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.
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).
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.
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”.
Well well well. This is, unless it’s a fake (and if it’s a fake, it’s a pitch-perfect one),* a 1977 Soviet review of Star Wars. The section tags on the left and on the bottom read “Mass Culture ‘77” and “Their Sensations.” Translation below.
*UPDATE: Through the magic of instant Facebook feedback, we now have a testament to the review’s authenticity: a gentleman who remembers reading it in 1977 and obsessing over it.
CINE-HORRORS IN SPACE
This summer, a new wave of cinematic psychosis washed over American movie theaters. According to the press, War of the Stars, by American director George Lucas, is beating all box-office records: 60 million dollars in the very first month of release. Morning to midnight, War of the Stars plays to packed auditoriums. To get in, one needs either to spend several hours in line or to buy a scalped ticket for an unbelievable price of 50 dollars.
And thus, after demons, mass catastrophes and giant sharks, the American screens are now home to a horror of truly cosmic proportions: monstrous tyrants terrorizing our galaxy. Waging the battle against them are the film’s heroes — a round-faced princess, a village youth, an old knight of the Round Table, an ape-man and two robots. One of those, the giant, gilded Tripio, has the gift of human speech; the other, Artu-Detu, looks like an automobile and expresses himself with “space” signals.
The film’s plot, as reported by the French weekly L’Express, is quite primitive.
But to scare the denizen even further, the film’s creators deploy the perfect weapon - a laser beam that the characters use in battle like a rapier. Time and again, nightmarish monsters fill the screen: a lizard man, faceless gnomes, a live mummy with the tube-riddled head, fantastical animals… In conjunction with the shooting of this soul-chilling “masterpiece,” which the director George Lucas calls “a futuristic Western,” several analogous commercial operations have been implemented in the U.S. Ballantine Publishers have put out an eponymous novel. Marvel Comic Book, a publishing house specializing in comics, struck a deal with Fox film studios and, having divided the script into six parts, have begun to publish a monthly comic album with the War of the Stars plotline. Soon after that classic mass-culture attributes - pins, T-shirts, advertising posters, soundtrack records - have appeared too. And come New Year’s, the shops should be receiving shipments of children’s toys as well: a miniature Artu-Detu, capable of producing the same sounds as its inspiration, and a gilded Tripio. The film’s main “discovery” - a toy laser rapier - hasn’t been invented yet, but the work on its creation has already begun.
In the next few weeks, the American screens will host the next installment of War of the Stars, which is likely to be as mediocre as it is to be lucrative. No surprise there. The mass audience willingly “gobbles up” such pieces of “art,” all in order to leave the theater feeling that the life outside is nice after all.
Big thanks to WoodlandCreature for including the Slater piece, which I like a lot and which had the misfortune of sharing an issue with three features on p0rn. Let’s just say it didn’t get much pickup at the time. Also, I pretty much concur with this list, with the obvious addition of Lawrence Wright’s Scientology epic.
Longreads.com has been doing a great series of roundups on its Tumblr, highlighting the best longreads of the year, chosen by well-known writers. I’m not well-known and not really a writer, but here are mine (I couldn’t narrow it down to five):
К вопросу Ильи Красильщика в Facebook о том, кто должен выйти на трибуну в субботу: не опостылевшие персонажи вроде Шендеровича, а герои культуры вроде Акунина и Шевчука. Я же считаю, что на трибуну должен выйти Красильщик. Или по крайней мере Условный Красильщик. Сейчас у вас есть уникальный шанс за буквально пару недель создать абсолютно новых политических селебритиз с нуля. По телевизору вас не покажут все равно, но он уже не нужен. Сетевая активность населения на пике: все ждут одной хорошей речи, одного запоминающегося оборота. Окно открыто. Извините за идиотское сравнение, но про Барака Обаму тоже никто за пределами Иллинойса не знал, пока он не выступил на съезде демократов в 2004-м. Я прекрасно помню, как пол-страны переглянулось и хором спросило “А какого хрена мы номинируем Керри, когда есть ЭТО”? Я не говорю, что Условный Красильщик может, хочет или должен рваться в президенты. Но ничего абсурдного в том, чтобы кто-то из поколения юных главредов взял на себя оглашение новой прогрессивной платформы, тоже нет. Не нужно прибедняться. “Афиша” сейчас выполняет функцию, грубо говоря, журнала “Юность” году в 1988-м, и выйди главред “Юности” - кто там тогда был, Деменьтьев? - на баррикады в 1991-м, никто бы не удивился. Кроме того, у вас в руках, как это старомодно ни звучит, типографские прессы, а с ними шанс охватить часть оффлайнового населения. Лошак, Эсманов, Дзядко et al. Хотите, чтобы в субботу прозвучала речь, за которую не будет стыдно? Произнесите ее сами.
Because there are three of us, we trilaterally decided to go for 15. But it’s not really five each; that becomes complicated, too, but… well, anyway, no matter how you cut it, surely at least one of us hated some of these stories. Also to be fair, this…
Huzzah! The Awl’s approval is like 45% of all I’m after, professionally speaking.
I confess, I normally hate it when a writer tries to get all neo-gonzo in his three-hour access window with a movie star. Usually it’s a variation on “do I have a shot with him/her?” (No. No you do not). The era when journalists had enough access, and a green light, to break through a star’s defenses and procure some sort of genuine insight is long gone - I doubt it ever existed, to be honest, or even needs to exist. The majority of stars are not that intriguing: I’m not sure how much I, as a reader, need to gaze unimpeded at the fire raging within the soul of Jason Segel. But what I really don’t want to know is how it makes his profiler feel.
