Commentary: Admired Work

Admired Work

Tony

I was still on the sofa at four in the afternoon, still half-dressed, when I decided that my life could not be complete if I did not somehow become friends with Anthony Bourdain. My son, then a young teenager, also in his underwear, was as inert and transfixed as I was. We were both locked into the ninth or tenth consecutive hour of a Labor Day weekend marathon of Bourdain’s cultural-journey-through-food breakthrough show, “No Reservations.” I remember the exact moment, the exact image: The long, lanky, exquisitely sad-faced visage of a road-worn Bourdain sitting on broken pavement in a South American alley – Buenos Aires or maybe Montevideo, there is no way to be sure when twenty episodes are consumed at once — his back to a stone wall, arms crossed above his knees, watching children play at rag-tag soccer with a deflated ball. And with the older men, he is sharing Siete y Tres, the backstreet concoction of cheap red wine and Coca-Cola. And all this imagery with his narration...

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Admired Work

Bourdain

I am trying to find words for my friend. I will post something here later if they ever come. For now, just know how much Tony Bourdain — for all his wit and sharp edges, for all his grandiose and larger-than-life persona — was a genuinely good man and careful colleague. And that doesn’t begin to express how empty the world feels this morning.   *** Also, I have been banned from Twitter, and as I am at this moment indifferent to removing the tweets they insist are violative of their rules, it is unclear when I will return to that framework.  So I’m hoping that if I post anything remotely meaningful about Tony, others will do me the favor of linking it beyond this digital cul de sac. Suffice to say that while you can arrive on Twitter and disseminate the untethered and anti-human opinion that mothers who have their children kidnapped and held incommunicado from them at the American border are criminals — and both mother and child deserve that fate...

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Admired Work

Maybe, He Thought, He’d Wind Up At Entebbe

Forty years ago this week, my father was taken hostage when the Hanafi Muslims, a breakaway sect from the Nation of Islam, took over the District Building, the Islamic Center and the B’nai B’rith headquarters in Washington D.C. As the 56-year-old public relations director for B’nai B’rith, a Jewish service organization, my father was selected by the Hanafi sect’s leader as one of eight older men who would be the first killed if police stormed the building. A young radio reporter was killed at the District Building and a D.C. protective services officer fatally wounded. There were others harmed as well, largely in the initial moments of the siege. Eventually, through the brave intercession of the ambassadors from Egypt, Pakistan and Iran who negotiated by citing the Koran to the Hanafis, all of the hostages were released. My father emerged from his offices and embraced his family after 38 hours, his shirt streaked with the blood of a younger worker who had...

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Admired Work

Remarks on John Waters receiving the 2017 WGA Ian McLellan Hunter Award for Career Achievement

I had the distinct honor of being asked to give my union’s award for lifetime achievement to fellow Baltimorean and film legend John Waters.  These were my remarks, or those that were in the teleprompter, anyway. I may have veered at points: John Waters, who began an improbable career of deep cultural relevance with the equally improbable notion that people from Baltimore should be allowed to put stories on film, is perhaps one of the most influential voices we have. He is laughing at this. I know he is. I am going to look over there to where he is sitting now and see that he is laughing — yes, there he is — laughing at what I just claimed for him. I know that he is laughing because John is perhaps the great modern master of self-effacement and self-mockery. He has gone to lengths to characterize his entire career as a storyteller and filmmaker in terms that purport to show him standing on the outside of the joke, looking in: “Pink Flamingos,” he writes...

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Admired Work

The Book that Changed Me

I was asked by the BBC to write and read an essay about a book that changed me — a request that offered an opportunity to bring more readers to one of the more epic and honorable acts of American journalism. Acquiring “Famous Men” was seminal for me as a twentysomething reporter, and provided both tactical and ethical ballast for the journeys in narrative non-fiction I would soon undertake in a homicide unit and on a drug corner. Have a listen and maybe pick up a copy of Agee & Walker’s masterpiece: BBC Radio 3 | The Essay | The Book that Changed Me David Simon describes how “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men” by James Agee and Walker Evans changed his work as a journalist. The celebrated work capturing the lives of ordinary people during The Depression made him realise the importance of sharing “the simple, raw vulnerability” of lived experience. “Page after page was fully ripe with the delicate work of a thinking journalist who...

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Admired Work Film and Television

What’s My Line?

