Home, Strange Home

May 18, 2019

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Unless you’ve lived in the same house all your life, you can’t pinpoint the moment when your place became your home. It happened while you weren’t looking.

The longer you live somewhere (excepting a war zone, I guess), the more you get attached to it — or at least you can take comfort in everyday normalcy. To be pulled away permanently is wrenching, but those attachments can anchor like a root system in an entirely different place. 

I attended my first seven school grades in Norfolk, Virginia, home of the world’s largest naval base. Many of my friends were the sons of officers — it was an all-boys school — so it was very common to have to say goodbye after Dad’s two- or three-year assignment was up and new friends rotated in. Navy brats were used to it. They moved around all the time. I was the stable one: my dad was a civilian. So it came as quite a shock when one day he announced that we were going to move. I loved my house, my street, my school, my friends, and now they were all going away. I mean, this time I was.

We moved much farther South, to Jackson, Mississippi, where my father was joining a bunch of Virginia grocery executives to roll out a regional supermarket chain. In the summer of 1962 — the midst of the Civil War centenary — Jim Crow still ruled, and there was a meanness that hadn’t been shoved in my face in the Commonwealth. We seemed to be on Mars: the atmosphere was viscid and foreign, the heat so stifling that simply mowing the lawn used up most of my juice. I hated everything. I wasn’t traumatized or clinically depressed, just good Ole Miserable. And I’d been such a happy little squirt, too. My folks pondered what to do.

I’m not sure I could have come up with such wisdom, but my parents were struck by genius. (1) My dad solemnly promised that if I would just give Jackson a chance for exactly one year and I still wanted to go back at that point, then we would. (2) They enrolled me in summer band class at my junior high school. We rented a saxophone — my choice  — and I took as many lessons as I could cram in before band started.

Action (1) gave me the reassurance of a firm deadline. I began writing my grandmother a letter every day. (She lived down the street — how idyllic had my life been, folks?) Each one counted off the days remaining until I’d be back in Norfolk. Action (2) was designed to get me something I needed achingly badly: friends. Sure enough, the commonality of band practice helped me sink the first tendrils. I met two of my lifelong besties in that rehearsal room, the oldest continual friendships I have. For years my grandma would tell people the story of my letters. She said they arrived daily for about two weeks. Then I started missing days. Then maybe once a week. A month. Then it was down to the annual birthday card. She would smile through all this because she understood the reason: I was forming a new life and sloughing off the misery. (I’m sure I hadn’t been the only one who was sad when I left Norfolk, but she handled it like an adult.)

We drove back “home” for a visit every summer for several years, and even though I was building relationships in Mississippi (shut up, there’s such a thing as a girl?), I still felt like a displaced frontiersman. But by the time some buddies and I celebrated high school graduation with a car trip to New York and stopped in Norfolk on the way up, enough life had passed to change the appearance of houses, shutter beloved mom-and-pop shops, and render my boyhood hood unfamiliar. I didn’t belong here any more. I remember noting this at the time: in only five years, “home” for me had become Jackson, Mississippi.

I lived there for 22 nonconsecutive years. Four intervening years in Athens, Georgia was time enough for it to become “home” too. But when I went back to Athens for a writers’ conference twenty years later, all I could recognize were the street names. (Turning indie-hip with the B-52s and R.E.M. transformed the place.) By that time I had become a book editor, a result of my most radical lifestyle change ever. That happened when I moved from Mississippi to New York.

Ask any progressive in a red state — they are definitely there, in each and every one — and they’ll nod when you describe the low-grade wariness you have to carry around every day. Living in an overwhelmingly reactionary society doesn’t change your mind, but it makes you mindful of your surroundings. If I still lived in Jackson and continued my independent corporate communications work with big, connected companies and agencies, I’d need to watch what I say in public. If I wanted to do business with the powers that be, I wouldn’t have to lie, but I would have to remain silent about our current president or any other president. I’d imagine it’s only a tame cousin to the way closeted gays are still made to feel, but in my own small straight way I do get it. The most immediate, and unexpected, surprise after my move up north was a sense of political and cultural exhalation. It was so relaxing to be able to abandon self-censorship. 

It’s not that everybody agrees with you, far from it. Or that injustice and prejudice don’t exist. (If there’s one thing I’ve learned in my undeservedly charmed life, it is this: there are rednecks everywhere.) It’s just that up here, no state-sponsored point of view makes most everybody’s heads nod like drinking ducks. I couldn’t figure out my oddball sense of calm relief in one of the world’s most frenetic cities for a long time. I think I’ve finally pegged it. Namaste.

But once again, societally I found myself on Mars. Lots of life was new again. I can amaze people in both cultures with fun facts about myself. New Yorkers: I didn’t know what a bagel was until I was 38 years old. They’re everywhere now, but they weren’t always. Mississippians: I haven’t owned an automobile for 31 years. (Now you know how old I am!) I do not have the slightest inkling what a gallon of gas costs until I top off my rental car two or three times a year.

In a strange clime, you notice little things. The accents and idioms. “Mou’ain” for “mountain,” no T. “I’m a Met fan.” Singular. “Have a goot one.” Rhymes with “soot.” That singsong recitative that is spreading nationwide: “I went to the GYM, I rode on the BIKE, I walked back HOME, I picked up the KIDS…” Standing “on line” instead of “in line.” That distinctive overloud New York sigh (usually heard while waiting “on line”) that says, I don’t like this but there’s nothing I can do about it so I shall express my displeasure to all within earshot. Yiddish words that just osmose: I’d been misusing and misspelling “macher” my whole life without realizing it. The overhonking of car horns. When I’m in traffic anywhere else, it seems strangely quiet; back home I even feel for the semi driver who spends all day navigating double-parkers on already-snug cross streets until he finally looses his frustration with the ole air horn. 

Did you hear that? “Back home.” 

