iPod Shuffle

From last week. Things going well. Juggling about 3 different jobs right now. Managing. Getting ready to go on vacation with my family in a week. Music accompanies me wherever I go. Especially in the summer in New York City which, frankly, I find unbearable. The sticky subways, the stink, the humidity. I walked to work one day from the bus station. It’s 8 blocks. By the time I arrived at my destination, I looked like I had swum the Hudson, fully clothed, to get to work.

“The Beatitudes” – Noirin Ni Riain & The Monks of Glenstal Abbey. She’s an Irish singer, the monks are … well. They are a force to be reckoned with. Noirin and the monks pair up for an album. The Beatitudes, of course, are a list. “Blessed are …” I listen to this album sometimes when I have to calm my spirit. Or pray.

“Bitter Sweet Symphony” – The Verve. It’s not a very good song. There is also no reason for it go on for almost 6 minutes. But the “hook” is killer, that repeated theme. The hook is the only reason I own the song.

“Mean Mean Man” – Wanda Jackson. I love how she breaks up the word “man” – mah-yan! Also, the way she roughs up her voice … Hot. A rock ‘n roll classic giving the all-important Girl Side of things.

“Airbag” – Radiohead. I associate this whole album with a specific season in my life, and one particular guy. Radiohead was on at all of those parties. It was such an intense time, for multiple reasons, global, political, historical, and personal. I was playing with fire every time I saw him. And that’s just one example of many. I also always seemed to run into him right before or during some world-wide or national cataclysm. I’m not making any inappropriate connection with said events, I am just stating the coincidence. I’m “friends” with him on Facebook but I keep far far away from him other than that. So yeah, that was good times all around, and yeah, I can’t really listen to Radiohead anymore.

“Shit Stained Moon” – the wonderful Bleu, one of my favorite singer/songwriters working today. Wrote about seeing him at Rockwood Music Hall here. He’s a great pop-song writer. “Shit Stained Moon” is a perfect example. It’s about a breakup and trying to survive while single. He obsesses about a diner waitress. He’s falling in love with her, but only because he misses his girlfriend. And boy, he can sing. LOVE HIM.

“Love Child” – The Supremes. Classic. The little whispery “tenement slum” that starts off the whole thing …

“Wilkommen” – Alan Cumming in the Roundabout revival of Cabaret, starring Cumming and Natasha Richardson, which I was so so lucky to see with that original cast. One of the best live performances I’ve ever seen. It was so intense that my friend Brooke reached out to grab my hand at one point, gripping tight.

“I’m a Rover” – The Dubliners. Part of the soundtrack of my childhood.

“I Spy” – my awesome sister Siobhan O’Malley. A song about her days as a bartender. Very funny. “I Spy” was used in a promotional spot for a paper goods company, you can view it here.

“Why Did You Waste My Time” – Screamin’ Jay Hawkins asks a very valid question. He has a moment during the bridge where he breaks down into wild howling sobs. He’s so out there. I love him.

“The Stolen Child” – The Waterboys. Yeats’ poem set to music. I was haunted by this poem when I was a kid (especially since we visited Glencar as a family, where there’s a plaque with the poem on it). There was something about that repeated line: “For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand” that spoke to me. Even at age 11, 12.

“Portland Rain” – Everclear. Sexy-as-hell song. R-rated. Human.

“In the Garden” – Elvis Presley, in his most holy aspect. There’s a slight echo on his voice. He sounds gentle, sincere, as he sings this classic hymn. And when the chorus comes in behind him … One of the ways to really understand Elvis is to really really grok that he meant everything. And I mean everything. Elvis’ gospel stuff have helped me get through some pretty dark days. I mean, not really. But they are still very soothing.

“This Too Shall Pass” – Ok Go. I was a fan before they really “hit.” I love their spirit. And their videos are cool, yes, but the songs are fantastic even without the videos.

“Finale” – from the Broadway original cast recording of 1776. The roll call. Goosebumps.

“Love Is Like a Butterfly” – Dolly Parton. She’s perfect. A living legend. I love her latest album, Blue Smoke!

“Marian the Librarian” – Robert Preston, in The Music Man. As the daughter of a librarian, this song was always a huge hit in our household. I was vaguely obsessed with The Music Man as a child. We all were. We could recite it from beginning to end.

“I’ve Just Begun Having My Fun” – Britney Spears. Yes, Brit-Brit, and that’s what’s worrisome. No, just kidding. I love her.

“Sing! Sing! Sing!” – the great and sexy sexy sexy Gene Krupa. Maybe his most well known recording.

“Tremolo” – Bleu. See comments above. Sing OUT, Louise. He sings the hell out of it.

“Tragedy” – The Bee Gees. Until my dying day, this awesome track will remind me of Michael and our night at an underage dance club in Ithaca, New York. The two of us huddling in the alley where we could hear the music they were playing so Michael could decide if it was worthwhile to go in. All hell broke loose when they played “Tragedy.”

“The Bitter End” – Scala & Kolocny Brothers, this awesome all-girl choir from Belgium, I believe. They do covers, awesome arrangements. You may remember their cover of Radiohead’s “Creep.” I love them.

