Tag Archives: James Wolcott

Suddenly lost summer

Robert Hughes, Gore Vidal, Nora Ephron — this has been a grim summer for writers, and readers. In the case of Vidal and Hughes, it’s marked the loss of two role models and lodestars, writers whose work I followed for instruction as well as entertainment. They did what all great writers do — lead by example — and if my work has any quality at all, it’s partly because I remembered what it was like to have them reach out from a printed page and command my attention. Some artists work that magic with paint, or musical instruments, or physical precision and beauty, but they did it with ink on paper, and anyone who has felt that magic wants to join in its making.

With that in mind, I suggest you download James Wolcott’s essay on Gore Vidal’s passing, then get together with some writer friends, or think about the writer friends you never met in person, but got to know through their work. People who’ve never come within earshot, but whose voices are as clear and familiar to you as your own family. 


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Andrew Sarris

Way back in the Pliocene — or was it the Holocene? — when I rode my faithful mammoth Woolly to the news stand every Friday morning for the latest edition of the Village Voice, I skipped past the Andrew Sarris film column as diligently as Beatles fans cued their needles after George Harrison’s track on Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and for pretty much the same reasons. Droning performance, slumber-inducing voice, off-putting religious veneration — I dig Hitchcock and Sturges, but critic puh-lease! — made for some tedious column inches. Not that J. Hoberman was much better, stylistically speaking, but his prospecting through the swampier recesses of art-house cinema yielded the occasional nugget of interest.

Along with Sarris’ clunky style there was always that odd defensiveness, the sense that Sarris saw himself as Thomas More resisting “the fashionable backlash” against some movie or other. Maybe he was afraid Pauline Kael would sneak into the office and yank away his chair while he sat musing on the glories of Marnie or Hail the Conquering Hero. Whatever the reason, there’s no disputing the fact that until David Edelstein wandered through the Voice door in the early Eighties, the magazine’s film section was nothing much. One immediately turned to the music and concert reviews, or to James Wolcott, and after him, Stanley Crouch (fleetingly) and Adolph Reed (even more fleetingly) for something sparky to read. If things were really slow, one might visit the resident coelecanth, Nat Hentoff, for those fleeting moments when he could still write something interesting.   

Back then, true-blue film buffs tended to group themselves around Sarris the arch-auterist and Pauline Kael the gut-reactionist. Kael was suspicious of schools and systems of analysis; Sarris hardly ventured beyond them. Both critics were formidably knowledgeable and aggressively opinionated, but Kael’s responses could be unpredictable and exciting, whereas Sarris seemed to evaluate movies by running down his auteur theory checklist and announcing “genius” when the right number of boxes had been ticked off. When his tastes coincided with mine, his observations never deepened my appreciation of the film; when his tastes clashed with mine, his arguments never prompted a reconsideration. Oddly enough, though I’m not much of a sports follower, I always found him most engaging when he wrote about sports.

Though he was a seminal figure in the development of American film criticism, Sarris faded more quickly than his colleagues. When he lost his perch at the Village Voice, he had to settle for playing second banana to Rex Reed at The New York Observer, a fate no self-respecting critic should have had to endure. (When career hack Jeff Lyons ended up as Michael Medved’s butt-boy, it seemed only fitting.) But his passing (like the news that Hentoff is now ranting for the neocons and Obama-haters at WingNutDaily) mainly stirs rueful thoughts about the decline of the Voice and the kind of magazine market that once supported eccentrics and cultists like Sarris. Where movie criticism is concerned, the fizz has moved to the Internet, and I would guess the spirit is closer to Kael’s than the man who, in his flightier moments, imagined himself her nemesis.          

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The old man and the flea

HBO has a pretty high batting average with its original programming, but Hemingway & Gellhorn still has me shaking my head a week after viewing. It’s the kind of Did I really see that? jaw dropper that only comes around once every decade or so.

Conceived as the chronicle of Ernest Hemingway and war correspondent Martha Gellhorn (the penultimate Mrs. Hemingway) fighting and fucking their way through history, the film shows director Philip Kaufman reclaiming his Nineties title as the king of high-minded softcore, literary division. His initial entry (so to speak) into this field, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, had enough going on to make it worth another look, but Henry and June (the literary passion of Henry Miller and Anais Nin) kept me snickering into my Raisinets the whole way through. Hemingway & Gellhorn is the further detumesence of Kaufman’s ambitions. When the two writers consummate their simmering passion in the Hotel Florida during a Fascist bombing raid, Kaufman shows them rutting atop a desk as shells explode and plaster dust blankets their bodies. I dunno — drizzles of grit and debris never really worked as turn-ons for me, even with Nicole Kidman, but Kaufman is just getting started. Later on, the scene shifts to Havana and we see the two getting it on in a nightclub dressing room as Cuban hotties twirl their feather boas and get their g-strings nestled properly. James Wolcott likens Hemingway & Gellhorn to one of Joe Eszterhas’ heavy-breathing schlock epics — “the Showgirls of the Lost Generation.” Kaufman goes Eszterhas one better (or worse) by using Forrest Gump trickery to splice his lovers into the Spanish Civil War, with each transition telegraphed by the color draining from the image. “Look Papa, we’re turning black and white! We’re entering history again!”

