Mentions | Summer 2021 ​


The Chair |


There is a certain kind of academic who prefers to imagine the university as a resort for cavorting professors. The Chair, Netflix’s glossy new six-part series, is fantasy fulfillment for such an academic: Ji-Yoon Kim (Sandra Oh) becomes the first woman of color to hold the eponymous chair of the English department at Pembroke, a fictional Ivy League university struggling to update its crusty curriculum and diversify its aging faculty. Seemingly bereft of student workers, staff, or contingent faculty, Pembroke is a battleground where pure culture war can be waged. The students themselves make their only meaningful appearance, en masse, when Ji-Yoon’s colleague and love interest, the disheveled and functionally alcoholic Bill (Jay Duplass), thoughtlessly performs a Nazi salute during a lecture about absurdism. Clips of the gesture are wrenched out of context and disseminated online, and Bill’s students are quick to form a bloodthirsty horde. With brats like these in the lecture hall, it is difficult to understand why Ji-Yoon and Bill are forever declaring, in showy fits of sentimentality, how much they love teaching — and without immiserated adjuncts, graduate students, and staff on the scene, it is difficult to understand campus activism as anything but ludicrous overreaction. Thankfully, real students are rarely so stupid. They aren’t organizing against phantom Nazis — occasionally it’s real ones.


Beatriz at Dinner |


White Lotus fans in Mike White withdrawal might consider the feature he wrote in 2017, in which an uncharacteristically dowdy Salma Hayek plays a masseuse surprised by an invitation to her wealthy client’s party. If the recipe is different, some ingredients are the same: a breezily insufferable Connie Britton, a disdain for white elites that mostly manages to remain self-aware, a third-act death. Both stories share a grim acknowledgement: put-upon staff may fantasize about enacting bloody murder, but it’s coddled white executives who invariably wield the bigger weapon. 


Beam Me Up Scotty (2021) |


After an extended social media hiatus, Nicki Minaj thrilled fans this spring with an Instagram announcement: a re-release of her breakout 2009 mixtape. The new version came with some fresh material but consisted mostly of the songs that first secured her place in hip-hop — vintage Nicki at her fiercest and most foul. It’s an odd album to revisit; none of the original sixteen tracks would be cut today. Even the spoken-word interludes come across as retro, too vigorous for our trapped-out present. But that’s sort of the point. In re-releasing a decade-old record, she’s reasserting the terms of her stardom, making sure you heard her the first time.


As You Like It |


The perfect play for a season of chaos and dissolution —  more summery than Midsummer, studded with gobbledigook ditties and endless scenes of delirious repartee. Arden, where the action unfolds, is the pastoral flipside of the quarantine period, a place where being outside of time is a blessing rather than a curse. There is a problem, or so it seems; some people sing; some other people call each other cucks; a man pretends to be a woman dressing as a man imitating a woman; the problem is not solved but rather slips by. What story or non-story could be more appropriate as we witness the return of the random?


California Split |


Robert Altman, who spent the seventies making movies with a shaggy, lived-in feel, found his most alluring setting in the rundown casinos and horse tracks of this 1974 comedy, which stars George Segal and Elliott Gould as a pair of charismatic gamblers stumbling through the peaks and valleys of their addiction. Altman, a gambler himself, lovingly renders the lifestyle’s appeal — late-night drinking, friendships based on enabling others’ worst impulses, the gambler’s ever-present conviction in the proximity of riches. But an inevitable emptiness is never far away, and upon finally getting what they want, the pair immediately plunge into melancholy. Recent crypto converts would do well to take note — as the duo grows desperate for their next score, their gambles get stupider. Before long, they’re drunkenly placing bets over who can name all seven dwarves: “Dumbo wasn’t in that cast?”


@pomological |


In 1886, the USDA began to catalog the rapid expansion in American agriculture by commissioning 21 watercolor artists, over the next 56 years, to meticulously paint 7,497 works depicting various fruits and nuts, including 3,807 of apples alone. Now, you can browse the results thanks to a Twitter bot that captions each “Pomological Watercolor” with specimen name, artist, and date. The feed is spare and peaceful; scrolling it feels like walking through a small, esoteric museum. The concentration of material, so similar in form and subject, teaches the viewer to attend to the details: the rich layers of purple in Ellen Isham Schutt’s 1905 painting of a “Griffins Improved” grape, the speckles of brown furnished by Mary Daisy Arnold in 1912 on a “Givens” apple. After enough scrutiny, even the common fig begins to look strange.


