Welcome to the fourth (fifth?) annual Sensitive Skin Stuff We Liked From Last Year! Remember, it’s not limited to items that were released in 2018, just thangs we dug the most in 2018.
Of course, there will be disagreement – you might love some of the below choices, you might hate some of them – I know I did! So to get the ball rolling, let’s start off with my cat’s favorite things of 2018, because everyone loves cats:
Marmie the cat
1. Scratching at doors until someone opens it and then not going through the door.
2. Screeching in the middle of the night for no reason
3. Looking at birds through the window.
4. Getting brushed.
5. Sitting in the bath tub and licking the drain.
Don’t try and tell me you don’t like at least three of those! Anyhoo, here’s my picks:
Why TV first? Because TV is king! We have truly entered the era of pretty-good TV. The television bronze age, if you will. I mean, there’s a shit-ton of watchable shows on nowadays, and while I won’t tell you that you must watch any of them, but they’re all not too bad! My back went out this year, so I got the chance to watch an ungodly amount of TV while I laid on my side on the couch moaning, and I kinda liked all of the following shows, in no particular order: The Terror, Trust, A Very English Scandal, Homecoming, Better Call Saul, Ozark, Babylon Berlin, The Deuce and some others I’m forgetting. I’ll give special mention to three, especially since they sort of flew under the radar:
Atlanta: Donald Glover is a genius. While the show obviously is about the working-class African American experience, it’s real theme is universal – it’s about the smart-weirdo-in-America experience.
The Good Place: The only show I watch on network TV. It’s silly but I love it – Ted Danson is a national treasure, and every episode contains a 2-minute or so philosophy lesson. Watch all three seasons and you’ll know as much philosophy as if you’d taken a college 101 course. But you’ll have had way more laughs watching this show. Sure, it’s silly – but 2018 needed some intentional silly.
Succession: Maybe I loved this as much as I did because I had no reason to suspect it would be any good. The story of a family of media moguls, with the dotard father (Rupert Murdoch? Sumner Redstone?) and his three idiot sons (Don Jr., Eric and Jared?) and their scheming, cheating daughter (Ivanka). I don’t think any portrayal of wealth has ever made it look so ugly. You’ll never want to eat ortolan again!
I don’t get out to the theater much these days – seems like every time I do, somebody sitting close to me is either: doused in cheap perfume or cologne; eating something disgusting and stinky, like a liver and blue cheese taco; babbling incoherently; or texting during the film. And what do you do when somebody’s so rude and self-centered as to text during a movie? Do you build up your nerve and go with the “shhhh!”? But what kind of asshole texts in a movie theater anyway? The same kind who will stab you for shhhsshhing them! So you sit there and steam. At least I do. Which is why I don’t go. Anyway, I did go three times, and two of the three were tied for my favorite movie of the year, so I guess that says something: Sorry To Bother You (which starts out as a hackneyed ’80s white-people-do-like-this-and-black-people-do-like-that joke and rapidly turns into a hallucinatory and blistering critique of late-stage capitalism) and Hereditary (nominally a horror movie, it’s really about generational family dysfunction). Both merit repeat viewings.
I’m also glad that we, the good people of Sensitive Skin, wait, unlike every other website in the world, till the year is actually over before we put out our list, because I didn’t catch Jonah Hill’s terrific teen-skater flick Mid90s until December 30th, and man was it good! Jonah Hill, of all people.
I caught some great documentaries: Won’t You Be My Neighbor, Filmmaker, DePalma and Three Identical Strangers.
Herodotus, The Histories. Where do you think Game of Thrones gets half its ideas from? Not hard to read if you skip over all the names and places and just get to the stories.
American Pastoral, Philip Roth. A master craftsman at work.
The Songs My Father Sang, James Reich. If Phillip K. Dick wrote like J.G. Ballard.
Black Wings Has My Angel, Elliot Chaze. As Peter Blauner said, “If Jim Thompson wrote like Cormac McCarthy.”
Blood Meridian, Cormac McCarthy. Speak of the devil – yes, I know I am very late to this party. Reading Herodotus was good practice for this – just glaze over all the 100s of synonyms for dust, mud, desert plants, guns and parts of a saddle and it’s a blast!
Singularity, by Jon Hopkins. My favorite ambient/electronica since Music For Airports. Hopkins, though younger by decades, has also collaborated with Eno. Great stuff. This is just one cut, but when you listen to the whole album, well, sometimes it sounds like you’re at a rave somewhere in Ibiza and then it fades away and just washes over you and you’re not listening anymore and then it comes back and you remember you’re listening to it again.
Mad Like Artaud — Artaud’s delirium confessed through various mental states of the people who treated or otherwise interacted with him late in life. Personal biases laid bare by Sylvère Lotringer’s non-agendic questions and follow-ups. Univocal (2003).
Vivas to Those Who Have Failed Us came out in 2016 but because Martín Espada won the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize this year, and because I connect with all of his interior motives—odes, NYC roots, Latin America, resistance….(W.W. Norton).
Palma Africana — the latest from gonzo anthropologist Mick Taussig who has deconstructed everything from shamanism to Benjamin Moore color charts, and this one came out in 2018.
David Wojnorowicz, “History Keeps Me Awake at Night,” at the Whitney Museum, New York (ended Sept. 30). Wojnorowicz’s visions and music (3 Teens Kill 4) exposed by evolution of dissent and craft, marking his work as among the most substantive of 1980s Downtown New York. ITSOFOMO was also re-released this year. A short film on an earlier collaboration between Wojnorowicz and resident Kitchen trumpeter Ben Neil.
