In Memoriam

Indian Liberals Must Die

Indian Liberals Must Die

On Gauri Lankesh and the vernacular Indian left

Liberal snobbery is real, and it’s worth dismantling, but real elitism is claiming that the vernacular radical, the secular laboring man, the socialist with military service, or the atheist with bad English cannot exist; as if those subjectivities can only be produced by Moet and a master’s degree.

Gonna Try for the Kingdom if I Can

Gonna Try for the Kingdom if I Can

On Denis Johnson, 1949–2017

For all of its glorious derangement—hallucinatory tales of druggies and low-lives and murderers and fuck-ups, including a guy so far gone his friends all call him “Fuckhead”—Denis Johnson’s writing is always rooted in the conviction that life is sacred, that evil is a symptom of suffering, which is to say of estrangement from the sacred.

Relating to or Resembling a Peacock

Relating to or Resembling a Peacock

Recent and not-so-recent music

There is perhaps no working musician in whose case the asymmetry between critical accolades and actual musical content is so steep and acute, and so misleading. Stephin Merritt’s music is flat, gray, unmemorable, and “melodic” only in most contrived sense; his melodies seem to scream “I am writing a song in a usually disposable medium that is usually meant for mere entertainment but I am smart and special and this is meant to be real art.”

A Liquid State

A Liquid State

In Memory of Alexis Arquette

The always deferential Huffington Post noted at the end of its article on Alexis Arquette’s death that it had “reached out to a representative for Alexis for further clarification on how the actor identified at the time of death.”

The Last Last Summer

The Last Last Summer

Donald Trump and the Fall of Atlantic City

All along the Boardwalk, the sun-bleached tattered banners read do ac—the city’s latest marketing catchphrase. The Boardwalk was a scrum of such imperatives, with Trumps on every side issuing edicts, diktats, offering bargains. Trumps in toupees and with their guts hanging over their change-belts, out on Steel Pier, out on Central Pier, trying to get me to try the ring-toss, though the rubber rings always bounce off the rubber bottles, or to try the beanbag-pitch, though the lily pads they’re supposed to land on are kept wet and slippery with a shammy. Try Fralinger’s Salt Water Taffy, which contains no saltwater. Step right up and I’ll guess your weight, or at least I’ll make your wallet lighter. What American literature taught me—what Melville taught me in The Confidence-Man, what Poe taught me in Diddling, that imagination or fantasy can be a form a greed, even a uniquely American form—the shills and carny barkers taught me first, at $2 a lesson: I would never win that stuffed elephant.

Kiarostami and <em>The Purge</em>

Kiarostami and The Purge

All the things Kiarostami could not show in his films became the only things Hollywood filmmakers chose to show in theirs.

All of a sudden The Purge: Election Year became a stand-in for America’s violent, cynical, stupid cinema—the exact opposite of everything Kiarostami stood for and everything he achieved over four and a half decades of filmmaking in Iran and elsewhere.

On Jenny Diski

On Jenny Diski

1947–2016

Jenny Diski was my friend. We exchanged a flood of ideas during her preparations for her 2013 book, What I Don’t Know About Animals. I am re-reading parts of our exchange now—the writing, by some sort of magic I’ll never really understand, continues to live. The preoccupations we shared, at least at the time, were: animals; humans; the vague boundaries of what constituted cannibalism (she brought up the rumor that Keith Richards had snorted the ashes of his own father, which plainly trumped my example of tuberculosis patients getting prescriptions, well into the 19th century, to drink the blood of executed prisoners); our reclusiveness; and, occasionally, our day-to-day accomplishments, travails, and happinesses.

Outlaw Country

Outlaw Country

Merle Haggard, 1937–2016

The complexities of Merle Haggard were bound up with the complexities of a baffling political moment, when old rules had been destroyed without new ones being written, a time when everything seemed frustrating but anything seemed possible. But there is nothing inherently redemptive about flux or paradox. It’s nice to know that some George Wallace voters had a kind word for the Communists, just as it’s nice that Haggard followed “Okie from Muskogee” with “Irma Jackson,” a sympathetic portrayal of an interracial romance. But in the end Wallace-style fusion of redistributive populism with open racism crippled progressive politics in this country. There is no reason to forgive Haggard for singing “I ain’t never been on welfare / that’s one place I won’t be,” or “I wasn’t born and raised in no ghetto / just a white boy looking for a place to do my thing.”

For Chantal Akerman

For Chantal Akerman

The “suspended, unproductive time” (in Crary’s phrase) of ordinary people was Chantal’s subject. She has ended up a Simone Weil of the cinema, as her film je, tu, il, elle seems in retrospect to predict she would, an artist hyperaware and sensitive to the world around her, one she apparently couldn’t take anymore.

