Inglourious Basterds: Les Neiges d’Antan en Feu

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Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds features a couple of good acting performances, stylish cinematic flourishes, carnage on a grand scale, shameless amounts of directorial self-reference, and enough German, French, and Italian dialogue to tickle the ear of the starchiest Swiss film critic. Neutrality is not an option. Inglourious Basterds is essentially a rich and archly cross-eyed WWII farce, and if the reviews are an indication, it has a foot in two battling critical camps. Good camp or bad camp? Welcome to the Alsace and Lorraine of films.

Basterds relies on Tarantino’s most shop-worn storytelling conceit, the revenge fantasy. A group of Jewish American commandos parachutes into Nazi-occupied France to slaughter every German soldier they can lay their hands on. The leader of the Basterds, as they are known, is Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt), known as Aldo the Apache because he demands that his men scalp each Nazi they kill. In a film populated by caricatures, Pitt’s jut-jawed, southern-fried Aldo could be the best. A scar on his neck hints at a close shave sometime in his past. Also a Basterd is Eli Roth’s baseball bat-wielding, Boston southy-bleating Sgt. Donny Donowitz, known as The Bear Jew, get it? The Basterds, the ostensible heroes of this black fairy tale, are pretty flat characters, flat as the screen on which the audience witnesses them carry out a humorously sadistic campaign of cosmic vengeance.

The real hero is the young Frenchwoman Shosanna Dreyfus, played by Melanie Laurent, a pretty, fresh face. Hard not to notice that only the two star Jewish characters are portrayed by fairer-haired, lighter-eyed actors – Pitt and Laurent. Anyway, Shosanna owns a movie theater in Paris, where she hides in plain sight from the Nazi occupation forces (a circumstance never completely explained in the story.) When the Nazi brass decides to hold the Reich-studded premiere of a propaganda film produced by Goebbels (Sylvester Groth) about the exploits of a young German sniper (Daniel Bruel) at her theater, Shosanna sees an opportunity to enact her own revenge fantasy. Meanwhile the Basterds get wind of the event, too.

Standing in the way of the Nazi’s annihilation is a perfidious SS commander, Col. Hans “The Jew Hunter” Landa, played by Christoph Waltz. In Landa, Tarantino delivers the captivating character of the film, a man whose fiendish cruelty writhes beneath a comically solicitous veneer. Waltz gets the best the script has to offer – including dialogue in no less than four languages – and he delivers in kind, a mandibular grin clawing across his face even as he verbally stalks his quarry. Never on film has the simple act of eating strudel been enough to make your flesh crawl.

The other memorable performance is by Denis Menochet, who plays a French dairy farmer, a man on whom Col. Landa works his distinctive brand of coercion in the film’s opening chapter. The man’s half-lidded eyes convey more genuine soul than anything else in the two hours that follow.

In typical Tarantino fashion, the five chapters that comprise the film practically stand alone as vignettes. Each has a distinctive setting and feel. Tarantino’s wide-angle to hard close-up shots of the dairy man’s face a la Sergio Leone, plus his generous use of Ennio Morricone’s distinctive Spanish-style arpeggio guitar themes (Morricone wrote the score for Leone’s The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly), these are reasons some (including Tarantino) have called Inglourious Basterds a spaghetti western, but that’s hardly the case. Tarantino uses those obvious devices most liberally in chapter one. The techniques are referential, but more importantly, they work. Indeed, chapter one probably works the best. The drama is real – the director lays it on thick, but we haven’t descended into full-on farce yet. The story becomes overly theatrical and disjointed thereafter as it bumps along. Visually, the film is richly styled, and Tarantino’s ear – for dialogue, for music (in addition to the Morricone, there’s some obscure David Bowie on the soundtrack) – keeps us in it. But the movie never really adds up to much more than Tarantino constructing his most provocative trope yet, Kill Bill hiding inside a film about a gang of Nazi-exterminating Jews. Even as two entirely separate movies, Kill Bill is a more cohesive and compelling whole than Basterds.

The graphic violence in Basterds is nothing new for Tarantino, though it does perhaps represent one of his many preoccupations as a filmmaker taken to the extreme. There’s nothing samurai about these guys. They’re blunt and brutal. But prize scalps are just another joke. The audience gets a kind of riotous send-up of all the things that make Tarantino Tarantino – gunplay, Mexican standoffs, and plans gone awry. Stilted dialogue heats the suspense to a boil. “Did you get that for killing Jews?” sneers Sgt. Donowitz to a captive German sergeant as he prods the black Germanic cross medallion on the man’s chest with the business end of a Louisville Slugger. The German sergeant fixes his executioner with a cold grey stare. I won’t divulge his one-word answer, but it’s badass.

Language, not violence, is at the heart of this movie. The dialogue alternates as much between French and German as English. The piles of subtitles are distracting and high-minded. Eyes want only to watch the characters on the screen.

But the extraordinary linguistic variation gives the film greater value, lending it dimension beyond farce, a classic cinematic feel to accompany the classic war-era look. If nothing else, the act of tuning the ear to a foreign language stretches the imagination. Suddenly Aldo the Apache’s florid down-home accent starts to sound exotic, as perhaps it was meant to all along.

It’s a Mad Mad Mad Men World

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In which the author spits into the ocean of hype over the new season of AMC’s Mad Men and emerges with a wholly original conclusion: the show is darn good.

It’s all around us; it’s everywhere we go; it’s everything we do. It’s Mad Men. At the coffee shop: “I’ll have a grande iced Mad Men with whole Mad Men please.” “You want that Mad Men?” “No thanks, I’ll add my own Mad Men.”

