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This White Girl’s Books

Ever since I divested myself of 90 percent of my books, I’ve been very selective about which ones I actually own. Typically these days I take them out of the library. The books that are sent to me for a gig go to Housing Works after I’m finished writing about them. But since finishing Hilton Als’ White Girls, I’ve been wanting to possess it. That is because I want it to possess me. I need to be able to hold it and write in it and embrace it as a magic talisman. What Als does in that book is treat other books, other subjects, other people as magic talismans. He weaves in and out of narrative and criticism and fiction and memoir and poetry and history to reach the heart of big ideas, and he does so with smoky, plummy eyes and smoky, plummy cardigans and smoky, plummy prose. He’s gay and far away in life (if not location) but I find myself in love with him the way I am with all souls that tender and brave-hearted. (They are rare, so rare.) He writes the way scientist-artists should, but rarely do. Edmund White does, and I like to own his books, as well. Ditto for Sherwood Anderson and Eve Babitz and Grace Paley and Marge Piercy and James Baldwin and Louisa May and Toni Morrison and E.B. White and James Joyce and Alice Walker and Pauline Kael and Leo Tolstoy and Grace Paley and Ellen Gilchrist and Adrienne Rich and, of course, Madeline L’Engle and M.F.K. Fisher.

Sometimes when I am stuck I pull their books down from my shelves and copy out passages to channel their grace and diligence and brilliance in some small way. Sometimes I decorate the covers of their books as well. Winesburg, Ohio is featured prominently in my office with a wide stripe of glitter I applied one night when I was especially inspired.

Of course I understand how complicated the concept of “owning” is, especially when it comes to the work of a black author. But the fact remains that paying for a writer’s words is the most direct way I can honor them in our unhappily capitalistic society. (G-d knows I’m grateful when someone buys mine.) And I need to own White Girls because this fall I am seriously rolling up my sleeves to recommence my own book project. I view a sacred item like Als’ work as a key to the gate I have trouble entering without permission. I have trouble entering it even with permission.

I will be grateful to join in the conversation, regardless of where my words fall. I suppose I already am grateful, in some not-small way. But I would like to soar and strut and sway and spoon and shake, just like one of Als’ ladies.  And for that I need his book, festooned with purple velvet and and purple feathers and purple pen, presiding over me from a special spot on my shelves that are so obviously altars.

‘The Graduate,’ After the Revolution

There are few pleasures greater than revisiting a favorite film. Each time we luxuriate in its familiar glamour, we observe something new – a camera angle, a fleeting hand gesture, an aside that’s even cleverer than we remembered. Only a good book about a favorite film can actually enhance that pleasure, by pointing us to elements we’d never notice ourselves.

Pictures at a Revolution, Mark Harris’ 2008 look at the Academy Award nominees for best picture of 1968 (“Bonnie and Clyde,” “The Graduate,” “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” “Doctor Dolittle,” and “In the Heat of the Night”), is precisely that sort of book. Panoramic, insightful, chatty, and well-researched, it makes a reader feel as if she or he were in the studio board rooms, casting calls, sets, and, above all, original screening rooms of these films long before they became classics. Of the five, I’m most thoroughly and happily acquainted with “The Graduate” – mostly for the mid-sixties fashions (those fake lashes, those leopard prints!), the eminently quotable dialogue (plastics!), the staccato stammering of Dustin Hoffman, the been-there-done-that drawl of Anne Bancroft, and, oh yes, that Simon and Garfunkel soundtrack. Harris’s analysis of the film and its production – he interviewed “everyone who was anyone” who was still alive – reveals a treasure trove beneath those appealingly reflective surfaces. Continue Reading →

The Essential Stillness of ‘Love Is Strange’

We Americans pretty much never shut up anymore. With all the technological advances of the last 20 years, there are virtually no moments left in which we have to sit and grapple with the sadness that can lurk in modern life. Only an increasingly rarified strain of cinema offers the stillness our days so sorely lack, and, at their best, such films allow us to channel ourselves with a quiet that we moviegoers crave more than we realize.

European filmmakers have always proved quite handy with quiescence; the confidence and depth it requires distinguishes such masters as Bergman, Fellini and Tati. Not surprisingly, Americans emulators have produced more varied results, as if we’re such a young nation that we’ve yet to stop fidgeting. (Woody Allen’s efforts in this area are especially awkward; his Bergman knockoffs are best forgotten.) Of today’s American directors, only Richard Linklater and Ira Sachs seem fully capable of burrowing into that cinematic silence which can yield old-soul lessons and pleasures, and I believe it’s no coincidence that their latest projects have proved the film events of the year so far. In “Boyhood,” Linklater slows us all down by making time itself his central character.  Now, in “Love Is Strange,” Sachs has created a moving picture that looks and feels like a still life—a happier sort of “Scenes From a Marriage,” if that film were an enlivened oil painting featuring an older gay New York couple. Continue Reading →

"All, everything I understand, I understand only because I love."
― Leo Tolstoy