Creative Sensemaker: What to read, watch and listen to this weekend
A rundown of the books, films, music and more by Tortoise Media, the slow news agency
By Matt d’Ancona
Welcome to the latest Creative Sensemaker from Tortoise Media.
If, on 27 March, Paul Thomas Anderson does not hold aloft the Best Picture Oscar for Licorice Pizza (general release) at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood, a grave injustice will have occurred. Nominated eight times and never victorious, the acclaimed director deserves the Academy’s highest honours for this exhilarating comic masterpiece.
Taking its name from a 1970s record store chain in Southern California, Licorice Pizza is set in the San Fernando Valley, where Anderson grew up.
Based loosely on the experiences of Gary Goetzman as a teen actor and entrepreneur, the movie plots the stop-go romance and business partnership between Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman – son of the late Philip Seymour Hoffman) and Alana Kane (Alana Haim) against the backdrop of early 1970s Los Angeles.
When the two meet, in 1973, Gary is a 15-year-old high-school student, and Alana a photographer’s assistant, 10 years his senior. He announces immediately that he is going to marry her, and for all his callow missteps and braggadocio, she cannot help but be drawn in by his swagger and sense of fun.
Both Hoffman and Haim deliver stunning debut performances, establishing themselves as Gen Z’s Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn; or perhaps Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell. It is not hard to imagine them appearing in a string of films together, firing on all cylinders with razor-sharp dialogue – though that old Hollywood casting technique has long fallen out of fashion.
The charm, wit and technicolour palette of Licorice Pizza have tempted some to categorise it as a joyful but essentially slight movie. But this is to confuse lightness of touch with absence of substance: Licorice Pizza, for all the laughs it delivers, is a deep, searching and memorable movie.
Like most of the director’s films, it is profoundly concerned with the experience of youth and its lifelong consequences. The stakes in Gary’s quest for Alana’s love are no less high than in Mark Wahlberg’s longing for a true home in Boogie Nights, or in Joaquin Phoenix’s neurotic relationship with cult leader Philip Seymour Hoffman in The Master.
The movie’s recreation of the 1970s is as pitch-perfect as we have come to expect of Anderson in his evocation of past eras, paying homage to the gaudiness, camp chic, and exuberant music of the decade. But over the movie’s blissed-out aesthetic loom the dark clouds of the fuel crisis, the Vietnam war, and ingrained bigotry.
Licorice Pizza shows that, for all of Anderson’s movie-making wiles and technical brilliance, he is an impassioned time traveller who loves to inhabit and recreate, in glorious detail, the ever-changing worlds of the great American story.
The nominations for the 94th Academy Awards are announced on 8 February. Let justice be done.
Here are this week’s recommendations.
Andy Warhol’s America (BBC Two, 6 January; then iPlayer)
This absorbing three-part documentary series, produced and directed by Francis Whately, approaches the life and work of the great artist with originality, as a prism through which 20th-century America may be understood.
Decades before reality television, social media and the rise of the influencer, Warhol had grasped that a person could be a brand; his own myth burnished by the counter-cultural court he established at the Factory, and (to an increasing extent) funded by a ruthless pursuit of commissions from plutocrats and corporations. ‘Buying’ he observed ‘is more American than thinking.’
Jerry Hall, who is interviewed in the series, is surely right that if civilisation were destroyed except for Warhol’s work, the survivors could deduce most of what was important about the America in which he lived from the extraordinary art that is his legacy.
To Paradise by Hanya Yanagihara
In its sheer scale, subtle interconnections and soaring consideration of American life, Hanya Yanagihara’s remarkable new novel calls to mind, say, Saul Bellow’s The Adventures Of Augie March or Don DeLillo’s Underworld. To Paradise is a more complex novel than its predecessor, A Little Life, which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2015.
In three distinct sections, it tells a trio of stories: the first set in an alternate version of New York in 1893, where same-sex love is apparently permitted; Manhattan in 1993, against the backdrop of the AIDS epidemic; and an imagined totalitarian future in 2093, where pandemics have nurtured totalitarianism and a desperate decline in what it means to be a human being.
The three parts of the triptych are woven together by location (the same townhouse in Washington Square Park) and names (there is a different Charles Griffiths in each section). The themes – identity, disease, love, family, nationhood – are huge, and, weighing in at more than 700 pages, the book offers no apology for the demands it makes upon the reader. But the journey is deeply rewarding, and confirms Yanagihara’s status as one of the great writers of our times.
No Veteran Dies Alone by Sinéad O’Connor (expected 7 January)
How characteristic of Sinéad O’Connor that even the release date of this, supposedly her final album, should be something of an enigma. Eight years have passed since the excellent I’m Not Bossy, I’m The Boss – during which time she has published her memoirs, Rememberings: Scenes From My Complicated Life, and collaborated with Kathryn Ferguson in the documentary Nothing Compares, which receives its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival later this month. In June, O’Connor announced that ‘in consultation with my medical team, and on their advice, [I have] decided to go ahead and retire so that I may now focus on my new career as a writer.’ No Veteran Dies Alone may, then, be the swansong of an elusive, sometimes perplexing but always compelling musical artist: and, as such, a milestone in the history of pop.
That’s all for now. Have a very happy new year.
Editor and Partner