I used to say, “On a hot day back home, it smells like dirt and pine needles. Here it smells like garbage and dog doo.” But now I say, “On a hot day down South…” I don’t know when my perspective changed. It happened when I wasn’t looking. Headed into New York on an airplane, I used to think, wow, look at all the people who live here, and there’s Central Park! Now I just think, I’m home. Many, many New Yorkers came from somewhere else, as I did. But if they managed to stick it out, they became New Yorkers themselves, and that means they found a home. Norfolk, my favorite place ever when I was a kid, is but a wisp of a memory now. (Have I just stumbled upon the dadburn meaning of life?) I’ve planted roots elsewhere. And even though the location of home may zig and zag throughout a full human span, it’s so soothing to know it when you’re there. Wherever that may be.

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My home right now.

 

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Acting Residential

April 29, 2019

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I think I know the secret identities of the (probably only) four original Residents. In fact, I’m so confident that I’ll name them now: Jay Clem, Homer Flynn, Hardy Fox, and John Kennedy. Four monikers you and I have never heard of. So who cares? Well, that’s kind of the whole point.

That reveal is germane because when these (probably all) boys set out from Shreveport, Louisiana (one Resident may be from Texas) for the West Coast, to live the bohemian life among like minds that didn’t much exist in the Bayou State, they settled almost immediately on the Theory Of Obscurity. Only the art matters. Only the work. The cult of celebrity demeans and dilutes the end product by its very nature. Therefore we will forever remain anonymous, and go to great lengths to preserve that state. It’s as if Clark Kent were in reality a black hole: there they are, up there live on stage, but they steadfastly decline to acknowledge identity, and that’s why they always wear disguises in public. Sia is working the same street nowadays, but The Residents paved it a very long time ago. Their road work began about 1970.

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Devotees believe the soon-to-be Residents came from the visual arts, oriented toward images intended for the optic nerve. (More on eyeballs later.) Arriving in a Bay Area that had already upchucked the excesses of the Summer of Love, they noticed that popular music was reorienting itself from the anything-goes era of Hendrix and Zappa toward a Laurel Canyon-lite soft sound. Icky! They found some instruments and a place to record them and produced avant-garde (actually more like en garde!) tracks that deconstructed the barriers between the givers and receivers of music, as the Fugs had done in New York years earlier. Legend has it that a major label declining their anonymously submitted demo tape sent it back addressed to “Residents.” Aha. A band name!

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The original Residents — I say that because there’s no telling just how many different people of either gender have performed or created with or as The Residents over the years — were conceptual artists; they have never professed to be accomplished musicians. Heavily influenced by such mavericks as Captain Beefheart and the Sun Ra Arkestra, they produced freewheeling audio tracks that were energetic, dissonant, thought-provoking, offputting, funny, freaky, fascinating, difficult, and utterly unique in American culture. But although they have released dozens of albums and performed these compositions in live shows, it’s not quite accurate to think of The Residents as a “band.” Again, they are primarily visual artists, and their media are multi.

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They were true pioneers of music video (some of their work is in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art, where The Residents have been represented in five exhibitions) and digital media (they did two acclaimed discs for Voyager back when CD-ROM was the Hot New Thing). Yet if you leaf through The Residents’ audio catalog, you will nevertheless find among the outre screeching some interesting slices of Americana: covers of songs by Elvis, Hank Williams (they perform “Kaw-Liga” under a sample of the opening beats from Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean”), even John Philip Sousa. And rising from the gleeful cacophony, their remarkable 2002 album DEMONS DANCE ALONE is one of the most sensitive reactions to 9/11 that I’ve ever heard. So their sonic creations are not without meaning. In fact, an indicator I once employed to quickly evaluate the savvy of any newly visited record store, back when there was such a thing, was to head straight to the Rs (the Virgin Megastore that opened in the Times Square building which also housed Bantam Books was outstanding in this regard).

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But The Residents are, above all, provocateurs. Their most famous stage costume features formal top hat and tails, white tie, elegant cane — and a giant veined eyeball mask covering each Resident’s head. They want you to stare back at them just as hard.

The most amazing thing about The Residents is that, without the slightest care for fashion, they have been making a living producing art on their terms for almost fifty years now. How long can one swim upstream? Yet here they still are.

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But we may have arrived at an inflection point. Sadly, last November, Hardy Fox, longtime president of The Residents’ business entity, the Cryptic Corporation, passed away at 73. The other three gentlemen named above have also been Cryptic officers. You can see them all interviewed in the wonderful Residents documentary THEORY OF OBSCURITY. They “work for” The Residents, to whom they always refer in the third person. Who knows who’s up on stage these days, but it’s probably not septuagenarians. And who knows how the collective’s creative output is derived? Maybe Hardy’s death will finally break up the group, or maybe obscurity theory will allow it to continue as long as it wants. I so admire how these stalwarts have carved themselves a place in the culture despite all odds, all evens, despite everything. I’d tip my hat, but the eyeballs below it are far too small.

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P.S. To hear a curated sample of The Residents’ music, check out the 2017 compilation 80 ACHING ORPHANS, with extensive liner notes by Homer Flynn. To see their amazing and sometimes disturbing music videos, get ahold of the compilation DVD, ICKY FLIX.  

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The Medium Is The Massage

March 28, 2019

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Think the world is getting smaller, sometimes even to the point of claustrophobia? You’re not alone. Furthermore, people have always felt that way. The technological pace keeps quickening at an ever-quickening pace. But today we may have reached a point where we can actually notice the acceleration in our lifetimes, for an inchoate feeling of turbulence just outside our grasp. It feels strange because it is strange. But where mass media are concerned, strange is normal.

I think the first real jolt in the media was the invention of movable type. It made books and newspapers easier and cheaper to produce (if much less breathtaking than those monk-inscribed illuminated manuscripts), and it released them from the arcane possession of the privileged and the consecrated. But movable type still had to be set by hand, letter by letter, an excruciatingly laborious process that limited daily newspapers to eight pages until the late 19th century. That’s when the “linotype,” a machine that could set individual letters much faster than any human, blew open the newspaper business and made possible the much greater proliferation of much fatter daily editions. But the next quantum leap in mass communication was already upon us.