Zarouhie Abdalian, “Production,” at the New Orleans Contemporary Art Center (ends Feb. 10).
Like an archaeologist Z peels back the hidden, in this case marks and gouges left during the manufacture of objects for consumer consumption. Her endeavors are assisted in palimpsest soundtracks re-configured by her sound designer husband, Joseph Rosensweig.
Bartschland “On Top.”
Susanne Bartch’s movie biopic, “On Top,” had its release this year, foregrounding her ring leader status in the art as entertainment ethos (inherited indirectly from Warhol). Reaching out through the digital she recreates its transience in a flesh and blood manifestation at her summer “On Top” participatory events, mostly at Le Bain in lower Manhattan.
Because I missed Brooke Candy’s fem assault when she first pounded YouTube in the early 2000s, I now pay special attention to post Witch House sonic sirens like Alice Glass, Megan James, and Grimes. Of course, none of these three have released anything this year, but Brooke Candy did, check out “War.” (Also, registering forgiveness to Grimes’ for her mis-stepped summer dalliance with Elon Musk.)
With apologies (and maybe allowances) to Etron Fou and Can, Rock and Rap are genres best voiced in the language of origin, English; which might explain why South African Hip Hip MCs like Cassper Nyovest, Kwesta, and D’Banj are making some of the best post-Atlanta music on the planet, even when it’s not in English.
Staying close to the topic. Am I alone in sensing a cold dead finger’s embrace of jazz fusion in Hip Hop, now in its own death throes? Perhaps artists like Flying Lotus, Thunder Cat, and Robert Glasper can get it right this time.
1. The poetry and essays of neoMarxist St. Petersburg poet and boiler room stoker Alexander Skidan, who riffs on American L:A:N:G:U:A:G:E and appropriation (Star Trek, Bernstein: “Resistance is futile!”). Skidan is a global poet and translator who constructs Bakhtinian heteroglossia and dialogic intertexuality in his art and poststructuralist literary (de-de-de-de-Derrida) theory. EVERYTHING IS TEXT!
2. The Saturday Night Live pie-in-the-face to Jeff Flake in their “Republicans celebrate Kavanaugh” skit. Like it says in Revelation, “Because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth.” Piece of equivocating shit.
3. Alexandr Pushkin’s Evgeny Onegin, which I read for the first time in Russian and in Falen’s translation this year. That narrative voice, wise, witty, catty, is only matched in English by Mark Twain. There is a reason Russian faces all light up at the mention of Pushkin’s name; he befriends his readers.
4. Marc Vincenz’s extraordinary poetry collection (one of many), Leaning into the Infinite. Inspirations include Fernando Pessoa, Li Po, Wang Wei, Kafka, Paracelsus, Heraclitus, and Robert Bly.
5. My personal best: my new feminist-experimental-hybrid-erotic genrebending sci fi novel, Sly Bang, is out from Spuyten Duyvil. Thanks to daring publisher Tod Thilleman for publishing a book that uses charts, lists, stream of consciousness, script writing, poetry and strategic white space to advance its narrative.
Can’t vouch for it just yet but Netflix’s Get Shorty, based on the Elmore Leonard novel, looks promising – at least the first couple of episodes are fun. Other side of the Wind, Orson Welles’s last film, edited by Peter Bogdanovich, is bizarre and great, both comic and tragic. Welles really was Falstaff – see Chimes at Midnight.
THREE OF THE BEST FILMS OF 2018
Given space constraints, and the fact that these three films may have have slipped past you, I would like to concentrate on them. I’m sure my colleagues will point out the interesting other films, books and TV series you should’ve caught – and I’ll undoubtedly agree with most of their choices, but like Nick Cage in Mandy, I am on a mission.
THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND
Orson Welles’s last film does not disappoint. The plot had long been described – an aging Ernest Hemingway-like director is secretly in love with his leading man. This character, played by John Huston, is neither Huston nor Welles, though elements are most certainly drawn from both.
There is nothing explicit in this account, much as Charles Foster Kane can’t be reduced to one version of Welles. The film is told in an explosion of Super 8, 16mm and the impossibly beautiful widescreen the film director “Jake Hannaford” is working on, all revolving around a screening party and the various cameras that reporters capture it with. It is, in many ways, as bizarrely modern as Dennis Hopper’s own project of that same era, The Last Movie, and Hopper appears in this film as well. I’ve always admired the Hopper film, but Welles surpasses all competition.
I was struck by the intense energy of the film, the density of its themes like a planetary system around the sun of its central idea, which is synonymous with Welles’s genius.
The film, like so much of Welles’s efforts, especially in his post-Hollywood years, was profoundly troubled by financing and litigation and, though completely shot, was never fully edited. There are occasional false notes…the prologue, by necessity, has been altered slightly – and not entirely successfully. There are other moments when I wondered whether Welles would have greenlit certain editing choices, even though his copious instructions were followed to-the-letter.