Vive le Tour (1962) |


Conventional cycling spectator wisdom holds that the Tour de France’s majesty lies in its gradual progression — a slow burn revealing its plot and subplots over 23 days and 2,200 miles. French filmmaker Louis Malle apparently didn’t have time for all that — his documentary clocks in at only 18 minutes. But that’s long enough for Malle to convince even the most casual viewer that today’s Tour is a betrayal of tradition, a bastardization of a once-great athletic contest. Somewhere along the path to modernity, the Tour lost one of its trademarks: the infamous drinking raid. “They enter a café, shoving everyone aside,” the narrator explains. “It isn’t quite looting, but they demand and take anything: red wine, champagne, beer. Even water, if there’s nothing better.” Where today’s hormone-ridden Übermenschen ride space-age titanium alloy bicycles and slurp protein gels from pouches, the tanned, rag-tag domestiques of Malle’s time steer with one hand while raising a stolen beer bottle with the other. In one charming scene, a rider holds his comrade’s seat as he relieves himself in motion mid-race. Who needs a slow burn when you can have a fast piss?


The White Lotus |


This ensemble miniseries, shot at the Maui Four Seasons in the winter, could only have arisen from the filming constraints of 2020, but it’s best approached with a bingo board of extremely-online cliches from a few years earlier: girlbosses, ASMR, Hillary stans, K-holes, women reading Elena Ferrante, the ethics of “exotic” tourism, clickbait, rimming — plus bitchy Zoomers literally modeled on the hosts of Red Scare. (It’s all, of course, about the intersections of race, class, gender, and sexuality.) Too on the nose? The HBO murder-mystery-that’s-actually-just-about-the-fucked-up-relationships-of-rich-people genre has reached its apex. 


Hudson Yards food carts |


There’s no shortage of writing about how bad this place is, but it bears repeating: Hudson Yards is an anti-neighborhood, a place to go in New York City if you hate New York City. The project’s developer, The Related Companies, is a caricature of movie villain proportions, from its semantically inane name to its Trump-boosting, drone-racing owner, Stephen Ross, to its latest plot to eradicate the Yards’s sole redeeming feature: food carts. Nowadays, vendors attempting to sell melon on a hot day might find their regular parking spaces taken over by gargantuan flower planters and extrusive landscaping. Those that prevail are treated to NYPD fines, in spite of de Blasio’s promise to cut back cart searches. The vendors are organizing with the excellent Street Vendor Project, but unlike Ross, few can count on a cash influx from their parents, and Related’s appetite is unyielding: it will continue to evict any trace of unpolished city life. Or maybe it represents what city life has become. What says post-Bloomberg Manhattan more than an 80-year-old billionaire denying a pedestrian a hot dog?


Design Home |


Design Within Reach armchairs are actually within reach in this app that allows you to roleplay as an interior decorator. Warning: too much time may pass as you stock up on mid-century benches for Miami timeshares, wicker stools for coastal balconies in Cape Cod, and a wagon wheel coffee table for “an industrial living room” in Brooklyn on behalf of a “video editor” with curiously ample income. It’s all fun and games until your digital wallet runs dry, and you find yourself reaching for your IRL Mastercard instead.


169 Water Street |


The classic walk-through video, a low-rent, shaky-cam affair that conceals as much as reveals, is familiar to any would-be home-buyer. But recently, real estate auteurs have attempted to elevate the genre. This video by Halstead Property adds a meta twist: mocking the rituals of home sales prep in order to sell the house. “Is the film crew here?” the self-described “pesky owner” asks at the outset, primping her hair for the camera. The agent demurs, ever-conscious of the actual film crew. But as she begins to prepare the property, her duties are disrupted by a series of “unexpected” obstacles. A bespectacled playwright, struck by sudden inspiration, refuses to leave the home office; a shirtless man hops in the shower; a baby takes over the couch. Another agent, patronizing and bowtied rival, appears on the roof to run down the house’s finer selling points (all to include in the “real” video). Here’s life as it could be, should you purchase the townhouse for $4,595,000: hamfisted tomfoolery, “affordable” monthlies, and passive aggression. The low-grade melancholia of inhabiting a lifestyle ad comes free. 