“What hath God wrought!” is a phrase from the Book of Numbers (23:23, to be exact), but it’s far better known as the first Morse code message transmitted in the U.S. On May 24, 1844, the “wire” arrived (at least the Baltimore-Washington telegraph line) and changed everything yet again. We had received our news with a time delay ever since town criers were our anchormen. But now the transmission of news had become nearly instantaneous. Newspapers’ timeliness was transformed by the telegraph, especially when press barons got together to share field reporting: the Associated Press and Reuters were formed almost immediately, and the United Press Association and International News Service (which later merged to become UPI) just after the turn of the century. It was amazing: today’s front page could tell readers anywhere what had happened yesterday — or, in the case of afternoon editions, what had happened just this morning. Paul Revere was so passé.

Reading a book or a newspaper is a private, individual act that you can enjoy any time you like. The next step forced the audience to adhere to a schedule. When the first AM radio broadcast was achieved in 1906, the buildout of national networks was still some twenty years away. But for nearly three decades thereafter, commercial radio was far and away the most popular form of home entertainment. Families gathered around the box at nighttime for dramas, comedies, music, and the occasional chat from President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Radio listening was still a private, individual (maybe with relatives) act, but now the event was happening everywhere simultaneously. Never before had it been possible to assemble a mass audience in real time. The implications for marketers were enormous.

Movies were once far more important in our cultural life than they are today. In 1930, nearly two thirds of Americans attended a movie at least once a week. But movie attendance peaked in 1946, with 90 million tickets sold, and it isn’t hard to finger a culprit: the emerging medium that could bring movies into your home, and was so mesmerizing that it actually created addicts. Television. The baby boomer generation was the first cohort of Americans who were weaned on the boob tube, which strained for lowest-common-denominator advertising-supported programming and squandered the dramatic potential of pioneers like Paddy Chayefsky, Reginald Rose and Rod Serling. But then came a series of new media explosions that are still reverberating today — and reforming our world faster than we can process the alteration.

When I worked at Bantam Books, I became friends with Ian Ballantine, the company’s founder, whose office was near mine. Ian was in his late seventies, but unlike most people who have attained that age, he didn’t sit around grousing about some vanished “good old days.” He was the most forward-thinking septuagenarian I’ve ever known, embracing progress with the fervor of an adolescent. One day I asked him, what’s the biggest technological leap of your lifetime? Without hesitation he answered, “Aviation.” He batted the question back to me. “The personal computer,” I said. But that was some twenty years ago. Now I still wouldn’t hesitate, but my answer would be different. Now I’d have to say, “the Internet.”

We would still be restricted to processing words and slinging spreadsheets were it not for the power of near-instantaneous individual communication, which has come a long way in a short time. When Ian and I were chatting, a generation ago, I was Bantam’s titular editor for Arthur C. Clarke. Sadly, I didn’t get to work on any fiction with Sir Arthur, but there are many housekeeping duties inside a big publishing house that require regular contact — for example, we always informed the author and agent whenever a book of theirs went back to press. Occasionally I had questions. But I was in New York and Sir Arthur lived in Sri Lanka, halfway around the world. One day I noticed a PC connected to a dial-up modem, the only one on our floor. I brought in one of those formerly ubiquitous AOL disks and sent Sir Arthur an email. By the time I got to the office the next day, my answer was already waiting for me. We went back and forth like this, one emailing while the other slept. The main reason I remember this is that one of Arthur C. Clarke’s replies marveled at this new super-speedy form of communication; it was “so science fictional!” This from the man who proposed the geosynchronous communications satellite! And by now, having to wait overnight for a reply already seems rather quaint, doesn’t it?

Digital technology, and its communication at electronic speed, are upending entire industries and altering the way we process information. Mass media are still mass media, but we also consume them as private, individual acts: the great, almost unimaginable numbers of users represent an aggregate, not a coordinated movement. Pondering is becoming extinct: whenever a group is unable to remember a specific fact, somebody will whip out a smartphone and the answer is instants away. The major movie studios are now forced to focus on blockbusters, the presentation of spectacle, because contemporary home entertainment gear is getting close to replicating the experience of seeing a movie in a theater; it’s up to the moguls to top that somehow. The “Big Five” book publishers have all but abandoned the “midlist” in favor of “brand name” authors or newsmakers whose candles burn briefly indeed. Newspaper print editions are shrinking and dying, and with them goes local reportage that helps us sift truth from chatter.

Certainly there are upsides. The rise of digital media can be empowering. You might not have $100 million to spend on a superhero movie, but it’s cheaper and faster to shoot a modestly-budgeted independent film than ever before. You no longer need to pay a kingly hourly rate to a fancy recording studio or mastering plant. You can self-publish a book and have it on sale at the largest retailer on earth within a few minutes. You can become your own newspaper, specializing on a location or niche interest. Even radio is making a comeback with the rise of podcasts. There’s lots to love.

The problem is that media are inundating us, faster and faster, led by the din of “commenters” whom we’d cross the room to escape at any cocktail party — yet when we do escape them we escape dissenting views, which isn’t healthy for a society. We can feel our own attention spans contracting; what will life be like for children who have never known anything else? When will we finally lose the patience to sit through a two-hour movie, let alone a 500-page book? Or pay attention to somebody with whom we emphatically disagree?

All we know for sure is that we don’t know. “The medium is the message,” said Marshall McLuhan (I just confirmed the spelling of his last name on Google), but with a world’s worth of information at our fingertips, maybe instead it’s become the massage: lulling us into thinking we’re smarter and more erudite than we actually are. Absent a nuclear attack’s electromagnetic pulse, there’s no going back. We’re headed into a world almost unthinkable only a quarter century ago, moving faster than the ability of most futurists to speculate. We can only watch in wonder and try our best to enjoy the ride.

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My Sundance 2019

February 11, 2019

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We played tag with the polar vortex this year: we barely got out of Dodge and spent an hour on the tarmac as horizontal snow poured, plows worked the runway, and we were de-iced. The next day there were subzero wind chills in New York, but we were already out West, where we missed a huge snowfall and came back just before Park City slipped into the teens. By that time it was damn near balmy back home. I like weather that cooperates.

