By Liz Smith
Tribune Content Agency
“DEMOCRATIC CIVILIZATION has turned out to be even more fragile than we imagined; the resources of civil society have turned out to be even deeper than we knew. The battle between these two shaping forces — between the axman assaulting the old growth and the still firm soil and deep roots that support the tree of liberty — will now shape the future of us all.”
So writes Adam Gopnik in the current The New Yorker’s Talk of The Town.
There are — as usual — so many wonderful things to read and then have what you’ve read stick in your mind for days in this issue. (Several weeks back, in a fiction piece, I caught this phrase — a woman describing her mate: “He was the tofu of husbands; he absorbed anything you threw at him.” I’m waiting to use that at a dinner party. I tore out the page with this sentence on it, stupidly without jotting down the author’s name. If anybody recognizes it, let me know. I want to give the writer credit.)
In this current issue (Feb. 13) two big pieces stood out. One was Patrick Radden Keefe’s massive take on Anthony Bourdain, chef, adventurer, man-of-the-world (literally). I’ve always enjoyed Bourdain’s globe-spanning shows and sexy, laconic manner. But who knew that he reads Michel de Montaigne, and has adopted the French writer’s motto, “I suspend judgment”? He even has it tattooed (in ancient Greek) on his arm. Or that he is “pathologically punctual”? He admits: “I judge other people on it. Today, you’re just late, but eventually you will betray me.”
He’s led quite a life, perhaps a bit self-dramatized, but fascinating even with a bit of heady overemphasis.
He’s mellowed marginally now, but still frantically ambitious and holding onto certain values. For example, don’t mention Henry Kissinger to Bourdain: “Any journalist who has ever been polite to Henry Kissinger, you know, f–k that person. I’m a big believer in moral gray areas, but when it comes to that guy, in my view he should not be able to eat at a restaurant in New York.”
When the writer gently points out that the volatile Bourdain had made similar statements about others, and eventually relented, the peripatetic chef replied, “Emeril Lagasse didn’t bomb Cambodia!”
THE OTHER New Yorker piece of great note is Hilton Als’ “Fade to Black,” a review of the new Raoul Peck-directed documentary about the writer James Baldwin, titled “I Am Not Your Negro.” This is perhaps the 10th rave review I have read on this film. What makes this one different is that writer Als also incorporates Baldwin’s love of movies, his inability to become a filmmaker and that “I Am Not Your Negro” is as much about the brilliant, tragic realism and prescience of Baldwin on matters of race, as it is, in some ways, the director’s effort to “step in and make the film that Baldwin couldn’t.”
There’s much more, of course, and every quote from Baldwin himself is exquisite, powerful and, frankly, could have been made to reference what is happening (still happening!) today.
There are few films out there right now, that I don’t simply want to see, but feel I must. I also hope this movie revives an interest in Baldwin’s work — “Go Tell It on the Mountain,” ”Giovanni’s Room,” ”No Name in the Street,” ”Just Above My Head,” ”Blues for Mister Charlie,” ”Notes of a Native Son,” etc.
MOTHERHOOD is everywhere in pop goddess land right now. Beyonce has announced, in typical low-key fashion, that she is expecting twins. On the outrageously wicked gossip site, D Listed, an admitted guilty pleasure (Oh, all right — I don’t feel guilty when I read it, satisfied?), the photos Beyonce released to alert the world to her coming bundles of joy are described as: “Seemingly, an homage to trailer park teen moms, the Sears Portrait Studio, the automotive industry and funeral flowers.” I laughed — sue me.
The other new mom is Madonna, who has adopted two more children, siblings from Malawi where she has performed remarkable charity work for more than 10 years. This is also the homeland of her two youngest, David and Mercy, bringing her entire brood to six. Some people have expressed surprise. Not me. It isn’t that I knew it was happening; it’s that I know Madonna. I’ve seen her with her children and heard her talk about them when she is not with them. The issues she had with her teenage son, Rocco, who decided (for the time being) that he’d rather spend more time in London with his father, Guy Ritchie, shattered her. Even though, in her heart, she knew this was fairly typical teenage boy stuff when a family is broken — after an 11-year marriage that, believe me, Madonna put her heart and soul into — it hardly assuaged her agony.
I’m glad for Beyonce, who I don’t know, but admire. I’m thrilled for Madonna, who I do know and love. Even though sometimes I want to take her by the shoulders and give her a tremendous Bette Davis/Miriam Hopkins “Old Acquaintance” shake-up, she is really — so prosaic — a truly nice person and a good girl
I sure don’t think, as others have suggested, that she is trying to “compete” with Angelina Jolie. She is just being her basic self — an old-fashioned Italian mama who wants a big family.