tinsley | The Undefeated
“Death Row Records was a byproduct of the post-Reaganomics, crack-cocaine era that transformed South Central Los Angeles into a 1980s war zone. The music, profoundly explicit, was the embodiment of neighborhoods and fractured households ripped to shreds by a society that would have forgotten about it had it not been for hip-hop.”

We Are Living in the Golden Age of Reality Television
Josephine Livingstone | The New Republic
“The idea of one big mainstream reality that these shows traded on was, of course, never a reflection of most lives. By contrast, the niche reality shows reveal a range of American cultures and give the audience a new experience: the chance to plunge into others’ unfamiliar realities. Dividing ‘reality’ into ever more microscopic fields, the joyously weird new contest shows celebrate the deviations from the normal, amplifying a subculture’s arcana to stadium size.”

Looking Back at the Sexual Politics of Chasing Amy, 20 Years Later
Shannon Keating | BuzzFeed
“At the time of its release, and in the years since, a number of queer critics and academics have criticized the film for attempting to school its audience of primarily straight nerd-bros in Lesbianism 101 (how sex between women works; virginity as a social construct) only to end up punishing its lesbian character for her sloppy sexual history. It’s much less a lesbian film than it is a clueless bro’s coming-of-age story that just happens to have a lesbian character—and she exists, for the most part, in the service of the straight dude, kickstarting his evolution without getting much in return.”

The Atlantic's Week in Culture
April 21st, 2017, 12:04 PM

Don’t Miss

The United States of Billy JoelAdam Chandler investigates how the Piano Man, who hasn’t released a new pop album since 1993, continues to sell out stadiums.



What’s in Store at This Year’s Cannes Film FestivalDavid Sims reports on the surprising titles to screen next month in France, including episodes of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks and Jane Campion’s Top of the Lake.

Unforgettable Is the Opposite of Its TitleChristopher Orr bemoans the new female-stalker movie starring Rosario Dawson and Katherine Heigl.

Why Fast & Furious Needs to Go Small to SurviveDavid Sims makes the case for a back-to-basics approach for the high-flying franchise.

A Quiet Passion Is a Biopic With Poetic ScopeDavid Sims enjoys Terence Davies’s new film about the reclusive, and sometimes frustrating, life of Emily Dickinson.

Free Fire Brings the Guns, but Forgets the CharactersDavid Sims argues that Ben Wheatley’s latest film, a 90-minute shoot-out in an empty warehouse, is exactly as interesting as that sounds.



What Was Missing From the Girls FinaleSophie Gilbert laments the disappointing ending to the HBO series.

The Leftovers: Seven-Year ItchSpencer Kornhaber and Sophie Gilbert unpack the premiere of the HBO show’s final season.

In Fargo Season 3, a Family Feud Turns BloodyLenika Cruz weighs in on the return of Noah Hawley’s anthology series, which stars Ewan McGregor.

Why Was Bill O’Reilly Really Fired?Megan Garber explains how the host’s ouster serves as an object lesson about what happens when morality and money come to a head.

Stephen Colbert’s Alex Jones Parody Is Hardly a ParodyDavid Sims recaps the Late Show host’s take on the embattled InfoWars conspiracy theorist, who now claims he’s been “in character” for years.

Veep’s Return Brings Bad News for Selina MeyerMegan Garber discusses the HBO show’s return for a sixth season.

The Americans Offers a Rare Lesson in HumilityMegan Garber weighs in on the latest episode of the FX series.



A Graphic-Novel Memoir That Tangles With the Puzzle of ExistenceArnav Adhikari reviews Kristen Radtke’s Imagine Wanting Only This, which fuses existential prose and breathtaking illustration.

When Writing Is Actually About WaitingJoe Fassler talks to The Good Thief author Hannah Tinti about what she learned about patience and risk from the T.S. Eliot poem “East Coker,” as part of The Atlantic’s ongoing “By Heart” series.

The Thrill and Pain of Inventing Angela CarterJeff VanderMeer explores a new biography by Edmund Gordon, which takes an exhaustive and meticulous look at the revered British author.

Ted S. Warren / AP


The Podcast Spreading the Love of Cowboy CultureCarson Vaughan listens to a new audio series that aims to connect a vibrant community of western poets, singers, and storytellers with a wider audience.

Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery


Remembering Barkley L. Hendricks, Master of Black Postmodern PortraitureKriston Capps pays tribute to the work of the late painter, who documented the African American figure as a cultural, and commodified, phenomenon.

Amy Harris / AP


Kendrick Lamar and the Sin of SwaggerSpencer Kornhaber listens to the Compton rapper’s excellent new album Damn.

Poem of the Day: ‘Barbara Frietchie’ by John Greenleaf Whittier
April 21st, 2017, 12:04 PM

Yesterday I wrote about the patriotic myth of “Paul Revere’s Ride,” recounted in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s famous 1861 poem.

Longfellow’s fellow Atlantic founder John Greenleaf Whittier put a similar, though less historically accurate, myth to paper in “Barbara Frietchie,” from our October 1863 issue. The poem—inspired, like Longfellow’s, by the abolitionist cause—tells the story of an elderly woman who refused to lower her American flag when Confederate forces marched through her Maryland town:

Forty flags with their silver stars,
Forty flags with their crimson bars,

Flapped in the morning wind: the sun
Of noon looked down, and saw not one.

Up rose old Barbara Frietchie then,
Bowed with her fourscore years and ten;

Bravest of all in Frederick town,
She took up the flag the men hauled down;

In her attic-window the staff she set,
To show that one heart was loyal yet.

Read On »

Poem of the Day: ‘Waterborne’ by Linda Gregerson
April 21st, 2017, 12:04 PM

Linda Gregerson’s “Waterborne,” from our May 2000 issue, captures many of the distinctive features of her verse. It’s subtly, hauntingly beautiful and suffused with a creeping sense of horror cut through with poignant wonder. With associative sleights of pen, it connects a varied collection of stories, places, and emotions. And it’s built from the helical stanzas—with their short, central middle lines acting as narrow waists to the longer first and last—that Gregerson invented, and that she once said “saved my life.”

Here are a few lines of the poem:

                            … When Gordon was a boy
                        they used to load
              the frozen river on a sledge here and

in August eat the heavenly reward—sweet
              of winter’s work. A piece of moonlight saved

against the day, he thought. And this is where
                        the Muir boy
              drowned. And this is where I didn’t.

Read the rest here. Then, explore some of Gregerson’s other work for The Atlantic and see what Garth Greenwell had to say about her latest poetry collection.

The United States of Billy Joel
April 21st, 2017, 12:04 PM

For those of you who are sick of wondering, this is what happens at a Billy Joel concert: A mother tries to cajole her reluctant young son to twist with her to “Only the Good Die Young.” A 45-year-old man in a Billy Joel-themed softball jersey, sitting third row and visible to all, hoists aloft a New Jersey vanity license plate that reads “Joel FN” and uses it to air-drum to “Pressure.” Three 20-somethings on a ladies’ night out shoot a Boomerang of themselves swaying to “Scenes From an Italian Restaurant.” A sexagenarian in business attire uses a lull during Joel’s Perestroika-era ditty “Leningrad” to crush some work emails on his BlackBerry Priv. A 19,000-strong congregation—carpenter jeans and Cartier watches, Yankee caps and yarmulkes, generationally diffuse and racially homogenous—all dance, terribly and euphorically, to “Uptown Girl.”

For more than two years now, Joel has held a “residency” at Madison Square Garden, performing monthly gigs that are slated to last, in Joel’s words, “as long as there is demand.” What drew me out to a recent MSG show is the staggering breadth of the current demand for Billy Joel. Since launching the residency in 2014, The Piano Man has sold out the Garden 40 times with performances already scheduled into July.

Some of this has to do with the venue. After all, The Garden is fitted atop Penn Station—the busiest transportation hub in the entire Western Hemisphere—with subways and bus routes and seven different tunnels that fling Joel’s faithful base out to Hackensack on New Jersey Transit and Oyster Bay on the Long Island Railroad. But Joel’s dominance doesn’t end at the terminus of the Hudson River Line. The MSG residency, with help from a methodical regimen of packed stadium shows across the United States and beyond, has turned Joel, who was all but retired just a few years ago, into the music industry’s fourth-highest paid performer in 2014 and 2015 (the most recent years for which data is available). Another way of putting it: Despite having not released a new pop album since 1993, Billy Joel is outearning the likes of U2 and Adele.

These successes undoubtedly must irk his many critics, who have over the years derided Joel in extremely personal terms: as a would-be “Irving Berlin of narcissistic alienation” (1973), “the worst pop singer ever” (2009), and more recently, “the great American nightmare” (2017). While Joel has scored twice as many Top 40 hits as his friend and fellow tri-state institution Bruce Springsteen, he’s received comparatively little of The Boss’s critical acclaim. Springsteen, for example, has been awarded 20 non-honorary Grammys compared with Joel’s five. Joel’s work, steadily dismissed as middlebrow and ersatz pastiche, hardly seemed destined for a decades-long afterlife. So how is Billy Joel pulling this off?

* * *

In 1998, in the era before big data, a brand researcher describing the effect of nostalgia on the palate brought up the orange juice test in an interview with The New York Times. “If you do blind taste tests in New York,” he explained, “Tropicana will win every time. If you do it in California, Minute Maid wins every time.” The reasoning was simple: “That’s the taste you grew up with.”

