The perfect critic — “sureness of touch”

Alfred Kazin’s America should form an essential component of a literature lover’s library. Warm, alert to the divine in the human, Kazin wrote for the common readers, one of the last of the New York intellectuals who included Mary McCarthy, Edmund Wilson, and Philip Rahv. 1982’s “To Be a Critic” has been one of my lodestars. Excerpts:

“A critic is someone whose reactions are so authentic to himself as to become, above all else, interesting for others because illuminative of their own unconscious experience in the presence of art…”


A useful critic is someone who has already begun to use a text in a significant personal way, who is not in doubt about his fundamental reaction, who is not arbitrary but is convinced, in his reading of Shakespeare (or Dos Passos) that he knows what there is to know…But opinion in criticism, if held at a level deep enough to become interesting, can vivify our sense of what writing is all about and may even excite us to write in new ways. If ever make anthology of criticism, it will be called The Useful Critic, and will feature only writings that have helped me.

I like the faint defensiveness in the inclusion of Dos Passos.


My prime requirement for a critic has always been sureness of touch, the firmest possible contact with the subject in hand (which can be not just a particular text but one moving through the text into a whole series of contextual relationships). This requires the necessary separation between the private reader and his book.

In this context “use” is not synonymous with “utility.” The criticism may or may not serve as a consumer guide. A good critic explains an angle of vision which the audience might share; whether the critic converts the audience is a matter of secondary concern.

Oscars — Scrunchy Face edition


11:59. Spotlight! An upset! We stagger to the exits. An ode to print journalism saves us the forces of Scrunch.

11:56. Scrunchy Face wins the award in the worst Best Actor lineup of my lifetime. Mangling his director’s name, muttering about the fate of the planet, not hesitating a second as he bounded onstage, he’s the star that Hollywood loves.

11:46. Eddie Redmayne already campaigning to play Cate Blanchett in 2040 biopic. It’s Brie Larson for Room, no surprise.

11:37. As readers can tell by the intervals between posts, I’m failing. But I awaken to hear Alejandro González Iñárritu become the first director since Joseph L. Mankiewicz to win back to back Oscars. His speech is as pompous as expected; every decision is imbued with world historic portent. The results are pop-up comics.

11:24. A frail but vivid Ennio Morricone wins Best Score for The Hateful Eight. . Sam Smith and Jimmy Napes win Best Song for their execrable Bond theme, the criticism for which they deflect when Smith turns his acceptance into a moment of triumph for the LGBT community to which he’d showed mild contempt.

11:09. Heralded by the Raiders of the Lost Ark theme, Vice President Joe Biden gives a short speech asking the audience to remember the male and female victims of sexual assault. Curtain rises to reveal Lady Gaga in a Bee Gees pantsuit at the piano to sing her tune from The Hunting Ground surrounded by victims of sexual assault. A lovely gesture ruined by closeups of Gaga pumping her fist and really feeling the lyrics. She wants the audience to know how much she feels instead of recasting attention on the victims.

10:56. Dave Grohl picks at a delicate version of “Blackbird,” effortlessly transforming it into Dan Fogelberg’s “Longer.”

10:53. “What’s Love Got to Do With It” announcing Whoopi and “I’ll Always Love You” announcing Academy prez. Excerpt from Spike Lee’s speech remarks on how easy it is for a black man to be president of the United States than head of a Hollywood studio.

10:51. Oh like we’d prefer Dave Grohl to Spike Lee and Gena Rowlands tributes.

10:45. While I’m throwing out trash, Amy wins Best Documentary and announcer promises “a musical performance by David Grohl.”

10:39. Louis CK introduces Best Documentary (Short) with obvious jokes about the award’s irrelevance or something.

10:28. Patricia Arquette, voice dripping with deadly boredom, recites the names of the Best Supporting Actor nominees. And it’s…Mark Rylance for Bridge of Spies! Second best performance in this category and the frontrunner until a few weeks ago. I had the pleasure of watching Rylance as Henry V in a Royal Shakespeare Company staging in summer ’97: charismatic and rather beautiful (the girls in our group couldn’t stop staring at him). Accepting the award, he looks unfazed. “Would it help?” indeed. Nevertheless I’m sad for Stallone, who was marvelous and subtle and deserved the accumulating good will.

10:26. Chris Rock interviews Regular Folk about the Best Picture nominees. David Letterman used to pick on CBS’ irrelevance too.

10:23. Since we’re talking about ill-used minorities, let’s mention Amy Ryan already playing suffering women in Spielberg pics.

10:15. I’ve waited my entire professional life for an orchestral version of “Earned It.” Surrounded by dancers and a female trapeze artist, The Weeknd acts out the Susan Kohner burlesque sequence from Imitation of Life.

