On an evening in the mid-1970s, the actor Carroll O’Connor and his wife took Ethel Merman to hear Bobby Short at Café Carlyle. Merman, who could be strident in her disapproval of other singers, gargled champagne during the set. It was a gesture of hostility too much even for Archie Bunker, and although she and the O’Connors were to remain friends, Merman never had the guest shot on All in the Family that she pined for.
Merman would have been 100 years old on January 16, 2008. To mark the centenary of this Broadway singer and actress, to celebrate her long career that bridged Gershwin, Porter, Berlin and Sondheim, a pair of competing biographies arrive to pull back the curtain, to show us “La Merm” as she was, as separate from the show biz mythology that cloaks our memory of her.
From the East, comes Opera News columnist Brian Kellow’s Ethel Merman: A Life; from the West, Caryl Flinn, a professor of women’s studies at the University of Arizona, rides in on Brass Diva: The Life and Legends of Ethel Merman. In casting a scholarly eye on Merman’s stage successes and celluloid frustrations, Flinn not infrequently yields to the uncritical chutzpah of a fangirl (the professor boasts of owning Merman’s 1979 disco album, which she delights in spinning for “unsuspecting” dinner guests). Like any good gender theorist, Flinn emphasizes the “queering” of the former stenographer from Astoria, Queens. She maps Merman’s route from an efficient secretary (who caught naps on the job in order to recoup from moonlighting in nightclubs), to the overnight sensation who held the C above middle C for sixteen bars in “I Got Rhythm” at the 1930 premiere of Gershwin’s Girl Crazy, and eventually to a late-in-life figure regarded, affectionately or not, as camp. To this end, Flinn revels in sprightly, indefatigably chipper prose, a kind of pop academia free association:
In her thirteen musicals, she never played a typical romantic lead. Yes, she often got her man…but usually the affair was too forced to make sense, a point made even through casting…Hollywood had plenty of trouble with Merman’s image, deeming it too brash for the film industry’s more genteel notions of…womanly glamour. Indeed, Merman’s femininity was always bedeviled: a castrato for Toscanini; the fantasy lesbian in the Jacqueline Susann rumor; [playing] the male Lieutenant Hurwitz in Airplane! Her gender never seemed to coincide fully with American norms, but at the same time, it didn’t escape them either…
Flinn’s book culminates in a discussion of drag queens as well as online personae who draw inspiration from “iconic Ethels,” as opposed to the real one. Kellow, his operatic background notwithstanding, eschews the outré. He takes a more conventional approach, and while it would nice to say that one method of biography captures the essence of the singer better than the other, the contradictory Ethel ultimately eludes both authors.
Well before Kellow and Flinn set out to reconstruct her life and times, Merman signed off on two ghostwritten autobiographies. “As told to Pete Martin,” Who Could Ask for Anything More (Doubleday, 1955) pictures the star on the dust jacket cover in Annie Oakley regalia, cresting her triumph in Irving Berlin’s Annie Get Your Gun nearly a decade after the hit show opened. Twenty-three years later, a span of time that encompassed her still greater heights in Gypsy, her 1970 comeback/Broadway swansong Hello, Dolly!, an unfortunate marriage to Ernest Borgnine, and the accidental death of her daughter Ethel Geary, Merman returned to the tape recorder “with George Eells,” for Merman—an autobiography (Simon & Schuster, 1978).
Although both are penned in the first person, the tones diverge wildly. Martin, a Saturday Evening Post writer who ghosted books for Bing Crosby and Bob Hope, deemed Merman insufficiently revelatory and distorted her voice to a careening pitch. In Martin’s hands, Merman became an endlessly tough-talking “broad,” deriding performers who “use the melody to vocalize instead of just plain singing…Why can’t such people just open their mouths, lay it on the line…That’s where those expensive lessons come in…” That Merman quite famously never had a voice teacher adds an especially condescending touch to the manufactured outrage.
Merman had a sympathetic collaborator in Eells. In his transcriptions, she’s softer, wittier, more measured. Her devotion to her long-lived parents Edward and Agnes Zimmermann emerges, and there’s a warm sense of the comfort she drew from religion, a quality that Flinn ignores almost entirely, after her daughter’s overdose in August 1967. As authentic as the Merman voice sounds in Eells’s pages, there’s much for a biographer to leave out. We learn, for example, that Don Ameche, her co-star from the 1938 film Alexander’s Ragtime Band, had “beautiful teeth,” whereas Tyrone Power’s “weren’t bad, but they weren’t as perfectly formed as Don Ameche’s either.” And yet there can be something endearing about her penchant for irrelevancy and what it obliquely reveals. Of the January 1958 suicide of her second husband Robert Levitt, Merman doesn’t linger on his depression; she instead praises his “marvelous taste” in jewelry and cuff links. A purported openness in discussing her 38-day union with Borgnine (husband number four) somehow drifts to a decision to switch from white mugs to brown when drinking tea.
