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Understanding Screenwriting #62: Carlos, The Plainsmen, 30 Rock, & Mad Men



Understanding Screenwriting #62: Carlos, The Plainsmen, 30 Rock, & Mad Men

Coming Up in This Column: Carlos, The Plainsmen, 30 Rock, Mad Men

Carlos (2010. Written by Olivier Assayas and Daniel Franck, based on an idea by Daniel Leconte. 335 minutes)

I don’t know if this is a great movie, but… it’ll do until something better comes along. According to an interview with Assayas by David Thompson in the November 2010 issue of Sight & Sound, Assayas was sent about four pages of material by Daniel LeConte, the producer of the film. It was a summary of the life and career of the notorious terrorist “Carlos,” aka the Jackal. Assayas was interested in the character (always a good sign), but not the summary. So Leconte sent him research done by journalist Stephen Smith, an expert in the field. What Assayas discovered was that there was more material available about Carlos’s operation and the geopolitical background than he had thought. In other words, it was getting longer. The film was originally supposed to be a 90-minute film for French television. Assayas told that to Leconte, who was reluctant, but they got approval from Canal Plus to do two 90-minute films. Then Assayas sat down with Daniel Franck, a screenwriter attached to the project, and after one meeting they both realized that three hours was not going to be enough, especially when they got into the material on the attack on the OPEC meeting in Vienna in 1975. Back to Canal Plus and an OK for a three-part film. Now as you know, if you have read this column for any length of time, that I do not believe as a general rule that longer is better. Look at any “director’s cut” if you don’t believe me. Carlos is the exception that proves the rule. Yes, there is a 2 ½ hour version that will play theatres, and it may be wonderful, but try to see the full version.

Part One, the first 105 minutes, gets us off to a nice start. We see a guy we don’t know in bed with a pretty woman. OK, he may be our hero. He gets dressed, goes outside. And checks his car for any car bombs. Smart guy. He doesn’t find any, so he gets in the car, turns on the ig—KABOOM. He’s not quite as smart as he thought, and we are now on our toes, knowing anybody can get it at any time. What the writers have done in the rest of the first part is alternate the terrorists’ actions with quieter scenes with Carlos, whom we learn had set the car bomb in the opening scene, although we never learn exactly why.

The action scenes include the invasion of the French embassy at the Hague and two wonderfully bungled attempts to shoot down an airliner at Orly Airport in Paris. The writers pace these scenes throughout the first part, so you know during the dialogue scenes that there will be some blow-’em-up-real-good stuff coming soon. Carlos was so active that there will always be some action right around the corner. Indeed, Carlos is going around corners a lot. In US#30 I got on the script for last year’s Public Enemies because there was so much running around from one place to another. I wrote at the time that may be true of Dillinger’s life on the run, but it makes him rather shallow because the script then does not provide scenes that give us the character. Assayas and Franck give us the character scenes between the running around. In the first part we get scenes of Carlos, who never seemed to be without a girlfriend of one kind or another, using his “revolutionary” ideas to seduce women. We are never quite sure, especially in this part, how serious a revolutionary he is. Is he in it for his beliefs? Or for the adrenaline rush? Or both? The writers are certainly establishing Carlos as a man of action, but Part One speeds along so fast we don’t get any deeper into him. At this point. Which is part of what the writers are doing, setting up questions in our mind while holding our interest with the action. Carlos is not a sympathetic character, but we want to watch him because when he is on-screen, stuff happens. Not very nice stuff, true, but stuff.

By the end of Part One, Carlos has convinced Wadie Haddad, the chief terrorist of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), to let him handle their operations for Europe. We have seen Carlos cool and collected, but in the suspenseful scene where he kills two members of DST, the French security services, we also see he can be impulsive. So Haddad wants him to run the OPEC operation. Carlos and his crew, including Angie and Nada, two Germans, get off the streetcar at the OPEC meeting as Part One ends.

The first hour of the 110-minute Part Two is the OPEC operation. That’s a long time, but it is a change in rhythm from the first part of the movie, and we are perfectly willing to slow down, especially since we see Carlos in action. In several of the operations in the first part, we only see the people working for Carlos, and they are often close to incompetent. Carlos at OPEC is very competent, maybe a little too much so. When they first invade the conference room, one of the people Carlos inadvertently kills is the OPEC minister from Libya. This pisses off Qaddafi, whom we never see in the film, and ends any chance they can land in Libya as part of their escape. Carlos’s discussions with the various ministers tell us a lot about Carlos as well as the ministers. As does the outcome. Haddad wanted Carlos to kill the Saudi oil minister, but Carlos could not resist the opportunity to accept a $20 million ransom. Carlos and Haddad have a great scene where Haddad “fires” Carlos from his group, saying Carlos is now a celebrity and “celebrities don’t take orders.” Haddad assigns the next big operation to friends of Carlos, a group of pro-Palestine Germans. It is the highjacking of an Air France airliner, which they take to Entebbe. Needless to say, that does not end well for the terrorists.