10:13. Kevin Hart has waited his professional life for an orchestral “Axel F” to introduce him.

10:07. I will never not call for drone rockets aimed at minions. Nevertheless, Chile wins its first Oscar win for Best Animated Short Film. When Scrunchy Face wins his Best Actor award in 30 mins Blaze will present him w/the award.

10:01: Threepio and R2! Didn’t Brokeback Mountain lose 10 years ago tonight?

9:59. Jason Segal looks like he’s been basking in the achievement of whiskey.

9:56. Whew. Ex Machina, winner of Best Visual Design, breaks the Mad Max sweep of technical awards. Ex Machina too close to Gattaca for my taste. But needed Gore Vidal.

9:52. The Hateful Eight — remember that? Up for Best Sound Mixing. How fitting that it made a lot of noise but lost to…Mad Max: Fury Road. Oscars should win Best Pace. We’re racing through categories!

9:47. Chiwetel Ejiofor and Chris Evans introduce Best Sound Editing. I want to know why Evans wasn’t nominated for Best Costume Design for the crude oil poured over his hair. Mad Max: Fury Road wins again.

9:44. Is the orchestra on ‘ludes? Even the curious decision to play “Ghostbusters” creates a version that sounds waterlogged. I miss the days when Placido Domingo sang “Beautiful Maria of My Soul.”

9:42. Angela Bassett! The Academy sure took care of Angela Bassett quick after her one nomination twenty-two years ago

9:38. Liev Schreiber and Priyanka Chopra, introducing Best Film Editing, look confused at the idea that “tonight” has celebrated “the process” of filmmaking. Am I the only who thinks Star Wars: The Force Awakens was released a long time ago in an award season far, far away? At any rate, Mad Max: Fury Road wins yet another award.

9:35. Michael B. Jordan, beautiful and un-nominated for Creed, for me the most egregious no show. The Revenant wins for Best Cinematography by the great Emmanuel Lubezki.

9:28. Benicio Del Toro introduces Ronald Reagan as a movie where “a dead spirit that comes back to life to terrorize the living.” He means The Revenant.

9:22. Oh FUCK THIS at Jared Leto smirking through a Magic Mike XXL joke. Here’s a joke: “Oscar winner Jared Leto.” Either way, Mad Max: Fury Road wins its third consecutive award, this time for Best Makeup & Hairstyle.

9:18. Heralded by a string version of Huey Lewis and the News’ “The Power of Love,” Chris Rock remarks that Carol is only the third woman-on-woman film he’s seen this year. I detect a frisson between him and Blanchett, introducing Best Costume Design, who doesn’t help matters on this night by blathering about costumes as “second skins.” Jenny Beavan of Mad Max: Fury Road wins. As she says she has an important thing to say, the music rises nervously.

9:09. Two of the “remarkably well-rounded” supporting actress performances = imitations of lead actresses. Alcia Vikander wins, as I predicted. Tom Hooper and Eddie Redmayne, director and star of The Danish Girl, have quietly accrued an impressive number of nominations for movies I have never heard anyone praise aloud.

9:07. From the way he shoves his left profile at the camera and remains as immobile as his own statue in the park, Henry Cavell thinks he’s starring in a late ’70s Olivier picture.

9:03. The Brilliant Sam Smith, who sounds like a vacuum cleaner choking on a shag carpet.

9:00. A rather strained spoof of the Best Picture nominees in which the paucity of black actors and themes inoculates Jeff Daniels, Jennifer Lawrence, et. al turns into a dagger when Rock introduces Stacy Dash in a parody of white self-congratulation: it’s Black History Month! Thank you, white people! *moves offstage after five seconds* Cut to gobsmacked audience.

8:48. “Bittersweet Symphony” plays as Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling amble on stage to announce Best Adapted Screenplay. Their who-won-what-Oscar routine is painful and looks worse after Chris Rock’s monologue; it’s the sort of thing David Niven would have tried in 1972. Winners: Charles Randolph and Adam McKay, whom I’ve also predicted as winners. “Don’t vote for candidates who take money from big oil and banks,” Randolph advises the audience, still dazed.

8:44. Cursed with the misfortune of appearing after Rock’s monologue, Emily Blunt and Charlize Theron look like fundraisers at a charity ball. They introduce Best Original Screenplay — the first time I can remember when this category has led. As predicted, Tom McCarthy wins. Recall: McCarthy played the fabulist reporter in the last fraught season of “The Wire.”

8:34. “Otherwise known as White People’s Awards,” said Chris Rock, not wasting time. Only unemployed people tell you to quit, he says to tepid audience applause. Cate Blanchett, looking as if served creamed spinach over poached eggs, is not amused. The zingers accumulate. “We were too busy being raped and lynched to care about Best Cinematography.” The line that inspires the most applause? A gross line about Rihanna’s panties. Context matters though. He’s not stopping. The Academy of Motion Picture Farts & Biases thinks it lets itself off the hook by unleashing Rock. The audience has no idea what it’s supposed to react, if Cate Blanchett reaction shots are any indication.

