Thanks Don Winslow. (Said with the cadence of ‘Thanks Obama.’) You ruined Sicario for me. Your fantastic, devilishly researched novel The Cartel that James Ellroy called “The War and Peace of dopewar books.” Even before El Chapo escaped jail and the Mexican government scapegoated four policemen, you changed the entire way that I looked at the so-called war on drugs. To paraphrase “I’ve looked at drugs from both sides now,” and by using multiple narratives you made the case that the cartels aren’t something run by Mexican families south of Laredo, but an intricate web of government complicity on both sides of the border where our guys often choose what they consider to be the least of all evil drug lords in a policy that, like the War in Vietnam, has become a lose-lose proposition.
Don — may I call you Don? — by writing a book with multiple narratives, that gives humanity to everyone from the journalists in Juarez to the mistress of the El Chapo of your narrative to a child soldier born in the states and trained to become a sicario of soul-evaporating brutality, as well as American law enforcement, you created a rich and complex narrative. It’s a tale of one border with two very different sides that are as interrelated as brothers, codependent and estranged. Watching Sicario, the movie that stars Emily Blunt as a naive, or as Hollywood says, “idealistic” FBI agent, I kept wondering why she hadn’t read your book — or at least, given the grotesquely violent set pieces she heads into with her Kevlar vest and her eyes open, why she had so little clue about the invasive tentacled tumor that the cartels have become on both sides of the border crossings that they control to Midas-size profits.
For those who read my work, you’ll know that I’m all about the female-driven narrative, but Blunt’s wide-eyed and slightly lip-glossed agent is a false construct. To root for her, and her desire to fight crime by the books, is to sit on the side of American willful ignorance. And that’s not my preferred seat.
What I love about Sicario are the visceral set pieces. But when G-worman Blunt crosses the border in a plane with a mysterious federal agent (a charmingly no-bullshit Josh Brolin) and a twitchy overdressed Latino on special assignment from no branch of the U.S. government that has a payroll (Benicio Del Toro), I missed the complexity of The Cartel. Because his Juarez, not the Mexican drug jungle of the movie, had a culture of books and journalists and community. It was a real place raped and dismembered by the drug trade, a collusion of greed and violence and the American dream for escape through white powder.
The Juarez of Sicario is all backdrop for an American vision. Additionally, thanks to The Cartel, I know that the duality the movie sets up between the good federales and the corrupt local police is bullshit — the federal police are just playing on a different team, because there isn’t just one drug kingpin but many.
Sicario will shock, and Brolin and Del Toro give it grit, Blunt (as always) gives her best but, like Jessica Rabbit, her problem is that she was just drawn that way and can’t escape the sketch. But not only does it come in the wake of The Cartel, and not everybody is reading 600-page books however brilliant these days, but it also follows Netflix’s Narcos, the serial character study of Colombian drug king Pablo Escobar that I watched in great gulps until the final downward spiral. And, if you want to read a fantastic female-driven narrative of a legendary female drug chieftain, reach for the riveting Queen of the South by Arturo Perez-Reverte. Telemundo adapted that novel in Spanish in the wildly popular telenovela La Reina Del Sur from Telemundo.
And, Don, I don’t want to leave out the sultry but intensely lonely survivalist drug queen played by Salma Hayek in Oliver Stone’s adaptation of your novel Savages. She certainly deserves her own book — but I know you are busy, busy.
So that is my long answer as to why, while Sicario will shock some audiences (and the lovely man sitting next to me at the Toronto International Film Festival screening), it lacks authenticity. While it has the stinking dismembered bodies to give it street cred, it goes down like warm milk compared to the reality: a world where we Americans, in general, are willfully misunderstanding our co-dependent relationship with our sister to the south. As someone who grew up on the border in San Diego, and has fond memories of family visits to Tijuana and Ensenada, where life seemed so much more vibrant than the suburbs where I lived, this is a narrative I find infinitely affecting.
Like Vietnam, the War on Drugs is unwinnable — but we have to understand what its true nature is — and how many people on both sides of the border have invested their political and law enforcement careers on it. Read the headlines — and learn to read between the headlines. Follow @DonWinslow. Drug kingpin El Chapo escapes his high security prison. The Mexican government arrests four policemen who take the fall. But this is a dance and the drug cartels are paying the band with briefcases of cash. This echoes the refrain of Narcos: do you want silver or do you want lead — bribes or death. In that environment, there is no law. if you were given that choice, what would your response be? A dead with the devil or death? Think on that.
Segel’s performance as brilliant but troubled Infinite Jest novelist David Foster Wallace in James Ponsoldt’s The End of the Tour, opening July 31, could be forgotten under the thundering hooves of autumn Telluride and Toronto Oscar vehicles. Think of Chadwick Boseman’s James Brown in Get on Up, an Oscar worthy performance that opened last year on August 1 and was all-but-forgotten in last year’s competitive Best Actor race.
Appreciating the bromantic duet between Segel’s Wallace and Jesse Eisenberg’s (compelling) Rolling Stone reporter David Lipsky for a second time at the Nantucket Film Festival increased my passion for Segel’s performance. He restores Wallace not as that author you should have read (and probably didn’t) but as a brilliant writer who might not have been the most brilliant conversationalist or company.
