The Honda-pocalypse at the Awl

Check out my piece on Honda’s recent attempt to pander to Millennials at the Awl!

The Years of Lyndon B Johnson

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At some point I was sucked into making profile on Goodreads but don’t really keep up with it–never got into making those notches on the bedpost.

And yet I feel like I must somehow commemorate the occasion of having just binge-read my way through all four currently published volumes of Robert Caro’s magisterial Years of Lyndon B. Johnson.

Not out of some humblebrag.  I don’t feel like it is an impressive achievement–the books are so entirely gripping, pleasurable, riveting, I can only compare how I felt reading them to how I felt watching The Wire.  It stands out as one of the outstanding reading experiences of my life.

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Some find Caro repetitive over the long march of the series.  I didn’t–I found his leitmotifs musical, the events and interviews whose reiteration allows the reader absorb them, make them such familiar touchstones that she can begin to wrap her head around the extreme contradictions that existed and fought for expression within LBJ’s outsized personality, the yawning gaps between his cowardice and his heroism, his expediency and his risk-taking, his confidence and his paralyzing fear.  LBJ, the power-hungry grotesque, political savant, coward and risk-taking visionary, ass-licker to his superiors, sadistic brute to his subordinates, wretched husband and great statesman, a man whose moral code only came into play when it matched up with his desperate, bottomless ambitions–and yet when those did match up, was able to take risks, be bold and brave and strategic in ways that Kennedy never could have.

I’m sure this has been written a million times but the sweep is Shakespearean–LBJ is right up there with Lear, Falstaff–all the more so when you read with the knowledge that you are being set up for the tragedy of Vietnam blighting the enormous legacy of the Great Society.  Caro manages to make so much material whose outcome is known so entirely suspenseful–from LBJ’s 1948 Senate win to the transition into the presidency.

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Then there are the juicy contextual nuggets, the berries and cream in studding the cake, the awesome rocks around which the river flows.  The books follow the years of LBJ–and those years include biographies-within-the-biography of Sam Rayburn, Richard Russell, Coke Stevens, JFK, RFK, Alice Glass, Lady Bird, Hubert Humphrey (who really felt like the love interest of Master of the Senate).  A 100-page institutional history of the Senate, a minutely detailed description of women’s life in the Hill Country before rural electrification, the corrupt years of Washington politics that birthed the necessity of the New Deal, the turn of the century Populism through the lens of Sam Johnson, LBJ’s father–all of it made me feel like I was learning American history for the first time.

Every one of the books ends with Debts, acknowledgements to his colleagues and collaborators–and a journey through the Sources that made the book possible.  Especially in Path to Power and Means of Ascent, the Sources chapters are must-reads for any student of journalism.

Books that have piled up over the past three months but am having a hard time starting because I’m just walking around, processing this material–I’m kind of at a loss with myself. Instead I read essays on the details Caro missed, interviews in which he promises the fifth and final volume (hopefully soon, Jesus Christ, the man is pushing 80), crappy toffee Kennedy tell-alls I’m buying off Amazon for one cent.

What do you do when something like this has happened to you?

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Artists Read Baldessari: A Tally

Often, when issues of inequity come up–whether on the Hollywood screen, or in Congress, or in publishing, people take tallies.  Tallies can be illuminating.  Artist Micol Hebron has been recently taking such tallies of the art and gallery world as a way of trying to have some hard conversations about continuing gender inequity in art that we would prefer to think no longer exist.

So here’s a tally from yesterday’s For Your Art event, Artists Read Baldessari, a celebration of a new two volume set of John Baldessari’s writing edited by Meg Cranston and Hans Ulrich Obrist.

Of the 51 artists who read:

  • 33 were men
  • 18 were women

So almost twice as many men as women.

And also, of 51 artists who read:

  • 47 were white
  • 4 were people of color (there was one woman of color.  ONE.)

The overwhelming majority of the artists who read were young, under 40–all Los Angeles artists.  What’s going on here?

