Mentions | Issue 10 ​


Tracy Zooms In |


Late one Friday night in February, Turner Classic Movies aired an unpublicized, one-off transmission in which Warren Beatty reprised his role as Dick Tracy — the no-nonsense comic-strip detective he first played in a self-directed 1990 adaptation — and was interviewed via Zoom, first by TCM hosts and then via split screen by Beatty as himself. It’s a stunt Beatty has pulled before. He released a similarly skeletal, 30-minute TV special in 2009, and both programs only make sense when you realize they’re copyright dumps — quasi-infomercials designed to renew Beatty’s legal claim to the Tracy character’s likeness for the future projects in which the star is evidently still interested. Beatty has always liked to play Tinseltown avatars, from Bugsy Siegel to Howard Hughes, and, to some degree, his legal affair with Tracy amounts to another metafictive turn of the screw. With present-day Hollywood in its own desperate double bind of self-mythologizing and I.P. speculation, this portrait of the artist as contract negotiation is right on time.


Ghost Towns of the West |


A mid-century explorer and the so-called “Mr. Ghost Town of the American West,” Lambert Florin published seventeen similarly named volumes about former Western boomtowns. This 1971 compilation’s 872 pages contain archival and self-produced photos, hand-drawn illustrations, and revealing tales from each hamlet’s early days. During a fire in Copper Mountain, Colorado, townsfolk discovered a body with a dagger plunged in its back. In Corinne, Utah, a judge invented a machine that he claimed dispatched no-questions-asked “divorces” in exchange for $2.50 in gold, until 2,000 gullibles discovered the documents weren’t legal and they’d been living as bigamists. Rough and Ready, California briefly seceded from America, but backtracked three months later, when its residents grew jealous of nearby Fourth of July celebrations. Apart from these outliers, the stories bleed together: desperate people hunt down riches, scammers and conglomerates follow, the ore runs dry, and all that’s left to rot are rumor and wood.


MILF Manor |


TLC’s latest reality series takes the genre’s humiliation logic to a radical extreme: eight horned up divorcées, armed with subtextless catchphrases (“Hi, I’m Soyoung, and I am so wet”), vie for love with the unlikeliest partners: each other’s sons. In one telling moment, twenty-year-old Joey observes of his mother’s perky pair of tits that “the headlights are always on.” She quips back: “It didn’t bother you when you were a baby sucking on them.” Freud believed that, for well-adjusted children, the Oedipal phase eventually comes to an end, “just as the milk-teeth fall out when the permanent ones begin to grow.” On MILF Manor, let’s just say the milk-teeth remain in place.


Invisible Yet Enduring Lilacs |


“I should have left it to discerning editors to publish all my pieces of writing as essays,” Australian novelist Gerald Murnane writes in the author’s note for this 2005 collection. Much of Murnane’s work has a conspicuous hybridity, eluding easy classification. “Stream System,” which appears here as an essay, was first delivered as a lecture at La Trobe University in 1988, and later collected as a short story in Velvet Waters (1990), before assuming the status of title story in Farrar, Straus and Giroux’s Stream System: The Collected Short Fiction of Gerald Murnane (2018). The 84-year-old seems ambivalent about these categorical distinctions. Revisiting Invisible Yet Enduring Lilacs in another collection, Last Letter to a Reader, Murnane asks: “Does any of this matter greatly? If a prestigious publishing house is prepared to publish as fiction what was previously called an essay, has the Order of Things been violated?”


Cannibalism |


Timothée Chalamet lent the practice sex appeal in Bones and All. The Menu gave it a culinary panache. Agustina Bazterrica’s award-winning novel Tender Is the Flesh brought it to the industrial production line. Yellowjackets, Lapvona, A Certain Hunger, Fresh: no matter what systemic critique the writer is serving up, the main course is always the same. When getting “chewed up and spit out” is a cliché of the movie biz, should we be surprised to see it on screen?


The Comeuppance |


Amusing high school reunion drama that winds up to the dubious thesis that everyone was kinder during Covid because we were thinking about death. The night I went there was a technical interruption (a voice from above called all the actors backstage), and I hoped it was part of the play, like the metatheatrical pyrotechnics on display in Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s earlier, more exciting work — a way to break through and out of a script driven by a contrived premise and the compulsion to shove hot-button issues from the last few years (in one of the better laugh lines, a character wonders if it’s too soon for jokes about January 6…) down the audience’s throats. It wasn’t.


