Staff Picks: Monsters, Monkeys, and Maladies

Patti Smith. Photo: © Jesse Dittmar.

In her latest memoir, Year of the Monkey, Patti Smith writes of Sandy Pearlman: “We stood on either side of him, promising to mentally hold onto him, keep an open channel, ready to intercept and accept any signal.” It’s the start of 2016, and Smith’s friend Pearlman—a producer and rock critic—has been hospitalized after a brain hemorrhage. As he lies in a coma, Smith recounts the tumultuous year that follows—the loss of friends (Sam Shepard is nearly bedridden), the horror of the imminent election and rise of nationalism, and the impending climate crisis. A reflection on mortality, the book retains Smith’s characteristically flat tone as she wanders through stretches of Arizona, California, Virginia, and Kentucky, stopping at diners for black coffee and onion omelets and conversations with strangers. She hitchhikes from San Francisco to San Diego and back, travels as far as Lisbon, and returns home to the quiet of her Rockaway bungalow to stare at the flowers. All the while, she describes the mundane details of life with incredible vividness: the contents of her suitcase (six Electric Lady T-shirts, six pairs of underwear, herbal cough remedies), how it feels to fall asleep in her coat, and chatty Cammy with her truck of pickles. Smith moves smoothly between the present, memory, and magic, urging us to ask, Is there really a difference? —Camille Jacobson 

After a sold-out run downtown, Jeremy O. Harris’s Slave Play takes to Broadway this fall. Three interracial couples undergo “Antebellum Sexual Performance Therapy,” acting out racialized sexual fantasies and then unpacking them in a group setting facilitated by over-eager lesbian sex researchers. It’s a daring premise for any work of art, and its presence alongside Wicked and The Lion King makes it all the more risqué. But Harris has managed to turn a show in which a man has an orgasm while his lover licks his boots into something decidedly unsexy and profoundly, productively uncomfortable. The stage is set with mirrors so that the audience must watch themselves watching, and a sea of mostly white faces hovers in the background while a black woman implores her white lover to call her a negress (he, insisting that he cannot degrade the woman he loves, shouts out the perfect safe-word: “Starbucks!”). In the group therapy (and, one senses, in the theater itself), the white people are reticent to acknowledge their complicity in white supremacy, but slowly, eloquently, painfully, everyone breaks down. (For sharp insight into how the demographics of the audience impact the experience of this play, read Aisha Harris.) I wish only that the play had dared to play it sexier, instead of playing the sex for awkward laughs, and had thereby implicated its audience not only in questions of race, but in the erotic mechanisms of power and desire. In the show’s otherwise extraordinary culminating monologue, Kaneisha mentions dismissively that friends offering relationship advice had suggested, “Have you had a threesome? Have you tried choking?”—without teasing out how, in a society laden with both patriarchy and white supremacy, being choked and dressing up like a slave may just be different points on the same spectrum. Still, that harrowing third act, in all its heightened, careful choreography, is a finely tuned representation of consent’s fluid boundaries. For a show that delves into the fire of our largest, loudest taboos, the underlying subtlety throughout is all the more stunning.  —Nadja Spiegelman  

I deeply love Bill Frisell: his slowish solos, the weird, nostalgic, liquid tone of his guitar. His penchant for alternately sad, hopeful, and humorous melodies has always matched the climate inside my head. And while I don’t believe any artist is above criticism, I tend to listen to every new Frisell album with curiosity, openheartedness, and gratitude. Harmony, his first in a new deal with Blue Note, leans toward the song-based and Americana sides of Frisell’s sensibility, rather than the jazz side. The quartet features the vocalist Petra Haden, whose pure, clear voice closely matches Frisell’s guitar; she sings like an angel who’s a bit disappointed on behalf of us all. The two have collaborated many times before, perhaps most beautifully on Paul Motian’s final album, The Windmills of Your Mind. The other members of this group—the bassist Luke Bergman and the cellist and longtime Frisell collaborator Hank Roberts, also sing, adding a thin, vulnerable underbelly to Haden’s lines. Harmony is a melancholy, rainy day sort of record—the wordless rise and fall of “Fifty Years,” for instance, makes me eager for my next good cry—but Frisell is an expert at this kind of feeling. It’s precious and even hopeful in his hands. He doesn’t really cover any new ground here, though he does cover a couple standards and offer some fresh takes on old gems, including a really haunting version of “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” But an artist doesn’t have to “make it new” to make great art; in fact, this album argues in favor of the opposite. —Craig Morgan Teicher

 

Patricia Lockwood. Photo: Grep Hoax. © Grep Hoax.