When people say they don’t like Hemingway, they usually don’t mean the work as much as his image. That’s understandable: It’s an unattractive image, easily ridiculed, and Kaufman (along with his screenwriters) never skips a chance to hammer us with it. Though lip service is paid to Hemingway’s talent and dedication, Hemingway & Gellhorn paints him as a mechanical bull, a capon pretending to be a rooster. The endless dick-measuring with other men, the readiness to cock a leg over any writer who might threaten his top-dog status, the pompous self-mythologizing — all of it gets trotted out here, emphasized by Clive Owen’s blustery performance.  (With his bushy moustache and dorky beret, Owen alternately resembles a buffed-up Groucho Marx and Kevin Kline’s moronic assassin from A Fish Called Wanda.) All of it will be old news to anyone familiar with its source: the 1950 profile Lillian Ross wrote for The New Yorker. What’s more interesting is the fact that the New Yorker piece, widely remembered as a stake through the heart of Hemingway’s reputation, caused barely a ripple in his friendship with Ross:

As a friend, Hemingway was stalwart. He had told me to feel free to write whatever I chose to write about him, and he never reneged. “I thought your piece was a good, straight OK piece,” he said about the Profile initially. A week later, he said: “Don’t ever worry about loseing” — it was his habit to keep the “e” in his participles — “me friends nor anything about piece.” He added, “I take the wind like an old tree; have felt the wind before; north south east and west.” Another time he said that he lost about a friend a day over the Profile. “But what the hell; any friend you can lose you might as well lose them early and anyway it is too late.” Once he said: “Please don’t think you ever have to answer any jerks or ever defend me. I am self-propelled and self-defendable.” And again: “Actually good old Profile made me about as many enemies as we have in North Korea. But who gives a s—-? A man should be known by the enemies he keeps.” Several years later, he told me that people continued to talk to him about the Profile: “All are very astonished because I don’t hold anything against you who made an effort to destroy me and nearly did, they say. I always tell them how can I be destroyed by a woman when she is a friend of mine and we have never even been to bed and no money has changed hands?”

That Hemingway is absent from Hemingway & Gellhorn, as is any hint of the talent that led Gellhorn to hitch her wagon to his star. Ironically, Kaufman and his writers let Hemingway off the hook too easily with their chaotic depiction of the Spanish Civil War episode, though they at least take the trouble to put the key figures into place. Among the writers staying in Madrid at the Hotel Florida was John Dos Passos, who had just completed his U.S.A. trilogy, a kaleidoscopic view of America during and after the Great War that made him Hemingway’s creative equal, if not superior. (To Have and Have Not, completed and published during this period, was certainly bad enough to threaten the reputation earned with The Sun Also Rises and A Farewell to Arms.) Hemingway, a romantic without much interest in politics, admired the Republican side for its underdog status, but his loyalty to La Causa was an accident — if he hadn’t wanted to fuck Martha Gellhorn, he could just as easily have ended up sharing drinks with Franco’s men. Dos Passos was losing his enthusiasm for Communism; the murder of his friend and translator Jose Robles by Stalinist agents would tip his politics heavily rightward. Hemingway, cultivated by the Communists on the Republican side (who abandoned Dos Passos as soon as they landed their bigger fish), blackguarded Dos Passos as a coward and turncoat — something he would continue to do for the rest of his life. (In A Moveable Feast, he famously dismissed Dos Passos as “the pilot fish.”) A viewer who doesn’t know any of this background will only be confused by what little is shown in Hemingway & Gellhorn.     

It’s easy and fun to despise Hemingway for his bad behavior, but it’s foolish to apply that judgment to his work: the brilliant short stories, The Sun Also Rises, and scattered portions of the later novels will always tip the scales to favor the writer over the man. Hemingway & Gellhorn would have us believe that once Gellhorn walked out on him, Hemingway turned into a dazed head case out of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, with his fourth wife playing a chirpy Nurse Ratched. While the man did come to a dark end, I seem to recall a few other things happening along the way: worldwide acclaim for The Old Man and the Sea, a Nobel Prize for Literature, stuff like that. The Old Man and the Sea may not be the greatest book evah, but its hero managed to land a pretty impressive fish. Hemingway & Gellhorn ventures onto even stormier waters, but comes back with something much smaller.