In the latter half of the 1978 memoir, Merman twice mentions she “always hankered” to play Lady Macbeth. Neither Kellow nor Flinn brings this up. Nor do they mention her encounter with Helene Weigel who, after seeing Merman as Mamma Rose in Gypsy, approached her about playing the title role in Mother Courage. Both biographers are aware that Merman longed to extend her range in dramatic, non-singing roles. Rather than Shakespeare or Brecht, however, she had to settle for Batman and The Love Boat.
Kellow repeats much from the second autobiography, particularly stories concerning Merman’s earliest years; his fastidiously dry retellings of these chestnuts lack the color of the singer’s voice. Even in Eells’s reportage, the personalities who surrounded Merman never came to life. Here, their ghosts are paler still. Kellow speculates on her mother Agnes as a formidable authority figure, yet doesn’t draw this out. In his quest to be a “serious” biographer, he goes too far in the opposite direction from Martin, draining the narrative of jazzy theatrics—the buoyant qualities the book needs. Kellow stodgily contradicts Elaine Stritch’s superbly funny At Liberty reminiscence of Merman leaving the stage in mid-note, during a performance of Call Me Madam, to toss a drunken heckler out of the theatre and into the street. Flinn, sensibly, comes to the legend’s rescue: “The truth is almost immaterial, for by now, after the war, the tale was fully compatible with the toughening Merman image.”
Kellow is nicely attuned to the soft/tough dichotomy in Merman. Here was a woman capable of sympathizing with her friend Judy Garland’s illness, yet blind to her own daughter’s needs. “Sensitivity and anguish she didn’t understand and therefore she gave it nothing,” states granddaughter Barbara Geary, by way of explaining how Merman could foot the psychiatric bills for Ethel Jr., while not quite seeing the 25-year-old’s instability as a danger signal. On August 23, in the Summer of Love, Ethel Levitt Geary, having relocated from the nervous clime of LA to the bucolic-sounding Green Mountain Falls, Colorado, invited her two, young, non-custodial children to spend a holiday with her, and as they slept, she slipped away in a fatal mix of tranquilizers and vodka, much in the manner of her late father. Three weeks after Geary’s “unintentional suicide,” Merman had courage enough to appear on The Ed Sullivan Show, singing Gordon Jenkins’s “This is All I Ask.” It was, Kellow writes, “one of the most tender, emotionally connected performances she had ever given…a study in heartbreak.” Kellow doesn’t quote from the lyrics, relying on us to know them. Her choice of this song, at the death of a child, seems not just an exploration of despair, it’s an admission of failure on some level.
Brass Diva has a major advantage over Kellow’s book: Flinn gained the cooperation of Merman’s son, Bob Levitt Jr., whose presence lends moral gravitas to Flinn’s account of Merman’s 1953 marriage to Robert Six. Six’s villainy in the Kellow and Eells portrayals was limited to his notorious cheapness. Even as CEO of Continental Airlines, Six expected his wife and two stepchildren to pay two-thirds of their airfare. A darker scenario surfaces in Flinn’s book: A gun enthusiast whose stepchildren from a previous marriage had perished in a house fire (while, somewhat mysteriously, their governess survived), Six, in Levitt’s testimony, physically assaulted Merman’s elderly parents, then in their seventies. Six’s irrationality defined the years Merman spent with him in the Cherry Hills suburb of Denver, a place where she “suffered male violence and covered it with a veneer appropriate to her class,” which is to say, she said nothing. It’s a difficult notion to reconcile: Ethel Merman—the belter, the “wisecracking dame” whose press and public image inevitably honed in on the loudness of her voice, the clarion call of her high notes—rendered silent by domestic abuse. In fact, this notion may be so difficult to reconcile with Merman’s stage and screen persona that the male reviewers who wrote about Brass Diva in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The New York Observer skipped over any mention of spousal abuse—as though it were too unseemly a topic to broach. One of the things that makes Flinn’s book invaluable, despite its flaws, lies in exactly this: a willingness not to gloss over the truth—that that kind of violence could happen to any woman, even a star.
Flinn delineates bittersweet mother-son memories as well. When Levitt was a small boy, he and Merman, each night before she left for Broadway, would sing a rhyming song together. He would alter the words as they went along, getting the rhymes wrong as a way of, “stopping the song…so that we’d have to start over again, so that Mom would stay longer. So that she wouldn’t leave for the theatre.”