Even accounting for the various film stocks, there is such a wide disparity between the fluctuations of budget that at times Welles seems to be coasting on fumes, barely making ends meet with footage that rivals George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead bargain-basement efforts. Sometimes it felt like watching a student film – but an always-brilliant student film. Then we cut to footage and sound of a better-financed day. As Peter Bogdonavitch points out in the companion documentary They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead, even Welles’s efforts at a mocking art film (as “Hannaford” tries desperately to remain current) still wind up being great to look at. (Both film and documentary are on Netflix streaming)
Panos Cosmatos has made one of the strangest, most mystical revenge-porn films imaginable. Nicolas Cage’s “hero’s journey” is far too twisted to emotionally invest in. But I did anyway – as do all fans, male and female, of this demented acid trip into and out of the Abyss. See if you find yourself in one or two blissful, peaceful reveries during a film that should not produce such emotions. First noted by my longtime pal, Ariel Holden (who took me when she saw it the second time), I had no idea what seemed to induce such a trance state. Some viewers have suggested the saturated color scheme, others the droning soundtrack by Jóhann Jóhannsson (his last). It’s probably both. Regardless, there is some kind of neurological state this film seems to trigger, more akin to seeing a live performance of Throbbing Gristle or My Bloody Valentine than such a frankly violent (and unrated) tale of hunting “Crazy evil!” as Cage (in a wide range of realist and absurdist acting beyond even his usual) sums up his purpose. (Available to rent on Amazon streaming)
YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE
Written and directed by a woman (Lynne Ramsay), imagine Taxi Driver coming from a place of estrogen. A hitman (Joaquin Phoenix) rescues a teenage girl (Ekaterina Samsonov) from sex trafficking, but his relationship is not romantic projection – it is fatherly. And the girl’s relationship is not daughter-father. It is mother-son. Violence is often completely distant and difficult to see, as from a high-angled security screen. Redemption is possible, but not in a hail of bullets or blaze of glory.
Though drawn from a novel from quirky Jonathan Ames, one can’t forget this is from a female gaze. Ramsay also gave us the completely unnerving Columbine metaphor, We Need to Talk About Kevin, which is dominantly from a mother’s view.
Joaquin Phoenix’s performance as a hitman is so solid it is painful to watch. PTSD from vague military/cop flashback origins have rendered a robotic, disassociated killing machine that wants to come home. (Free streaming on Amazon Prime)
Best TV Series of 2018 that I watched in 2018.
J,K. Simmons never fails and always kills. The show is a masterpiece in writing, directing, and acting. They take the story trope of parallel universes and pull it together in an utterly unique way. Watch. Love. Bite your fingernails.
A show about pharmaceutical trial on some parallel universe that it looks like Terry Gilliam was hired to consult on. What’s awesome is what the drugs do to our heroes played by Emma Stone and Jonah Hill. I still feel Jonah Hill is miscast in this role, but, during the episode where he’s Icelandic, he’s in the pocket. And, in the end, it’s a love story.
Get this, a TV Series did a better adaptation of a movie that did a better adaptation of the book. Chris O’Dowd and Ray Ramono carry the series, but every character is key to making this one of the best shows I’ve seen in a while. Props to Sasha Feldman and his character Bliz. Please make a spinoff.
Better Call Saul
Yes, it’s a spin off of Breaking Bad, but take away the thought of a spin off and we have a well executed stand alone story of a guy just trying to please his older brother. The first three seasons were all tied to the relationship of the brothers. And now, the creators are finally showing us Jimmy become Saul.
As far as satire goes, most of it has died since Trump’s in office and too many shows and comedians are scared to offend or marginalize their audiences. Not South Park. They stab everyone in the eyeball. While their targets are liberals, conservatives, and everyone across the political spectrum, their main theme these last couple of seasons is that of the ego. As a culture, ego has gotten way out of hand, and leave it to Trey and Matt to be the minority who nail the root of it and squeeze every drop of sweet nectar satire to deliver episode after episode. And it’s the funniest show on TV. Season 23 can’t come soon enough.
This show is off the hook and it feels like no one’s watching it. It takes the heist genre to a whole new, mind bending level. Season 2 aired this year, but start with season 1….I really can’t give away any of the plot, just go along for the ride, after episode one you will be hooked…..and you’ll also wonder, is there such a thing as true love?
Jim Carrey plays what would have happened to Mr. Rodgers if Mr. Rodgers had a nervous breakdown. Carrey is brilliant, but what else is new.
