Tom Carson

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Mussolini built his own Hollywood in the 1930s to spread his Fascist message. Today he would just tweet.

Artifice used to be more real in a sense when the movie industry was in the business of “nation-building,” when sets were an elaborate, eye-popping selling point and simulacra was not sacred but esteemed, since there was not yet the technical acumen to create any sort of profound special effects. “A cast of thousands” was the un-humble brag used to peddle Cecil B. DeMille’s 1956 remake of his own epic, The Ten Commandments, and there was another “cast” of a similar size behind the scenes making the Nile run and bushes burn.

Then the collapse of the studio system hit in the 1960s, and moguls lost their religion, mostly downsizing scale and Labor. For a while, relatively cheap, personal productions by Hoppers and Fondas and Coppolas and Scorseses ruled the day. Eventually, the studios were ready dream big again, and in 1975, the robot-shark technology of Jaws captured the summer in its animatronic maw. Two years later, Star Wars relied heavily on Industrial Light & Magic to realize its vision. It was still a long way to the technology behind today’s tentpoles, but the rise of the machines and the diminishment of human craft began in Hollywood–as it did in a big-picture way all across America–decades ago. The Herculean returned, but Hercules was now a bit player.

From “True Fakes on Location,” Tom Carson’s excellent Baffler article about auteurs and architecture:

2016 marks Intolerance’s centenary, and that shouldn’t be a milestone only to high-minded fans of cinema’s artistic dawn. Because [D.W.] Griffith predicted everything in movies, it’s also a milestone for any garden-variety filmgoer who’s ever been wowed by coarse and costly Hollywood spectacle. I suspect only prigs are completely immune to the delights of whole foreign environments—whether antique, exotically international, familiar but exaggerated, or just plain fantastical—that have been erected, populated, and photographed for no better reason than to knock our socks off. For my money, Intolerance is where fake movie architecture began its complicated dance with the real thing, affecting how audiences perceive the past, reconfigure their present, and anticipate the future.

The ambition of Intolerance did have precursors. Griffith himself had built a biblical town in the San Fernando Valley for Judith of Bethulia two years earlier. The imported Italian period epicsQuo Vadis? (1913) and Cabiria (1914) had stimulated both his ambition and his envy. But in scale and pull-out-the-stops grandeur, nothing like Belshazzar’s Court had ever been seen before—except by, well, Belshazzar and some two hundred thousand other lucky but very dead Babylonians in the sixth century BCE. Even Griffith’s own 1915 epic The Birth of a Nation hadn’t required particularly extravagant exterior sets, however unprecedented in scope (and vicious in sentiment—Intolerance was conceived in part to rebut its critics) his love song to the Ku Klux Klan had otherwise been.

One reason Intolerance’s Babylon still looks stunning is that the age of computer-generated imagery has all but ruined our capacity to experience Hollywood’s imagineering as something nonetheless rooted in the material world.•

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Nancy Reagan married well. A starlet who never came close to shuffling free of the suffix, she wed a marginally more successful Hollywood player who graduated from the studio system to the political machine. He enjoyed shocking success, first in the California Governor’s mansion and then the White House.

As an older First Lady, she always displayed grace and looked the part, advised the children to simply “just say no” the way a grandmother can because she doesn’t have the responsibility of actually raising the kids. She was a mixed blessing for the country, asinine with astrology and awful on AIDS but admirable with Alzheimer’s. Perhaps most importantly, she was on the right side of history when a thaw in the Cold War seemed possible. The stars were aligned correctly.

The opening of the great critic Tom Carson’s MTV obituary of the First Lady:

Once upon a time, a now-forgotten saloon singer named Francis Albert Sinatra recorded a tune called “Nancy (With the Laughing Face).” A sentimental fellow whenever he wasn’t threatening mayhem to anyone who dared to criticize him, Frank thought it had been composed in honor of his newborn daughter, and the songwriters decided they’d let him roll with that illusion. It wasn’t the truth, but it was only a song. 