Carlos now has to create his own group, financed by Baghdad. His previous friends are getting out of the business, either voluntarily or involuntarily. Angie, who was wounded in the OPEC operation, goes on the run. Nada is eventually arrested. Magdalena, a German woman, comes to Baghdad, and we get a great “job interview” scene between her and Carlos that ends with sex. His use of revolutionary rhetoric for seduction has become more complex.

Andropov, a Russian, comes to tell Carlos that they are offering $1 million for the assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat. Needless to say, the pro-Palestinians would be delighted to get rid of the man who signed the Camp David accords. You don’t remember that it was Carlos who killed Sadat? Well, he didn’t. The writers structure this very nicely, with several mentions of the money that is out there for someone to take out Sadat and how difficult it is going to be. The preparations are ongoing, until a group of fundamentalists do the job, leaving Carlos and his crew with two wasted years of planning. Sometimes the amateurs can screw up the lives of the professionals. By the end of Part Two, Carlos has the backing of Syria. But the world is changing.

According to the Assayas interview, much of the material in the first hour of Part Three has been cut from the shorter theatrical version, which is too bad. The first two parts have dealt primarily with Carlos and his connections in the Middle East, but in Part Three, we begin to see how connected the terrorist groups were with the communist countries. One of the points Thompson brought up in his interview is that most movies about terrorist groups suggest they were a local or national phenomenon, whereas Carlos shows us the international connections. Part Three opens with Carlos, Magdalena, and Weinrich, a German collaborator, living in a safe house in Budapest. The Hungarian State Security Service knows they are there and also knows that it cannot bother them or the Soviet Union will cause problems. The Hungarians still try, without much success, to get information on Carlos using undercover hookers. The writers give us a couple of nervous, maybe even bumbling, Hungarian Security men who are sent to the house to tell Carlos they are going to take care of his security. Carlos is not impressed. The Stasi tell Carlos he is no longer welcome in East Berlin, since the East Germans are afraid the Western Intelligence services will bug them and track them down. We get a real sense of how complex the political connections are in the terrorist world, a situation that has only gotten worse in the years after Carlos.

Carlos sets up a bombing of an Arab newspaper in Paris, but it goes wrong. Magdalena fights a lot with Carlos because she does not want to stay cooped up in her darkroom forging passports (Carlos has to do it on his own, as opposed to the days when the PFLP provided all of that). She wants to do “field work,” so he lets her go on the bombing. But the person who left the Peugeot with the bomb in a parking garage forgot to give them the parking ticket and Magdalena gets arrested. Carlos sends letters demanding her release, without success. He sets off a bomb intended to kill Chirac, then the mayor of Paris, but it only wounds him and stiffens the French resolve to fight back. If other films on terrorist groups are hermetically sealed in the worlds of the groups, one of the great things about Carlos is that it has such a broad vision, at least in the longer version, of the place of those groups in the real world. This has the striking effect of showing, not telling, how mentally isolated such groups are. Which is why so many of their activities are ultimately counter-productive. I know of no other film that shows that.

The nervous Hungarian Security Service guys tell Carlos that Western Intelligence is on to him and they have to dismantle their safe house in Budapest. Carlos ends up in Syria, supposedly a “successful businessman.” Magdalena is finally released from prison. She almost got out once before, but was kidnapped by the French—yes, the same people who had her in prison—and turned over to the West Germans for another term. She joins him there, and they seem happy. But Syria doesn’t want him any more. Neither does Libya. The Berlin Wall has fallen, and the Cold War support with it. As Weinrich says to Carlos, “The war is over and we lost.” Carlos has a child with Magdalena and we see him chasing the child around the garden. This is likely a conscious reference to the garden scene with Don Corleone in The Godfather (1972)—two similar domesticated monsters. Magdalena gets fed up and takes the child with her to Venezuela? Why Venezuela? Because that is where Carlos is from. She is going to live with Carlos’s mother and brother. And what was the brother doing while Carlos was being a celebrity terrorist? Making a fortune in the construction business. The writers don’t beat us over the head with this, but just give it to us as a throwaway line. Like I say, the writers are very aware of the outside world, which I always admire in a screenplay.

