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A Week in Culture: Hilton Als, Part 2

August 12, 2010 | by

This is the second installment of Als’s culture diary. Click here to read part 1.


DAY FOUR

I finished watching There Will Be Blood, hours after I'd returned from visiting an actor friend in Brooklyn. She had a terrible accident while filming an episode of SVU (or SUV—I never know what that show's called). An actor shook her too hard, hurting her neck, so, in order to see my friend, I have to go to her. Despite her pain, my friend was herself, which is to say a real raconteur, one of the last of the best. She punctuates her story-telling with peals of laughter, knowing pauses, and concern. Her presence is part of what makes New York itself, a city filled with jumpy and funny and paranoid people—particularly in the summer. Before I left my friend's house we talked about how scary we both find Hemingway's short story, “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber.”

Then I got on the subway, which is far from my house; I had to walk past the Brooklyn Hospital to get there, perhaps my least favorite walk in the world, since my mother spent a great deal of time in that hospital when I was a kid, thus instituting my continual anxiety about separation, and my need to be alone so it doesn't happen. No one leaves if no one is invited in.

After I got home, I saw gothic everywhere—such was There Will Be Blood's continuing sway over my imagination. Paul Thomas Anderson in no way obscures the gothic tone in Upton Sinclair's book, Oil!—the source material for his movie. Indeed, I started thinking about one of my favorite American authors, Nathaniel Hawthorne, during Blood's end credits. Is Hawthorne not one of the architects of our American interest in a world peopled, say, white-collared, circle girls screaming twice-told tales from a morally divided heart?

DAY FIVE

Back to the issue of time. One way to measure it's passing is by watching porn. Before you know it, yesterday's semi-twink is today's suited, inscrutable Daddy. While gay porn actors generally make the transition less disfigured by cosmetic surgery than female actors in straight porn, for instance, one sometimes senses what plastic surgery can, at least in part, disguise: exhaustion.

Take Zak Spears for instance. While Spears often took on the “butch,” role in early films—the Spears character has always been critical, hard to read, slow to commit to the action but, once engaged, insatiable—one never got the sense that his interest in his partner was diminished by performing scripted sex. Now, in his latest movie, Unsuited, Spears is in full Daddy mode. But behind the gruff instructions to his young “boy,” during their table top assignation, one senses Spears' boredom with the entire enterprise. Does time erode our ability to find surprise in most situations? As we grow older, do we spend more and more time sitting in craters of boredom?

This is the kind of exegesis—porn as a metaphor about time connection—that one could express without a qualm to the late and lamented editor, Barbara Epstein. As one of the founders of The New York Review of Books, Barbara's profound gift—among many—was for seeing what her writers could not, and not insisting on a change during the editing process that would derail your thought, but enhanced it. She was a real world saint who was familiar enough with this common place that she knew humor was not a character trait, but a saving grace. And among the graces, she was the most graceful. Read More »

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A Week in Culture: Hilton Als, Writer

August 11, 2010 | by

DAY ONE

There is not enough time for anything, ever. The point was to start this journal yesterday, a Monday, since everyone's “official,” week begins then—back from the weekend, off to MOMA, what's at the Frick, that kind of thing—but I didn't. And this has nothing to do with my general tardiness as much as it does my ambivalence about keeping a record of anything that can't be contained in a photograph; sometimes I sit in my underwear in my house in despair over how paltry a thing words can seem, particularly when I've written them. But challenge is my middle name, and this journal, this record of my life in culture that I meant to begin at the start of the week but didn't, is my attempt to meld experience and memory with words and see what we come up with.

As it happens, my week in culture began not today or Monday, but Saturday, when I was standing on a train platform in Jamaica, Queens, and I saw a beautiful older man in a sky-blue Mao jacket; he was fine-boned, as though drawn out of thin air by Ingres, or David Hockney. Bill Cunningham, of course, the great documentary photographer who, for over fifty years, has been chronicling the hem-lines and moral fashions of any number of New York-based women. Bill was on his way to Bridgehampton to cover an event for The New York Times, but he wasn't staying overnight. “I never do,” he said, silently wondering. He's an incorrigible romantic, in love with Manhattan, a city the poet Marianne Moore described as being home to “the savage's romance.” Bill is a former hat maker from Boston, and his pictures finds a forum where female beauty plays itself out, gladiator fashion: who will win in the world of trend? Ever trendy, I was off to Sag Harbor to visit some fashionable friends.

As a matter of fact, my week with culture didn't begin until several days before that, when I went to visit beauty editor Jean Godfrey June at Lucky Magazine. Jean is the best writer in the fashion business, but I don't consider beauty fashion since beauty has less to do with the fluctuations—and insecurities—of fashion as it does with wanting to put a nice face on most things, not to mention people. In any case, Jean was very excited by Rodarte's latest foray into trying to make fashion and beauty fit their world view: cosmetics they'd designed for MAC. Eyeshadow that looked like shimmering, electrified goldfish circling in black vials; “gothic” colors that felt like the best color field painting I'd seen in a while. Read More »

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Dollface

July 19, 2010 | by

It’s the queers who made me. Who sat with me in the automobile in the dead of night and measured the content of my character without even looking at my face. Who – in the same car – asked me to apply a little strawberry lip balm to my lips before the anxious kiss that was fraught because would it be for an eternity, benday dots making up the hearts and flowers? Who sat on the toilet seat, panties around her ankles, talking and talking, girl talk burrowing through the partially closed bathroom door and, boy, was it something. Who listened to opera. Who imitated Jessye Norman’s locutions on and off the stage. Who made love in a Queens apartment and who wanted me to watch them making love while at least one of those so joined watched me, dressed, per that person’s instructions, in my now dead aunt’s little-girl nightie. Who wore shoes with no socks in the dead of winter, intrepid, and then, before you knew it, was incapable of wiping his own ass—“gay cancer.” Who died in a fire in an apartment in Paris. Who gave me a Raymond Radiguet novel when I was barely older than Radiguet was when he died, at twenty, of typhoid. Who sat with me in his automobile and talked to me about faith—he sat in the front seat, I in the back—and I was looking at the folds in his scalp when cops surrounded the car with flashlights and guns: they said we looked suspicious, we were aware that we looked and felt like no one else.

It’s the queers who made me. Who introduced me to Edwin Denby’s writings, and George Balanchine’s “Serenade,” and got me writing for Ballet Review. Who wore red suspenders and a Trotsky button; I had never met anyone who dressed so stylishly who wasn’t black or Jewish. Who, even though I was “alone,” watched me as I danced to Cindy Wilson singing “Give Me Back My Man,” in the basement of a house that my mother shared with her sister in Atlanta. Who took me to Paris. Who let me share his bed in Paris. Who told my mother that I would be O.K., and I hope she believed him. Who was delighted to include one of my sisters in a night out—she wore a pink prom dress and did the Electric Slide, surrounded by gay boys and fuck knows if she cared or saw the difference between herself and them—and he stood by my side as I watched my sister dance in her pink prom dress, and then he asked what I was thinking about, and I said, “I’m just remembering why I’m gay.” Read More »

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