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That Seventies show

In her memoir And So It Goes, Linda Ellerbee described her first exalted view of New York City, alighting at Kennedy Airport and cabbing it across the Triborough Bridge at sunset, ready to get out and high-kick her way across the East River while belting out “New York, New York.”

As for me, my first solo journey in the Big Apple started in the spring of 1978 with a long bus ride out of East Brunswick, after which I emerged from the Port Authority building, shaking off mild nausea and a headache from exhaust fumes, to see a barefoot derelict sipping delicately from a tall can of Budweiser and, just as delicately, puking each sip at his feet. The sidewalk behind him brought to mind the work of an incontinent Jackson Pollock, and I skipped past the splashes of color as fast as my suburban-bred white guy feet would carry me. When I think of a perfect New York song, it isn’t by Kander and Ebb — it’s by Tom Waits on Franks Wild Years, cawing “I’m gonna take you, New York!” over a skating-rink organ like one of the waterlogged specters in Carnival of Souls.

There were plenty more trips, of course. For one thing, my first Rutgers University art teacher, distressed that his students only seemed to know only the names of the dead, had decreed that we would make regular trips to the city and prowl galleries in search of works by living, breathing practitioners. New York is New York, but no matter how many times I came through (and I even came to appreciate the grindhouses of Times Square) I never thought of New York as a place I’d want to live. It was an  attitude forged in the late Seventies, when the whole city seemed about to collapse into itself, and I’ve never quite shaken it.

Of course, I never arrived in the city with a note of introduction from Norman Mailer, which was the happy fate of James Wolcott, a writer whose work I’ve followed eagerly since those college days, when each new copy of the Village Voice was like a field report from a mystical land where books, music, and movies mattered more than anything else. Every week meant another trip through Riffs in search of new bands, every month another scan of Christgau’s Consumer Guide, to be followed by a visit to Cheap Thrills on George Street, with its immense import-album bin and clerks who’d been reading the exact same articles and had already anticipated the demand. Ramones! Pere Ubu! The Clash! The punks and New Wavers were all hitting the stands with their first and second albums, and fresh vinyl was more important than food.

Wolcott had a full-page perch from which to write about television, and while that may not have seemed like much of a beat back then — the networks ruled, cable TV was barely getting started, and HBO was just toddling into original programming with a National Lampoon special called Disco Beaver from Outer Space — Wolcott made it work with parodic descriptions and fizzy turns of phrase, and because his frame of reference was unbounded by the tube he was happy to comment on other matters as well. When the elephantine adaptation of Brideshead Revisited hit PBS, Wolcott closed each column with a “Brideshead Update” that red like Wodehouse on acid. Need I say that those two column inches were far more readable than Brideshead was watchable?

Wolcott was meant for bigger things, and his climb to reach them is recounted in his new book Lucking Out: My Life Getting Down and Semi-Dirty in Seventies New York, which shows that even with a note from Mailer and a spot at the table with Pauline Kael, some things about the city couldn’t be avoided:

The IRT stop closest to my Ninety-second Street apartment was a convenient four blocks north, but those four blocks often required nimble footwork and ninja awareness of impending action. So much of New York did. Most of the parks were safer walking around than through. (I was warned about venturing into Riverside Park, where, I got the impression, dead bodies were always being discovered after having rolled downhill the night before.) Entire neighborhoods were considered no-go areas where you never knew what the hell might fall from the fire escapes, and even sections of town that didn’t resemble standing rubble had stretches that you avoided, had you been properly briefed. Otherwise, you’d be walking down some leafy block, moderately carefree, turn the wrong corner, and find yourself staring down the barrel of a hostile street, forced to either retrace your steps or run for your freaky life like Cornel Wilde in The Naked Prey. It wasn’t just the criminality that kept you radar-alert, the muggings and subway-car shakedowns, it was the crazy paroxysms that punctuated the city, the sense that much of the social contract had suffered a psychotic break. That strip of upper Broadway was the open-air stage for acting-out episodes from unstable patients dumped from mental health facilities, as I discovered when I had to dodge a fully loaded garbage can flung in my direction by a middle-aged man who still had a hospital bracelet on one of his throwing arms. Then, as now, the Ninety-sixth Street crosstown nexus was an irredeemable eyesore that served as a magnet for unmanned shopping carts abandoned on their sides or commandeered as a homeless moving van. It was at the newsstand at the southwest corner of Ninety-sixth that I picked up the copy of the Daily News with the arresting headline FORD TO CITY: DROP DEAD, and it was the perfect spot to receive notice of impending collapse.

Or, as the Rolling Stones said back then, sha-doo-bay, shattered.