(@ Guggenheim Museum, NYC)
Hilma af Klint: Paintings for the Future
(@ Guggenheim Museum, NYC)
(@ The Metropolitan Museum, NYC)
The Beautiful Brain: The Drawing of Santiago Ramon y Cajal
(@ Grey Art Gallery NYU)
Chaim Soutine: Flesh
(@ The Jewish Museum, NYC)
(@ Karma Gallery, NYC)
Through A Different Lens: Stanley Kubrick Photography
(@ The Museum of the City of New York)
Endless Enigma: Eight Centuries of Fantastic Art
(@ David Zwirner NYC)
(@ Levy Gorvy NYC)
On Collecting Panza Collection Archives
(@ Hauser & Wirtz NYC)
James Castle: People, Places & Things
(@ New York Studio School NYC)
Meshugged Land: an evening with Charlemagne Palestine & Steve Dalachinsky
(@ Issue Project Room NYC)
Matthew Shipp Trio & Roscoe Mitchel
(@ Zankel Hall, Carnegie Hall, NYC)
A Tribute for Cecil Taylor
Leonard Bernstein Centennial Week Broadcasting
(@ WQXR NYC)
Matthew Shipp Trio
(@ MoMA Summer Garden, NYC)
Mottel Mottel: The Image is a Seed
(@mh Project NYC)
Eight Hours Don’t Make a Day, Part 1, 2 & 3 (written & directed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder 1972/2017, premiered in 2018)
(@ Fil Forum NYC)
The Happy Prince (written & directed by Rupert Everett, a preview)
(@ Sony NYC)
Documentarist for a Day
@ Anthology Film Archives
where night and day become one, by Steve Dalachinsky
(Great Weather for Media Press, NYC)
Elegy For My Beat Generation, by Neeli Cherkovski
(Lithic Press, CO)
POET, by Clark Coolidge
Charas: The Improbable Dome Builders , by Syeus Mottell/Buckminster Fuller
(Song Cave Reprint 2018)
Works, by Danny Shot
Ok this is a 10 BEST list for 2018 which contains way more than 10 items because these items are of different disciplines or have nothing to do with discipline or things I just happen to have liked and believe me there is a lot missing from here: This list is all mixed up as well. You’ll see why:
(@ Levy Gorvy NYC)
On Collecting Panza Collection Archives
(@ Hauser & Wirtz NYC)
Alberto Savinio at the Italian Contemporary
2 wonderful John Ashberry collage shows and accompanying catalogues
(@ Tabor de Nagy and Pratt)
Chagall, Lissitsky, Malevich (@ The Jewish Museum)
CONCERTS, CD releases and Labels
Relative Pitch Records
Matthew Shipp Trio
(@ MoMA Summer Garden, NYC)
Joe Morris Trio at Cornelia Street Café
Philip Glass – Music in Twelve Parts at Town Hall
(I hate Glass’s music but this was an extraordinary experience)
Tim Berne, Andrew Cyrille and Michael Formanek at Korzo
Tyshawn Sorey-Marilyn Crispell duo at the Kitchen
Michael Foster, Nate Wooley, Brandon Lopez, Ben Bennett at the Glove
Many Bill Frisell solo and duo gigs plus his duo CD Small Town with Thomas Morgan on ECM
The expanded Eric Dolphy CD Musical Prophet Resonance
The newly discovered Monk soundtrack for Liaisons Dangerouse (Resonance)
The newly discovered John Coltrane recordings Both Directions at Once (Impulse)
Songs of the Wild Cave – Larry Ochs and Gerald Cleaver (Rogueart)
Sarah Halpern (Zap Cassettes)
Lee Konitz Nonet at the Jazz Standard
Satoko Fuji project – 12 cds on various labels released one per month
for the entire year of 2018 for her 60th birthday celebration
Dave Holland Qt – Uncharted Territories (DARE2 Records)
Andrew Cyrille Qt – The Declaration of Musical Independence (ECM)
Mars Williams presents An Ayler XMas (volumes 1 and 2)
Jacques Becker’s “Rendezvous in July”
Alexandro Jadorowsky’s “Poetry Forever”
“FULL MANTIS” (film about musician Milford Graves)
BOOKS and READINGS
“The Art of Reading “(photography) Lawrence Scwartzwald (Steidl)
“Flasher: A Memoir” – Tsaurah Litzky (Autonomedia)
“Trough Rasping Crow” – Billy Cancel (Blaze Vox)
“Works” – Danny Shot (Cavan Kerry Press)
“The Latter Days of the beat Generation” – Andy Clausen (Autonomedia)
“ Charas: The Impossible Dome Builders” Syeus Motell and Buckminster Fuller
(reprint – Song Cave Press)
The memorial reading for Bill Kushner’s new selected poems book at the Poetry Project
The memorial event for poet Jack Mueller in S.F. and the after party at Specs
and Mueller’s work and his selected poems book Amor Fati (Lithic Press)
Jack Hirschman’s reading series at SF library
Mayakovsky: Maximum Access by Jenny Wade
BEST and WEIRDEST VENUES
Cornelia St Café (NY)
Cara’s Place – a psychedelic dream. ground floor loft for readings, music, open mike (SF)
Craig Baldwin’s ATA gallery (last bastion for underground film in SF)
Spec’s (great old SF bar)
The Jazz Gallery (NY)
The Jazz Standard (NY0
Vital Joint (Brooklyn)
The Glove (Brooklyn)
Pineapple Reality (Brooklyn)
All the great mom and pop book stores in San Francisco including Bird and Beckett Adobe Books, Green Light Books and the Beat Museum
2018 – Year of Action
The Best of Anything this past year was the November 6, 2018 U.S. General Election. In an action-packed year where the chaos agent drove news cycles like an Antichrist, was the first true moment of hope when Emma Gonzalez called BS on a whole system of greed, lies and mindlessly enabled slaughter? The Parkland kids turned unspeakable tragedy into riveting political action. Is this not the most compelling and, perhaps, historically important twelve minutes of video in all of 2018?
The one book I got obsessed with this year was Room to Dream, the David Lynch biography/autobiography co-authored by Kristine McKenna. Lynch is the most popular surrealist is human history, and the story of his formation and practice of “the art life” is as fascinating and charming as the artist himself. Lots of revelations unlocking how Lynch’s films re-channel and even reproduce some his most unique life experiences. I bought the hardcover to pore over the copious photos and hold in my hands as an objéct, but the audiobook features Lynch reading his sections of the book so you have your choice.
This is the year Peak TV got ridiculous. Too much good content for any one person to catch it all, but no single consensus series like The Sopranos, Mad Men, Breaking Bad or Game of Thrones. The closest seems to be Donald Glover’s genre-demolishing sitcom, and Atlanta: Robbin’ Season (FX) was easily my favorite American series, taking incredible risks, both hilarious and terrifying, every week.
