The single best piece in it, the one that glowingly deserves to be anthologized, is William Langewiesche (hello? heard of a pen-name, Bill Lang?)’s article on the Haditha massacre in November 2005. Some of you will remember the incident and its subsequent headlines: a land mine kills a 20-year-old Marine, and his fellow Marines proceed to kill 24 Iraqi men, women, and children in apparent retaliation.
Lang is a terrific writer, and in this piece he’s at the top of his form. He writes about the Marine company in the moments before the bomb blast:
Were they alert? Sure, why not, but another fact of life is that you cannot see much out of an armored Humvee, and even if you could, you have no chance of identifying the enemy until you first come under attack. You’ve got all these weapons, and you’ve been told you’re a mighty warrior, a Spartan, but what are you going to shoot – the dogs? You’re a Marine without a beach. So you sit zipped into a filthy Humvee, trusting the guys up on the guns to watch the rooftops and the traffic on the road, trusting your driver to keep his eyes on the ground ahead, holding your M16 muzzle-up between your knees, calming enduring the ride. The radio crackles. Your head bobs with the bumps. You don’t talk much. There’s not much to say. If you’re dumb you trust your luck. If you’re smart you’re fatalistic. Either way it usually works out fine.
Of course on this particular morning things did not work out fine, and Lang spends the rest of his great article thoroughly excavating why. His prose is fluid and disarmingly muscular in a way designed to circumvent dated topicality and live a long time:
The problem is what happened next, after a quick search revealed that the car [all of whose occupants were shot dead by the Marines] contained no weapons or explosives, or any other evidence that linked the men to the insurgency. The Iraqis perhaps should have been held for a while, or better yet, allowed to take their car and leave. Instead, all five of them were shot dead by the Marines. Later, the Marines reported that they killed them because they had started to run away. Even if true, by normal standards this raises the question of what threat these men could have posed when they were fleeing unarmed – or at least what threat could have justified shooting them down. But in Iraq the question was moot, and for reasons that give significance to the Haditha story beyond mere crime and punishment. The first and simplest reason is that, because of reluctance to second-guess soldiers in a fight, the rules of engagement allow for such liberal interpretations of threat that in practice they authorize the killing of even unarmed military-age men who are running away. The second reason derives from the first. it is that the killing of civilians has become so commonplace that the report of these particular ones barely roused notice as it moved up the chain of command in Iraq. War is fog, civilians die, and these fools should not have tried to escape.
Luckily, not everything in the issue is so grim as this. In a delightful piece, British historian Lady Antonia Fraser shares the diary she kept during the making of Sofia Coppola’s ‘Marie Antoinette,’ which was in part based on Fraser’s recent biography of the last queen of France. Reading the article, one wishes Evelyn Waugh were still alive: there’s a delicious novel to be written from this material: the hugely authoritative British historian’s encounter with the fizz and glimmer of Hollywood in the form of a bubblegum-popping like-whatever teen director and her equally-ditzy cast (Jason Schwartzman, with his list of questions in a notebook and his lament about all the eating he has to do in the movie – “I have to eat mounds of pheasants and things which they don’t make in tofu” – is particularly giggle-inducing). Judi Dench could play Fraser, and of course Kirsten Dunst would be Coppola’s stand-in.
Some of the author’s diary-entries made me groan, for different reasons. For instance, when she relates how Coppola asked her at one point, “Did they have something like cocaine then? What was snuff?” – and then mentions that many of these moronic outbursts happened via e-mail, I wanted to scream – not just at how stupid the questions were, but at the fact that I don’t have Fraser’s e-mail! Lady Antonia, if you’re reading this, drop me a line! Not all Americans are spoiled Hollywood royalty!
Another groaner was Fraser’s disparagement of a previous movie made from one of her books, “Mary Queen of Scots” starring Vanessa Redgrave and Glenda Jackson, which Fraser calls “remarkably dull.” She says:
“As the rival royal ladies, Elizabeth and Mary, Glenda Jackson trumpeted and Vanessa Redgrave emoted, and there was no historical reality – or any other. One felt complete indifference to the story.”