“The Langley Files” |


There is a bronze statue of Harriet Tubman at the headquarters of the CIA. “She exemplifies how we need a diverse cadre of officers to do our mission here at CIA,” one CIA employee tells three other CIA employees on the CIA’s new podcast. Words like “black site,” “Contras,” and “coup d’état” remain unuttered, but Jack Ryan jokes abound as mononymous hosts Walter and Dee and their in-house guests strain to convince listeners that the CIA is a normal workplace staffed by normal Americans. Walter binges TV shows; Director Bill Burns drives a Subaru Outback. A “big misconception about covert action is that it’s fundamentally undemocratic,” the chief historian muses in one episode. “That is a totally erroneous statement.” Sure, the “assassination plots — Iran, Guatemala, Indonesia, Cuba, a few other places” were “arguably undemocratic,” but by his count, “roughly seven out of eight” covert actions are pro-democracy. That’s “the good news story here.” In another, a recruiter poses a spooky rhetorical: “We’re human, just like the next person, right?”


The Super 8 Years |


Think of this hour-long documentary as Annie Ernaux’s Planet Earth: the writer’s younger self and two children are seen in their natural habitat — silent, ’70s-era footage shot by Ernaux’s ex-husband — as she explains familial errands through an omnipresent voice-over. One critic dubbed the format “a narrated slideshow,” but Ernaux’s blunt, aloof descriptions lend gravitas to the mundane, to occasionally self-parodic effect. (In one scene, Ernaux brings her children home from school and shyly poses in the foyer; she calls this “an extraordinary moment,” with the emotional power of a theatrical “happening.”) If you’ve ever imagined David Attenborough narrating your daily activities, Ernaux provides a plausible script, at least for anyone plotting to one day “assemble all the events of my life in a novel.” Watching a family vacation, she muses that there is a “certain sweetness to revisiting London,” where as a teenage au pair she had “been very unhappy, become bulimic, and shoplifted.” As Attenborough might say, the human animal is the strangest of all.


The Roofball World Championships |


There is perhaps no better distillation of the American culture of athleticism than this professionally produced video series documenting the annual championships of a little-known game, held in a single suburban driveway in Beaverton, Oregon. Roofball, its attendant jargon (a “ping” is worth five points), and its series of collectible cards were invented some 25 years ago by an ESPN production assistant and his sister’s friends. But it may as well be the Kentucky Derby for how fired up the neighbors get watching these athletes — some retired jocks, others definitely not — heave a football onto a roof, aiming at different chimneys, then catch it. Traditionally, players had to run around, or on top of, the inventor’s sister’s Volvo, parked nearby. But every game evolves with the times; when the 2023 tournament went online in March, a fan commented, “No car in the driveway?!?! Travesty.”


Thomas Mann: New Selected Stories |


One of the most buttoned-up figures in twentieth-century literature gets an unexpected makeover. Introducing this new selection, esteemed translator Damion Searls makes two shocking claims: (1) we could consider Mann a black writer (his mother descended from both Portuguese and Indigenous Brazilians), and (2) Mann’s obscure story “Chaotic World and Childhood Sorrow” is roughly as good as James Joyce’s “The Dead.” Neither proves persuasive.


The Climb |


In the first-ever reality-TV rock-climbing show, a group of amateur climbers leave their jobs, travel the world, and compete in rock-adjacent challenges to win $100,000 and enough support to become the most hard-bodied of unicorns: a sponsored climber. The show’s fatal flaws include: saccharine confessionals; reductive, cliché-heavy narration that repels the target demographic (other climbers); and its cohost, former Baywatch star and dilettante climber Jason Momoa, whose main credentials seem to be that he is famous and ripped. The shirtless, man-bunned actor stands near a cliff yelling generic bro encouragements like “That was epic” and “I’ve never seen anything like that.” Unfortunately, the latter is abundantly clear.


Courtney Love on “WTF” |


“I went on a date with Salman Rushdie to the Moth Festival,” Love says at one point during a breathless hour hosted by Marc Maron. She never goes on dates, she says; she was “just trying to stalk Jonathan Franzen, to find my grandmother” (Desperate Characters author and Franzen pal Paula Fox). She then adopts an apologetic baritone, admitting she’s “never read The Corrections to this day. I don’t read modern fiction.” (Love says she has left the “overculture” — her preferred term for the mainstream, which she learned from Lana Del Rey.) Later, she tells us of the time she saw Miloš Forman, Mikhail Baryshnikov, and Václav Havel smoking a cigar. At the end of the hour, she frets that she hasn’t been sufficiently funny or interesting. Of celebrities, Love says, “I didn’t know we were supposed to be likable.” At least she remembers they’re supposed to be cool.


