Recommended Reading: Jenny Lewis, Pauline Kael, and ‘Thick’

The sharpest, funniest, and most thoughtful writing of the week.

Modern online media is all about the signal boost, so every Friday here at Flavorwire, we take a moment to spotlight some of the best stuff we’ve read online this week. Today, profiles of a forceful writer and a music icon, a look at the feud between a legendary critic and a movie star, and a takedown of the most powerful man in the Senate (and, perhaps, the country).

Keith Phipps on Pauline Kael and Dirty Harry.

Kael, the late New Yorker film critic (and one of the most influential culture writers of all time) was, in spite of popular perception, no snob; she wrote, elegantly and at great length, about the pleasures of “trash,” and would not suffer the pretensions of self-important filmmakers gladly. But she saw red when it came to the Dirty Harry movies, and their star Clint Eastwood. At Musings, Phipps examines Kael’s reactions to those five films, and Eastwood’s reactions to those reactions:

Under the headline “Saint Cop,” Kael attempted something between an analysis and a dismantling of the film. After some memories of growing up in San Francisco and being told to avoid the police, she states, “Dirty Harry is not about the actual San Francisco police force; it’s about a right-wing fantasy of that police force as a group helplessly emasculated by unrealistic liberals.” That’s just a build-up to a review that largely pushes the film’s aesthetic qualities to the side to attack what she perceived to be its one-sided morality. Kael took particular objection to the stacked deck narrative of a script (credited to the husband and wife team of Harry Frink and R.M. Frink and Dean Reisner, though John Milius, Terrence Malick, and others also took uncredited passes) that ignores the complicated causes of criminality in favor of a simplistic clash between good and evil that blames irresponsible bleeding heart liberals with their Miranda rights and concerns about unchecked police brutality getting in the way of justice.

In some respects, she’s not wrong. That is the story of Dirty Harry, at least on the surface. It’s the easiest way to read the film and, undoubtedly, the preferred reading of many of its fans. It’s the fantasy of a handsome, straight white guy trying to bring law and order to a city increasingly filled with people who don’t look like him or share his beliefs or sexual preferences. What’s more, the film’s almost laughable in the way it tries to anticipate and deflate concerns about that fantasy. Harry has a Latino partner and, after taking down an African-American bank robber* in the film’s famous “Do you feel lucky?” scene, he’s immediately shown getting stitched up by an African-American doctor established as an old family friend.

But to be fully on Kael’s side requires focusing on the surface while ignoring what the film is up to elsewhere, and the ways it questions and undermines its central fantasy. Both Siegel and Eastwood are fully aware of the star’s iconic power and frequently use it to morally ambiguous effect. Rewind again to that “Do you feel lucky scene?” It appears just over 10 minutes into the movie, after the dedication to the SFPD officers slain in the line of duty and after the film has introduced the two men who will drive it. We first meet Scorpio (played as a psychopath in hippie garb by Andrew Robinson) targeting and killing a rooftop swimmer using a sniper rifle, establishing San Francisco in the opening moments as a place where evil can strike anywhere and take out anyone. We then see Harry visiting the scene of the crime and looking up to where the shot must have originated. The film has a hero and a villain, but the moments leading up to the film’s most famous line reveals the set-up to be a little more more complicated.

Jenn Pelly profiles Jenny Lewis.

There’s so much to love about Pelly’s in-depth portrait of the iconic Ms. Lewis, from her influences to her process to the testimonials from the women in rock she inspired, but this reader most enjoyed the dive in to her Hollywood-kid past, including this eye-opening anecdote:

Lewis’ mother typically attracted fascinating characters to the house—like the producers of the TV special “Circus of the Stars,” who trained Lewis in trapeze; or “Fantasy Island” star Hervé Villechaize, who came over for a scammy “Pyramid Party”; or The Exorcist writer William Peter Blatty. One year on Halloween, at the recommendation of the family’s illusionist friend—who, according to Leslie, levitated Jenny in their house—her mother invited over Ghostbusters star Dan Aykroyd’s brother Peter, who was himself a real-life ghost buster. Peter planned to “check out the levels” of the house.