On the phone with the wife: “Can you take Mad Men to Mad Men practice at half past Mad Men this afternoon, honey?” “Well, I’ve got a Mad Men with the boss but it shouldn’t take more than a few Mad Men.” “Oh good, Mad Men will be so pleased.”

At the track: “I’ll take Mad Men to win in the fifth.” “Geez, buddy, that’s 50-1. You got some brass Mad Men, I’ll give you that.”

I Mad Men, er, watched the season premiere of Mad Men Sunday night. Had to travel to Brooklyn to do it. I invited myself over to my friend’s place and commandeered his cable TV. While I watched the premiere, he put on headphones and cozied up to a dvd on his computer – Mad Men. He’s still working his way through the season two dvd set, which is quite possibly (and on a meta level quite appropriately) the single most flogged product in the history of consumer culture going back at least to Slinky.

So much has been written about Mad Men that it’s hard to contribute anything really insightful to the raft of commentary. The show experienced a tipping point moment this summer in the run-up to the new season, resulting in a bumper crop of features and roundups that choked the pages of most if not all of the publications that I read regularly.

For the uninitiated, those who summer in relative isolation – on the international space station perhaps, or in Siberia – Mad Men is about the goings on at an advertising firm in Manhattan in the early 60s. John Hamm plays dapper Don Draper, head of the creative department and the maddest Mad Man on planet Mad Men. Well, he’s not mad exactly, rarely angry and definitely not insane, but he suffers from a certain existential ennui. Draper’s consummate insight into the psychology of the American consumer  makes him something like the man behind the curtain (duh, drapes) which is an apt metaphor since the life of this successful family man is steeped in secrets and mystery.

An episode of Mad Men contains requisite amounts of Draper being Draper: drinking, smoking, womanizing, looking good, and wowing his cohorts and clients with invariably spot-on ad ideas. Draper is big when the toadies at the firm act small, and if he doesn’t always do right by his wife, Betty (January Jones), his sins seem to be motivated more by a search for meaning in experience than by appetites alone. Draper without a double life just wouldn’t be Draper. After all, so we love the sinner. When he says “I don’t know, I, uh, go to a lot of places and I keep ending up someplace I’ve already been” to an attractive blond airline stewardess before she strips for him in his hotel room, we shiver with pleasure since we alone have a window into his inner life.

Secrets are at the heart of Mad Men. All of the principle characters harbor them. Sometimes they come out, and sometimes not. In keeping with this air of obfuscation, the writers have crafted a style of dialogue that is suitably obtuse, and occasionally impenetrable. I think part of the show’s popularity has to do with the fact that it demands such scrutiny if the viewer is going to pick up on all the nuances.

Another key ingredient was touched on in the Wall Street Journal’s profile of the mostly female writing team that crafts these nuanced story lines. The tug of war between the male and female characters gives the show its core conflict. The show’s architects have a keen command of symmetry in their approach to the interplay of sex and gender. Just when you’re used to the back-slapping old boy’s atmosphere at the Sterling Cooper offices, the writers flip the script, and the boys are upstaged by the industrious high-climbing copywriter, Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss), or the irrepressible bombshell office manager, Joan Holloway (Christina Hendricks).

Which brings me to my final point about Mad Men. Its early 60s setting proves to be incredibly fertile ground for these conflicts to be played out. Bees in the Sterling Cooper beehive don’t always recognize the changes that are taking place around them, though these are the forces that they are constantly trying to harness in their quest to sell things to people. I loved in season two when Draper and co. pitch an idea to a seller of ladies’ undergarments. The essence of the idea is that there are two kinds of women: you’re either a Marilyn or a Jackie O. The execs at the company are impressed, but they pass on the idea. Then Marilyn dies and, while the secretaries weep over the tragedy, the Mad Men quietly breathe a sigh of relief that the campaign died, too. Something tells me the other shoe will have to drop as the calendar turns over and season three gets going.

The one person who can usually parse the cultural forces and discern which way the wind is blowing without the help of a weatherman is Don Draper. One reason I believe Draper is so conflicted himself is that he recognizes how topsy-turvy American life is becoming. Values are evolving. Kids are growing up. There are major changes in the air, changes he can smell like ozone at the leading edge of a fast-moving front that promises to drop a deluge on the American cultural landscape. It’s easy for us to imagine that deluge, to see ourselves frolicking in the mud of Woodstock, say. But every deluge is predicated by that moment where the barometer drops, the wind picks up, lightening flashes,  and purple clouds descend. Something big is coming.