Decades later, “Nancy (With the Laughing Face)” entered political history. Now a lot burlier, more reliant on toupees, and even more prone to threatening mayhem to anyone who dared to criticize him, the self-same Frank Sinatra sang it — with revised lyrics — at Ronald Reagan’s inaugural. What’s a bungled notion of hailing your daughter compared to celebrating the new first lady of the United States?

The sad thing is that Nancy Reagan’s face was never exactly renowned for its bubbly gift of childish laughter. She did have a nice smile, like a superbly arranged bunch of white bullets greeting you below two anxious, frozen blueberries. But spontaneity wasn’t her specialty. The facial expression she was most famous for — others had tried, but she perfected it — was the Adoring Wife as Ronnie made one more of his gazillion speeches. At least on TV, her signature was tension disguised as pride.

She had reasons for the tension. Yet she also had reasons for the pride.•


Sinatra, that erstwhile Liberal Democrat, supporting his Hollywood buddy Reagan at the 1980 Republican Convention. “Harry Truman played the piano…Nixon played the piano…they could entertain you also,” he said in defense of the aspiring Actor-in-Chief. Chris Wallace and Lynn Sherr do the honors. Lousy audio, but still worth it.

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Here are 50 ungated pieces of wonderful journalism from 2015, alphabetized by author name, which made me consider something new or reconsider old beliefs or just delighted me. (Some selections are from gated publications that allow a number of free articles per month.) If your excellent work isn’t on the list, that’s more my fault than yours.

  • Who Runs the Streets of New Orleans?” (David Amsden, The New York Times Magazine) As private and public sector missions increasingly overlap, here’s an engaging look at the privatization of some policing in the French Quarter.
  • In the Beginning” (Ross Andersen, Aeon) A bold and epic essay about the elusive search for the origins of the universe.
  • Ask Me Anything (Anonymous, Reddit) A 92-year-old German woman who was born into Nazism (and participated in it) sadly absolves herself of all blame while answering questions about that horrible time.
  • Rethinking Extinction” (Stewart Brand, Aeon) The Whole Earth Catalog founder thinks the chance of climate-change catastrophe overrated, arguing we should utilize biotech to repopulate dwindling species.
  • Anchorman: The Legend of Don Lemon” (Taffy Brodesser-Akner, GQ) A deeply entertaining look into the perplexing facehole of Jeff Zucker’s most gormless word-sayer and, by extension, the larger cable-news zeitgeist.
  • How Social Media Is Ruining Politics(Nicholas Carr, Politico) A lament that our shiny new tools have provided provocative trolls far more credibility than a centralized media ever allowed for.
  • Clans of the Cathode” (Tom Carson, The Baffler) One of our best culture critics looks at the meaning of various American sitcom families through the medium’s history.
  • The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration” (Ta-Nehisi Coates, The Atlantic) The author examines the tragedy of the African-American community being turned into a penal colony, explaining the origins of the catastrophic policy failure.
  • Perfect Genetic Knowledge” (Dawn Field, Aeon) The essayist thinks about a future in which we’ve achieved “perfect knowledge” of whole-planet genetics.
  • A Strangely Funny Russian Genius” (Ian Frazier, The New York Review of Books) Daniil Kharms was a very funny writer, if you appreciate slapstick that ends in a body count.
  • Tomorrow’s Advance Man” (Tad Friend, The New Yorker) Profile of Silicon Valley strongman Marc Andreessen and his milieu, an enchanted land in which adults dream of riding unicorns.
  • Build-a-Brain” (Michael Graziano, Aeon) The neuroscientist’s ambitious thought experiment about machine intelligence is a piece I thought about continuously throughout the year.
  • Ask Me Anything (Stephen Hawking, Reddit) Among other things, the physicist warns that the real threat of superintelligent machines isn’t malice but relentless competence.
  • Engineering Humans for War” (Annie Jacobsen, The Atlantic) War is inhuman, it’s been said, and the Pentagon wants to make it more so by employing bleeding-edge biology and technology to create super soldiers.
  • The Wrong Head” (Mike Jay, London Review of Books) A look at insanity in 1840s France, which demonstrates that mental illness is often expressed in terms of the era in which it’s experienced.
  • Death Is Optional” (Daniel Kahneman and Noah Yuval Harari, Edge) Two of my favorite big thinkers discuss the road ahead, a highly automated tomorrow in which medicine, even mortality, may not be an egalitarian affair.
  • Where the Bodies Are Buried,” (Patrick Radden Keefe, The New Yorker) Ceasefires, even treaties, don’t completely conclude wars, as evidenced by this haunting revisitation of the heartbreaking IRA era.
  • Porntopia” (Molly Lambert, Grantland) The annual Adult Video News Awards in Las Vegas, the Oscars of oral, allows the writer to look into a funhouse-mirror reflection of America.
  • The Robots Are Coming” (John Lanchester, London Review of Books) A remarkably lucid explanation of how quickly AI may remake our lives and labor in the coming decades.
  • Last Girl in Larchmont” (Emily Nussbaum, The New Yorker) The great TV critic provides a postmortem of Joan Rivers and her singular (and sometimes disquieting) brand of feminism.
  • “President Obama & Marilynne Robinson: A Conversation, Part 1 & Part 2” (Barack Obama and Marilynne Robinson, New York Review of Books) Two monumental Americans discuss the state of the novel and the state of the union.
  • Ask Me Anything (Elizabeth Parrish, Reddit) The CEO of BioViva announces she’s patient zero for the company’s experimental age-reversing gene therapies. Strangest thing I read all year.
  • Why Alien Life Will Be Robotic” (Sir Martin Rees, Nautilus) The astronomer argues that ETs in our inhospitable universe have likely already transitioned into conscious machines.
  • Ask Me Anything (Anders Sandberg, Reddit) Heady conversation about existential risks, Transhumanism, economics, space travel and future technologies conducted by the Oxford researcher. 
  • Alien Rights” (Lizzie Wade, Aeon) Manifest Destiny will, sooner or later, became a space odyssey. What ethics should govern exploration of the final frontier?
  • Peeling Back the Layers of a Born Salesman’s Life” (Michael Wilson, The New York Times) The paper’s gifted crime writer pens a posthumous profile of a protean con man, a Zelig on the make who crossed paths with Abbie Hoffman, Otto Preminger and Annie Leibovitz, among others.
  • The Pop Star and the Prophet” (Sam York, BBC Magazine) Philosopher Jacques Attali, who predicted, back in the ’70s, the downfall of the music business, tells the writer he now foresees similar turbulence for manufacturing.