My favorite drama was Babylon Berlin (Netflix) based on the first in a series of historical thrillers starting in 1929 Weimar Republic and best watched in the original German with English subtitles. The rise of fascist forces in the background fuel a highly satisfying mystery with an array of unforgettable characters, including a masterful cabaret performance by Bryan Ferry.
Speaking of characters, the most underrated show of 2018 seems to me to be The Deuce (HBO), a decidedly feminist take on the birth of the NYC porn industry (Season Two takes place in the late 1970s). With an underrated James Franco in dual roles as real-life good/bad twins, and an Emmy-or-it’s-an-injustice performance by Maggie Gyllenhaal as an emerging artist – Portrait of the Porno Director as a Young Woman.
In feature films there was so much good work (including the jaw-dropping stuntwork by Tom Cruise and cast in Mission Impossible: Fallout) that I just want to mention several independent favorites that could use more visibility.
A Private War (Aviron Pictures): Why there isn’t a general call for Rosamund Pike to be nominated for a Best Actress Oscar for playing the monstrously courageous, brilliant, demon-fueled real-life combat journalist Marie Colvin, who was blinded in one eye by one attack and eventually murdered by one of Bashar al-Assad’s bombs while broadcasting his slaughter of Syrian civilians to the world, is beyond me. In a year when the targeting of journalists by leaders like Saudi Arabia’s MBS and our Drumpf, and a year of gains for women in politics, journalism, the arts, etc., this seems the most relevant story for our time. Director Matthew Heineman previously made documentaries in dangerous locales (Cartel Land, City of Ghosts) and he brings a bracing reality to the terrifying war scenes.
Sorry to Bother You (Annapurna): The only film I was compelled to see twice in a movie theater, the funniest and most politically trenchant. This is what we used to call a rock n’ roll movie, something that doesn’t get made by any studio, but by a real artist (Boots Riley) with music in his soul and something he’s just gotta say. What a cast, led by the irresistible Lakeith Stanfield, Tessa Thompson. Constantly surprising and a solid attack on how both workers and consumers are treated in late-stage capitalism, yet so much fun.
The Rider (Sony Pictures Classics): Shot on credit cards by filmmaker Chloé Zhao, this was the biggest surprise to me. Expecting to be bored by a well-meaning regional film, instead I found an entrancing vision of the modern American West about a gifted horse trainer and determined rodeo rider who, in the aftermath of a severe head injury, is warned he can never ride again. The biggest shock is the end credits, where we find rider Brady Jandreau and fellow castmates are essentially playing versions of themselves – those stitches on his skull are real, and his humble charisma has just as much integrity.
Destroyer (Annapurna): Nothing I love better than some high-quality Los Angeles noir, following a doomed cipher on a desperate quest through the SoCal underbelly. Director Karyn Kusama gives us a 100% committed Nicole Kidman as fallen cop Erin Bell in a moody, stingingly photographed mystery that leads straight to hell.
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (Netflix): While not exactly underseen, since Netflix has been promoting it above the fold at least on my account, it feels like anthology or ‘omnibus” movies rarely get any respect since they’re by nature not one single, overwhelming story. Yet somehow the Coen Bros have made a collection of disparate Western short stories that cohere better as an experience than most single-story films. Saw this once in-theater, once at home, and have watched the opening segment (essentially a sing-along musical celebrating a homicidal maniac), over and over. While I find that and the Tom Waits old prospector segments the most entertaining, the heavyweight of the six stories and the longest, “The Girl Who Got Rattled,” is the one that gives the entire movie the requisite depth. Worldbuilding, Coen-style.
And for the record, Debra Granik’s quietly powerful Leave No Trace (Bleeker Street) has what I believe is the best closing shot of the year, The Haunting of Hill House (Netflix) had the best twist (Episode 5 about Nell) and Representative-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez continues to have the very best counterpunching skills on Twitter and the most rousing Instagram channel. Lights, camera…political action.
Vengeance, by Zach Lazar
Lazar specializes in merging real life characters, The Rolling Stones, Charles Manson (“Sway”), Meyer Lansky (“Pity the Poor Immigrant”) with fictional ones. But in the black and white kaleidoscope of the criminal justice system rendered in Vengeance, the main character is one of the faceless, a black man, Kendrick King, from a ward just outside downtown New Orleans, who is serving a life sentence at the notorious Angola Penitentiary for homicide committed during a drug deal gone bad. An unnamed narrator gets enmeshed with King while researching a story on a Passion Play the inmates put on yearly.
But the real subject of this novel is the unknowability of things, the radical uncertainty of truth. Imagine Rashomon where even the witnesses and victims are unsure of the truth they’re telling, let alone us. It’s not just the narrator, the witnesses and the police who are uncertain – although willing to swear to, even “enrich” the “facts” – we get the feeling that King himself does not know the extent to which he was involved.
Lazar writes dialogue with such limpid verisimilitude it’s scary. It’s like you forget you’re reading a book and are just part of the setting, an ashtray on the interrogation table absorbing the smoke. It’s scary good. And scary real.
Monk! by Yousseff Daodudi
None of the following monologue is contained in novel. IT’S IN THE FEEL OF THE GRAPHICS. The Five Spot, Third Avenue and 8th Street, 1952. Thelonious Monk on stage talking to drummer Frankie Dunlop. In the audience, a jammed house, sits the bop benefactress, Baroness Nica, as well as the best percussionists on the scene, Tootie Heath, Tony Williams. Hipsters, poet Allen Ginsberg and entourage. Monk, hat on head, dances around Frankie, the ssssssssssss a sibilant, lispy in taking of the breath.