Trope is the New Meme

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A few years ago it felt like one could scarcely read a think-piece in any newspaper or magazine without coming across some mention of the word “meme.” Now it seems as though the new meme is the word “trope.” Trope is everywhere. One recent incarnation was in Peggy Noonan’s column about Sarah Palin in last weekend’s Wall Street Journal: “Maybe [Mrs. Palin’s supporters] think ‘not thoughtful’ is a working class trope!” This sentence indicates that a good trope can pull the wool over our eyes.This week, after finishing Philip Gourevitch’s excellent book about the genocide in Rwanda in 1994, I became engaged in a conversation with a knowledgeable friend on the subject of that country’s rebuilding. She knows her stuff, my friend, but her constant references to various African tropes – the tribal trope, the central-Africa-as-eternally violent morass trope – drove me to distraction. Just what the heck is a trope? I felt like the one dry body at the trope pool party.I’d guess that trope has to do with an agreed-upon narrative, an archetypal reading of a story or situation according to the simplest and most widely-held beliefs, a kind of narrative stereotype. In journalism, the trope would appear to be a surface interpretation of words or events that skews away from a deeper understanding of the truth. Trope as I see and hear it used seems indicative of at best this sort of surface reading, and at worst a kind of falseness or even deliberate obfuscation by the invocation of the archetype. I think this is the meaning that my friend used when she talked about how the Rwanda narrative was often defined by western journalists according to a trope of simple tribal warfare – an idea that we can comprehend. But the trope steers us away from the truth of what actually happened.The good people over at define trope as the following: “any literary or rhetorical device, as metaphor, metonymy, synecdoche, and irony, that consists in the use of words in other than their literal sense.” Trope is closely related to metaphor or figure of speech. Seems deceptively simple, and I’m still dry.At Wikipedia, I found a tidbit that’s closer to my understanding of how trope is used now. I found it under the entry for trope in literature: “Various scholars throughout history… have argued that a great deal of our conceptual experience, even the foundation of human consciousness, is based on figurative schemes of thought.” The writer also notes that “Tropes (in the sense of figures of speech) do not merely provide a way for us to talk about how we think, reason, and imagine, they are also constitutive of our experience.” Here the writer has footnoted a work by Raymond W. Gibbs, Jr. entitled “Process and Products in Making Sense of Tropes” from a collection called Metaphor and Thought. “In modern usage,” the entry concludes, “‘trope’ often means ‘a common or overused theme or device: cliche.’ [footnoted to the 2009 Merriam-Webster online dictionary] though [sic] it is important to differentiate between an overused theme/motif/figure of speech that has lost its meaning (Cliche) and a theme/motif/figure that is used excessively owing to its effectiveness.”I ran my preoccupation with trope by the chief Millionaire, Max, and he steered me to a website, There they define tropes as “devices and conventions that a writer can reasonably rely on as being present in the audience members’ minds and expectations.” The site asserts that tropes are not really cliches, since cliches are by definition “trite” and what is trite is by and large not of any real interest. The site operates according to a Wiki-style open democracy. It contains a catalog of numerous tropes that pop up in the plots and visuals of TV shows and movies. There is some really interesting stuff here. It all hints at the idea that there are a limited number of story lines out there, or certain set ways that a story can be told. This is not necessarily a bad thing though. A chasm exists between trope in literature and trope in real life.Some might even argue that any and every story is bound to adhere to certain lapidary parameters of narrative arc and character development. Anyone who has attempted to write a screenplay with the help of one or more of the numerous books on the subject know what I’m talking about. In my opinion, it’s a little deflating for the fiction writer to be confronted with the notion that the basic structural elements of a story have not been significantly improved upon since they were codified by Homer.The ubiquity of trope in ideas writing these days can be explained by the memetic propagation of a cool word in the collective consciousness. This idea is a trope of sorts. And that’s the trick with trope: when you start thinking about it, not only is it everywhere, but it is, in fact, everywhere. As the Wiki excerpt above suggests, trope is one way in which we apply order and cohesion to the world. It’s history repeating itself. It’s why one story is a Greek tragedy, and another a Shakespearean romance.Perhaps that’s why events like those that transpired in Rwanda in 1994 are so profoundly troubling. They have no precedent in our store of human narratives. There is an irony here, too. As trope takes over, we seem to be confronted by more and more happenings that flip the script. 9/11 is one example, as is Hurricane Katrina and its tragic aftermath. On the positive side, the election of Barack Obama was an unprecedented event, though that too can be couched in terms of a trope. The American Dream. Horatio Alger.Trope helps us grasp inherent truths. Trope entertains us. And it helps us understand the greater narratives of our lives as individuals and members of a society. Turns out I was waist deep in the pool all along. But, as most usage of the word these days hints, trope is a trick. Easy explanations invite our skepticism.

From Wilco, With Love

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Practically from the moment that Jeff Tweedy murmured the words “I am an American aquarium drinker,” the opening lyric of 2002’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, an album that re-imagined what a rock album could be, Wilco has enjoyed a position of high prominence in the panoply of American bands. Yankee was rightly hailed as a masterpiece. That first, seven-minute track, “I am Trying to Break Your Heart,” is defined by shimmering instrumentals, a lovely, lurching drum signature, and Tweedy’s smug-but-vulnerable, slurry vocals. For all their windy nuance, Tweedy’s words have a sly-sensitive, penetrating observational clarity, like the ramblings of a heartbroken anthropologist on his sixth beer.

This clarity is a hallmark of Tweedy’s songwriting, where imagery is always being melded to emotion. The emotional content in Yankee moves from crankiness to near-suicidal despair, to sentimentality, to a strident refusal to accept an American culture in atrophy. “You have to lose,” he sings in “War on War,” a driving mid-tempo rock song that is somehow both aggressive and subdued. “You have to learn how to die.”

About six weeks ago, Tweedy’s primary collaborator on Yankee, the songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Jay Bennett, did die, of an accidental drug overdose. His death came as Wilco was getting set to release its latest effort Wilco (The Album). Bennett was booted from the band right after it completed work on Yankee. The conflict between Tweedy and Bennett is plain to see in Sam Jones’s excellent documentary about the making of Yankee, also entitled I am Trying to Break Your Heart. Bennett’s death coming shortly before the release of Wilco’s new record is a coincidence, but it does reinforce some of the ideas that Tweedy has always been preoccupied with as a songwriter, and sought to communicate. How does one even begin to go about living in this world? Such is the precious agony of time.

Wilco (The Album) attempts to answer that question in as straightforward a manner as a rock band can: the band will be, as Tweedy proclaims in the first track, “A sonic shoulder for you to cry on.” The song, “Wilco,” is upbeat, self-reverential, and great. “Are times getting tough? / Are the roads you travel rough? / Have you had enough of the old? / Tired of being exposed to the cold?” Tweedy stacks up the interrogatives like blocks before knocking them over: “Stare at your stereo / Put on your headphones before you explode / Wilco / Wilco / Wilco will love you baby.” It’s a funny sort of braggadocio that is somehow more heartfelt than solipsistic. Seven years on from the brilliant, narcotized dysphoria of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, Tweedy seems to have arrived at a place where he is willing to not try and do too much – and maybe not reach quite as far – but the results are still rewarding for the listener. Also, as another critic pointed out, the song does have an oddly Velvet Underground feel, which becomes an ironic theme of Wilco (the Album), its very title such an on-the-nose stamp of individuality: some of the songs consciously reference songs that have come before.