Carlos and the girlfriend Magdalena knew he had are now in Khartoum. He is a teacher. In one short scene he is teaching guerilla tactics in a classroom, using as one of his textbooks Seven Pillars of Wisdom. By T.E. Lawrence. As in, of Arabia. Again, not stressed by the writers, but part of the pattern. At least one review of the film said that they felt the last half-hour or so goes on too long, and I can see what they mean, since we are waiting around for Carlos to get captured. Nothing blows up real good. But because of the context the writers have established in the first five hours, it makes every scene suspenseful. In this film, you never know when something is going to happen, which adds to the tension in the last thirty minutes. Carlos is finally captured, but in a very Carlos way. Ali, one of his connections to the Arab world, has to prove his loyalty to Syria, so he gives them Carlos’s address in Khartoum. Which Syria sells to the C.I.A.. But the C.I.A. don’t want him. So they trade him to the French, who definitely want him. So members of the DST—remember that Carlos killed some of their colleagues at the end of Part One?—pick him up and take him back to France. We don’t see the trial or Carlos in prison, but I am not sure we need to see that. What we do get in the end credits are photographs of the actors and their real-life counterparts and what happened, if known, to the real people. I was impressed by the casting and performances as the film was on, but even more so when I saw the photographs. The woman playing Nada does not bear a perfect physical resemblance to the original, but boy does she capture the attitude that comes across in the still photograph.

Now you may well ask, if there is all this good stuff in the script and the film, why were you quibbling at the beginning on whether it is a great film or not? As I was watching the film, I kept having niggling problems. I was not sure in Part One if they were getting into Carlos’s character as deeply as they could. Even in the remaining parts I had some reservations. On the other hand, they do suggest that Carlos was not that deep. He certainly was not an intellectual, and he used the revolutionary ideas as an excuse to get into action. Here I am reminded of the critics’ reaction to Lawrence of Arabia (1962) Many critics felt, and still feel, that the film does not get into Lawrence’s character as deeply as it should. I dealt with this in the book Understanding Screenwriting, where I wrote, that the film, instead of “explaining” his character, “shows us, which is what screenwriting ought to be about… One of the smartest comments in the original reviews was one critic’s line that Lawrence was most himself not in close-up, but in the long shots where he is riding a camel across the desert.” True for Lawrence, and maybe true for Carlos, but I still came away feeling I wanted a little more on Carlos. There is also the last half-hour, which could be shortened a bit. Maybe those are just minor complaints.

Consider this as well. One thing a great movie does is make you see the world in its terms, which often affects the next movie or piece of art or music you see or hear. If you see D.W. Griffith’s 1916 epic Intolerance, you will see its influence in almost every movie you see afterward. After I finished the last part of Carlos, I cued up on my DVR the “Harbor City” episode of Law & Order: Los Angeles (written by Judith McCreary). The speed and rhythm seemed very like Carlos. That night my wife and I went to see a new musical premiering at the Ahmanson Theater. It is Leap of Faith, based on the obscure 1992 film of the same name. The book for the show is written by Janus Cercone, who wrote the screenplay, and Glenn Slater, who also wrote the lyrics. It’s a hodgepodge of material, pushed together in a rather haphazard way. I kept thinking of Carlos, where the writers take an enormous range of material and find the ways to make it fit, in ways the musical never manages. And the next night, we heard the LA Philharmonic play Olivier Messiaen’s Turnagalila-symphonie, an eighty-minute epic consideration of love in all its forms. Messiaen used the long form the way Assayas and Franck do: to tie together multiple related themes. Messiaen and the screenwriters do it brilliantly. They made their work part of my world. You can’t ask for more than that.

The Plainsman (1936. Screenplay by Waldemar Young, Harold Lamb and Lynn Riggs, from material compiled by Jeanie Macpherson, based on stories by Courtney Ryley Cooper and Frank J. Wilstach, with additional uncredited writing by Wallace Smith, Stuart Anthony, and Virginia Van Upp. 113 minutes)

The Plainsman

Way too many cooks: When I was in a western mood a few weeks ago, I got this one from Netflix, along with Buffalo Bill (1944), which I wrote about in the last column. If too many writers spoiled that one, the boys and girls here really made a mess of this one. Well, not surpising. The producer-director of this was Cecil B. DeMille, and I talked about him and his 1939 film Union Pacific in US#30. Much of what I said there applies to this one. DeMille was coming off the lack of financial success of his 1935 spectacle The Crusades. (The background on the film, including the uncredited writers, is as before from Robert S. Birchard’s Cecil B. DeMille’s Hollywood.) Paramount wanted DeMille’s spectacle, but they really didn’t want to pay for it. DeMille first wanted to do a film on Buffalo Bill, which could have been a wonderful subject for him, but the 1935 film Annie Oakley had covered a lot of that. So he settled on Wild Bill Hickok as the main character, with Buffalo Bill as a supporting character (the two were friends) and Calamity Jane as the love interest. Hickok and Jane knew each other, but since she was as ugly and sin and seldom took a bath, there was probably not a romance. As in the later Union Pacific, DeMille had his writers focus on the love story. Paramount insisted DeMille use their biggest star, Gary Cooper, as Hickok, and DeMille got Jean Arthur for Jane, probably because a few month before The Plainsman went into production Cooper and Arthur had a great teaming in the 1936 film Mr. Deeds Goes to Town. In that film they had Robert Riskin writing a great script for them. Not so here. There are some nice scenes, but nothing that shows them, especially Arthur, at their best.