Monk: ssssssssssss so Frankie allll you you drummersssssss yall like to play fasssst and shit when you swing. I know I know, like when you play with ssssssssssssssagh aghagh Maynard and Sonny’ssssssssssssss. You think that’s the hardest, twirling your sticks and throwing them in the air. I know, but it ain’t so easy when youbrmmph bsah bah bah got to play slow and you still got to swing creative, you know crahhhsh bah bahm when you got to play slow. Cats think it’s easy to play slow and swing, but it ain’t easy to swing and shit when you play slow. You dig Frankie? Not just rolling. You gotta keep the beat while you play, thasss right, got a match Frankie? See what I mean Frankie, it ain’t easy to swing when you play slow and shit, is it Frankie?
What’s love got to do with it? Everything – in this compassionate and sensitively wrought drama, written and directed by Matt Porterfield. ‘Cept love’s a losing hand, cards you just can’t play in this nabe. Not in Sollers Point, “Baltmore.” Not when Keith ( McCaul Lombardi) gets out of con college at 24 and spends a year back home under house arrest with dad, Jim Belushi. Not love between a son and dad, grandma, sis, niece, dog, not love between white boy ex-cellies who protected him on the inside, and homeboys who protect him on the outs, not between a white man and his black boo, not his stripper hook-up neither. Love doesn’t stand anymore chance than an Olds 88 ditched in a “Baltmore” canal, in this unnerving and nuanced look at the human condition.
Equally unnerving and equally insightful into the human condition, is Italian director/ writer Susanna Nicchiarelli’s Nico 88. This is Nico (“Don’t call me Nico, my name is Christa.”) when her name is no longer a palindrome for ICON. Nico after the gold rush, pushing fifty, touring Europe in a van with a suicidal son and a band that consists of, in her sneering estimation, “amateur junkies.” But no amateur is Nico. If you ever have the foggy notion that trying heroin might be fun, watch this film – you’ll change your mind.
When Nico says, “I’ve been to the top and I’ve been to the bottom and they are both the same – empty,” you’ll believe her like she is Shiva’s consort Kali or Durga. When she says she wants her music sounding like defeat, you’ll believe her as much as you did when Robert Duvall told us he loves the smell of napalm in the morning… because it smells like victory. In one extraordinary scene, a seriously dope sick Nico, along with her nose-dripping band of amateur junkies, gets on stage in a Prague club and delivers a performance for the ages, not listlessly comping until the bell for the 10th round rings. The Velvet Revolution, which she gives fuck all about, was still two years away. This ain’t St. Marks Place. But like the man said, “When the music’s over, turn out the lights.”
* Best art-object seen: Father and Son, Jaan Toomik, short movie in Stedelijk Museum of a man, the artist, skating naked across the Baltic sea on a cold winter day, accompanied by the melancholic singing of his ten-year old son.
• Best Unlikely-Love-Song-of-Exquisite Poetic Beauty: Birthday Song, The Fall.
• Best Movie Seen-on-a-Plane- in-Years: Brimstone, Martin Koolhoven.
• Best Obscure-Dutch-Psychedelic-Garage-Rock-Band Discovery: Groep 1850, Mother No-Head.
• Best new single: Ik Kwam Haar Tegen In De Moshpit [I Met Her In The Moshpit], Jeugd van Tegenwoordig [Young People Nowadays].
• Best Recent-Day-of-Total-Escape: May 9, Castricum dunes, beach, wander, dream, horizon, sun …
• Best Dub-Ambient-Techno discovery: Sleepygirls, Iceland’s Yagya.
• Best live music: The EarWurms, Amsterdam girl group.
• Best Indie-Film-I-Didn’t-Know-Existed: Diane The Zebra Woman, Sheldon Rochlin and Flame Schon. Shot on the Lower East Side, Midtown, and Central Park Zoo, 1962.
• Best Museum-Moment: After clearing out Mark’s in-law’s home in Osnabrük we decided to hang a show of memorabilia transformed into artwork in the Möma, a mansion in the middle of nowhere that we squatted for the occasion.
• Worst deaths in 2018: Mom, Mark E. Smith, Glenn Branca.
• Best Album: 1000 Can Die, King Ayisoba, amazing Ghanian punk rap + Ghanian kologo, a 2-string gourd lute + Ayisoba’s Howlin’ Wolf-like voice.
• Best meal: Top 10 would all be by my masteress chef, Nina.
• Best Buddha-in-a-Church exhibit: “Buddha’s Life, Path to the Present” in the Nieuwekerk, Amsterdam where we learn that the Buddha’s penis could be drawn into his body and remain there like that of horses and elephants. An older Dutch woman read this caption out loud to a group, which precipitated a sudden outburst of laughter in the exhibit.
• Best 3 settings for new novel Radio Activity Kills: Amsterdam, Greenpoint, Iowa.
• Best I-Can’t-Believe-I-Never-Heard-This-Song-Before: “Bladerunner Blues,” Vangelis.
• Best outdoor concert: De Kift at Boterbloem, a Biological farm threatened by comercial development. De Kift is a fanfare+punk+poetry activist band, very important on the alternative Dutch scene.
• Best Film-Second-Time-Around: 28 Days Later, Danny Boyle.
• Best Depressing-Middle-of-America-Youth-Movies seen in 2018: Spring Breakers & American Honey.
• Best Concert-Seen-With-Paloma-by-Female-Singer-Over-60: Patti Smith, Paradiso, Amsterdam.
