Contributor Picks: Doomed Bohemians and Death Masks


This Week’s Reading

In place of our staff picks this week, we’ve asked six contributors from our Fall issue to write about what they’re reading, watching, listening to, and enjoying. 

Still from Personal Shopper.

In his films, Olivier Assayas often makes use of reflective surfaces: glass walls, windows, mirrors, screens, Hollywood stars. His distinctive recipe seems to be mixing them with dark, strange themes that enter his scripts obliquely. So if you start watching Personal Shopper expecting a satire on personal shoppers, you will be confused and disappointed. Better to expect a peculiar ghost story. Even better, prepare yourself by watching some of his back catalogue: Irma Vep, Late August Early September, The Clouds of Sils Maria. I couldn’t decide if the final scene was a botched job or a masterpiece, but the choice of Anna Hausswolff’s haunting “Losing Track of Time” on the soundtrack was certainly inspired. Also: one of the best portrayals of ghosts in cinema I have seen in a while. —Isabella Hammad 

I have been telling everyone I know not to miss the wonderful new French documentary Faces Places, a collaboration by filmmaker Agnès Varda and the photographer and street artist known as JR. (He drew international attention recently when he installed a gigantic portrait of a Mexican toddler who appears to be looking over the border fence between California and the Mexican city of Tecate.) Having agreed a couple of years ago to work on a project together, Varda and JR hit the road in JR’s truck, which is equipped with a photo booth and a printer. They stop in several small French towns where they talk with various inhabitants, usually about the work that the locals do, and invite some to have their photos taken. The photos are then turned into huge posters that are plastered on walls and the sides of buildings—to spectacular effect. I was deeply moved by the relationship between these two brilliant and empathic artists, one nearing the end of her career (Varda, who is eighty-nine, has spoken of Faces Places as likely to be her last film), the other just coming into his prime. A great work of art about the making of art, Faces Places is about many other things as well: memory, aging and mortality; the importance of community and the value of labor; the force of time and the fragility of human endeavors and human relations. It is also about Varda’s unusual hair, a striking two-toned mop, the perfect crown, I thought, for such a witty head, as well as a clever solution to gray roots, which has had me asking myself: Do I dare? —Sigrid Nunez

Still from The Salt of the Earth.

A crowd of determined women march; a car revs into a group of protesters; anger flares between the sexes; racist white policemen brutalize Latino families; the press fawns over big-game hunting ruling-class overlords; worker exploitation is the order of the day; the gulf between rich and poor gapes unimaginably wide; and suspicion of Russian influence is everywhere.

Yes: this is definitely the movie for our time.

Boycotted, banned, said by the Hollywood Reporter to have been “made under direct orders of the Kremlin,” dismissed by Pauline Kael as a simplistic left-wing morality play, “as clear a piece of Communist propaganda as we have had in many years,” Herbert Biberman’s 1954 The Salt of the Earth, based on the true story of a strike at a zinc mine in New Mexico, offers a vision of the fault lines in U.S. democracy so acute that the urgency of its message is, in 2017, more shocking than ever. One of the Hollywood Ten who refused to name names to the House Committee on Un-American Activities, Biberman made the movie with a group of fellow blacklisted artists and union mine workers after spending six months in federal prison for contempt of Congress. Mexican leading lady Rosaura Revueltas was deported by the U.S. immigration services during filming in an attempt by the government to halt the production. Howard Hughes  tried to squelch the film by telling processing labs not to touch it. When, despite everything, the movie was finally released, only a handful of theaters in the U.S. would screen it. Today, the only thing about The Salt of the Earth that history hasn’t confirmed is the happy ending. —Esther Allen

Modigliani’s death mask.

I’ve been obsessed with Modigliani for almost fifty years, so any new show of his work is always welcome. I spent my early days as a painter trying to absorb some of his heat and playfulness. To me, he is timeless, radical, sensual, romantic, and childlike. I think he’s still underrated, in spite of being a household name and breaking auction records last year. Perhaps the body of work he left behind has been overshadowed by his dissolute life. His princely legend is the archetype of the doomed bohemian. I have mourned over his grave, looked up his assorted Paris addresses, walked with his ghost in rainy Montparnasse (long story), and kissed a blackened-bronze copy of his death mask in an Upper East Side apartment. “Modigliani Unmasked” at the Jewish Museum (until February 4) has the original plaster cast made at his deathbed by Lipschitz. Something about a death mask brings you closer to the life. There he is, resting in a vitrine, gaunt, noble, hopefully at peace. Hats off to Modigliani! —Duncan Hannah

Inside the home of Carlo Mollino. Photo: Alberto Zanetti/Christie’s Magazine

Just landed in Turin, Italy. So many things to consume here, from Hito Steyerl’s Factory of the Sun at the Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo to the apartment-museum of Carlo Mollino to all the Egyptian masterpieces on display at the Museu Egizio … Plus as much Carol Rama as possible … Not to mention all the precious artifacts of Piedmontese edible cultural heritage: cardoons with bagna càuda, tajarin with white truffles, many bottles of Giuseppe Rinaldi … Basta! —Adam Gollner

This past summer a friend recommended I read Mathias Énard’s Compass, and I happily pass on the recommendation. The sound-bite would be “Les temps perdu meets A Thousand and One Nights”: over the course of a single night, a sleepless Austrian musicologist named Franz relives his memories of traveling in the Middle East with another scholar, a woman he is still in love with. The novel is at once a eulogy to Syria and her ancient monuments and a complex literary investigation of Edward Saïd’s thesis about knowledge and power in the study of the Orient. Doesn’t all romantic love involve “othering” on some level? And must this always be a subjugation, or can it be a game of mutual desire, exchange, exploration? If you aren’t afraid of some headlong sentences and meaty academic digressions, this is the best book about longing I have read in a long time. —I.H.

“If you really want the art to have power, you need the poet not the poems to go into the fire, that way you get rid of the transactional nature of…”
“This is a really interesting point. Kafka’s a great example of this, right, that poor schmuck was—”
“Don’t lose yourself in anecdote, man, don’t do it!”
“But it’s so much nicer than talking to you.”
“I know.”

That’s a random snippet from The Relentless Picnic, a podcast that was born a few weeks after last year’s election. The picnic is three friends—Adam, Erikk, and Nick—talking about culture, politics, and morality. Their conversations cut at weird diagonals across the preening, pedagogical grain of standard podcast style. The joy of them rests in their sincerely close (and wildly well-read) readings of a huge range of subjects—Jeff Sessions, threaded tweets, the effects of self-promotion on one’s art, the nature of obligation—combined with their tendency to careen from searching banter to escalating riffs of totally unbeholden satire. Every episode is very great, and I think the only way to do them justice would be to post a full transcript here. Original thinking slaloms around mutual mockery and what you sense under the jabs and insights is the love these friends feel for one another (a kindness that feels crucial since last November). In this second year of globalizing Trumpism, The Relentless Picnic arrives every few weeks as if to personally reassure me that somewhere out there embers of serious debate are still burning with goodwill and amazing loopy inventiveness. As they say in one episode:

“We may have more of a duty to put ourselves out there during the bleak times than during other times, or I don’t know?”
“Yeah, I agree with that formulation.”
“It’s a light.”
Jana Prikryl