Waldemar Young has been writing movies since the early silent era, and he was one of the writers on DeMille’s 1934 Cleopatra as well as The Crusades. Harold Lamb worked on The Crusades as well, and spent most of his time in the business with DeMille. Lynn Riggs, hmm, where have we heard that name before? Probably not for her screenplay credits, but as the author of the stage play Green Grow the Lilacs, which became the basis for the great American stage and later so-so screen musical, Oklahoma!. So at least two of the three writers knew the DeMille style: epic action and a love story, with not a lot of concern for dramatic structure or historical accuracy. The love story is very much a star vehicle for Cooper and Arthur, although as noted above, not a very good one. The epic elements have their limitations, and not just because of the budget restrictions the studio put on the film. I noted in writing about Union Pacific that a lot of it was shot on sound stages. That is even truer of The Plainsman. According to Birchard, 29 days of the original 46-day schedule were on the sound stages. Thirteen days were to be on the studio backlot. Only four days of principal photography were to be shot on locations near the studio. DeMille, unlike directors such as John Ford, Henry King and David Lean, appears to have preferred not to go on location. DeMille was a notorious control freak and he could control the production better on the lot. He did send director Arthur Rosson up to Montana to shoot a lot, and I mean a lot, of second unit footage of the cavalry, the Indians, and assorted other outdoor stuff. His footage was cut into the film, and used as rear projection on the sound stages. Like Union Pacific, it’s very stage-bound for a western. DeMille knew that was going to be how the film was done, so that was how he had the writers write the script.

In spite of all that, the picture was a big hit, and DeMille followed it up with more American historical films. They are not any better.

30 Rock (2010. “Live Show” written by Robert Carlock and Tina Fey. 30 minutes)

30 Rock

Boy, did this not work: Remember the Golden Age of American Television? It was the ‘50s and all the major shows were live. Yes, live. From New York City, the home of live theatre. None of this crappy little cheap filmed stuff that was syndicated to local stations. Live! It was great. Well, no, it really wasn’t all that great. While many of the television writers who worked in live television that I interviewed for Storytellers to the Nation: A History of American Television Writing thought live television was great, some had their reservations. The late E. Jack Neuman told me, “The best of it was really a third-rate movie, the very best. [On] Playhouse 90 I was always thinking about what I could do on a movie set, and how terribly limited and awkward [it was].” And here comes 30 Rock to prove how right Neuman was.

Yes, this episode was done live, once for the East Coast and once for the West Coast. I saw the West Coast feed, so if you want to tell me the East Coast version was better, you can try, but you’ll have a hard time convincing me. Doing it live killed the rhythm of the show, which is based on short, quick scenes. Here they dragged out the scenes to the point of killing the jokes. There were what I take to be some joke references to doing a live show, but they were not particularly subtle and often played directly to the camera, which also not part of the world of 30 Rock. Because of the limitations of the live studio in which they were broadcasting from, the sets looked a lot smaller and cheaper than the ones in the filmed episodes. See what E. Jack Neuman meant? And the live audience also threw off the acting, since the actors had to wait for the audience reactions. This led to the actors overacting, which also killed what funny stuff there was in the screenplay. The quick subtlety of the show was lost. Back to film, please, where you can do it right.

Mad Men (2010. “Tomorrowland” written by Jonathan Igla and Matthew Weiner. 62 minutes)

Mad Men

And so ends one of the best seasons of Mad Men: You know now that I like Mad Men, in spite of it moving at a snail’s pace during the first few seasons. One thing I loved most about this season was that they picked up the pace, without losing any of the other elements that make the show so great: great characters, great scenes, and a wonderful sense of the period the show is set in. Most of those elements are present in this episode. Don has written off Lucky Strike and any tobacco clients with his ad in the New York Times, but he’s got a meeting with the American Cancer Society. They are interested in starting an anti-smoking campaign and why not get the best guy around to do it? And Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce needs the business, since they haven’t landed a new client in weeks.

Betty fires Carla, the Black nanny who has been with them forever, since she let Glen, the creepy little boy, say goodbye to Sally. Don is upset that Betty did this now, since he is taking the kids on a trip to California and he was expecting Carla to take care of them while he was in meetings. Geez, who can he get at the last minute to go to California? Well, Megan, his new secretary, was good with Sally several episodes back when she showed up at her dad’s office. See how Weiner and the gang have been setting things up? Now what would have happened if Mrs. Blankenship had not died? Actually, Mrs. Blankenship as a nanny could have been fun…

Meanwhile Peggy learns that Topaz pantyhose has fired their agency. How does she find out? Her lesbian friend brings around a model who was part of the fired ad campaign. Harry Crane is busy flirting with her, but Peggy sees an opportunity and arranges a meeting with the guys at Topaz. Peggy being Peggy, she comes up with a couple of ideas on the spot, and she lands the first big account SCDP has gotten in weeks. Boy, is that going to be a big deal at the office. Not so fast.