• Best Inspiring-Uniquely-Personal-Photographers: Foto Sifichi, Phil Scalia, Lisa Genet, Paloma Jet, Peter Bates.
• Best Boiler Room DJ Sets: Nicola Cruz & Nicloas Jaar
• Best photography booklet: Phil Scalia Little Falls: but a lot goes down.
• Best Classic-Novel-Never-Read-Now-Read: The Comedians, Graham Greene.
• Best comedian in the world IMHO: Stewart Lee – forget late-night, forget standard stand-up, this is something else.
Without culture, and the relative freedom it implies, society, even when perfect, is but a jungle. This is why any authentic creation is a gift to the future.
— Albert Camus
Wherever I go, I bring the culture with me, so that they can understand that it’s attainable.
Female Figure – Jordan Wolfson (The Broad Museum, Los Angels)
Possibly the weirdest “art” installation I’ve ever seen: an oddly “hyper-sexualized” dancing female robot—attached by its chest to a pole and facing a mirrored wall—recites pretentious poetry and, using facial recognition software, periodically locks eyes with the visitor through the mirror, throwing the “male gaze” their way. To view this exhibit one is led through an unmarked plain white door into a small white room and then allowed 7 minutes alone with this “spectacle.” But not before being admonished a warning: if you molest the robot in anyway you’re out of there. The docent also said, “Don’t worry if it malfunctions.” I said, “Has it killed anybody?” Yeah, it’s that creepy.
The Border – Don Winslow (conclusion to the Cartel trilogy: Year Of The Dog, The Cartel)
Nobody demystifies the Socioeconomic/Political/Narco tangle of Mexico like Don Winslow. It’s a scary convoluted mess south of the border and with no one really knowing what’s real and what is sensationalized news feed, we are left with so many questions and concerns. With his Cartel trilogy Winslow answered them in a “life imitates art” fictionalized manner. Hell, the American news service can never make sense of what the hell is going on down there. So yeah, here it is Power of the Dog part three, a work of fiction (yeah right). Orale compañero, mierda no es nada…
The Mars Room – Rachel Kushner
Rachel Kushner’s The Mars Room rings so true on so many levels as to what it’s like to be incarcerated. Although The Mars Room is fiction, it reads like memoir. This was the book I wanted when I tried to read Orange Is The New Black (elitist white privilege crap) and was severely disappointed. Kushner nails the absurdity of abused authority, the wasted lives due to calculated recidivism, and the hardcore desperation that leads to breaking the law in the first place. Her protagonist, Romy, is continually reliving the memories of the life that got her there. Which perfectly mimics every convict constantly replaying all the bad moves and even worse decisions that put them behind bars. As a former convict sentenced to the California Department of Corrections (CDC) I can tell you first hand they should be the CCC: Confinement Control Corruption. But now it’s the CDCR as they’ve added “and Rehabilitation” to the title. When I was inside there wasn’t any of that “rehabilitation” happening, and neither is there in The Mars Room. A great dark read.
Macbeth – Jo Nesbø
Norwegian author Jo Nesbø does Shakespeare. It’s brutal, dark and hella noir. Set in Norway in 1970. Macbeth is an ex-drug addict cop with a troubled past. There are bikers, drugs, crime cartels, dirty cops, and a shit-ton of violence. What’s not to like?
Rock Monster: My Life with Joe Walsh – Kristin Casey
Kristin Casey goes straight for the jugular with high-octane tales of rock and roll, addiction, a highly dysfunctional celebrity relationship, and finally recovery. Casey’s Rock Monster is so much more than a “life-changing experience in a relationship with rock legend Joe Walsh.” There’s a depth to Casey’s introspection that elevates it above your average tell-all book. Hers is ultimately a story of survival that doesn’t disappoint.
This Is America – Childish Gambino
Fuck yeah. A politically charged video from Childish Gambino, directed by Japanese-American filmmaker Hiro Murai. There’s violence, guns, a choir, some prerequisite dancing, implied police shootings, execution style death, and heavy racist imagery. Oddly intriguing. Best music video of 2018.
Gloria – Branden Jacob-Jenkins (Echo Theater Company, Los Angeles)
A gut wrenching dark comedy set in the offices of magazine publisher in present day New York City. Not wanting to give away the shock value of the subject matter, I’ll only say that Gloria explores a modern workplace horror we’re all unfortunately way too familiar with—and then the aftermath of grief and survival. The Los Angeles production, directed by Echo artistic director Chris Fields, was amazing, with a bare essential minimalistic set, and a strong compelling acting ensemble. And, according the self-proclaimed critic from NPR that sat behind me (she mentioned she wrote for NPR at least seven times in the 10 minutes before the show started), the play has been optioned and will soon be a MAJOR motion picture – yes, you heard it here first.
Escape at Dannemora – Showtime
During the summer of 2015 Americans were riveted to their TVs mainlining the incessant updating by every news outlet with a talking head. The subject was Richard Matt and David Sweat’s prison break from New York’s largest maximum-security prison, the Clinton Correctional Facility, and the subsequent manhunt that lasted 22 days. It was like a bad soap opera with incompetent jailers, corrupt guards and a love triangle between civilian employee Tilly Mitchell and Matt and Sweat. Seriously this shit was so whack you couldn’t make it up. Now all that strangeness is a Showtime mini-series directed by Ben Stiller, written by Jerry Stahl, and staring Benicio del Toro, Patricia Arquette, and Paul Dano. Good shit, Maynard.
