Thursday, February 9, 2017

LIZ SMITH: Democratic Civilization

"A little distance, please!"
by Liz Smith & Denis Ferrara

Beyonce and Madonna — Stars in the Pantheon, Just Plain Mom, at Home.  Also — Anthony Bourdain ... James Baldwin ... And the time of the season for "procedures."

“DEMOCRATIC CIVILIZATION has turned out to be even more fragile than we imagined; the resources of civil society have turned out to be even deeper than we knew. The battle between these two shaping forces — between the axman assaulting the old growth and the still firm soil and deep roots that support the tree of liberty — will now shape the future of us all.”

So writes Adam Gopnik in the current The New Yorker’s Talk of The Town.

There are — as usual — so many wonderful things to read and then have what you’ve read stick in your mind for days in this issue.  (Several weeks back, in a fiction piece, I caught this phrase — a woman describing her mate: “He was the tofu of husbands; he absorbed anything you threw at him.” I’m waiting to use that at a dinner party. I tore out the page with this sentence on it, stupidly without jotting down the author’s name. If anybody recognizes it, let me know.  I want to give the writer credit.)

In this current issue (Feb 13th) two big pieces stood out.  One was Patrick Radden Keefe’s massive take on Anthony Bourdain, chef, adventurer, man-of-the-world (literally.)  I’ve always enjoyed Bourdain’s globe-spanning shows and sexy, laconic manner.  But who knew that he reads Michel de Montaigne, and has adopted the French writer’s motto, “I suspend judgment”? He even has it tattooed (in ancient Greek) on his arm. Or that he is “pathologically punctual”?  He admits: “I judge other people on it. Today, you’re just late, but eventually you will betray me.”

He’s led quite a life, perhaps a bit self-dramatized, but fascinating even with a bit of heady over-emphasis. 
Bourdain, in Hanoi. Photographs by William Mebane for The New Yorker
He’s mellowed marginally now, but still frantically ambitious and holding onto certain values. For example, don’t mention Henry Kissinger to Bourdain: “Any journalist who has ever been polite to Henry Kissinger, you know, fuck that person. I’m a big believer in moral gray areas, but when it comes to that guy, in my view he should not be able to eat at a restaurant in New York.”

When the writer gently points out that the volatile Bourdain had made similar statements about others and eventually relented.  The peripatetic chef replies:  “Emeril Lagasse didn’t bomb Cambodia!”
Bourdain, in Hanoi.
THE OTHER New Yorker piece of great note is Hilton Als’ “Fade to Black,” a review of the new Raoul Peck directed documentary film about the writer James Baldwin, titled “I Am Not Your Negro.” This is perhaps the tenth rave review I have read on this film. What makes this one different is that writer Als also incorporates Baldwin’s love of movies, his inability to become a filmmaker, and that “I Am Not Your Negro” is as much about the brilliant, tragic realism and prescience of Baldwin on matters of race, as it is, in some ways, the director’s effort to “step in and make the film that Baldwin couldn’t.”
There’s much more, of course, and every quote from Baldwin himself is exquisite, powerful and, frankly, could have been made to reference what is happening (still happening!) today. 

There are few films out there right now, that I don’t simply want to see, but feel I must. I also hope this movie revives an interest in Baldwin’s work — “Go Tell it on the Mountain.” “Giovanni’s Room,” “No Name In The Street,” “Just Above My Head,” “Blues for Mister Charlie,” “Notes of a Native Son,” etc.
MOTHERHOOD is everywhere in pop goddess land right now.  Beyonce has announced in typical low-key fashion, that she is expecting twins. On the outrageously wicked gossip site, D Listed, an admitted guilty pleasure (Oh, all right — I don’t feel guilty when I read it, satisfied?)  The photos that Beyonce released to alert the world to her coming bundles of joy are described here as: “Seemingly an homage to trailer park teen moms, the Sears Portrait Studio, the automotive industry and funeral flowers.”  I laughed — sue me.
The other new mom is Madonna, who has adopted two more children, siblings from Malawi where she has engaged in remarkable charity work for over ten years.  This is also the homeland of her two youngest, David and Mercy, bringing her entire brood to six.  Some people have expressed surprise.  Not me.  It isn’t that I knew it was happening, it’s that I know Madonna; I’ve seen her with her children, and heard her talk about them when she is not with them. The issues she had with teenage Rocco, who decided (for the time being) that he’d rather spend more time with his father, Guy Ritchie in London, shattered her.  Even though in her heart she knew this was fairly typical teenage boy stuff when a family is broken — after an 11-year marriage that, believe me, Madonna put her heart and soul into — it hardly assuaged her agony.   
I’m glad for Beyonce, who I don’t know, but admire. I’m thrilled for Madonna, who I do know and love.  Even though sometimes I want to take her by the shoulders and give her a tremendous Bette Davis/Miriam Hopkins “Old Acquaintance” shake up, she is really — so prosaic — a truly nice person and a good girl.

I sure don’t think, as others have suggested, that she is trying to “compete” with Angelina Jolie. She is just being her basic self — an old-fashioned Italian mama who wants a big family.
LEAVE IT to The Hollywood Reporter to not only tell us the latest procedures (non surgical) that movie stars use to refresh themselves in this awards season — cupping, oxygen facials, LED light — but we also get a rundown of who does what during the year.

Illustration by Laurene Boglio
January is for “established TV actors who have traditional procedures during pilot season.” February is for studio execs.  March is for actors who feel they need “extensive” work. Singles do it in April so they are beach-ready. Celebrity moms? — the month of May. June sees an influx of Middle East patients (after Ramadan). July, August and September is tinkering time for Asian aspirants of perfection. October seems dead. (Is everybody happy with their mirror in October?!)  November and December sees an uptick. 

One specialist in fillers and Botox refers to the post holiday period as “Black and Blue Friday.”

Too much?  Hey, have you seen what HD television reveals?  Despite all this preventive, protective maintenance, the freshest stars often look like ten miles of battered road on camera.  Even today, audiences would like a little romance, distance and appealing imagery from its celebs.
ENDQUOTE: From the author Philp Roth: “I was born in 1933, the year that FDR was inaugurated.  He was president until I was twelve years old.  I’ve been a Roosevelt Democrat ever since. I found much that was alarming about being a citizen during the tenures of Richard Nixon and George W. Bush.  But whatever I may have seen as their limitation of character or intellect, neither was anything like as humanly impoverished as what we have now; ignorant of government, of history, of science, of philosophy, of art, incapable of expressing or recognizing subtly or nuance, destitute of all decency, and wielding a vocabulary of seventy-seven words that is better called Jerkish than English.”
Contact Liz here.