So I really wasn’t planning to make myself a part of this one. I thought my secret weapon would be language: I would try to get Kunis to talk in Russian and see if anything interesting shakes out of that. Instead, it turned out to be the flu. My condition - the sheer repulsiveness of which I actually downplay in the piece - completely hijacked the interview. When we were done, there was literally nothing else to write about other than Kunis’s reaction to it. Which was, luckily, delightful.
All right, let’s use this Tumblr for its intended purpose. Here are some additional details from The Movie Set That Ate Itself that didn’t make it into GQ (and perhaps shouldn’t have, given that the first draft was over 7,000 words).
KHRZHANOVSKY FINDS DAU
Ilya’s first cinematic idée fixe, says a friend, was organizational: he wanted to create a “Center for Young Cinema.” After taking a workshop at VGIK, the Russian state film school, however, he wrote a script that would soon become his first film, 4 – an abstract meditation on storytelling and ritual that culminates in a scene of village crones dancing topless around a suckling pig. It got great reviews. As he was finishing 4, he discovered Lev Landau.
Khrzhanovsky didn’t know anything about physics, but the story, with its rich currents of sex, genius and doom, mesmerized him. He promptly optioned the scientist’s life rights and formed a production company, Phenomenon Films. And then something amazing happened: in the February of 2005, 4 took first prize at the Rotterdam Film Festival. All of a sudden, European producers were asking what’s next.
Khrzhanovsky began by commissioning famous novelist Vladimir Sorokin, with whom he had worked on 4, to write the script. Sorokin is a provocateur whose fiction periodically features people eating excrement and/or each other, so no one expected a straight-up Hollywood biopic - yet the first draft of his script still managed to shock nearly everyone who read it. The main character spent half the film masturbating; a later scene showed the comatose physicist, dribbling spittle and all, being molested by hospital nurses. The team tried a couple of rewrites. Finally, Sorokin amicably handed the reins over to Khrzhanovsky, saying, the director recalls, “I gave you clay. You mold whatever you want.” From here on out, Dau would be one man’s vision. And it would only get weirder.
The set is roughly the size of two football fields, surrounded by a five-story fantasia of oppressive architecture. One edifice, a woozy take on Lenin’s tomb, has an irregular ziggurat leading up to it. A coliseum-like stadium looms over two drab residential buildings. Atonal cello music squalls across the city, issuing from pole-mounted loudspeakers. The sole purpose of it seems to be to make one tense, uncomfortable, on edge.
"Are you going to augment the city with CGI later?" I ask, just to ask something.
Khrzhanovsky jumps in place and winces. “See, if one of the guards heard you, he would fine me a thousand hryvnias [about $125],” he says. “Because you’re my guest. It doesn’t matter that I am the boss. I get frisked like everyone else. You can’t use words that have no meaning in this world.”
As a journalist, I find it easy to interview Republicans. They tend to adore me because I’m their idea of a palatable immigrant: came in legally, “escaped communism” (in fact, my family ran away from Latvian nationalism, but why split hairs), learned enough English to write in it, etc etc. I’m basically Ayn Rand! So a week or so ago, when I first ran across that now-famous Elizabeth Warren quote - that “no one in this country got rich on his own” - I admit to experiencing a twinge of protest. Not that I’m rich in Warren’s, or OWS’s, definition. But I had almost begun to believe the hype about my proud self-sufficiency. It took me a few minutes to remember how I actually got here: one, the Jackson-Vanik Amendment, which first allowed Soviet Jews to emigrate to the U.S. en masse (both Jackson and Vanik were Democrats); two, a year and a half in Cleveland spent on full-on welfare, food stamps and all, that allowed my family to learn English in relative peace; and three, the Clinton-era Pell grants that financed my first years of college. In short, my American self is entirely a creation of federal social programs. The very programs routinely attacked by the same people championing the likes of me in contrast to, say, an illegal Mexican immigrant. Who, ironically, is much more self-sufficient.
Not going to list favorite R.E.M. songs, just moments.
Mills counting off “Drive.” The banjo coming in on “Wendell Gee.” The first lick of “Fall On Me.” The world’s most polite feedback squeal, on ”Try Not To Breathe.” Stipe’s lost little “whoa” three quarters through the cover of “First We Take Manhattan.” Pool sounds on “We Walk,” slowed down into thunder. The arm gesture illustrating “flailing around” in the “Losing My Religion” video. The one-note change to the "Driver 8" vocal melody on 2008 tour. The word “alkali” in “How The West Was Won.” The key change halfway through “New Orleans Instrumental #1.” The last, seventh, “listen to me” on “Welcome to the Occupation.”
Another in a streak of serious, in-depth articles triggered by the book, which seem to come mostly from the U.K. Alas, they’ve shortened one quote of mine, about Soviet chic. Here it is in full:
Let’s be honest with ourselves: totalitarian imagery is attractive, and Soviet kitsch is totalitarian imagery at its most acceptable. Martin Amis has written a largely useless book about Communism, Koba the Dread, which happens to raise one great question on the side: why doesn’t a Lenin T-shirt get you thrown out of a dinner party? Well, partly because the French made Marxism cool in the 1950s, and partly it’s Russia’s own fault for not having had its own Nuremberg in 1991. And that’s why I tried to steer clear of Commie kitsch in the book.
Things Found Growing in Brooklyn by NYT Headline Writers So Far
A Population A Boardwalk A Jew A Potted Palm An Oil Spill A Child An Epic A Chill A Piano Bar A Shuttle A Clothesmaker Despair An Idea A Park A Tee A Street Active Urban Ministry A Team A Museum Title Game of Sorts A Style A Re-Election Campaign A Pile A Festival A Subway Station A House A Hustler A Commune A Dream A Bush It A Pothole A Boy TV The Ecstatic Passion of Indie Rock