Roundup: Funny ha ha

Cafe Katja: Your Austrian home away from home.

This week I nearly signed up for the Michelle Wolf fan club; looked back at Mad magazine; and suggested a few possibilities for your cinematic pleasure.

And a reminder: If you haven’t made your Mother’s Day plans yet, you can always treat dear old Mom to the best of contemporary music. As the Brooklyn Rail suggests, there’s no time like the present to purchase your tickets for Morton Feldman’s landmark Patterns in a Chromatic Field (1981), which Stephen Marotto (cello) and Marilyn Nonken (piano) will perform as the last concert of this year’s Great Music at St. Bart’s series on Sunday, May 13. Says the Rail, “With the quiet and stillness that Feldman is famous for, Patterns in a Chromatic Field weaves what is at times a mind-bending complexity and mesmerizing beauty.” The trouble starts at 3.00pm. More information and tickets here.

I’ll be enjoying a comparative quiet and stillness myself at Cafe Katja this afternoon. You have a good weekend too.

Coming soon: From the sublime to the ridiculous

Elaine May and Walter Matthau in “A New Leaf,” written and directed by Ms. May.

You’ll be able to catch Charlie Chaplin’s 1936 Modern Times on the big screen at Metrograph this weekend. It screens Saturday, May 5, and Sunday, May 6, at 11.00am, so don’t forget to bring the kids. Or just go yourself; it’s among Chaplin’s best films, and worth seeing in a theater.

Yesterday the New York Times ran an essay by Manohla Dargis about the upcoming series “A Different Picture: Women Filmmakers in the New Hollywood Era, 1967-1980,” a 42-film retrospective that starts at the BAMcinématek tomorrow and runs through May 20. The retrospective will screen some old favorites from the period, including Joan Micklin Silver’s Hester Street, Barbara Kopple’s Harlan County USA, and Claudia Weill’s Girlfriends, but they (and Dargis) are giving extra props to Elaine May, two films from whom will be featured at the festival. Her first film, A New Leaf (1971), is a comedy that concerns an aging playboy (Walter Matthau) who marries a clumsy but wealthy botanist (Elaine May), scheming to kill her for her money; Mikey and Nicky (1976) is a scabrous anatomy of machismo and male friendship between two petty Philadelphia gangsters (Peter Falk and John Cassavetes). About May, Dargis writes:

[Peter Biskind’s book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex-Drugs-and-Rock’n’ Roll Generation Saved Hollywood] doesn’t mention Barbara Loden (Wanda) and refers to Elaine May (A New Leaf and Mikey and Nicky) only in passing. He notes that Ms. May wrote Heaven Can Wait and also that she dated John Calley, a Hollywood power player. Ms. May deserved far better, of course, and not only because she was at that point one of only a few women since the 1920s hired to direct by a studio. “I pitched very hard,” her producer said, “that having a woman director would be of consequence.”

Although Ms. May repeatedly clashed with Paramount while making A New Leaf — she later sued the studio — the movie is flat-out great. In one of his best performances, Walter Matthau plays a bankrupt snob who schemes to marry a clumsy heiress and botany professor played with sneaky charm by Ms. May. Paramount took the film away from her, softening it (in her version, the Matthau character kills several people), but its genius remains. John Cassavetes was such a fan of Ms. May that he appeared alongside his frequent collaborator Peter Falk in her fantastic Mikey and Nicky, about a small-time hood in trouble who calls an old friend for help.

To grasp how women and men are treated differently even in movie histories all you have to do is read about Ms. May. Her problems with Hollywood — she went over schedule, shooting miles of film — are legendary but rarely, if ever, are they framed as a matter of her auteurist prerogative, as they often are when male artists take on the Hollywood barbarians. (The author of a monograph on The Godfather — its director, Francis Ford Coppola, also famously fought Paramount — deems Ms. May’s three-hour cut of A New Leaf “un-releasable,” thereby siding with the studio, and describes her character as “homely” and Matthau’s as “an aging ‘gentleman.’”)

The decidedly wonderful Ms. May will return to Broadway in The Waverly Gallery in September. In the meantime, I recommend catching up with her excellent body of film work.