“Old Shep” – Elvis’ drippy ballad about a boy and his dog. He loved the song. He sang it in a talent contest in Tupelo when he was 9 or 10 years old. He had to stand on a box to reach the microphone. So here he is, a huge superstar, and he records it. I mean, he was so sincere about things, about the things he loved. “Old Shep” is a bore, but it’s sweet because Elvis obviously loved the song so much and it connected him to his childhood. That little boy standing on the box at the fairgrounds.

“I Beg Of You” – Elvis Presley. One of his sexiest tracks. Bratty, sexy Elvis. Recorded in 1958, when he was on leave from basic training. A very productive recording session, every song that came out of it was a classic.

“Bijou” – Queen. Awesome. Instrumental. DRAMA!

“By All Means Necessary” – the great Robbie Williams, who is, frankly, the best damn entertainer today. He is doing something very very old-school with his career. He is doing whatever he wants. His journey is fascinating to me. He was definitely someone who could have flamed out, a la Amy Winehouse. He hasn’t. He has survived. He has thrived. I LOVE him.

“The Way of Love” – Cher. She literally could not be more melodramatic if she tried. And with Cher, Melodrama is always 100% sincere. That’s why it works. “The Way of Love” is crazy! We used to blast it at parties in college and all sing along, because we were Nerds.

“Drop Dead Beautiful” – Britney Spears. “and yeah your body looks so sick I think I caught the flu.” That’s some Pulitzer Prize shit right there. This song is on my workout mix.

“Surrender” – Cheap Trick. Good advice, guys, thanks!

“Wolf Call Boogie” – Hot Shot Love, old-school gritty blues, harmonica, recorded at Sun Records. This is the kind of stuff Sam Phillips felt an almost messianic mission to record. You can see why. It redeems the cat call.

“Don’t Stop Believin’” – Journey. Getting our daily dose of classic rock.

“Get Here” – a heartbreaking and sweet ballad by Oleta Adams, a singer I have always loved. “I don’t care when you get here, just … get here when you can.” Amen.

“I Got Stung” – Elvis Presley. Again, from that productive RCA recording session in 1958, recorded under great time-pressure because Elvis was disappearing into the Army for 2 years. No recording during that time. So RCA felt a huge pressure to get as much of Elvis down as possible to release during his time away. A great track. Elvis is on fire. And the entire session is available for purchase, each failed take, etc. But Elvis, in take after take after take, is perfect. But the arrangements were complex, lots of instruments, the Jordanaires, it took a lot of coordination to get everyone on the same page. But listening to those tracks, sometimes 30 takes per song, and hearing how consistent Elvis is … it’s awesome.

“I’m So Blue” – Katie Thompson. I can’t remember why I bought this or how I heard about it. She’s got a great voice, kind of country-ish.

“Just Because” – the ferocious Lloyd Price. His voice LEAPS out of the speakers.

“Hurt” – Elvis Presley. One of the great tracks from the 1970s. A howl of pain. The control of his extraordinary voice, what he makes it do, where he goes … is nothing less than awe-inspiring.

“Fashion Victim” – Green Day. I wondered when they would show up. Hi, boys.

“Small Hours” – The Pogues. God, we were obsessed with them in high school. I still love them.

“The Fool” – a great rockabilly track from Sanford Clark. Pretty much everyone covered this song, and you can see why. That guitar part … kind of helps make the song. And it just is on eternal repeat. Doesn’t matter: that’s why it works.

“Funny How Time Slips Away” – Elvis, performing in 1975 in Shreveport, the city that helped give him his start, when he was a regular on the radio show the Louisiana Hayride. Elvis loved this song so much. It’s also good to hear these live tracks from the mid-70s, where he is totally on point, totally in charge, in control. He is having a blast with his performance, he’s so EASY with it, it’s like he’s alone in his living room. But he’s not. Anyway, this is 1975. He has less than two years left to live. But he sounds like he’s at the top of his game. A good reality check for those who think the 70s were a constant downward spiral.

“Polythene Pam” – The Beatles, from Abbey Road. Those opening chords sound almost Rolling Stones-ish.

“Christ for President” – Billy Bragg & Wilco. I love this album so much. Billy Bragg & Wilco covering Woody Guthrie songs. We played this all the time in the first couple of months following the birth of my nephew Cashel, who is now in high school. And little baby Cashel would lie on his little rug on the floor, in his onesie, wriggling around whenever this song came on. He loved it.

“Comin’ Home” – Mel Torme. Sooooooo smooth.

“Shot Through the Heart” – Bon Jovi. I am not ashamed.

“Darts of Pleasure” – Franz Ferdinand. I was really into them for a hot second. Kind of lost track of them.

“Up ‘n Down” – Britney Spears. Lots of Brit-Brit on this shuffle. I ain’t complaining. I love how all of her songs are like, “I’m so hot, you know you want me, but you can’t handle me.” It’s okay, Britney. Relax.

“Rock of Ages” – Def Leppard. I literally could not be happier with the character of this iPod Shuffle if I tried. This song must be blasted at volume eleven.

“Love Buzz” – Nirvana. From Bleach. It’s one of my favorite tracks from Nirvana. Ferocious. Its own thing, but also a call-back to punk rock, metal, pop rock, the whole shebang. It’s all in there.

