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The Lion in Winter: Gossipy Lunches with Orson Welles, Hollywood’s Original Badboy Filmmaker

Friday, July 12th, 2013 - by Bruce Bawer
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Given that the years since Orson Welles’s death in 1985 have not seen any major revival of interest in his work, I can’t help wondering how many young adults today could place his name or recognize his picture. For those of us who had already attained adulthood when he died, he had been an inescapable presence in our lives – a frequent guest on pretty much all the major talk shows, not to mention a perennial TV-commercial pitchman for Paul Masson wine. An incomparably massive bearded figure with a deep theatrical voice, a hearty laugh, and an encyclopedic knowledge of history and high culture, he possessed a seemingly bottomless trove of personal anecdotes which gave the impression that he’d been everywhere worth visiting and known every twentieth-century person worth knowing.

On those talk shows, the conversations often turned to his first and most famous movie, the legendary Citizen Kane (1941), which he’d produced, directed, starred in, and co-written while still in his mid-twenties, and which in the five polls of film critics taken by the cinema journal Sight & Sound between 1962 and 2002 was consistently voted the greatest motion picture ever made. (In 2012, it dropped to #2.) Kane, which followed several years of success on Broadway, was the apex of his career: Welles – who didn’t suffer fools gladly, didn’t like being told what to do or when to do it, and in any case didn’t want to make the kind of movies the studios wanted him to make – tumbled rather speedily out of Hollywood’s good graces, and ended up spending much of the rest of his life trying to secure private financing for his film projects. (If he took so many dubious acting and narrating jobs over the years and did so many cheesy commercials, it was because the paychecks went straight into his own filmmaking budget.)

And make no mistake, the films he directed were masterly. Yet most of them were so poorly distributed that hardly anybody even heard about them, let alone saw them. Consequently, for most Americans living in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, Welles was nothing more or less than a highly diverting TV raconteur who once, long ago, had made a great movie.

And that’s the Welles we meet in My Lunches with Orson. Based on tape recordings made by Henry Jaglom, a much younger director who, in the words of the book’s editor, Peter Biskind, had become “Welles’s sounding board, confessor, producer, agent, and biggest fan,” it purports to record conversations Welles and Jaglom had over their grilled chicken and soft-shelled crab at Ma Maison, a Hollywood restaurant, between 1983 and 1985. I say “purports” because, as explained in a prefatory note, Biskind has shuffled the materials around and has even beefed up some of the anecdotes by adding details that Welles included when he told the same stories to other audiences at other times and places. Whether one considers this editorial decision defensible or not, the result is a veritable feast of Wellesiana, rich in a variety of flavors – sweet, sour, salty, bitter, pungent.

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Which Ideology Can Lead Black Americans to Happiness and Wealth?

Friday, April 26th, 2013 - by Bruce Bawer

Georgetown University professor Michael Eric Dyson appearing on MSNBC to equate the significance of the Boston bombers’ religion with their musical tastes:

While some black studies professors are busy indoctrinating students in strident anticapitalism and racial supremacism, and other inhabitants of the Ebony Tower are preaching only some­what less extreme versions of the same ideology, a very different message about race has been resonating with ordinary, hard­ working black Americans. In recent years, the comedian and ac­tor Bill Cosby has been speaking to audiences in black churches and other community centers, lamenting the prevalence among black Americans of unwed teenage mothers and absentee fathers, violent and misogynistic gangsta rap, and black ­on ­black crime. He has been calling on young black people to reject these self­ destructive social pathologies and to embrace traditional Ameri­can values of self ­respect and personal responsibility.

In an Atlantic article about Cosby’s crusade, Ta­Nehisi Coates maintains that Cosby’s call for “hard work and moral reform” rather than “protests and government intervention” res­onates with “conservative black Americans who are convinced that integration, and to some extent the entire liberal dream, robbed them of their natural defenses.” Coates points out that in 2004, the New York Times found that black parents in Lou­isville, Kentucky, the site of a historic battle over school deseg­regation in 1975–76, were now “more interested in educational progress than in racial parity.” Coates also cites a survey showing that 71 percent of American blacks consider rap “a bad influ­ence.” Coates quotes lines from one of Cosby’s speeches in which the comedian assails some black Americans’ uninformed image of themselves as Africans: “We are not Africans. Those people are not Africans. They don’t know a damn thing about Africa— with names like Shaniqua, Shaliqua, Mohammed, and all that crap, and all of them are in jail.”

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The Answer Key for Last Week’s Islamic Crossword Puzzle

Wednesday, March 27th, 2013 - by Bruce Bawer

An Islamic Crossword Puzzle for the Aspiring Jihadist

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An Islamic Crossword Puzzle for the Aspiring Jihadist

Wednesday, March 20th, 2013 - by Bruce Bawer

Freelance writing is a financially precarious career – you’ve always got to be on the lookout for new opportunities, or you’re screwed. So when I found out recently about a relatively new online magazine called Inspire, my first thought was: hmm, what can I come up with that they might want to use?

