As fine as the Don and Betty-centric episodes that began the first season may have been, Mad Men didn’t really gel for a lot of people until “New Amsterdam,” the episode which showed us that Pete Campbell was going to be a legitimately tragic figure and not just a scheming young nemesis for Don Draper. We’ve seen Pete suffer plenty since then, but not until “Flight 1” has there been an episode that reveals so much about his character. On the heels of the superb “For Those Who Think Young,” “Flight 1” suggests that Mad Men will be a deeper and more emotionally complex show this season, no small achievement relative to the quality of season one.
The action begins at a party at Paul Kinsey’s apartment in Montclair, NJ, about a week after the previous episode (for reasons we’ll come to in a bit, this episode is very easy to date specifically). In season one, Paul’s embrace of African-American culture was fairly cringe-inducing (you may recall his short story about hanging out with “negroes” in Hoboken), but it now seems considerably more sincere—about a third of the party guests are black and, of course, we meet Paul’s African-American girlfriend, Sheila. This time it’s Joan’s turn to come off as the clueless white liberal with her crack about how some day Sheila will be able to drive up to her supermarket in a station wagon and be a customer (as a native of the neighborhood, Sheila has of course shopped there many times). Joan’s doctor boyfriend surely makes far more money than Paul and is a better catch in all regards, but that doesn’t stop her from being jealous, cattily telling Sheila that “when Paul and I were together, the last thing I would have taken him for is open minded”. I’m pretty sure Joan’s just saying this to jerk Sheila’s chain, as I was under the impression that she and Paul were never really “together”—they may have hooked up a few times, but I can’t recall anything to suggest that they were ever an honest to goodness couple.
We’ve seen the Sterling Cooper gang getting drunk together many times, of course, but seldom if ever with their wives and girlfriends in tow, or with so many non-SC folks on hand. As a result, everyone is trying to inflate their importance at the agency—Pete tells Trudy most of them work for him (even if they don’t see it that way), Peggy is emphatic about how she works with the SC gang, not for them, and Joan is quick to describe herself as the office manager rather than the head secretary. The only person who doesn’t seem to be overselling his accomplishments is Ken, who, surprisingly, doesn’t use his Atlantic Monthly story (or any subsequent literary success) to impress the chicks as he aggressively hits on woman after woman at the party. The end credits reveal that Salvatore’s companion is no mere girlfriend but rather his wife. While it’s pretty obvious she’s a beard, their shared amusement with Ken’s lascivious behavior reveals that they have a close, affectionate relationship—indeed, they arguably seem more sincerely into each other than any other couple on the show—and I look forward to getting a closer look at their relationship later in the season (we also get our first look at Jennifer Crane, who I half expected to remain unseen a la Frasier’s Mavis Crane and a zillion other TV characters of note.
After a vignette of Peggy suffering from a mighty hangover, we leap forward a few days to see Roger and Don arriving at SC, where they discover the whole office gathered around a radio. It seems an American Airlines jet taking off from Idlewild plunged into Jamaica Bay, killing all on board. Don quickly moves to yank any Mohawk ads in the pipeline, while Duck Phillips goes another direction: He calls a contact at AA, learns that a new agency may be part of their post-crash spin-control strategy, and tells Roger and Bert Cooper that they need to strike while the iron is hot. Don winces and accuses Duck of acting in poor taste, but Duck holds fast, insisting that advertising is a field where the ends justify the means. Looking on, Bert Cooper is no doubt recalling his S1 advice to Don that he needs to develop a stronger stomach if he wants to be in the kitchen where the sausage gets made.
Next, we see Pete in his office getting a phone call he simply doesn’t know how to process. It seems his father was on the plane that went down and Pete, like many people who lose a loved one with no warning whatsoever, can’t process the reality of the situation. Don may have been his enemy last year, but Pete also knows in his gut that, aside perhaps from Bert Cooper, Don is the only real grown-up at SC. It’s to Don’s office that he staggers, then, dispassionately referring to his fathers’ death as “the strangest thing” and saying that he has absolutely no idea what people are supposed to do in such situations. “Go home and be with your family,” Don says. “Is that what you would do?,” asks Pete. “Yes,” says Don in response. After “The Wheel,” I’d like to think he’s telling the truth, but I’m not so sure.