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THE TOMORROW MAN*** (World Premiere) The first feature by Noble Jones, a veteran of music videos and second-unit crews (including THE SOCIAL NETWORK). It’s a romance, fairly b-flat in structure, but with one interesting twist: the couple are seniors. John Lithgow is an end-of-the-world “prepper” who spends his money on survivalist goods rather than the medications he needs, and Blythe Danner is still suffering from the long-ago trauma of losing her daughter. These sad sacks clearly need some help, and they find it in each other. There are complications, of course — boy has to lose girl in the classic plot — but they’re back together for a startling ending you’ll remember more than the body of the picture. 

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LIGHT FROM LIGHT** An investigator of paranormal events, a single mom who has had dreams that predict the future, is introduced to a new widower who suspects that his wife is haunting their farmhouse. This is a quiet movie which is all about mood, with tightly controlled performances by Marin Ireland and Jim Gaffigan that fairly blend into the east Tennessee setting. Their characters are full of regret but cling to the possibility of discovering something outside their understanding. This film is less chilling than it is calming, and that can wear on the viewer. 

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SHARE*** (Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award, Special Jury Award for Achievement in Acting: Rhianne Barreto) Lately there have been interesting attempts by artists to address the effect of social media on youth culture. It’s a phenomenon that’s still developing, but films like SEARCHING, EIGHTH GRADE and INGRID GOES WEST at least manage to propose the topic. Here, a high-school sophomore has too much to drink at a party, and cell-phone videos of her half-dressed and incoherent go viral but she can’t remember a thing. Who took them? Did anything worse happen? Should she bring the law into this situation? Will she ever be able to live it down? Writer-director Pippa Bianco and a delicate performance by Rhianne Barreto peg the girl’s confusion and disorientation as the situation metastasizes at electronic speed. Compellingly, she is surrounded by people with good intentions, including her parents, but it’s as if you first have to identify a problem before you can begin to solve it offline.

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THE MUSTANG*** (World Premiere) A hulking convict who shuns human contact enters a rehabilitation program in which prisoners train wild mustangs in the Nevada desert. As he becomes a horseman, he discovers that he can see himself in the eyes of a particularly unruly animal. I guess the astonishing THE RIDER spoiled me, because despite the best efforts of all concerned, I had a little trouble buying the training process: to me, it felt like five minutes or so was missing. One moment he manages to touch his horse, then the cut is to him riding with a saddle — we didn’t get to see any gradual progress. Still, Matthias Schoenaerts does a fine job in the lead, even a lot of convincing riding. Though this is a work of fiction, there are actual programs like this in several states in the Southwest. The mustang as metaphor is a bit on-the-nose, but it contributes to a touching conclusion.

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THE FAREWELL***** My favorite movie this year. As a title card explains, it’s “based on a true lie.” The beloved grandmother of an assimilated Chinese-American woman is diagnosed with terminal lung cancer, but per Chinese custom her relatives decide not to tell her so that her final days will be happy ones. Instead, they schedule a wedding back in China which will also serve as a reunion — and, secretly, a chance to say goodbye to “Nai Nai.” This situation actually happened to writer-director Lulu Wang (thus the “true lie”), and the notion of grandma giddy with delight at being surrounded by far-off family while everyone else is choking back tears lends itself to both guffaws and sniffles in Wang’s deft hands. Awkwafina is terrific as the director’s surrogate. Much of the picture takes place in China and is in Mandarin with subtitles (the American family is fluent in English but nobody much else is). But despite the exotic location and the language barrier (and of course the central custom which does not translate to the West), you’re constantly made aware of the universality of human experience. You discover much more in common with this Eastern clan than differences: this could be your family. 

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TO THE STARS**** In a small Oklahoma town in the mid-Sixties, a mousy schoolgirl strikes up a friendship with the new girl, a charismatic charmer who coaxes her inner self forward. That’s the bare-bones description, but this beautiful film is far more subtle. At the edge of the coming-of-age story is the role of women in what might as well be the Fifties but is soon about to change. The actress Kara Hayward, who plays the nerd, is actually gorgeous, and is debeautified until she can blossom on camera, but we have come to accept that in the fantasy world of the movies. The sublime black-and-white cinematography makes it look as if the picture had been shot during the period. It’s an actor’s piece, with fine work by everyone, but particularly affecting is Tony Hale, playing way against type.

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BRITTANY RUNS A MARATHON**** (Audience Award: U.S. Dramatic) A fictionalized version of writer-director Paul Downs Colaizzo’s real-life best friend is a “hot mess” who finally gets tired of fat-shaming and begins training to run the New York City Marathon along with two pals. It doesn’t go smoothly. She is played to perfection by Jillian Bell, who kicks everything off with a brilliant bit of wise-assy rat-a-tat improv as she tears tickets at an off-off-Broadway theater. From there humor and pathos swirl around each other (Colaizzo is an award-winning playwright and it shows) as we cross our fingers in honor of the young woman’s grit and determination. There are some prosthetics used in the earliest scenes, but Bell actually took weight off during the shoot. This is a real crowd pleaser and will be a tonic for anyone who doesn’t yet accept that, yes, you can take charge of your own life.

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TROOP ZERO** (World Premiere) This movie is so derivative that you can actually pitch it as a High Concept: “REVENGE OF THE NERDS, but with Brownies.” We’re in rural Georgia in 1977, and a nine-year-old moppet who’s obsessed with space discovers that the winner of the upcoming “Birdie Jamboree” talent show will get to record a message to any ETs for NASA’s Voyager project. At first she tries to join the existing troop, but she’s far too unhip for the snobbish Birdies, so she uses a loophole in their rules to form her own ragtag troop of lovable misfits, etc etc. The flick’s greatest asset is a glowing Mckenna Grace as the young instigator. The likes of Viola Davis, Jim Gaffigan and Allison Janney (as the snooty school principal) cannot rise above the material, which nevertheless may very well be enjoyable and even empowering for girls of the troop’s age.