I wrote this up some months ago, at the time that the “Show Me A Hero” miniseries was broadcast on HBO, but then held the essay back for the simple reason that viewers were still acquiring the narrative. After all, nothing is more distracting to the viewing of any edifice than to stumble through a side door and be confronted by all the interior scaffolding, if not evidence of an architect’s early mistakes and lesser intentions. But as the miniseries has now been airing for six months — and as the DVD release of “Show Me A Hero” is slated for tomorrow — I’m guessing that any little extra attention to detail can only be a good thing. And, oh yeah, SPOILERS: *            *            * Most of the time, writing for film or television – if the writer retains a producer’s title on the set – is a straight, simple negotiation: Here’s the page. Say the lines. Yes, like you mean them, as a good actor would. You’re a good actor, right? Of course...

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Admired Work Film and Television Music

Allen Toussaint (1938-2015)

I woke this empty morning to the sudden departure of a great and good man. There will be many better, more comprehensive tributes today from musicians, music lovers and New Orleanians who knew him well, so don’t stop here without going further to celebrate Allen Toussaint’s life.  I met him on only a handful occasions and then only in a professional setting; others can attest to so much more. But there are a couple of warm anecdotes that I treasure and that ought to be added to the day’s reflections on a gentle, giving soul and one of the finest composers who ever created American music. I had a few rare opportunities to share time and space with Mr. Toussaint during our four seasons of filming “Treme” in New Orleans, on those occasions when he allowed us to portray his person and his music as part of our fictional, post-Katrina narrative. Among other things, “Treme” was our attempt to depict the New Orleans music community as organically as...

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Admired Work Writing

Probably smarter, possibly funnier.

A letter to the editor that ran in The Washington Post Magazine last Sunday in reply to a profile of me that said I resembled Homer Simpson’s smarter brother:   The Washington Post Magazine Letters to the editor David Simon’s older brother takes umbrage at a description in our story: I read with great interest your piece about David Simon, my little brother. I am 14 years older than David, and I am intensely proud of him. However, I must take great umbrage at the statement that “Simon … looks from some angles like Homer Simpson’s much smarter brother.”  First the implication is that I am Homer Simpson and second, that David is smarter than me. You will be hearing from my attorneys. Gary L. Simon, medical professor, GWU   In a Jewish family, the doctor is always the smarter child.  The TV writer is supposed to advance the funny.  And presently, I find myself routed on both flanks at once.

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Admired Work Writing

A Maryland Film Festival panel slated

In the wake of last Monday’s unrest, Jed Deitz, who has nurtured the Baltimore-based festival since its inception, called to ask if I knew of anyone or anything that might be added to the event’s lineup that might address some of what has happened here. Centered in midtown Baltimore not far from the epicenter of both the mass civil disobedience that has so energized the city, as well as the site of Monday’s unrest, the festival is opening only days after authorities lifted a curfew and, perhaps, with many Marylanders and out-of-towners hesitant about attending the event. I didn’t have much to offer in the way of screenings.  Episodes of “Show Me A Hero,” an HBO miniseries slated for August, are not yet in final cut.  And, too, that miniseries, while it addresses class and racial segregation in our society, is more about our calcified political processes than directly relevant to the core grievances underlying current events. But a second miniseries...

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Admired Work Parenthood

Ladies and gentlemen, The Intrinsics: A parental kvell

The young man with the knowing smile above — and trust me, he already knows much more than me about a growing pile of stuff  — is my son, Ethan. He plays piano and keyboards. His professional debut was at Sidney’s Lounge on St. Bernard Avenue in New Orleans, where the estimable Kermit Ruffins, tending bar that night, made him sit and play four songs on the battered upright. He nervously gave up two Fess standards and some Fats Domino. He was fourteen. Somewhere on the internet, if you google Ethan Simon, you’ll find an audition video of him playing bop for admission to an summer jazz camp. He goes to work on Kern’s “All The Things You Are” and Charlie Parker’s “Now Is The Time.” He was seventeen then. He’s now just shy of his twenty-first birthday, and his band, The Intrinsics, of Cambridge, Mass. and whatever parts of greater Boston require the services of a Memphis-style soul outfit, has just dropped its first...

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Admired Work Journalism Memoriam Parenthood

Ted Lippman (1929-2014)

It’s hard to scale the heights of requiem without stumbling into a deep ravine of sentiment and cliche, and I know some will measure what follows against the known place of the old Baltimore Sun in the pantheon of American newspapering. No, we were not a Washington Post of the last late century, with Bradlee’s feet on the desk and Watergate dueling scars adorning a set jawline, or a New York Times for the Middle Atlantic, our paper-of-record certitude enshrining our every effort. We certainly weren’t some rough-and-tumble tabloid squealing about headless bodies in topless bars, or even a Chicago broadsheet or Hearst rag for which Hildy Johnsons might labor with gin on their breath and cigarette burns between their typing fingers. We were pretty staid. Too staid, perhaps, and a little too proud of a noble, grey history. We were often accused by our younger sibling, the Evening Sun, of pretense and pomposity. H. L. Mencken, who we vaguely claimed but who had in fact...