Small Appreciations on a Tuesday Afternoon

Women Screaming In Joy /  Finally watched Magic Mike.  An easy watch with enough going on that it isn’t an entirely somnolent experience.  Soderbergh’s effortless and perfect camera work gently absorbing the Florida coastline and club life.  An undeniably charming and confident Channing Tatum shaking his very fine ass.  Plus and obviously Matthew McConaughey in a role that seems absolutely written for him, sleazy and ridiculous and menacing and buffoonish and banal all at once.

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But what stays with me the most were all the shots and stretches of women really fucking enjoying themselves, in a state of free and joyous and uncomplicated pleasure, screaming and laughing and having a hell of a time.  It was one of those times when seeing it makes clear how rarely we ever get to see it–if ever.

Cinefamily’s Lost and Found Film Club / They must have known I needed it for my research–this past month, the Cinefamily has been screening films around the theme of Sects, Cults and Mind Control, and last night Hadrian Belove and Tom Fitzgerald took us on a 90-minute lecture tour through old footage of various cult leaders (they located, dug through and edited together what seems like it must have been an unimaginable pile of lost and found footage–news clips, investigative documentaries, internal Scientology corporate films for middle management from the 1980s, etc), curated with remarkable thoroughness, thoughtfulness and humor.  I will absolutely be back for this  series, which takes on a different theme every month.  (If anyone wants to join me for the Scientology panel on Wednesday night, buy tickets now).

The Spurs Defense Against LeBron in Game 5 on Sunday Night / There were so many moments when LeBron had the ball in his hands and a basket seemed all but inevitable–a wicked Heat steal, or defensive rebound, or stupid Spurs slip-up followed by a lightning fast transition down the court that all but demanded the other team simply surrender to King James.  And normally, even great players and teams do surrender–they chalk it up to a defense that just isn’t worth the energy, and reserve themselves and settle in for the next play.

And over and over and over again,the Spurs fought all the way to the very end of James’ efforts–and, incredibly, made blocks.  The play was fearless and hungry and wasn’t going to give up a single easy bucket, not even to Lebron.  I hope they can keep it together for tonight’s game.

Pig bottoms / On the window of a Vietnamese restaurant in Westminster, the All American City of Orange County.

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And finally / Watching a woman sitting in LA Mill, clearly interviewing for a job.  She’s in her mid to late 40s, wearing a suit, a resume on cream colored textured bond paper lying between her and a portly fellow in his 50s, also in a suit, going on and on in a gaseous fashion.  I saw her face tighten into the expression of resigned patience as this guy mansplained his way through his importance, for long, long minutes.  Lady in a black suit, I appreciate you.

The Whore’s Dialogue–LAST WEEK!

This is the final week of my installation, The Whore’s Dialogue, being up at the MCA Denver.  I’m so glad for everyone who has made it to the show–if you want to see it, or want to see it one last time, now is the time to go!  It’s been amazing to work with the MCA, and a pleasure to see the piece there.

From earlier:  an interview with me, by curator Elissa Auther,on the MCA Denver blog–-they have a QR code in the space that links to this interview for people who come through the show and want to know more and have smart phones that read QR codes.

Mixed Taste is happening for real right now–try to catch one!

MG at MCA Denver

As many of you know, my piece, The Whore’s Dialogue, is up at the MCA Denver right now.  I just wanted to share this interview with me, by curator extraordinaire Elissa Auther,on the MCA Denver blog–they have a QR code in the space that links to this interview for people who come through the show and want to know more and have smart phones that read QR codes.

I’ve been excited that so many folks have actually made it through Denver and gotten to see the show.  For those of you who might be passing through that part of the world, the piece is up at the MCA until June 23.

While you’re there, check to see what other events are happening–the MCA is always doing freaky fun stuff.  I’m a big fan of their Mixed Taste lecture series, and if you play your cards right, you can see both my piece AND lectures on Zombies & Raw Milk Cheese (June 6), Honky Tonk & Paper Recordings (June 13) or Comedic Opera & Vulcan Steel (June 20).