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THE BOY WHO HARNESSED THE WIND**** (World Premiere) (Alfred P. Sloan Prize) A terrific true story of ingenuity and determination, written and directed by Chiwetel Ejiofor, who makes you mad that somebody who looks that good can also be that talented. A young boy in Malawi, raised by hardscrabble farmers (the director plays his father), shows tremendous aptitude in school, particularly in the area of electronics. When forest-clearing and poor weather conspire to cause a famine, he researches a possible solution in the school library, even surreptitiously after he is expelled because his parents can no longer afford tuition. Ejiofor draws a heartbreaking picture of a good man who understands the value of education for his children, but has no time for theoretics when he’s trying to stave off starvation. Dick Pope’s location cinematography is gorgeous, and Maxwell Simba in the title role is a real find. 

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EXTREMELY WICKED, SHOCKINGLY EVIL AND VILE*** (World Premiere) The documentarian Joe Berlinger dramatizes the multi-state rampage of pretty-boy serial killer Ted Bundy, with pretty-boy Zach Efron doing the acting honors. But for the most part the camera averts its eye from murder and mayhem in favor of Ted’s longtime relationship with single mom Liz Kloepfer (Lily Collins), who only gradually begins to realize that the wonderful, daughter-loving law student she’s been seeing might actually be a vicious sociopath. Efron’s Bundy seems over the top until some of the actual footage (his murder trial in Florida was the first one covered by a camera) during the end-credit roll reveals that, as far as the public appearances, Berlinger is more replicating than inventing. The title comes from the mouth of Bundy’s judge, played here by John Malkovich. This movie is well made but only intermittently interesting, unless you really care to know what it was like to be Ted Bundy’s girlfriend. Bundy’s dual personality (he’s a lady-killer in more ways than one, but only the public face is presented here: you have to infer the monster) gives Efron a lot to chew on, and he masticates his ass off.

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THE REPORT**** (World Premiere) Behind the scenes as Senate staffers investigate the CIA’s Detention and Interrogation Program instigated after 9/11. Adam Driver plays Daniel Jones, a driven aide to Sen. Dianne Feinstein (Annette Bening, very fine), who becomes ever more scandalized by the use of “EIT,” or “enhanced interrogation techniques,” the CIA’s infamous euphemism for torture. Writer-director Scott Z. Burns shows just enough horrifying EIT in flashback to give us the idea without descending into torture porn, but this is mainly a bureaucratic battle, one yobbo against a powerful army of stonewalling spooks. The great Ted Levine is the film’s smarmy bad guy — the CIA director! As we now know, EIT are brutal, immoral and ineffective, even though there are still some die-hard fans today (Donald Trump seems to be one). I knew very little about the machinations behind how we came to understand the atrocities which were once perpetrated in our names, and though this is not a documentary, it gave me a better idea of the enormity of the struggle.

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LATE NIGHT**** (World Premiere) A charming confection that should be very popular, thanks to star power and a familiar subject: tv talk shows. In this movie fantasy world, there is a female late-night host, played by Emma Thompson with hilarious crotchety imperiousness (she assigns numbers to her writers so she won’t have to remember their names). She has had a long, successful run but is showing signs of creative decay, so is goaded into a writers-room “diversity hire,” a funny young woman of color played by the movie’s screenwriter, Mindy Kaling. You can tell where the story’s going to go within the first five minutes, but it’s still fun to see it happen, and Thompson is obviously having a wonderful time as the Cruella de Vil of television. The script is very sharp and full of insider authenticity. It’s the closest thing to a commercial slam-dunk that I saw this year.

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THE SOUVENIR* (Grand Jury Prize: World Dramatic) One of those jury mysteries that reminded Sundance old-timers of the notorious PRIMER, which inexplicably won two awards fifteen years ago. This turgid, improvisatory goulash is about a naive filmmaker who has the misfortune to share her first love affair with a horrible person who soaks her dry financially and emotionally. The actress is Tilda Swinton’s daughter, and mom also appears. Watching this movie is a debilitating chore; it feels twice as long as it is. And for one final shock, get this: according to IMDb, there’s a sequel in pre-production!

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ONE CHILD NATION**** (Grand Jury Prize: U.S. Documentary) A fascinating and frightening documentary on the effects of China’s One Child Policy, which forcibly restricted family size for more than thirty years for fear of overpopulation, but was then rescinded when it had the opposite effect. Directors Nanfu Wang and Jialing Zhang emphasize the tragedy visited on individual human beings. The concept of being prohibited from raising more than one child is almost incomprehensible to Americans, but the loss of that freedom is only the first of the consequences, many of them horrific. Forced sterilization is rampant. Unauthorized infants, nearly all girls, are abandoned in public markets so frequently that a cottage adoption industry forms. One woman who was responsible for thousands of state-sponsored abortions, even murders, bears such a burden that she became a midwife and now strives to bring forth lives that she once ended. The relentless propaganda machine that supported this policy is on view, with freshly-scrubbed performers spouting the party line in song. Wang, a new mother herself, has her child in tow as she learns secrets from her own family’s past, making her investigation intensely personal. An eye-opening revelation about a holocaust that happened under Westerners’ radar.

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CLEMENCY**** (Grand Jury Prize: U.S. Dramatic) A searing drama about capital punishment. It begins with a botched execution, shown in detail so we get familiar with the procedure, which will be vital at the climax. Alfre Woodard is the female (a nice touch, courtesy of director-screenwriter Chinonye Chukwu) warden of a maximum-security prison, and she has presided over so much sanctioned carnage that it’s eating away at her soul. It’s becoming harder to snap out of it and relate to her husband (a terrific Wendell Pierce). Meanwhile, the next final date is looming for an inmate with whom the warden is forming a personal bond — always counterindicated on death row. Prison dramas are full of meaty parts, but I was really struck by Aldis Hodge as the inmate; he’s been working for some time now but I’d never seen him before. He’s sensational in this flick. Chukwu maintains a foreboding intensity that never lets up, even when we mercifully escape the prison for domestic scenes at the warden’s home. A fine job.

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KNOCK DOWN THE HOUSE*** (Audience Award: U.S. Documentary) A fly-on-the-wall look at the long-shot candidacies of four women in the 2018 midterm elections. We watch them campaigning, speaking, working the phones, juggling home life with the all-consuming challenges they have accepted. The bad news is that three of the women — Amy Vilela in Nevada, Cori Bush in Missouri and Paula Jean Swearengin in West Virginia — lost their elections. The good news is that the fourth is New York’s Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. I assume there’s lots of unused footage of the first three candidates, but Ocasio-Cortez’s stunning victory over ten-term incumbent Congressman Joe Crowley was the biggest upset of the year and, with the full benefit of hindsight, she dominates the movie. One thing all four women had in common were patronizing, well-connected opponents; another was the fierce conviction that the system was broken and that the solution was ordinary citizens presenting themselves for office. They were right: even the valiant campaigns of the losers make you feel better about your country.