8:31. A dizzying montage of winners and box office hits plays, like one of those Best of 2015 recaps that the networks run on New Year’s Eve when no one’s watching. The applause is tepid. Cuts to: Matt Damon, amused; Leonardo DiCaprio, referred to henceforth as Scrunchy Face.

Oscar predictions — the final frontier

My final predictions, and I haven’t even entered a betting pool.


Bryan Cranston, Trumbo
Matt Damon, The Martian
Leonardo DiCaprio, The Revenant
Michael Fassbender, Steve Jobs
Eddie Redmayne, The Danish Girl

WILL WIN: Bryan Cranston’s here because Hollywood prefers shrill self-mythologizing to truth telling about its cravenness when HUAC went after the industry. Eddie Redmayne’s here because the Academy will take a pretty boy turning himself into a woman who suffers rather than transgender women playing themselves who laugh (and the sick part is he’d be the contender had he not won last year). Matt Damon is here because why not. Leonardo DiCaprio will win because the Academy thinks he’s overdue and he works hard.

SHOULD WIN: Of course Steve Jobs serves as an excuse for Aaron Sorkin to scribble more malicious, polysyllabic bon mots; Academy voters thought Paddy Chayevsky was a smart writer too. But Michael Fassbender, a man with as much talent for vulnerability as Katherine Hepburn did for playing Asian matrons, finally found a snug vehicle for his crisp, malicious, polysyllabic talents. Anyway he’s not my pick in a normal race. Obviously the Academy needed to nominate Cranston over Creed‘s Michael B. Jordan.


Cate Blanchett, Carol
Brie Larson, Room
Jennifer Lawrence, Joy
Charlotte Rampling, 45 Years
Saoirse Ronan, Brooklyn

WILL WIN: Brie Larson’s momentum looks unstoppable. As a young mother adjusting to life after years locked in a basement, she makes no mistakes. Often she gave the impression of looking for a fiercer movie than the one for which she’s nominated.

SHOULD WIN: If Brooklyn were better realized, I’d select Saoirse Ronan’s lovely work as an Irish immigrant on whom nothing is lost. My colleagues adored Cate Blanchett’s work in Carol, and I found her lubricious kittycat expression as alluring as she thought it was, but the mix of affectation and vulnerability was like creamed spinach over poached eggs. Gimme Charlotte Rampling’s scrupulous control as a wife unsettled by her husband’s unseemly attachment to a memory in 45 Years (I’ll ask again: why the hell wasn’t Tom Courtenay nominated?).


The Big Short, dir. Adam McKay.
Mad Max: Fury Road, dir. George Miller.
The Revenant, dir. Alejandro González Iñárritu
Room, dir. Lenny Abrahamson
Spotlight , dir. Tom McCarthy.

WILL WIN: Whatever, people: in 1994 you were saying Tom Hanks couldn’t possibly win two consecutive Oscars. Alejandro González Iñárritu, Hollywood’s favorite concocter of harrowing films about the difficulty of being male and angling for Oscar nominations, will make a second acceptance speech.

SHOULD WIN: I’m not as high on George Miller as everybody else (watched Lorenzo’s Oil lately? Harrowing!), but his reinvention of the action film is the kind of prodigious achievement immune to Oscar validation.


The Big Short
Bridge of Spies
Mad Max: Fury Road
The Martian
The Revenant

WILL WIN: The award group salad into which this contest has been tossed has advanced three plausible finalists, but its surprising box office strength and the unwelcome and ridiculous assumption that Leonardo DiCaprio needs an Oscar now has turned The Revenant into the prohibitive favorite over The Big Short and Spotlight.

SHOULD WIN: When the night’s over and Scrunchy Face returns to wenching with Toby Maguire, voters are going to feel silly that they ignored a solid and often excellent early bird dinner fare like Spotlight, as obvious a choice in 1985 as it is in 2016 even if Mad Max: Fury Road remains my choice of the bunch.

Clinton and Sanders: after South Carolina


With more money raised than any candidate in either party, commanding the passion of the young, Bernie Sanders killed his primary campaign in South Carolina tonight. As I type, fifty-two percentage points separate him and Hillary Clinton with 29 percent of the vote. Fifty-two. Eight in ten black voters supported Clinton. Sanders is my guy, but he’s been rubbish at persuading African Americans to vote for him. Fellow Sanders supporters, this is a fuck-up of Homeric proportions. When Chuck Todd smirks as he theorizes that Sanders’ strategy is to guarantee a prime speaking time at the Democratic convention, the establishment that had already paid Sanders the most minimal attention is looking already to the neoliberal and her husband for ratings.