Shapes: My First Pop-Up! |


Like hypertext fiction, 3D movies, or those Cineplexes that deploy steam and scents, the children’s book with tag-pull or pop-up elements at first seems to be a logical innovation. The mechanics of origami artistry can mildly charm adults and astonish their offspring; thus, the joys of in-your-face geometry in the aptly named Shapes. But it only takes three or four readings before the target audience rips off the pop-ups — which, for all the cutting-edge construction, are still made from paper. Then it’s just a picture book that doesn’t make sense.


The East Village Eye |


The print archive of this monthly compendium of East Village happenings from 1979 to 1987 has now settled in the New York Public Library, where it can be accessed by future generations of punks, hipsters, scenemakers, youthquakers, the queer, the quirky, the hangers-on, the also-rans, and, as F. Scott Fitzgerald called them in the ’20s, “the pursued, the pursuing, the busy, and the tired.” Edited and published by the late Leonard Abrams for little or no money, the Eye contains one of the first-ever interviews with David Lynch, Richard Hell’s “Slum Journal,” Cookie Mueller’s advice column (only slightly more avant-garde than Ann Landers), and much too much information about John Sex’s overstuffed G-string.


Stutz |


A documentary in which an actor interviews his own therapist is the kind of vanity project you might expect a streaming service to fund during its last breaths. But Jonah Hill’s attempt to evangelize on behalf of his beloved psychiatrist, Dr. Phil Stutz, without turning the spotlight on himself is all the more interesting because it fails. In a vacuum, the general concepts of psychotherapy can sound trite, and so, initially, does Hill’s movie. But once he agrees to talk on camera about the issues that brought him to Stutz’s couch, the film becomes a bidirectional therapy session between good friends, cathartic and intimate. In the end, Hill’s real accomplishment may be selling the project to Netflix: he might be the first American to get reimbursed for mental-health services.


International Anthem |


Thanks to the South Side record label International Anthem, Chicago — a storied music mecca perennially at risk of losing half its musicians to Los Angeles — has become today’s capital of good, narrowly weird, expansively ambient jazz music. To say that the decade-old label specializes in jazz elides its slippery but distinctive sensibility at the intersection of spirituals, Ethiopian-influenced socialist self-help, oceanic lullabies, and spoken-word rhythms. Its best current can be found in recent releases like guitarist Jeff Parker’s Forfolks and drummer Makaya McCraven’s In These Times. Both are subtle, ear-catching albums, at once unusual and approachable, able to occupy background or foreground. This is jazz after J Dilla, a Midwest noise resounding across a Buckminster Fuller-spun globe.


Babylon |


Though they paused their joint directing career a few years ago, Joel and Ethan Coen remain ubiquitous in contemporary entertainment. Damien Chazelle’s retread of the brothers’ 2016 Hollywood satire Hail, Caesar! is only the latest in a slew of tonal imitations, including Amsterdam, Inherent Vice, The Counselor, and Logan Lucky. Indie filmmakers of tomorrow, take heart: you needn’t pursue the franchise path to make yourself a brand. Create a style at once enigmatic and imitable and your work will endure — with or without you.


The Beam |


This new California landmark is a skyward-pointing beacon of purple light activated when the Sacramento Kings win. But on Yelp, it is listed as a church. The Beam purports to be the world’s brightest full-color laser — six, technically — visible for miles, and in December, it became “bigger,  brighter, and more purple” at the urging of Kings fans, whose team pride was turbocharged by a winning streak and the now-realized possibility of ending the longest playoff drought in NBA history. Sacramento has never been known for sporting prowess, religiosity, or, really, anything aside from its proximity to San Francisco, but The Beam has brought Sacramentans back into some kind of faith. In the words of one Yelp reviewer: “AMEN.”


Porn: An Oral History |


Far less salacious than its title suggests, this new release compiles a series of lukewarm conversations between essayist Polly Barton and various acquaintances about their personal histories with porn. Despite differences in race, gender, and sexuality, her interlocutors fall back on the same topics: violence, taboo, and the internet. Porn may still feel off-limits and edgy — but it isn’t, really. The absurd number of undergraduates writing erotica should tell us so. Without significant research or any novel insight, Barton guides us through a seedy underworld which is not very seedy, nor in the end much of an underworld at all.


Alternate-side parking |


On the one hand, any annoyance that disincentivizes car use and pushes people towards mass transit is environmentally good. On the other hand, how many murders are contemplated while circling block after gentrified NYC block, looking for a spot that essentially does not exist, what with the growth in car ownership during the pandemic and the willingness among the populace to play the double-park game from 9:30 to 11:00 a.m. or 11:30 a.m. to 1:00 p.m.? At least our parking spot warfare is good practice for the climate apocalypse, when we’ll also be brazenly battling our neighbors over once-plentiful resources. 


