A touch of the human

In honor of Vladimir Voinovich‘s memory, I’ve been reading and enjoying Monumental Propaganda, his great satire of the cult of personality in the former Soviet Union and contemporary Russia (and, these days, the United States as well). I’m glad to see that following his death a few months ago, his body of work has been increasingly recognized as the wonderfully humane panorama that it is; most notably, Cathy Young wrote this touching memoir for the Weekly Standard.

Voinovich was one of the great satirists of the 20th century, and he became so at great personal risk, as Young’s essay will attest. Time will tell whether he was also one of the great satirists of the 21st. Beginning with his earliest fiction, collected in In Plain Russian, Voinovich evinced a sense of the absurd as well as a deep concern with ordinary Russians as they negotiated the evils of the Soviet state; his settings aren’t prison camps or the back offices of the KGB but small towns, and most of his characters are merely trying to get by. There are few actual villains in books like The Life and Extraordinary Adventures of Private Ivan Chonkin, but, as in Monumental Propaganda, there is always a sense of the oppressive evil attaching to authoritarianism of any stripe, and the foolishness and stupidity that seem to be an innate part of our makeup as individual human beings. Through all of Voinovich’s work runs the realization that, because we all live in history, the personal is political and the political is personal, and that this can have hilariously comic as well as profoundly tragic consequences.

Although many of his books are fairly easy to come across thanks to their availability in second-hand editions (and despite their being out of print), I make my own unrealistic demand here that some savvy publisher will release his final novel, The Crimson Pelican (2016), in English translation (Young has already completed one; you can sample it here), as well as his 2007 autobiography.

Happy 185th to Petroleum V. Nasby

“A nickel-plated son of a bitch”: Petroleum V. Nasby.

September 20 marked the 185th anniversary of the birth of David Ross Locke, the Civil War-era journalist who created the Rev. Petroleum Vesuvius Nasby, described by his creator as “a nickel-plated son of a bitch.” Last year I posted a brief appreciation; I republish it below, with a few minor revisions.

Locke was born on this day in 1833. Back in the Pleistocene Era when I was wasting my time on a master’s degree, I was hoping to prepare some kind of dissertation on Locke’s work before common sense dissuaded me from a career in academia. Still, I remember it fondly.

David Ross Locke.

Locke and Mark Twain were close friends and drinking buddies, and Twain has some very nice things to say about the man in his autobiography. The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County, and Other Sketches, Twain’s first book, was published in 1867; the same year saw the publication of Swingin’ Round the Cirkle, perhaps the best collection of Locke’s Nasby letters. It’s an interesting juxtaposition. By the end of the Civil War, Locke was recognized as the most important satirist of his generation; in the persona of Nasby — a drunk, racist opportunist — Locke underscored the hypocrisy and plain stupidity of the Democrats and Copperheads who emerged from the Civil War and laid the groundwork for today’s version of “white rage.” By 1865, Locke had become Lincoln’s favorite humorist: Lincoln once said, “I intend to tell him if he will communicate his talent to me, I will swap places with him!” And legend has it that just before his journey to Ford’s Theatre on the evening of April 14, 1865, Lincoln was reading the latest installment of the letters.

Like Twain, Locke (as Nasby, who shared a few of his creator’s weaknesses for alcohol and poor hygienic habits) had a phenomenally successful career on the lecture circuit, for humorists the precursor to stand-up comedy; unlike Twain, Locke had already developed a blisteringly satiric perspective on the American culture of the Civil War years and immediately thereafter. It may be too much to say that Locke paved the way both for Twain’s later, bitter vision of America’s racial heritage, and for the likes of Stephen Colbert. But it may not. Occasionally Locke and Nasby arise in the most curious places, most recently in the New York Times. In a 2012 column, Jon Grinspan, now a Curator of Political History at the Smithsonian Institution, wrote about Locke, Nasby, and their legacies, and Nasby’s prejudices echo today:

Beginning in early 1862, [Locke] aggressively lampooned dimwitted reactionaries who, in Nasby’s words, pined for “the Union ez it uzd to was, and the Constitooshn ez I’d like to hev it.” …

In letter after letter, Locke parodied the deluded belief in white supremacy. Nasby was proudly bigoted because “it is soothing to a ginooine, constooshnel, Suthern-rites Dimekrat to be constantly told that ther is a race uv men meaner than he.” Though he could barely “rede and rite,” Nasby worried that emancipation might mean that “our kentry will be no fit place for men uv educhashen and refinement,” like himself. Ultimately, Nasby fretted that freed slaves would begin “tyranizin over us, even as we tyrannize over them.”

Locke even defended interracial marriage, at the time reviled by almost all Americans. The Democratic Party accused Republicans of wanting to marry white women to freed slaves, a concern Nasby shared. He joined a rally by white women against miscegenation, but concluded that the hideous protesters he met had nothing to worry about; no freed slave would have any interest in them. Nasby did make an exception for sex between married masters and slaves, so long as “yoo temper it with adultery.” …

Through his risky satire, the slovenly, drunken Locke probably had more influence on the direction of American history than any other humorist.

