The films of Mike Nichols

I’m glad he believed in comedy; the brooding Silkwood is the exception in a career defined by bringing the timing of stand-up and the precision of theater to film. But if Ingmar Bergman often failed at the latter I can’t blame Mike Nichols for maintaining his glib equipoise. Catch-22, Carnal Knowledge, Heartburn, Working Girl, and Closer have the rat-tat-tat hollowness of TV productions; in some of those things I can hear actors hitting their marks. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf and Wit are more than that; it’s impossible for me to imagine Albee (and screenwriter Ernest Lehman) and Margaret Edson letting anyone run away with their work. Hip, crisp, as pretty and meaningless as effective advertising, The Graduate defined how bourgeois youth saw themselves before they bought the first Crosby Stills & Nash album: the guy beds Mrs. Robinson and Elaine and is allowed a moment of self-doubt (their child will be Jesse Eisenberg in The Squid and the Whale had his parents been merely clever New Yorkers).

I may be alone in thinking that his run of work between 1996 and 2004 was his peak. Thanks to former collaborator Elaine May’s scripts and polishing, The Birdcage and Primary Colors are sound, solid entertainments (humanizing the Clinton-fied candidate in the latter is gross though), and despite garish touches (what looks intentionally chintzy on stage is worse onscreen, thanks to the camera’s literalizing effect) his HBO adaptation of Angels in America isn’t afraid to mismatch tones. I need to rewatch The Fortune; it can’t be as bad as Heartburn.

Hail YouTube for preserving many of the original Nichols-May routines. Quote of the day: “A moral issue is always so much more interesting than a real issue.”

1. Wit
2. Angels in America
3. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf
4. The Birdcage
5. The Graduate
6. Working Girl
7. Silkwood
8. Primary Colors
9. Carnal Knowledge
10. Catch 22

I can cast a spell of secrets you can tell: the best of Chaka Khan

CVS is responsible for saving lives — a pharmacy open late, eggs and half and half available when supermarkets have closed, and the encouraging of “Through the Fire.” Maybe that’s how Kanye West learned to love it. This middling R&B, adult contemporary, and pop single has had an impressive longevity, such that even before Kanye’s 2003 “Through the Wire” it might’ve been the first Chaka Khan song recognized by Gen X and Triassic-era millennials. Guess what? Through the polite flame of those flickering synthesizers Chaka triumphs. Against 1985’s “That’s What Friends Are For,” I long thought I’d have preferred “Through the Fire” on my side. Continue reading

2019 as 1649

After coffee and before exercise, I spent a delightful ninety minutes yesterday morning and intermittently the rest of the day fighting rightist journalists, their minions, and sundry trolls on Twitter. I went after Erick Erickson, an unlettered windbag whose self-professed Christianity is unleavened by imagination and empathy — a redundant phrase, for empathy requires imagination. Infuriated by the New York Times’ 1619 Project, a prodigious journalistic feat about which amateur historians can argue in good faith; yet Erickson and his toadies, together with National Review editor Rich Lowry, questioned its very existence. Continue reading

Sing no sad songs for me: my deathbed/wake songs

A couple of friends (whose names, to my embarrassment, I can’t remember) on Twitter posted deathbed songs — a piece of fortuitous timing, for I’m drawing up my will this year, and, assuming my pals and family outlive me, I want a celebration, not a ritual purging. These songs reflect a bit of my puckish spirit, I hope: a conception of myself that is up to the survivors to affirm or demolish after I’ve become ash. For example, I avoided Merle Haggard’s “Sing Me Back Home” to a more Soto-esque pick like “I Am What I Am.” And I’ll leave instructions that the list must build to Jarvis Cocker’s grand fuck you.

1. Jarvis Cocker – C— Are Still Running the World
2. Lana Del Rey – Fucked My Way to the Top
3. Janet Jackson – Together Again
4. New Order – This Time of Night
5. Buzzcocks – I Believe
6. Fleetwood Mac – Sara
7. Roger Miller – One Dyin’ and a Buryin’
8. Jamie Principle – Waitin’ on My Angel
9. Neil Young and Crazy Horse – Over and Over
10. Leonard Cohen – The Future
11. Prince – Private Joy
12. Lucinda Williams – Metal Firecracker
13. U2 – Stuck in a Moment
14. The Go-Betweens – Dive For Your Memory
15. Beyonce – I Miss You
16. Patty Loveless – Don’t Toss Us away
17. Ray Charles – That Lucky Old Sun
18. Rolling Stones – Moonlight Mile
19. Brad Paisley – When I Get Where I’m Going
20. R.E.M. – Sweetness Follows
21. Randy Travis – Three Wooden Crosses
22. Bryan Ferry – Don’t Stop the Dance
23. Lou Reed – The Blue Mask
24. Merle Haggard – I Am What I Am
25. Joni Mitchell – Night Ride Home
26. George Strait – You’ll Still Be There
27. Marvin Gaye – Praise
28. Billy Bragg and Wilco – Way Over Yonder in the Minor Key
29. Sade – Never As Good as the First Time
30. The Mountain Goats – This Year
31. The Velvet Underground – Ocean
32. Trio – Wildflowers
33. Alexander O’Neal – Sunshine
34. Nas – It Ain’t Hard to Tell
35. Tori Amos – Jackie’s Strength
36. Amen Dunes – Dracula
37. Paramore – Ain’t It Fun
38. David Bowie – Heathen (The Rays)
39. Pet Shop Boys – The End of the World
40. Patrick Cowley – Do You Wanna Funk?
41. The B’52’s – Roam
42. The Go-Go’s – Beneath the Blue Sky
43. Tamia – Leave It Smokin’
44. Drake – From Time
45. Rufus featuring Chaka Khan – Sweet Thing
46. Brian Eno – Spider and I
47. Dusty Springfield – I Can’t Make It Alone
48. Can – Chain Reaction
49. Miguel – Adorn
50. Anita Baker – You Bring Me Joy

The best of Werner Herzog’s feature films

I suppose I can say that this German enigma got worse as a director of fiction; like most people I prefer Burden of Dreams to Fitzcarraldo (and wonder how Mick Jagger would’ve fared), and I’d watch Fata Morgana, The White Diamond, and Grizzly Bear right now, documentaries in which his pulpish meditations and subjects merge.

1. Aguirre, the Wrath of God
2. The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser
3. Stroszek
4. Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans
5. Woyzeck
6. Fitzcarraldo

Ranking Cher’s UK and US top ten singles

With a voice like brass polished with amaretto and skin cream, Cher has dwelt in the popular imagination for six decades. She began as a distaff folkie, offering husband-songwriter-producer Sonny Bono reassuring sentiments in “I Got You Babe” and a series of sixties hits. Her timbre and TV appearances didn’t project much warmth, though, which gave their material its healthy tensions.

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Criticism as a palimpsest, not a stone tablet

When students asked if I could speak for an hour about writing criticism, the request flummoxed me. I look in the mirror to fix my hair and write in my journal; scrutinizing methods hasn’t engaged me. After a fitful start, I cobbled together a PowerPoint that encompassed my most sapient points. Readers will get an idea by looking at this post’s title. I even managed to discuss for a couple minutes Pitchfork’s coverage of Taylor Swift this morning. Continue reading