“Medley: Blueberry Hill /.I Can’t Stop Loving You” – Elvis Presley, playing Memphis in 1974. Another example of how awesome these live performances were. And here he is, playing his hometown. I love this entire concert. It is Elvis at his very best. And “I Can’t Stop Loving You” always propelled Elvis into some other level of commitment altogether.

“Minnie the Moocher” – Robbie Williams from his latest album Swing Both Ways. When I learned that Robbie had actually recorded Minnie the Moocher I felt like I had entered into some alternate reality where everything was working out just as it should.

“All You Need Is Love” – The Beatles. My cousin Liam learned that I did not have “the Beatles in mono” so he sent me a gigantic file via Dropbox with many of their tracks in mono. It does make a huge difference in the sound. This is the mono track. How many times have I heard this song? 500? More? Never get sick of it.

“It’s Only Love” – The Beatles. Listen to the subtle shit Ringo is doing in the background.

“One Fine Day” – Robbie Williams. He is incapable of writing a boring song. At least I don’t find any of his original songs boring. I find them to be pop classics.

“Volvo Driving Soccer Mom” – Everclear. Super-mean.

“The Ace of Sorrow” – Brown & Dana. Earnest folk duo. I have just this one track. I think my parents had one of their albums when I was a kid.

“O Mary Don’t You Weep” – Bruce Springsteen from The Seeger Sessions, an album I adore. This is my favorite track. RAUCOUS.

“Jesus Gave Me Water” – Sam Cooke and the Soul Stirrers. If I recall correctly, this was their first hit in the vibrant and active gospel circuit. One can see why.

“True Colors” – Cyndi Lauper. How I love her. Then and now. Her Tony-award acceptance speech made me cry.

“Young Blood” – The Beatles, from those crazy and rough and gritty “Live at the BBC” tracks. So sexy, so alive, so fresh.

“Empty Sky” – Bruce Springsteen, from The Rising. And that’s what it felt like. The sky was empty. It was empty for years. Now it’s full again. And I’m not used to it yet. I am happy the new tower is there. I am happy it is taller than what was there before. But there were years when downtown looked … truncated, cut off, wrong. Empty sky.

“Princes of the Universe” – Queen. Freddie Mercury is irreplaceable. Sui generis.

“Vision of a Kiss” – The B-52′s. This particular album, Good Stuff, was on all the time during a time of gigantic upheaval in my life. Driving cross-country with my boyfriend, the two of us breaking up HORRIBLY, as we did so. Then I had a crackup in Los Angeles. One of those times, looking back on it, where I think, “I should have been in a hospital.” But I wasn’t. I was out amongst the English. Finally, I decided to save my own life, and I sold all my possessions, and moved to Chicago, with two suitcases of belongings. That was it. Best move I ever made. Good Stuff was the soundtrack to that time.

“I Will Always Love You” – Dolly Parton. I am sure everyone knows the story. In the 70s, Dolly Parton got a call from The Colonel (Elvis’ manager). It was last-minute, a kind of ninja attack. He said that Elvis had fallen in love with her song “I Will Always Love You” and wanted to record it. The way Elvis was set up as a musician was that he got half of the publishing rights of any song he sang. HALF. Publishing was where the real money was at, and Colonel Tom knew that. The 60s started to break apart that situation and it became harder and harder for Elvis to find good songs, and people who were willing to give up half their publishing rights: singer-songwriters started rising, people who wanted to retain their own rights to their own material. Elvis’ Achilles heel was that he didn’t write songs, and this publishing agreement was something set up to protect him. Anyway, Dolly Parton got the call from Colonel Tom, saying, “Elvis is set to record your song this weekend – if you could just sign over half of the publishing rights that would be great, kthx.” And Dolly refused. Considering what ended up happening with that song, when Whitney Houston turned it into one of the biggest hits ever, Parton was smart to refuse. But she has always expressed sadness that the situation was as it was, because she loved that Elvis loved something she had written, and she still wishes that she could have heard him sing her song. I wish it too. She said in an interview once, “I hope that he was as disappointed as I was.”

“You Don’t Know Me” – Ray Charles. I basically can’t take it. It’s so perfect.

“(Ghost) Riders in the Sky” – Johnny Cash. Very Spaghetti-Western-ish. He’s awesome.

“Women Do Know How to Carry On” – the great Waylon Jennings. Wow, that’s a great trifecta of testosterone right there.

“Besame Mucho” – The Beatles. Gloriously goofy.

“Go Go Go” – Roy Orbison, recorded at Sun Records. Classic. Hot. That guitar background. It has everything in it. The blending of genres, the history of music, and its exciting future.

“I Should Have Known” – Foo Fighters. Angsty male melodrama. Great stuff.

“Goddamn Pusher Man” – Nina Simone. She is so damn intense. Her voice is so lived in, she’s been there, she’s experienced it, it’s there in her voice.

“Revolution” – a Nina Simone cluster. In this track, she coaches the musicians. Stops the song and tells them the feel she needs. I love it. She was a musician. And then you can hear the musicians adjust, following her lead.

“Something’s Got a Hold On Me” – Etta James. When she screams? The hairs on my arms rise up.

“Walk This Way” – Aerosmith. Don’t tell me what to do.

