Selected Work

Absence of Malick

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A new DVD of The Thin Red Line suggests Terrence Malick is as much a mystery to his actors and crew as he is to us. Even before it arrived in theaters at the end of 1998, the World War II drama The Thin Red Line was a film defined by unexplained absences. Its director, Terrence Malick, had made two of the most rapturously regarded movies of the ’70s, Badlands (1973) and Days of Heaven (1978), and then vanished from the filmmaking grid. His reappearance after 20 years was an ecstatic, near-miraculous event in the church of cinema, but it left many a missing person in its wake. Well-known actors such as Viggo Mortensen, Mickey Rourke, and Bill Pullman did scenes for The Thin Red Line on location in Australia but went MIA in the finished three-hour print. Billy Bob Thornton’s narration was likewise scrapped. Adrien Brody, who shot in Australia for three grueling months, brought his parents to an early screening to discover that his leading role had been whittled down to a single line of dialogue. George Clooney, who featured prominently in ads for the film, is on-screen for all of 60 seconds. We expect star turns from our big movies, but The Thin Red Line (loosely adapted from James Jones’ 1962 novel and reaching theaters the same year as Saving Private Ryan) won both praise and scorn for its serene lack of interest in elements of the prestige studio picture. A plot, for instance: The film’s stunningly tense and kinetic middle hour traces a dangerously dehydrated U.S. Army company’s attempt to seize a Japanese stronghold during the Battle of Guadalcanal, but much of the rest of the action is dreamy, drifty, interior. The beatific Pvt. Witt (Jim Caviezel) goes AWOL in an Eden of singing, swimming Melanesian villagers. Pvt. (Ben Chaplin) takes a walk, thinks of his wife, stares up at trees. Shots of sun-dappled leaves, grass, birds, and the occasional crocodile get more screen time than John Cusack and Woody Harrelson combined—as critic J. Hoberman put it, the film “thrive[s] on the tension between horrible carnage and beautiful, indifferent ‘nature.’ ” Dialogue is often thin on the ground, supplanted by Hans Zimmer’s plangent score, the whispers of wind and water, and a rotating, often confounding current of hushed voiceovers. To wit: “Oh, my soul, let me be in you now. Look out through my eyes, look out at the things you’ve made.” What does that mean? And who said it? Perhaps only Malick knows for sure. More at Slate

Are Women People?

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I’ve always assumed that women are fully autonomous human citizens—who vote, even!—but now I’m not so certain

All my adult life, I’ve been pretty sure I’m a sentient, even semi-competent human being. I have a job and an apartment; I know how to read and vote; I make regular, mostly autonomous decisions about what to eat for lunch and which cat videos I will watch whilst eating my lunch. But in the past couple of months, certain powerful figures in media and politics have cracked open that certitude.

You see, like most women, I was born with the chromosome abnormality known as “XX,” a deviation of the normative “XY” pattern. Symptoms of XX, which affects slightly more than half of the American population, include breasts, ovaries, a uterus, a menstrual cycle, and the potential to bear and nurse children. Now, many would argue even today that the lack of a Y chromosome should not affect my ability to make informed choices about what health care options and lunchtime cat videos are right for me. But others have posited, with increasing volume and intensity, that XX is a disability, even a roadblock on the evolutionary highway. This debate has reached critical mass, and leaves me uncertain of my legal and moral status. Am I a person? An object? A ward of the state? A “prostitute”? (And if I’m the last of these, where do I drop off my W-2?)

Read more at Time

Are You a Boy or a Girl?

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It starts with a gender-reveal celebration, and it culminates at the door of a bathroom in North Carolina.

Like a lot of 18-month-olds, my daughter is epicene; even if she’s out on the town in, say, pink leggings and a floral raincoat, sometimes I’ll still get a “He’s so cute—how old is he?” from a friendly stranger. (I just did, in fact, on Mother’s Day. In the stranger’s defense, we were exploring cannons at a military park. Masculine!) I rarely bother to correct people, but if they realize their mistake, they are often profusely apologetic, as if they’d given grave offense over something far more consequential than gender.

And if this scene unfolds when I’ve dressed her in neutral clothing, the offense at times turns subtly outward. “Why do you dress her like a boy?” demanded a man in the jewelry section of H&M while my kid—in a red sweatshirt, jeans, and gray-and-purple sneakers—rummaged through a pile of tassled earrings. The man was trying to be polite, but he also seemed affronted by his own confusion—and affronted by me, I suppose, for causing his confusion. “She looks like a boy!” he insisted, repeatedly. The only response I could think of was the shrugging one I gave: “She looks like herself.”

More at Slate

Art of Darkness: How Bigelow made the year’s most controversial movie

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bigelow-jessica-winter-time-cover My cover story for Time Magazine, in which I find out about Kathryn’s early years in the ’70s New York art scene and also interview Jessica Chastain, Jamie Lee Curtis, Willem Dafoe and Lawrence Weiner.