Darryl |


In Jackie Ess’s new novel, the titular 45-year-old fetishist likes to watch men fuck his wife, an activity from which he derives “vicarious athletic enjoyment.” He is a cuck, but “not a Republican;” a pluralist, but “not a political guy;” an ally, but not a feminist. (“I’m not trying to be,” he assures the reader.) In an attempt to impress his favorite bull, Darryl even becomes a “sports guy,” imagining being cucked by LeBron James himself. “I basically don’t belong in this world,” says Darryl, a character of notably digital origins – his consciousness mediated and mutilated by surveillance, his worldview bitterly but often hilariously organized by principles of identity, nomenclature and the sort of overdetermined self-reflection that runs amok online. Some of today’s flashiest fiction takes up the internet as its subject — sometimes explicitly, showing characters caught in its throes, or formally, in prose designed to mimic the fragmentation of digital life. Darryl doesn’t obviously fall into this tradition; Ess writes in a fairly standard first-person confessional, and its narrator is disposed more to Reddit than Twitter. But Darryl still typifies the abasement and alienation of life online, leading you to wonder if the novel, too, has been cucked by the World Wide Web.


Prime ads during Mad Men |


When Mad Men first premiered, it played ad-free on the AMC channel and later on Netflix. The show recently moved to Amazon Prime, where most episodes feature upwards of seventeen ads (many of them Amazon’s own). In one plotline, Don Draper tells Heinz to stop trying to sell beans and ketchup separately: it’s just Heinz — not an assortment of products that share a manufacturer so much as a signifier, a name that represents the vast expanse of processed American cuisine. In a Doritos ad that plays during commercial breaks, a voice-over emphasizes that the triangular orange chip, with its well-established brand recognition, need not even be named. But Amazon dispenses with subtlety, superimposing directions around the edge of the screen: “Don’t forget it, just list it. Just say, ‘Alexa, add Doritos to my cart.’” As Don loses Heinz to another agency less concerned with semiotics, Amazon overrides both Mad Men and Doritos for trying to make advertising appear anything other than a blatant grab for cash.


Subject to Review |


This stylish, slant short by Theo Anthony, available on ESPN+, is about the philosophical implications of the Hawk-Eye computer system in tennis, which uses cameras to track the trajectory of balls and judge whether they are in or out. Unfortunately, it’s hard to make a sports documentary about anything more interesting than the players themselves. The film should have more moments depicting mid-aughts tennis stars rebelling against their new cyclops god; in one of the few, from the 2007 Wimbledon finals, Roger Federer approaches the umpire and contests a shot from Rafael Nadal that Hawk-Eye determined “in” by one millimeter. “You can’t turn it off?” he asks. Good question.


Henry Cavill's gaming PC |


Last summer, the English actor of Snyder-cut fame shared an Instagram video documenting his assembly of a new computer. Cavill, a vocal appreciator of video games, exemplifies the Mr. Potato Head school of acting. This is, of course, a compliment. Cavill cuts an undisguisable profile. His characters’ costumes (Superman’s spandex, a white wig in The Witcher) serve to emphasize, rather than hide, his protagonist-shaped face and physique. The DIY video features Cavill as a tinkering nerd, costumed at home, too: bearded and tank-topped, absolutely rippling out of it. Poor guy — even his attempts at earnest everyman scan as superhuman. Over Barry White’s honeyed bass, the post shows Cavill fiddling with little screws and delicate parts, culminating in a shot of the finished computer. Its exposed guts glow, cycling through a technicolor spectrum. In this image — revealing the insides of a geeky machine as carefully constructed as its maker — lies the most charming glimpse into Cavill yet caught on camera.


Blaze |


Country artists from Hank Williams, Jr. to Blake Shelton have written ballads about what makes them country. Blaze Foley, a rowdy, rumpled fixture in the Texas music scene of the ’70s and ’80s, had no need for such self-mythology. Equal parts lore and biopic, this film tells Foley’s tragedy through the voices of his friends, sampling real interviews from Townes Van Zandt and Gurf Morlix. From the treehouse he shared with his wife Sybil to the few Texas honky-tonks that hadn’t banned him for brawling, Blaze toted his only possessions along — a jacket and a guitar, both held together by duct tape. Shot and killed at thirty-nine while defending a friend, he never achieved fame, but his songs reached millions through chart-topping covers by John Prine, Willie Nelson, and Merle Haggard. The film’s juxtaposition of two Blaze Foleys — the rambling, alcoholic vagabond and the gentle hero — leaves us wondering whom to believe. In the chasm between tall tales and tragic realities, the legend of this unpretentious, unknown cowboy has room to grow.