On Robert Ashley

On Robert Ashley

The sound of Americans talking to each other, or talking to themselves

In 1981, promotional ads for something called “Music Television” started hitting in the US with the tagline: “You’ll never look at music the same way again.” Around the same time appeared a pilot video for something called Perfect Lives: A Television Opera by American composer Robert Ashley. Ashley was light-years from the video hit parade of MTV, but he too wanted to make music television.

Indian Liberals Must Die

Indian Liberals Must Die

On Gauri Lankesh and the vernacular Indian left

Liberal snobbery is real, and it’s worth dismantling, but real elitism is claiming that the vernacular radical, the secular laboring man, the socialist with military service, or the atheist with bad English cannot exist; as if those subjectivities can only be produced by Moet and a master’s degree.

Gonna Try for the Kingdom if I Can

Gonna Try for the Kingdom if I Can

On Denis Johnson, 1949–2017

For all of its glorious derangement—hallucinatory tales of druggies and low-lives and murderers and fuck-ups, including a guy so far gone his friends all call him “Fuckhead”—Denis Johnson’s writing is always rooted in the conviction that life is sacred, that evil is a symptom of suffering, which is to say of estrangement from the sacred.

Relating to or Resembling a Peacock

Relating to or Resembling a Peacock

Recent and not-so-recent music

There is perhaps no working musician in whose case the asymmetry between critical accolades and actual musical content is so steep and acute, and so misleading. Stephin Merritt’s music is flat, gray, unmemorable, and “melodic” only in most contrived sense; his melodies seem to scream “I am writing a song in a usually disposable medium that is usually meant for mere entertainment but I am smart and special and this is meant to be real art.”

A Liquid State

A Liquid State

In Memory of Alexis Arquette

The always deferential Huffington Post noted at the end of its article on Alexis Arquette’s death that it had “reached out to a representative for Alexis for further clarification on how the actor identified at the time of death.”

The Last Last Summer

The Last Last Summer

Donald Trump and the Fall of Atlantic City

All along the Boardwalk, the sun-bleached tattered banners read do ac—the city’s latest marketing catchphrase. The Boardwalk was a scrum of such imperatives, with Trumps on every side issuing edicts, diktats, offering bargains. Trumps in toupees and with their guts hanging over their change-belts, out on Steel Pier, out on Central Pier, trying to get me to try the ring-toss, though the rubber rings always bounce off the rubber bottles, or to try the beanbag-pitch, though the lily pads they’re supposed to land on are kept wet and slippery with a shammy. Try Fralinger’s Salt Water Taffy, which contains no saltwater. Step right up and I’ll guess your weight, or at least I’ll make your wallet lighter. What American literature taught me—what Melville taught me in The Confidence-Man, what Poe taught me in Diddling, that imagination or fantasy can be a form a greed, even a uniquely American form—the shills and carny barkers taught me first, at $2 a lesson: I would never win that stuffed elephant.

Kiarostami and <em>The Purge</em>

Kiarostami and The Purge

All the things Kiarostami could not show in his films became the only things Hollywood filmmakers chose to show in theirs.

All of a sudden The Purge: Election Year became a stand-in for America’s violent, cynical, stupid cinema—the exact opposite of everything Kiarostami stood for and everything he achieved over four and a half decades of filmmaking in Iran and elsewhere.

On Jenny Diski

On Jenny Diski

1947–2016

Jenny Diski was my friend. We exchanged a flood of ideas during her preparations for her 2013 book, What I Don’t Know About Animals. I am re-reading parts of our exchange now—the writing, by some sort of magic I’ll never really understand, continues to live. The preoccupations we shared, at least at the time, were: animals; humans; the vague boundaries of what constituted cannibalism (she brought up the rumor that Keith Richards had snorted the ashes of his own father, which plainly trumped my example of tuberculosis patients getting prescriptions, well into the 19th century, to drink the blood of executed prisoners); our reclusiveness; and, occasionally, our day-to-day accomplishments, travails, and happinesses.

Outlaw Country

Outlaw Country

Merle Haggard, 1937–2016

The complexities of Merle Haggard were bound up with the complexities of a baffling political moment, when old rules had been destroyed without new ones being written, a time when everything seemed frustrating but anything seemed possible. But there is nothing inherently redemptive about flux or paradox. It’s nice to know that some George Wallace voters had a kind word for the Communists, just as it’s nice that Haggard followed “Okie from Muskogee” with “Irma Jackson,” a sympathetic portrayal of an interracial romance. But in the end Wallace-style fusion of redistributive populism with open racism crippled progressive politics in this country. There is no reason to forgive Haggard for singing “I ain’t never been on welfare / that’s one place I won’t be,” or “I wasn’t born and raised in no ghetto / just a white boy looking for a place to do my thing.”