I should pause here to talk a bit about Wilco the band. The collection of musicians has changed and expanded over the years. The holdovers from the Yankee days are bassist John Stirratt and drummer Glenn Kotche. Stirratt is great, but, as a drummer myself, I must take a moment to give Kotche his due. He may be the most tasteful drummer out there, possessing great instincts for both density and space, and the odd quality of power in restraint. Unfortunately, the drum parts on Wilco (the Album) don’t always showcase his ability (and I also felt that especially on later tracks they are recorded in a sort of heavy way that I didn’t especially dig), but if you doubt my assessment of Kotche’s virtuosity, pick up Yankee and give the drums a good listen. You’ll see what I mean.

The lineup is rounded out by keyboardists/multi-instrumentalists Pat Sansone and Mikael Jorgenson, and guitarist Nels Cline. Cline is stalwart. He got his first opportunity to really stretch out in 2004’s A Ghost Is Born, the follow-up to Yankee and an excellent album in its own right (See comment below for correction–Jim O’Rourke played lead guitar on Ghost.) The two talented multi-instrumentalists in the band round out the sonic palette nicely, but an essential ingredient to both Wilco’s mastery of the straight-no-chaser rock form and its ability to be experimental is Cline’s guitar playing.

If Ghost was more of a driving rock record, then 2007’s Sky Blue Sky was more contemplative and more musically experimental. The album contained the seeds of the kinder, gentler Jeff Tweedy that is in evidence on Wilco (The Album).

For this latest record, Tweedy seems ready to accentuate the positive, even if that old bleak outlook does occasionally cloud over the proceedings. “Deeper Down” showcases some pretty work from Cline on the pedal steel guitar, and the surprising and playful surge of a harpsichord, played by Sansone. “One Wing” is a ballad centered on a delicate guitar lick and a characteristically spacious and imaginative drum part from Kotche. “You were a blessing, and I was a curse / I did my best not to make things worse / for you,” sings Tweedy. So the old angst isn’t entirely gone. “Bull Black Nova” gets us back into the warm lap of mid-tempo rock, with nice interlocking guitar lines followed by a quirky call-and-response instrumental layout that seems to involve the whole band in successive bursts. It’s a song about a car — with blood all over the trunk. One thing I always enjoy when listening to Wilco is how much power they can conjure in their sound without being heavy-handed in terms of volume and dynamics. The instruments are balanced and play off one another. It’s cleverly orchestrated music with the right rough touches. For “You and I,” the mood shifts to acoustic, and Tweedy shares the vocals with Leslie Feist. It’s a solid song, if a bit twee for me.

The most intriguing oddity on Wilco (The Album) is track six, “You Never Know.” It’s the most referential song of the bunch, borrowing almost exactly from Sly Stone’s “Everyday People” for its foundation groove. It’s Sansone and Jorgenson’s time to bring it, with a dense, pulsing fusillade of piano and Hammond organ, and Kotche leans into the groove. Incorporated into the guitar solo and final choruses is a note-for-note reproduction of George Harrison’s descending guitar lick from “My Sweet Lord.” Of all the songs on the album, this one is growing on me the fastest. “All you fat followers get fit fast / Every generation thinks it’s the last / Thinks it’s the end of the world,” Tweedy chides. “I don’t care anymore, I don’t care anymore / You never know.”

Wilco (The Album) is a good record from a great band. If it doesn’t quite finish as well as it starts, well, that’s okay. The back end of the album is more a tribute to the band’s pre-Yankee, Uncle Tupelo roots – some down-home-sounding, catchy numbers. It concludes with an anthemic, almost schmaltzy love song, “Everlasting Everything,” that’s a bit overwrought. But there’s so much to chew over on this record. As always, the band sounds lush and lithe, and the words and music exist in a rare harmony.

In the end, a record that at first blush seems oddly self-centered is mostly outward-pointing. When Tweedy proclaims that “Wilco will love you baby,” the effect is suitably seductive.