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In a beauty of a Baffler piece, Tom Carson, great stylist of the Magazine Era, thinks the bejeezus out of the history of families depicted on American TV sitcoms, what they used to tell us about ourselves and what they do now. I’ve always believed the best of the form were the shows you could imagine recalibrated with just a few small adjustments into deep drama, and I don’t mean a laugh-track–less Lou Grant at 10pm but rather Ted Baxter recognizing the dark night of his soul at 3 o’clock in the morning. 

In one segment, Carson brilliantly dissects a classic, The Honeymooners, perhaps the closest thing to Beckett’s existential endgames that ever aired on U.S. television, its restless characters repeatedly running headlong into dashed hopes, diverted from utter defeat only by a hasty kiss so that the whole nightmare could be prolonged, played out again next week at the same time, same channel. An excerpt:

In the 1950s and ’60s, TV’s view of family was strikingly at odds with its view of marriage, which by default (thanks to the period’s taboos) was also its view of sex.

Midway between August Strindberg for hockey fans and Ubu Roi relocated to Eisenhower-era Brooklyn, that astounding show The Honeymooners was all about frustration and hostility. It was also presciently pro-feminist in its lampooning of men as big babies whose idiot dreams spawned messes their tuckered-out better halves were forever cleaning up. At the time, the Kramdens’ and the Nortons’ more reactionary counterparts were the Ricardos and the Mertzes on I Love Lucy, whose title character may have set back women’s lib twenty years. Her crazed aspirations to some sort of identity separate from or equal to her husband’s were the chucklesome proof she was a delightful dunce. Not least because she was a genius at it, I’ve always loathed Lucille Ball for turning herself into male chauvinism’s answer to Stepin Fetchit, especially since—off camera—she was one of the shrewdest and most resolute women ever to conquer showbiz.