MG on Avidly!

In which I write about the strangle pleasure of terrible women.

ZD30

Hey Ingrid!  This one’s for you!

The NYT did a beautiful series in 2001 where they watched famous classic films with filmmakers; they paired All the President’s Men with Steven Soderbergh.  I bring this up apropos of Zero Dark Thirty, which I saw last night.   What Soderbergh says applies almost exactly:

‘I guess what impressed me most about ‘All the President’s Men,’ and what still impresses me, is that there is really no reason why this movie should work,” Mr. Soderbergh said. ”It’s a story that everyone knew. I mean, the movie was released in 1976 and President Nixon had just resigned in 1974. And the movie climaxes with the protagonists’ making a huge mistake. And yet it works so completely. I never tire of watching it.”

Many writers and reviewers have noted ZD30‘s debt to All the President’s Men, as a procedural film about very recent current events.  But I want to get into this a little bit, because Zero Dark Thirty does not work so completely.

ZD30 is the second of director Bigelow’s collaborations with screenwriter Mark Boal (Bigelow distinctly superior talent in the partnership).  In both The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark 30 we follow single-minded anti-heroes shaped and sculpted by their role as front-line fighters in the current reality of 21st century American warfare.  This pursuit suffocates any other personal qualities they might have possessed, making them unfit for any kind of civilian life or human intercourse that follows.

ZD30 does manage to keep the viewer engaged and on edge for two-and-a-half suspenseful hours, even as it takes us through 10 years of very recent history, leading, inexorably and obviously, to Usama Bin Laden’s death.  Time, and our hero’s search for Bin Laden, is marked by terrorist attacks, each of which contributes to the urgency of her obsession.  It is incredibly well directed–the Bin Laden raid is crafted with great care and virtuosity.

And yet.

In All the President’s Men, the hunt of the story–the culture of the newsroom, the coping strategies, the internal debates, how our lead characters learn together to make this story happen–is everything.  The ONLY time in the whole film that the film tips its hand as to the greater importance of Woodward and Bernstein’s work is at the very end, with the famous line, delivered in such a brilliant deadpan and with no swelling violins by Jason Robards as Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee:

“Nothing’s riding on this except the, uh, First Amendment to the Constitution, freedom of the press, and maybe the future of the country.”

That balance–between the hunt and what it means–is off in Zero Dark Thirty.  And as such, we lose the humor, the hypnotic quality, the tension of watching people at work.  When people argue that the movie glorifies torture, they are missing something.  The film doesn’t glorify torture–it presents a CIA in which torture and black sites are a simple reality–and the directness with which it portrays that ends up being a far more effective a critique than swelling violins ever would be.

The problem, I think, comes down to Jessica Chastain’s performance as CIA agent Maya.   As much as the filmmakers try to telegraph that she is NOT A ROMANTIC LEAD, as much as they tell you she is ALL ABOUT HER WORK, they can’t help themselves, in the script or on the screen.

Chastain’s beauty on camera, shining through even the bug-eyed, robotic intensity of her performance–the scenes of her curled up like a perfect little kitten, sleeping in her office or on her couch because she just can’t be bothered with a bed–the perfectly styled hair at totally unbelievable times–her final slow fragile trembling approach to UBL’s body bag–all of that shows the filmmakers’ need to justify and underline her lack of a personal life because of some messianic commitment to killing Bin Laden.  It drains the procedure, it justifies the procedure with beauty, and that is what, ultimately, undermines the film.