The Lincoln Highway |


“The American road is an ouroboros,” Noah Caldwell-Gervais says in this YouTube documentary. “All roads in America simply lead to more America.” More America is certainly what one finds over the course of his 7.5-hour epic across the first transcontinental motor road, from San Francisco to New York, in a ’78 Ford Thunderbird. Gervais got his start recording multi-hour video-game reviews; travelogues were originally a side project. Here, though, he’s produced the defining record of the road which “Tom Sawyer[ed] the nation into painting the landscape with concrete and asphalt and brick.” Dashcam highlights include the desolate 1913 route from Nevada into Ibapah, Utah (far lonelier than the tourist-trap “Loneliest Road in America,” U.S.-50); a “Mormon pleasure palace” resort once billed as the West’s sin-free Coney Island which, after several fires, gained new life as an EDM festival venue; and “BibleWalk,” the largest Creationist wax museum (slogan: “Ohio’s Only Wax Museum”). Gervais’s journey concludes where the so-called “Main Street Across America” now ends: the Times Square H&M.


A Few Personal Messages |


Artists’ prison memoirs tend to include far fewer reflections on art and its making than one would expect. This is partly because patterns of brutality and dehumanization tend to take priority, and because incarceration itself requires “a mundane imagination” mostly focused on getting out, per Wole Soyinka’s The Man Died: Prison Notes. Yet for French actor Pierre Clémenti, who, in the early seventies, spent almost two years in Italian prisons awaiting trial for a bogus drug charge, imprisonment becomes an occasion to consider film’s capacity for imagining alternative forms of social life. He had initially moved to Rome to work with Visconti and stayed out of a love for Italian filmmakers like Fellini, Pasolini, and Bertolucci, all of whom had “a sense for beauty and finesse,” Clémenti says in his memoir (first published in 1973 and now translated into English by Claire Foster); but these directors were not “cut off from the people.” While cut off himself, Clémenti finds that incarceration feels a lot like acting: “The trial, the court, the ruling of justice — it’s always a work of theatre.”


The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window |


Lorraine Hansberry once wrote an unfinished commentary called “Simone De Beauvoir and The Second Sex.” One of her lesser-known plays, which recently moved from BAM to Broadway and stars Oscar Isaac and Rachel Brosnahan as a bickering couple in the Greenwich Village of the 1960s, is A Doll’s House by way of Sartre: for Brosnahan’s unhappily married Iris, there is no exit.


Fauda |


If you binge-watched all 48 episodes of this Israeli-produced suspense thriller on Netflix, you might think that you understand the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. You’d be wrong, of course, but not for the series’s lack of trying. Superb production value, clever plotting, and engaging actors combine to tilt the scale towards the sexier, smarter, and technologically superior Israelis, whose “counter-terrorist unit” displays the same flavor of over-the-top comradery as its counterparts on American police procedurals. The Palestinian Authority, meanwhile, comprises self-interested appeasers, whose leaders here get murdered by their own men and whose constituents, however innocent at first, always reveal themselves to be co-conspirators. There is virtually no reference to the right-wing fanaticism in the settlements — or mention of the settlements at all, for that matter. The Israelis hold all the correct views about abortion and homosexuality, while the Palestinians cling to mindless, archaic religious views and bloodlust. The show leaves little room for questions, but one lingers: what is the Hebrew word that the subtitles so often translate to “bro”? 


The Human Voice |


Tilda Swinton stars in this 2020 short — Pedro Almodóvar’s first English-language movie, loosely adapted from Jean Cocteau’s 1930 play — as a woman abandoned, alone, and falling to pieces. Swinton spends most of her screen time ostensibly on the phone with an erstwhile lover, but her eyes are curiously blank, her movements automatic, and she speaks disjointedly; we wonder whether we are witnessing dialogue or monologue. When she eventually lights her own home on fire, the viewer can’t help but exult.


Cruella |


With its girlboss narrative and queer side character, Disney’s latest coming-of-evil story — about 101 Dalmatians’s fashion-obsessed villain — attempts a nod to liberal politics, but it’s ultimately a tool for the religious right. The message is cautionary: women who want abortions are cruel, career-driven, self-obsessed egomaniacs who can’t possibly love other people and also belong in jail. Finally, a modern Disney movie that reflects the company’s Floridian political donations.