And it’s Sanders’ fault.

I’ve already seen a couple of comments in which so-called progressive whites rebuked black Americans for not voting for their own interests. The truth: Sanders ran a fucking horrible campaign in South Carolina. He wasn’t around.

As for Clinton’s victory speech, it combined decent sentences with an undergraduate debate club delivery; I’m conscious, though, that women too often get accused of shrillness. But she recognized a smart, resonant line: “It’s not about making America great — it’s about making America whole.” She delivered it well. As she spoke Sanders was in the air, on his way to another primary state. With the tens of millions at his disposal he must try harder to woo Clinton voters who despite the welfare bill that her husband signed into law still recognized the meticulousness with which the former secretary of state courted them. And time’s running out.

Meanwhile Sam Stein:

But it is treated as a truism among Republicans that a vast reservoir of damaging opposition research remains untouched. It’s a suspicion that Democrats aren’t challenging. Indeed, one Democratic opposition research said that they’ve spent the past eight months compiling material on Trump as he’s risen up the ranks. That’s actually not a lot of time. Democrats had started focusing on Mitt Romney in 2009 — a full two years before he ran again for the presidency. But those eight months have produced some good.

That researcher estimated that of all the material they’ve compiled — court and property records, newspaper clips and videos — approximately 80 percent of it has yet to surface in this election cycle.

We’ll know in the late spring, won’t we, probably at the same time we realize how true today’s New York Times story is about GOP panjandrums rescinding endorsements and institutional support for Donald Trump in the hopes of keeping the Senate on the same November evening when Hillary Clinton is elected president by comfortable margins.

In the meantime I’ll close with Charles Pierce, who voted for Sanders but will support Clinton in the fall:

There is no question in my mind that, without Bernie Sanders and the forces behind him, Hillary Rodham Clinton is not talking like a Wall Street reformer, not bragging about how she’s going to go after the shadow banking community, and probably not being as vocal a supporter of the Black Lives Matter movement as she has been. I don’t really care if it’s genuine or if it’s expedient; I’m fond of quoting Drew Pearson’s fictional President Ben Hannaford’s insight that, in a democracy, the right things always get done for the wrong reasons. The point is that she has to be kept to these positions even after she gets the nomination—and I think she is going to be the nominee—and the more states Sanders wins, and the more votes he piles up, and the more delegates come to Philadelphia pledged to support him, then the more tightly she can be fastened to the positions she adopted to beat him.

That’s what’s at stake.

Oscar Predictions, Part 2

More Oscar picks after my first part:


Cartel Land
The Look of Silence
What Happened, Miss Simone?
Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom


SHOULD WIN: The Look of Silence by some distance, despite my dislike of its predecessor The Act of Killing, Joshua Oppenheimer’s other film about the Indonesian massacre of 1965.


The Big Short
Mad Max: Fury Road
The Revenant
Star Wars: The Force Awakens

WILL WIN: You know the drill: this award often predicts Best Picture. If The Revenant wins, expect psychodrama about guys and bears and snow to sweep. Don’t count out The Big Short though.

SHOULD WIN: Mad Max: Fury Road, for proving it’s possible to shoot a careening action picture without going Jack the Ripper on cohesion.


Christian Bale, The Big Short
Tom Hardy, The Revenant
Mark Ruffalo, Spotlight
Mark Rylance, Bridge of Spies
Sylvester Stallone, Creed

WILL WIN: Rylance’s minimalism got more winning as Bridge of Spies progressed, which made Spielberg’s decision to bench him all the more disappointing. Hardy, not much of an actor, does a persuasive imitation of a gnarled tree stump in The One with the Bear. Ruffalo yells in Spotlightthe only capital-A acting in Spotlight. In The Big Short Christian Bale plays a barefoot bourgeois with a glass eye. Which leaves Sylvester Stallone’s beautiful portrait of ravaged grace in Creed.

SHOULD WIN: Stallone. I don’t mind at all.


Jennifer Jason Leigh, The Hateful Eight
Rooney Mara, Carol
Rachel McAdams, Spotlight
Alicia Vikander, The Danish Girl
Kate Winslet, Steve Jobs

WILL WIN: Why lookee here: the two most flagrant and shameful examples of category fraud in recent years. Touching, in search of a movie that doesn’t star Eddie Redmayne as a transgender painter who weeps at the sound of the toast popping out of the oven, Alicia Vikander fits the Academy stereotype for this category. If she were less supportive she wouldn’t even be nominated (and the award would’ve gone to Rachel McAdams, also fitting the Academy type).

SHOULD WIN: I’m the only one who found Rooney Mara opaque and too contained in Carol but it’s the best in the bunch. If anything Cate Blanchett should’ve been here.