While I didn’t grow up in an orange juice household, like millions of Americans born in the 1980s, my required intake of concentrated saccharine did involve the music of Billy Joel.

His 1980 album Glass Houses, Joel’s melodic incursion into the punk-rock era (“You May Be Right,” “It’s Still Rock ‘N Roll to Me”) was in semi-constant rotation in my dad’s car. My older sister and I spent hours faithfully recreating the excessive shoulder-shimmying from Joel’s staggering string of hit music videos from his 1983 doo-wop-themed An Innocent Man (“Tell Her About It,” “Uptown Girl,” “An Innocent Man,” “Keeping the Faith”). And my first true live concert—with my parents in tow, no doubt—was Joel’s stop at The Summit in Houston in support of his middling 1989 album Storm Front (“We Didn’t Start the Fire,” “I Go to Extremes”).

If there were one standout in our household, it was probably Joel’s 1978 jazz-themed album 52nd Street, which, in addition to being one of his few critically acclaimed records, is one of his strangest. The album kicks off with “Big Shot,” the petulant first of three straight massive singles, before zigging into the schmaltzy “Honesty,” and then zagging back to the defiant “My Life.” But for my piggy bank, the pathos-filled second half is where the truffles are. “Zanzibar,” the story of a drunk in a sports bar, has two jazz-trumpet solos. “Rosalinda’s Eyes,” Joel’s tribute to his mother, features vibes, marimba, and a 21-second recorder interlude. The album’s pièce de résistance is the Righteous Brothers-inspired “Until the Night,” whose first five schlocky minutes are eclipsed by the song’s sax-besotted, 90-second coda. (Bill Medley of the Righteous Brothers accepted Joel’s compliment by recording a cover of “Until the Night” in 1980, one year after Czech chanteuse Helena Vondráčková did a note-for-note homage in German.)

A survey of American culture suggests my indoctrination, while severe, isn’t so abnormal. A YouTube search of “Just the Way You Are” will yield a gallery of first-dance wedding videos. It seems both unfortunate and true that any a cappella group angling to prove its salt still must perform a rendition of “The Longest Time.” “She’s Got a Way,” a song Joel wrote in 1971 when he was 22, remains endlessly covered in soul, country, pop, and ukulele stylings. Meanwhile, the internet is an ever-growing pool of content featuring updated and parodied lyrics to one of Joel’s bigger regrets, the rocker-cum-history-lesson “We Didn’t Start the Fire.” (Here is The Simpsons version.)

What helps explain Billy Joel’s recent feats (and makes them all the more impressive) is the fact that he has managed to become a commercial juggernaut in two different eras of the music industry; first, when record sales determined everything and later, as tour earnings supplanted sales as the biggest lever of an artist’s financial success. As Christopher Bonanos observed in 2015, of Joel’s 121 recorded songs over a quarter of them (33!) became Top 40 hits. Billy Joel has, believe it or not, sold more records in the United States than either Michael Jackson or Madonna.

And in spite of his years-long abstinence from making pop music, Billy Joel has never truly gone away. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1999, honored by the Kennedy Center in 2013, awarded the Gershwin Prize for Popular Song in 2014, and is one of only two singers to perform the national anthem twice at the Super Bowl, 18 years apart. Noting its “cultural, historic, or artistic significance,” the Library of Congress designated the already ubiquitous “Piano Man” for preservation in 2016, alongside recordings of Wilt Chamberlain’s 100-point game and Gustav Mahler’s Ninth Symphony. Not bad for someone who spent part of the 1970s opening for Olivia Newton-John, Yes, and Captain Beefheart.

Of course, nowhere is the brunt of Joel’s inescapability felt more strongly than in New York, where his music is a codified part of the life cycle. Before Shea Stadium met with the wrecking ball in 2009, its final events were a pair of Billy Joel concerts; both sold out in less than an hour. When Long Island’s Nassau Coliseum reopened earlier this month, it did so with a Billy Joel concert. One of his best and initially overlooked songs, “Miami 2017 (Seen the Lights Go Out on Broadway),” which was written in the mid-1970s as a snarling retort to the dread and financial decay of New York City as it teetering on the brink of bankruptcy, has twice been repurposed into post-disaster anthems: Joel has performed it, along with “New York State of Mind,” at benefits for 9/11 and Hurricane Sandy.

* * *

There may be no one who better understands the strange staying power of Billy Joel better than Mike DelGuidice. The singer, pianist, and guitarist was living in a trailer on Long Island when he came up with the idea to create Big Shot, a Billy Joel cover band. Nearly 18 years later, Big Shot not only gigs, but tours nationally. “His music speaks to generations,” DelGuidice told me last week. “His songs bring you to places you remember being a kid when you first heard them. They always seem to take you to a place where you were and I think that’s why it’s spanning generations. We see grandparents with their kids with their kids’ kids … and I think that’s gonna keep happening, more so than with any artist ever, I would say. Even The Beatles have sort of faded for this generation, but Billy hasn’t. Billy’s still cranking.”

Four years ago, DelGuidice got the Long Islander’s version of a September call-up; Billy Joel, upon hearing him perform at a rehearsal, asked DelGuidice to join him and the band on tour as a permanent fixture. “Musically, spiritually,” DelGuidice told me, “it was one of the best moments of my life.” At 67, Joel’s voice has impressively kept its brawn, but DelGuidice now backs him up, hitting high notes he’d otherwise leave behind. And, with his boss’s blessing, DelGuidice still gigs with Big Shot when Joel is off the road.

DelGuidice, from his themed cover band and his Nassau County-inflected patter to his vocal seizing of the Joel mantle, seems to embody a remarkable continuity of Billy Joel as a concept, one that improbably survives through the generations. Fittingly, back at Madison Square Garden, DelGuidice took the spotlight near the end of the first set to sing “Nessun Dorma” from Puccini’s opera Turandot. In recent years, Joel has used the song, which could be described as the “Piano Man” of arias, as the lead-in to his classic “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant.” It’s the kind of clunky flourish that would enrage an objection-seeking critic, but that completely delighted the crowd, particularly as DelGuidice scattered his voice across three octaves.

This gesture at erudition is just one part of a well-honed formula that keeps the stadiums full, particularly for an act without the lure of new material. Another component involves more nakedly obvious pandering to local audiences. At a show in Houston, for example, a Billy Joel setlist will offer covers of Texas favorites Buddy Holly, Roy Orbison, and ZZ Top, often inserted in the middle of his own hits. In San Francisco, it’s Jefferson Airplane and the Mamas and the Papas. In Memphis, it’s Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry. At a Wrigley Field show, it’s the Chicago-themed “My Kind of Town” and “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.”

Then, there are the optics of a good time had. In a masterful 2014 profile, The New Yorker’s Nick Paumgarten detailed Joel’s longstanding practice of cultivating excitement at arena shows by reserving seats in the first two rows at every concert—tickets typically snapped up by wealthier, sometimes more indifferent concertgoers—and dispensing them to unsuspecting fans instead. (In 1999, I was actually one of those lucky fans. Coordinating over AOL Instant Messenger, two friends and I conspired to buy $20 nosebleed tickets to see Billy Joel in Houston and when we arrived early to scout out better seats we were approached by members of his crew who offered us second-row seats if we promised to be enthusiastic during the show and pledged to do three acts of kindness. We agreed, but squandered all the goodwill of the moment by gloating to friends and their parents as we passed them on the way down to the floor.)

For those who don’t make it to the front rows, another time-honored enticement is the crowdsourcing of the playlist. For decades now, a few times during every concert, Joel offers a choice between two songs and lets the popular vote decide the winner. These results can often surprise; in a match-up between “Keeping the Faith,” one of the best songs written by Joel or anyone else in the 1980s, the Garden crowd overwhelmingly preferred “The Downeaster ‘Alexa’,” a drearier concern song about the plight of commercial fishermen on Long Island.

The song was, tellingly, notably, shockingly, the only moment of the entire night where even the slightest scintilla of politics seemed detectable. (It seems noteworthy in 2017 that Joel, perhaps in an effort to preserve his broad appeal, has shrewdly maintained a Michael Jordan-esque aversion to partisan politics. “Who cares about the political opinions of a piano player?” he sighed in May 2016, after Donald Trump construed an in-concert dedication of “The Entertainer” to the Trump campaign as a compliment. Joel did eventually endorse Hillary Clinton for president.) In a climate where even soda ads can’t help but fizz with factional messaging, finding oneself in a politically agnostic mega-event halfway between Zuccotti Park and Trump Tower is both a bit disorienting and reassuring.

When I suggested to DelGuidice that “The Downeaster ‘Alexa’” had benefitted from the bias of a local crowd, he dismissed it, explaining that it was just one song that had recently become popular again among fans everywhere. A better example, he offered, was “Vienna,” a slow-moving B-side from Joel’s breakthrough 1977 album The Stranger, that has recently enjoyed a second life as cover fodder for Ariana Grande and on shows like Smash and American Idol. “We’ve put that song against almost every hit song in concert and the crowd picks ‘Vienna,’ he explained. “And that was an album cut, that wasn’t even a hit. I could attribute it to how good the song is, that’s one of those that takes you to a place … We usually have to change guitars for different songs. Whenever ‘Vienna’ is against something, I just keep the ‘Vienna’ guitar on.”