WISH I’D SEEN: BLINDED BY THE LIGHT, HAIL SATAN?, I AM MOTHER, LITTLE MONSTERS, MEMORY: THE ORIGINS OF ALIEN, RAISE HELL: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF MOLLY IVINS, THEM THAT FOLLOW

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Celebrity Killed The Radio Star

January 18, 2019

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One of the most moving, most significant, most powerful books I’ve read over the last few years is mainly made up of illustrations. It’s the remarkable ALL THE ANSWERS, a “graphic memoir” by Michael Kupperman, and I strongly urge you to give it a spin.

The author is not new to me. I published Michael Kupperman’s first book, SNAKE ’N’ BACON’S CARTOON CABARET, nearly twenty years ago. We had noticed his work in such publications as the Oxford American, and every time we saw another cheerily demented comic strip we wound up wiping tears of laughter from our faces. Mike has a straight-laced, almost retro drawing style that you can tell a mile away (by now, others are obviously trying to imitate it). But the cultural melange roiling around in his brain is unique, charming and dangerous. He loves old Hollywood, old media (heavy-breathing magazine ads from the Thirties and Forties are a huge inspiration), mass marketing to innocents, deliberately absurd juxtapositions — you can’t possibly get ahead of him before you turn the page.

Either you love this stuff to death or you want to throw it across the room. Some people at the publisher where I worked were far from smitten, but to their credit they said, we don’t get it, but we get that you get it. I got the green light and set out to find the guy who signed his work “P. Revess” by calling those magazines and asking, where do you send the checks? Turned out they headed right here, to New York City, to a guy named “Michael Kupperman.” When I called him to ask about his interest in possibly doing a book, I detected a hint of suspicion, the do-you-have-Prince-Albert-in-a-can type. But I proved my bona fides and we made a deal. No agent, no nuthin.

The book sold modestly but steadily (it’s still in print after all this time, which is an achievement on its own), but more important, it introduced Mike to a growing and influential audience. Art directors loved his funky visual style: I started to see his spot illustrations in unexpected places like the New Yorker. One week he did the cover and interior color illos for the lead story in an issue of Fortune. He was all over the place outside the comics field for a while. 

He was also getting noticed in the world of comedy. Andy Richter, Conan O’Brien’s original sidekick, was such an early fan that he gave us a quote for our book cover. Conan himself called Mike “probably one of the greatest comedy brains on the planet.” Robert Smigel, who is also probably one of the greatest comedy brains on the planet, heartily agreed and adapted some wild stuff for his TV FUNHOUSE, and Michael Kupperman was officially hip. There’s since been more tv, more illustration, more comics, and in 2013 Mike won the Eisner Award, comics’ highest honor, for a fevered, off-the-scale-hilarious story about the 1969 moon landing in his book TALES DESIGNED TO THRIZZLE.

I’ve been following Mike’s career as best I could in the years since we worked together. I’m proud of him. But nothing prepared me for this latest dazzler. It comes from someplace deep inside the artist, an excruciatingly personal corner where he hasn’t allowed us before. As the flap copy calmly states, “This is his first serious book.” 

Nearly every creative person I’ve ever encountered, myself certainly included, loves it when s/he is credited by name. A couple times I casually asked Mike why he’d usually gone by a pseudonym instead and never got a straight answer. Maybe this book provides a clue. I didn’t know it, but there was a time when “Kupperman” was one of the most famous surnames in America. It belonged to an unwitting pioneer of celebrity culture, a child star whose popularity was launched and exploited by the mass medium of radio. This was Michael’s father, Joel Kupperman. He was a Quiz Kid — probably the best known Quiz Kid of them all.

Joel was a “child prodigy” when that term was still new. He scored better than 200 on the Stanford-Binet test when he was only six years old. His specialty was doing complex mathematical calculations in his head; he was also a maven at trivia and remembered nearly everything he read. He was a perfect fit for QUIZ KIDS, a radio program created by broadcasting executive Louis G. Cowan (the author calls him “almost certainly the smartest person in this book”) in which children answered questions sent in by listeners. Joel’s first appearance was in 1942; he was five. 

Today Joel is a grandfather. He spent fifty years teaching and writing books about philosophy. He has been a good man, neither an abuser nor philanderer, but to his son lamentably distant. Now, before Joel succumbs to the dementia that has just been diagnosed, the young Kupperman wants to open a subject which his father has compartmentalized and never discussed: the traumatic years on QUIZ KIDS which basically stole his childhood, tormented him as he grew out of single-digit cuteness and the show migrated to television, and caused him to recoil from the whole experience. 

The complexities which intertwine to form this saga include the state of mass media in the mid-twentieth century, Joel’s stern and smothering stage mother, the role of anti-Semitism on QUIZ KIDS, the high price of fame, and most searingly, the poignant real-life relationship between a wounded father and his son, who is by now raising his own young boy. These strands dart and weave and intersect in magical ways: ALL THE ANSWERS turns on a dime from humor to heartbreak. 

It looks simple, but looks are deceiving. The pages are trimmed to 6-by-9, just like a book full of words. It’s drawn in black-and-white (as was the book we did together). The illustrative style is Kupperman-clean, with slightly more ornate chapter-heading ”splash pages,” and show off how the artist can conjure familiar people from real life with just a few economical lines (a secret cache of scrapbooks assiduously kept by Joel’s mother provides all the contemporary source material needed). The first-person narration is active, impassioned, haunting and honest, a world away from the hyperventilating wisenheimer of gonzo Kupperman comics.