Because of budget limitations (do you want to pay to recreate the Disneyland of the mid-’60?), we don’t see Don and the kids go to Disneyland, but we hear about it, but not so much we miss the scenes there. Mostly we see the kids and Megan in the hotel swimming pool. Don, who had sex once with Megan in the office, has sex with her again in California. After all, she has seen him with Stephanie, Anna’s niece, and knows he is a good guy. Megan tells him, “I know who you are now,” which probably means more to Don than Megan intends. He later tells her, “I feel like myself with you.” You can understand the impact of that on Don, who has very seldom felt like himself anywhere. No wonder he proposes, using Anna’s engagement ring from the “real” Don Draper that Stephanie has told him Anna wanted him to have.

So when they get back to SCDP, Don tells Joan, Lane, and Roger, who are a bit gobsmacked. Even more gobsmacked is Peggy, for about six million reasons. See the advantage of the way the writers for the series have developed the Don-Peggy relationship? Is she pissed because she wanted Don for herself? Wanted him sexually, or just professionally? Or is she pissed, as she says to Joan in a wonderful scene, because his news has overshadowed hers in everybody’s mind. Remember the elevator scene in “The Summer Man”? Their relationship is developing as well

My God, what about Faye, the audience analyst he’s been sleeping with? He calls her, and she refuses to meet him. That’s smart writing. It’s better to do this scene on the phone so we can have some “privileged moments,” as actors call them, with her. Faye is not happy.

Joan has a nice phone conversation with her husband. Remember that abortion she had? Well, neither she nor anybody else ever said she went through with it. She’s still pregnant, but has convinced her husband it’s his. Joan is very persuasive, as we know. And what is Roger going to think when she goes all swelly-belly in the office?

Don ends up at his old house to meet with a real estate agent, and who shows up with Betty. She is not surprised he is getting married again, and she knows without being told that it is the secretary. We can tell she’s a little envious. Things are not going well with her and Henry.

So, we have come through a season in which the new agency got its start, and went through a rocky period. It’s also been a season that has seen Don more depressed and disconnected than we have ever seen him before. It’s a season where Peggy is coming into her own in all kinds of ways.
I don’t know about you, but I can’t wait for the next season.

Tom Stempel is the author of several books on film. His most recent is Understanding Screenwriting: Learning From Good, Not-Quite-So Good, and Bad Screenplays.



Who Killed My Father Is Heartbreaking but Prone to Pat Sociological Analysis

Édouard Louis’s latest is strong as a portrait of a family unable to communicate through anything but volatile, toxic outbursts.



Who Killed My Father

Author Édouard Louis’s father has been an important figure in each of his previous works, even when he’s never seen or mostly at the periphery (as in The History of Violence). With his latest, Who Killed My Father, Louis finally turns to directly examining his most important, damaged relationship. Both in his previous books and interviews, Louis has repeatedly acknowledged this broken relationship, largely stemming from the author’s open homosexuality. Alongside this, Louis’s prior works have circled around a number of themes to which he returns here: the French political and working classes, the small-town prejudices that surrounded his upbringing and drove a closeted homosexual boy to escape to more cosmopolitan Paris, and the role of state power in producing social and physical illness.

With Who Killed My Father, Louis invites inevitable comparisons to Abdellah Taïa, another talented French writer who’s also gay and largely estranged from his place of origin, and also primarily an autobiographical novelist. Like Louis, Taïa incorporates his complicated relationship with a parent into several of his books. Taïa also connects that relationship, his writing, and his experience with the society he left behind in Morocco and the one he found in France. But what distinguishes his writing in, for example, Infidels or Salvation Army from that of Édouard Louis in Who Killed My Father is a strong sense of meaning. Taïa incorporates his relationship with his mother, M’Barka, to convey something more meaningful and developed.

Louis begins down this same road before clumsily inserting a political tract at the end of Who Killed My Father that doesn’t knit as effortlessly with parts one and two. The book situates Louis’s relationship with his father front and center as compared to his previous work. It’s clear that he’s exposing the painfulness of their relationship for the purpose of speaking about political power and its physical and social toll on those who don’t possess it, but Who Killed My Father stumbles in conveying its message adequately.

Louis’s account of his father’s suffering and violence toward those around him is both painful and sharp. Who Killed My Father is strongest when Louis is demonstrating his father’s most private acts of kindness, as when the father gives Louis a copy of Titanic for his birthday after trying to convince him to ask for a more “masculine” gift. After Louis realizes that his carefully planned tribute to the pop band Aqua at a family dinner has embarrassed his father, the man reassures Louis that “it’s nothing.” In the book’s first and strongest part, Louis expounds not only on the relationship with his father, but also excavates what might have made his father the man he grew up with. At one point, he recounts finding a photograph of his father in women’s clothes—undoubtedly some adolescent joke, but also inconceivable from the man who insisted to his son that men should never act like girls.