immediate thoughts on django unchained

  1. Well of course Spike Lee is pissed.  No one would ever give him $83 million to make a movie in which a freed black slave slays dozens of evil white pro-slavery trash and then blows up a plantation.  They’d say Spike was being an angry black man.  Fox News would go into an apocalyptic apoplectic shock for a month.  Only the white guy, the master appropriator of black culture, gets to make that movie.  On this point, I must say, I am sympathetic.
  2. Not as brilliant as Inglorious Basterds.  It would seem to be the next chapter of the same gesture of movie-making:  a combination of exploitation era cinema tricks on a big budget canvas set as an alternative take on history–and a history that ASSERTS JUSTICE over injustices of the past.  But IB took it to the next level, as they say–was made a more hallucinatory experience for this viewer–by staging WWII and the Holocaust as this entirely different parallel reality, a more complex world-making, supported in the film by the more complex plot–Shoshanna, Landa, the Basterds, the British spies.  After IB, I was expecting Django to take my head directly off of my shoulders.  It didn’t.
  3. Part of this has to do with how history was managed.  IB‘s success, for me, was in how it created such a sideways alternate reality–one in which Americans and Brits actually cared about Jews during WWII, for instance.  I’m fresh up on my pre-Civil War American history, having recently reread the excellently culturally contextual John Brown, Abolitionist: The Man Who Killed Slavery, Sparked the Civil War, and Seeded Civil Rights and the beautifully constructed Bound for Canaan: The Epic Story of the Underground Railroad, America’s First Civil Rights Movement.  I highly recommend both.  The South was in hysterics over blacks having any kind of power in the two years before the Civil War.  I wish that Tarantino had solved the problems of historical inaccuracy by making the alternate reality more strange.
  4. Django Unchained was too single-minded a revenge fantasy–so much so that the seams of pastiche felt more obvious.  Seeing it at the New Beverly was an outstanding experience, if only to see the parade of influences in the series of QT-curated vintage movie trailers that served as the previews.  But I couldn’t help but think of Reza Abdoh and Tight Right White.  After what Abdoh did to Mandingo (almost 20 years ago at this point!)–Django Unchained felt almost disappointingly straightforward.
  5. (You’ll say I’m comparing apples to oranges, by discussing avant-garde theater next to big budget film; perhaps–but such was my increased respect for Tarantino after IB and Kill Bill, Vol. 1, that the comparison isn’t such a stretch.)
  6. In the previews, you got a taste of how films like Mandingo made the horrors of slavery titillating under the guise of telling the truth.  Now, we are post-PC–so we must show the horror as horror–and the pleasure comes from watching the slaveholders turned into boobs.  This was a pleasure:  the slapstick of Jonah Hill and Don Johnson and the proto-Klansmen with their poorly made bag heads, followed by their bloody obliteration was the finest sequence in the film.
  7. Lots of really well-crafted set pieces, actually.  But it just didn’t all hang together.  Is this the movie where we see and take a moment of silence to mourn the loss of Sally Menke?
  8. Having lived in Claiborne County, Mississippi, I did get taken out of it a bit when I saw them going through landscapes that look nothing like anything you’d see hundreds of miles around where they were.
  9. That being said, I would give a back tooth to watch this movie back in Mississippi.
  10. This is the only time I’ve ever liked Leonardo di Caprio in ANYTHING AT ALL EVER.  He did some Daniel Day Lewis style scenery chewing and just seemed to be enjoying himself tremendously.
  11. How do you bring THAT role up to Sam Jackson?  What was THAT conversation like?  “Uh, could you play like the worst Uncle Tom, but of all time?”
  12. Although, perhaps di Caprio and Jackson’s incredibly enthusiastic performances come from getting to play the baddy bad guys.  And that brings us to why I wasn’t as big of a fan of Christoph Waltz in this film.  His character had no complexity–little actory details obviously meant to demonstrate “character work” (his constant patting down of beard and throat, etc)–just seemed precious and smug.  The character was too uncomplicatedly likeable.  No flaws.  Similarly, Django himself was pretty one note.  Which again, totally makes sense against the pastiche of influences–do we complain when Clint Eastwood was one-note?–but both characters felt like missed opportunities.

Maya Gurantz on This American Life!

This week, I have a story on This American Life’s Christmas Episode, “Lights, Camera, Christmas!”  It was all an awesome experience, and I feel so lucky I got to do it.