Nasby’s own language, as you can see, may lead to a few orthological headaches for the contemporary reader — a not uncommon problem with the “Phunny Phellows” of this era — but there are rewards to be had. So here’s to the Rev. Petroleum V. Nasby, that nickel-plated son of a bitch whose descendants continue to fill the voting booths and the rosters of the GOP. You can read Swingin’ Round the Cirkle — still a book ripe for someone’s dissertation, especially when race remains a central problem of the American experiment — for free right here. And in 2013, Ron Gorman, a volunteer docent at the Oberlin Heritage Center, wrote this appreciation, which features more of the Nasby letters and fills in quite a few biographical blanks.

Alan Partridge’s Scissored Isle

Steve Coogan as Alan Partridge in Alan Partridge’s Scissored Isle.

It was only a matter of time before Steve Coogan’s feckless, tactless TV/radio personality Alan Partridge found himself in a mockumentary, and so he did two years ago. Once again seeking some kind of redemption and fame, Partridge abandoned his DJ duties to produce, executive produce (not sure what the difference is there except for an extra credit, but never mind), co-direct, and appear in Alan Partridge’s Scissored Isle, a one-hour portrait of a divided Britain in 2016, in which all of his unnerving, annoying traits were on full display — arrogance, ignorance, preening self-importance, cowardice, racism, sexism, you name it — as he investigated the haves and have-nots (or, as Partridge would have it, the “haven’ts”) who populated a country he found in “schasm.”

Partridge has remained a mainstay of British comedy culture since he first emerged as a sports presenter on the BBC comedy program On the Hour in 1991; since then, Coogan has steered the character through a variety of radio shows, television comedies, and even in 2013 a feature film, Alpha Papa (co-authored by Armando Iannucci, director of last year’s great The Death of Stalin and a long-time Coogan collaborator, especially on the Partridge shows). Although Coogan has succeeded stateside with films like 24 Hour Party People and Philomena, the latter of which he co-authored and in which he starred with Judi Dench (the film received four Academy Award nominations in 2014, including one for Best Adapted Screenplay), Partridge has never caught on with Americans. Although some of this may be due to British-specific cultural references, I also suspect that Partridge cuts too close to the bone; his vices are fairly unrelieved by any virtues. The British are much better at creating comic characters like this than Americans, witness the likes of Basil Fawlty and David Brent. But in Scissored Isle, Coogan pulls off the somewhat magical feat of making a cutting social commentary while parodying social commentaries — and you don’t need to be British to recognize it.

Alan Partridge’s Scissored Isle won two BAFTA TV Awards in 2017 (for Best Male Performance in a Comedy Programme and Best Writer), as well as an International Emmy Award for Best Comedy that same year. You can see the entire program below; it’s worth your time. (The OED, by the way, defines “chav” as a derogatory term referring to “a young lower-class person who displays brash and loutish behaviour and wears real or imitation designer clothes”; it’s derived from the term “Council House affiliated Vermin.” You’ll want to know that in a minute or two.)

A bookshelf for the Trump era

Back in 1971, a year before Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein put their bylines on their first story about a little hotel yclept Watergate, Philip Roth’s vitriolic anger towards the Nixon administration led him to publish Our Gang, a book-length satire of the 37th U.S. president. A political fantasia, the book concluded with a chapter about Nixon’s campaign against Satan for the leadership of Hell. The estimable Dwight Macdonald reviewed the book in the New York Times, calling it “far-fetched, unfair, tasteless, disturbing, logical, coarse and very funny — I laughed out loud 16 times and giggled internally a statistically unverifiable amount. In short, a masterpiece.”

Roth’s book appeared during a particularly virile period of American satire, especially that of the Menippean variety. In 1971, William Gaddis and Joseph Heller were working on their second novels (J R and Something Happened, respectively), which were arguably more vitriolic than their first; Terry Southern had just published Blue Movie; and the National Lampoon had just entered its early golden period. These days, satire is alive and well in too many places to be mentioned here — but not, interestingly enough, in bookstores.

The Trump period has yet to be limned by a novelist of Philip Roth’s caliber, and though the 45th U.S. president has already tried to characterize Bob Woodward’s Fear as a work of fiction, almost everybody else is happy to keep it on the non-fiction shelves. This has led me to take just a few minutes to daydream: if some writers appear to be prescient in terms of their cultures, what books, primarily satiric in intent, of the recent and not-so-recent past might have warned us about the political culture we face today?

Off the top of my head, below are just a few novels and fewer non-fiction screeds, well-thumbed on my shelves, that seem to have predicted our current crisis; alas, as satire, they’re not obligated to provide solutions. (That current crisis itself is covered in some detail by Mr. Woodward and in fine books by Edward Luce, Timothy Snyder, and others.) Some of these address the kind of culture that leads to the creation and emergence of a Donald Trump; some address the kind of culture that leads people to vote for and support him. I’ve tried to avoid the obvious (George Orwell, Sinclair Lewis), first because I’m not quite convinced that they’re as germane as some people think, but also because they rank fairly low in terms of laughs. I’ve limited these to the twentieth century, but only reluctantly. Readers are welcome to offer their own candidates in the comments section below.