At what I assume is the Campbell family’s Manhattan apartment, we see Pete and his fat, obnoxious older brother and their wives doing the best to comfort their mother. Pete’s brother is seething over the news that their father died broke and that the inheritance he was counting on (along with most of the Dyckman trust) was flushed down the toilet by their dad in the interest of keeping up appearances (“It was all oysters, travel and club memberships,” says Pete’s brother). Pete never loses too much composure here, in part perhaps because, as we’ve seen, Trudy ain’t exactly poor, and he’s basically been guaranteed a free ride by her folks as long as he can deliver the grandkids. We learn nothing about his brother’s wife, but he certainly doesn’t seem as fortunate. This scene brings up one of my few nitpicks about the episode: Given how thoroughly Eastern the Campbell/Dyckman clan are, it’s hard to conceive of a reason for Pete’s dad to have been traveling to Los Angeles, a city that (metaphorically, and I suppose literally too) is as far from the WASP establishment as one can go without leaving the United States. A throwaway explanation certainly wouldn’t have hurt (it would certainly be ironic if he had been flying to L.A. to make a connection to Palm Springs for a golf tournament).
At the Draper residence, Don finds himself strong-armed into a night of bridge with Peggy, Francine and Carlton, the latter of whom I don’t believe we’ve seen since “Marriage of Figaro”. Don uses the card game as an excuse to teach Sally how to mix cocktails, a sight that would probably be deeply disturbing if we saw, say, Roger Sterling teaching her, but which somehow comes off as funny and affectionate when Don does it (that said, I’d still love to see a flash-forward episode in which the adult Sally goes to a therapist and describes everything that Don and Betty did to screw her up!). Carlton has put on more than a few pounds since we (and Don) last saw him, which he attributes to the stress of being unable to please Francine no matter what he does to atone for having stepped out on her. Betty takes the weight gain as a sign of content, and when Don begs to differ, a fight begins to ensue. Don quickly reverses course, telling Betty he’ll say whatever he has to in order to ensure they don’t fight, but that’s not good enough for her, so Don is once again left baffled by his wife’s emotions.
The next day at SC, things get ugly again between Joan and Paul when he asks her what she said to Sheila at the party. She tears into him without mercy, saying that there’s only one reason he’s with Sheila and that his life in Montclair is a poor-little-rich-boy fantasy. He doesn’t respond-or can’t because he’s too angry—when Joan hollers “What part is wrong?” as he storms off. Maybe I’m as naïve as Joan thinks Paul is, but I really don’t think she’s giving him enough credit. She’s just fucking with his head as she’s fucked with those of Peggy and Lois before him, and I gotta say it’d be a crying shame if Sheila was left high and dry as a result. In any event, Joan gets a taste of her own medicine later that day when she sees giggling secretaries leaving Peggy’s office and discovers a Xerox of her drivers’ license posted on the wall, with her age—she’s just turned 31—circled in red (today, naturally, it’d be her weight of 140 lbs that would have other women mocking her). If we see someone swiping the license from Joan’s purse, I didn’t notice it. Peggy seems like a logical suspect for a few seconds, until the scene unexpectedly turns into an unexpected and rather poignant burying-the-hatchet moment between the two women, a situation that is rife with possibilities.
For a lot of people, the big reveal about the fate of Peggy’s baby will be remembered as one of the episode’s highlights. Personally, I hoped we’d seen the last of the kid, but the scenario that Matthew Weiner has given us—her doctors and the state decided she lacked the mental capacity to make decisions for or about the baby, so the kid was sent to live with Peggy’s mom and sister—is at least a plausible one. It’s implied that Peggy generally lives at the same apartment she was in last season, only coming by her mom’s place for periodic visits, and given what we see of her mom’s unpleasant personality, I don’t think anyone can blame Peggy for keeping the visits to a minimum. It seems likely that Peggy’s story line will ultimately converge with the plot threads concerning Pete and Trudy’s efforts to have a kid, and in light of Peggy’s baby’s living arrangement, it looks like it’ll take some pretty fancy narrative footwork to put Pete and the kid in the same room by the end of the season. Here’s hoping Mad Men doesn’t turn into a soap opera in the process.
Traditionally, there have been two ways that Don’s emotions get him into trouble: When he opens up to somebody and gets a response he doesn’t know how to interpret (see above), and when he suffers a slight that pisses him off so much that he fails to notice vital details because he’s too distracted by his fuming. The latter is what happens when he’s stewing over being ordered to dump Mohawk as a client and Pete comes by to tell him about his conversation with Duck.