Now – and hey, here’s a tip for you kids looking to move into the fast lane of the media game – the first thing you do in situations like this is to study the publication in question and try to determine its worldview, its style, its tone, its intended audience, and so on. Inspire, as it happens, is published by an organization called al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Not al-Qaeda itself, mind you, but a branch of al-Qaeda with a similar but longer and more geographically specific name. It’s published in English and is apparently aimed at jihadist fanatics and aspiring jihadist fanatics.

A Fox News writer helpfully noted in 2010 that the magazine is “designed to encourage would-be terrorists into acts of violence,” and quoted Bruce Riedel of the Brookings Institution as saying that it’s “clearly intended for the aspiring jihadist in the U.S. or U.K. who may be the next Fort Hood murderer or Times Square bomber.” Useful info for an aspiring contributor! A while back Inspire ran an article titled “I Am Proud to be a Traitor to America” by an author who, not long afterward, was taken out by a U.S. drone in Yemen. For a freelancer, this sort of thing is great news: when a publication’s regular contributors are being systematically decimated in anti-terrorist strikes, it’s more likely that there’s always going to be room for fresh blood.

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Why Gore Vidal, Norman Mailer, and Truman Capote All Failed to Write the Great American Novel

Monday, August 13th, 2012 - by Bruce Bawer

Many commentators have suggested that the passing of Gore Vidal at age eighty-six on July 31 marks the end of a remarkable generation of postwar American novelists the likes of whom we shall never see again.

When people speak of that generation of novelists, they are usually referring to exactly three people: Norman Mailer (born in 1923), Truman Capote (1924), and Vidal (1925).  All three made splashy literary debuts in the years shortly after the war.  All three were not just writers but celebrities.  Their arrival on the national scene was followed shortly by the advent of television and the TV talk show, on which all three excelled in their different ways at making an indelible impression.

Vidal was the pompous, formidable intellect and wit, serving up well-turned putdowns of those he considered his inferiors – which included pretty much everyone – in an authoritative upper-crust dialect. Capote was the flamboyant quipster and gossip with the pronounced Southern accent, more explicit on national TV about his sexual orientation than any other gay man in America would dare for another generation. And Mailer, in contradistinction to these two gay men, was the embodiment of post-Hemingway machismo – a Brooklyn Jewish kid by way of Harvard with a chip on his shoulder and a determination to prove that he, and no other, was the natural heir to Papa Hemingway.

Back then, big authors were big TV. These three loved doing the talk shows – and the talk-show hosts loved having them on. Both Vidal and Capote were regulars on Carson (Carson actually invited Vidal to be a guest host, and Capote died at the home of one of Carson’s ex-wives, who’d become a close chum); Vidal and Mailer appeared together on a legendary episode of The Dick Cavett Show (whose wife and Vidal became good friends) on which they all but got into a fistfight on the air.

Nowadays they’d all be lucky to get on C-SPAN.

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Midnight in Paris: The Woodman Stumbles

Tuesday, November 8th, 2011 - by Bruce Bawer

It’s been a long time since I read as many reviews of a movie as I did of Woody Allen’s latest offering, Midnight in Paris.  As a native New Yorker who, decades ago, used to rush off to movie houses in Manhattan to see Allen’s earliest pictures as soon as they were released, and who has seen all but one or two of his dozens of films – some of them dozens of times – I was intrigued by the widespread and largely enthusiastic critical attention lavished on his latest effort and by the apparently healthy box-office figures, which represented a stunning departure from the widespread indifference to Allen’s work in recent years.  Could all the praise possibly be deserved?

This is not to say that I’m one of those who feel Allen hasn’t made a good movie in decades.  I  think Manhattan Murder Mystery is loads of fun.  I find Hollywood Ending hilarious.  I have great affection for Everyone Says I Love You.  Sweet and Lowdown is, indeed, sweet.  Match Point is elegant.  Vicky Christina Barcelona is engaging.  And I’m actually crazy about Whatever Works.

But Midnight in Paris, which I finally caught up with on a plane the other day, stunned me with its sheer badness.  It opens with a series of shots of the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe, and other familiar Paris-postcard sights, which feels terribly tired and clichéd and more than a bit too reminiscent of the considerably more inspired montages of New York City at the beginnings of Manhattan and Everyone Says I Love You.  (Needless to say, there are no glimpses of the violence-ridden no-go zones in the banlieues – no car burnings, no rioters screaming “Allahu akbar!”)

The plot?  Briefly put, it’s about a hack Hollywood screenwriter named Gil who’s visiting Paris with his fiancée, and who’s taken with the idea of trading the City of Angels for the City of Light, and giving up scriptwriting for novel-writing.  Through some sort of mysterious alchemy, he finds himself transported on a series of nights, at exactly the stroke of twelve, to 1920s Paris, where he consorts with Hemingway, Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, Cole Porter, Picasso, Cocteau, and Salvador Dali, among others.