Finally, the Times also posted yesterday this “oral history” of National Lampoon’s Animal House, which celebrates the 40th anniversary of its 1978 release this year; it’s one of those films that’s great by accident rather than by design. The comedy, set at a small college in 1962, inspired a host of crude imitators and is a bit guilty of crudity itself — it ends with the rude, glorious, Dionysian destruction of a small American town — but it’s just as funny now as it was then. Unlike those imitators, Animal House used its plot as a pot to hold a stew of satiric observations about race relations, sexual politics, corruption, higher education, politics, class, anti-Semitism, and hypocrisy — and those issues haven’t gone anywhere. So far as the Deltas themselves are concerned, they’d be as out of place at Columbia University in 1968 as they were at Faber College in 1962, and they’d be out of place now (even if one of their number ended up a United States Senator). The film is available on blu-ray from Amazon.

Below, a short clip from Elaine May’s A New Leaf. Put the popcorn in the microwave and let’s get started.

What, me worry?

Back when I was a kid in the early 1970s, Mad magazine was the gateway drug to corrupted morals and a skeptical perspective. And not only for me: figures as varied as Art Spiegelman, Graydon Carter, Joyce Carol Oates (!), Terry Gilliam, Jerry Seinfeld, Roger Ebert, and Patti Smith have all attested to its warping effect on their own consciousness (those attestations can be found on the Wikipedia page for the magazine). As Spiegelman noted, “The message Mad had in general is, ‘The media is lying to you, and we are part of the media.’ It was basically … ‘Think for yourselves, kids.'” Still good advice, especially today, though it should be noted that the magazine’s founder and editor William M. Gaines defined Mad‘s editorial philosophy as “We must never stop reminding the reader what little value they get for their money!”

I moved on from Mad to National Lampoon sometime in the mid- to late-1970s, but no doubt I’ve never lost the raucous comic skepticism and even cynicism about the media, politics, and so many other things besides that Mad implanted. (Just ask my wife.) My daughters are just about the age at which I started reading Mad, and I’m very much looking forward to corrupting them similarly. As it happens, Mad magazine recently moved from New York City to Los Angeles and launched a minor revamp of its design, resetting the issue count back to Number 1 (though, as you’ll note from the cover image above, it ain’t all that different after all). No time like the present, perhaps, to start their subscriptions. (Last month Wired‘s Brian Raftery crossed his fingers for the success of the revamp.)

Though Mad was founded in 1952 and has spread its influence far and wide since then, it’s surprising that there’s been no American Masters-style documentary about the magazine (Marla Reidelbach’s 1991 history of the magazine, Completely Mad, is still the best resource for those hoping to trace its influence and checkered past, though the book is out-of-print). Back in 1987, Morley Safer from 60 Minutes put together the below profile of the magazine, which is as good as we’ll get for a while, apparently.

The Wolf in the china shop

It’s been almost two days since Michelle Wolf, a comedian and former contributor/writer for The Daily Show with Trevor Noah, performed at the annual White House Correspondents’ Association dinner in Washington, so she’s been spun out of the news cycle by now — much to the relief, no doubt, of the association. Her routine has been criticized in some quarters, according to reports from CNN and the New York Times; and late yesterday afternoon, Margaret Talev, president of the WHCA, said, “[Saturday’s] program was meant to offer a unifying message about our common commitment to a vigorous and free press. Unfortunately, the entertainer’s monologue was not in the spirit of that mission.”

As Ms. Wolf herself pointed out in her routine, they should have done a little more research before issuing the invitation, if that’s how they feel.  Her 2017 HBO stand-up debut was the ironically-titled Nice Lady, and her recent tour was the less ironically-titled The Not Nice Tour. I was only able to get to her 19-minute speech (which you’ll find below) this morning and although “not nice” accurately describes some if not most of the jokes, the WHCA dinner has traditionally been more in the nature of a Friars’ Club roast than a rerun of The Ed Sullivan Show. There are several moments when she’s vulgar and crass; many of her detractors have condescendingly dismissed her as “not funny” (such dismissals being the last refuge of the humorless). Humor is always a matter of taste; I found her speech very funny indeed. A few of her jokes fell flat, though far fewer than I was expecting having read the press coverage; it was a tough room, and Wolf wasn’t planning on making it easy for herself. Perhaps next year the WHCA will invite a comedian who’s more middle-of-the-road and family-friendly, but I must warn them that Bill Cosby will probably not be available.

