We’re not spying, but it feels like we are. Each moment is tracked on surveillance monitors, recorded, studied. On one screen, a man, dressed moments ago in cowboy gear, is now postcoital with a robot prostitute. She soon makes herself scarce, heading back to recharge her circuits in the break room. The cowboy stares up at the ceiling, his six-shooter cooling in a holster draped over a chair. He’s luxuriating inside a simulacrum of an 1880s Western whorehouse, one situated within a network of amusement parks in an unnamed desert expanse. It’s the end of the first act of the 1973 film Westworld, written and directed by Michael Crichton, a master of the techno-thriller novel whose occasional forays into filmmaking—he directed a half dozen features over two decades—yielded more modest, earthbound results than the fantastical predictions he packed into his paperbacks. But Westworld, his feature debut, continues to haunt. Its vision of a pleasure dome with exploited, humanlike robots as moving targets has been reprogrammed into a highly anticipated HBO series, premiering Sunday. Read More
- I’m tired all the time, which is why I’m so popular. Reviewing Anna Katharina Schaffner’s new Exhaustion: A History, Hannah Rosefield unpacks the durable notion of exhaustion as a status symbol: “Many critics, even as they call for a cure, frame exhaustion as a mark of distinction. This idea dates back at least to Aristotle. ‘Why is it that all men who have become outstanding in philosophy, statesmanship, poetry or the arts are melancholic?’ he wonders in Problemata … The associations of exhaustion with prestige have crystallized in the form of burnout. First used in the 1970s to describe exhaustion suffered by workers in the social sector, burnout was characterized by increased cynicism and apathy, and a decreased sense of personal accomplishment. Since then, its application has widened to include all worn down, overburdened workers, especially in Germany, Sweden and the Netherlands, where burnout is a subject of regular media debate. Burnout, caused by workplace conditions rather than by a worker’s mental and physical composition, is depression’s more palatable, more prestigious cousin.”
- I’d long assumed that one could never enter one’s average house cat in a pageant. Only the purebreds could know the thrill of the blue ribbon, I thought. The calicos and tabbies of this earth were doomed to the mundane. But I was wrong, as Omar Mouallem taught me: “I got over the stench of piss at the Edmonton Cat Show pretty quickly. It’s not so much my nostrils that adjusted but my eyes, to rows and rows of beautiful creatures. Plump British shorthairs smiled in their sleep and regal sphynxes owned their ugly … [The International Cat Association] has been showing and awarding titles to non-purebred domestic cats—even the maligned black ones—since its 1973 beginnings. It’s a stark contrast to the practices of the 110-year-old Cat Fanciers’ Association, which for decades didn’t even bother hosting the category. The association now emphasizes it like TICA, and in the last three years finally started giving non-purebred cats Grand Championship titles equal to pedigrees. The hope is that it will curb the cat fancy world’s declining entries and revenues.”
- There’s a plaque at 14 West Twenty-Third Street, where Edith Wharton grew up. Otherwise, don’t expect to recognize the place. This is New York, people! What’d you want us to do, preserve the joint? Rachael Revesz notes that “in such an old city, there are surprisingly few relics that remain as they were during the prolific novelist’s time, and nothing, beyond a small red plaque at her childhood home, to commemorate the most iconic New York writer of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century … Her house has been altered so many times in the last century that it cannot be delegated as a protected building. It is now a Starbucks on the ground floor, where her father’s extensive study used to be … Although the corporate exterior of the building might cause some to groan, few people might know that Starbucks was named after a character in Moby-Dick by Herman Melville, a distant cousin of Edith’s.”
- Today in old advice that’s still good advice: If you, an aspiring artist, want to take the road to success, don’t stop off at the Hotel Know It All, the Mutual Admiration Society, or the Always Right Club. Tunnel through Lack of Preparation Mountain and for God’s sake watch your step around the Holes of Illiteracy and Conceit. A 1913 allegorical map called the Road to Success “turns the figurative journey towards artistic triumph into a cartographic depiction of an actual climb towards victory … Taking shortcuts won’t get you anywhere except to the bottom of the River of Failure, which threatens to sweep away anyone who’s not up to the challenge of putting in hard work. And don’t just blow hot air, or you’ll end up in the clouds.”
- Here’s the time-tested way to gin up your crummy sci-fi flick: pretend it’s a western. In Star Trek Beyond, writes Richard Brody, “the words Republic and Federation are intoned like mantras to position the mission in quasi-American terms; the name Yorktown links the space combat of Star Trek Beyond to the existential, the primordial, and the revolutionary—the fight to retain independence in the face of a force that would snap it back in, engulf it in a dictatorial order, and milk it as a mere source of sustenance … The self-celebration of a legacy property’s sequel has rarely been framed in such starkly civic terms: the link between the historical continuity of the American federation and the personal continuity of family is the cultural continuity of Star Trek and pop music—and, for that matter, of classic Hollywood. Buy a ticket, keep America safe and free.”