 

Patricia Lockwood has become something of a saint among certain women in media, lonely Midwestern poets, and readers of the London Review of Books. She writes straight from the amphora, and her uncanny ability to tap into the language we didn’t know we had is just one of her superpowers. Her latest for the LRB is nominally a review of Library of America’s John Updike: Novels 1959-1965, but it doesn’t much matter how you feel about Updike; when you read the crystal-cut opening of Lockwood’s review, you are rooting for her to nail it, regardless of who or what makes up the bullseye. “I was hired as an assassin,” she begins. “You don’t bring in a 37-year-old woman to review John Updike in the year of our Lord 2019 unless you’re hoping to see blood on the ceiling.” Reading Lockwood, I kept thinking of that infamous first line of Don DeLillo’s Underworld: “He speaks in your voice, American, and there’s a shine in his eye that’s halfway hopeful.” Yes, Lockwood speaks in your voice, American. So did Updike at his best (“the present tense works on Updike the way boutique transfusions of young blood work on billionaires”) and at our worst: “Updike, in later interviews, maintained that Rabbit would have been an Obama voter. He may have been, but we know who he would have voted for next.” But like any boy listening on the wireless at home, Lockwood, who as a younger woman loved early Updike, demands more from American heroes than capitulation to jock itch. Lockwood is a cultural savant, fully fluent in the twenty-first century with a child’s awe of it. Here is both a look at a cultural critic at the height of her powers (or at least the ascent) and a glimpse of a kindergarten class gazing up at a statue in a corridor, wondering what on earth that man did to get turned to stone. —Julia Berick

Upon leaving the Angelika Film Center last night, I found my senses suspiciously heightened. My mind was quiet, but the world was not, and I felt the hum of every passing sound in my ears—women chatting in Russian, a busker gulping water before returning to his trumpet. Everyone around me seemed soft and full of light, wrapped in fall clothing they had just pulled out of storage. I don’t often feel this way, but such is the effect of Pedro Almodóvar’s Pain and Glory. It features Antonio Banderas as an older filmmaker whose physical and emotional maladies are described at one point in a delightfully mod sequence of illustrations. The film is a light and beautiful look at memory, at pain and what makes it tolerable, what it means to care for another or be reunited with someone from your past. But what heightened my senses most were the film’s glorious details. Title cards backed by patterns like swirling Hermès scarves. A dark-green leather jacket. The sound of water splashing onto tile. Almodóvar makes it possible to attend to these details, to take delight in the world, even as it weighs upon us. —Noor Qasim

As a documentary, Where’s My Roy Cohn? strikes too few notes—but the one chord of Cohn’s life, played over and over, is utterly transfixing. At twenty-three, Cohn was the prosecution in the trial of the suspected Communist spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, and he succeeded in launching his legal career on their conviction and execution; more than three decades later, he would reflect on that trial during a 60 Minutes interview by saying, “If I could’ve pulled the switch, I’d have done it myself.” The film presents every sound bite and action of his life in between, from the McCarthy trials to his mentoring of Donald Trump and the election of Ronald Reagan, until Cohn’s eventual death from complications related to AIDS (he would maintain until the end that he had cancer). At every revelation of corruption and each interview clip (when asked what he would have done about Watergate, Cohn shrugs, smirks, and blithely says that to solve that problem, he’d “destroy the tapes”), I’d turn to the person with me, and we’d let out a laugh, eyes wide in a kind of delighted shock. There is something both perverse and delicious in the experience of spending time with this man hell-bent on achieving … what, exactly? The documentary never floats a thesis or suggestion. Yet our fascination is there, eager to be indulged. Even the coming attractions featured Steve Bannon uttering the party line of Milton’s most seductive character: “Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.” Why do we get so much out of ogling, like children at a sideshow, a man who scorns moral concern? Cohn’s New York manse is located on East Sixty-Ninth Street; after the movie, we took the train uptown and stood on the empty sidewalk across from the towering home, staring up at its dark windows. —Lauren Kane

 

Roy Cohn. Photo: Herman Hiller for the New York World-Telegram and Sun. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

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