Indeed, at the Madison Square Garden show, the vote between “Vienna” and “Summer, Highland Falls,” another older, mellow, relatively darkhorse track, wasn’t even close. But as the song started to play, the crowd’s attention quickly drifted from the stage to the fourth row where a throng of fans was unfurling a banner. In front of the banner, a young suitor dropped to a knee to propose marriage to his girlfriend.   

DelGuidice stretched a little bit to remember this episode when I reminded him of it. Apparently, proposals of marriage are not only common at Billy Joel concerts (“Happens a lot!”), but even pretty frequent at Billy Joel cover band gigs. “Over the last 18 years, it’s happened probably a good 15 times [at Big Shot shows], which is a lot,” he offered. “If you average it out, that’s almost once a year, sometimes twice a year, it depends.”

Back at the Garden, the newly betrothed couple now appeared on the Jumbotron, slow-dancing to applause. Billy Joel, sensing the moment and an opportunity, chimed in: “I still do weddings!”

A Snapshot of Enduring Love in Thom Gunn’s ‘The Hug’
April 21st, 2017, 12:04 PM

There are endless poems about the beginning and end of love. Poems celebrating loves that have somehow managed to endure years of familiarity, however, are somewhat thinner on the ground. That’s a pity, because we need them—both to reflect many people’s lived experience, and to give readers trying to make sense of a new love affair hope that the accompanying angst, joy, and general hysterics won’t necessarily end up sputtering out in meaninglessness somewhere down the line.

Thom Gunn’s poem “The Hug” provides a beautiful snapshot of this sort of enduring love. The poet, sleeping drunkenly after his lover’s birthday party, wakes during the night. He finds himself locked in a tight heel-to-shoulder hug with his partner, in which the intervening years of their relationship seem to disappear:

It was not sex, but I could feel
The whole strength of your body set,
             Or braced, to mine,
         And locking me to you
     As if we were still twenty-two
     When our grand passion had not yet
         Become familial.

There’s a bittersweet history hiding behind this simple poem from Gunn. A British poet who in his early years was linked to the bleak, clear-eyed austerity of The Movement, he escaped in the 1950s to commune life and, ultimately, gay liberation in San Francisco. Gunn lived to reflect devastatingly on the death of many friends from AIDS, but much of his later poetry, written before the epidemic’s axe fell, contains a strain of clear contentment.

Does “The Hug” show the direction in which all our mature loves might happily progress? I certainly hope so.

In Fargo Season 3, a Family Feud Turns Bloody
April 21st, 2017, 12:04 PM

This post contains some spoilers for the first episode of Fargo Season 3.

Wednesday’s third-season premiere of Fargo began as so many Fargo storylines have before: with an apparently senseless and possibly deadly twist of fate. A frightened-looking man is called into a darkened office before a uniformed German military official who informs the civilian that he is not, in fact, who he says he is and that he’s suspected of strangling his girlfriend. The civilian is confused. He insists he’s not lying about his name, and that he has a wife, not a girlfriend, who is very much alive and well. The official calmly explains that the government documents on his desk are all the proof he needs of the man’s identity and guilt. “For you to be right the state would have to be wrong,” he says, as screams from elsewhere in the building echo through the walls.

And at first glance it has very little to do with Season 3’s main plot: This opening scene takes place, inexplicably, in “East Berlin, 1988” before throwing to “Minnesota, 2010.” But it takes some time to realize that this flashback may hold some deeper significance for what lies ahead this year—hinting at a meticulous attention to detail that also defined the last two seasons. This year’s brand new story arc may ring familiar to regular Fargo viewers: Two brothers, Ray and Emmit Stussy (both played by Ewan McGregor), are in a long-standing feud over an incredibly valuable vintage postage stamp. Their rivalry leads to multiple botched crimes, some messy and untimely deaths, and an investigation by a shrewd local police officer.

Despite the promise of the premiere, it’s safe to say that Fargo Season 3 is off to a slower and less immediately gripping start than its predecessors. The showrunner and creator Noah Hawley himself admitted that the series would shift down a bit this year, aiming somewhere between the modest scope of Season 1 and the more grand operatic vision of the brilliant Season 2. Still, the slightly underwhelming nature of the premiere, “The Law of Vacant Places,” and the second episode, can’t be blamed simply on a smaller story or narrative restraint. Fargo has yet to achieve the propulsive momentum it typically excels at from the start; storylines feel a bit stagnant, characters and their motives still feel muddy. But there’s plenty of room for Fargo to stun this year with its trademark visual inventiveness, sharp dialogue, preposterous but clever plotting, and a wonderful cast (which this season also includes Carrie Coon, David Thewlis, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Michael Stuhlbarg, and Jim Gaffigan).

The premiere, written and directed by Hawley, manages a good amount of plot set-up in its slightly bloated 67-minute run time. Emmit (a curiously coiffed McGregor) is an ostensibly successful businessman known as the “parking-lot king of Minnesota.” His brother Ray (a half-balding McGregor)  is a parole officer in love with one of his parolees, Nikki Swango (Winstead), who’s also his partner in playing high-stakes competitive bridge. Ray resents his brother for tricking him into trading the items they each inherited from their dead father: Emmit ended up with the stamp collection (which has only ballooned in value), and the younger, more gullible Ray got the once-flashy but now depreciated sports car. Fed up with relying on his brother for money, Ray blackmails another parolee to steal one of the stamps back—a plan that fatally backfires.

So far, very Fargo-ian: A family squabble escalates due to a toxic cocktail of gross incompetence, poor judgment, and latent viciousness. To complicate things, Emmit finds out that a shady loan his company took out during the 2008 recession has landed him in the sights of a transnational money-laundering operation run in part by a sinister-looking Brit named V.M. Varga (Thewlis). The person who’ll likely be forced to make sense of everything this season is local police chief, Gloria Burgle (Coon, also currently doing a sublime job in HBO’s final season of The Leftovers), whose elderly stepfather had the misfortune of being named Ennis Stussy and was killed for it.

While the main pieces of the story seem to be there, it’s so far unclear how these different strands might cohere, or even satisfyingly explode, in the coming weeks. Missing is the exhilarating sense of brutal inevitability, the clear outline of something barreling—not slouching—toward Bethlehem. But these are also, in part, gripes made in the shadow of a luminous second season, which made Fargo one of the best shows on TV in 2015.

Now for the good: Fargo is still an impeccably shot series, whether capturing beautiful monochromatic fields stubbled with snow or executing thrillingly disorienting action sequences. And if you can will yourself to stop trying to see through the prosthetics and makeup and wigs, McGregor does vanish into his two separate characters (with the exception of the occasional burble of a Scottish accent poking through the Minnesota twang). The fascinating science-fiction elements that came to light later in Season 2 are established earlier, and the show still has its characteristically bleak sense of humor.

What makes me most excited for the coming weeks is, again, that opening sequence in East Berlin. The most obvious parallel is that it was a case of mistaken identity with dire consequences (and several characters in Fargo have been of German heritage). But other themes and details from that short scene end up becoming surprisingly important in the first two episodes: Kafkaesque bureaucratic menace. Cold War geopolitics. Shoes soaked with urine. Antiquated technology. Snow. I wouldn’t be shocked if more echoes crop up as Season 3 unfurls, or if Fargo returns to that time period; Hawley is too thoughtful and precise a storyteller for these similarities to be unplanned.

Right after the anonymous German official tells his captive, “We aren’t here to tell stories, we are here to tell the truth,” the Fargo tagline “This Is a True Story” appears on the screen. The recurring joke being, of course, that the series is here to tell stories and not strictly true ones. Whether or not Season 3 approaches the narrative elegance or dizzying heights of its predecessor, viewers can at least hope Fargo will ultimately build out its carefully devised parts into some masterful, if maddening, whole.

A Quiet Passion Is a Biopic Told With Poetic Scope
April 21st, 2017, 12:04 PM

Leave it to an intimate biopic of the reclusive 19th-century poet Emily Dickinson to feature the most powerful special effect of the year. The first 20 minutes of A Quiet Passion follow Dickinson as a teenager, played by Emma Bell; she attends a Christian boarding school at which she is not exactly impudent, but certainly eager to challenge and pick apart any dictum her teachers throw at her. She writes with fervor, attends the opera with her family, and astonishes her disapproving aunt with her untamed intellectual curiosity. “I shall pray for you all,” her aunt tuts upon leaving the homestead. “And remember, keep atheism at bay, and watch the clock that ticks for us all.”

With that, the writer-director Terence Davies sets the clock ticking, and tilts his film away from this traditional biopic territory and into something far more mesmerizing. One by one, each member of Emily’s family sits for a daguerreotype, and the camera slowly pushes in on them, their features subtly morphing through the passage of time. Some, like her father Edward (played by Keith Carradine), only add wrinkles and lose a little hair; others, like Emily, her brother Austin, and her sister Vinnie, turn into new actors. The effect is astonishing, and not even because of the seamlessness of the transition between Bell and Cynthia Nixon, who plays Dickinson as an adult.

These silent, slow shots evoke the frightening feeling of life slipping away, of exuberance lost and experience gained. There’s a poetic scope that feels entirely out of the ordinary for such a cloistered period biopic; a sense of the magnificent beauty of being alive, coupled with the melancholy that comes with years passing. If summarized, A Quiet Passion might sound like a rather staid experience—a stuffy, educational museum piece. But this is a wonderful work of cinema that doesn’t offer the bullet points of Dickinson’s reclusive existence so much as it captures her spirit.