Singles 2/26

I can’t remember a week in the last two years when I’ve reviewed so many tunes that I know will end up in a year-end list. From Chilean Alexander Andwandter’s worried gay thumper to Brandy Clark’s worried-horny stab at “Baby, I’m Burnin’,” this week was disco inferno, baby! After dueting with an Uber driver last night, I may even have underrated Prince Royce’s bauble of a come-on.

Now get listening.

Click on links for full reviews.

Alexander Anwandter – Siempre Es Viernes En Mi Corazon (8)
Brandy Clark – Girl Next Door (8)
Pet Shop Boys – The Pop Kids (7)
Prince Royce – Culpa al Corazón (7)
Jason Derulo – Get Ugly (7)
Lissie – Don’t You Give Up On Me (6)
Aubrie Sellers – Sit Here and Cry (6)
Vince Gill ft. Little Big Town – Take Me Down (6)
The Joy Formidable – The Last Thing on My Mind (5)
Margaret Berger – Apologize (5)
Katy B x Craig David x Major Lazer – Who Am I (4)
GFriend – Rough (4)
Alessia Cara – Wild Things (4)
Nicky Jam – Hasta el Amanecer (3)

The stakes of the election

Of course I’m going to laugh at an article that begins, “I hear you’re still not Ready for Hillary” before launching into a defense of her sincerity around birthday cakes and attending a staffer’s daughter’s graduation. And paragraphs like these are so soppy that like Oscar Wilde said about a Dickens character it would take a hard heart to keep from laughing:

But Hillary is also more than just a policy wonk who can’t wait to start shuffling through white papers in the Oval Office. She cares. She tries. She perseveres. And now she has a chance to tell the story she’s always wanted about America: the story about a country that found the courage to turn away from our darkest impulses; that chose to embrace our growing diversity as a strength, not a weakness; that pushed the boundaries of opportunity outward and upward, until there are no more barriers, and no more ceilings.

I think of Bryan Ferry: “Tired of the tango?/Fed up with fandango?”

Then I read exchanges like this with former attorney general Eric Holder and think that a President Trump or Rubio wouldn’t even allow his attorney general to say these remarks aloud without putting the attorney general to sleep:

Q: Is the drug war over? A: The drug war I think is over. Certainly calling it the drug war should be over. But the battle against the narcotics problem in this country has to go on. But we need to take some different approaches, and it should not all be seen as just a criminal justice problem. It ought to be seen as a public health issue. …

Q: So what is that new approach? What do we need to be doing?

A: We need to think about dealing with people who have addictions in ways that we have not. We can’t put them in jail and think that that’s going to cure their addictions. We have to come up with public health responses in that regard. We have to come up with ways in which those people who engage in the narcotics trade are dealt with in a more fair way. …

Q: If we need to treat this as a public health problem, why then wouldn’t we be talking more seriously about decriminalization?

A: I think that certainly that ought to be a part of the conversation. You know, where do we want to be as a nation? Now, there’s certain drugs I just can’t see. It’s hard for me to imagine ever decriminalizing crack cocaine, drugs like that. But the whole question of should marijuana be decriminalized, I mean, that’s a conversation I think that we should engage in.

Elections matter because presidents pick judges and bureaucrats who will enforce or ignore laws. Republicans have pledged their troth to these things but I’ve see little discussion about reform.

‘A War’ too cozy for comfort

A war with two fronts: in Denmark, Maria Pedersen (Søren Malling) deals with her three unruly elementary school aged kids. Meanwhile over the dusty hills of Afghanistan’s Helmand province, her husband Claus (Pilou Asbæk) leads a group of skilled, scared men against Taliban forces. When during a battle he chooses them over the civilians he’s supposed to protect, he’s brought up on war crime charges. That’s the premise of this Academy Award nominee for Best Foreign Language Film, a rote drama that doesn’t transcend the familiarity of its battle scenes and family politics.

Using a hand-held camera to denote realism, writer-director Tobias Lindholm captures men in combat with no sense of mission except the orders from their commanding officers – or their whims. Motivated by a combination of duty and revenge after one of his beloved men was killed by an IED, Claus elects to lead the unit on patrol (“At the end of the day, it’s our job to get our men back in one piece”). The Afghans whom they’re protecting look dazed. If they offer help, the Taliban will execute them and the survivors. After the grisly murder of one family, Claus leads an attack on what is euphemistically called Compound 6. More dead soldiers. Nothing, as Bob Dylan said, is delivered, except arrest and a trial in Danish court for the “unwilling” murder of civilians in a war zone.

