Culture Essentials for November


This month will mark a year since the conclusion of the 2016 presidential race. The past 12 months have made certain realities undeniable. White supremacy is alive and well. Women, nearly universally, still experience sexual harassment and discrimination at work and beyond. Many of our fellow citizens with money and influence don’t see basic health care and a quality education as a human right and the mark of a civil society. These themes are bubbling up in movies, novels and television this month–The Handmaid’s Tale was just the beginning. It’s worth remembering that it takes a lot longer than a year to bring a novel or a movie to the public, so while the current administration may be highlighting many of the deep rifts in American culture, they predated the oranging of the White House. Read on for what to watch, read and go see this month, and take heart, it’s not all grim.

10. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, Nov. 10

A word of warning, Frances McDormand swears A LOT in the trailer for this movie. And with good reason. She plays a mother frustrated by the local police department’s response to her daughter’s murder. So, she pays to have three billboards erected outside her small town, asking the local sheriff, played by Woody Harrelson in a role that looks like the incurious, good-old-boy his True Detective character would have become had he never met Rust Cole, why he isn’t doing more to solve the murder. She’s not playing cute angry–she’s not Norma Rae (all respect to Sally Field’s pit stains), she’s not Erin Brockovich, she is bereft, she is broken and it is hard and ugly and unyielding and she will probably win an Oscar for it.

9. Prairie Fires: The Life and Times of Laura Ingalls Wilder, Caroline Fraser, Nov. 14

Between the ages of eight and 12, I read and re-read the Little House on the Prairie series at least 10 times (for some reason I particularly liked The Long Winter despite its unending drudgery). Probably no single other pop culture source is more responsible for the way we understand pioneer life than Wilder, who dramatically edited and shaped her difficult life into a story of the American spirit of adventure and independence. Caroline Fraser is the editor of the Library of America editions of the Little House books and she has written the first comprehensive biography of Wilder, drawing from letters, diaries and other unpublished records. Not only was her married life a far cry from the halcyon days of These Happy Golden Years, with sickness, death and a very meager living, Wilder and her family lost everything in the Depression, as well, and her American success story is far more complicated than her novels, or the television series, would have us believe.

8. Bob Dylan and Mavis Staples at The Beacon Theatre, Nov. 20-25

Is there a lot more that you need to know? Bob Dylan and Mavis Staples are setting up shop at the Beacon the week of Thanksgiving and I can’t imagine a better way to experience gratitude. If you’re of the very legitimate opinion that Dylan’s songs are better performed by other people, take a listen to the Staple Singers performing Hard Rain, above and find yourself correct, once again. These two are American treasures, go see them while you still can.

7. Wonderstruck, Nov. 10

Todd Haynes is one of my favorite working directors; all of his movies feel like they’re taking place in a world that is almost our own, just a little more magical and more beautiful. He has also made a career out of working with talented actresses–his strange, gorgeous, flawed Bob Dylan biopic, I’m Not There, has more interesting roles for women than say, Wonder Woman did. Wonderstruck takes place in two different eras, 1977 and 1927, as two deeply wounded yet resilient children make pilgrimages to New York City to seek out a lost part of themselves, and their worlds become intertwined through a bookstore.

6. Future Home of the Living God, Louise Erdrich, Nov. 14


 Between this and Three Billboards it feels like the artists among us anticipated the political reality we currently find ourselves in with chilling precision. With elements of The Handmaid’s Tale and Children of Men, Future Home is about a young woman who finds herself pregnant at a moment when human evolution, indeed all evolution on Earth, is moving backward and new babies are born as more primitive versions of humans. Having been adopted, she goes seeking her birth mother to understand where she came from. At the same time, the government moves to round up and quarantine all pregnant women and their families.

5. John Cale at BAM, Nov. 16-18

It’s weird to think about celebrating the 50th anniversary of The Velvet Underground and Nico; it feels like that music, those songs are still fresh and brand new, while also having been floating in the ether for all eternity. The album lives in the timeless near present of a David Lynch movie for me. Celebration though, is in order and BAM has put together a program with John Cale, who of course played the electric viola on the album, and who continually pushed music forward with his experimental work, and the Wordless Music Orchestra. The first two nights they’ll perform the album, the final night they’ll celebrate Cale’s entire body of work.

4. Janet Jackson at Barclays Center, Nov. 15

In our current #MeToo moment, it’s worth remembering Janet Jackson’s 1986 lyrics, off the album Control: My first name ain’t baby/It’s Janet/Ms. Jackson if you’re nasty.

Amen, sister. That was more than 30 years ago and Ms. Jackson is still killing it. If you’re sort of meh on her body of work, read this 30th anniversary tribute to Control from The New York Times or this one in The Atlantic, celebrating the 25th anniversary of Rhythm NationOr just go see her at the Barclays Center on November 15. Gimme a beat.

3. Club 57: Film, Performance and Art in the East Village 1978-1983, opens Oct. 31 at MoMA

Beyond the Valley of the Dolls will screen at MoMa as part of Film at Club 57.


While there’s certainly a tendency to glorify the New York City of the 1970s and 80s, waxing poetic about the bad old days while conveniently gliding over the crime rate (which would continue to rise until the early 90s), this new exhibition and film series at MoMA is a potent reminder of the magic that can happen when artists can actually afford to live in a city. Club 57 was a basement bar on St. Mark’s in the East Village that became a de facto clubhouse, performance space and general hangout for artists including Keith Haring, Ann Magnuson, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Kenny Scharf. The MoMA exhibit takes a look at some of the work produced during those years, and recreates a film series from the venue, as well, with screenings through the end of the year.

2. M. Butterfly on Broadway


When it debuted in 1988, M. Butterfly instantly became a Broadway sensation. BD Wong, who you may know and love from Law & Order: SVU  or Mr. Robot, won a Tony at age 27 for portraying Song Liling, a mysterious Chinese opera singer who presents as a woman, but is biologically male. A French diplomat falls in love with her, without, it would seem, realizing the full complexity of her gender, or that she is a spy. All this is loosely based on a true story, keep in mind. This revival, starring Clive Owen, directed by Julie Taymor, has been updated to reflect an audience with a more nuanced understanding of gender and sexuality. Tickets start around $30 for many performances, and critic are singing Clive Owen’s praises for his performance.

1. Godless, Netflix, Nov. 22

God this one looks grim, in the best possible way. Jeff Daniels plays a really bad guy chasing down a good (or at least less bad) guy who takes refuge in an all-female town in the Old West. There’s some Unforgiven in here, some Holly Hunter from the first season of Top of the Lake, and some Deadwood, of course, plus a cameo from Sam Waterston and his eyebrows. Oh, and it’s directed by Steven Soderbergh, so seems like there will be some Karen Sisco, too–there are certainly a lot of women wielding shotguns. Frankly, Godless looks fucked up and violent and cathartic as hell and I can’t wait to watch it.

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