Pete is in a double bind here: It isn’t just the WASP culture of reserve that’s preventing him from processing his fathers’ death but the attitude of the times as well—it’s ages before men are supposed to get in touch with their feelings, and sentimental father-son movies like I Never Sang For My Father and Ordinary People (heck, even The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou) are still decades off. Lacking the capacity for grieving (though it sure ain’t like his dad gave him any incentive to develop that capacity), he responds by seeking out a new father figure—which could have been Don Draper if he hadn’t been so pissed off about being forced to dump Mohawk Airlines. Duck, however, seems to have picked up on Pete’s needs intuitively—while his initial appeal to get Pete to sign off on going after American is certainly tasteless, it’s couched in flattery and sweet talk that makes his true motives fairly transparent. As Don’s break-up scene with the Mohawk CEO proves, Don may be a drunk who neglects his wife and kids, but at the end of the day he’s basically an honorable guy. Duck, it’s increasingly apparent, is anything but. By agreeing to pimp out his father’s death to help SC land American, Pete becomes the latest member of an anti-Don cabal within SC: Duck, Roger and Pete are all lined up against him. Making matters worse, Don appears too distracted by his personal life to even be aware that something is afoot. With two season two episodes down, it sure doesn’t look like he’s in for an easy time in the eleven that remain.
Miscellaneous notes: In real life, there was indeed a tickertape parade for John Glenn on March 1, 1962, the same day that an American Airlines Boeing 707 plunged into Jamaica Bay, killing 95 people. However, Don and Roger’s dialogue suggesting that the parade was in midtown near the SC office is off base—Glenn’s parade took place in the Financial District’s “Canyon of Heroes,” the customary site of such events (given the source of the actual ticker tape thrown in the parade, it’s not like it could have happened in any other part of town). I’m sure I can’t be the only viewer who said “huh?” when Roger made his remark about two-way traffic on Fifth Ave., but apparently Fifth Ave. was indeed a two-way thoroughfare until January 14, 1966, when it was converted into a one-way street heading downtown (on the same day, Madison Ave., also previously a two-way street, was designated one-way, uptown only).
The barber shop where Pete had his final conversation with his dad is still in business after close to a century—it’s the Paul Molé Barber Shop, on the second floor at 1031 Lexington Ave., between 73rd and 74th Sts. A men’s haircut (by appointment only) will set you back $29, which sounds exhorbitant until you think about what women pay to get their hair done. As far as their argument about dogs goes, I think Pete was actually right and Pete’s dad (and Trudy) were wrong: The two breeds look very similar, but per Wikipedia at least, French bulldogs have black ears and not brown ones, while the late Andrew Campbell argued otherwise.
I used Google Maps’ street view to look up Joan’s address, 42 W 12th St., and found a very nice looking residential building whose tenants will no doubt be thrilled to have their building referenced on Mad Men. Unlike the Sterling Cooper building’s address (285 Madison Ave), this one corresponds to an actual building (speaking of SC and addresses, take a look at www.sterlingcooper.com—I can’t believe I never tried it out before).
The final scene of Peggy at church is made all the more ominous by the Latin liturgy, which is a clever period detail: In March 1962, the first sessions of the Vatican II conference were still five months off. In late 1963, the assembled bishops signed off on the Sacrosanctum Concilium (or “Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy”), which encouraged priests to incorporate vernacular languages into the mass. The practice of saying the Mass in English began informally the following year and was officially incorporated into the liturgy by 1969.
Finally, Duck must have more social juice than anyone at SC short of Pete if, as it appears, he has his own membership at the University Club of New York. One of the city’s most venerable WASP institutions, the club is situated in a dazzling 9-story McKim, Mead & White building from 1999 located at 54th St. and Fifth Ave (it has a really slick façade that makes it look like the building has three floors instead of nine). Like the Chrysler Builing, it’s one of those privately-held architectural landmarks that merely mortal New Yorkers seldom have the opportunity to venture inside. I’ve been there twice, for a brunch preceding a wedding and for a reception following a memorial service, and its wood-paneled opulence lives up to the hype.
For more recaps of Mad Men, click here.
2019 Oscar Nomination Predictions
How has Oscar royally screwed things up this year? Let us count the ways.