Babylon Berlin, Netflix. It’s based on the Gereon Rath detective series by Volker Bruch. I know a fair amount about the time (Berlin 1929), but I didn’t know about Blut Mai, when Social Democrats used bullets to suppress working class Communists on May 1, 1929 (in now hip Kreuzberg and Neukölln). In college I was taught that if only German Communists had collaborated with the Social Democrats, together they might have stopped the Nazis. Now I know how deep and bitter that divide was (and still is). And, of course, we get sex clubs, porn, junkies, gold smuggling, poison gas, Trotskyites, Stalinists, monarchists, Central European cynicism, a beautiful and treacherous Russian singer, a coldly elegant gangster, and, of course, the notion that Konrad Adenauer was into S&M but was saved by Gereon Rath, who seized and burned the blackmail photographs, thus enabling Adenauer’s postwar career as Chancellor of West Germany. Where the series is going, who knows. We know where Germany went. But one clue may be in Gereon Rath’s name. Gereon is a common name mainly in the Cologne area. Gereon was a 4th century martyr. He was beheaded for refusing to recant Christianity. And one of the Nazis’ favorite methods of execution was beheading.
Gomorrah, Netflix. Ciro di Marzio is one hellacious gangster. And Genny Savastano, former “fatboy,” transforms into an even more vicious gangster. We see gangsters shoulder a heavy stone statue of a saint, marching in a slow and presumably holy procession. Why? Their own clientele destroyed the previous one. The action takes place in Scampia, a suburb of Naples; specifically, in the neighborhood of Secondigliano. The area is known for decaying brutalist housing projects and the highest murder rate in Western Europe. And gangsters meeting on top floors of parking garages with Vesuvius and the snow-capped Apennines in the background. Oh, and we get to visit money launderers in Milan and see gangsters hiding out in Germany, a country one describes as having “never seen the sun.”
Zen Mind, Beginner Mind, by Shunryu Suzuki. What can one say about a book by a cheerful Zen monk who suggests that life can be thought of as a continuous series of mistakes? And lets us know that if we practice Zazen in order to become enlightened, we will not become enlightened. Just meditate. Read this book.
The Gospel According to Jesus Christ, by Jose Saramago. The author is a Nobel prize winning libertarian communist atheist. Who better to write a naturalistic account of the life Jesus? We get a glimpse of what it was like to journey on foot from Bethlehem to Jerusalem at the time of, well, Christ. And how difficult it was for Mary to run a household after Jesus’s father is crucified. Mary Magdalene is very real and passionate in this version. And this Jesus is dismayed by God’s plans for him.
La Dolce Vita Confidential, by Shawn Levy. This is the intellectual version of beach reading. Rome from the late Forties to the early Sixties. Sexy, decadent, and fun.
The German War, by Nicholas Stargardt. A very important and depressing book. The author has spent decades researching primary sources, ranging from correspondence to diaries to secret police report, to learn how Germans dealt with the war. Some revelations: there was more opposition than I thought. A non-revelation: everyone knew. For example, soldiers on the Eastern front would photograph massacres with their Leicas and send the film home to be developed. That chapter is titled “The Shared Secret.” The most disturbing revelation is this: as the war progressed, Germans knew they were losing, and their response was to redouble their efforts. Regardless of whether they supported the war or not.
Orientalism, by Edward Said. A very important book. Said advances the amazingly obvious thesis that non-Europeans are every bit as human as Europeans, amid great and continuing controversy.
Photographs by Meryl Meisler of New York in the Seventies, of people being themselves.
Dark, Netflix. A German horror television series. The Shining meets Rainer Werner Fassbinder.
Killing Eve. BBC, to be seen on Amazon. Spies, Paris, London, Berlin, Moscow, glamor, Russians, lots of Russians, and a Russian female assassin with a crush on an MI-5 agent, played by the always-irresistible Sandra Oh. Who returns the feeling.
And, last but not least, my continuing study of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, the maniacal genius. I’ve been delving more and more into his works, of which there are plenty. I haven’t found a dull one yet. A few revelations: Die Dritte Generation (The Third Generation), a scathing portrayal of a group of Baader-Meinhof Gang wannabes. The opening sequence is mesmerizing. Lola, the only Fassbinder film with a happy end, in that all of the characters accept their corruption, and no one dies. Much of the action takes place in the Wirtschaftswunderbar (Economic Miracle Bar), located in a brothel. The anarchist city planner plays drums in the whorehouse band. Berlin Alexanderplatz, an unsparing but ultimately sympathetic portrayal of the Weimar era Berlin underclass. This is a thirteen part series with an epilogue, but, like the rest of Fassbinder, it’s not bingeworthy. Or rather, it’s not possibly to binge watch Fassbinder. One needs breaks. And Katzelmacher (Bavarian pejorative slang for a guest worker). The attitudes toward foreign workers in the 1950s are totally unchanged today. Dialogue could be taken direct from a AfD politician or, for that matter, Donald Trump.
Music: Hissing Fauna Are You the Destroyer, by Of Montreal. Best art rock band since Talking Heads.
Book: The Mind Illuminated, by Culadasa (John Yates, PhD). First book I’ve ever read about the progressive levels of meditation, with precise instructions for every level. Wish I’d found it 20 years ago.
Movie: Death of Stalin. How else can you treat one of the blackest periods in modern history than as a comedy?
TV: The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. New York City in 1958, the Gaslight and Lenny Bruce. What’s not to like?