In every Woody Allen movie, whatever its merits, there’s always a bit of dialogue – a line here, a line there – that makes you wince or cringe.  Invariably the subject is high culture.  And invariably the problem is that the characters are talking about it in way that rings so totally false as to be embarrassing.  Think, for example, of the Thanksgiving dinner-table dialogue about “Ibsen’s A Doll’s House” (as opposed, apparently, to Neil Simon’s A Doll’s House) at the beginning of Hannah and Her Sisters.  Well, Midnight in Paris has more of that sort of thing in it than any Woody Allen movie yet.   Only this time around, instead of people talking about Hemingway, you have Hemingway talking Hemingway.  And what does he have to say?  He keeps pontificating about “grace under pressure.”  Meanwhile Fitzgerald keeps calling people “old sport,” just like Gatsby.  The cringe factor is through the roof.  Allen doesn’t seem to be going for broad parody or caricature here – he genuinely appears to be out to capture the magic of the 1920s expatriate scene in Paris.  But it all comes off like a cartoon.   There have been countless biographies of some of these people, which might have given Allen some clues as to how to capture these characters in a few deft strokes – but Allen has obviously not consulted them.

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Hot in Cleveland: the Anti-Two and a Half Men

Friday, October 21st, 2011 - by Bruce Bawer

Recently an old friend, a straight guy, asked me what I thought of GleeI told him I’d never seen a second of it.  He was aghast.  A gay guy who’d never seen Glee?  I explained that I’d seen ads for it and that they had made my skin crawl.  To be sure, some time after that conversation I did run across a You Tube of a charming same-sex duet of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” which touched me both because it was the kind of thing I never imagined I’d see on network TV in my lifetime and because I loved the idea of young people today becoming acquainted with wonderful old standards from the Great American Songbook instead of the horrible crap they mostly listen to nowadays.  (Maybe they will develop taste, after all, I mused.)  Following that experience I actually did try to watch an episode of Glee, but bailed about a minute and a half in.  Yes, there is such a thing as gay culture and gay taste, but it doesn’t mean that all gay people like all the stuff that all gay people are supposed to like.  Far from it.

That being said, I am, in an instance of depressing predictability, inordinately fond of the TV Land sitcom Hot in Cleveland, which, with a camp factor that is through the roof, seems to have been expertly configured to draw gay viewers like flies.  Even so, its merits, I would suggest, transcend its appeal to niche tastes.  If you aren’t familiar with this series, which will soon begin its third season, let’s start by getting the admittedly silly premise out of the way: three upper-class, middle-aged L.A. women settle in a house in Cleveland after discovering they’re more appealing to the men there than back on the Coast.  Living with them is their house’s elderly caretaker, making a foursome curiously similar to that on that other notorious gay magnet, The Golden Girls, except that instead of eating cheesecake in the kitchen, they guzzle margaritas.  (Nothing wrong with a retread; Shakespeare did it, too.)

Hot in Cleveland was cooked up by Suzanne Martin, formerly of Frasier, and stars three of TV’s most intelligent comic actresses.  Wendie Malick, the lanky brunette who looks far younger than her 60 years and who was the best thing on Just Shoot Me, plays the narcissistic star of a  recently canceled soap opera who’s constantly referencing the inane-sounding TV movies she’s starred in for the Lifetime network.  Jane Leeves, the Brit from Frasier, plays a neurotic mess who back in Beverly Hills made a terrific living shaping movie stars’ eyebrows.  Betty White, of course, is the smart-assed caretaker, the show’s version of Sophia on The Golden Girls.  And then there’s Valerie Bertinelli of the legendarily vapid One Day at a Time, who, as a devoted housewife and mother whose husband has just left her (how she ever ended up friends with the Malick and Leeves characters is frankly inexplicable), is actually charming and manages to hold her own alongside her first-rate co-stars.

In a sea of inane TV comedy, Hot in Cleveland is full of wit and is genuinely literate.  There are jokes that turn on quotes from Yeats and Tennessee Williams.  In response to Bertinelli’s use of expletives like “shoot” and “darn,” Malick quips: “It’s like a Mamet play in here.”  The scriptwriters are plainly not worried that some jokes or references will go over some viewers’ heads.  The two or three funniest episodes so far center on Malick’s character, whose philosophy of life (from Socrates by way of Gore Vidal) is that “the untelevised life is not worth living.”  In one, she lands in a community of Amish people and finds herself drawn to their simple lifestyle, so utterly antithetical to her own.  The jokes mock both her and them.  She’s amazed they don’t know who she is – after all, she’s starred in so many Lifetime TV movies!  “It’s basic cable.”  To which an Amish woman replies: “What part of ‘no TV’ dost thou not understand?” – an inspired twist on a hack sitcom formula.  She learns about Rumspringa, the ritual period during which Amish youth get to experience non-Amish life in order to decide for themselves what they want in life, and in the end she decides that her sojourn in Amish country was her own Rumspringa: “my journey of discovery … and I learned that a life of excess and self-involvement is where my true heart lieth.”  This show is the anti-Two and a Half Men.

One thing that’s especially appealing about Hot in Cleveland is that for all its West Coast sophistication, it is, at the same time, appreciative of Red State values.  It actually pokes fun at Hollywood and treats Middle America with respect.  (Though, of course, it pokes fun at Middle America, too – after all, it’s a sitcom).

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