Not so! Not so, Lady Antonia! “Mary Queen of Scots” is a very good movie, and although I MIGHT agree that Redgrave’s performance is a trifle wandering, Glenda Jackson’s Elizabeth is nothing less than a cinematic triumph, in every way as brilliant and joyful as Robert Shaw’s portrayal of Henry VIII in “A Man for All Seasons.”
Ultimately, Fraser ends up liking the movie:
“Certainly the thing I had worried about didn’t matter at all. i simply forgot about the varied accents, for example: such things matter only, I suspect, in a bad or boring film.”
Speaking of bad and boring films, this issue also includes an excerpt from Gore Vidal’s upcoming memoir Point to Point Navigation about his friendship with Italian director Federico Fellini.
The piece starts off evenly, but my instincts were trembling nonetheless. Over the years, unopposed by friends and unattacked in the public fora, Vidal has slowly devolved from a witty raconteur to a cranky, self-deluded, egotistical crackpot, and I found myself wondering how long it would take for that to crop up in this piece.
One paragraph, it turns out. The second paragraph begins thus:
Over the years we saw each other from time to time, usually when he wanted something.
This is the nature of Vidal’s degeneration: he’s become in his own mind (and, since he’s a writer, in print) the Lone Voice of Reason, crying out in the wilderness. In every anecdote nowadays, he’s the one who was right all along, the one who secretly got everything done, the power behind every throne. Stories about Georgetown parties he couldn’t get into have morphed over time into stories about Georgetown parties in whose pantries he was elbow-to-elbow with a hapless JFK, doling out advice.
In this excerpt, Fellini is a hysterical, incomprehensible gnome and Vidal himself is a combination of Jeeves and James Bond:
“He rang me one day. ‘We must meet immediately.’ He came to Largo Argentina, all smiles of a guileless, child-like nature. ‘Giorino, is problem.’
‘Casanova?’ I made a guess.
‘How you know?’ Eyes wide with alarm as if I were a master of dark arts. His inability to finance a film about Casanova had been for some time on the front pages of the Italian press. I gazed thoughtfully into an imaginary crystal ball. ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘is Casanova. I need $1 million to begin. Paramount will give it on condition …’
‘That you shoot in direct sound from a script in English.’
He nearly made the sign to ward off the evil eye. ‘YOU know ALL this?’
There’s quite a bit of this, all equally nauseating (I don’t know which detail of the above exchange I like better: that the world-famous director would of course go to Vidal’s place instead of vice-versa, or the condescending, imperialist caricature of an Italian director who didn’t know what story had been ‘for some time on the front pages of the Italian press’) Even Vidal’s remaining fans (are there any, apart from the man himself?) will be hard-pressed to stomach a whole book of this self-serving tripe.
But far, far less palatable is Michael Wolff’s piece in this same issue. It’s called “Slurs and Arrows,” and its nominal subject is anti-Semitism – and how it’s in DECLINE.
Yes, you read that right. Take a moment to collect yourselves, and then we’ll move on.
Wolff touches on the primary defeat of Joe Lieberman, on Gunter Grass’ confession of his Nazi past, and of course on Mel Gibson’s Malibu meltdown. And from that starting-point he quickly goes to places that are so jaw-dropping you don’t know whether to laugh before or after you’re offended:
The point is that hate, or, rather, being hated, is good for business. one is defined by one’s enemies. Your enemies – as all fund-raiser know – are money in the bank.
We’ll never know (thankfully) the internal processes that make such an appalling sentence possible, but Wolff has more, much more, in store:
Anyway, it could mean, this love affair between the Jews and the political establishment, between the Jews and the right-wing political establishment, that, really, arguably, for the first time in history, we have entered a truly post-anti-Semitic age.
Surely, surely that sentence would rank high on two different lists: Things Surely Written by a Gentile, and Things Surely Written by an Anti-Semite.
So we’ll close out this edition of In the Penny Press on that totally surreal note, so glib and crazy that no amount of odium is too much for it: we’re finally done with anit-Semitism! Somebody email Israel and let them know that crackerjack military of theirs isn’t necessary anymore!
Geez. The things you read in magazines…