“Amy Amy Amy” – Amy Winehouse. Dammit. Still pissed. Still miss her.

“I Who Have Nothing” – Shirley Bassey. Mitchell’s obsession with her, my friend Alex’s obsession with her, rubbed off. This track is out of control. Tom Jones would listen to the performance and think, “Wow. Someone who leaves me in the dust. I better up my game.”

“Same Girl” – Randy Newman. He breaks my heart. And my heart has been broken so many times. I can’t take much more.

“Purple Haze” – Jimi Hendrix. Good fucking music, if you’ll forgive me. There’s a biopic coming out. I’ve seen trailers. I wonder. I hope. We’ll see.

“The House Is Rockin’” – Stevie Ray Vaughn. He always makes me think of M. Otherwise known as Window-Boy. Or Tough Guy. My most important relationship. Healing. How on earth that worked out I have no idea. We were two messed-up wild uncontrollable people, who cut each other MILES of slack. Slack that no other potential partner EVER gave us. We were always in trouble with other people, but never with each other. It lasted for years. Over a decade. I am thankful for him. I will always wish him well. We listened to a lot of Stevie Ray Vaughn. And watched kung fu movies at 3 a.m.

“Paradise” – The Ronettes. Magical sound.

“Surfin’ Safari” – The Beach Boys. They make me so happy. It’s almost physical. A happy pill.

“Something In the Air” – Thunderclap Newman. Of course immortalized in Easy Rider. Haunting somehow.

“Only When I Walk Away” – Justin Timberlake, from his latest album, which is pretty damn great.

“Smile Away” – Paul McCartney, from Ram, a pretty classic album. He feels set free, unleashed. “I could smell your feet a mile away …”

“I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got” – Sinéad O’Connor. She’s so light-hearted, so carefree. I kid, I kid. It’s rather amazing, in retrospect, that someone so … brutally dark … would become so mainstream. I mean, this track, for example. A cappella. Repetitive. Creepy. Almost 6 minutes long. And it’s awesome. That album was a juggernaut. Then of course she torched her own career and I don’t fault her for that at all. She has a new album coming out and I am looking forward to it.

“One More Try” – George Michael. Beautiful. I love him.

“In the Misty Moonlight” – Dean Martin. The absolute BEST. Here’s a big post about him.

“Life In the Fast Lane” – The Eagles. I remember hearing this song when I was a child. “Good in bed” baffled me. What did THAT mean? And what did THAT have to do with anything?

“In My Life” – Bette Midler. One of those situations where the cover is almost as good as the original. Or, hell, as good. She sings it as an internal monologue, a soliloquy. It’s amazing.

“Unchained Melody” – the incomparable Charlie Rich. Recorded at Sun Records. The music those walls have soaked up. Jesus Mary and Joseph.

“Future/Now” – the white-hot fierce MC5. Boys swinging their cocks around. Rock ‘n roll.

“Never Been to Spain” – Elvis Presley, the midnight show on Feb. 16, 1972, at the Las Vegas Hilton. Elvis in high form, as he always was when he sang this song. It has a slow build, starting slow and groovy, before it EX-PLODES.

“If Teardrops Were Pennies” – Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton. One of the best duos ever. What a blend. The ultimate masculine and the ultimate feminine. They find the balance. They meet in the middle. Incredible sound together. Robert Redford had this to say about working with Barbra Streisand (and I paraphrase): “She’s so masculine that I get to be feminine. And she’s so feminine that I get to be my most masculine.” This is something that today’s rom-coms and romances do not understand. It’s almost a lost art. And that’s what’s going on with Porter and Dolly.

“Leper Messiah” – Metallica. Listen to Lars. Methodically, fiercely, he creates the space where the song can happen. It’s crazy what he’s doing back there.

“Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” – Screamin’ Jay Hawkins. His voice. Good Lord. He lives his songs. Which makes it sound like he has climbed out of Hell, or fallen from Heaven. These are real things to him.

“The Night Hank Williams to Town” – Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings. Now that is some heavy-hitting name dropping there, all around.

“The Morning After” – Count Five. Loopy and silly and catchy. I love Count Five, and of course I always think of Lester Bangs’ crazy piece about them.

“Heroin” – The Velvet Underground. Terrifying.

“Antiques” – Pat McCurdy. I was wondering when he would show up. An old old friend of mine. I’ve written about him before. He thanked me in the liner notes for this album (Fainting with Happiness) and I’m not sure why and he never said. It was a difficult time. This is a great album, one of his best, so I’m strangely moved that I was acknowledged, even though I did jack-squat. “Antiques” is Pat’s nod to “Norwegian Wood.”

“Of Wolf and Man” – Metallica. They’re doing this crazy great tour now, where every set is different: the audience votes en masse on what they want played and Metallica comply. I have no idea how they are organizing it. Are audience members taking a survey online beforehand? It’s such a cool idea though. I’ve been following the whole tour on Facebook.