How has Oscar royally screwed things up this year? Let us count the ways. The hastily introduced and unceremoniously tabled (for now) “best popular film” Oscar. The impending commercial-break ghettoization of such categories as best cinematography and best film editing, but most certainly not best song and best animated feature. The abortive attempts to unveil Kevin Hart as the host not once, but twice, stymied by the online backlash over years-old anti-gay Twitter jokes and leading AMPAS to opt for George Glass as this year’s master of ceremonies. The strong-arming of its own membership to deter rank-and-file superstars from attending competing precursor award shows. If these end up being the last Oscars ever, and it’s starting to feel as though it should be, what a way to go out, right? Like the floating island of plastic in the Pacific, the cultural and political detritus of Oscar season has spread far beyond any previous rational estimates and will almost certainly outlive our functional presence on this planet. And really, when you think about it, what’s worse: The extinction of mankind or Bohemian Rhapsody winning the best picture Oscar? In that spirit, we press on.
There will be plenty of time, too much time, to go deep on the many ways Green Book reveals the flawed soul of your average, aged white liberal in America circa 2019. For now, let’s just admit that it’s as sure a nominee as The Favourite, Roma, and A Star Is Born. (There’s snackable irony in the fact that a movie called The Front Runner became very much not an Oscar front runner in a year that doesn’t appear to have a solid front runner.) And even though few seem to be predicting it for an actual win here, Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman has an almost spotless precursor track record, showing up almost across the board among the guilds. Predicting this category would’ve been easy enough when Oscar limited it to five films, but it’s strangely almost as easy this year to see where the line will cut off between five and 10. Adam McKay’s Vice may be without shame, but you don’t have to strain hard to see how people could mistake it for the film of the moment. Bohemian Rhapsody is certainly lacking in merit, but, much like our comrade in chief, Oscar has never been more desperate for people to like and respect him, and a hit is a hit. Except when it’s a Marvel movie, which is why Black Panther stands precariously on the category’s line of cutoff, despite the rabid enthusiasm from certain corners that will likely be enough to push it through.
Everyone can agree that Bohemian Rhapsody will be one of the best picture contenders that doesn’t get a corresponding best director nomination, but virtually all the other nominees we’re predicting have a shot. Including Peter-flashing Farrelly, whose predictably unsubtle work on Green Book (or, Don and Dumber) netted him a widely derided DGA nomination. The outrage over Farrelly’s presence there took some of the heat off Vice’s Adam McKay, but if any DGA contender is going to swap out in favor of Yorgos Lanthimos (for BAFTA favorite The Favourite), it seems likely to be McKay. As Mark Harris has pointed out, Green Book is cruising through this awards season in a lane of its own, a persistently well-liked, well-meaning, unchallenging throwback whose defiant fans are clearly in a fighting mood.
Had Fox Searchlight reversed their category-fraud strategizing and flipped The Favourite’s Olivia Coleman into supporting and Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone into lead, the five best actress slots would arguably have been locked down weeks, if not months, ago, unless Fox’s bet-hedging intuits some form of industry resistance to double female-led propositions. As it stands, there are four locks that hardly need mention and a slew of candidates on basically equal footing. Hereditary’s Toni Collette has become shrieking awards show junkies’ cause célèbre this year, though she actually has the critic awards haul to back them up, having won more of the regional prizes than anyone else. The same demographic backing Collette gave up hope long ago on Viola Davis being able to survive the Widows collapse, and yet there by the grace of BAFTA does she live on to fight another round. Elsie Fisher’s palpable awkwardness in Eighth Grade and winning awkwardness navigating the Hollywood circuit have earned her an almost protective backing. But we’re going out on a limb and calling it for the rapturously received Roma’s Yalitza Aparicio. Voters could, like us, find it not a particularly great performance and still parlay their good will for her into a nomination that’s there for the taking.
Should Be Nominated: Juliette Binoche (Let the Sunshine In), Toni Collette (Hereditary), Olivia Colman (The Favourite), Regina Hall (Support the Girls), and Melissa McCarthy (Can You Ever Forgive Me?)
Take Toni Collette’s trophies thus far in the competition and double them. And then add a few more. That’s the magnitude of endorsements backing First Reformed’s Ethan Hawke. And his trajectory has the clear markings of an almost overqualified performance that, like Naomi Watts’s in Mulholland Drive, cinephiles decades from now will wonder how Oscar snubbed. If Pastor Ernst Toller and Sasha Stone are right and God is indeed watching us all and cares what the Academy Awards do, Hawke’s nomination will come at the expense of John David Washington, whose strength in the precursors thus far (SAG and Globe-nominated) is maybe the most notable bellwether of BlacKkKlansman’s overall strength. Because, as with the best actress category, the other four slots are basically preordained. Unlike with best actress, the bench of also-rans appears to be one solitary soul. A fitting place for Paul Schrader’s man against the world.
