The opening scene of the newest Indiana Jones film is set in Nevada in 1957, possibly during Operation Plumbbob, an actual nuclear-test series in which the U.S. measured the response of humans and physical structures to nuclear blasts. Satellite images give a hint of what’s left: a pockmarked brown landscape of craters and broken buildings. There are smashed reinforced-concrete domes, shattered windows, as well as iron rails and bridges that the heat and explosion have twisted. It looks, I am told, like a place where Superman (or perhaps Uri Geller) had given himself over to a fit of rage.
Something tells me that today, as hundreds weep not two hundred yards from my office, is not the day to say something nice about the most reviled family in America. But when is the day? Every year, the followers of the Reverend Fred Phelps protest hundreds of funerals — mostly the funerals of soldiers — and each set of mourners deserves better that to have anti-gay fanatics waving signs denouncing them as “fags” and “fag-enablers” (a category that apparently captures everyone but the Westboro members themselves). The bereaved Russerts certainly do. I sympathize with the woman who stopped her car and asked a passerby to run over and snatch away the “Russert in Hell” sign. But if we must choose one funeral as an occasion to rectify the public’s ignorance of the Phelpses’ bizarre history, it might even seem fitting that the occasion would be the death of a man recognized as an emblem of truth-seeking and setting records straight.
Originally appeared The New York Sun.
Once, I had occasion to yell “Fire” in a crowded theater. I was on crutches at the time, and at a reception after an opening-night performance of “The Dybbuk.” While leaning against a wall and eating a smoked-salmon canapé, I felt heat on my lower back. Smelling smoke, I craned my head to see a small candle igniting my shirt, and flames licking their way up toward my collar. The reactions around me were diverse and instructive. A woman shrieked, and a man laughed. But neither did anything. I picked up my crutches, hobbled to the open bar and asked them to douse me. Incredibly, the barmaid started by daintily pressing ice cubes against the flames, until I suggested that she just drench me with the contents of her bucket.
Originally appeared in The Smart Set.
He was the patron saint of the amateur. By pretending to be George Plimpton in Mozambique, could I become him?
Is the world a stale and weary place, now that George Plimpton (1927-2003) is no longer in it? Hardly. But if it still seems fresh with possibility, Plimpton deserves his share of credit for making it so. His legacy is the magazine he edited — The Paris Review — but he is known best for his larks: quarterbacking the Detroit Lions, playing the triangle in Bernstein’s New York Philharmonic, boxing against Sugar Ray Robinson, tending goal for the Bruins, playing piano at an Apollo talent show. (He won second prize, narrowly edging out a guy who played a watering can.) He appeared in so many films that they called him “the Prince of Cameos.” In a way, the denial phase in grieving Plimpton’s death is prolonged by the suspicion that he’s secretly just on temporary assignment in the afterlife, having secured unprecedented permission to harvest souls for a few years as an understudy to the Grim Reaper. But even assuming that his passing is permanent, his example is sweet consolation, for it suggests that the universe — being merciful — has a place for incorrigible dilettantes.
In the UK, during the early days of the fatwa against Salman Rushdie, a similarly buffoonish quasi-governmental body moved to stop the film International Gorillay from being released in Britain. A hit in Pakistan, the movie portrayed Rushdie as a whiskey-soaked Jewish lothario who intended to subvert Islam by running a network of discos and casinos. Rushdie himself intervened to lift the ban, saying the offense was real, but not worth the practical or moral harm done by banning what amounted to just an exceptionally dumb movie — even if it was a movie that encouraged his own murder. British audiences watched the film, and thanks to YouTube, you can too.