“Look At Her Face” – The Coral Sea. You know how some songs insert themselves into your life and take on meaning that goes far beyond the lyrics? The song becomes representative of something essential? That’s how certain songs work for me, and this is one of those songs. 2009 was a terrible year. Months were lost. I was so out of my mind at times that I have no memory of it, but I do remember driving and driving and driving in my car, randomly, aimlessly, for HOURS – almost an entire day – I remember I had to re-fill my tank so I could keep driving – I drove up to the Tappan Zee area, I drove around through North Jersey, never stopping. And I played this song the entire time. It felt like it was keeping me alive. So it’s a little hard to hear now. But it also reminds me of my script, which I finished in 2009 and despite all of my problems, managed to organize a New York reading of it, as well as a reading of it in Los Angeles. This song has a lot to do with my script. When I listen to it, I think of what I was trying to express. So yeah. That’s a hell of a lot of associations to put onto one song, but that’s the way it works sometimes.

And the LYRICS. BAH.

I’ll end there.

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R.I.P to the Last of the Ramones


Here’s Variety’s obituary for Tommy Ramone.

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Elvis Overhears an Assassination Threat in Costa-Gavras’ Z.


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Affluenza (2014)


Not good.

My review is now up at Rogerebert.com.

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Some Reviews

– Slate’s Dana Stevens writes a gorgeous piece about Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, which I cannot WAIT to see. What Linklater is attempting has never been attempted before, not in this particular way, and I can’t wait to check it out.

– My friend Matt Seitz’s review of Life Itself, the documentary about Roger Ebert, brought tears to my eyes.

– Stephanie Zacharek in the Village Voice writes an extraordinary piece on the current re-release of A Hard Day’s Night. It’s not just a review. It’s a philosophical contemplation. (It’s a two-pager.) Here it is. The “white rabbit” girl kills me too. In her, is all of us.

– Godfrey Cheshire’s review of Jafar Panahi’s Closed Curtain. One quote:

At which point, roughly halfway through the film (inevitable spoiler alert here), Panahi himself walks into the frame, and we see that, in addition to baring the windows, the removal of the curtains also reveals Italian and French posters for some of his earlier films. This startling moment recalls a similar one in the middle of Panahi’s “The Mirror” when the little girl playing the film’s main character suddenly declares she’s not acting any more and runs away from the film location, to be followed by other cameras. That “coup de cinema,” though, took us from fiction to something closer to documentary, whereas this one transitions to a kind of subjective surrealism—call it a documentary about the inside of Panahi’s head in recent years.

Even just hearing a description of that moment … of him pulling down the curtains …fills my heart with despair and RAGE for him. I haven’t seen it yet. Perhaps this weekend. Wrote about Panahi just yesterday.

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John Cassavetes and Gena Rowlands and Love Streams


In a little bit over a month, John Cassavetes’ final film, Love Streams (1984), starring him and his wife/collaborator/muse/genius Gena Rowlands (who just turned 84) will finally be released on DVD, via Criterion, with a video-essay about Gena Rowlands’ acting, penned/narrated by yours truly, included in the Special Features.

August 12 is the release date of Love Streams.

The film was never put out on DVD. Only on video, and then in a truncated studio-cut version. So even if you want to see Love Streams now, you have to watch it on video (which is what I do), or wait for it to be shown at a Cassavetes retrospective at some art house. It’s about time that this film (which is a masterpiece) is finally going to be available! Un-cut, digitally restored. It’s a major moment for a major American director, not to mention one of the best actresses ever.

I can’t wait to finally see it all put together.

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Throwback Thursday


I’m 17, my boyfriend is 22, we’re going to my Prom, and I’m pissed. The drama going on behind the scenes is nearly personality-shattering in its entirety. It felt like the entire school was involved. Ridiculous, but whatever, I was 17. I also had a slight irritation in one eye for some reason causing some bloodshot distress, and I was furious about it. Why on this night of all nights do I have to have bright red shining eyeballs? Why, Lord, why? My game face is astonishingly good, don’t you think? (Kidding.) No pretending to smile for me! No posed pinning on of the corsage for me! Instead … we get this. Yeah. Tough Chick, Inc. In white gloves.

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The Books: Arguably, ‘Victor Serge: Pictures from an Inquisition’, by Christopher Hitchens

Arguably Hitchens

On the essays shelf:

Arguably: Essays by Christopher Hitchens

Considering my long-standing fascination with all things Stalin, the fact that I had never read Victor Serge’s work was a major disconnect. I know his name came up in everything I read. Why didn’t I follow that through and pick up his damn books? I don’t know. No excuse! Finally, last year, John – a commenter here – recommended Victor Serge’s novel The Case of Comrade Tulayev, and I read it. Within two pages, I was thinking, “Why has this book not been in my life all along? What is WRONG with me??” At the moment, I have read both Comrade Tulayev and Serge’s memoir, Memoirs of a Revolutionary, which was almost equal to Comrade Tulayev in brilliance and clarity. My chapbook entry here. Anyway. I’m on the Serge bandwagon now. Finally.