Kellow’s book, by contrast, draws much of its punch from good gossip. There’s no denying the appeal of how Merman, during the opening night intermission for Woman of the Year, swept unannounced into Lauren Bacall’s dressing room, helped herself to a stiff drink, then bounded out without so much as a word of congratulations to Bacall. Kellow needs anecdotes as gloriously bitchy as that one because—and one comes to this conclusion fairly early into Ethel Merman: A Life—the singer’s heyday and the conditions that made her the right voice at the right time are too remote from his own sensibility, and therefore Kellow lapses into journalese, such as in this cumbersome statement on Ira Gershwin’s lyrics, “Once audiences had fallen under his spell, they might be forgiven for wondering why it had taken so long for any one to figure out how to write this way.” (That “might be forgiven” may well be the most unforgivable of all hack rhetoric devices.) Professor Flinn not only has more passion than her rival biographer, she can succinctly sum up a distant era while imbuing the past with an in-the-present immediacy. She notes, by way of elucidating the mania that followed Merman’s October 1930 breakthrough in Girl Crazy, “Across the greater New York area, young working women responded to her as a Depression-era fantasy come true.”
Through both volumes runs Merman’s disappointment that her film career never came close to matching her triumphs onstage. “If you don’t exist in, for, and through the movies,” Merman once told The Associated Press, “well, you don’t exist at all.” And more often than not, that was the case. Kellow and Flinn each recount how Merman corralled family and friends to the New York premiere of her 1934 Paramount release, We’re Not Dressing, only to discover, as the reels unfurled, that her big production number had been cut entirely. Neither biographer has much to say about Merman’s encounter with another larger-than-life figure, Marilyn Monroe, with whom she worked on the set of the 1954 film There’s No Business Like Show Business, though even here Flinn’s digressions are more germane than Kellow’s, in particular her assertion that Monroe appropriated the song “Heat Wave” into “a steamy discourse on her own body.”
At the end of these two books, what then does one come away with on Ethel Merman? Although both biographers get close to their subject in certain ways, I’m not entirely sure that I could “see” Merman, in the way that, for instance, after reading David Hajdu’s Lush Life, I felt as though I inhabited the same breathing space where Billy Strayhorn once inhaled and exhaled. One thing, however, was certain: I could most definitely hear her.
For days, if not weeks afterward, the jukebox in my brain spun ’round with the slow version of her anthem, “There’s No Business Like Show Business,” which she sang in a kind of Sprechstimme on The Muppet Show. The lights on the back-stage set slowly dim, soften from white to amber before deepening to red, and Merman, in turn, caresses each Muppet with a delicate wave of her hand. Merman often said that of all her television appearances she felt this was the one that captured her true personality. I don’t think Kellow, perhaps not Flinn either, is willing to embrace that childlike strain. Yet there it is, from the young Broadway belter who continued to live at home with her parents, long after she attained financial independence, to the aging divorcée who remarked, “I love having the Christmas spirit the whole year round,” and indeed, from the early 1970s onward, kept a tree with lights in her East Side apartment throughout the year. It was as much a mainstay as the collection of Muppet dolls that adorned her bedroom.
Merman was time and again criticized as a less-than-felicitous interpreter of ballads, but the other song that kept replaying for me was this: her 1946 duet with Ray Middleton, “They Say It’s Wonderful,” from Annie Get Your Gun. “No matter what the emotional temperature,” Kellow writes, “she generally sang one way: the big, stentorian Merman way…” I disagree. To hear the tenderness with which she approached “They Say It’s Wonderful” is to be haunted by a searching quest for love unobtainable. In this three-minute number, she sang wistfully of “I can’t recall who said it. I know I never read it. I only know they tell me that love is grand, and…the thing that’s known as romance is WONDERFUL, wonderful, in every way…so they say.” And this was recorded when her worst marriages were still to come—that plaintive little “so they say” destined to echo forever.
House contributor N.P. Thompson regularly writes for Willamette Week, Northwest Asian Weekly, and sometimes for his own site, moviesintofilm.com.
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
Top 10 Radiohead Music Videos
To celebrate Radiohead’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, we take a look back at the group’s best and most innovative music videos.
Twenty-five years ago, the world was introduced to Radiohead by way of their debut single, “Creep.” Thom Yorke and company may have soured to their very first modern rock hit, but as we said in our list of the Best Singles of the 1990s, for which the song ranked at #37, “Creep” is rivaled only by “Every Breath You Take” as the ultimate kind-of-obsessive/kind-of-romantic crush anthem, with guitarist Jonny Greenwood’s perfectly timed blasts of electricity turning it from slightly creepy to threatening. The track peaked on the Billboard pop chart in September of 1993, a full year after its initial release, and Radiohead would go on to become one of the most influential bands in rock history. To celebrate the band’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, we take a look back at their best and most innovative music videos.