In both those shows and others like them, the point was that husbands and wives were antagonists. Their dueling worldviews—and, by implication, incompatible sexual agendas—were the source of the comic friction. In TV terms, marriage was the war and children were the armistice. (For I Love Lucy, Little Ricky’s birth was the equivalent of the Peace of Westphalia.) The Honeymooners, God love it, never went that route, staying true to its name; when you think about it, the only other American classic with a title as acrid is Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence. That your head would explode if you tried to imagine Ralph and Alice Kramden as parents, or even Ed and Trixie Norton welcoming a little future sewer worker, is backhanded testimony to how intransigent the show was.•



When a small child, I thought Peter Sellers’ Dr. Strangelove character was based on Henry Kissinger, not yet understanding of the chronology involved. He certainly seemed a fictional character, and one who could not have existed in the same way at any other time but during the Cold War, when information-gathering was far less than ideal and bold strokes based on half-knowledge seemed (to some) necessary.

Tom Carson has written an excellent Barnes & Noble review of Niall Ferguson’s 1000-page biography (part one!) of Nixon’s urbane henchman, a book that is frankly not yet on my must-read list and may never make it there, given the brevity of life. Carson judges the title absorbing if not unbiased (Kissinger sought out Ferguson to write his story), reminding that while the erstwhile Secretary of State was despised by the Left, he also wasn’t liked or trusted by the Right, and his often grandiose attempts at diplomacy have had ramifications for better and worse ever since. The opening:

Still craggily with us at age ninety-two, which certainly puts him one-up on countless Vietnamese, Cambodians, Chileans, and Bangladeshis in no position to volunteer their opinions of his foreign policy skills, Henry Kissinger isn’t someone too many people have ever been able to view with equanimity. Between early 1969 and early 1977, first as Richard Nixon’s uncommonly prominent NSC adviser and then as secretary of state under both Nixon and Gerald Ford, he was a figure unique in our history: a self-styled geopolitical maestro whose cachet exceeded that of the presidents he nominally worked for. If that often left Nixon seething — something he had a lot of practice at, of course — poor Ford, a newbie at international affairs when Nixon’s Watergate-driven resignation parked him in the Oval Office, didn’t have much choice except to keep Henry plummily running the show.

It’s a backhanded tribute to Kissinger’s mystique that even his enemies end up aggrandizing “the American Metternich” — his standard appellation back then, though maybe not in the Appalachians — as the ultimate wicked mastermind. If you ask almost any leftist of a certain vintage, he’s plainly destined to end up sharing a lake of fire with Darth Vader and Lord Voldemort. Nixon is despised, occasionally pitied, and sometimes cautiously respected, Ford is a historical nullity — but Kissinger? Kissinger is clammily loathed, as Hillary Clinton was reminded by the liberal old guard’s “Say it ain’t so” groans when Obama’s new secretary of state publicly embraced her most notorious predecessor.

Nobody ever calls him a mediocrity, although perhaps they should.•

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Reassessment–a chastening, even–often attends the publication of a biography, especially in the cases of writers or politicians. Joan Didion’s received a surprising number of calls for impeachment with the publication of Tracy Daugherty’s book about her.

I’ve never been a fan of Play It As It Lays (leave the smut to the professionals, please), but Slouching Towards Bethlehem and The White Album are sensational (in the best sense of the word). Yes, Didion was a fashion-magazine veteran savvy enough to wear cool sunglasses and pose at the wheel of her Stingray, but her efforts at auto-iconography don’t even rate when compared to, say, Hunter S. Thompson’s. Since they both had the chops, who even cares?

A lot of the backlash stems from the then-aphasiac author’s depiction of California as haywire during the ’60s and ’70s. Her home state, that traitor! Sure, a big-picture take of the fantasia that is California can’t completely satisfy, and perhaps her portrait flattered East Coasters, but maybe most disturbing is that she did land on numerous and troubling truths of that place in that time. Although some will argue that these were mere distortions.