It’s likely that much of the controversy stems from Wolf’s comments about the press itself, which make up the last five minutes or so of her speech; she excoriates the assembly for having created the toxic media environment responsible for Trump’s rise and success. This ABC News story collects some of the more significant Twitter comments from attendees of the dinner. Some press women seemed to deliberately misconstrue her comments about Sarah Huckabee Sanders, but it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that it was Wolf biting the hand that had just fed her monkfish that really got under the skin.

Before this story sinks forever beneath this week’s avalanche of breaking news, it’s worth remembering that, however they think of themselves now, both politicians and the press have been the sitting ducks for scatological satire in the United States for three hundred years or more. Robert Hunter’s 1714 satire Androboros, among the first plays written in America, concludes with all of its politicians being dumped into a cesspool; more recently, Ben Hecht and Charles McArthur simultaneously celebrated and ridiculed the venal, opportunistic crudity of both politicians and reporters in the 1928 The Front Page. Reporters may be enjoying their recent movie idealizations in The Post and Spotlight, and politicians may be rededicating themselves to the fine American ideals of democracy and justice in their stump speeches on the campaign trail, but it’s always been the prerogative of political satirists to knock the arrogant, the conceited, and the greedy down a peg or three. And that’s just what Wolf did on Saturday night — she is in the fine American tradition of scurrilous and ribald political satire, and instead of distancing themselves from her remarks, both politicians and the press should be shaking her hand for genuinely speaking truth to power, whether that power is in the White House or the CNN press room.

If there were such a thing as a Michelle Wolf Fan Club — and if I were such a person to join such clubs — I would sign up as a charter member now. In lieu of that, however, it may be worth considering a donation in her honor to Pro Publica or Freedom House.

I never thought I’d be saying this in any context, but: You go, girl. And the WHCA should consider inviting her to perform next year, too.

Here’s her full speech:

Roundup: Central Europe edition

This week I noted how Timothy Snyder and Anne Applebaum got me to thinking about my own experience with the eastern borderlands of Europe; followed that up with some cogent remarks about recent history from Mr. Snyder; and remembered one of the most significant political figures and moral exemplars of the late 20th century.

To end the week, I want to warn the Library of America to prepare for a rush on their Reinhold Niebuhr anthology. James Comey’s A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership hits bookstores next week; it’s already making headlines at CNN and prodding Donald Trump into a frothing rage. Today the New York Times posted Michiko Kakutani’s review of the book, in which she writes:

A Higher Loyalty is the first big memoir by a key player in the alarming melodrama that is the Trump administration. Comey, who was abruptly fired by President Trump on May 9, 2017, has worked in three administrations, and his book underscores just how outside presidential norms Trump’s behavior has been — how ignorant he is about his basic duties as president, and how willfully he has flouted the checks and balances that safeguard our democracy, including the essential independence of the judiciary and law enforcement. Comey’s book fleshes out the testimony he gave before the Senate Intelligence Committee in June 2017 with considerable emotional detail, and it showcases its author’s gift for narrative — a skill he clearly honed during his days as United States attorney for the Southern District of New York.

Kakutani notes that a major figure hovering over the book is Reinhold Niebuhr, the American theologian popular in the 1950s; Niebuhr is also featured in a sidebar interview that accompanies the review. Per Kakutani:

[Comey wrote] his college thesis on religion and politics, embracing Reinhold Niebuhr’s argument that “the Christian must enter the political realm in some way” in order to pursue justice, which keeps “the strong from consuming the weak.”

I paged through Niebuhr’s work a few years ago; clearly I’m in good company. His argument is duly noted, and I will ruminate further. And I lift a glass to his memory this afternoon.