Roving thoughts and provocations

Looking Harlem in the Eye

Darryl Pinckney

Van Vechten Trust/Eakins Press Foundation

Carl Van Vechten (1880-1964), enthusiast of Modernism and ally of the Harlem Renaissance, had a swell time while the Roaring Twenties lasted and his home became something of a cultural clearinghouse for black writers and artists. But his photographs of black people are perhaps his most personal work. Van Vechten’s admiration for his subjects was unambiguous and the portraits speak of his talent for friendship. They knew who he was. Even when the subject’s gaze is averted, as in Van Vechten’s 1936 portrait of Lottie Allen, described as a domestic worker, her “dates unknown,” the viewer believes that she, who appears to be in uniform, trusts the white man behind that camera.

A Flophouse Symphony

Geoffrey O’Brien

Richard Termine/BAM

Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh needs its pauses and its slowdowns and even its moments when the whole play feels like an enormously heavy contraption that has slipped off its base and is about to come crashing down. It needs the nearly five hours of stage time that it takes up in Robert Falls’s exemplary production, now playing at BAM’s Harvey Theater.

Our Wars, Our Victims

Charles Simic

Siena Cathedral

President Obama’s new request for war authorization, now pending before Congress, to fight ISIS over the next three years with further airstrikes and “limited” combat operations, despite the complete failure of all our previous attempts in Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen to do any good, may make our wars legal, but no less foolish.

Syria’s Lost Spring

Robyn Creswell

Alshaab alsori aref tarekh

What happened to the Arab Spring in Syria? Amid a wave of jihadist violence extending from Aleppo to Paris, it is sometimes hard to remember that many of the original participants aspired to something dramatically different. In their courage, humor, defiance, and occasional moments of optimism, these protesters already seem to belong to another era—before sectarian war and waves of refugees made the idea of revolution seem quaint.

The Great American Shooter

J. Hoberman

Warner Bros. Pictures

For all its patriotic rhetoric, Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper is not a moral lesson but a tragedy. The causal link Eastwood establishes between the trauma of September 11 and the catastrophe of Iraq is less the dramatization of history than an illustration of historical paralysis—elaborating the implications of an endless, unwinnable war.

Lincoln’s War of Words

Ted Widmer

Art Resource

As It is clear that writing was a form of self-therapy for Abraham Lincoln, and before he could save the nation, he needed to find the right words, to save himself. The exhibition Lincoln Speaks opens with Lincoln as a young child scrawling some mischievous doggerel: “Abraham Lincoln, his hand and pen, he will be good, but God knows when.”

The Case for Hollywood History

Francine Prose

Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Perhaps my skepticism about holding movies like Selma, The Imitation Game, and The Theory of Everythingto rigorous standards of veracity has to do with the fact that I grew up during an era in which “historical” films routinely departed so far—and often so comically—from reality.

China: Inventing a Crime

Perry Link

Elizabeth Dalziel/AP Images

After nearly eight months in detention, Chinese human rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang has been informed that formal charges are now being considered against him. The crime? “Picking fights and causing trouble” on his microblog. It may seem odd to detain someone first and then go look for the reasons for the detention, but this is a well-established pattern.

In Search of Authenticity

Tim Parks

David Levine

When an author renounces some easy twist, some expected payoff, to take us into territory we didn’t expect but that nevertheless fits with the drift of the story, then the novel gains force and conviction. And when he or she does it again, telling quite a different story that is nevertheless driven by the same urgent tensions, then we are likely moving into the zone of authenticity.