Victor Serge wrote so much in his lifetime, and it ran the gamut in both genre and style. He wrote novels and reportage and history books and memoirs. Half the time, he was on the run, in prison, or in exile. He would lose manuscripts along the way and have to rewrite the whole thing. He would have to smuggle manuscripts and hide them so the authorities wouldn’t find them. And he never stopped. You would think someone would get exhausted, or disheartened. Especially since Victor Serge, working for the new Bolshevik government in the early 1920s, saw which way the wind was blowing early. Many people “got the memo” in the 1930s that Bolshevism was gonna be the biggest most monstrous bureaucracy the world had ever seen (and that’s not even mentioning the state-sponsored Terror), but to perceive that in the 20s, from the inside of said bureaucracy, is vision of a kind rarely seen in such situations. Serge had that. He was a believer, he was not cynical, he obviously wanted to “walk the walk” and so returned to Russia in the early 1920s to get himself where he needed to be. Yet almost immediately he sensed what was wrong with the whole thing. He continued to work in the government, until, naturally, he ran into trouble, was sent into exile, imprisoned, blah blah, the regular drill. In many respects, I am amazed that they “let” Victor Serge live at all. His books are devastating to the Bolshevik story, and devastating towards Stalin. All 15, 20 years before Orwell, before Arthur Koestler, before everyone.

It is mind-blowing.

The Case of Comrade Tulayev is the story of the murder of a high-ranking Party member in Russia (obviously meant to be a stand-in for Kirov, whose murder in 1934 is now generally believed to have been engineered by Stalin as an excuse to launch the Terror). The murder of Kirov is still swathed in mystery, and as far as I know, there still hasn’t been a “smoking gun” discovered (i.e. something that directly ties Stalin to the act.) Stalin never left his fingerprints on anything. People who were looking on knew that he was behind everything, but he was smart enough to not leave a trace. Kirov was well-loved and popular. One could perhaps theorize that he had been killed for that reason. But it seems that the reality is actually far more sinister. Stalin needed an “excuse” to terrorize the entire population of Russia and institute Terror as the natural state of things. He still faced resistance from within the ranks of his own party, old Bolsheviks who didn’t understand yet, who under-estimated Stalin. So he needed a reason to terrorize the whole. Kirov’s murder gave him that reason. The more you know about Stalin, the more you realize that that CAN’T have been a coincidence.

Vast interlocking conspiracies were “discovered” in every industry, in academia, in the student population, in the world of chemists and engineers and the railway industry, the mining industry … Russia had been infiltrated by “saboteurs”, all of whom were somehow inadvertently involved with the murder of Kirov. (I mean, they weren’t at all, these were completely innocent people, there were no “conspiracies.”)

Anatoly Rybakov’s great novel The Children of the Arbat tells the story of the “Arbat” neighborhood in Moscow, known for its artists and cafe culture and liberality. It tells of the impact of the 1917 revolution on that neighborhood, and how things changed. How some were revolutionized, others not so much, how friendships were impacted, and as the 1920s went on, things got more and more serious. People disappeared into the night. Where did they go? Where was their glorious revolution? The entire masterful novel ends with the chilling words: “Comrade Kirov has been murdered.”

1934. The beginning of the REAL terror, everything else being just a preamble.

Serge, with meticulous attention to detail, shows us how the murder of his fictional “comrade” became the excuse to put the entire nation in a vice. It’s a great great novel.

This 2002 essay for The Atlantic is a review of both Serge’s memoirs and The Case of Comrade Tulayev. It’s quite an in-depth piece, and long. Here’s an excerpt.

Arguably: Essays by Christopher Hitchens, ‘Victor Serge: Pictures from an Inquisition’, by Christopher Hitchens

Nonetheless, and fortunately for us if not for him, he resolved to stay on within the Party and to do what he could. Dispatched to Berlin to help with the Communist International, he discovered that Bolshevism was becoming as bureaucratic and intolerant beyond the borders of the USSR as it was within them. But he also learned about the mounting threat of the madness of fascism, and this produced in him a sort of dual consciousness: First, this new enemy needed to be defeated; second, it needed to be understood. The apparatchiks of communism, however, both underestimated the danger and helped to provoke it. Indeed, it could be said of fascism, as Serge was to write with an acuity that makes one almost dizzy, that “[this] new variety of counterrevolution had taken the Russian Revolution as its schoolmaster in matters of repression and mass-manipulation through propaganda … [and] had succeeded in recruiting a host of disillusioned, power-hungry ex-revolutionaries; consequently, its rule would last for years.”

Attempting to synthesize these apparent opposites but latent collaborators, Serge came up with the word “totalitarian.” He believed that he had originated it himself; there are some rival claimants from the period of what was then called “war communism,” but it is of interest that the term has its origins within the Marxist left, just as the “Cold War” was first used by George Orwell in analyzing a then looming collision of super-powers in 1945. Incidentally, when Serge was later seeking to have his Memoirs of a Revolutionary (1951) published in English, it was to Orwell that he wrote asking for help.

Indeed (not that it did him much good), Serge had a knack for nosing out the right acquaintances. He met Antonio Gramsci and Georg Lukacs during his years outside Russia, and received a warning from Lukacs not to go back. He later not only escorted Nikos Kazantzakis and Panait Istrati around the USSR but also was present when Istrati let fall the remark that made him famous: To the old saw “One can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs,” Istrati mordantly replied, “All right, I can see the broken eggs. Where’s this omelet of yours?” When the honest old Bolshevik diploma at Adolf Joffe committed suicide in 1927, to call attention to the “Thermidor” that was engulfing the revolution, Serge assisted in organizing a mass turnout for Joffe’s funeral; he later realized that he had helped to lead the last legal anti-government protest to be held in Moscow. Within a short time he himself was in one of Stalin’s prisons.