From a very well-written Barnes & Noble review of Daugherty’s bio by Tom Carson, a self-described Didion skeptic:

In her prime, she didn’t have casual readers; her gift for imposing her sensibility on events didn’t permit it. The paradox of The Year of Magical Thinking‘s success was that it introduced her to a nonliterary audience largely unaware that she’d been generating intimations of morbidity, desolation, and the existential jitters out of pretty much any topic put in front of her, from 1968’s career-defining essay collection Slouching Towards Bethlehem on. When “California” still blended the worst of heaven and the best of hell in Noo Yawk intellectuals’ minds, no other writer matched native daughter Didion at being the anti−Beach Boys.

In her home state’s very entertaining transformation from freakish American exotica to the place lit by rockets’ pink glare that the other forty-nine all try to be, she’s a pivotal figure: the last West Coast chronicler to make a career of insisting that where she came from was special, strange, and always latently monstrous. That happened to be precisely the view her culturally unnerved audience wanted endorsed at the time, but Didion also invited derision by treating her perpetually threatened morale as the ultimate gauge of how badly the twentieth century was botching its job. In a memorable hit piece, Barbara Grizzuti Harrison called her “a neurasthenic Cher.” Pauline Kael read Didion’s “ridiculously swank” 1970 novel Play It as It Lays “between bouts of disbelieving giggles.” Maybe not insignificantly, she tends to drive other woman writers up the wall — especially if, like Kael, they’re California gals themselves — more than men, who usually flip for her solemn tension.•


In the 1970s, Tom Brokaw profiled Didion, when she still called California home.

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Scientology is really no goofier in its belief system than are any of the world’s major religions, with their virgin births and reincarnations and, yes, talking donkeys, but it seems predatory toward its adherents in a way scary cults are. Will it ever grow past that? As Alex Gibney’s broadside on the church of Hubbard and Travolta and Cruise prepares to air on HBO, the great Tom Carson writes of the anti-auditing doc at Grantland. An excerpt:

The church’s own claims of around million members aren’t what you’d call reliable, and that’s still a drop in the bucket to Vatican City and Mecca. But ex-insiders estimate the actual figure is a paltry 30,000 adherents worldwide. If so, Scientology’s prominence as an alternative faith and/or perceived public menace is some kind of tribute to Hubbard’s Warhol-anticipating perception that celebrity is currency; according to the same sources, one out of six of those 30,000 live in Los Angeles.

Another measure is staying power, which in this case is still TBD. It’s been only 60 years since founder L. Ron Hubbard ginned up a mental-health program into a mighty — let’s be polite — idiosyncratic theology. Remember, though, that a new creed’s apparent preposterousness is no guarantee of failure. In the first century A.D., Christianity’s tenets probably sounded fairly goofy up against the more plausible stuff about Jupiter, Minerva, & Co. that the civilized world swore by. At least in theory, it’s totally possible that sociable chat about thetans and Suppressive Persons — the jargon Hubbard bequeathed us — won’t be any more outlandish a few hundred years from now than being down with transubstantiation or the virgin birth.

Porky Pig turning drone may seem more likely, but whatever you think of the prospect, the day is brought no closer — and that’s putting it kindly — by Gibney’s harsh and sometimes blatantly alarmist doc. Its full title is Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief. Gibney’s take derives considerable authority from being based on prizewinning New Yorker writer Lawrence Wright’s scrupulously reported book of approximately the same name. (Wright’s subtitle had “Hollywood” in there, too, and it would be interesting to know what prompted the elision: The doc certainly features enough of John Travolta and Tom Cruise.) But so long as we’re talking the difference between religions and cults, try to imagine HBO running a comparable documentary about, say, Mormonism — in more ways than one, as Wright’s book details, Scientology’s 19th-century equivalent, at least in the popular suspicions (and derision) it aroused when it was founded.•

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Ricky Jay is to a playing cards as Nikola Tesla was to electrical currents–brilliant, thrilling, dangerous, shocking–and having the masterly and stylish critic Tom Carson write of him for Grantland is happiness. Jay, who has holes in his memory but none in his logic, somehow knows things we don’t, even in this age when everything is seemingly known. It’s like magic. An excerpt:

Jay even survived the perils of being in fashion, which happened when Miley Cyrus was a toddler. One of the true oddities of the ’90s was that magic — nobody’s idea of chic entertainment in decades, or maybe ever — got trendy out of the blue. Penn & Teller became hipster heroes, David Copperfield graduated from cultural acne to showbiz Death Star, and you couldn’t piss out of a skyscraper without hitting David Blaine. Since “Who are you going to believe: me or your own lying eyes?” was basically Bill Clinton’s motto, PhD dissertations have probably been written about the culture’s unconscious groping for analogues to the hat-trick expert in the White House.