Regrettably, part one ends with a trite conclusion that says everything and nothing at the same time. In part two, the story attempts to braid together all the malignant threads of Louis’s family narrative. Louis recalls igniting a violent outburst between his father and older brother as a result of his mother shaming him for acting too much like a girl (“faggot” is what some others in the neighborhood more precisely call him). The insinuation hurts and angers him so much that he betrays his mother’s confidence on another family secret, setting loose a new wave of violence. Part two is short and important to moving Who Killed My Father toward some wider evaluation of the questions Louis begins the book with, but it ultimately fails to find its footing by pivoting in part three to an unearned polemic against the political classes.

Who Killed My Father is strong as a portrait of a family unable to communicate (except in brief moments of tenderness) through anything but volatile, toxic outbursts, but the book at its weakest when trying to ham-handedly force this narrative into some broad theorizing about power and society and structural violence. Part one aligned beautifully with a narrative of meaning more comparable to Taïa at his best. Unfortunately, the story quickly falls apart when Jacques Chirac is indicted for destroying Louis’s father’s body through changes in health care coverage. It’s not that the questions Louis ends with aren’t necessary and important ones; it’s that there’s so little threading the narrative together into anything cohesive. What was the point of the first two-thirds of the book? His father was cruel, occasionally loving, but never mind because the state is killing him? The life of the poor is one of abject powerlessness against an unremittingly powerful and callous “ruling class”?

Louis deserves credit for the attempt to tie it all together into some grander commentary on the political class and its ambivalence, but the conclusion is simultaneously glib and condescending. Perhaps Louis didn’t intend it, but the book’s conclusion drains away responsibility for the cruelty and bigotry of those like his father, and patronizes them as with a quick How could we expect any better of the noble, working poor? Is it the state’s or the ruling class’s subjugation of his father’s body that’s somehow also responsible for his inability to sympathize with gays or immigrants? Of course, the poor are subjugated by the rich and Louis has written more meaningfully about the implications of that relationship elsewhere. But in Who Killed My Father, he inadvertently demonstrates that the answer isn’t to sanctify them any more than it is to demonize them.

Édouard Louis’s Who Killed My Father is now available from New Directions.

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Through the Years: Madonna’s “Like a Prayer” at 30

To celebrate this sacred anniversary, we’re taking a look back at the single’s evolution over the last three decades.



Through the Years: Madonna’s “Like a Prayer” at 25

This week Madonna’s iconic hit “Like a Prayer” turns 30. The song is, by all accounts, her most broadly beloved contribution to the pop-music canon, landing at #7 on our list of the Best Singles of the 1980s. Even the singer’s most ardent critics can’t help but bow at the altar of this gospel-infused conflation of spiritual and sexual ecstasy, a song that helped transform Madge from ‘80s pop tart to bona fide icon. To celebrate this sacred anniversary, we’re taking a look back at the single’s evolution over the last three decades.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on March 3, 2014.

Pepsi Commercial

Following a teaser that aired during the 31st Annual Grammy Awards in January of 1989, Madonna premiered “Like a Prayer” in a Pepsi commercial during The Cosby Show, the #1 rated series on U.S. television at the time. Part of a $5 million sponsorship deal with the soft-drink company, the ad, titled “Make a Wish,” was an innocuous bit of nostalgia that would soon be eclipsed by the scandal surrounding the single’s forthcoming music video.

Music Video

Madonna dances in front of burning crosses and kisses a black saint in a church pew in this modern morality tale about racial profiling and pious guilt, prompting both the religious right and cultural critics, like bell hooks, to cry foul. Eventually, the mounting outrage caused Pepsi to pull out of their multi-million dollar deal with the Queen of Pop. The singer’s response was coyly defiant.

Blond Ambition Tour

Madonna’s first live incarnation of “Like a Prayer” was also her best. Sure, her voice was raw and unrefined (“Life is a misstaree, eve’one mus stan alone,” she heaves), but her 1990 tour performances of the song displayed a rapturous, almost possessed quality that she’s never been able to recapture.

Mad’House Cover

Dutch Eurotrash group Mad’House’s claim to fame is their blasphemous take on “Like a Prayer” from 2002. The glorified Madonna cover band’s version is stripped of the original’s nuance and soul, a tacky, mechanical shell of a dance track. Regrettably, this is the version you’re most likely to hear on Top 40 radio today. (Only slightly less heretical, the cast of Glee’s rendition of the song peaked at #27 in 2010.)

MTV On Stage & On the Record

Then notorious for forsaking her older material, Madonna dusted off “Like a Prayer” in 2003 during the promotion of her album American Life. Thirteen years after her last live performance of the song, even Madonna’s comparatively reedier voice and noticeably more limited range couldn’t diminish its enduring magic.

