Mentions | Summer 2023 ​


Indraguzik |


Lost among the many pieces of trivia about Yevgeny Prigozhin — hot-dog seller, troll-farm operator, doomed leader of an abortive armed rebellion — is the fact that he was credited as the coauthor and illustrator of a whimsical children’s book that evokes the work of Maurice Sendak and Tomi Ungerer. Written with his own two kids and published with a small press, this text by the recently deceased head of the Wagner military force follows the adventures of a tiny, elf-like people who tumble out of their home — a giant chandelier — and try to find their way back. Eventually, the chandelier is revealed to have magic powers: it can make little people big, sometimes much too big, with painful results. The king accidentally becomes a giant and begs to be re-shrunk. “Please make me the same king I was,” he pleads. “Only a small king can rule the Indraguziks.” As the book reminds its readers, it is dangerous to fly too high.


Asteroid City |


There’s a bizarre frame story, affectedly blasé casting that treats A-listers like bit players, and a Hollywood backlot as contrived as a Smithsonian display, but no brain activity is detectable in Wes Anderson’s latest. The auteur’s by-now conventionally unconventional dialogue moves at a Shakespearean clip, while the audience laughs steadily, about once an hour. Set in a charming diorama of orange buttes and travelers’ lodging, the whole endeavor is powered by a kind of grotesque obstinance: Anderson’s trademark insincere sincerity, a comedic Todestrieb reminiscent of bad stand-up. Call it deadpan.


The Most Secret Memory of Men |


A young Senegalese writer sets off on the trail of a missing novelist modeled after the Malian author Yambo Ouologuem, who stopped publishing after a plagiarism scandal in the 1970s. Mohamed Mbougar Sarr’s literary mystery (now translated by Lara Vergnaud) unspools over three continents through a collection of fictional diaries, interviews with writers, and French book reviews that parody typical critiques of African literature: too African, not African enough, stolen from folklore, stolen from Western writers. It’s a playful defense of Ouologuem, one laced with rage at a literary establishment obsessed with identity. What would the lost writer do if he came back today? “He’d kill everyone,” one character declares. “Then he’d kill himself.” The real Ouologuem died in 2017 after decades of silence; his most famous work was banned in France for thirty years. In 2021, Mbougar Sarr’s act of imaginative recovery won the Prix Goncourt, the nation’s most prestigious literary award.


Tom Verlaine book sale |


“Prices will be LOW and discounts HEAVY,” read Better Read Than Dead’s Instagram post announcing the sale of 50,000 of the recently deceased Television lead singer’s books. Some of the Brooklynites who descended on a Bed Stuy garage on Greene Ave in late August for the first of many clearances love books; some love Tom Verlaine; most love both. On the pay-what-you-wish table lay limp stacks about Christian spirituality and alternative medicine — the selection on U.S-China relations spilled over from the garage onto the driveway. As a grizzled man said into a cell phone while waiting on the sidewalk, “I’ve been out here in the sun on this fucking line for 30 minutes to look at these books, and you know, most collectors they have a theme, but this guy? He seemed to collect books just in order to have them.”


Mission: Impossible — Dead Reckoning Part One |


This fun sequel straightforwardly stands with the WGA strike in its opposition to artificial intelligence and the cheap studio execs who want to use it. Tom Cruise again jumps off stuff; Tom Cruise again appears before the movie starts to thank audiences for seeing it in theaters; the antagonist is a literal A.I. called the Entity. But if there’s one thing we could let A.I. do in the writers’ room, perhaps it’s writing A.I. characters. The Entity is surprisingly cringe: represented by screensaver-style visuals, infiltrating embarrassing steampunkish parties, and allowing its own supposedly nuclear bomb to be disarmed by popsicle stick riddles. (What gets bigger the more you take from it? A hole… ) ChatGPT could render itself better. And anyway, isn’t Hollywood, as Pamela Paul has observed, beholden to the doctrine of “lived experience”?


Cocksucker Blues |


This vérité documentary of the Rolling Stones’s 1972 American tour, filmed with unusual access by famed photographer Robert Frank, has been hounded by legal challenges essentially since its completion. Suppressed and circulated as samizdat for the last half-century, in part because Mick Jagger allegedly didn’t want to be seen snorting coke on screen, the film can now be found on YouTube. The garbled sound of the online cut in particular suits the hazy period it records, as the saturnine Stones drift in and out of humdrum hotel rooms, nod off, throw a TV out of a window, discuss sock hygiene, and field questions from clueless reporters. And their pursuit of pleasure hits surprising limits: as the band struggles to order the right kind of fruit platter from room service, “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” takes on new meaning.


Beau Is Afraid |


Grand trauma narratives scaffold most popular American media today, including Ari Aster’s latest excavation of head wounds both physical and psychic. A24’s most expensive and possibly most tumescent movie to date kicks off entertainingly enough with elaborate set pieces of urban squalor, suburban repression, and psychosexual gibberish. Yet there’s little sign of relief for quivering sad-sack Beau (Joaquin Phoenix) and his hardened neuroses. An interlude with a forest-dwelling, pregnant naif offers some hope for healing, but when a PTSD-suffering vet sprays her theater troupe with bullets, Beau’s angst plummets from existential to erectile. By the climax of a grueling run time, even Patti LuPone’s ejaculative rage can’t stop this exercise in frustration from withering prematurely. That’s just another dick joke; the movie is three hours long.


