My new Nation column is “How the Media Gave Carly Fiorina a Free Pass to Lie About Planned Parenthood,” though in the magazine it’s called “Ailes Wins Again.”
This seems like the right place to mention that this is the last “Altercation” post that will appear on the magazine’s website. I will continue to do my column here as long as they let me, but the Alter-reviews will migrate to the Huffington Post, where they will be archived here. I will do my best to mention them also at @eric_alterman and on Facebook. As for political/media blogging, there may be some there as well, but more likely it will end up somewhere else or nowhere else—it depends.
Following on the pope’s visit and the opening of the UN General Assembly session, New Yorkers settled down to another traffic jam, this one culturally based. The 53rd New York Film Festival joined the 16th New Yorker Festival in bringing to the city more talented people, together with the admirers of their labor, than any time in recent memory, at least since last year’s festivals. (Obviously I am not including the Mets’ performance since the All-Star break. That deserves its own, wondrous category.)
Anyway, the NYFF opened with Robert Zemeckis’s The Walk, a story about Philippe Petit’s successful 1974 trip between the Twin Towers. The film is in striking IMAX 3D, and the reviews all say that the second half is terrific. I couldn’t say because I didn’t stay for the second half. I thought the 3D part was really well done, but the script struck me as one cliché after another. I would have stuck around, but I wanted to see The Lobster a few hours later, and I rarely enjoy more than one movie in a day. What I like about this being the opening film, though, is that it’s a metaphor for the festival itself, whose organizers walk a “tightrope” (get it?) between auteurist artsy films and nakedly commercial ones. They open and close with the latter and stick the others in between, but those are the ones that real people should make the greatest effort to see because one won’t get another chance.
Speaking of The Lobster, well, this is a pretty great film about a dystopian future, directed by Yorgos Lanthimos and starring Rachel Weisz. I’m guessing it’s one of the funniest movies ever made about a dystopian future. The pitch is that single people are rounded up and sent to a seaside compound, given a finite number of days to find a match, and turned into animals if they can’t find a partner. It’s really about the nature of revolutions, though. Also love. It won the Jury Prize at Cannes, so I guess most people who want to will get to see it.
You will certainly get to see Danny Boyle’s Steve Jobs, written by Aaron Sorkin, based on Walter Isaacson’s bio, and with an “all-star” cast of Michael Fassbender, Kate Winslet, Jeff Daniels, and Seth Rogen. I think I will write my next column about the issues it raises for me, but as a movie, it’s riveting in a fashion not unlike The Social Network. You will also probably get a chance to see Rebecca Miller’s New York romantic comedy Maggie’s Plan, with its wonderful cast of Greta Gerwig, Ethan Hawke, and Julianne Moore, the combination of which cannot make a bad movie and certainly did not this time. It’s quite clever about academics as well. Also very interesting is Michael Almereyda’s movie Experimenter, which stars Peter Sarsgaard as Stanley Milgram, whose 1961 “obedience study” has proven so influential and controversial ever since. It reminded me a bit of the film Hannah Arendt, which focused on a similar controversy at a similar moment in history, and one that is still worth arguing about as well. And if you live in a cool place, you’ll get a chance to see Arnaud Desplechin’s gorgeous My Golden Days, which he says is sort of a prequel to his fine film My Sex Life. This one is three episodes in the life of his hero—just like the Jobs movie, as it happens—of an extremely painful first love between Paul (Quentin Dolmaire) and Esther (Lou Roy-Lecollinet). It’s also awfully good about academics, as it happens.
The festival closes with Miles Ahead, directed by and starring Don Cheadle. The suspense is killing me, and now, it can kill you too. Sorkin and Boyle went after genius one way. Let’s see how Cheadle, whose TV show is so funny and clever, goes after his. It catches the man in the 1970s, when he was mostly taking drugs and making music I can live without but about which people still—this is a theme here—like to argue. Could be a tour de force… could be a disaster. I’d go, either way.
At the New Yorker Festival, I was pleased to miss David Remnick playing guitar behind Patti Smith on “Because the Night,” because really, life cannot be that unfair (at least it wasn’t Bruce). But I did very much enjoy Nick Paumgarten’s charming two-hour show with Billy Joel. Nick didn’t play anything, but Billy did—lots of things, as Paumgarten walked him through his career with Billy sitting behind a grand piano. Turns out the fellow is funny, self-effacing, intelligent, and a really good sport for his audience’s rather demanding (but admittedly touching) requests. (“Can you tell my girlfriend I love her and miss her while I hold up my phone?” “Can I have a hug?” “Can my boyfriend play ‘Honesty’ on the piano while you sing?” Joel said yes to all of these, though he sang “Sodomy” instead of “Honesty” to end the evening. They made me pay for that one, but it was $81 extremely well spent.