Editors’ Note: This article was originally published on July 24, 2013.
10. “Burn the Witch” (Dir: David Mould). “Stand in the shadows/To the gallows/This is a round-up,” Thom Yorke cautions at the start of “Burn the Witch,” with all the paranoia and politically shaded intrigue we’ve come to expect from the Radiohead frontman. Directed by Chris Hopewell, the music video for the track depicts a government official sent to inspect the strange goings-on in a small village, where he’s burned alive in a giant wooden statue in a scene reminiscent of the 1973 cult classic The Wicker Man. The clip features stop-motion animation in the style of the 1960s-era U.K. children’s show Trumpton. Sal Cinquemani
9. “Paranoid Android” (Dir: Magnus Carlsson). Radiohead commissioned Swedish animator Magnus Carlsson for this bizarre and somewhat graphic video, which sees the titular protagonist of Carlsson’s series Robin encountering various unsavory or unearthly characters, including a prostitute in a tree, a deranged businessman, and an angel flying a helicopter. Cinquemani
8. “House of Cards” (Dir: James Frost). When the “House of Cards” video came out, it struck me as a tech geek’s gimmick, but in retrospect, its motion-capture technique is used for deeply human ends. First we see two faces in close-up, their physicality rendered as blue-ish data points. Then, indistinct bodies at a party and a whole suburban landscape being wiped away in Etch-A-Sketch fashion. It’s a kind of digitally envisioned nightmare: Every pixel of everything we know, instantly erased. Paul Rice
7. “No Surprises” (Dir: Grant Lee). Lo-fi simplicity tends to work best for Radiohead’s live-action videos. In “No Surprises,” we get to watch Thom Yorke gasp for breath as a water chamber fills and releases around his head. It’s a sly sadomasochistic dream that could be his, or that of plenty of Radiohead haters everywhere. Rice
6. “Daydreaming” (Dir: Paul Thomas Anderson). In this video for 2016’s “Daydreaming,” Paul Thomas Anderson’s camera follows Thom Yorke through numerous locales, from hotel hallways to laundromats. The images, lucid and confrontational, exude an almost gestural quality as they cut from interior and exterior spaces, with Yorke waltzing in a sleep-like torpor toward a hole—or spacious studio igloo?—somewhere on a snow-capped mountain. The world here appears at once real and imagined, and by the time the fire within the hole lights Yorke’s face and the song grinds to a halt, Anderson dramatically reaffirms most of our beliefs about Radiohead’s music as, above all else, the prettiest soundtrack in the world to one man’s devotion to his own alienation. Ed Gonzalez
5. “Just” (Dir: Jamie Thraves). There’s a Kafkaesque absurdity to the simple concept of “Just” that gets and stays under the skin. A man lies down in the middle of a monochromatic city sidewalk. People trip on him and ask how he is and why he’s there. Finally, he tells the crowd (though we never know, since the subtitles cut out), and they all lie with him, presumably in conjoined doom. Rice
4. “Knives Out” (Dir: Michel Gondry). Thematically evocative of the director’s 2004 film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, the elaborate, seemingly single-take “Knives Out” juxtaposes emotional and physical hardship via Michel Gondry’s signature surreal imagery, including singer Thom Yorke’s head replaced by a giant heart in which he stores a Polaroid photograph of his fiancée, whose critical condition he may very well have been responsible for. Cinquemani
3. “Pyramid Song” (Dir: Shynola). Thom Yorke and company have long been champions of animation, and “Pyramid Song” is their best, most heartfelt work in the form. A man—or a thing (the figure could be human or beast)—dives into a lost civilization, wading through bones to a home where he watches TV. CG allows for meticulous detail, but the gorgeous design by artist collective Shynola is purposely murky, full of unknown layers, and like Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, released the same year, it suggests a ruined past we can never get back. Rice
2. “Fake Plastic Trees” (Dir: Jake Scott). Jake Scott, noted music video director and son of Sir Ridley, has said that his striking clip for Radiohead’s “Fake Plastic Trees,” filmed in an aircraft hangar in Van Nuys, California, is an allegory on death and reincarnation. His claim is borne out by images of colorful characters, old and young, strolling the aisles of a neon-lit supermarket, being watched on surveillance cameras, and eventually carted off to a heavenly looking “exit.” Cinquemani
1. “Karma Police” (Dir: Jonathan Glazer). Director Jonathan Glazer claims that this creepy revenge clip, in which a car slowly follows a man running down a desolate road only to have the tables turned thanks to a chance gasoline leak, was inspired by a bad dream. His remarkable use of point of view implicates the spectator in the video’s action, but it’s the spooky way with which he fashions a Möbius strip from karmic irony that makes “Karma Police” Radiohead’s finest contribution to the music-video medium. Cinquemani