Davies’s script works to sweep away many of the clichéd notions about Dickinson: that she was some sort of caustic loon, shuttered up in her room writing on scraps of paper and rejecting social contact. Her life certainly defied a typical storytelling arc—she never married, never grew famous while alive, and gradually withdrew from all public life as she got older. But Davies is focused on the ticks of the clock anyway, jumping from mundane interactions with her family and friends to more seismic events (like the affair between her brother and Mabel Loomis Todd, the women who eventually published editions of Dickinson’s work).

As Dickinson, Nixon gives a vivid performance of someone simultaneously invigorated by ideas and intellect, but frequently deprived of ways to direct them. Her work is either met with confusion or entirely ignored and dismissed. Her skepticism about religion raises many an eyebrow (even though she does not dismiss the idea of God, more the stifling rules established in his name). Her nerviness around people, and her inability to lock her opinions away as might be expected of a Massachusetts woman in the mid-19th century, makes her both a curiosity and a cautionary figure.

Davies’s film spans some 37 years, but after that early transition from youth to adulthood, the director doesn’t submit to easy montages or cheap bits of expositional dialogue to fill in the blanks. Viewers only perceive time passing gradually, as her parents die and her brother (Duncan Duff) and sister (a marvelous Jennifer Ehle) begin to nurse her through the illnesses that plagued her later on. Nixon recites passages of Dickinson’s work in voice-over, but A Quiet Passion isn’t about the poet’s discovery and her eventual, posthumous fame.

As Emily grows older and sicker, and her life becomes more embittered and remote, A Quiet Passion abandons narrative altogether and hints at transcendence. The cinematographer Florian Hoffmeister’s gorgeous camerawork, and the soundtrack (consisting of classical pieces) do most of the heavy lifting, suggesting Dickinson’s connection to a grander force—be it her mighty, largely unacknowledged creativity or something spiritual—without abandoning the trappings of her Amherst homestead. Davies’s biopic is a brilliant chronicling of a life lived quietly, one that is sweeping in its emotional depth rather than its narrative scope.

Unforgettable Is the Opposite of Its Title
April 21st, 2017, 12:04 PM

Among the less-noted cardinal rules of cinema is that any movie that takes the title Unforgettable will prove to be anything but. Do you remember the 1996 Unforgettable, in which Ray Liotta tried to solve his wife’s murder with the help of a memory-enhancement drug? Of course you don’t. I doubt even Liotta does. How about the 1997 romance starring Faith Roberts? Or the 2014 Bollywood drama? At least four different South Korean movies have been released with the English title Unforgettable, and I certainly don’t recall any of them. A TV police procedural by the same name proved unmemorable enough that CBS and A&E cancelled it three times between them.

The streak is in no danger from the latest entrant in this particular microcategory, the new “erotic thriller” (it fulfills neither promise) Unforgettable, starring Rosario Dawson and Katherine Heigl. The premise is a simple one: Julia (Dawson) is engaged to be married to David (Geoff Stults). But David’s ex-wife, Tessa (Heigl), still dreams of a reconciliation and insinuates herself into Julia’s life in escalatingly psychotic ways. Throw in an adorable child from the first marriage (Isabella Rice) and a dark secret from Julia’s past, and the movie practically writes itself.   

I could go into further detail, but there’s little point. This is a film that gives away virtually every plot twist in the trailer. And why not? It’s not as though any of them comes as a meaningful surprise.

As a cinematic subgenre, the woman-stalker thriller is hardly among the most elevated, though it has had its moments of cultural relevance, from Play Misty for Me (1971) to Fatal Attraction (1987) to Single White Female (1992). But Unforgettable scarcely aspires to that level, content to go through the same tired motions as the spate of second-rate, post-Attraction knockoffs from the early 1990s—Poison Ivy, The Crush, Mother’s Boys, and The Hand That Rocks the Cradle among them. Worse, it uses domestic abuse and assault as a cheap narrative “device,” a decision that looks even worse after the way the subject was deftly handled by the HBO series Big Little Lies.

First-time director Denise Di Novi has been a successful producer for decades, but her work here is utterly perfunctory—except, that is, when she turns the soundtrack’s vibrato-throb up to 11 in an effort to generate suspense that has not been earned by anything taking place onscreen. And while Dawson and Heigl are both fine, neither offers anything creative or unexpected: a wink, a flash of sly charm, a hint of deeper, theatrical malevolence. Just because this was never going to be more than a B-movie doesn’t mean it had to coast its way to a C-minus.

It doesn’t help matters that neither female lead has any noticeable chemistry with David, the theoretical object of both women’s desperate ardor. As played by Stults, he’s dull, self-absorbed, and mildly testy, a former broker for Merrill Lynch who seems to believe everyone in his life should be happy taking a back seat to his boyhood dream of launching his own brewery. He’s like a walking MacGuffin, or perhaps an advertisement for the fantasy that any man, regardless of inherent appeal, might luck his way into marriage with not one but two movie-star beauties.

Are there worse movies out there? Sure. Unforgettable has its occasional guilty-pleasure moments—more than a couple of them supplied by Cheryl Ladd, who plays the psycho-perfect mom responsible for making Tessa herself so psycho-perfect. But this movie is strictly late-night cable fare, not anything worth dragging oneself to the multiplex for. Title notwithstanding, it’s forgettable in every way, and—to paraphrase the great Nat King Cole, who got us into this mess in the first place—forevermore that’s how it’ll stay.

Kendrick Lamar and the Sin of Swagger
April 20th, 2017, 12:04 PM

The last time Kendrick Lamar released a set of songs, it was an untitled, unmastered, and mostly unfriendly collection in which Lamar argued to God that rap can be righteous so long as it’s difficult. “I made To Pimp a Butterfly, for you told me to use my vocals to save mankind for you,” he raged to the almighty, referencing his thorny and acclaimed 2015 album. “… I tithed for you, I pushed the club to the side for you.”

Lamar’s suspicion that serving God means rejecting “the club”—by making music that, the implication goes, sates the soul before the body—explains one of the most fascinating dynamics in his fascinating career. The man doesn’t smoke or drink; when his lyrics mention the kind of partying and sex and violence that many of his contemporaries rap about, it’s with a sense of leering and reproach, not glamor. Musically, he has an on-again-off-again relationship with fun, recording a dozen topsy-turvy jazz-fusion confessions for every breezy Taylor Swift or even Big Sean track he features on. And yet he’s a superstar with enormous cachet in a popular culture he often portrays as debased—because he keeps finding ways to reconcile the inherent vice of entertainment with the salving possibilities of art.

He’s taken a few approaches to doing so. To indulge in superheroic rap swagger, he has positioned it as a momentary fantasy (“Backseat Freestyle”) or rewritten its clichés with a fresh vocabulary of racial pride (“King Kunta”). For the popular “Swimming Pools (Drank),” he turned hedonism into a horror story. Butterfly’s first single, “i,” was a statement of self-love so extreme that some fans worried Lamar was selling out (an impression forgotten once the song was heard amid the emotional storm of Butterfly). After that knotty album finally arrived, the more enduring hit that emerged was “Alright,” a rare example of Lamar doing what a career counselor—or pastor—might suggest would be his obvious path forward: channel pop’s energy to deliver an uplifting message while smuggling complexity and gloom into the verses.

Now for his fourth proper full-length, Damn, he’s found another way to excel at rap stardom while subverting it. Sin is not only the big theme of the thumping, compulsively listenable album but also its stylistic inspiration; he indulges in wrath and lust self-reflexively, portraying himself as an agent of wickedness who he can then, gratifyingly, ether. As noted widely, the album title carries a few meanings. You might say “damn” after he takes a savage shot at some rival—and he’s then damned for not turning the other cheek. You might say “damn” when he lands a vivid boast about wealth or success—and then he’ll fret about how his accomplishments have only cemented his damnation.

Lamar announced the latest phase of his career in March with a non-album track “The Heart Part 4,” on which he rapped, “My fans can't wait for me to son ya punk-ass.” This read as a reference to the hyped-up feuds that dominate hip-hop discourse these days—some of which Lamar has, in the past, encouraged. The first proper Damn single, “Humble,” also came across as a collection of delicious schoolyard taunts for the likes of Drake and Big Sean. But as with “i,” the context of the album changes the song. Coming right after a track entitled “Pride” and two tracks after he and Rihanna commiserated “It’s so hard to be humble / lord knows I’m trying,” the chorus kick-off of “Humble”—“It’s levels to it / you and I know / bitch, be humble”—is transformed. There are levels to it: The you, the I, and the bitch may well be the same person.

The freedom that Lamar feels to stunt, diss, and seduce has an intoxicating effect on his music. For the explosive “DNA,” he works a cyclical, repetitive cadence to pack in syllables about excellence—“I just win again / then win again / like Wimbledon, I serve.” When the beat changes to a slower, shuddering pace, he uses a different sort of intense flow while his thematic focus spirals out: “Peace to the world, let it rotate / Sex, money, murder—our DNA.” The notion of sin as intrinsic to humans is another one of Lamar’s multi-level concepts: at times it seems the album is making a very specific (and theologically rooted) argument about racial identity, and at others he’s speaking about original sin in more universal terms.