But Not the Armadillo |


This small board book by Sandra Boynton avoids the impulse — displayed by its insipid 1982 predecessor, But Not the Hippopotamus, about a hippo too shy to “cavort in the bog” or “hurry out for a jog” with his friends — to identify uncomfortable emotions as problems to be solved. Instead, 2018’s Armadillo invites the young reader to embrace the lean comforts of solitary routine: picking cranberries, napping in grass, and watching a newly emboldened hippo sprinting past to some far-off destination. At only sixteen sparsely illustrated and even more sparsely worded pages, it is concise enough for an efficient bedtime read followed by an hour of cleaning in a dimly lit kitchen, contemplating, as the Armadillo does, the enchantment of a distant song.


“Silicon Chip” |


When Basil Kirchin, the talented if idiosyncratic British big band drummer, produced this one-off single in 1979 , no one expected he’d come to influence artists like Brian Eno and David Byrne. Kirchin was an artist of aural fixations — from swing to rock to found audio recordings of autistic children — and this track, an out-and-out disco funk romp about the coming influence of technology made seemingly for no larger album or E.P., sits smack in the middle. It was virtually unknown until it surfaced, 40-plus years later, during the end credits of the horror-comedy hit M3GAN.


Slow Burn |


Sustainability — long the food world’s lexical vehicle for greenwashing — is overdue for a critical examination, and chefs Tiffani Ortiz and Andy Doubrava’s latest venture is a study of its outer limits. The traveling dining series is a study in what the pair call “closed-loop cooking,” meaning that they integrate every scrap, bit, and bob (caloric or not) of each ingredient into their recipes with a maniacal devotion. The model will appeal to affluent gourmands (see: the biodegradable sticker depicting the Michelin Man running out of gas, available for sale on the duo’s site). But it remains to be seen whether this approach can realize Ortiz’s professed end goal: that their food won’t be “financially out of the realm of possibility for the working class.”


Cremaster Cycle |


Merely to learn of the existence of Matthew Barney’s paean to the rise and fall of the male gonads is to catch a whiff of the artist’s superhuman self-love. Narcissism is the art world’s stock-in-trade, after all, and this surreal, seven-hour, five-film epic is a skeleton key to the golden boy of the Gen X gallery system’s symbolically bulging ego. But give yourself over to its four-night theatrical showcase (recently hosted by Metrograph for its first New York exhibition since 2015) and discover a strange, obsessively plated abundance: demons, giants, mermen, murderers. Chorus lines. Norman Mailer. Apiary pornography. Otherwise, it’s hard to find a copy of this saga of scrotum’s progress in the wild: in 2007, a single episode sold on bespoke-packaged DVD for $571,000.


British Cooling Towers — Sculptural Giants |


These iconic structures look like wide chimneys, or water jugs for giants. Built across England in the twentieth century to cool steam from coal-fired power plants, they operate according to the same evaporative principles as those of ancient Egyptian and Persian “windcatcher” towers — natural draft, passive cooling in the age before HVAC. Though the sculptural towers have gradually disappeared from the British countryside, in tandem with the phaseout of coal, the London Festival of Architecture has memorialized them with a photo exhibit in a Margaret Howell clothing store. Now, they are less emblems of active industry than artifacts of a past toward which the country is ambivalent. The sculptor Antony Gormley once compared the cooling tower to a “man-made volcano,” a “memorial to our 200-year-long romance with the second law of thermodynamics” — a romance which may prove to be its own kind of Vesuvius. There is a name for the small clouds of vapor that escape from the tops of active towers: the drift.


Afire |


Had this vacation-house drama been released the same year the mainstream media caught wind of the term “anthropocene,” critics might have felt obligated to name-check our geological era in their reviews. As it is, most devote more words to the unlikable protagonist’s solipsism and the simmering love quadrangle. Perhaps that’s because it’s difficult, these days, to create or consume anything that feels completely untouched by environmental doom. But with Afire, Christian Petzold achieves on screen what much of today’s climate fiction aims for. It’s a masterfully paced chamber piece that tackles, without moralizing heavy-handedness, such sweeping questions as how to live, work, make art, grieve, and be together while the forests burn — all rendered with a lightness that makes the heavy blows that much harder to take. For maximum impact, watch it on a 100+ AQI day.


First Two Pages of Frankenstein |


The National, the quintessentially melancholic band comprising a quintet of America’s saddest fathers (four of whom are, somewhat confusingly, pairs of brothers), has long teetered on the edge of self-parody. The buildup for the band’s latest album found them again on that brink, releasing a line of literal New Order t-shirts, which emulate the latter band’s 1987 tour tees, to accompany the single “New Order T-Shirt” (and existing “Sad Dads” hoodies). But the album itself pulls them back from the edge, with wistful paeans to New York nostalgia and rousing anthems redolent of their headlong earlier work. Features from Phoebe Bridgers and Taylor Swift suggest the band has made peace with its present as much as its past: part of being middle-aged is setting fire to old dignities and hanging with pop queens half your age.


“Anagram” |


Theater producer Jack Viertel defines “conditional love songs” as musical theater numbers in which two characters sing about love but are unaware of their inevitable romance. In an essay for HowlRound, the dramaturg Amanda Prahl argues this genre is a dying breed: in the Rodgers and Hammerstein era, conditionality came from coyness, and today “we don’t really do coy anymore.” In the Tony-winning musical Kimberly Akimbo, coyness is replaced by teenage awkwardness. For high schoolers Seth Weetis and Kim Levaco, as for so many of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s protagonists, love unfolds cautiously. Sitting together in the school library but lost in their own worlds, Kim sings to herself of her growing feelings for Seth (“I like your point of view. A little sly, a little strange, a little bit askew”), while Seth — an enthusiastic member of the Junior Wordsmiths of America — methodically anagrams Kim’s name: “Oh, I just found ‘mackerel!’”


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