Released after some grueling experiences, he remained – despite his misgivings about the personality of Leon Trotsky – a partisan of the left opposition. Had he not been re-arrested in 1933 and deported to internal exile in Orenburg, he might well have been swept up and discarded forever in the period of even more hysterical persecution that followed the assassination of Sergei Kirov, on December 1, 1934. Kirov had been a popular leader of the Party in Leningrad; most historians now agree that his murder was the signal for the true frenzy of the purges to begin. It was the Soviet equivalent of the Reichstag fire.

Most historians also now agree on another important point: that the murder was organized by Stalin himself, either to remove a well-liked man who could have become a rival, or simply to help justify the political pogrom that he had long had in mind. (See in particular Robert Conquest’s Stalin and the Kirov Murder [1989] and Amy Knight’s Who Killed Kirov? [1999].) Some time before the assassination Serge had been overheard to say that what he most feared was the killing of some high Party satrap and the consequent licensing of a more comprehensive terror. Thus what is most interesting about his novel on the subject is that it begins by apparently exculpating Stalin from the main charge.

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Jafar Panahi: “Remember, a few months ago, because they didn’t allow me to go outside of the house, I said, ‘OK, I’ll open my windows and take shots of the sky.’”


Jafar Panahi, the Iranian director who was convicted in 2010 of crimes against the Islamic Republic (for basically making films that criticized the regime), was given a 6-year prison sentence as well as a 20-year ban on making films/writing/giving interviews. Twenty years. The man is in his 50s. The sentence was a death-sentence for his art.

He is one of my favorite directors as well as a personal hero and his situation has been heart-wrenching.

He was arrested. Given a prison sentence. That was reduced to house arrest (mainly because of international outcry). Now he is allowed to circulate (somewhat) freely (although not outside of Iran), but he is still not allowed to make films.


He continues to make films. Despite the ban. One was mainly shot on his iPhone, which was then smuggled out of Iran on a zip drive inside a cake, to premiere at the Cannes Film Festival. You cannot make this shit up. It is happening right now. Heroism like that exists. The stakes could not be higher.

To protest his arrest (I felt so helpless, I just wanted to do something – and wanted to create something that would highlight his achievements in a time when his voice was being silenced), I hosted an Iranian film blogathon in 2011. You can read all the amazing posts here.

I’ve written a lot about Panahi over the years.

At the Berlinale, in 2011 (which he was supposed to attend, but could not – since he was in prison and on hunger strike, so yeah, he was “detained”), he managed to, again, smuggle a letter out of Iran to Isabella Rosselini, president of that year’s Berlinale jury, to be read onstage. You can see her read that letter here.

Panahi’s letter closes with the unforgettable words:

Ultimately, the reality of my verdict is that I must spend six years in jail. I’ll live for the next six years hoping that my dreams will become reality. I wish my fellow filmmakers in every corner of the world would create such great films that by the time I leave the prison I will be inspired to continue to live in the world they have dreamed of in their films. So from now on, and for the next twenty years, I’m forced to be silent. I’m forced not to be able to see, I’m forced not to be able to think, I’m forced not to be able to make films. I submit to the reality of the captivity and the captors. I will look for the manifestation of my dreams in your films, hoping to find in them what I have been deprived of.

That heartbreaking moment was followed, amazingly, a month or so later – by the story of a film being smuggled out of Iran inside a cake to premiere at Cannes. Has such a situation ever occurred before? It was like a miracle. Panahi like a superhero. Omnipresent, and yet unseen.

That smuggled film was called This Is Not a Film (the snarkiness of the title was so delightfully revolutionary: “Okay, you told me I can’t make films, but this here is NOT a film, so we good now??”) The credits roll was a list of blank spaces. His co-director, who had loaned him a camera, was eventually arrested for his participation in the film and his passport taken away. Same with other people who have helped Panahi. Arrest. Imprisonment. Passports revoked.

By punishing Panahi’s friends, it has isolated Panahi even further. Panahi does not want to get more people in trouble.

I got to see This Is Not a Film at the 2011 New York Film Festival, and my review is here. I wrote it in the heat of the moment following seeing the film, with tears streaming down my face. Sometimes those first impressions are wrong. This one is not. This Is Not a Film is one of the most important films ever made, considering the circumstances under which it was made, and the courage of the man who made it.

But the story still is not over.

There have been rumblings for a while that Panahi, despite the ban, had made another film. Well, he has. It is called, ominously, Closed Curtain, and it’s being released next week.

Erik Kohn at Indiewire managed to get Panahi on the phone from Iran and conduct an interview with a translator. Here is the interview.

Please read.

And please take note of Panahi’s words in the interview with Kohn: International pressure – from the film community – from writers – from speeches being made about Panahi’s arrest on the stage at Cannes, or on the stage at Berlinale – international pressure DID have an impact. Iran was very sensitive to the fact that everyone was watching. This only highlights how much worse the situation is for people who AREN’T famous. But it also is an indictment of the passivity of those who choose to say, “But what can we do??”