In either case, as he makes clear, it’s tough to be sanctified. “In a perfect world, I'll choose faith over riches / I'll choose work over bitches, I'll make schools out of prison,” he raps through the funk mist of “Pride.” But alas, “a perfect world is never perfect, only filled with lies.” He gets more specific on “XXX,” a haunting indictment of American cycles of bloodshed: “Ain’t no Black Power when your baby killed by a coward / I can’t even keep the peace, don’t you fuck with one of ours.” The sound of a police siren accompanies Lamar’s admission that, if faced with extreme enough circumstances, he would murder an enemy who was on their way out of church. It’s a thrill to hear Lamar so menacing, so unhinged. But in case you don’t pick up on the note of tragedy here, he interrupts his violent fantasy with a small skit in which he gives a speech on gun control to some students. Hypocrisy continues to be his great muse.

Elsewhere, the fun and angst come from materialism. For the radiant anthem “God,” he semi-blasphemously imagines the high of career success as “what god feels like.” Earlier, the lackadaisical “Lust” sees Lamar portray some party-hard lifestyles—“Go to the club, have you some fun, make that ass bounce”—with a distinct sense of exhaustion. The stories he tells on the track are all cyclical, including one about sleeping in late while on tour despite repeatedly vowing not to, and another about activism turning to apathy after Donald Trump’s election. The problem, as he sees it, is short-term thinking: lust. One of the album’s mantras is “what happens on earth stays on earth,” and the implication is that when people disregard an afterlife they waste their present life.

For now, though, Lamar has given denizens of this present life a killer soundtrack to their damnation. There are a few strong pop hooks here, more head-nodding beats, and most importantly, Lamar rapping with an ear for little turns of phrase and of melody that will stick in the brain. The interludes, too, are surprisingly musical—there’s no need to pass over even the spoken-word intro, the kind of thing that one typically skips after spinning any given album twice. Yet Lamar hasn’t lost his sense for musical adventure, either: Tempos make surprising shifts, disorienting backward loops intrude in, and the production itself does a lot of the work of conveying the album’s split approach to sin. I already mentioned one of Damn’s most moving moments—the one where Lamar goes from rage to gun control on “XXX”—but what really nails the heartbreak of that pivot is a sample of his voice saying “pray for me” in the background. Listeners should, by that point, be happy to oblige.

Loneliness and Longing in Agha Shahid Ali’s ‘Stationery’
April 20th, 2017, 12:04 PM

Agha Shahid Ali, a Kashmiri-American poet who passed away in 2001, wrote about a lot of things. Some of those things were specific—Hindu ceremonies, American highways, his mother—but many of them were universal: saying goodbye, the moon, friendship, God. What strikes me about Ali was how he always seemed to be writing from a distance, like he was observing something through a window or from very far away.

I like to imagine it’s because he felt caught, like I often do, between two places that were meant to be home but suggested hostility. For a child of immigrants, his poetry is cathartic. It makes me think about China—about how I can recognize its images and symbols, but don’t really know it. And about how fully I accept America as part of myself, but how it doesn’t always feel the same way about me.

Ali wrote about the violence that tore Kashmir into two separate parcels of land, as well as his lasting feeling of dislocation in American tableaus after he moved to the States at 26. Maybe that’s why he had moments like he does in “Stationery,” a short, dreamy piece about an ownerless landscape and a vague wish that it would say something back to him. And I think everyone who’s ever felt adrift, or abandoned, or lonely, can relate to these last two lines:

The world is full of paper.
Write to me.

Why Was Bill O'Reilly Really Fired?
April 20th, 2017, 12:04 PM

Here are some of the things Bill O’Reilly has done, allegedly, to the women he has worked with throughout his two decades at the Fox News Channel:

  • approaching an African American woman whose desk was near his, referring to her as “hot chocolate,” and grunting like a “wild boar”
  • offering multiple unwanted sexual advances and lewd comments to a woman producer on his show, phoning her “when it sounded as if he was masturbating” and describing “various sexual fantasies”
  • suggesting that she “buy a vibrator,” “engage in phone sex or a threesome with him,” and listen to “the details of his alleged sexual encounters with a cabana masseuse, airline stewardesses, and Thai sex-show workers”
  • threatening to make any woman who dared to complain about his behavior “pay so dearly that she’ll wish she’d never been born”

Here are some of the things that happened to O’Reilly in reaction to these allegations, some of which have long been public, over that time: ... not very much. The accusations may have been reported in the media, and progressives may have had some laughs at O’Reilly’s expense because of them (Google “Bill O’Reilly loofah”), but there O’Reilly remained, the star of the Fox News Channel, pugnacious and indestructible. And he stayed on his perch in large part because from there O’Reilly was able to make massive amounts of money—for himself, and for the company that had elevated him. From 2014 through 2016, according to one report, The O’Reilly Factor generated more than $446 million in advertising revenues.

But even Bill O’Reilly, it turns out, is subject to the forces of gravity. The host, it was announced Wednesday afternoon, is out at Fox. And this is ostensibly because of the recent revelation of yet more allegations of sexual harassment against him. As 21st Century Fox put it in a terse press release, “After a thorough and careful review of the allegations, the Company and Bill O’Reilly have agreed that Bill O’Reilly will not be returning to the Fox News Channel.”

It’s notable that the company felt no need to elaborate on the “the allegations” in question; at this point, the conglomerate (and, ostensibly, the collective of crisis PR strategists who wrote this telling sentence on its behalf) seem to have figured, people understand roughly what those accusations have entailed. While Don Imus was fired for a racist comment, and Dan Rather was fired for an isolated journalistic indiscretion, and Brian Williams was suspended for exaggerating the truth … O’Reilly, the company’s statement on the matter suggests, was let go because of a pattern of behavior that is offensive not merely to the people who were its most direct targets, but to our broader ideals of decency, and respectfulness, and empathy.

It’s a line of logic borne out in the letter sent by Rupert Murdoch, the acting CEO of Fox News, to his staffers (a letter promptly leaked to CNN’s Brian Stelter):

What the company doesn’t say in its release, and what Murdoch also leaves silent in his talk of “trust and respect,” is that the firing seems to have been occasioned by so much more than “the allegations” in question—a string of events that have compromised The O’Reilly Factor as an (alleged) arbiter of American civic life, and also, relatedly, as a money-making juggernaut. There were the daily protests outside Fox News’s headquarters in New York, objecting to O’Reilly. And there’s the fact that several high-profile advertisers—more than 50 of them, in all—suspended the campaigns they had been airing on his show. The advertisers included, The Daily Beast reports, carmakers, pharmaceutical companies, financial and insurance firms, and many more, and many of them expressed particular concern about the allegations’ effect on The O’Reilly Factor as an agent of American morality. As Mercedes-Benz said in a statement of its decision, “The allegations are disturbing and, given the importance of women in every aspect of our business, we don’t feel this is a good environment in which to advertise our products right now.”

Another factor in the death of the Factor: 21st Century Fox’s pending takeover of Sky TV, the European pay-TV company, in a deal said to be worth $14 billion. “On May 16,” New York magazine reported, “the British media regulator Ofcom is set to judge whether the Murdochs are ‘fit and proper’ to own such a large media property.” And “removing O’Reilly could appease critics and help close the Sky deal.”

You know what’s worth more than $446 million? $14 billion.

Morality via math: It’s not a particularly pleasant way to go about righting wrongs. Capitalism looks decidedly awkward when it tries on a superhero’s cape. But this is a time in which companies do act, often, as arbiters of discourse, and in which they are increasingly cognizant of their need to stay on the right side of history—for financial reasons if for no other ones. As United reels from one of the worst public-relations disasters in recent memory, and as Pepsi does the same, O’Reilly’s ouster is yet another reminder that the profit motive can itself be an agent of change. Money makes the world go round—and this can lead both to progress and to dizzying levels of hypocrisy.

It’s not merely the sexual harassment allegations, after all, that have haunted The Factor and its host. Here are some of the comments O’Reilly has made on the air—shaping millions of people’s views of the country and their fellow Americans—over the years:

  • “White people don’t force black people to have babies out of wedlock. That’s a personal decision; a decision that has devastated millions of children and led to disaster both socially and economically.”
  • “There is a violent subculture in the African-American community that should be exposed and confronted. Enter the Black Lives Matter crew which roams around the country promoting a false narrative that police officers are actively hunting down and killing blacks.”
  • “Don’t abandon your children. Don’t get pregnant at 14. Don’t allow your neighborhoods to deteriorate into free-fire zones. That’s what the African American community should have on their T-shirts.”
  • “I didn’t hear a word she said. I was looking at the James Brown wig. If we have a picture of James Brown—it’s the same wig.”
  • “The reason Trayvon Martin died is because he looked a certain way, and it wasn’t based on skin color. If Trayvon Martin had been wearing a jacket like you are and a tie, Mr. West, this evening, I don’t think George Zimmerman would’ve had any problem. But he was wearing a hoodie, and he looked a certain way, and that way is how gangstas look. And therefore he got attention.”

These are comments, too, that provoked outrage and indignation among many members of the American public; they are comments that, until today, had no real recourse. They simply solidified O’Reilly’s self-styled brand as a proud warrior against the pettiness of “p.c. culture.” O’Reilly may have made any number of shameful characterizations of African Americans to his legions of viewers, among them that “many of them are ill-educated and have tattoos on their foreheads, and I hate to be generalized about it, but it’s true.” He may have sent a correspondent on a tour through New York’s Chinatown for a segment that was a textbook example of everyday racism. He may have allegedly demeaned and insulted and threatened the women who were also his colleagues. He may have engaged in all manner of behavior that, taken together, suggests incuriosity and unkindness and bigotry and sexism. For years, none of that mattered. This week, finally, the thing that was always a big deal was recognized as such—and all that took, it turns out, was another big deal.