“Sometime in the late 1970s, the young visual artist Kathryn Bigelow had a thought-provoking conversation with a friend-of-a-friend by the name of Andy Warhol. “Andy was saying that film is way more populist than art—that art’s very elitist, so you exclude a large audience,” she recalls. Not long after, Bigelow visited the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York City, paying special attention to Kazimir Malevich’s white-on-white Suprematist Composition and Piet Mondrian’s color-block grids. “I remember thinking, ‘The audience for this is very specific,’” Bigelow says over lunch in her hotel suite at the Ritz-Carlton Central Park, not far from MOMA. “A Malevich or a Mondrian requires that you come to it with a certain amount of information, a context. And you don’t need that with film. A movie is accessible, available. That was exciting to me from a political standpoint.”

Read more over at Time.

Bring Up the Bodies By Hilary Mantel

Bring Up the Bodies

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On Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies (BookForum)

Hilary Mantel’s 2009 novel, Wolf Hall, was an extraordinary achievement, a work of historical and artistic integrity that nonetheless managed to be a hit across genders, generations, and sensibilities. I know a twentysomething male worshipper of Thomas Bernhard who loves it, and I know a retired female acolyte of Jodi Picoult who loves it just as much. The book appeared midway through the high-rated run of Showtime’s The Tudors, which grappled lustily albeit ahistorically with the same soapy crisis—Henry VIII’s break with Rome and divorce from Katherine of Aragon in favor of the swiftly disfavored Anne Boleyn—and which, at its gloriously stupid best, suggested a remake of Showgirls set at the Palace of Whitehall. In the Booker Prize–winning Wolf Hall, which cleared the room of heaving bosoms and bore no taint of faux-Tudor cheese, Mantel provided the highbrow but equally addictive alternative version of the King’s Great Matter.

She also provided a central, sustaining surprise in her choice of sympathetic protagonist: Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s chief minister for eight pivotal years, typically portrayed as a beady-eyed menace in works ranging from Hans Holbein the Younger’s famous portrait to Robert Bolt’s play A Man for All Seasons. (On The Tudors, Cromwell says things like, “You shameless friar! You’ll be sewn in a sack and thrown into the Thames if you don’t speedily hold your tongue!”) Mantel took this agreed-upon villain and made him into an unlikely hero, much as she did with Robespierre in her historical novel A Place of Greater Safety (1992). And she made Cromwell …

More at BookForum

Brought to you by the letter I

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An essay commissioned as part of the Museum of Modern Art exhibition Ecstatic Alphabets / Heaps of Language.

I. THE PLEASURE OF THE TEXT

“I invited a friend of mine over for dinner,” says the man ruefully. The gray-faced, middle-aged fellow is a squiggly animation, made of skinny, put-upon lines that form sluggish shapes. His dinner guest is nothing like him. The little friend who bounces through the French doors is the letter M, angular and robust. M has googly eyes at the tops of his twin peaks, which extend downward to become super-springy legs and dancing feet that also serve as his hands. M hops into his host’s outstretched palm, then rubs against his jowls like a cat. The gray man, beleaguered by these shows of affection, trudges toward a grand table piled with a colorful smorgasbord, plus candelabra. He slumps in his seat and invites the bug-eyed M to dig in. “Mmmmm, marvelous!” the M cries. “Meat! Munch! Magnificent!” M’s center of gravity is his mouth; a rib-eye steak, a loaf of bread, a glass of wine vanish into the V-shaped dip. The bottom point of this center “V” is also a straw, slurping up a glass of milk in one go. “Milk!” he says. The two upside-down Vs on either side of M’s mouth are pincers, chomping instantaneously through an entire melon. “Mmm-melon!” he says.

From THE SERVING LIBRARY

Can a single pill change your life?

Can a Single Pill Change Your Life?

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MDMA, the active ingredient in the drug Ecstasy, has been reviled as a menace and even a killer. Now some therapists claim it can help light the way out of a traumatic past.

Sarah lived in a basement for a few weeks when she was a child. But in a way, she lived there much of her life.

Her father terrorized their family. He hit her, threw hot coffee at her, locked her in closets. Once, he held a gun to her sister’s head. The winter Sarah was 11, she brought in the wrong wood for the fireplace, so her father locked her in the family’s unfinished concrete basement. Her meals were brought to the top of the stairs. It was a freezing Christmas in Pennsylvania, more than 30 years ago.

Sarah eventually left home for college, earned a master’s degree in education, had a son. Surprisingly, she stayed in close contact with her parents. But the sound of a door clicking shut made her heart pound; if her dog barked, electric sparks shot through her limbs. At a party, she’d struggle to follow the conversation; the room would spin and the lights would smear; her ears rang with blurring voices. She slept badly, and always with the windows open and the doors unlocked. “I couldn’t stand to feel trapped,” she explains. She was often irritable or paranoid, short-fused, consumed with self-loathing.

Sarah’s nervous system was stuck in the amber of childhood, when her psyche had been conditioned for chronic danger. Decades after leaving her father’s house, her mind and body remained on 24-7 high alert, poised to duck a flying fist or slip through a closing door. She was in her early 30s before she received the formal diagnosis: post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

More at O Magazine

Can MDMA Heal Psychological Trauma?

