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, we offer up thoughts on cults, Keanu, Conan, Caro, and covering Prince.
Alex Pappademas on the legend of Keanu Reeves.
Reeves, whose John Wick 3 is out in a few weeks, presents an interesting conundrum for the profile writer: everyone loves him, everyone knows who he is, but no one really seems to know him. How does one become a worldwide movie star and remain an enigma? To answer that question, GQ‘s Pappademas asks it through the lens of a photo, from the Wick shoot, of Reeves on horseback:
“Somebody took that picture while we were shooting in Brooklyn and released it,” [director Chad] Stahelski says. “I thought it was cool. Keanu thought it was cool. I don’t think the studio thought it was cool. I’m a big Sergio Leone fan, so no matter what, I was putting Keanu on a horse in this movie. If you’ve got an actor who can ride horses, ride motorcycles, do fight scenes, why not? I made a list of every skill Keanu has—we sat down and I said, Give me everything you can do really well. And we put all that in the movies. Drive a car, check the box. Ride a horse, check the box. Nobody wanted the horses. I had to fight for that one. People thought it was too weird.”
Horseback Keanu became a meme, one of many Keanu’s image has inspired. Sad Keanu, Conspiracy Keanu—Reeves’s Internet avatars, who go out and play on social media while the real Reeves sits at home with a book or something. He regards his own meme-ification from a disinterested distance. Actually participating further in the process is not for him, but he’s also not judging anybody who does play along. “People doing dances, people doing mannequin stuff or whatever—those people, they look like they’re having fun and doing some cool shit,” he says politely. To actively seek further meme-ification—hey, it’s Sadder Keanu—wouldn’t feel like a creative act, he doesn’t think.
Which of course makes him a perfect meme subject: He will never upset the precise balance of affection and irony critical to the life of a meme by announcing himself as being in on the joke, like Richard Marx or the official Twitter presence of Steak-ummm brand sandwiches.
Molly Dektar on cults that aren’t “cults.”
Dektar’s debut novel, The Ash Family, is set in an off-the-grid community with certain undeniably cult-like characteristics. In a fascinating background essay at LitHub, Dektar explores not only her own time in a literal cult, but in a figurative one – a friendship in which she was exploited and emotional abused in similar ways – to explain how “cult logic” can extend to more innocuous areas of our lives.
It had been so beautiful at the start, indubitably so, to live in a profoundly intense partnership with someone—I was always on call for him, I did his schoolwork, I patched things over with people he’d hurt, I ran his errands and, at the end of the year, while he lay on the bed, I packed up his dorm room for him. The friend would tell me things like, for example, that he was the only person left who would be nice to me, because I was a tiresome, demanding person who had worn out all the patience of our friends. And I found this motivating! It took years for me to understand how much of myself I’d given away to try to please someone who was fundamentally exploitative. If you’ve ever wept while reading Google results on narcissism, you know the feeling.
Cults take a certain kind of human interaction to the extreme, but any person can be brought into a cult. At times, we all need to persuade others to agree with us; we all need to encourage cooperation and unity. Defining a group as a cult is not black or white—it’s a family resemblance. In her classic 1995 book on cults, psychologist Margaret Thaler Singer writes, “What is labeled a cult by one research may not be identified as such by another . . . cults are not uniform nor are they static.” The key element is an autocratic, extractive leader, but many political movements and businesses and activist groups have those, too. The family resemblance can be found in co-ops, in start-ups, in political followings, even in friendships.
John Koblin on Conan O’Brien and Robert Caro.
Conan O’Brien is, in his own words, “a fan to a disturbing level” of Robert Caro, the historian and author of The Power Broker and the sprawling, still-in-progress, multi-part biography of Lyndon Johnson. This week, the late-night host finally saw the culmination of a dream: he got to interview Mr. Caro, at an intimate event to promote his new book, Working. The New York Times‘ Koblin was there:
Mr. O’Brien and Mr. Caro dug into Lyndon Johnson’s life. His father. His mistress. His ambition. They also talked at length about Mr. Caro’s writing process. As the discussion went on, Mr. O’Brien found himself far from the talk show format. Mr. Caro spoke the way he writes, answering questions in shapely monologues that lasted five or six minutes.
An hour in, Mr. O’Brien asked the author how he felt about the Horace Mann School, his high school alma mater in the Bronx, having named a prize after him.
“No one has ever asked me that,” Mr. Caro said.
“I’ve been waiting a long time,” Mr. O’Brien replied.
The host then asked Mr. Caro if he agreed with Ernest Hemingway’s comment that a writer should not “exhaust the fuel tank in one writing session,” so that it’s easier to start again the next day.
“Yes, and you’re the first person that ever mentioned that,” Mr. Caro said, before noting that he had written his thesis at Princeton on Mr. Hemingway.
“Why am I in comedy?” Mr. O’Brien said.
Kevin Sampsell on the Prince-less Revolution.
The Revolution was arguably Prince’s finest backing band, playing with the funk icon on the breathtaking four-album mid-’80s run of 1999, Purple Rain, Around the World in a Day, and Parade. After his death, they reunited, playing what amount to tribute gigs in mid-size halls and clubs. At Longreads, Sampsell writes about attending one of those shows in Portland, with an ex-girlfriend who shared his love for the Purple One:
I had hoped to hear some between-song anecdotes or stories about Prince during the show. I had envisioned something more like a memorial in a way — something more cathartic and raw — but each concert the band plays probably makes it easier to not dwell on the sadness of his absence and to just deliver a badass funk party. While writing this essay, I watched hours of interviews with the band, as well as other performances. One video of them performing in Minneapolis just months after Prince’s death shows just how intensely emotional their first reunion shows must have been. In it, Wendy struggles to sing the beautiful ballad, “Sometimes It Snows In April.” It’s hard to watch and not cry when Wendy sings the last lines: “Sometimes I wish that life was never ending/ But all good things, they say, never last/ And love, it isn’t love until it’s past.”
At the end of the set in Portland, over two years after his death, there is still plenty of melancholy and feelings of loss from Prince’s departure. The Revolution start playing those familiar opening chords of “Purple Rain.” It’s one of his songs that I’ve heard thousands of times and, frankly, I don’t care if I don’t hear it again for a long time. But the band plays it with the perfect blend of strength and vulnerability, and the sentiment of the words hits hard. It could almost be an apology letter to the band he disbanded at the height of their power. Wendy sings, “I never meant to cause you any sorrow/ I never meant to cause you any pain.” I see a couple near the stage, holding each other, almost slow dancing. They seem so deeply connected, and they’re crying, like the song is part of their life story. They look like normal, ordinary people that I see every day out in the world — at a grocery store or on the bus. But in this setting, with the music in the air and the room riveted to every note, they glow, and look enchanted. I remember dancing with Angie to this song way back when, but it probably wasn’t as important to us as it is for this couple. We were just kids, after all.