Intrigued by the Lewis’ paranormal investigation, the local news showed up. Back then, Lewis was hanging out with fellow child actors Sarah Gilbert, Toby Maguire, and Leonardo DiCaprio—who also came through to scope things out. Recalling the ghost-busting scene, Lewis says, “They came over and set up their vague, infrared equipment and they captured some sort of reading coming down the hallway and going into my childhood bedroom.”

I ask Lewis if the ghostbusters’ findings felt accurate. “Well, totally,” she says. “Something was going on. We always had weird vibes in the house. Very dark vibes.”

Roxane Gay interviews Dr. Tressie McMillan Cottom.

Cultural critic and Virginia Commonwealth University professor Tressie McMillan Cottom’s latest book, the essay collection Thick, examines the various (usually insulting) ways in which American culture treats black women. In a wide-ranging and incisive talk for Guernica, one of our other sharpest cultural critics, Roxane Gay, talks with Dr. McMillan Cottom about what drives her, as a writer and a thinker:

Guernica: How do you define your life’s work right now?

McMillan Cottom: I want to raise some really good hell for people who cannot—who are just so beaten down themselves that they can’t raise it for themselves. And I want to do it in a way that they—they being the Other, whoever is benefitting from the system, reproducing it, which is generally white people, but you know, could be some other people, white-adjacent people—I want to do it in a way that makes it as difficult as possible for them to dismiss me. I’m starting to get to the point where my legitimacy is about what I can do for other people. I want to be able to show up and raise the hell at the precise right moment that might tip the scales in a way that will make something a little more clear, or a little bit more just, for people I care about. I want to ask and explore questions in a way that either other people can’t do, because of my training and social location, or that they would never do, because of who they are…

Guernica: One of the things I noticed in all of these essays in Thick is that you take blackness, and black women in particular, very seriously, which is not something we see a lot of in academic writing—or in, essentially, any writing. How did you learn to take yourself seriously?

McMillan Cottom: Damn. That’s a good question. It is probably extremely revealing to try to answer, because I don’t know that anybody has ever modeled taking myself seriously for me. I suspect that’s true for a lot of black women. I don’t know how I did it. I think the moment I learned it was probably trauma-induced. I write a little bit about this, my major life trauma, in Thick, which I had never planned on doing, ever. But I think when you come out on the other side of trauma, one of two things can happen: You can be more of who you were before it happened, sometimes in the worst ways. You can double down on your fears and anxieties. Or you can come out different, and you’re never that same person. That’s what happened to me. For the first time, I was asking questions of myself rather than responding to how people wanted me to behave. For the first time, I was making affirmative decisions about what I wanted. In a real way, the trauma wiped the slate clean for me mentally. And that’s when I started the process of teaching myself to take myself seriously. By extension, I could start to take other black women seriously.

Alex Pareene on Mitch McConnell.

When you’re handed a comically obvious cartoon villain like Donald Trump, it’s very easy to pin all the world’s woes there. But in a meticulous, scathing analysis for The New Republic, Pareene redirects some of that rage to Senate Majority Leader McConnell, who has lifted not a finger to stop the torching of norms and the hobbling of a democracy, often for no better reason that because he can:

When Homans asked McConnell if he ever worries that he’s “strengthening the hand of a president who does seem, in some ways, very much inclined to do damage to institutions of American governance,” McConnell ducked responsibility for oversight by turning it over to the American people:

“Well, I mean, the ultimate check against any of this is the ballot box,” McConnell replied. “And one could argue, at least with regard to the House of Representatives last year, that there were plenty of people who wanted a midcourse correction.”

McConnell said those words as the majority leader of a deeply and intentionally undemocratic institution that exists to dilute the political power of citizens in larger and more diverse states. He said them about a president who was elected despite receiving fewer votes than his opponent, thanks to the counter-majoritarian workings of another antiquated and intentionally undemocratic institution that he, obviously, would fight any effort to reform. And, of course, he says this as a man whose political project is increasingly about reducing the power of the ballot box as much as possible—a man who breaks any and all decorous governing traditions in his path in order to confirm judges who strike down voting rights laws, and who, during government shutdowns that he has the power to end, sits down to write op-eds bemoaning attempts to make Election Day a holiday.

McConnell has built a GOP machine that is as immune as it can be to the ballot box, because he is smart enough to know that Republicans cannot, as currently constituted, win fair elections often enough to retain power.