Closest Runners-Up: Ethan Hawke (First Reformed)
Every Oscar prognosticator worth their bragging rights has spent the last couple weeks conspicuously rubbing their hands together about Regina King’s chances. The all-or-nothing volley that’s seen her sweep the critics’ awards and win the Golden Globe, and at the same time not even get nominations from within the industry—she was left off the ballot by both SAG and the BAFTAs—are narrative disruptions among a class that lives for narratives and dies of incorrect predictions. But despite the kvetching, King is as safe as anyone for a nomination in this category. It doesn’t hurt that, outside the pair of lead actresses from The Favourite, almost everyone else in the running this year feels like a 7th- or 8th-place also-ran. Except maybe Widows’s Elizabeth Debicki, whose fervent fans probably number just enough to land her…in 7th or 8th place. Vice’s Amy Adams is set to reach the Glenn Close club with her sixth Oscar nomination, and if she’d only managed to sustain the same loopy energy she brings to Lynne Cheney’s campaign-trail promise to keep her bra on, she’d deserve it. Which leaves a slot for supportive housewives Claire Foy, Nicole Kidman, and Emily Blunt. Even before the collapse of Mary Poppins Returns, we preferred Blunt’s chances in A Quiet Place.
Should Be Nominated: Sakura Ando (Shoplifters), Zoe Kazan (The Ballad of Buster Scruggs), Regina King (If Beale Street Could Talk), Rachel McAdams (Disobedience), and Haley Lu Richardson (Support the Girls)
The same people who’re curiously doubting Regina King’s nomination chances seem awfully assured that Sam Elliott’s moist-eyed, clearly canonical backing-the-truck-up scene in A Star Is Born assures him not only a nomination but probably the win. Elliott missed nominations with both the Golden Globes and BAFTA, and it was hard not to notice just how enthusiasm for A Star Is Born seemed to be cooling during the same period Oscar ballots were in circulation. Right around the same time, it started becoming apparent that BlacKkKlansman is a stronger draw than anyone thought, which means Adam Driver (who everyone was already predicting for a nod) won’t have to suffer the representationally awkward fate of being the film’s only nominee. Otherwise, the category appears to favor previously awarded actors (Mahershala Ali and Sam Rockwell) or should have been previously awarded actors (Chalamet). Leaving Michael B. Jordan to remain a should have been previously nominated actor.
Get beyond the best picture hopefuls BlacKkKlansman and If Beale Street Could Talk, which seem deservedly locked, and A Star Is Born, which is even more deservedly iffy, and you’ll see the screenwriters’ branch deciding just how seriously to take themselves this year, and whether they’re feeling like spiritually reliving the moments that found them nominating Bridesmaids and Logan. If so, then expect Crazy Rich Asians and Black Panther to factor in here. If they most definitely don’t feel frisky, then maybe the foursquare First Man has a shot at reversing its overall downward trajectory. If they’re seeking that “just right” middle ground, then Can You Ever Forgive Me? and The Death of Stalin are in.
It’s not unusual for some of the year’s most acclaimed movies whose strength isn’t necessarily in their scripts to get nominated only in the screenwriting categories. First Reformed, which even some of its fiercest defenders admit can sometimes feel a bit like Paul Schrader’s “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me” greatest-hits package, stands to be another of them. But it’ll be a close call, given the number of other equally vanguard options they’ll be weighing it against, like Sorry to Bother You, which arguably feels more urgently in the moment in form, Eighth Grade, which is more empathetically post-#MeToo, and even Cold War, which had a surprisingly strong showing with BAFTA. Given the quartet of assured best picture contenders in the mix, First Reformed is going to have to hold off all of them.
Reflections in a Quilt: John McPhee’s The Patch
There’s something uncommonly relaxing about many of McPhee’s patient elaborations of things known and unknown.
“But beyond the flaring headlines of the past year, few are aware of who Richard Burton really is, what he has done, and what he is throwing away by gulping down his past and then smashing the glass.” This is one of those quotes, which, through its sheer heft and style, threatens to turn any accompanying review into a redundancy. To find other lines that meet its towering standard, seek its source: The Patch by John McPhee. There’s no shortage of arresting remarks in this nicely heterogeneous collection of writing. One sinks into the book, riveted, but also races across it as its fascinations multiply.