Evan Wright’s America: Hella Real, Hella Harsh

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There’s a scene early on in the mini-series version of Generation Kill in which Lee Tergesen, the actor who plays Rolling Stone reporter Evan Wright, wins over the Marines from 1st Recon Battalion with whom he is embedded. Recon is the eyes and ears of Operation Iraqi Freedom and one of the forwardmost units to push deep into Iraq in the first days of the war. The jarheads address Wright simply as “Reporter,” and treat him with a cool saltiness – until he lets slip that he used to write for Hustler. The soldiers, their raunchy humor already established, instantly warm to him. As the mission unfolds, Wright becomes the eyes and ears of the folks back home, evoking for his readers the cultish fraternity of American warriors on the front line of a strange war. HBO’s Generation Kill was based on a New York Times bestseller by Evan Wright, and it was adapted for HBO by David Simon and Ed Burns, the architects of The Wire. For his new collection of reported pieces, Hella Nation, Evan Wright breaks the ice in much the same way. In the introduction, he discusses his early years, a slow metamorphosis from shiftless slacker to crack reporter, starting with the unlikely gig as Hustler’s entertainment editor. “My career at Hustler began with an overdose of Xanax,” he writes, and we’re off and stumbling. Wright’s back-assward path into serious journalism makes for entertaining reading, and there’s an important point to it. In the early 1990s, his life was a parade of blurry tableaus: blackouts, bar fights, stealing cars, and “waking up in vacant lots or hospital emergency rooms not knowing how I had gotten there, or sometimes what my name was.” In journalism, Wright found a way to cope with his demons and overcome his youthful conviction that “failure was a sort of philosophy to live by.” He accomplished this turnaround by focusing on the lives of other people who lived at the margins of American society. In these remote places on the cultural map, the rivers run deep, the currents are swift and unpredictable, and people need a skillful guide if they wish to know what it’s like to ride the whitewater. His background as something of a misfit has enabled Wright to gain amazing access to the lives of other misfits. More than once, almost by chance, he has crossed paths with characters who live in parallel universes where values are warped and decorum non-existent. In “Portrait of a Con Artist,” which first appeared in Rolling Stone in 2000, Wright wrote about Seth Warshavsky, a dot-com whiz kid in Seattle who founded an online porn company, Internet Entertainment Group. By the late nineties, IEG was being touted by Newsweek and The Wall Street Journal as the porn industry’s version of Microsoft, supposedly earning revenue of $100 million in 1999. Following his departure from Larry Flynt’s Hustler, Wright moved from LA to Seattle and went to work for Warshavsky, a tourettic, human growth hormone-addicted porno-nerd-cum-Internet mogul. As chief Web editor, Wright soon learned that IEG was a sham, built around little more than smoke, mirrors, and Warshavsky’s pathological relationship with the truth in all of his business dealings. One thread that runs through all of the pieces in Hella Nation is Wright’s straightforward, almost deadpan descriptions of scenes that are perfectly absurd. During his ill-fated tenure at IEG, such scenes were common. One unfolded when Warshavsky had Wright meet with a group of analysts from an investment bank that had agreed to underwrite IEG’s initial public stock offering. Taking the men inside IEG’s video porn production warehouse, Wright was surprised to find that just one of the dozen or so booths that were supposed to be broadcasting live nude girls 24/7 contained an actual live nude girl. Far from being dismayed by the inactivity at the warehouse, the analysts gathered around the single booth, enthralled by a nude woman’s desultory masturbation before a webcam in a faux bedroom. “The one with the MBA from Harvard,” writes Wright, “suggested I had better insist on receiving stock options from my boss – Warshavsky – ahead of the IPO. He shot me a jocular smile.” This is a deeper subtext that runs through much of Wright’s work. As seemingly insane as many of his subjects are, their ridiculousness is often dwarfed by the ridiculousness of an American culture that is fascinated with, and eager to be taken in by, those risky characters who operate at society’s margins. The credulous businessmen in “Portrait of a Con Artist” are in this way not unlike Wright’s readership: ready, willing to be taken in. These are the stories that magazines like Rolling Stone and Vanity Fair live for. I, for one, was astounded and mesmerized by several of the stories in Hella Nation. I marveled at the access Wright was able to get and the thoroughness of his reporting. Only rarely did what he wrote strain my own credulity. Those moments were for the most part born of the skepticism of admiration. The stories include a dispatch from Afghanistan (Rolling Stone, ’02), where infantry soldiers from the Army’s 3-187th Battalion, Fifth Platoon Delta, are ostensibly battling the Taliban. In fact, they spend most of their days laboring in 125-degree heat, discussing the rumored existence of a McDonald’s in Kandahar, debating techniques for wiping your ass without toilet paper, and marveling at the disturbing proclivity of their Pashtun allies in the Anti-Taliban Forces to fraternize with young boys in their camp. There are profiles of an alcoholic skateboard punk from West Haven, Connecticut (Rolling Stone ’01), who won fame and corporate sponsorship in Hollywood by being featured doing never-before-seen tricks in underground skating videos, and a flamboyant Ultimate Fighting Challenge champ on whom the upstart blood sport had, at one time, hopes to pin (Men’s Journal ’02). In a breezy essay entitled “Scenes from My Life in Porn” (LA Weekly ’00) Wright sketches some mostly humorous memories from his days working at Larry Flynt Productions. One of the oldest stories, first published in Hustler in late ’97, is a profile of the rock group Motley Crue. At one point, the band’s drummer, Tommy Lee, explains how he had once managed to run himself over with his own car: “‘I pulled over to pee after drinking tons of beers,’ Tommy relates. “‘I left my Corvette in neutral, and it ran over both my legs. And dude, my leather pants fucking exploded.'” A lengthy piece that first appeared in Rolling Stone in 2000 follows the activities of a group of young anarchists, starting with the infamous Battle of Seattle during the World Trade Organization’s conference there: “As Wingnut inevitably says, when asked by police who his leader is, ‘I work for Mother Earth, arrest her.'” Wingnut’s other hero, we learn, is Ted Kaczynski. Wright travels with Wingnut from Seattle to a tree-sit high above the ground in the old-growth Douglas firs of the forest outside Eugene, Oregon, then down to LA. Wright covers a lot of ground, and he seems to prefer to treat every story as an embed. There are two stories in Hella Nation that I found particularly engrossing. The first is an investigative piece about a young San Francisco gym teacher who was attacked by her neighbor’s dogs in the hallway outside her apartment and killed. I remembered this gruesome story from when it happened in late 2001. Wright fills in astounding details. The dogs, rare Presa Canarios, were procured by a white supremacist while he served a life sentence in California state prison, and were being cared for by his lawyers, a married couple who had also legally adopted him. The couple exchanged pornographic letters with their “son,” and, it was rumored, photographs of the wife engaged in sexual acts with the dogs. The final story in the collection is a 25,000+ word profile of Pat Dollard that appeared in Vanity Fair in March ’07. Dollard was a Hollywood agent and producer until he dropped out of sight around Thanksgiving of 2004, only to resurface in Iraq, embedded with Marines in Baghdad. He returned to LA with a self-shot documentary film about his experiences and a desire to become a “conservative icon, the Michael Moore of the right.” Dollard’s late sister, Ann, was a prominent liberal activist, well-known in elite Hollywood circles, but this is not the only thing about him that made his new direction surprising. As Wright writes, “When you consider that just eighteen months earlier Dollard was a confessed whore-loving, alcoholic, coked-out Hollywood agent, his transformation into the great hope of conservative America is nothing short of astonishing.” Wright was first introduced to Dollard by a friend who believed Dollard could help him get Generation Kill made into a movie. The back of Hella Nation has a quote from Newsday: “[Evan Wright’s] style owes more to Hunter S. Thompson than to any sort of political correctness.” I sort of disagree, and so does Wright. “Gonzo journalism was born and died with Hunter S. Thompson, and lives on only in his writing,” he writes in the introduction. There’s no gonzo to Wright’s straightforward narrative approach – no madcap prose fraught with the writer’s own drug-fueled lunacy, a staple of Thompson’s work. Wright got that mostly out of his system before he became a serious journalist. Where Wright’s writing is reminiscent of Thompson’s is in certain conclusions about American culture that he leads the reader to. Wright’s subjects are outsiders, but an Evan Wright story is itself a subversion. The mainstream magazine reader is the one on the outside looking in.