Sticky & Sweet Tour

After performing crowd-pleasing but relatively anemic versions of “Like a Prayer” during her Re-Invention Tour in 2004 and Live 8 in 2005, Madonna reinvented the song for her Sticky & Sweet Tour in 2008, using elements of Mack’s “Feels Like Home” for an amped-up techno mash-up.

Super Bowl XLVI

Madonna closed her record-breaking Super Bowl XLVI halftime show in 2012 with “Like a Prayer,” and though she wasn’t singing live, it was the closest she’s ever gotten to her ecstatic Blond Ambition performances. (For those lamenting the lip-synching, she would go on to reprise this version of the song, completely live, during her MDNA Tour later that year.) And if there were any doubt, a stadium of nearly 70,000 football fans waving flashlights and singing along is a testament to the song’s transcendent, all-encompassing appeal. The performance’s final message of “World Peace” seemed attainable, if only for a brief moment.

Met Gala 2018

Last year, Madonna dusted off her old chestnut for an epic performance at Vogue magazine’s annual Met Gala. The event’s theme was “Fashion and the Catholic Imagination,” which seemed tailor-made for both the Queen of Pop and “Like a Prayer.” Madonna slowly descended the steps of New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art in a shroud, flanked on both sides by a choir of monks, as she sang a Gregorian-inspired rendition of the pop classic. The performance also featured a portion of a new song, “Beautiful Game,” and a cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.”

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Oscars 2019: Complete Winners List

The 91st Academy Awards are now behind us, and the telecast told us just about nothing that we don’t already know about AMPAS.



Green Book
Photo: Universal Pictures

The 91st Academy Awards are now behind us, and the telecast told us just about nothing that we don’t already know about AMPAS. Which isn’t to say that the ceremony wasn’t without its surprises. For one, whoever decided to capture Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper’s performance of “Shallow” from A Star Is Born in one single take that would end with the pair sitting side by side, rapt in each other and framed in Bergman-esque repose, should hereby be responsible for every Oscar ceremony moving forward.

For some, though not us, Green Book’s victory for best picture came as surprise. As our own Eric Henderson put it in his prediction: “Those attacking the film from every conceivable angle have also ignored the one that matters to most people: the pleasure principle. Can anyone blame Hollywood for getting its back up on behalf of a laughably old-fashioned but seamlessly mounted road movie-cum-buddy pic that reassures people that the world they’re leaving is better than the one they found? That’s, as they say, the future that liberals and Oscar want.”

In the end, the awards went down more or less as expected, with the only real shock of the evening being Oliva Colman’s stunning upset over Glenn Close in the best actress race. (Glenn, we hope you are on the phone right now trying to get that Sunset Boulevard remake to finally happen.) Black Panther proved more indomitable than expected, winning in three categories (none of which we predicted), and Free Solo pulling a victory over RBG that was the first big sign of the evening that, then and now, AMPAS members vote above all else with their guts.

See below for the full list of winners from the 2019 Oscars.

Black Panther
Bohemian Rhapsody
The Favourite
Green Book (WINNER)
A Star Is Born

Spike Lee, BlacKkKlansman
Pawel Pawlikowski, Cold War
Yorgos Lanthimos, The Favourite
Alfonso Cuarón, Roma (WINNER)
Adam McKay, Vice

Christian Bale, Vice
Bradley Cooper, A Star Is Born
Willem Dafoe, At Eternity’s Gate
Rami Malek, Bohemian Rhapsody (WINNER)
Viggo Mortensen, Green Book

Yalitza Aparicio, Roma
Glenn Close, The Wife
Olivia Colman, The Favourite (WINNER)
Lady Gaga, A Star Is Born
Melissa McCarthy, Can You Ever Forgive Me?

Supporting Actor
Mahershala Ali, Green Book (WINNER)
Adam Driver, BlacKkKlansman
Sam Elliott, A Star Is Born
Richard E. Grant, Can You Ever Forgive Me?
Sam Rockwell, Vice

Supporting Actress
Amy Adams, Vice
Marina de Tavira, Roma
Regina King, If Beale Street Could Talk (WINNER)
Emma Stone, The Favourite
Rachel Weisz, The Favourite

Adapted Screenplay
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, Joel Coen and Ethan Coen
BlacKkKlansman, Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, Kevin Willmott, and Spike Lee (WINNER)
Can You Ever Forgive Me?, Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty
If Beale Street Could Talk, Barry Jenkins
A Star Is Born, Eric Roth, Bradley Cooper, and Will Fetters

Original Screenplay
The Favourite, Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara
First Reformed, Paul Schrader
Green Book, Nick Vallelonga, Brian Currie, and Peter Farrelly (WINNER)
Roma, Alfonso Cuarón
Vice, Adam McKay