Not helping Lindholm’s film is the inclusion of scenes from the so-called domestic front. In a particularly awkward sequence A War cuts from sniper fire in the desert to the Pedersen kids playing with a magnetic board. The effect is jarring in its banality. If Lindholm hadn’t directed the children to be such little dears or had written enough sides to Maria the juxtaposition might have worked. As he demonstrated in his script for The Hunt (2012), Lindholm has a weakness for putting the nuclear family through the melodramatic ringer for the sake of affirming its continued existence (the idea that a man can be a marvelous father and a sociopath hasn’t crossed his mind or doesn’t interest him). The only test to his well-wrought pieties comes in an exchange between an Afghan father and Claus. “I have three children,” Claus reassures him. “Your children live in a safe place,” the father retorts.

For Lindholm all questions are ultimately legal ones. Again, like The Hunt, A War slouches towards yet another courtroom scene. When the judges return with a verdict Lindholm pushes us along without hearing why they came to this decision. Far stronger to affirm the strength of the family that gather seashells on the beach together (Claus shows no evidence of PTSD; he moves from battle to math problems at the kitchen table with less strain than a corporate vice president). Lindhom shoots a flock of seagulls flying out to sea. I’ll give you three guesses as to whether this feeble poetry takes place before or after the verdict. Sincere and dogged, A War feels closer to a skirmish.

Vultures circling: The Life of Pablo

Kanye West – The Life of Pablo

“[Kanye] West may be inappropriate and given to TMI, but he’s a fundamentally conservative figure,” Alex Macpherson wrote in his review. So are Alan Jackson and Maxwell, to take two examples. Like other aspirants to godhead, West has mortal blood. West – a would-be potentate wearing a Burger King crown who’s not above admitting disgust at the corny n*** he wishes he could unswallow. As “Wolves” proves he is not above intoning muddled Mariolatry either. On his third successive album of phony erotic exegesis, West remains an occasionally unpredicatable manipulator of aural space who nevertheless can’t find words or the correct timbre to give his madonna/whore mind games resonance. He’s become a hectoring, tedious presence in his own music, insisting that we take him seriously because he’s so fucked up.

At least he wastes no time. “Deliver us serenity, deliver us peace,” he sings on opener “Ultralight Beam” over backward tape effects and an intermittent bass drum boom. Then he cedes ground to Kelly Price, a lovely parched-voice Chance the Rapper interlude, and Kirk Franklin’s magnificent choir. The effect is So what? The generosity with which Kanye lets these musicians express the banality in his soul doesn’t excuse absenteeism. Still, I’m up for a Kanye-curated R&B/hip-hop revue like Quincy Jones’ Back on the Black or Diddy-Dirty-Money’s Last Train to Paris though, about which more later. To quote critic Justin Cober-Lake, if “Jesus Walks” was trying to find faith in complicated world, “Ultralight Beam” sticks Kirk Franklin on triangulating annoyance.

Nevertheless, The Life of Pablo sports a few bangers, the most on a Kanye album since 2007. “Real Friends,” a cold, pained bookend to the raucous, often rancorous intimacy depicted in 2004’s “Family Business,” dismisses relatives who want tickets and help with bills but expect the superstar to remember birthdays. “Money turn your real kin to enemy,” he raps, looking deeply into a mirror, a snare and keyboard swathed in echo as chilling as any Joy Division. The warm rumble of an Arthur Russell sample animates the day-in-the-life “30 Hours,” a track as garrulous as “Last Call.” And I could stand a ten-minute version of “Fade,” a collage that cuts from a Temptations classic over which Kanye sings “I think I think too much” while the high synths and bass sequencer from Mr. Fingers’ 1988 house classic “Mystery of Love” open the window to heaven. Repeatedly Kanye and six co-producers cut from sample to sample like deejays; the song gets faster, Kanye distorted to illegibility – a fact that doubles as metaphor.

Motivated by an urge to transcend that’s mitigated by the unwillingness to let go of the shit, Kanye West is as perplexing as many pop stars but as his verbal skills deteriorate a bore. The Life of Pablo often just sits there, scowling. Acknowledging he’s got problems is, as the psychologists say, a first step but doesn’t in his case produce art that rewards attention. And it’s all for naught if he continues to show no interest in people, never mind women. Last year Miguel recorded a song called “face the sun.” “I ain’t a saint, I think you know,” he sings breathily over electric strumming. The refrain is “I belong to you,” unsaintly and everything. Unlike Drake, the Weeknd, or Kanye, Miguel casts no aspersions on his beloved: I belong to you. He doesn’t demand love: he offers it. I belong to you. She can take him if she wants. Meanwhile the music swells, the tempo changes, lonely ravaged Tunnel of Love harmonies get louder, climaxing in the vulgar smear of Lenny Kravitz’s solo. Worry dissolves. The arrangement is a pickaxe scraping at earth until sunlight penetrates the dust. Years have passed without Kanye essaying By My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, however, the prodigious accumulation of guests and percussive loops had entombed him; he was an artist buried alive yelling until he’d consumed the oxygen.