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To the panoply of guilty pleasures this world has to offer, I humbly add the New York Post. I’m a Daily News man myself, but really, stuck inside a stalled subway car somewhere under the East River with nothing to read but those creepy Dr. Z acne treatment ads, who cares which paper turns up on an empty seat?When it comes to reading, tabloid journalism is the Twinky at the tip of the food pyramid, and page one is its creamy center. When confronted with the new book assembled by the staff of the NY Post, Headless Body In Topless Bar: The Best Headlines from America’s Favorite Newspaper, I couldn’t help myself. Knowing that a bellyache would accompany such indulgence, I still stuffed my face.Of course, we are in the midst of a particularly salacious period of news in the City, which makes the book a timely read, er, leaf-through. Eliot Spitzer’s nightmare is a headline writer’s wet dream. Have a look at some recent Post fronts (March 11th’s “HO NO!” is one of our favorites). All in keeping with the paper’s motto, “All the news that’s fit to bury beneath a mountain of hooker photos.”Ah, but a good hooker story comes along but once in a while. Luckily the Post has mastered the touchstone of any good tabloid front page: the cringe-inducing pun. On the conviction of a cybersex impresario: “YOU’VE GOT JAIL!” On the closing of a Dunkin’ Donuts for rodents: “UNDER MOUSE ARREST.” On earth’s encounter with a worrisome piece of interstellar matter: “KISS YOUR ASTEROID GOODBYE!” The CIA should consider reading these headlines to prisoners as a substitute for waterboarding.Yet, like a guy with a megaphone at an otherwise urbane cocktail party, the Post does command attention. Sometimes it even gets it just right. I like the front page from June 27, 2007: a photoshopped picture of Paris Hilton hoisted aloft on the hands of a throng in Times Square with the headline “V-D DAY! PARIS LIBERATED, BIMBOS REJOICE.” Then, sometimes there’s just no need to dress up a headline, such as on July 30 1985: “EATEN ALIVE! GIANT TIGERS KILL PRETTY ZOO KEEPER WHO ‘LOVED ALL ANIMALS.'”A New York Magazine survey named April 15, 1983’s “HEADLESS BODY IN TOPLESS BAR” the greatest NY Post headline of all time. As one Post editor puts it, “How do you tell a sensational story other than sensationally?” It’s ironic though, that the title of this book is its climax. Sort of like the paper itself: the cover is generally the best part.

Books as Objects


The cover of this past week’s New Yorker, “Shelf of Life” by Adrian Tomine, could be a visual entry in our “Books as Objects” column. An avid reader of the magazine (NOT our fearless editor and self-professed NYer junkie, Max) examined the cover art and observed that it carried a “cynical” message. It’s a panel cartoon depicting the progress of a young writer, her agent and enthusiastic publisher, the production of the book itself on an assembly line, its display in a store, a young man reading it on a park bench, then discarding it in a cardboard box, as you often do see – books in cardboard boxes sitting at the curb, waiting to be picked up by a lucky passerby and thus passed from one open mind to another – in places like Brownstone Park Slope. Except in the cartoon, the passerby is a scruffy man in an old army coat who takes the book, and, in the final frame, is shown tossing it into an oil drum fire, he and another man making warmth on what appears to be a dark, snowy night. Is this a cynical take on the commodification of art? A morality play? Or dark comedy, book burning for the general good? Or perhaps it’s just harsh reality: for some, a book’s best use is as fuel for a fire that will help them through a cold night when they have nowhere to go. I did notice that there appeared to be other potential tinder in that cardboard box, including the box itself. Maybe our homeless vet did read our young author’s work and found it worthy of the burnbarrel. Whatever the message, and I think the cover is open to a wide range of overlapping interpretations, it certainly says one thing with emphasis: books are objects to be consumed, one way or another.