The text in ALL THE ANSWERS is so clear that it serves to emphasize the rich subtext. Ideas, emotions, relationships, issues, injustices, yearnings — they all pop off the pages in deeply human ways. It appears to be hand-lettered, though I’ll bet there’s a computer involved by now, but this isn’t a comic book. It’s exactly what it claims to be: a graphic memoir. The closest cousin I can think of is Alison Bechdel’s FUN HOME, but this feels even more basic and vital, and you can’t stop comparing the World War II years — QUIZ KIDS’s golden age — with our culture today. As you read, Michael Kupperman’s very personal world expands to encompass your own. 

Artists are supposed to startle and surprise us. Boy, did this book deliver. I didn’t know Michael Kupperman had it in him. I’ll be thinking about this for a long time, especially while reading this talented man’s next outrageous bit of goofiness, which I hope comes along very soon. (He’s got an agent now.) It’ll be even more fun now that I know the guy a little better.


My 10 Favorite Theatre Pieces Of 2018

January 2, 2019

FLIGHT. One of the damndest things I ever saw in my life. You sit alone in a dark individual cubicle with headphones on. For the next 45 minutes, a series of tiny dioramas passes by inches from your face, illustrating the harrowing years-long journey of two young Afghan refugees as they try to make their way through the Mideast and Europe to London. The scenes are sequentially lit in sync with a pulse-pounding audio track voice-acted to perfection. Twenty-two others ring the giant turntable in their own cubicles. They’re all watching at other points in the story as the mechanism wheels around in its near-hour clockwise circuit. It’s amazing technically: the miniature model work is astonishing, and brilliant lighting effects and forced perspective add to the drama. It’s also amazing theatrically, because nothing — nothing — gets between you and the wrenching story (an adaptation of the novel HINTERLAND). It was produced by Vox Motus, a group of Glaswegian geniuses who killed with this piece at the Edinburgh Festival. Wow.

GIRL FROM THE NORTH COUNTRY. Bob Dylan + Conor McPherson = Sublime. It’s set in a boarding house in Duluth, Minnesota, Dylan’s birthplace, but during the Great Depression, long before the bard was born; we’re in deep Woody Guthrie territory. Dylan’s songs, most but not all chosen from the Seventies and Eighties, are made to sound prettier than ever without sacrificing one ounce of grit. The tunes serve the story rather than vice versa. Sometimes the dramatic arc creates a wrenching change: “Like A Rolling Stone” is here performed as more of an elegy than Dylan’s own acerbic revenge fantasy. Other times you’re just happy to relax into the lilt of a song, as with a gorgeous “Sweetheart Like You.” (INFIDELS, well represented here, is my favorite unsung Dylan album.) It’s hard to describe. I need a cast recording to fully explain it to you. But I knew this was one of my top moments while I was sitting there

HARRY POTTER AND THE CURSED CHILD PARTS I AND II. We couldn’t beg decent tix here in New York, so we decided to go to London over Thanksgiving to see it. (We discovered that Jimi Hendrix and G. F. Handel were next-door neighbors on that same trip!) We read the script when it was first published, but our aging brains had forgotten everything except the BIG REVEAL. (“Keep The Secrets” is the production’s mantra.) All we’d retained was the feeling that if they can reproduce this stuff on stage, we are so there. (They can, and we were.) Either you’ve bought in to Harry Potter or you haven’t. Let’s just say that there’s a generational twist which pretty much tracks the lives of the franchise’s original fans, and finally they are justifiably able to use the word “awesome!” correctly. No more details. It’s the spectacle that SPIDER-MAN: TURN OFF THE DARK wanted to be, and then some.

HELLO, DOLLY! It’s a rare treat to see a live musical artist who can suck the oxygen out of a room just by walking on. For me, Elvis, Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Springsteen. Now I have to add Bette Midler. This is far from my favorite musical, but Midler absolutely controlled the crowd every single second. They worship her not just for her body of work, but because this happens to be the perfect vehicle for her unique brand of showmanship. David Hyde Pierce struggled with a cold the night I saw it and was probably really good when he was at 100%, but face it, you don’t buy a ticket to see Horace Vandergelder. I wouldn’t have gone at all had some friends not goaded me into it (repeat; I’m not a big fan of the show). I would have thus let a huge opportunity get away from me. They’ll be talking about this for a long time. Jiminy crickets: what a Broadway baby.

JOHN LITHGOW: STORIES BY HEART. Sometimes the most powerful moments are the simplest — in fact, that’s precisely what makes them resonate. This is a one-man show in which the accomplished theatrical craftsman talks a little bit about his life, but mainly he tells us two stories: Ring Lardner’s “Haircut” and P. G. Wodehouse’s “Uncle Fred Flits By.” The first is a masterpiece of verbal sound effects and atmosphere; Lithgow makes us hear the barber’s razor against his strop and the snip-snip of his profession as his monologue gradually tells us more about him than we really wanted to know. The second piece is one of the funniest things in the English language, and upper-class British drollery rolls off Lithgow’s tongue delightfully, to what we hope is also the delight of his father. For this is how the senior Lithgow entertained his son early in life — and during his final days the roles were reversed, using the very short-story volume which the actor brandishes on stage. So it’s an entertainment, but also deeply personal. The combination is electric.

ON BECKETT. Bill Irwin, that great actor and clown (he wears the latter description as an honor sash), leads us on a 90-minute tour through the minds of both Samuel Beckett and himself. Quoting liberally from TEXTS FOR NOTHING, WATT, THE UNNAMEABLE, and the “booger” of a masterpiece, WAITING FOR GODOT, Irwin opens his own heart and presents a difficult artist’s genius before us in a way that anyone can understand and appreciate. Plus there is the physical clowning, which in Irwin’s self-directed hands is the throughput of the show. The highly informed earnestness reminded me of how deeply my friend John Maxwell was affected by the work of William Faulkner, so much so that he felt compelled to tell others about it, and so we came to write a theatrical monologue together that wound up changing the course of his life. I sense that same inner gravitas here. I am dying to see the next production of GODOT that comes my way, because Irwin has opened up so much depth to me. He also gave me an inkling into what it’s like to choose acting as a passion and profession, undressing simple technique and then injecting real artistry, with Beckett’s newly fraught words as a backdrop. The prose is sometimes so impenetrable that you just have to zone out and enjoy sheer musicality without parsing for meaning, but your interest never wanes. Tiny theater (the Irish Rep), big concepts. We left stunned, grateful, and happy.

