Staff Picks: Actors, Bluesmen, Showgirls


This Week’s Reading


A still from Showgirls.

What’s so great about the new New York Times Magazine? Nicole already singled out the cover art. Dan linked to Gary Shteyngart’s “embedded” report on Russian TV. I like the tack of the whole thing, starting with the editorial letter. I like its transparency, its sense of humor, its confidence. I like the new typeface it unveils, the paper stock, too. (Finally, a newsmagazine that looks as good as New York!) Even the small decision to ghostwrite the “Lives” column shows head-thwacking common sense. (Writers will have to unburden themselves elsewhere.) Underneath these little changes, you can sense real thought about the strengths and limitations of a print weekly today. It’s no accident that the magazine has devoted serious articles to photography and a classic rock LP or that it includes a weekly poem. The editors are making the most of their medium, are paying attention to analogue media as such. That this week’s news features were informative, stylish, and timely comes as no surprise: the magazine has always published terrific features on a semiregular basis. But this week, the well added up to more than the sum of its parts. I’m eager to see how Jake Silverstein and his team follow it up tomorrow. —Lorin Stein

In 1907, Robert Walser wrote a squib in the form of a letter that responds to an actor’s request for theatrical advice. Walser prescribes a tour de force of anguish in which the actor must let out a lion-like roar from the top of the scenery; pull out tufts of (fake) hair, laying it “doucement on the earth”; pick his nose “intently”; produce a “fiery-green snake” from “your pain-warped mouth”; stick a knife in his eye and out through his throat (then light a cigarette “as if you were secretly amused about something”); and, for the big finish, be buried under the toppled scenery, with only a twitching arm visible before the curtain falls. All for the pleasure of the “bankers and spice traders” in the audience—you know, theatergoers. In 2010, Walser’s deadpan satire was translated by Paul North for Ugly Duckling and accompanied by illustrations by Friese Undine that play up the stilted, absurd, self-serious nature of the text, including a helpful quartet of portraits demonstrating proper nose picking. Walser is sarcastic but darkly, delightfully so; he’s mocking, but also, I’d imagine, partly earnest. It’s almost as though he’d written it while watching the Oscars. —Nicole Rudick

Critics shat on Paul Verhoeven’s Showgirls when it came out in 1995. Audiences despised it, too. Here was an irredeemable, exploitative romp, full of glitz and grease, insuperable pairs of shapely NC-17 tits, brittle performances, and overblown dialogue. (“This isn’t champagne. This … is holy water!”) In the twenty years since, though, Showgirls has undergone a time-honored evolution from blockbuster bomb to midnight-movie darling to cineaste curio. When Film Quarterly ran a sixteen-page roundtable discussion on the film, the cycle was complete: it had been hailed, in hallowed quarters, as a masterpiece. So how is it, really? Adam Nayman’s It Doesn’t Suck, the first entry in a new series on pop classics, mounts a brief, stylish, persuasive argument for the film—not a campy, so-bad-it’s-good argument, nor a pretentious formalist defense, but a sound look at the movie on its own terms. Showgirls, he says, is a parable about the vulgarity of showbiz, and its over-the-top grotesqueries are really no more outrageous than anything in reality. It isn’t a guilty pleasure, but it should make moviegoers feel guilty, given our unslakable lust for Hollywood mythology and preposterous star-is-born stories. Nayman’s book makes an ideal complement to the movie, which is worth re-watching. Why not? It’s on Netflix, and it feels more daring, more bracing, and more bizarre than any big-budget picture in recent memory. —Dan Piepenbring

The Smithsonian Folkways put out a new collection this week of the music of Huddie “Lead Belly” Ledbetter, whose story reads like a “parody of the brutal bluesman biography: Kill a man, go to prison—twice—then appeal for a pardon in a song,” as NPR said. The new documentary on Ledbetter is as aurally thrilling as his life is compelling; it follows John Lomax’s exploitation of the black musician and Lead Belly’s influence on rock-n-roll, from the Weavers, to the Grateful Dead, to Van Morrison, to the Beach Boys and even to Nirvana. Ledbetter’s pure abuse of the twelve-string guitar defies categorization; he wasn’t playing blues or folk. He had a unique, gritty spin on American balladry that’s as fresh today as it was back then. —Jeffery Gleaves