Foreign Language Film
Capernaum (Lebanon)
Cold War (Poland)
Never Look Away (Germany)
Roma (Mexico) (WINNER)
Shoplifters (Japan)

Documentary Feature
Free Solo, Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi (WINNER)
Hale County This Morning, This Evening, RaMell Ross
Minding the Gap, Bing Liu
Of Fathers and Sons, Talal Derki
RBG, Betsy West and Julie Cohen

Animated Feature
Incredibles 2, Brad Bird
Isle of Dogs, Wes Anderson
Mirai, Mamoru Hosoda
Ralph Breaks the Internet, Rich Moore and Phil Johnston
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, and Rodney Rothman (WINNER)

Cold War, Lukasz Zal
The Favourite, Robbie Ryan
Never Look Away, Caleb Deschanel
Roma, Alfonso Cuarón (WINNER)
A Star Is Born, Matthew Libatique

Film Editing
BlacKkKlansman, Barry Alexander Brown
Bohemian Rhapsody, John Ottman (WINNER)
Green Book, Patrick J. Don Vito
The Favourite, Yorgos Mavropsaridis
Vice, Hank Corwin

Production Design
Black Panther, Hannah Beachler (WINNER)
First Man, Nathan Crowley and Kathy Lucas
The Favourite, Fiona Crombie and Alice Felton
Mary Poppins Returns, John Myhre and Gordon Sim
Roma, Eugenio Caballero and Bárbara Enrı́quez

Original Score
BlacKkKlansman, Terence Blanchard
Black Panther, Ludwig Goransson (WINNER)
If Beale Street Could Talk, Nicholas Britell
Isle of Dogs, Alexandre Desplat
Mary Poppins Returns, Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman

Original Song
All The Stars from Black Panther by Kendrick Lamar, SZA
I’ll Fight from RBG by Diane Warren, Jennifer Hudson
The Place Where Lost Things Go from Mary Poppins Returns by Marc Shaiman, Scott Wittman
Shallow from A Star Is Born by Lady Gaga, Mark Ronson, Anthony Rossomando, Andrew Wyatt and Benjamin Rice (WINNER)
When A Cowboy Trades His Spurs For Wings from The Ballad of Buster Scruggs by David Rawlings and Gillian Welch

Costume Design
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, Mary Zophres
Black Panther, Ruth E. Carter (WINNER)
The Favourite, Sandy Powell
Mary Poppins Returns, Sandy Powell
Mary Queen of Scots, Alexandra Byrne

Visual Effects
Avengers: Infinity War, Dan DeLeeuw, Kelly Port, Russell Earl, and Daniel Sudick
Christopher Robin, Chris Lawrence, Mike Eames, Theo Jones, and Chris Corbould
First Man, Paul Lambert, Ian Hunter, Tristan Myles, and J.D. Schwalm (WINNER)
Ready Player One, Roger Guyett, Grady Cofer, Matthew E. Butler, and David Shirk
Solo: A Star Wars Story, Rob Bredow, Patrick Tubach, Neal Scanlan, and Dominic Tuohy

Sound Mixing
Black Panther, Steve Boeddeker, Brandon Proctor, and Peter Devlin
Bohemian Rhapsody, Paul Massey, Tim Cavagin, and John Casali (WINNER)
First Man, Jon Taylor, Frank A. Montaño, Ai-Ling Lee, and Mary H. Ellis
Roma, Skip Lievsay, Craig Henighan, and José Antonio García
A Star Is Born, Tom Ozanich, Dean Zupancic, Jason Ruder, and Steve Morrow

Sound Editing
Black Panther, Benjamin A. Burtt and Steve Boeddeker
Bohemian Rhapsody, John Warhurst (WINNER)
First Man, Ai-Ling Lee and Mildred Iatrou Morgan
A Quiet Place, Ethan Van der Ryn and Erik Aadahl
Roma, Sergio Diaz and Skip Lievsay

Makeup and Hairstyling
Border, Göran Lundström and Pamela Goldammer
Mary Queen of Scots, Jenny Shircore, Marc Pilcher, and Jessica Brooks
Vice, Greg Cannom, Kate Biscoe, and Patricia Dehaney (WINNER)

Live Action Short Film
Detainment, Vincent Lambe
Fauve, Jeremy Comte
Marguerite, Marianne Farley
Mother, Rodrigo Sorogoyen
Skin, Guy Nattiv (WINNER)

Documentary Short Subject
Black Sheep, Ed Perkins
End Game, Rob Epstein, Jeffrey Friedman
Lifeboat, Skye Fitzgerald
A Night at the Garden, Marshall Curry
Period. End of Sentence., Rayka Zehtabchi (WINNER)

Animated Short
Animal Behaviour, Alison Snowden and David Fine
Bao, Domee Shi (WINNER)
Late Afternoon, Louise Bagnall
One Small Step, Andrew Chesworth and Bobby Pontillas
Weekends, Trevor Jimenez

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