SAKINA’S RESTAURANT. I saw this only two days after the Bill Irwin, so, with Lithgow, I have to say this year one-man shows frickin ruled. Aasif Mandvi (you may recognize him from THE DAILY SHOW) first mounted this beauty twenty years ago, and it hasn’t aged a day. He appears as Azgi, an Indian who has the chance to move to New York and work at a family restaurant. Then, one by one, he morphs into the restaurant’s owner, his wife, the place’s namesake daughter, her fiancé, etc. It’s the immigrant experience from deep inside an “America” (presciently, never “United States”) that most can never apprehend. Like most improv artists, Mandvi is first and foremost an actor, able to clothe a completely new character with nothing more than a scarf and precise body language. This production is part of Audible’s solo theatrical series, so if you dig down deep into the internets, you will find a way to hear it. I wish you could have been there to see it.

THREE TALL WOMEN. Great work by three terrific actors in this revival of a Pulitzer winner, but the revelation is that Glenda Jackson has become a grande dame! She owned this show; she was utterly magnificent as the eldest incarnation of the same person. Laurie Metcalf and Alison Pill, as her earlier selves, are aces too. We were in the front row and Ms. Pill expectorated upon us with a plosive P, but we didn’t mind. Joe Mantello’s wonderful staging cleverly collapsed the play’s two acts into one. I took this picture of Paul Gallo’s lovely set afterwards. 

TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD. I knew this was going to be easy for critics to pick apart, and the day after opening the New York Times’s Jesse Green (the raver) and the Wall Street Journal’s Terry Teachout (the grouch) published diametrically opposed reviews, even down to their views of a more slavish 1991 staging that Teachout preferred to this one. Aaron Sorkin has fooled around a bit with Harper Lee’s immortal source novel, going straight to the trial and cutting away periodically, and he’s made some background characters firmer in their resolve. But the heart of the book and its moral tutelage remain pure in his fine adaptation. The three children at the story’s center are played by adults, but the conceit works. Jeff Daniels, who used to spit out Sorkinisms as a broadcaster on HBO’S THE NEWSROOM, brings a James-Stewart everyman quality to Atticus Finch, a Southerner who tries to see the good inside even his tormentors. I think it was time for this play to appear; I heard gasps from audience members who clearly were not familiar with the story. I’ll bet some of them are later moved to pick up the book.

TWELFTH NIGHT. A joyous populist adaptation with clever, tuneful music and lyrics by Shaina Taub (center), who also plays Feste, the clown. There were a dozen or so pros in the main roles, and then an ensemble of about 100 (kids, vets, caregivers, ex-cons, deaf actors, and more) culled from arts & educational organizations all over the five boroughs — split into two groups which played on alternate nights during the show’s five-week run. The 23 songs are original but feel confident and alive. Each Labor Day a similar production is mounted by the Public Theater’s Public Works project, but this year they got the whole theater as the second featured slot in the summer’s Free Shakespeare in the Park program. ASL is gorgeously treated as choreography throughout; the feeling of joy and empowerment washes off the stage and into the audience, which has already spent the pre-show minutes up on stage at an “Illyrian street fair” with cast members. There will certainly be snobs who object to the 100-minute brevity and the songs, which help audience members keep up with the plot. But this is a visual demonstration of what the Public is all about, and it’s nothing short of thrilling. Shaina Taub will one day be a household name in the theatre: she’s that good. But these insistent tableaux of affirmation and achievement constantly erupt. They couldn’t possibly happen anywhere else than right before your eyes. And all of this took place outdoors on a fine summer night in Central Park. Magfrickinificent.

ALSO NOTABLE: THE DEAD, 1904 (you go inside James Joyce’s famous dinner party as a guest!); THE FERRYMAN (a stout Irish family drama which will seduce you and then impale you); THE HARD PROBLEM (Tom Stoppard is an international treasure); KING KONG (ape scenes only, but ALL the ape scenes, especially the one in which Kong shambles WAY downstage to violate the audience’s space); NETWORK (for Bryan Cranston and some hip video effects, otherwise I preferred the movie in almost every way); THE WAVERLY GALLERY (I usually avoid “senile dementia“ stories b/c they cut too close to home, but Kenneth Lonergan nailed both the humor and the horror, and that was Elaine Frickin May up there!)

 

My Favorite Theatre In:

2017


Mex Without Tex

December 14, 2018

In Oaxaca I wanted to make sure to do two things: eat grasshoppers and drink mezcal. Nailed em both. 

The tiniest hoppers taste and chew like very salty sunflower seeds. They’re a great source of protein and may become one of the precious few remaining if Exxon & pals manage to ravage the rest of the biosphere. Get used to it. I did.

As I learned, mezcal — the speciality of the state of Oaxaca — is not tequila, though both come from the same agave plant (and the part you need is buried underground, it looks like a huge pineapple when uncovered). But the place we visited treated its wares more like wine: we had a tasting of five or six different pours, each of which came from a different strain of agave, and we could really tell the difference! (No worms in the bottle, but if you insist, you can enjoy chopped agave worms at any decent restaurant.)

We went to the woodcarving shop where Miguel’s mom from COCO actually works! Well, the model on which Pixar’s pixies based the character. (They spent four years in Oaxaca researching the movie.) But shoot, she was off that day. 

I did learn that my spiritual animal is the coyote. Each visitor was assigned their animal based on the day and date of birth. Exit thru the gift shop — but, si, it worked, there is a tiny carved coyote in my home today. And at a magnificent pottery studio I saw a Day Of The Dead skull which I took home too.

There are many more artisans in and around Oaxaca City, including some of the finest weavers you will ever behold. And the Mexican food is astonishing because everything is pure and fresh. (Still, you have to be careful with the tap water.) 

One year ago we were watching COCO at one of those Barfalounger theaters in La Jolla. I think that affected our decision to visit the source. I was delighted by our found wisdom. 

Unlike all the other photos, this one was shot in my home in New York. ¡Viva Oaxaca!



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