I also finally got to see Don DeLillo read and speak, something I’ve wanted to do since I read, and have been haunted by, White Noise more than thirty years ago. If you’re not familiar with his work, he’s unarguably one of the most important American authors of the past half century. Underworld is considered his masterpiece, and it is certainly his most ambitious work. Don’t get me wrong, it’s great, if a bit hard to follow, but White Noise is a perfect little book, filled with observations about life and culture that have stuck with me as the plot has receded from memory. He was interviewed by Deborah Treisman, the magazine’s fiction editor, and she had a hard job because DeLillo was not terribly expansive in his answers. This was due, I think, to his modesty, which is a nice thing to discover about a reclusive author one admires. I asked him about the Hitler/Elvis riff in White Noise, and he gave me a straight answer, but he really came alive when a young man—perhaps the only person of color in the whole room—identified himself as a student of the Bronx parochial high school from which DeLillo had graduated. He was thrilled by that and spoke lovingly of his old high school. Having gone to high school myself, and having a daughter there now, I found this decidedly curious, but doubly moving for being so.
I’m also pleased to be able to report that David Johansen/Buster Poindexter did a brand new show at the Café Carlyle last week and it was pretty great; better, I must admit, than the previous one I saw three times and liked but which had grown a bit stale on the vine, to mix metaphors. This one had a slightly less obscure set list and funnier jokes. Well, they were funny for being, in many cases, terrible. Tuesday night was critics’ night, and I didn’t go then. Apparently it went badly. David/Buster quoted Murray Kempton (without attribution) about how critics like to shoot the wounded after the battle. The Times review even took note of the fact that the show’s “only problem was an audience that largely refused to get into the music’s antic spirit,” and added, “The coolness of his reception was undeserved.” You can say that again. With a tight but game band of Brian Koonin on guitar, Richard Hammond on upright bass, Ray Grappone on drums, and Brian Mitchell on piano, they took their sweet time with rarities like “Yip Rock Heresy” by Slim Gaillard, “Zombie Jamboree” by Contrad Eugene Mague Jr.” and “Mojo Hanna” by Gay Hale, Clarence Paul and Barbara Paul, together with old-timey crowd-pleaser/sing-a-longs like “Volare,” “Piece of My Heart,” and “That’s Life.” There’s really something wrong with you if you can’t enjoy this show, assuming you have the big bucks to be there in the first place. The man/men give/s new meaning to the term “consummate entertainer.” Buster will be at the Carlyle through October 10, at which point he will be followed by Kurt Elling doing a Sinatra-themed show beginning October 13. (Those tickets, like those for Buster, run $55-125.)
Finally, if you’ve been wondering whether you should pick up the new four-CD Grateful Dead live set 30 Trips Around The Sun: The Definitive Live Story (1965-1995), my answer is, “Why not?” True, it’s a gimmick—one track apiece from each of the forty shows they’ve released in a massive, $700 box set that would take me the rest of my life to get through if I thought that were a good use of my time. It’s not, but this is. If you are a Dead fan, you will find: great versions of songs you love but never heard before—the “Dark Star” at the Greek Theatre, in Berkeley, California (10/20/68) is, um, stellar—and also finding yourself liking songs you didn’t think you like because here’s maybe the best version of them (“Lost Sailor / Saint of Circumstance,” Cape Cod Coliseum, South Yarmouth, MA 10/27/79). The CD and DVD of the “Fare Thee Well” shows won’t be out for a couple of months, so in the meantime, here they are, mostly great, with lots of Jerry, and an extremely moving “Visions of Johanna” (Delta Center, Salt Lake City, UT 2/21/95) to close out the set and an era. Also, it’s cheap.
Finally, finally, I want to recommend, in the strongest possible terms, that everyone invest the time in reading—or, as in my case, listening to—the amazing quartet of Elena Ferrante’s novels. I have a mother, a female partner, and a daughter, but I learned more about women than almost anything else in my life from hearing someone read those four amazing books. Start with the first one. It’s the shortest 1,200 pages you will ever read.
I also just finished listening to Dylan Baker, Jenna Lamia, and Robert Petkoff read Jonathan Franzen’s Purity. Before I read Ferrante, Franzen’s two previous novels were my favorite books anyone has written since Philip Roth stopped writing about Nathan Zukerman and “Philip Roth.” (And to compare them now would be the falsest of false choices.) To be honest, Purity is not, for this reader, in the same league with The Corrections or Freedom. But Franzen is a great novelist, and this book is entertaining, stimulating and profound. It’s also got some pretty decent media criticism embedded inside it. The weakness for me is that it has the most annoying character I’ve come across in a really, really long time, and she won’t shut up for hundreds of pages (or hours and hours, depending). I did not feel right skipping any of it, but Franzen sure was asking a lot of his readers (and listeners). Fortunately, he delivers. And yes, it is quite well read.