The Chopin Project |


Before Ólafur Arnalds served as the drummer for hardcore Icelandic bands like Fighting Shit, he grew up listening to Chopin at his grandmother’s house. For this 2015 album, Arnalds and the German-Japanese pianist Alice Sara Ott scouted out vintage instruments in Reykjavik, then overlaid their tones with snippets of the 21st century soundscape — ambient noise, clips of conversation, whispers, and rain. These nine tracks of spatial sounds and gadgetry conclude on 30 seconds of decaying static: the technologically altered silence of a white noise machine.


@SpaceLiminalBot |


This Twitter bot imports pictures from r/LiminalSpace, a popular subreddit filled with captionless posts of empty atriums, hallways, terminals, and highways — familiar things in unfamiliar contexts, both cinematic and banal. Unlike the subreddit, which accepts a range of posts from members, the bot is curated; its images cohere into a consistent aesthetic. A pinned tweet provides the account’s only guidelines: “Reposts, pictures/videos with people in them, and off-topic (non-liminal) posts are NOT allowed,” though the latter rule is often broken (see: dolphin-shaped toilet paper holder). The collective impression of these visual in-betweens is at once nostalgic, apocalyptic, and surprisingly meaningful — unlike when anyone uses the term “liminal space” in a graduate seminar.


Martin Schoeller |


This German photographer nabbed a recent New Yorker assignment (taking Wendy Williams’s portrait for the May 24 issue), but the Obama years were his golden age. He shot the cover of Andre Agassi’s occasionally deranged 2009 memoir, “Open,” then gave his signature treatment — high-def close-ups, with operating-table illumination predating the democratization of ring lights — to Zuckerberg, Bezos, Trump, and a litany of Hollywood A-listers (also, once, a group of mixed-race people for a 2013 National Geographic story, which declared that “race is no longer so black and white”). Schoeller manages to capture his subjects as both babyish and godlike, making the stars he photographs appear just like us: narcissistic. Ultimately, the thing more people should know is that he’s a white guy with dreads.


The line to enter the Alice Neel exhibit at The Met |


Amid this exhibit’s glowing reviews and deserved recommendations, few have mentioned the inevitable hour-long line that visitors will have to weather before they can enter the must-see show, aptly titled “People Come First.” The line snakes through several galleries; on weekends, it stretches as far as the “Ancient Near East.” The outcome is a forced contemplation of works that one might have otherwise rushed past, both on the walls and in the murmurings of would-be Neel-gazers, anticipating their eventual entry. “The literary canon is all white men,” a woman examining a creamy Rodin sculpture told her friend. “He is toxic and I don’t want to talk shit about him,” another guest-in-waiting noted, hands crossed before Stuck’s Inferno. An elderly woman in a wheelchair scanned a room of “Classical Art from Cyprus” in awe: “I have never seen so much rock!”


The Art of Escapism Cooking |


Mandy Lee, a Taiwanese-Canadian architect, is not trained as a chef and has never worked in a restaurant. She taught herself to cook in China, while coping with alternating depression and anger at the pollution, censorship, and urban anomie of Beijing. This book, her first, began as an “angry food blog” popular for its surprising flavor combinations, elegant photography, and acerbic writing. Lee’s recipes grow out of love not only for street food and classic dishes, but also for straight-up comfort junk, which she makes from scratch. There’s nothing new about drawing on transcontinental cultural traditions, but the way she converts sausage into cornflakes, stuffs mochi into challah, and devotes an entire chapter to dog food leaves you wondering if she’s a dedicated heretic or just pure agnostic.


Trilliums |


These propeller-like plants take seven years to bloom from seed, with deep rooting that immunizes them against unseasonal chills. They blossom for just a single month per annum: mere weeks ago, millions unfurled across Canada; they will resume hibernation within days. The three-petalled perennial is Ontario’s official flower — a status it shares, across an ecologically invisible border to the south, with the state of Ohio. The Ojibwe people of Southern Canada traditionally harvested its roots to induce labor during childbirth. Toronto’s Gothic Revival architecture adapted their starry shape into its signature gingerbread gables. Now, teenagers use trillium-spangled fake IDs to buy booze underage, while their grandparents pay for hip replacements with similarly decorated health cards. If plucked, the fleeting trefoil ceases flowering for years, so various species are protected in Michigan, Minnesota, and New York. These native plants run like a thread of aesthetic sinew through North American culture, neat illustrations of the natural world cutting through the borders we’ve made for ourselves.