The first section is called “The Sporting Scene.” Those typically uninterested in sports or sports writing, like myself, shouldn’t be deterred by the title. As I discovered through other recent encounters with McPhee’s ballyhooed writing, the author has a knack for inexorably moving readers beyond their biases. Two-part New Yorker articles like “Oranges,” “The Pine Barrens,” and “Basin and Range,” which were later turned into books, are studious and propulsive. Fine-grained matters of geology or citrus aren’t exactly simplified in these articles, but wading through the density becomes an irresistible prospect thanks to the author’s intelligibility, wit, enthusiasm, and atmospheric touches. For an example of the latter, consider McPhee’s focus on the “unnatural and all but unending silence” of the Floridian orange groves that he visited. What’s more, he often conveys a certain sense of respectful understanding, as when he mentions that he has “yet to meet anyone living in the Pine Barrens who has in any way indicated envy of people who live elsewhere.”
Similar virtues spruce up the “The Sporting Scene.” Its pieces include emphases on fishing, football, golf, and lacrosse. McPhee honors the athletic endeavor by carefully illuminating its particulars. He busily supplies facts, anecdotes, ideas, and biographical details. In “The Orange Trapper,” for instance, he discusses his hunt for errant golf balls. It’s an engaging topic. He has learned, among other things, what occurs when you take a saw to a golf ball. You find the world: “Core, mantle, crust—they are models of the very planet they are filling up at a rate worldwide approaching a billion a year.” Other jolts arrive through the often remarkable conclusions to his paragraphs and pieces. The ending of “The Orange Trapper” is an especial wonder—a thrilling mobilization of words that elicits laughter and awe.
There are also bears: “Direct Eye Contact” is a compact assortment of hopes and advisements concerning bears in New Jersey, and it concludes on a sweetly uxorious note. Indeed, one never knows where any of these pieces are going. In “Pioneer,” meanwhile, McPhee ponders Bill Tierney’s choice to begin coaching the University of Denver men’s lacrosse team. “How could he leave Princeton?” McPhee asks. “It can be done. And Tierney knew what he was doing.” Those lines showcase the occasionally pithy, pleasantly chiseled style of his prose. It’s a considered design that favors clarity, structures hairpin turns toward new discursive trails, and pairs well with punchlines. In “Phi Beta Football,” one of McPhee’s colleagues promises to deliver him “a nice piece of change” if he figures out a suitable title for his book. “I went away thinking,” McPhee tells us, and then adds, “mostly about the piece of change.”
The recounting of sporting events is likewise augmented by the author’s playfulness. “Pioneer” throws us this line: “But Syracuse exploded—one, two, three—and the game went into ‘sudden victory’ overtime, the politically uplifting form of sudden death.” So transporting and genial is McPhee’s writing that the specifics of any given match never weigh down the reading, nor do his more elaborate remarks. “It’s a Brueghelian scene against the North Sea,” he declares in “Linksland and Bottle,” his piece on the 2010 British Open, “with golfers everywhere across the canvas—putting here, driving there, chipping and blasting in syncopation.” What’s even better is his sensitivity, in the same paragraph, to the fine distinctions between the manner of Scottish and Californian galleries as they observe rounds of golf. Suddenly, his words become almost numinous, and no grace is lost.
The second section of The Patch is called “An Album Quilt” and it encompasses a dizzying mixture of short pieces. None are available in any of McPhee’s other books. In an introductory statement, the author compares these pieces to the dissimilar blocks of a quilt. He notes that he “didn’t aim to reprint the whole of anything”; he sought out “blocks to add to the quilt, and not without new touches, internal deletions, or changed tenses.” This section is quite distinct from “The Sporting Scene,” but no less extraordinary in its overall effect. A piece about Cary Grant starts things off. Boyhood encounters with Albert Einstein are up ahead.
There are more standouts than can be briefly mentioned here, including an evocative overview of the craftsmanship that McPhee discovered within the original Hershey’s Chocolate Factory. The author’s clipped expressions of wonder enliven that piece: “Gulfs of chocolate. Chocolate deeps. Mares’ tails on the deeps.” A little later, he mentions “granite millstones arranged in cascading tiers, from which flow falls of dark cordovan liquor.” One can imagine Don Draper reading through this with poignant interest. In another entry, a series of succinct blurbs about tennis luminaries, Rod Laver’s childhood is crisply set against his eventual stardom: “Had to wait his turn while his older brothers played. His turn would come.”