The Thrill and Pain of Inventing Angela Carter
April 20th, 2017, 12:04 PM

It’s impossible to know what the brilliant British writer Angela Carter would have thought of any biography of her life, let alone Edmund Gordon’s meticulous but at times exhausting The Invention of Angela Carter. The title alone might have elicited a snort, considering Carter was best-known for two books—a classic collection of feminist folktales, The Bloody Chamber, and the influential nonfiction tract The Sadeian Woman—that, in part, interrogate the way women are viewed by men. Gordon’s effort clearly comes from a place of respect and appreciation, but if it succeeds, it does so in part because his wall of detail and his attempts to fact-check Carter’s assertions provide a staid, sometimes unintentionally hilarious, frame for the raucous, unapologetic glimpses of Carter the reader receives through direct quotes from the subject.

So then, why should readers pick up a biography on her life? The obvious answer is that her work has been immensely important to second-wave feminism. But Carter is also essential because her writing remains surprising and transgressive, exemplified by the fact that even feminists today aren’t always in agreement about its meaning. Despite her lush style, Carter’s fiction shakes people up because it recalls punk rock and Chaucer’s The Miller’s Tale as much as it does Shakespeare’s most elevated and mannered scenes. Carter also helped to bring Surrealism into the literary mainstream through early novels like The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman that still feel fresh and dangerous today.

Perhaps because of these unique qualities, even the popularity of 1979’s The Bloody Chamber, with its necessary correction on traditional gender roles, didn’t bring her as many readers as some of her contemporaries. As Gordon details, despite critical acclaim, stalwart tastemakers like the Booker Prize remained indifferent to her work; the literary critic Valentine Cunningham expressed the opinion of many when he wrote in The Observer in 1984 about Carter’s penultimate novel Nights at the Circus—that “it goes without saying that the Booker Prize judges want their heads and their critical standards examined for not putting this stunning novel on their shortlist.”

It wasn’t until Carter’s death in 1992 and the subsequent rediscovery of her work by professors—and thus their students—that she gained a measure of the fame she had hoped for while alive. Meanwhile, other parts of the world are still catching up; it won’t be until this year or the next, for example, that Italian readers will for the first time be treated to translations of the majority of her fiction.

In this context, Gordon’s biography is very welcome: It’s well-researched, with strong, clear writing throughout. He adeptly hits the highlights of pivotal literary and personal moments in Carter’s life, though at times his exhaustiveness is baffling or ventures into the absurd. Did readers really need to know that the café attached to the zoo where Carter once worked “sold ham or pork pie, with a side of chips or salad, or chips and salad: a notice informed customers that ‘the management regrets it is unable to serve chips alone’”?

Gordon’s attention to detail, however, is critical to the success of the biography, particularly when it is dealing with important personal moments in Carter’s life. We truly are made to understand the improbability of (and the sheer effort involved in) Carter’s transformation from a shy, uncertain girl to a full-blown bohemian writer cocooned within a circle of like-minded friends from college: artists and writers mostly, some with money and some without. Gordon also excels in documenting Carter’s fraught relationship with her controlling mother, Olive—who wanted her daughter to stay closer to home, among other disputes—and how it affected both Carter’s life and her work.

Olive’s death leads to this heart-breaking observation by Gordon, magnified because it applied to both Carter’s interpersonal relationships and her place in society: “It was a horribly literal manifestation of the thing Angela had always feared: that striking out for herself would leave her with nobody to fall back on; that her only choice was between engulfment and abandonment.”

Of particular beauty and clarity, too, is the section on how Carter met her second husband, the quiet but handsome and strong Mark Pearce, and why she fell in love with him. He literally came to fix her pipes, as if acting out a clichéd scene from a 1970s porn flick, and, Carter told her friends, “never left.” She thought he looked “like a werewolf,” in a good way, and Gordon notes how Pearce’s silence in contrast to Carter and her friends was “comfortable and self-contained.” In her journal, Carter wrote in a dramatic and yet touching, romantic way, “When I hold him in my arms, I hold all of this country’s sadness … Your gentleness, your innocence, your sweetness, like the taste of rain and tears ... I do not see you with my eyes but with my heart.” They would never be apart, separated only by her death.

Other highlights include how Gordon handles documenting Carter’s education, especially her trips to Japan, the initial one funded by her winning the Somerset Maugham Prize, which changed her life and her perception of feminism; the middle years leading up to The Bloody Chamber, when she established herself as a true original in a fabulist vein after a series of more realistic works; her instrumental involvement with Virago Press, devoted to resurrecting forgotten women writers; the influence of her nonfiction, including The Sadeian Woman; her teaching at various universities in the United States; and, of course, her fierce and uncompromising fight against lung cancer, this last documented in an illuminating way that harkens back to other formative events in Carter’s life.


Of tremendous help to Gordon and to the reader is Carter’s decades-long personal journal, which Gordon generally makes good use of.  It crossed my mind that Carter likely didn’t mean this mishmash of thoughts, fragments of fiction drafts, and other notes to ever be read by anyone. On the other hand, Gordon is correct that there was a performative tenor to certain aspects of Carter’s life, nowhere more on display than when he shows the close connection between a journal entry and a passage from Carter’s short story “Flesh and the Mirror.”

The journal factors into one of the most necessary and yet perhaps less successful parts of the book: Gordon’s portrayal of his subject’s doomed first marriage to Paul Carter. We need to understand that dynamic—even the banal, usual things, like Angela’s waning of interest in, and Paul’s obliviousness to the deterioration of, the relationship—because it affected her writing and her views on feminism. But the relationship is dissected and analyzed and rehashed to such an extent that the reader may begin to wonder if there would be as much Paul if Angela Carter had been a man and Paul in fact Paulina.

It’s also worth noting that despite a sometimes messy personal life, Carter displayed considerable discipline throughout her career—the published evidence suggests that she was highly motivated and organized and prolific, even when the biography describes her as disorganized or under stress behind the scenes. Carter was also ambitious, like most writers. When she writes in a letter to a colleague, “I’m not giving autographs until I get my Nobel Prize,” Gordon admits it’s a joke but also that it “betrays a measure of egotism.” It seems odd to call Carter egotistical in a context in which women needed to be bold and expend much more effort just to carve out an equal place in the literary world and society alongside their male colleagues.

Perhaps the worst example of Gordon’s sometimes nit-picky interrogation is a too-long passage questioning whether Carter actually had anorexia at one point (“we should be cautious about accepting her testimony too readily”), before concluding, “Even if Angela didn’t become quite so emaciated as she later claimed, her weight loss had obviously reached a point at which it was damaging her health.” In that case, why did we just have to read a laborious section debating back and forth exactly how much weight she had lost?

Similarly, in noting a former lover’s “furious letter” to Carter that accuses her of being a plagiarist and “having poor standards of personal hygiene,” Gordon writes that this letter is “worth considering” as an “alternative way of inventing Carter” because it is at odds with the views of her long-time friends. But is it really worth considering? Personally, I didn’t think so, for the obvious reasons—I can’t recall Vladimir Nabokov’s biographer Brian Boyd ever giving the thumbs up to any kind of quote about that writer’s hygiene—but also because Carter didn’t exactly try to pretend she was a perfect person.

The biography is much better when we get Carter’s blunt appraisals of people and situations, as when she wrote, “I think women admire Marlene Dietrich so much because she looks as if she ate men whole, for breakfast, possibly on toast.” Or as when Carter describes, in her journal, meeting Arthur C. Clarke at the first International Science Fiction Symposium and calls him “probably the most boring man in the entire universe.” Thankfully, Gordon doesn’t waste any time trying to corroborate or dispute either assertion.

In other sections, the reader is not quite so lucky. Exploring Carter’s romance with Sozo Araki in Japan—which led to some of Carter’s most openly autobiographical stories, collected in Fireworks (1974)—Gordon notes that “They slept with each other only nine or ten times … It was a remarkably short acquaintance on which to base important decisions about the future.” Gordon goes on to write, “Though she worked in the [Japanese hostess] bar for just one week … she later spoke of it as if it had been a major component of her Japanese experience.”

Unless Gordon has ever worked at a hostess bar, it seems presumptuous to reach a conclusion about how long it would take for that to become a “major component” of someone’s life experience. Nor am I sure studies have been done on whether, on average, it’s on the ninth time sleeping together or the twelfth that one begins to make major life decisions.


What The Invention of Angela Carter does particularly effectively is to weave into the biographical mix a thoughtful discussion of Carter’s work and her place within the canon. I appreciated that although Gordon covers her more popular fictions (like The Bloody Chamber, which has been analyzed to death over the years), he devotes plenty of space to her earlier and lesser-known works. Wisely, he doesn’t deliver the analysis in one thick passage, but unfurls it as he documents the entire editorial process, from Carter’s writing of the material to her editor’s responses to the particulars of publication.