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If you like the New York Giants,Or just happen to live in New York and listen to sports radio;If you have heard how fickle Giants fans have treated their quarterback,Doubting his abilities with every unkind bounce of the ball;If you were subjected to any amount of Superbowl hypeIn which Eli Manning was measured without end against Tom Brady,never favorably;If you are a little brother, an upstart, or an underdog of any ilk;If you harbor any trace of a belief in the power of sports to thrill and inspire,Or have yourself been doubted and maligned;You will recognize these words of Rudyard KiplingHave uncanny meaning in the context of Sunday’s big game,In which young Eli became a Man(ning)

Blood, Oil!, and the American Way

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I guess it’s not giving much away to say that, in the new film by writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson, There Will Be Blood, there is blood. Blood, oil, and baptismal water, symbolizing family, profit, and religion, are the humors that course through this story, inspired by Upton Sinclair’s 1926 novel Oil!. There will be exclamation points!The movie follows the rise of a California oil prospector, Daniel Plainview, played by Daniel Day-Lewis. Day-Lewis’s Plainview recalls his turn as Bill “The Butcher” Cutting in Gangs of New York – similar mustache, accent, and satanic intensity. In There Will Be Blood Day-Lewis does nothing to diminish his reputation as a captivating screen presence, arguably the finest feature film actor out there, and regarded by (at least) one female Millions contributor as one of the world’s handsomest men. Who am I to disagree?There is nothing attractive about the character of Daniel Plainview, however. The film opens with a wordless twenty or so minutes, maybe its most riveting sequence given the increasingly disjointed nature of what follows. It is 1898, and a solitary Plainview is shown cracking rocks in a pit surrounded by barren scrub desert. So the man’s fever for oil is immediately established. It is as though the earth itself is his enemy, like the impoverished family from whom he will, years later, swindle the land that becomes his prize oilfield. Force is what’s needed in both instances, be it that of the pickax or the pocketbook.Also established early on is the visual dexterity of Anderson’s direction. The contrast between desolate panoramas and tight close-ups of hard-bitten oilmen is reminiscent of Sergio Leone. I found it interesting that the music, composed by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood, also seemed at times to echo Ennio Morricone’s unforgettable score for Leone’s classic spaghetti western, The Good, The Bad and the Ugly. Then too, that long opening sequence minus any dialogue seemed a direct reference to Leone’s masterpiece, which starts the same way.The story initially focuses on Plainview and his son, H.W., whose lack of a mother hints at a secret that Plainview keeps from the boy, ostensibly his “partner,” but more immediately a source of credibility for Plainview in his dealings with simpler folk. That’s the case in the deal that nets Plainview a parcel of land on which he hopes to make a big strike. Derricks soon dot the formerly pristine landscape.What Plainview doesn’t count on is competition for the loyalties of the townspeople and oil workers alike in the form of Eli Sunday, son of the poor goat rancher from whom Plainview buys the land. Eli Sunday, played by Paul Dano (Little Miss Sunshine) leads the community’s fledgling church. Eli is something of a Holy Roller, a faith healer, an evangelist. In Eli, Plainview sees weakness: Eli is just a boy trading in manufactured faith – not like Plainview, who trades in something real, oil. Perhaps Plainview subconsciously recognizes that he and Eli are actually the same. Both pursue power and enrichment by selling a bill of goods. In Daniel Plainview’s case it is that the community as a whole will profit as he buys up its land and takes its oil. In Eli Sunday’s case it is that he can heal people’s bodies and cleanse their souls. False profit meets false prophet.It is a good setup, but the movie bogs down. Dano is cast to stand in sharp physical contrast to Day-Lewis (he acted with Lewis in 2005’s The Ballad of Jack and Rose). But there’s just no room for his Eli Sunday next to Day-Lewis’s berserk, mercurial Daniel Plainview. If there is a knock on Day-Lewis’ performance it’s that he doesn’t give Dano’s character any breathing room. This problem can maybe be traced to the weakness of the screenplay, which never allows for a plausible rivalry between the two. Then there’s Daniel Plainview himself, who, we learn, is a hardcore misanthrope. But why? Because he says so; he hates people. And he only gets worse and worse, drunker and drunker, as the movie goes on and on, clocking in at 150 or so minutes. Is booze the mundane root of Plainview’s problems then, his actual antagonist in this Greek tragedy? Might have to add that to the humors.I thought this was a movie about oil. Instead, it becomes a movie about so many things that any cohesive narrative arc is lost. Anderson takes the audience in too many different directions. Scenes become disjointed and episodic. Plot twists, such as the appearance of Plainview’s long lost brother, feel contrived, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly meets Jean de Florette.Sinclair’s Oil! is the same way, starting out great and declining rapidly. It is interesting to note how different the original story is from the movie that it inspired. In Sinclair’s saga, Dad is a pretty reasonable guy, if prone to the capitalistic sympathies of a self-made oil tycoon. The story is told from the point of view of his son, Bunny, who, incidentally, does have a mother. And instead of evangelical religion, it is the workers movement, for which Bunny develops an unlikely affinity, that is the foil for the book’s central conflict. The rise of Bolshevism and the corresponding Red Menace hysteria that grips America in the wake of the Great War makes the oil magnates uneasy, and Sinclair strips bare the greed of men who have everything, but refuse to compromise.What I enjoyed most about Oil! were the occasional passages, echoing through many years of cultural change, that ring as true now as they must have back when the book was first published. The book opens with a description of Dad guiding their automobile through the hills of Southern California with an eye out for “speed-traps” – in 1912. I also enjoyed this little tangent concerning Bunny’s apprehensions as to the atmosphere surrounding sports at his college:…just as with the oil game… all the football and track and other athletic glory that had come to Southern Pacific had been stolen, and “Young Pete” O’Reilly was the thief! The oil king’s son had put up a fund of fifty thousand dollars every year, for the purpose of turning the game of college athletics into a swindle! The fund was administered by a secret committee of alumni and students, and used for the purpose of going out into the market and buying athletes, to come and enroll themselves under false pretenses and win victories for S.P.U…. and the pious Methodists who constituted the faculty were conniving at the procedure, to the extent of permitting these young huskies to pass farcical examinations – well knowing that any professor who presumed to flunk a promising quarterback would soon be looking for some other university to presume in.That passage was written no later than 1926 (note the exclamation points, like little oil derricks dipping down into a well). However, as true as it is, this sort of moral muckraking on the part of Bunny does not make for a breezy 548 page read, and that’s why this book is more instructive than good.The free-radical that resides in both There Will Be Blood and Oil! is a moral agenda that supersedes the story. Oil! is less a novel than a vehicle through which Sinclair seeks to make important points about the relationship of big business to labor, and the corruption that inevitably follows an unchecked grab for profit. Anderson’s agenda in There Will Be Blood is more subtle, but cloying to someone who wishes only to sit down and watch a good movie and not be preached to. Hard not to recognize dual indictments just beneath the surface of Anderson’s story: that of Big Oil companies, which, as we all know, trade in the destruction of the environment (and manipulate gas prices, making it more expensive for your average starlet to drive her Hummer half a block to Ralph’s – you’d think the price of cooking the planet would be cheaper), and the conservative right wing of the Republican party, dominated by the influence of Evangelical Christianity. Nuff said on that count, I think.Oh Hollywood, where would we be without your guiding hand to show us to the truth? It’s not that I don’t share some of the political sentiment. I just wish that hand wasn’t so darn heavy.

