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#Russia

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Had to give a public talk about James Bond (at the closing of a “Bond at 50” exhibit co-organized by GQ), so I talked about Bondiana and its on-and-off relationship with camp. It went over pretty well, actually! Here are some quick notes from it, just in case.

The main thesis is that all Bonds, after rebooting with a different actor, start out more earnest than we tend to remember, and lapse farther and farther into camp as they go along. The most jarring example is, of course, the somber From Russia with Love (1963), whose entire plot is “Bond has to steal a decoding gizmo from the Soviets,” followed directly by the crazed nuclear swing of Goldfinger (1964); but each sub-series goes through a similar cycle. The seeming exception is Timothy Dalton, but his two films actually prove the rule: The Living Daylights, campy as a glitter bomb, came from a script intended for the previous Bond, Roger Moore, and License to Kill was the actual, if failed, reboot.

My theory is that this strange dynamic has less to do with the actors’ personalities (Connery, Moore, and Craig could all function in both modes, though Brosnan was a born featherweight), or the mood of the times (the ultra-kitschy Die Another Day came out a year after 9/11), or the film influences of the era (Casino Royale owes a huge debt to Bourne, but it’s just as much of a corrective to the damage wrought by Austin Powers). I think it has more to do with the audience’s own strange desire-and-guilt cycles regarding Bond. Which, in turn, occurs because we’re not entirely sure if these are superhero movies or not. We want Bond to be larger than life, then balk when he gets to that size and demand deflation. Bond has such a unique place in the culture – teaching grown men what cars to drive, watches to wear, and Scotch to drink while also wowing the twelve-year-olds like any caped crusader — that we want to be both adults and children about it, to attach and detach, and our irony switches keep flipping on and off around him, sometimes ten times in the same scene (the genius of Skyfall is that it recognizes this dynamic and plays directly to it). This flux, of course, is the perfect breeding environment for camp, per Sontag’s vintage definition. Which, by the way, came out the same year Goldfinger did: 1964. Sontag would have made a dynamite Pussy Galore, wouldn’t she.

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И так будет с каждым. (Taken with Instagram)

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Lately, I’ve become convinced that pop conspirology, a favorite Russian pastime, is a projection of discomfort with slackened gender roles. It’s not just about the “Jews” or the “world government” any more. It’s about weird semiotic clusters organized around degrees of perceived masculinity. For instance, in the modern Russian mind, “Americans” are “Jews.” “Jews” are “gay.” “Americans” are thus also “gay.” “Liberals” may stand for American stooges (as in Putin’s speeches) or Jews (as in Zakhar Prilepin’s “Letter to Stalin,” full of anti-Semitic dog whistles), but their defining traits are feminine - softness, pliability, indecisiveness - and so they are “gay” above all (cf. “liberast,” the popular online conflation of “liberal” and “pederast”). Once united in this way, the tags become completely interchangeable, defying all logic. For instance, feminists: semiotically speaking, they are gay, of course, and liberal - and thus they are also American and Jewish (“The last names of the participants say it all,” writes a nationalist blogger in response to a recent round table on feminism I attended: “Krongauz, Goralik, Idov”. For him, feminism is a Jewish conspiracy, too). And round and round it goes. Meanwhile, Communists can be “Jews” but they can’t be “gay,” because they are associated with masculine qualities. Only the gay-Jew-American-liberal cluster works perfectly in all directions, because it’s held together by the same notion of effeminacy. 

You can play the same game with the American extreme right if you substitute “European” for “American.” That’s how you end up with the crypto-FrenchGayLiberalJewishArabCommunistAtheistMuslim ”other” that lives in the head of a wingnut. (And in the White House, haha).

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I owe my entire life in its odd present shape to Nora Ephron. She never took credit and never even accepted my thanks for it. In fact, even as we shared many friends, I haven’t managed to speak to her in person once. (She was generally great at not speaking. Remember, for over 30 years she was one of the four people who knew who Watergate’s Deep Throat was). In this combination of massive influence and total unknowability, Ephron remains the closest presence in my life I have to - sorry, don’t gag, as she likely would - an angel. 

At the tail end of 2005, I was a broke ex-cafe owner with a sideline in snarky unpaid music reviews for Pitchfork. For the last two months, I had worked as a bartender at Lucien, a bistro on the corner of First Avenue and 1st Street run by a manic-depressive French psycho. My marriage had barely survived the strain of the cafe experiment and wasn’t in the best shape either. I had written a short comic essay about all of the above for Slate, but the magazine kept putting off the publication, since it was “evergreen.” 

For New Year’s, Lily and I pooled our little remaining money and went to a bed&breakfast near Rhinebeck, to get the hell away from everything and everyone. On December 30, while we were on our way up there, Slate suddenly put up the story. So when I checked my email on December 31 (this was back when you’d check your email once a day), there were a few readers’ letters in the inbox (this was back when readers wrote letters to the author). Including one charmingly titled “Your blog,” which seemed to be a generational thing - older people use “blog” for “post.” “I think you should write a small funny book about this,” it said. “You probably already have an agent, but if you don’t, I’m forwarding it to one I know. I even think there’s a small and charming movie here. Best, Nora Ephron.” 

I remember staring dumbfounded past the computer screen and into a window, where rather Hollywood-looking snow was falling in earnest, and realizing this email had just changed everything an email can change. I spent about an hour composing a two-line answer, and then Lily and I went out into the snow. The agent was Binky Urban, the small funny book became Ground Up which became Kofemolka which got me this job which got me to the hotel in Milan where I am now typing this, and I never got to thank Nora Ephron - she would have none of it, even when I interviewed her as a source once over the phone, for a silly story about the Apthorp, she got off the phone as soon as I began talking about that email, and now the address sitting in my inbox like a little gold coin among plastic chips (@aol.com, of course, as befits the author of You’ve Got Mail) won’t work.

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The most important Tumblr of the moment.

Source: law-order-food
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At the Nigerian consulate. (Taken with instagram)

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Taken with instagram

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Давайте, что ли, поговорим про питчинг. Русского слова, увы, нет (“заявка” не годится). Мне почти каждый день присылают идеи для статей. Что прекрасно. Но средняя идея звучит примерно так: “Я люблю и знаю баскскую кухню/морских ежей/Акунина, давайте я напишу про нее/них/него”. (Оставим в стороне людей, которые хотят писать колонки, с ними все ясно; мое любимое письмо из этой категории содержало вопрос “Возможна ли публикация моей фотографии рядом с текстом, и если да, то какого размера?”). Или: “Я еду в Патагонию/Судан/Швамбранию. Не нужен ли вам материал оттуда?” Или: “Мой дядя работает в морге. Давайте сделаем охренительный гонзо-репортаж про быт патологоанатомов”.

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Fact: nowhere am I as happy as among Euro pensioners reading newspapers. (Taken with Instagram at Cafe Presse Club)