His examination of the perverse counterculture novel Shadow Dance (1966), with its sadistic killer Honeybuzzard, notes the Nabokovian influence in a phrase like “happy bicycle” and also “gusts of Poe, Dostoevsky, Swift.” In a more nebulous vein, Gordon notes that a description of “dregs of brown liquor spilled” leaves “a nasty taste in the mouth,” perhaps because Carter continues by writing that the bottles gleamed “like the shiny backs of a nest of disturbed beetles.” (In my reading of the line, it’s less a nasty taste than a too-elongated simile.) Gordon concludes, perhaps too reductively, that Shadow Dance is “palpably not the creation of a happy person” because it is a “dark, spiky, misanthropic piece of work.”

More on point is his discussion of Love (1971)—about a quirky threesome, rife with echoes of Brontë—because he turns the critical responses into a platform to talk more generally about Carter’s impulses. Most critics thought Carter identified with the female character, Annabel, rather than the brothers Lee and Buzz, which Gordon refutes, writing that “her fiction can’t be boiled down to a set of neat intellectual perspectives.” He bemoans the “scholarly sarcophagi” in which “her reputation has been so firmly interred” since her death and quotes Carter herself on the subject: “I had no intention, when I first started being published, of writing illustrative textbooks of late feminist theory … I stopped enjoying museums when I realized they were places where beautiful things go when they die.”

He also ably traces Carter’s influences, from the way Andre Breton’s Surrealist Manifesto provided the “earliest stirrings” for The Magic Toyshop (1967) to how her novel The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman (1972) is the purest expression of Surrealism in her fiction. That movement’s idea of convulsive beauty and its use of images to jolt the reader or viewer out of complacency—in the pursuit of liberating the imagination—certainly helped free Carter of the constraint of realism. But outside of the short fictions of the painter Leonora Carrington, surrealist writings were so experimental that they alone wouldn’t have been the sole literary influence on Carter’s stylized, yet very structured, fantastical writings.

What Gordon explores to a lesser extent is how the Decadent-era writers like Baudelaire and Rimbaud are reflected in Carter’s work. Her early bohemian novels, as well as Nights at the Circus and many of her short stories seem steeped more in a transgressive, visceral Decadent sensibility than in Surrealism. But Gordon reserves, for example, his mentions of a Decadent precursor, De Sade, for his analysis of The Sadeian Woman, which focused on the relationship of sexuality to power.

Another influence, alluded to but not fully analyzed, comes from the realm of science fiction. Gordon devotes only half a page to Carter’s discovery of New Worlds magazine and the New Wave science fiction movement, including writers like J.G. Ballard and Michael Moorcock (themselves influenced in part by the Decadents). Both these influences help characterize Carter’s work beyond simply calling it a descendant of Surrealism with hints of magical realism, and could have used more space. Still, Gordon’s overall range is impressive and his acumen admirable, and readers will come away from these passages with a deeper understanding of Carter’s unique talent for both innovation and renovation.


I was 20 when I first read The Infernal Desires of Doctor Hoffman, and it blew the back of my head off, rewired my brain: I had never encountered prose like that before, never such passion and boldness on the page. Along with writers like Nabokov, Carter inspired me to be a better writer. Novels like Nights at the Circus just made me more impressed, because of the fearlessness—that she didn’t bother to explain how the high-wire circus performer Fevvers could fly, but in fact teased readers, dared them, to disbelieve. I had not known such things were possible, but once Carter showed me they were, I tried to be fearless in my own work, as best I could; I doubt the inexplicable flying bear in my novel Borne could have come into being without Carter’s example.

Maybe Carter would’ve appreciated the heartfelt way in which Gordon defends her legacy, and laughed off how he sometimes second-guesses his subject. Or perhaps not. But ultimately too much detail is better than not enough. The thoughtful literary analysis makes up for a lot, and brings into relief the book’s excellent opening and closing passages, where Gordon expresses a sense of loss and sadness about Carter’s too-early death that I found moving. But most of all, it is illuminating, and an absolute pleasure, to hear from Carter herself, speaking out from these pages: direct, no-bullshit, bloody-minded, curious, and forever grappling with the world.

Free Fire Brings the Guns, but Forgets the Characters
April 20th, 2017, 12:04 PM

A handful of character actors and an Oscar-winner walk into an abandoned factory, decked out in the finest ’70s polyester suits and most garish wigs imaginable. They’re all packing heat. Most of them have brought their baddest attitudes as well, the kind of hair-trigger tempers that might seem unwelcome when purchasing several crates of machine guns. It seems like things will go wrong, and quickly enough, they do, pitting a gang of IRA terrorists against a cadre of weapons dealers in a drawn-out standoff. In this film, Free Fire, almost every second sees its well-rounded ensemble ducking behind pillars and firing potshots at each other. But it’s not telling much of a story.

Free Fire comes from Ben Wheatley, a British director adept at mixing grim horror and brutal violence with sly humor and cinematic verve. His last effort, High-Rise, was a grim, mind-warping adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s novel, but one that seemed to intentionally hold the audience at a distance. From its period setting to its absurdly straightforward premise, Free Fire seems designed to have more fun, to offer ultraviolent thrills in a confined setting and rack up the tension in real time. Instead, once the bullets start flying, everything grinds to a halt.

This is not the Shakespearean comedy of fungible alliances and eagerly batted repartee that I hoped for going in. Free Fire is a pure slog—a loud, brutish, gritty mini-spectacle that’s impressive only in its devotion to simplicity. As the action begins, there are the IRA guys on one side and the arms dealers on the other, with free agent Justine (Brie Larson), a go-between who set up the meeting, in the middle. Once those battle lines are drawn, there really isn’t any more story to tell: Wheatley’s film, co-written (as most of his movies are) with his wife Amy Jump, feels like straight-up trench warfare.

The leader of the IRA side is Chris (Cillian Murphy), a cold-eyed soldier type who’s all business. He’s accompanied by the even less charming Frank (Michael Smiley, a Wheatley regular) and dim-witted bagboys Stevo (Sam Riley) and Bernie (Enzo Cilenti). They’re buying from hotheaded weapons dealer Vernon (Sharlto Copley, resplendent in a tacky wide-collared shirt), who’s assisted by the supercilious Ord (Armie Hammer), the hippie-haired Harry (Jack Reynor), and the gruff Martin (Babou Ceesay). A personal misunderstanding builds to a violent confrontation, and just as quickly as some bags of money have been exchanged for a few crates of firearms, everyone go to war, with Justine serving as a sort of neutral party.

Wheatley and Jump’s overarching storytelling point quickly makes itself clear: These preening men are fools all too ready to destroy everything around them, be it in the name of politics, money, or psychotic pride. Put a gun in their hands, and everyone around them is sure to quickly sustain several flesh wounds, if not worse. Justine is the film’s level-headed operator for a reason—as the only female character, she seems very used to navigating pile-ups of male ego with little more than an eye-roll. Larson is the best thing about the film, but she’s punching below her weight, serving mostly as a prop to back up a larger point, rather than getting to craft an actual character from the ground up.

In fact, nobody in this film is playing an actual character; it’s all archetypes and hairstyles. Everyone’s defined by some personal accessory, from Ord’s lustrous beard to Vernon’s jutting shoulder pads to Harry’s porkpie hat. If you’re making a Tarantino-esque chamber piece, I should be able to name at least one character after seeing your film without checking IMDB. As Free Fire wound from tense beginning to bloody middle to grim end, I still could only identify everyone as the actor playing them. Copley stands out for the usual reason—he’s completely unafraid to chew every bit of scenery around him. While that’s usually painful to watch, here it’s a minor blessing, if only because he’s trying to do something different.

Calling a film “Tarantino-esque,” especially when it’s from as established a filmmaker as Wheatley, might seem cheap. But it’s hard not to long for the ridiculous crackle of that director’s dialogue when watching a movie that’s basically an extended standoff. Wheatley and Jump’s script is brusque and to the point, taking no time to linger on any detail besides where the money is, where the guns are, and which character’s going to try running across the factory floor to try and collect one or the other. The ’70s setting seems entirely superfluous, except for the fact that it means nobody has a cellphone to call for backup. As the bullets continue to whiz around the room, and the ensemble suffers an alarming number of minor injuries, even the idea that this is style over substance goes out the window. Free Fire is not much more than a 90-minute marathon, an ear-splitting exercise that’ll leave you with a headache, but little else.

Bill O'Reilly's Exit From Fox News
April 19th, 2017, 12:04 PM

Updated at 5:27 p.m. ET

Bill O’Reilly, the pugnacious host of O’Reilly Factor, whose diatribes against political correctness and attacks on those he regarded as “pinheads” enraged his liberal opponents and made Fox News a ratings powerhouse, will not be returning to the network, 21st Century Fox announced Wednesday. The move came amid an exodus by advertisers following allegations O’Reilly, 67, and the network paid about $13 million to settle claims by five women that he sexually harassed them. His departure is immediate.

“After a thorough and complete review of the allegations, the company and Bill O’Reilly have agreed that Bill O’Reilly will not be returning to the Fox News Channel,” the network said in a statement.        

Rupert Murdoch, Fox News’s acting CEO, in a message to employees said:

In a separate statement, O’Reilly said that while he was proud of what he’d achieved over two decades at the network, “It is tremendously disheartening that we part ways due to completely unfounded claims. But that is the unfortunate reality that many of us in the public eye must live with today.”