And so one just leaps from piece to piece, and, along the way, discovers scenes from different periods in McPhee’s life and career. An encounter with two New York City policemen—this likely occurred in the ‘60s or early ‘70s, given the “familiar green and black” on the cop car—is particularly memorable. It begins with the author’s recollection of locking his keys inside his car, which, he notes, had been parked “in a moted half-light that swiftly lost what little magic it had had, and turned to condensed gloom.” After that characteristically precise fusion of atmosphere and psychology, he describes scrounging around for wire so as to open the door. The sudden arrival of the policemen created a dilemma: Would they view McPhee, who had been wedging a coat hanger into the car, as a thief or the hapless owner? “The policemen got out of the patrol car,” McPhee tells us, “and one of them asked for the wire.” From there, the situation undulates a couple more times before concluding through a sparkling punchline that’s supplied by one of the officers. The story is over before you know it, but its brisk and detail-oriented pleasures are echoed throughout much of the book.
In the title piece, meanwhile, McPhee movingly writes about his father, but also about fishing a pickerel out of a patch of lily pads. Here and elsewhere, granular descriptions become byways into a range of enthusiasms, histories, and hearts. The author, of course, frequently registers himself through the infinitesimal details, and through the humor that he yokes to affection. “‘Fuck you, coach!’ Quote unquote” is a message that McPhee once emailed to Bill Tierney. Great warmth radiates below the mantle of those words.
This, among sundry other qualities, keeps one reading. There’s also something uncommonly relaxing about many of his patient elaborations of things known and unknown. And there is, both within the book’s individual pieces and across its varied totality, a sense of constant renewal and revelation. As McPhee notes down somewhere amid the blocks of his quilt, “I could suddenly see it, almost get into it—into another dimension of experience that I might otherwise have missed entirely.”
John McPhee’s The Patch is now available from Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
The 10 Most-Read Slant Articles of 2018
Our most-read articles of 2018 comprise pretty much everything we do best.
Like last year, it wasn’t the most highly praised or viciously excoriated film, album, or TV show that garnered the most attention among Slant readers in 2018. It was a so-called “average” star rating of a video game that led to our most-read—or, rather, looked at—article of the year. More predictably, lists proved to be increasingly popular, particularly among cinephiles. Aside from a few pieces that didn’t make the cut—like our career-spanning interview with Jodie Foster and our five-star review of Synapse Films’s Blu-ray restoration of the original Suspiria—this list comprises pretty much everything we do best. Alexa Camp
10. The 50 Greatest Horror Movies of the 21st Century
Into the new millennium, horror films have retained their power to shock and outrage by continuing to plumb our deepest primordial terrors, to incarnate our sickest, most socially unpalatable fantasies. They are, in what amounts to a particularly delicious irony, a “safe space” in which we can explore these otherwise unfathomable facets of our true selves, while yet consoling ourselves with the knowledge that “it’s only a movie.” Budd Wilkins
9. Album Review: Mariah Carey’s Caution
At a mere 10 tracks, Caution is Mariah’s leanest album in 25 years. With the exception of the formulaic “With You,” which sounds like an outtake from E=MC2, the R&B and adult contemporary-style ballads that launched (and re-launched) her career have been largely replaced here by textured, midtempo grooves. Caution feels like the album Mariah has wanted to make all along: one that throws caution to the wind and sees her embracing her inner weirdo. And, ironically, it took her ending up back at Sony Music to do it. Sal Cinquemani
8. Game Review: Far Cry 5
With this entry, the Far Cry series has suddenly decided to crib story ideas from real American nightmares: the Ammon Bundy standoff, Jonestown, the Heaven’s Gate cult, Waco, the Westboro Baptist Church. It indulges a certain level of ejaculatory N.R.A. fantasy about a day when the Second Amendment saves the world, when all those guns hoarded by frightened men, all those survivalist bunkers, all that cynical preparation for the collapse of society proves useful. A regular supply item in this game is called a Prepper Pack. Major secrets are hidden in bunkers filled with canned food and ammo. These little hat tips toward the gun-toting survivalist sect might’ve been worthy of an eye roll had the game come out, say, prior to 2016. But at this particular moment in American life, those tips of the hat feel downright sinister. Justin Clark
7. All 90 Best Picture Oscar Winners Ranked