A comedian to take seriously: Albert Brooks at Metrograph

Albert Brooks in “Defending Your Life.”

In recent years, comedian Albert Brooks has become known more for his acting career than anything else — from his well-received performances in Drive, the series Weeds, and other films, to an ongoing career in voiceover work in films like Finding Nemo and The Secret Life of Pets and the series The Simpsons. But this shouldn’t overshadow his accomplishments as writer/director/performer in a series of remarkable feature comedies, released from 1979-2005. Those who are unfamiliar with these films are in for a treat, when Metrograph screens all of them during an Albert Brooks career retrospective this October.

When Christopher Lasch published The Culture of Narcissism in 1979, the book was hailed as a mordant description of a social epidemic sweeping American culture (the book, now a classic, will be republished by W.W. Norton in October, with a new introduction by E.J. Dionne, Jr.). And if anyone was prepared to offer an unofficial film adaptation of the book, it was Brooks. Like Steve Martin’s routines, Brooks’s comedy deconstructed the cliches of stand-up performance, but there was more to Brooks than that — his characters, even when they were named “Albert Brooks,” were dour and always on the verge of anger; more, his characters exemplified the kinds of self-destructive individual and cultural narcissism, as well as a perverse urge to public performance, that Lasch anatomized. More than Martin’s, Brooks’s comedy was a comedy of discomfort. And it’s still relevant and uncomfortable almost 40 years later, as the republication of Lasch’s book attests.

A reluctant stand-up comedian, Brooks parlayed a series of surreal appearances on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show and several situation comedies into the role of house filmmaker when NBC launched Saturday Night in 1975. Brooks was ahead of his time as a comedy deconstructionist. (One of his most memorable short films, “Albert Brooks’ Famous School for Comedians,” originated as an article in Esquire magazine in the 1970s; the film will be presented in the Metrograph series, and you can find the Esquire article here.) It was only in 1979 when Brooks went behind the camera to direct Real Life and his concern with the culture became evident. With a script by Brooks, Harry Shearer, and Brooks’s long-time collaborator Monica Johnson, who co-authored most of the films that Brooks has directed (she died in 2010), the film was more than a hilarious parody of the groundbreaking PBS series An American Family; by inserting the documentarian himself into the story, Brooks explored the idea that people’s behavior changes when they know they’re being watched, either consciously or unconsciously, especially by the egocentric entertainers who are watching them. Brooks’ intrusion into the lives of the Yeagers nearly destroys the family and certainly destroys the family’s home at the end of the film. And prescient? A quick glance at tonight’s cable TV listings reveals that Brooks was there decades before everybody else.

Brooks followed Real Life with the even more acidic Modern Romance (1981), a look at narcissists more in love with themselves than with each other; though Modern Romance was a box-office disaster (despite Stanley Kubrick’s admiration for the film), he struck gold with Lost in America (1985), which added pungent observations about America’s professional class and generational malaise to a portrait of the self-loathing David Howard as he and his wife, inspired by Easy Rider, cross the continental United States in an attempt to “find themselves” and, as David puts it, touch Indians. His follow-up film, Defending Your Life (1991), proposed a Southern California resort hotel as a purgatory of sorts as Brooks’ Daniel Miller was forced to confront his various demons during his time on earth (it turns out that Heaven has a “blooper reel” ready for each of us; I’m sure mine is just as embarrassing as Daniel’s). Mother (1996) chronicled the uneasy relationship between a science-fiction novelist in middle age and his widowed mother (Debbie Reynolds, in a performance that won raves), but The Muse (1999), an abstract essay about artistic creativity, suffered somewhat from its insider-baseball satire of Hollywood and the entertainment industry. In his most recent film, Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World (2005), Brooks played “Albert Brooks” once again in a farce about a comedian’s misadventures in a multicultural society.

Like most successful comedians-turned-directors, there’s more to Brooks’s style than meets the eye; he doesn’t just turn the camera on himself then “act funny” in front of it. He prefers long takes, often with a stationary camera, framing his shots from a middle distance, more of a scientist intent on examining a biological specimen than anything else. And that is, really, what Brooks is, as a comedian and a filmmaker: a dispassionate observer of his deeply flawed self-involved subjects and the society and relationships they’ve built around themselves. Brooks has also distinguished himself in other media: his albums from the 1970s, Comedy Minus One and A Star is Bought, experimented with the received forms of spoken-word comedy, and the Boston Globe called his 2011 novel 2030: The Real Story of What Happens to America “an inspired work of social science fiction, thoughtful and ambitiously conceived, both serious and seriously funny.”

The Metrograph series, which is scheduled to begin on October 5 and run through October 12, provides the opportunity to revisit each of these films and will also screen The Scout (1994), which Michael Ritchie directed from a script co-authored by Brooks and featuring one of his more nuanced performances for another director. (Ritchie also directed four great satires about competitiveness and the American Dream in the 1960s and 1970s: Downhill Racer, The Candidate, Smile, and The Bad News Bears.) More information about the Metrograph series can be found here. And below, perhaps one of the most quintessential Albert Brooks scenes, exemplifying much of what I said above, from Lost in America. Art Frankel plays the employment agent.