Just last week, as the allegations against him piled up, O’Reilly, the top-rated host in cable news, remained confident. He had reason to be: His audience had grown during the scandal and he had recently signed a new contract worth more than $20 million per year. O’Reilly announced on air he was going on a previously scheduled vacation and would return April 24. (He was seen at the Vatican on Wednesday meeting with Pope Francis.) Until then the network hadn’t commented on air about a report published in The New York Times on April 1 about claims against O’Reilly and settlements that were paid out. But in the aftermath of the article, Gabriel Sherman reported in New York magazine that the law firm Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison, hired by 21st Century Fox to investigate Roger Ailes, Fox News’s ousted CEO, was looking into O’Reilly’s behavior. O’Reilly has denied the allegations against him, and on Tuesday his lawyer called them a “brutal campaign of character assassination that is unprecedented in post-McCarthyist America.” He blamed the campaign on “far-left organizations bent on destroying O’Reilly for political and financial reasons.”

Still, the allegations published in the Times resulted in more than 50 high-profile advertisers fleeing the show, potentially costing Fox tens of millions of dollars in revenue. That, combined with daily protests outside Fox News’s New York City headquarters, and frustration among the network’s female staff over what many regarded as problematic behavior gone unchecked, as well as a fresh allegation against O’Reilly this week, ultimately persuaded the Murdochs to let go of their most bankable star.

News reports initially said Murdoch and his sons, were split on how to deal with O’Reilly. He was one of the stars who took the upstart network that was founded in 1996 and turned it into a ratings behemoth that is arguably the most influential American media organization. Fox News executives such as Bill Shine, its co-president, had worked to keep O’Reilly, hoping the storm over the allegations would pass. James Murdoch, the 21st Century Fox CEO, reportedly wanted O’Reilly out, while his father, Rupert, and Lachlan, his older brother who is executive co-chairman of News Corp and 21st Century Fox, were more inclined to keep him. In a statement last week, Rupert Murdoch told Fox News staff he was pleased with the network’s ratings, but did not mention its biggest star. Then this week came what many media-watchers viewed as the end for O’Reilly: a report in the Murdoch-owned Wall Street Journal with the headline: “Fox Is Preparing to Cut Ties With Bill O’Reilly.” After that the end was swift.

Fox also announced that Tucker Carlson, who hosts Tucker Carlson Tonight on the network, will take over O’Reilly’s slot at 8 p.m. ET. During his absence, a slate of guest hosts appeared on the show, including  Dana Perino. O’Reilly’s exit from the network comes almost a year after the ousting of Roger Ailes, Fox News’s founding CEO. Ailes was given a $40 million parachute and pushed out amid similar charges against him, including by Gretchen Carlson, a onetime co-host of Fox & Friends, the network’s morning show. It has been a tough year for the network, which coupled with the loss of O'Reilly and Ailes, also lost Megyn Kelly, a rising star on Fox, who went to NBC.

The Motherly Pep Talk in Sarah Kay’s ‘B’
April 19th, 2017, 12:04 PM

“If I should have a daughter,” writes Sarah Kay,

instead of “Mom,” she’s gonna call me “Point B.” Because that way, she knows that no matter what happens, at least she can always find her way to me.

We call my mother Pollyanna. No matter how bad the weather, the argument, the traffic, or the grade, she will fervently insist that the glass is still half full. In her eyes every door closed opens a window, every obstacle faced builds character. Her optimism is genuine, sweet, occasionally infuriating, and ever reliable.

When I left home for college, I didn’t get to bring Pollyanna with me. But I found that I could revisit her rose-colored worldview in Sarah Kay’s spoken-word poem “B.” Kay has noted that she thinks “people find poetry when they need to,” and I found “B” right when I needed a familiar voice of encouragement. I have watched her perform the piece dozens of times (as have millions of others—it serves as the introduction to her viral TED Talk of the same title). Each time she inspires in me, as many favorite artists have, an irrational certainty that unbeknownst to her, we are already close friends.

And while Kay describes herself in the poem as “pretty damn naive,” her willingness to continually acknowledge life’s hardships give her words of encouragement credibility. Both Kay’s performance and her prose feel precocious, more dynamic and mature than you might initially give them credit for. She gathers simple, well-known symbols of childhood—rain puddles and superheroes and shooting stars—to put together a motherly pep talk that rings true rather than trite:

… this world is made out of sugar. It can crumble so easily but don’t be afraid to stick out your tongue and taste it.

I leave “B” as I leave every phone call with my mother—reminded once again that I can find my way back to hope and back to the woman who first showed it to me.

Poem of the Day: ‘Paul Revere’s Ride’ by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
April 19th, 2017, 12:04 PM

On this day in 1775, patriots in Lexington and Concord fought the first battles of the American Revolution. Which means that the late hours of last night and the very early hours of this morning marked the anniversary of another memorable event in American history, recalled by Atlantic co-founder Henry Wadsworth Longfellow:

Listen, my children, and you shall hear
Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere,
On the eighteenth of April, in Seventy-Five

Longfellow’s famous poem recounts the silversmith’s long ride through Middlesex County to warn the revolutionaries that the British were on their way—thus allowing the Americans to muster their forces and drive back the British the following morning.

Paul Revere’s Ride” first appeared in our January 1861 issue, just months before the Civil War broke out. As Sage Stossel noted in her 2011 preface to the poem, the timing was no accident:

Longfellow was a committed abolitionist … With “Paul Revere’s Ride,” he sought to create a patriotic national myth that would remind readers of their shared heroic past while galvanizing them to once more stand up for the nation’s founding principles.

Read On »

Remembering Barkley L. Hendricks, Master of Black Postmodern Portraiture
April 19th, 2017, 12:04 PM

What’s Going On, one of the best-known portraits by Barkley L. Hendricks, arrived in 1974, three years after the Marvin Gaye album of the same name. At the time, Gaye’s record was well-regarded, but not yet universally recognized as a masterpiece of protest art. Hendricks saw in it something not far off, a moment when black protest music would come into its own as a commercial concern. His striking portrait acknowledged the record’s place in the commodification of black culture happening at a break-neck speed in the 1970s.

Hendricks, one of the finest figure painters of his generation, died on Tuesday at 72. Large in scale, his paintings combined the tonality of Rembrandt with the sensibility of Andy Warhol. His stylized portraits—realist African American figures set against abstract backgrounds—starred friends and neighbors from his life, posed for timelessness. His broader project was to document the black image as a phenomenon, as it manifested in fashion, billboards, magazines, and movies.

Along with Philip Pearlstein and David Hockney, Hendricks stands out as a pillar of postmodern portraiture. But he was never a well-known artist. While he is widely cited as a major influence among contemporary black artists today, Hendricks’s work is under-represented in American museum collections. That owes in part to his black subject matter, but also to interests that kept him away from painting for almost 20 years.   

He has since emerged as an overlooked but critical artist who touched on Pop Art and historical painting. In a 2009 essay for Artforum, Huey Copeland, an art historian at Northwestern University, wrote that Hendricks’s paintings “illuminate the crisis of blackness within representation—a crisis everywhere shaped by an engagement with and an opposition to those persistent forms of reification, high and low, that transform liberatory self-fashioning into co-opted cliché.”

Barkley L. Hendricks, Lawdy Mama (1969). Oil and gold leaf on canvas. (Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery.)

Copeland’s point about art bridging high and low sources of imagery could easily describe the work of Kehinde Wiley, one of the biggest names in contemporary art today. Wiley’s paintings of popular black figures (LL Cool J, Ice-T) in anachronistic, historical modes (Renaissance, Rococo) are forever indebted to Hendricks. The late artist’s influence is also evident in the work of Jeff Sonhouse, Mickalene Thomas, Amy Sherald, Rashid Johnson, and others—to say nothing of the scores of painters Hendricks taught at Connecticut College, where he joined the faculty in 1972. (He received both his degrees in art from Yale University.)

Hendricks challenged the strictures of the art world in sly and overt ways. In 1977, he painted a life-sized nude of himself, Brilliantly Endowed (Self-Portrait), so named after a line the art critic Hilton Kramer used to describe his style. Life-sized portraits of everyday black folks were hardly the way of the fine-art world in the 1960s, making him a radical; portraiture in general took a back seat in the 1970s, making him retrograde. His work could be dramatic—like his so-called limited-palette paintings, including What’s Going On, with its subjects’ crisp, white clothing blending into the background—but in the knowing way of a Blaxploitation movie poster.

In 2008, the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University organized a retrospective of Hendricks’s work that traveled to Harlem’s Studio Museum as well as to museums in Santa Monica, Houston, and Philadelphia (where Hendricks was born in 1945). That show, “Birth of the Cool,” curated by Trevor Schoonmaker, was the first to re-think Hendricks’s role in portraiture, at a time when interest in his work was at an ebb. (He stopped painting from 1984 to 2002, in part to focus on his photography of jazz musicians.) Recently, Hendricks’s work has gone up at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture and at the Studio Museum; his paintings will also be at the center of the upcoming Tate Modern exhibit, “Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power.”

In that show, Hendricks’s work may serve as something of a counterpoint. He never painted black people in protest or in crisis. Ideas about black nationalisms surfaced in his work as they were reflected in the world of images. He borrowed endlessly from the commercialization of black culture—a Pop Art way of turning the white gaze back in on itself. The artists who have followed in his footsteps are sometimes described as “post-black.” Hendricks may have beaten them to that.

Barkley L. Hendricks, Slick (Self-Portrait) (1977). Oil, acrylic, and magna on linen canvas. (Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery.)