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Admired Work

Robin Williams: A brief encounter

This is a grievous thing to say aloud, much less think, but I wish that the suicide of Robin Williams made less sense to me than it somehow does. I say that with very little real knowledge of the man, his inner being, or the whole of his life. I encountered him only once, twenty years ago, but the memory is distinct. I found Mr. Williams good-hearted, hilarious, talented, and remarkably, indescribably sad. We were in the Maryland morgue on the given day, though the location had little to do with the sadness. Mr. Williams was guesting on an episode of NBC’s Homicide: Life on the Street I had cowritten with my college-newspaper comrade, David Mills. It was the first attempt at a television script for either of us, and until Mr. Williams had agreed to sign on as a guest star, our effort had seemed something of a miserable failure. For one thing, we had originally written the episode for season one of the network drama.  But NBC execs, reading a narrative in which a mother of two is...

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Admired Work

And now my emphasis added. (Emphasis mine.)

Maybe it’s because I’ve just journeyed through the funhouse of Brietbart.com where suggesting that the Constitution and the original intent of its authors might not always yield moral perfection is quickly labeled a trashing of the document and all that is American, but I’m beginning to look upon the internet as a place where  any thought so conceived as even a paragraph can not long endure.  It certainly can’t be tweeted. I awoke this morning and chased the coffee with this: David Simon, the creator of The Wire and the author of two of the best pieces of book-length journalism ever written (Homicide and The Corner), really liked 12 Years a Slave. I mean, he really liked it. He liked it so much, in fact, that he thinks it’s literally beyond criticism. Wrote Simon:  [O]nly two kinds of folk will emerge from theaters [after seeing 12 Years a Slave]. The first will be at last awakened to the actual and grevious horror in which the black experience in America...

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Admired Work Film and Television

Slavery, a film narrative and the empty myth of original intent.

  I’m fresh out of a theater in Santa Monica, California where I’ve watched 12 Years A Slave for the second time, having seen it several days ago on a laptop screen through a dedicated download.  I’ll be honest.  I wanted to write something after absorbing the narrative and the imagery the first time, but I was so wrought that I didn’t trust myself. Had a film with American participation actually addressed the original sin of our nationhood so bluntly, so honestly?  Was the film really as careful and delicate and dispassionate with the historical reality?  Was the restraint that i felt in the telling really there, or had the punches been carefully loaded as Hollywood is so apt to do? On first viewing, I was simply startled by how genuinely fair the storytelling had been with the subject matter.  Sadism and soullessness was balanced by moments of regret and conscience on the part of white characters.  Accomodation and supplication on the part of Southern...

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Admired Work Memoriam

Elmore Leonard (1925-2013)

A master departs. It isn’t that he merely took a blowtorch to all the affectations and pretenses of genre fiction.  No, he made the lines between genre and literary fiction ridiculous and arbitrary for all time.  Fuck your categorizations:  This guy did some of the best writing in the last half of the Twentieth Century.  He leaves behind narratives that make us think harder about the human condition, not to mention all of our presumptions about how our society actually functions — or doesn’t. I met him once.  I was a newspaper reporter, and so proud of that simple fact that I never wanted to ever be seen “going civilian,” fawning on celebrities or artists or political leaders or whoever.  Good journalists, Mencken said, can write about cats and kings.  The day’s assignment  — and the personages you encounter — shall not adulterate the requisite mixture of detached interest and dry, professional disdain.  Observe everything, admire...

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Admired Work Introductions/Liner Notes

Liner notes essay – Steve Earle’s new boxed set

I had the distinct honor of being asked to write an essay for the recent release of Steve Earle’s extraordinary post-1995 songbook, when he came roaring back from addiction and a brief incarceration to reassert himself as one of our most relevant songwriters.  Yes, Steve is at this point a friend and colleague, having worked with us on “The Wire” and “Treme” both.  But I’d’ve written what follows if I had only the music itself on which to rely.  For those who have not yet savored Mr. Earle and his work, the new boxed set, “Steve Earle: The Warner Brothers Years,” which includes audio and video live performances from that period as well as three essential studio recordings, is a perfect entry point into what has become an extraordinary canon of American roots music. *        *        * I am generally down on the idea of heroes.  We have enough of them in American culture, certainly, yet we are always in the process of tearing some...

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