- The Western is an integral part of the Hollywood canon, but European filmmakers weren’t about to let Americans have all the fun. Germany and France produced scores of Westerns, in part because “once you found a wide-open landscape vaguely redolent of the American West, they were relatively cheap to make.” But it was Italy that arguably perfected the European Western: “The Spaghetti Westerns, with their multiple aliases (Leone’s A Fistful of Dynamite is variously also known as Once Upon a Time … the Revolution and Duck, You Sucker!), their badly-dubbed voices, their sweaty, sunburned close-ups and their loud, redounding music, were both gothic and grand guignol. They could also be incredibly sophisticated amid all the alarum.”
- Today in pointless but strangely gratifying thought experiments: What would the longest book in the world look like? (“If there’s a new major character introduced every hundred pages or so, you’d have 100 billion main characters … ”)
- A second novel is rarely greeted with the exuberance of a first. To help stop “Second Novel Syndrome,” the Whiting Foundation and Slate are compiling a list of under-recognized second novels from the past five years and reminding readers of their joys.
- The radical linguists of the early twentieth century: “Historically, it was languages that were swept in with strong political, economic, or religious backing—Latin, Greek, Sanskrit, Hebrew, Arabic, Persian, and Chinese in the Eurasian core—that were held to be the oldest, the holiest, and the most perfect in structure, their ‘classical’ status cemented by the received weight of canonical tradition … It was just over a century ago when a group of linguists made an effort to go beyond the language politics of imperialism and nationalism.”
- Taking a cue from Cheever’s “The Swimmer,” a woman attempts to swim every (public) pool in Manhattan. (Unlike Cheever’s Neddy Merrill, she is not an alcoholic.)
Happy Birthday, Buffalo Bill.
No one did more to shape our concept of the American West than William Frederick “Buffalo Bill” Cody, the hunter, would-be cowboy, and showman whose traveling revue, “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West and Congress of Rough Riders of the World,” helped create the dime-novel image of frontier life that persists to this day. Cowboys, injuns, tipis, headdresses, firewater, peace pipes, weathered wide-brimmed hats, fearless feats of derring-do, stagecoach heists, impossibly accurate gunplay, bucolic campfires, tremulous harmonicas, bareback rides across windswept prairies, vast herds of grazing bison, virile stallions, lawless lands, hootin’, hollerin’, spectoratin’—the whole whooping metaverse came straight out of Bill’s fringed leather pockets. Today, his story exists in a kind of liminal space between history, mythos, and stagecraft; no one really knows what’s true and what isn’t. But however he lived, the dude gave us the Western, and he reminds of simpler times. He staked his massive celebrity on the speed with which he could dispatch a herd of buffalo—think about that.
These illustrations pay fitting tribute to the Buffalo Bill zeitgeist: its bumptious individualism, its rugged sense of adventure, and, yes, its racial insensitivity. Except where noted, they come from the first of his two autobiographies, 1879’s The Life and Adventures of Buffalo Bill, and from Buffalo Bill Stories, “a weekly publication devoted to border history” from the early twentieth century. As bigoted as some of these images are, though, it’s worth noting that Bill hired many Native Americans to tour in his troupe—“show Indians,” as they were pejoratively known—and he shared in their horror as the West he knew was tamed, subdivided, denatured, and “civilized.” Quoth Wikipedia: “He called [Indians] ‘the former foe, present friend, the American,’ and once said, ‘Every Indian outbreak that I have ever known has resulted from broken promises and broken treaties by the government.’”
Christopher Sorrentino’s Death Wish is a monograph on the controversial and eponymous 1974 action movie. It stars Charles Bronson as Paul Kersey, an architect turned vigilante after his wife is murdered and his daughter is brutally assaulted in their New York City apartment. The book is the second installment in Soft Skull’s Deep Focus series, which invites contemporary writers to examine important popular films. I recently interviewed Sorrentino about his new book via e-mail.
In the 1970s, Hollywood produced a number of superficially political, urban action films. I’m thinking of Dirty Harry, which you discuss at some length in the book, and, of course, blaxploitation cinema. What made you decide to revisit Death Wish in particular?
Sean Howe approached me with the idea of writing about a movie that hadn’t been done to death, and we batted around a list of titles and genres ranging from eighties romantic comedies to zombie movies. The most prominent one we talked about was The French Connection. I really don’t like that movie, but it did get us talking about New York on film in the seventies. Among other reasons, Death Wish appealed to me because I’ve always been fascinated by Charles Bronson—since I was a kid. I didn’t have especially high expectations for the film itself, although Death Wish ended up surprising me a lot.
When did you first see the film?
Oh, probably when I was a teenager.