Panahi says to Kohn:

I remember when they were threatening that they would keep me so long that I’d lose all my teeth. They would say that I was a special guest and they’d never let me go. But the international pressure forced them to let me go. Sometimes, people think the international pressure doesn’t influence [the government], that they don’t care about it. But that’s not true. When you are in prison, they try to make you cooperate with them. They promise you freedom if you cooperate. If they have to let you go, then they try to make your life outside prison so miserable that sometimes you wish you could do what they want. I worry about support from my colleagues inside the country because they may pay a price for me.

I have been devouring information about Panahi this morning, in lieu of Closed Curtain coming, and I feel such a mix of pain and hope at everything I am reading. What is happening to him is wrong.

Panahi’s films should be seen and celebrated. He continues to make films, at great risk to himself, putting himself in great danger.

A couple of posts I’ve written on Panahi’s films:

On The Circle: a film of interlocking interconnected stories about Iran’s appalling treatment of its women. Dark, bleak, brutal. It’s a circle, no way out. He offers no solutions, just presents the problem. (Panahi uses mostly non-professional actors and films out on the bustling crazy streets of Tehran – at least he used to. He is a totally urban filmmaker.)

On Crimson Gold: A stark and ruthless critique of the class divide in Tehran. Great characters. It’s really a heist movie, at its heart.

I have not written anything about The Mirror, but it’s amazing and one of the first films that brought him international acclaim. My friend Ted has some fascinating thoughts on it.

The White Balloon is great as well.

And, of course, This Is Not a Film, already mentioned.

And then my favorite of his films: Offside.


Offside is hilarious, fast-paced, snarky, rat-a-tat-tat dialogue, great situation and setup, and one of the best feminist films ever made. Women in Iran cannot attend soccer games in stadiums. They are banned. Many women dress up as boys in order to see the games. Here, in Offside, 6 girls (who don’t know each other), all dress up as boys in order to get into the stadium, and all of them are busted, and held in an open pen behind the stadium where, agonizingly, they can HEAR the screams of the crowd but cannot see the action. The Circle is dark and hopeless. Offside is angry, and yet the girls are so funny, so fierce, such bratty-brat mouthy sports fans, straining against their makeshift prison, trying to see what is going on on the field. Here is my review of Offside (or, one of them, I’ve written about it a bunch.)

One last comment about this incredible artist: His films have been banned in Iran. They never get play in movie theaters. But thanks to the internet and bootleg DVDs, his films have been widely seen in Iran. He is one of their most popular filmmakers. Take THAT, mullahs. Offside, of course, was a political film basically showing how SILLY it is to keep women from attending soccer games. I mean, Panahi thought it was so STUPID (and totalitarian governments can take a lot of things, but they cannot BEAR being thought of as SILLY). So, naturally, Offside was banned. However, once soccer season started that year, women in white veils grouped themselves outside the gates of soccer stadiums across Iran, holding up signs saying, “WE DON’T WANT TO BE KEPT ‘OFFSIDE’.”

It didn’t matter that Offside was banned. Everyone in the country saw it anyway.

His work makes a difference. His film gave a specific voice to a specific situation. Women were “heard,” and those signs were a callback to him. He is an extraordinary and important artist and it is absolutely outrageous what has happened to him. And yet here he is, yet again, with another film coming out. Shot entirely inside his own home – which is so against his natural style – it would be like Hitchcock making a hand-held street-gang movie. But that is what Panahi has to do, he has to film inside his own home, so that is what he will do. In order to keep making films.

I am glad he exists. But don’t get me wrong: I don’t see any of this as hopeful. I see it as infuriating and I see it as an artist making the best of a terribly unjust situation.

Again, here is the interview Panahi just gave to Indiewire.

This man will not be silenced.

Posted in Directors, Movies | Tagged , | 2 Comments

Barbaric Genius (2013): Interview with Paul Duane and John Healy

Barbaric Genius Poster

In 1988, the British literary scene was rocked by the publication of London-Irishman John Healy’s extraordinary memoir about his life as a wino, The Grass Arena. It won the top prize in England that year for literary autobiography. It was turned into an award-winning BBC film. John Healy told of his decades-long submersion in the violent chaotic alcoholic homeless subculture in England. Even more extraordinary, during one of Healy’s prison stays, he was taught the game of chess. He never took a drink after that and went on to become a chess master. The Grass Arena was hailed as a “masterpiece” by Irvine Welsh, Harold Pinter sang its praises, John Healy was everywhere.He was interviewed in both the national and the international press. He was on television talk shows. He was a star.

Since then? Silence. And a warehouse full of rumors about John Healy’s violent behavior. Any truth to the rumors? Why has his book been allowed to go out of print, despite clear audience demand?

What the hell happened? Had this celebrated author been blackballed for some mysterious reason?

Irish filmmaker Paul Duane (I reviewed his documentary Natan here), who, like so many others, had been blown away by The Grass Arena when he first read it, wanted to find out.

Barbaric Genius, Duane’s documentary about John Healy, is set to be released in the States on Hulu and Netflix later this summer (it already got a cinematic release in the UK.) You can rent it on iTunes. I highly recommend it.

I interviewed both Paul Duane and John Healy for Rogerebert.com.

Posted in Movies | Tagged | 12 Comments