When schlockmeisters and the culturati end up on the same page, something interesting is usually afoot. Fox got count-’em four ratings bonanzas out of Breaking the Magician’s Code: Magic’s Greatest Secrets Finally Revealed. (They were awesomely cretinous, and I don’t think I missed one.) Literature got in on the act — a bit late, as usual — with Glen David Gold’s Carter Beats the Devil. Then came 9/11, and whaddya know? The whole vogue turned quaint damn near overnight. That’s why 59-year-old Penn and 66-year-old Teller, whose six-nights-a-week Las Vegas residency is now in its 14th year — they settled in at the Rio in 2001, almost like they’d figured out the cool-kids jig was up — are still the youngest and, ahem, “edgiest” professional magicians whose names anyone is likely to recognize.

Jay got cast as the caviar edition. A long and awestruck New Yorker profile by Mark Singer is still the closest thing to an intimate portrait he’s ever sat for, and was followed in 1994 by the first of his one-man Broadway shows, Ricky Jay and His 52 Assistants — directed by David Mamet, who went on to oversee two more. Because Jay’s card wizardry works only in jewel-box-size theaters, scoring tickets conferred instant membership in the hipoisie, and I should know: I saved a discarded eight of clubs from his act for years.

Adding to the nimbus of classiness, he was and is a formidably erudite and genial historian of his whole branch of the popular arts from the 15th century to now, with half a dozen books packed with esoteric wonders to his credit. He’s lectured on magic versus spiritualism at Princeton and on confidence games at police conventions. Then there’s his movie work, not only as an actor — for Anderson and Mamet, most memorably — but also as a consultant on big-screen illusions.

What he hasn’t done, at least in any obvious way, is cash in.•

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Even though I love the hysterical contempt of Nathanael West above almost all other things, I can equally enjoy Tom Carson’s wonderfully worded Paul Thomas Anderson consideration at Grantland, which makes quick work of The Day of the Locust characterizations of Californians in the service of exalting the great filmmaker as a Wellesian master of the region. There are gorgeous, knowing passages like this one: “[There Will Be Blood] is the unofficial prequel to Roman Polanski’s Chinatown, almost the only other movie to remind us that Southern California was a paradise won, not lost, by capitalism’s version of original sin — the destruction of the natural order. The same is true of America itself, of course, but California’s role in our culture is to incarnate the New World’s own, hyperbolized promised land.” The opening: 

Is it going too far to say that Southern California is to Paul Thomas Anderson what North Mississippi was to William Faulkner? Possibly. So maybe we’re better off playing it safe and going with Flannery O’Connor’s home turf instead.

Not to worry, people. As novelistic as PTA can be, which is plenty, this isn’t about giving him some kind of misbegotten upgrade by proclaiming his movies are Just Like Literature. The point is that he’s a regional artist in a way that doesn’t have many screen equivalents. If East Coast critics often overlook this in spite of loving him to death, no wonder: Not many Americans outside the zip codes in question think of SoCal as a real place to begin with.

Neither do most of the transplants, for that matter. Reality wasn’t the attraction when they moved, after all; liberation was. One of Anderson’s great strengths is that his understanding of Los Angeles as a teeming vat of self-actualization projects doesn’t make him feel obliged to depict the volunteer lab rats as bizarre or foolish, in the hysterically contemptuous way that we’ve been used to since The Day of the Locust. Good old American transcendentalism just got all modern and DIY in SoCal, and the results are a travesty only if you mistake different methods for changed goals.

Being the local boy that most of his fellow filmmakers aren’t — he was born in Studio City, pretty much the definition of deglamorized glamour — has the effect of turning everybody else’s Oz into Anderson’s evocatively vivid Kansas.•

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