Whether The Life of Pablo represents evidence for the complete devolution of Kanye West’s talent is hard to know, but criticism is harder when we insist on coating him in Teflon. The release schedule is a mess? That’s how he wanted it. The track listing isn’t final? It’s a new way of listening to albums. He’s a mess? But he knows it (also known as the Drake Defense). This is auteur theory at its most decadent (Napoleon at least believed in accidents). How tiresome this becomes! In the meantime I listen to Angel Haze’s Back in the Woods, a furious exhumation and purging of old hurts released last spring, Kevin Gates’ new Islah, or even Future’s DS2, in which the star raps “I just fucked your bitch in some Gucci flip-flops” but thanks to Metro Boomin’s production sounds like a reporter on a beat. And one track offers stern self-advice that he can share: “Don’t get culture to be your vulture.” Carrion are already circling Kanye, and he’s playing dead hoping they lunge.

Scalia: St. Hubertus loyalist


We now know what the late Antonin Scalia was up to the weekend he was found dead. The associate justice was hunting as a member of, I’m not lying, the International Order of St. Hubertus:

“Honoring God by honoring His creatures,” according to the group’s website. Some hold titles, such as grand master, prior and knight grand officer. The order’s name is in honor of Hubert, the patron saint of hunters and fishermen.

Honoring God by killing his creatures, I think is the English translation of the Latin phrase.

Poindexter told CultureMap Houston that some of the guests dressed in “traditional European shooting attire for the boxed bird shoot competition” and for the shooting of pheasants and chukar, a type of partridge.

For the hunting weekend earlier this month, Poindexter told the Washington Post that Scalia traveled to Houston with his friend and U.S. marshals, who provide security for Supreme Court justices. The Post obtained a Presidio County sheriff’s report that named Allen Foster as Scalia’s close friend on the trip.

Sheriff Danny Dominguez confirmed that a photograph of Washington lawyer C. Allen Foster shows the same man he interviewed at the ranch the day of Scalia’s death.

From Houston, Scalia and Foster chartered a plane without the marshals to the Cibolo Creek Ranch airstrip. In a statement after Scalia died, the U.S. Marshals Service said that Scalia had declined a security detail while at the ranch.

The friend, Louisiana-born Foster, is an attorney with the Washington firm Whiteford, Taylor & Preston. He is also known for his passion for hunting and is a former spokesman for the hunting group Safari Club.

In 2006, Foster was featured in the Post when he celebrated his 65th birthday with a six-day celebration in the Czech Republic. He flew his family and 40 Washington friends there to stay in Moravia’s Castle Zidlochovice, a baroque castle and hunting park. The birthday bash included “tours of the Czech countryside, wine tasting, wild boar and mouflon (wild sheep) hunts, classic dance instruction and a masked costume ball.”

One of my favorite stories is Gustave Flaubert’s lurid “The Legend of Saint Julian the Hospitalier,” the closest verbal approximation to a stained glass window, in which the hero slaughters a whole continent of walking and crawling beasts until a dying stag puts a curse on him. All Nino was missing was the late William Rehnquist’s robe.

You mean it’s Oscar time again? My picks

As the first year in which I’ve seen a large percentage of the nominees, 2016 should feel blessed. It should also be a year when I curse the Academy of Motion Picture Farts & Biases for fucking up the Best Picture and Actor categories as usual. But I’ve already posted a counter-canon; I can’t stand athwart history. Let me deal with the nominees.

Here’s the first batch:


Carol – Ed Lachman
The Hateful Eight – Robert Richardson
Mad Max: Fury Road – John Seale
The Revenant – Emmanuel Lubezki
Sicario – Roger Deakins

WILL WIN: One of the world’s best cinematographers competes versus one of the world’s best cinematographers. Ed Lachman’s use of reflection, light, and color deepened Todd Haynes’ Carol much like Roger Deakins did Sicario. But thinking of Sicario without Deakins’ etchings turns the film to powder, which is why it’s the obvious Academy choice if they don’t want to reward Emmanuel Lubezki’s kinetic nature photography (Sicario‘s failure to win more nominations mystifies me, as this bludgeoning film aims for the Academy voter who reveres Traffic).



The Big Short – Adam McKay and Charles Randolph from The Big Short by Michael Lewis
Brooklyn – Nick Hornby from Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín
Carol – Phyllis Nagy from The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith
The Martian – Drew Goddard from The Martian by Andy Weir
Room – Emma Donoghue from Room by Emma Donoghue

WILL WIN: Academy voters love tony adaptations, and in another year Brooklyn might take it. But I can imagine these fuddyduds wanting to toss The Martion the smallest of bones after deservedly ignoring Ridley Scott’s grade school direction. But The Big Short for reasons I don’t understand is red hot at the moment, unless voters think they can congratulate themselves for understanding history and politics.