@MatthewTHealy |


This short-lived, then recently revived Twitter account ostensibly belonged to The 1975’s frontman, an enfant terrible who has lately made a habit of smooching fans onstage. Last fall, it had no profile picture, no banner, no links in its bio, and a mere 189 tweets since August. A quick perusal revealed a following of 152,000 and a wide variety of content, from viral tweets (“i don’t know what 0% APR means”) to mirror selfies that obscure the identity of the photographer. Was it really Matty? In the end, the most conspicuous clue was the bio: “deleted once I’m verified.” Even once blue checks went up for sale, there was the lingering question — if it’s not verified, is it real? We’ll never know now; the account disappeared sometime in December. It popped back up in early February from a seemingly new user identifying themself as a “fake matty protector.” The “username is in safe hands until he’s back,” read one tweet. “I couldn’t let someone pretend to be him and cause chaos.” 


Skinamarink |


Shot for around the cost of a couple maxed-out credit cards and popularized via an accidentally leaked screener, Kyle Edward Ball’s horror debut is a meditation on the fact that being a child is an exercise in perpetual, often invisible terror. A brother and sister can’t sleep, and their house may be slowly devouring them. (This isn’t a movie that traffics in certainty.) The sleepless siblings speak so softly they need subtitles. Flannery O’Connor once wrote that “anybody who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days.” But first, Ball reminds us, you actually have to survive it.


Undercurrent: The Disappearance of Kim Wall |


This two-part HBO miniseries about the horrific murder of Swedish journalist Kim Wall by inventor and so-called “Danish Elon Musk” Peter Madsen aboard his self-made submarine is more like a therapy session than a documentary. Most of those interviewed for the series had never met Wall; they investigated and mourned her death, pursuing this documentary as a way to telegraph their empathy. Among them: a Navy commander who shows us her missing fingers from an accident years ago, a writer who grapples with the fact that he wrote Madsen’s biography months prior, and the leader of the naval fleet that found her remains. What is the series trying to say? We spin in circles trying to understand why or how this crime happened, listening to the voices of police officers and detectives, while only a few seconds are dedicated to her words. Skip this and read Wall’s reporting.


Corsage |


“A lion does not lose sleep over the opinions of sheep,” says Empress Elisabeth of Austria, played by Vicky Krieps, at one point in Marie Kreutzer’s period piece set in nineteenth-century Austria. Krieps can hold a scene, and her presence partially redeems this rote, insipid tale of a woman on the brink — yet another affluent female convalescent who talks out of turn, holds her breath in the bathtub, and faints to escape obligations, only this time accompanied with a twee synth-pop ballad. You could be forgiven for calling Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette to mind, and others have, but Kreutzer is not a fan, as she told The Upcoming last year: “I don’t like that film; I don’t want people to think of that film.” Well, sounds like this lion could use a nap.


Phexxi |


This Evofem Biosciences vaginal gel has been hailed by the company as a “revolutionary” pregnancy prevention solution for women who don’t want to use hormonal birth control. Single-use and less effective than condoms, Phexxi nevertheless needs to be prescribed by a doctor. The company’s “woman-controlled” messaging conveniently forgets the fact that it’s not revolutionary to give women another way to take full responsibility for pregnancy risk when engaging in sex.


Empresses in the Palace |


Netflix acquired this six-episode series eight years ago, in a strategic bid to tap into the ballooning popularity of Chinese historical dramas overseas. The show follows an idealistic young woman who enters the imperial harem, then grows disillusioned as she navigates the fraught politics of her new world. Soon enough, the protagonist realizes the only possible escape is killing the emperor and installing her adopted son in his place. Her strategy works, but the series itself is mired in some intrigue of its own. In 2019, the CCP banned the series and others in the genre for, in the words of a state-backed paper, their “negative effect” on society. 


Songs of Surrender |


The fact that Bono is one of the most annoying guys the entertainment industry has ever invented obscures the reality that U2 was once a legitimately great band. Often misunderstood as cringy, wimpy post-punk pastiche, the four perfect studio albums U2 released between 1983 and 1991 — War, The Unforgettable Fire, The Joshua Tree, and Achtung Baby — are in fact the greatest accomplishments of the most unfairly maligned genre in pop: Contemporary Christian Music. They make you want to believe — if not necessarily in God then in justice, grace, and the idea that someone who calls himself “The Edge” can be cool. Songs of Surrender, the quartet’s new compilation of 40 re-recorded tracks from the back catalog, is not great. It is not even merely terrible. It is so uninspired, so listless and inertial, that it threatens to forever occlude the real virtues of the original songs. If hell is the absence of God, this album suggests that Bono’s many sins have, at last, been duly punished.