Though Wolcott’s descriptions of the punk rock scene encrusted around CBGB make the book for me, I find that a far better soundtrack for Lucking Out is the newly reissued Rolling Stones album Some Girls, which still carries the invigorating stench of urban decay from its 1978 incarnation. As with the recent super-deluxe-wowie-zowie-bop-bam-boom edition of Exile on Main Street, there’s a whole disc’s worth of songs that didn’t make the final cut; unlike the Exile extras, which added nothing to the canon, the Some Girls discards are all keepers, and a couple of them — “Don’t Be a Stranger,” “When You’re Gone” — would have improved the original release. In fact, the entire bonus disc serves as an exemplary late-Seventies Stones album in its own right. Had it been released as the followup instead of the vapid Emotional Rescue,  we all could have gone on a bit longer pretending that Some Girls was a second wind rather than the last gasp.

Anyway, back to Wolcott. His abrupt disappearance from the Voice was not entirely a surprise: he was one of those Voice writers who (like Stanley Crouch and Adolph Reed) were a little too elbows-out and independent-minded in their politics. (Imagine a Weekly Standard writer who says, openly, that Baby Bush lied us into the war and you’ll get an idea of the uncomfortable fit.) And the television column had run its course. When Wolcott devoted several weeks to diagnosing the reasons Saturday Night Live had done a nosedive, it was clear the man needed bigger pastures to frisk in. Which turned out to be The New Republic, Harper’s, The New Yorker (briefly), and Vanity Fair, where he can still be found between the celeb spreads and the perfume ads. Not the worst place to be, these days.

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Friday finds

If you haven’t got anything nice to say, go sit next to James Wolcott and listen to him talk about Philip Roth’s latest novel, Indignation:

The penalty meted out to Marcus Messner for not heeding his elders and committing the sin of intellectual pride is so swift and stark that it’s as if the sole purpose of the Korean conflict was to punish a guy for getting blown and skipping chapel. The butt of everybody’s boring counsel, Marcus learns the hard way the wisdom of such valuable lessons as: Don’t believe everything you see in college brochures; Listen to your father, even if he is crazy; Listen to your mother, she only wants what’s best; Beware of strange shiksas bearing blowjobs; Never leave your socks lying around where someone might jerk off into them; Follow the rules, no matter how antiquated and arbitrary, or end up as shish kebab; Try not to vomit in the dean’s office–it leaves a bad impression.

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Doc Mooney says goodbye to Shea Stadium with a little help from his friends. He also dabbles in one of my favorite hobbies: trimming the “White Album” down to a single vinyl disc (the secret is to treat it as John Lennon’s album, and select songs accordingly).  Meanwhile, Bill Vogt invites you to hear the best kept secret in Texas

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Icelandic sagas and the credit crisis. (It’s a Kaupthing — y’all wouldn’t understand.) Icelandic landscape seen from above. Icelandic criminals need to steepen that learning curve.

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How did one family produce three of the most successful women chess players in the history of the game? Which reminds me — I have to re-read my favorite novel from one of America’s most unjustly overlooked writers.

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“The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest” — illustrated!

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The fall issue of The Adirondack Review is up.

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Richard Thompson discourses on Scottish literature, pectin and Bush vs. Bush. Donald Fagen explains what got him so angry at Bard College that he dissed it in the classic Steely Dan song “My Old School.” 

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Now it can be told

Having been a dedicated reader of James Wolcott from his Village Voice days to his current position atop Parnassus — i.e., Vanity Fair — I’ve wondered why a man so smart and funny, and so reliably amusing in his talk-show appearances, hasn’t turned up as the host of his own show.

Wolcott himself has now disclosed the fate of “Word Up with James Wolcott,” a pilot show given a tryout by TCM before a live audience.  

My first guest was legendary director Mike Nichols, who owed somebody at TCM a favor. Rather than fawn over him every which way as Charlie Rose would have done, I decided to open with a wicked slider to throw Mr. Diane Sawyer off balance and provoke him to “open up.” Instead of blah-blah’ing about his endless string of directorial triumphs, I asked him about his acting role in the screen adaptation of Wally Shawn’s The Designated Mourner. I said:

“Pauline Kael hailed your performance in the film, claiming that the role allow your cold, clammy inner weaselly qualities to rise to the runny surface. Any response?”

Nichols fixed me with a gaze that was an odd mingling of contempt, bewilderment, and fury, and something whooshed past my ear that may have been a carefully concealed dagger. I then asked him which actress he thought possessed the best rack in Charlie Wilson’s War, and this too proved a fruitless route of inquiry.

That’s quite an arsenal of conversation-starters there, James. Can’t iagine why they didn’t go over.

As Dennis Miller can attest, this business of hosting your own TV show can be a lot tougher than it looks. Miller suffered the double burden of not having been all that amusing to start with, then allowing his meager reserve of funny to leak away in endless fawning over George W. Bush and his band of merry men. But Wolcott can make you laugh out loud while reading his columns, so the thought of him playing to dead air and an ossifying audience should be a caution to us all.

On the other hand, if TCM is looking for an eager talk show host, I am available.

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