SHOULD WIN: Carol didn’t move me, but as an imaginative elision and extemporization of Patricia Highsmith’s novel it’s piquant and elegant like the other nominees aren’t; in other words when, like the other nominees, it goes for sentimentality it’s subtler.


Bridge of Spies – Matt Charman, Ethan Coen, and Joel Coen
Ex Machina – Alex Garland
Inside Out – Pete Docter, Meg LeFauve, Josh Cooley, and Ronnie del Carmen
Spotlight – Tom McCarthy and Josh Singer
Straight Outta Compton – Jonathan Herman, Andrea Berloff, S. Leigh Savidge, and Alan Wenkus

WILL WIN: In an indie consensus year, I could imagine Alex Garland’s Ex Machina winning. But I suspect voters will reward Spotlight for its strongest suit (its direction was merely poky).

SHOULD WIN: Like Spotlight, Bridge of Spies‘ script, co-written by the Coen brothers, triumphed over a risible staging.

Embrace of the Serpent
Son of Saul
A War

WILL WIN: Holocaust fare does well with Academy voters, as crass as that sounds, and Son of Saul benefits from good execution and a terrific ad campaign; it’s by far the most visible of the nominees.

SHOULD WIN: I haven’t watched Embrace of the Serpent, but Mustang was a well-intentioned misfire content to coax the good will of the audience for its characters and A War (review to come on Friday) was a pro forma twenty-first century war picture, complete with the Devastating Effects At Home. I might go with Theeb but Son of Saul deserves the nod.

The queerness of reading

“Could a country that had widely read Huckleberry Finn have taken Donald J. Trump seriously for a second?” David Denby asks in a piece called “Do Teens Read Seriously Anymore?” My response: has anyone who’s read Huckleberry Finn not laughed when reading about the Duke and Dauphin? These acolytes love Mark Twain’s creations, two phonies who pretend to be French nobility and manage to fool many yokels along the Mississippi. Spotting phonies doesn’t mean you can’t take them seriously. Recognition isn’t repudiation (look at the critical responses to the nattering, distracted recent albums of Kanye, who doesn’t disavow his repulsiveness).

I see plenty of parents reading to children in bookstores and libraries. What “plenty” means depends on one’s optimism. The number of kids who read for pleasure wasn’t high when Ike ruled the Western Hemisphere and Mailer, Bellow, Vidal, etc. the Book of the Month Club, as Denby acknowledges. “Few late teen-agers are reading many books,” he claims as if it’s an insight. Every week I read the handiwork of students whose concept of sentence writing originates in the twaddle of standardized test instructions. They remember, deservedly, nothing about high school English except the impossibility of starting sentences with “because” or with coordinating conjunctions like “and” and “but” (the birth of “due to” and, horrors, “due to the fact that,” by the way; in their teachers’ eyes torture ’tis a far, far nobler thing than death). Whether it’s the TV or the iPhone technology gets the blame for systems that keep students docile. But the couple of students per section who demonstrate an interest in structure, climax, lacuna, and tension happen to be the readers. They may not sense the correlation — that’s my job.

But let me develop one of Denby’s themes. Long before I became aware of my sexuality I knew I was queer. Reading cleaved me from my friends. Not because it encouraged isolation — far from it. Books strengthened my interest in people. I craved relationships that matched the tension and ardor in my favorite novels and poems. No relationship in my life remains as monogamous, “fulfilling” in that crap pop psychology manner, and stable as that with my books. If a bond exists between me and friends, family, and lovers, I credit what novels have taught me. Make no mistake: reading cultivates what Harold Bloom called a ruthless interiority: a sense of self into which one can burrow, headily and sometimes dangerously. Reading doesn’t make one a Better Person: it forced me to confront squalor and my own cowardice. There is the paradox: by reminding us of our ourselves, reading demonstrates the comity between people.

As the act of reading, thanks to Kindle and iPhones, becomes what Chekhov calls “one, open, seen and known by all who cared to know,” the essential mystery — the privacy — of the union between book and reader remains an enigma, and thus it should remain. At best it provokes good-natured amusement, as when colleagues on intercampus shuttle ride remind me, for the hundredth time, how “admirable” reading at eight in the morning is, especially when I could be sleeping or looking out the window (Florida is a flat place). But every time I feel the nudge from one of these sweet, genuinely curious people I shudder, slightly, reminded of the frowns and — yes — unintended condescension from teachers and relatives who at one hand praised reading as a A Good Thing yet sought to contain it, as if I carried an airborne contagion.