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Jessica WinterO senior editor Jessica Winter spent a year conducting many hours of interviews and research on the potential of MDMA—the main ingredient in the party drug Ecstasy—to help heal psychological trauma. Here she shares highlights of her investigative process.
O: How did you get interested in the therapeutic uses of MDMA?

Jessica Winter: A few years ago, I read a moving article in The Boston Globe about a Massachusetts woman who had obtained illegal pharmaceutical-grade MDMA for her adult daughter, who was dying of cancer and suffering terrible pain. It seemed odd to me that you could take what we think of as a scary street drug and use it to help vulnerable people. I wanted to unpack this weird idea and see how much sense it made.

O: Of the 24 people you interviewed, were there any standouts?

JW: My favorite personality was Beth, the underground therapist who uses MDMA to treat patients. She was funny but no-nonsense—there was nothing woo-woo about her. A lot of people speak about MDMA in spiritual and even mystical terms, but Beth talks about MDMA as a practical tool.

O: You worked on this story for a year. Did you ever get tired of it?

JW: I could have happily worked on this story forever. We’re talking about the brain, the nervous system, how we make and remake memories, freedom of will—consciousness itself. Fascinating! We’ll never figure all this stuff out, but it’s great fun to try.

Read the Story: Can a Single Pill Change Your Life?

Chimp Change

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When Marc Jurnove first visited the Long Island Game Farm Park and Zoo in the spring of 1995, he found Barney, a chimpanzee, living in bleak isolation, with only a swing to distract him and no other chimps in sight. Concerned, Jurnove sought legal action. However, the case that followed, Animal Legal Defense Fund v. Glickman (1998), did not focus on Barney’s psychological well-being, oddly enough, but that of his human observer. As one of the deciding judges wrote, “Mr. Jurnove’s affidavit is an uncontested statement of the injuries that he has suffered to his aesthetic interest in observing animals living under humane conditions.”

Of course, none of the interested parties in this case were actually convinced that animal welfare is merely a matter of taste. But the notion of “aesthetic injury” is just one means of circumventing a hard legal fact: Property can’t sue, thus neither can animals, nor can a guardian ad litem bring criminal or civil action on their behalf. Some animal rights advocates are hoping that will soon change. In Rattling the Cage: Toward Legal Rights for Animals (2000) and the recently published Drawing the Line: Science and the Case for Animal Rights (both Perseus), attorney Steven M. Wise proposes “legal personhood” for certain highly intelligent nonhuman species, beginning with our evolutionary next-door neighbors: chimpanzees and bonobos, who are endangered in the wild. Wise’s idea is a major point of contention in the far-flung animal rights debate, tangled in ageless questions of justice, philosophy, biology, even the very definition of being human.

Protections, if not rights, for animals have been on the books for decades. But though the Animal Welfare Act requires the U.S. Department of Agriculture to set minimum standards of nutrition and shelter for captive animals, they’re difficult to enforce (especially against elusive traveling zoos, who are among the worst offenders), the fines are token, and the rules are skimpy—the Game Farm hadn’t even broken any of them. Though Jurnove had standing to sue for once-removed distress, Barney himself had no judicial recourse.

More at The Village Voice

Cracked Actor

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The film career of David Bowie.

In the summer of 1983, a man calling himself David Bowie appeared on the cover of Time magazine. With his blond coif and portfolio of smooth platinum hits, this tanned and tailored crooner of what he dubbed “positive music” seemed a man apart from the shape-shifting, gender-melding ’70s pop mutant also known as David Bowie, whose spookier guises had included the Lost Spaceman, the Alien Sex Machine, and the Funky Disinterred Corpse. It was as if Lady Gaga had suddenly morphed into Michael Bublé.

But later that same year, this clean-cut, mainstream Bowie did something reassuringly, Bowie-ishly bizarre: He played a lead role in Nagisa Oshima’s Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence. To invest one’s peak pop-star capital in a bleak homoerotic drama, set in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp and directed by the provocateur behind the art-porn shocker In the Realm of the Senses—well, that’s the kind of loopy career choice you’d expect from the fellow who brought us the Anorexic Centaur Centerfold, the Stewardess as Rock God, and the Human Lightning Bolt.

In Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (newly available in excellent DVD and Blu-ray editions from Criterion), Bowie portrays the soldier Celliers, a beautiful Brit with a slippery charisma and a potent rebellious streak. He is an enigmatic born leader, a delicate object of myriad desires and revenges, a picker of flowers and performer of mime. Which is all to say, he is a close variation on David Bowie—and thus a representative role for the singer-thespian. Bowie always excelled at playing the magic freak: the world-weary, otherworldly outsider who is both adored and condemned for his destabilizing mojo. And because Bowie’s insuperable Bowie-ness glitters too brightly for him to vanish into any one part, a close look at his film and theater roles is a case study in the merits of stunt casting.

More at Slate