Gonzo Got It: A Review of Gonzo by Jann Wenner

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After reading the new oral biography of Hunter S. Thompson, Gonzo, by Thompson’s friend and patron, Rolling Stone chief Jann Wenner, and former R.S. writer Corey Seymour, I have come to believe that Thompson deserves his iconic status in the history of American letters. Many will disagree, wondering how in the world a drug addicted, alcoholic man-child with a regrettably low output of truly important work can be so celebrated. It is true that when compared to that of some of his well known contemporaries – Norman Mailer or Tom Wolfe, for example – Thompson’s oeuvre appears paltry. The drugs took their toll, and at some point Thompson just could not recapture his original form.Gonzo gives us a compound view of Hunter Thompson through the words of most, if not all, of those who were closest to him. This mosaic approach, not limited to the distillations of a single mind, is informative, of course, but the book is also surprisingly well conceived and assembled. It is as easy to enjoy as vanilla ice cream. What struck me most was how often different people echoed common impressions of Thompson, from his legendary tolerance for drugs and booze, his obsession with guns, the exhausting torment of acting as Hunter’s “handler” when he was out on the road, to the thoughtfulness with which he approached a conversation, as prepared to be educated as he was to educate. More biographies should be constructed this way.Thompson earned his iconic status by capturing the essence of a singularly ticklish chapter in American history. The sixties and seventies were War and Peace to the post-WWII era’s Hop on Pop, which is to say, history became denser, a lot more difficult to parse out and interpret, a lot more contradictory and complex, as America passed through a crucible of change. Civil Rights, Vietnam, Kennedy, Nixon. Sex, drugs, rock and roll; Peace, love, and violence. Youth movements. Thompson’s brash style and often illicit subject matter will always resonate with young people. But more important than the surface bombast is the fact that because of the commentary of writers like Hunter Thompson, people of my generation have a sense that something about that time period was a little off, a vague notion that promises went unfulfilled. What is more difficult to recognize is the profound way that that era shaped the America that we were born into. The wave may have broken and rolled back, but not before fundamentally reshaping the landscape. America is still scratching its head over the 60s, still trying to figure out what the hell happened, like a drunk waking up in a strange hotel room wearing someone else’s clothes, wondering how he got there.Hunter Thompson put a voice to that era. Gonzo journalism is more than a catchy turn of phrase: it is an approach that Thompson pretty much invented, purists be damned. That approach matched perfectly to those tempestuous times as observed through raging, bloodshot eyes. When Thompson let loose on the political and cultural Scene, the result was truth in seething absurdity. Wenner’s role in helping to legitimize this risky style of reporting cannot be overstated. Rolling Stone was the purveyor of Thompson’s most significant work. Without Jann Wenner, there would be no Hunter Thompson. Then again, can we imagine a Rolling Stone without Thompson’s seminal contributions?For better or for worse, Hunter S. Thompson is an American literary icon. Anti-establishment impresario, counter-cultural crank, Thompson not only chronicled but actually helped to author the zeitgeist of the sixties and seventies. Like F. Scott Fitzgerald, Thompson did not simply write about the times in which he lived, he lived them, and in moments of clarity he was able to fashion true wisdom out of what he saw:San Francisco in the middle sixties was a very special time and place to be a part of. Maybe it meant something. Maybe not, in the long run … History is hard to know, because of all the hired bullshit, but even without being sure of “history” it seems entirely reasonable to think that every now and then the energy of a whole generation comes to a head in a long fine flash … You could strike sparks anywhere. There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning.And that, I think, was the handle – that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil … Our energy would simply prevail. There was no point in fighting – on our side or theirs. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave…So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high water mark – that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.(Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream by Raoul Duke, Rolling Stone no. 95, Nov. 11 1971, pp. 44-46)The man was a walking (lurching) symbol of how all that activism, all those good vibrations, yielded to atavistic hedonism and paranoia. His writings for Rolling Stone were madcap dispatches from the front line of a cultural battleground in which America, its customs, institutions, and leaders, stood poised to fall prey to the fear of fear itself. He better than any other writer was able to evoke such turbulence.Like Fitzgerald, Thompson outlived his time, through a miracle of corporeal endurance. His decision to shoot himself on February 20, 2005, constituted the final rebellious act of an old soldier who was loathe to fade away. No one who knew him could claim to be surprised that he went out with a bang.