With very little action, and articulating lines that are often intentionally inarticulate (Donald Margulies wrote the emotionally satisfying script), Segel creates a multi-layered portrait of a petty, generous, dog loving, soul searching, depression coping, American TV addict. His bandana-wearing Wallace struggles to carve out an authentic life in Bloomington, Indiana far away from the Manhattan literary buzz, which his character describes as the sound of egos rising and falling. What’s strong about the performance is that very lack of ego. It doesn’t take long before Segel loses himself in Wallace, alternately charming and antagonizing both Eisenberg’s Lipsky and the audience.
It will be an uphill battle for Segel. And one fought previously by actors who have made their reputations first as comedians: Steve Carell (Foxcatcher), Will Forte (Nebraska), Robin Williams (One Hour Photo), Bill Murray (Lost in Translation), Eddie Murphy (Dreamgirls), Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig (The Skelton Twins), Whoopi Goldberg (The Color Purple) and even Jerry Lewis (The King of Comedy). The buzz that started at Sundance continues here.
It is difficult to read Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir and not have my impressions be impacted by the huge expectations raised by the MacArthur Fellowship and the Tony for the musical adaptation, which I have yet to see. Having grown up on radical cartoonists like R. Crumb, I found Bechdel’s graphic novel oddly subdued. The images are often skim-able and rarely arresting. There is a good core narrative: Dad was a closeted perpetual renovator while the author herself comes out as a freshman in college. A natural structure, the stuff of pretty typical memoir. What slowed me down a bit was that the literary references that Bechdel uses as touchstones — F. Scott Fitzgerald, Proust, Joyce — seem musty and an ill-fit for the form (even if they may be historically true). They seem too canonical, even if I appreciate the authors themselves. Even more Nin and Collette would have been welcome, although they, too, are a little fusty, as would have been Henry Miller. What I circle back to is my desire to be deeply moved because it is memoir, and I would say that I was only mildly interested Bechdel, to her credit, is lucid and fluid but I, personally, did not see enough blood on the page. Still, it was enough to send me waddling toward “Are You My Mother?” in which she addresses the problem of many memoirists: how do you maintain a relationships with the parent whose lockbox secret you have revealed? Maybe she’ll have an answer for my own relationships with my mother and siblings.
The book is even more shocking because we are inside Cersei’s head. And her moment of self-realization is shattering. What the daring HBO series refused to do was to show the naked Cersei as anything but attractive. After all, this is Lena Headey, whose breasts may not be as high as they once were, or of equal size, but the carpet matches the drapes and her hips are thin, her rear pleasantly round. She’s naked and humiliated but she’s still hot. What added insult to injury to the Cersei of the book was the realization that she was no longer the fairest in the land. After giving birth to three children and a steady diet of red wine, she is no longer an object of desire but repulsive in her nakedness. And this is something that she discovers reflected in the squinty eyes of her subjects. She has become closer to crone than sex goddess, and she realizes that as a woman she has lost her sexual power even as her political power is in jeopardy. Remember: this is the woman who recoiled from her lover/brother Jamie because he had lost a hand and was no longer perfect. Her self-loathing at the discovery of her fallen flesh is even more damning than the repulsion she sees on the faces of her subjects.
As terrible as is Cersei’s fecal-filled walk of shame through the narrow streets, the deeper comeuppance is that of her self image: she is not longer a desirable beauty but a hag left alone with all the foul deeds she has committed — her outside now matches her inside. The horror! HBO lacked the guts to go that far. Even though the series continually pushes the envelope of what we see on screen, the image of a misshapen, possibly menopausal nude is not one they will venture to display, opting instead for the whitewash of Headey’s undeniable attractive form, even though the camera angles attempt to show her body as grotesque. With her golden cap of hair, she’s a little too St. Joan than incestuous, homicidal Queen Cersei.
I despite websites when they function as straight ahead marketing, riding on the back of poster reveals or new trailers fed to them by the studio publicity machines. It means that journalists that rely on the page view spikes become more beholden to the industry they should hold at arm’s length. Which brings me to Pan, which happens to be directed by Joe Wright, who made a movie out of Anna Karenina and arguably the best Pride and Prejudice. But, do we really need another Pan? The trailer, with a glancing look at Rooney Mara as Tiger Lily (that she is not a Native American is a rant for the more literal minded), seems to owe a debt to Terry Gilliam:
What I’d love is a Peter Pan reboot that investigates the enduring power of the Peter Pan complex by focusing on Wendy Darling, maybe with Alicia Vikander in the role (and Mads Mikkelsen as Captain Hook?). In my novel, Playdate, I wrote:
“When had it become so hard just to sit still and play? Men had Peter Pan complexes, but women had the Wendy Darlings. The Wendys wanted to fly a little and be dazzled by pixie dust, but they were consumed with relationships and caretaking and what the neighbors thought. Wendy’s lost boys were content to fly; Wendy had to civilize. She couldn’t abandon herself to wild dancing by firelight with the Indian braves; she had to funnel them all back into London middle-class respectability. Wendy was in such haste to grow up and become the mother, that central domestic figure; to children, their mother’s skirts were the world.”
I feel an essay coming on — do you have any strong feelings about Wendy? Did you pretend to be her in make-believe childhood role-playing games?