It’s a rare type of cinephile who wasn’t introduced to the idea of film as more than just idle entertainment by the ritual of the Academy Awards. And it’s an even rarer type of cinephile who didn’t soon thereafter vehemently reject the Oscar as the ultimate barometer of a film’s artistic worth. Those of us who started off with The Godfather, Schindler’s List, All About Eve, or Casablanca all eventually got around to Out of Africa, Around the World in 80 Days, The Greatest Show on Earth, Cimarron, and Cavalcade. First loves being first loves, we still find ourselves regressing if for only one night a year, succumbing to the allure of instant canonization even as it comes in the form of repeated slap-in-the-face reminders of Oscar’s bracing wrongness: Gladiator, Braveheart, Chicago, Crash. In that sense, consider this project part cathartic exorcism and part sheepish capitulation to the role the Oscars have played in our lives. If we had to sit through every one of these movies, the least you can allow us is the chance to show you our scars. Eric Henderson
6. Film Review: Aquaman
The best point of comparison for Aquaman is Black Panther, another superhero movie about a king of a forgotten realm reclaiming his throne. But whereas Ryan Coogler’s surprisingly affecting superhero film restored weight to both the choreography and the drama of the genre, Aquaman remains adrift, so much fantasy flotsam and jetsam floating before our eyes. Pat Brown
5. The 100 Greatest Video Games of All Time
When compiling this list, my colleagues and I elected to consider more than historical context. Greatness, to the individual, isn’t just about impact on some nebulous past. It’s as much about feeling, about the way a video game can capture the imagination regardless of genre or release date or canonical status. The titles on this list come from every corner of the medium—represented for the precision of their control or the beauty of their visuals or the emotion of their story. We’ve chosen to cast a wide net, so as to best represent the individual passions incited by saving planets, stomping on goombas, or simply conversing with vivid characters. Steven Scaife
4. Film Review: Avengers: Infinity War
What is this, a crossover episode? After 18 films, the overlords at Marvel Studios have gathered almost all of their indentured servants, err, star-studded stable together into the ever-crashing, ever-booming, and ever-banging extravaganza Avengers: Infinity War. Whether you look at this whirling dervish and see a gleefully grandiose entertainment or a depressing exemplar of the culturally degraded present moment will depend on your investment—in all senses of that term—in Marvel’s carefully cultivated mythos. Keith Uhlich
3. TV Review: Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan
If Jack Ryan never gets around to offering its audience a definition of a swift transaction, that’s because all that matters to the series is that it’s a tool used by bad guys, whom only Jack Ryan can stop. Despite paying cursory service to humanizing its principal characters, Jack Ryan is mostly interested in a battle between broad notions of good and evil. It thrives on the tension of Jack’s chess match with bin Suleiman, reducing an entire nation’s efforts to combat terror to a personal beef between two archetypes. Michael Haigis
2. Every Pixar Movie Ranked from Worst to Best
If The Incredibles was essentially a superhero riff on male mid-life crisis, Incredibles 2 primarily concerns male anxiety about women taking over traditionally masculine roles. Brad Bird’s film also touches heavily on the uncertainty and doubt that many women feel about pursuing their dreams at the expense of spending time with their families. These are weighty topics to pursue in an animated action-comedy, and Bird, with a light tone and deft touch, manages to give them their due. This is a fleeter, funnier film than the original, and the director gets considerable comedic mileage out of Jack-Jack’s wild capriciousness, as evidenced by Incredibles 2‘s single most hilarious sequence, in which the baby uses its multifarious abilities—fire, lasers, multiplying, turning into a gremlin—to battle a feral raccoon just for the hell of it. On the occasion of the film’s release, join us in revisiting the Pixar canon, ranked from worst to best. Keith Watson
1. Game Review: Red Dead Redemption 2
For all of the significant improvements Red Dead Redemption 2 has made to an open-world template, however, it still maintains Rockstar’s bullish commitment to a clunky control scheme. Across what’s now four games and two console generations, the company’s characters have lumbered along in what’s meant to convey the weight of a real person in contrast to the light, effortless controls of so many other games. But the result is artificial rather than convincing. Studios like Naughty Dog have proven capable of giving characters a consequential sense of weight without making it a challenge to navigate around a table or requiring you to hold down buttons to move at acceptable speeds. Coupled with middling gunplay feedback and a few too many stealth segments, the chunky act of playing Red Dead Redemption 2 doesn’t feel good so much as it feels, eventually at least, tolerable. Scaife