La Dolce Musto

May 11, 1999

The upcoming Belgian movie The Red Dwarf—in which a height-challenged divorce-law worker (Jean-Yves Thual) has a hot fling with a craggy countess (legendary beauty Anita Ekberg), only to dress up in drag as her and go psycho— is not at all surreal. Not compared to the evening I just had with Ekberg and Thual, which was like something out of Fellini’s Intervista via Sunset Boulevard, with huge doses of glamour, insecurity, and barbarism thrown into the poisonous popcorn.

The mood was set when the film’s wry writer-director Yvan Le Moine told the premiere crowd, “I hope the person sitting next to you smells OK. Very often films are a punishment, but this one promises to be a torture.” People tittered nervously, then a Christian Science Monitor critic was bizarrely brought out to introduce the two stars— Thual and Arno Chevrier— and also “Anita Ekberg, who needs no introduction.” Wrong! The film goddess looked fit to eat a dwarf. “First of all, where the hell is the light?” she bellowed in the semidarkness. “Maybe we look better this way! And ‘the two stars’— he left me out! Then he says, ‘She doesn’t need an introduction,’ so I’ll introduce myself. I am Anita Ekberg!” She took in the applause like a giant Swedish sponge. And then, after wildly overpraising her costars, Ekberg returned to barking, “Where is the light? Before we go away, you can at least see what we look like!” They finally flashed the spot on her and, in a sublimely Kenneth Anger ­ready moment, you could see that she’s a somewhat blowsier version of her former self, but still gorgeously magnetic, with a catlike blond mane, emphatic makeup, and an all-forgiving black shroud. The girl’s still standing— and still stellar.

And still a nightmare. Ekberg started to leave, signing autographs and saying, “Quickly, quickly, and then we go where there’s air conditioning! It’s hot here!” They dragged her into a limo to go to a heat-
controlled restaurant a block away, and— though I begged to walk— I was whooshed into the car by a publicist who introduced me to Ekberg as a journalist and old friend. “I thought my work was over tonight!” Ekberg screeched. “And don’t say a journalist is a friend. They’re not to be trusted! Where’s my fan?” Don’t look at me, bitch. Arno Chevrier opened a whiskey bottle and Ekberg promptly snarled, “I hate whiskey!” As she made a face not usually seen in nature, I started to think of her as Anita Yecch-berg, but valiantly tried to understand the toll age has taken on her confidence, as well as the conflict she clearly faces between wanting to turn her back on the (decreasing) hoopla and yet desperately needing to be noticed. Besides, I hate whiskey too.

Alas, things got even more tense when we arrived at Primola. Miss Thing instantly announced, “I want to sit with my back to the wall. Who’ll take the coats? I want proper water, if nothing else!” Charmed, I’m sure. Ekberg smilingly turned to her director and said, “I hated you to begin with.” I asked the poor guy what he thinks of her, and he said, “She’s generous, with extremes— a real personality. I had to convince her to do the movie. She said, ‘The only thing is, no dwarf!’ I said, ‘But the name of the film is The Red Dwarf!’ You have to love her. She has balls.” “Yeah, three,” I said, but actually, make that four; she was now roaring to the dwarf, “Why didn’t they put the spotlight on us? It’s crazy!”

I brilliantly noticed that Ekberg lit up like Rome at night whenever people stroked her ego, so I thought I’d try that approach. I showed her a very flattering cartoon I’d brought of her jumping into the Trevi fountain in La Dolce Musto— I mean La Dolce Vita— and asked if she’d like to keep it. “No, I’d rather not,” she said, as if I’d offered her a dead rat on top of a Dunkin’ Donut. “Can I have a napkin?” she suddenly whimpered to a waiter. “Mine has fallen down three times. It’s cleaning the floor!”

Averting my eyes from this new play for attention, I realized how hot the dwarf was, especially after someone pointed out that he has big feet and a cute little ass. But now all I could hear was Ekberg yelling, “Why do they keep letting Sophia Loren into the country? She was in jail for a month for tax evasion!” Between courses, other arresting pronouncements came fast and furiously: “Frank Sinatra was not a good lover!”; “If there’s one thing I hate, it’s people chewing gum. It’s like cows out to pasture!”; and “Not being able to smoke in restaurants is against the Constitution!” I never got to argue any of these topics— or even get a word in— but I was certainly never bored.

As I finished up my intimidating- looking crustacean— the one on my plate— two more people joined the table and our diva threw her final fit. “I’m not making any more interviews!” Ekberg insisted. “I thought I saw cameras!” But there weren’t any for miles. Oh, well— ciao, bella. I’m now triple-locked in my home, gazing appreciatively at that cartoon of you looking so carefree and adorable. I’ll remember her, not la dolce Evita.

Other divas have been acting up in dangerous ways, too. My spies tell me that during an interview for Paper magazine, Kevin Spacey kept pointedly talking about the gorgeous girlfriend he was calling on his cell phone. So that’s what makes the Iceman cometh? Right?

Over at the Roxy, Sean P. Hayes, the funny (but not out) actor who plays the queeny one on Will & Grace, turned up with a female escort, no doubt to research the gay lifestyle. I bet he learned a thing or two.

But let’s step out of this musty, dank closet— it’s against the Constitution— and catch up with Roxy party promoter John Blair, who’s been branching out with more merch than Winnie the Pooh. Blair has a new CD of dance music (he doesn’t sing it, he presents it) and also a new Chelsea restaurant called JB, where you can stop on the way to getting a BJ. The night I dropped by, the decor, menu, and service were delightful— I got proper water and clean napkins— though the crowd was so uniformly muscley I was afraid there might be steroids in the food.

I should have taken some fortification before seeing The Lonesome West, which is pretty much the male version of the same author’s The Beauty Queen of Leenane. Both works have a pair of sadistic relations torturing each other, a crucial letter that’s read aloud before being destroyed, and items thrown into an oven, after which one of the sadistic relations— who turns out to be completely cuckoo— tries to kill the other. Before this bloke writes another one, throw me in the oven.

Off-Broadway, one of my more beloved playwrights, John Guare, has come up with Lake Hollywood, an ambitious but failed snoozathon that doesn’t have an oven (or a dwarf), but does feature a credenza, a carriage ride to a hospital, and a lake to oblivion. It doesn’t quite add up— and I didn’t quite stay up.

And I couldn’t quite get it up for It Ain’t Nothin’ but the Blues, a bare-bones revue with virtually no book, staging, or set. (It’s the fourth recent show I’ve seen that relies on slides, one of which announces “The Blues,” in case you forget where you are.) A lot of the singing sizzles, but the all-purpose feeling, instructional tone, and severe lack of movement make this one better suited to high school auditoriums than Broadway. I’d tell you more, but I thought my work was over tonight! I am Anita Ekberg!

Michael Musto can be e-mailed at

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A New Kind of Abortion War

January 1, 2002

As they have been so often in the 28 years since Roe v. Wade, abortion rights supporters are once again on the defensive. This might seem strange, given that the most significant struggle in recent years ended in a pro-choice victory, the approval of the abortion drug RU-486. The Supreme Court didn’t make any big abortion-related decisions this year, nor does it have any such cases coming up on its docket. And though John Ashcroft is undoubtedly the most zealous opponent of abortion rights ever to serve as attorney general, he’s already conceded that Roe, the Supreme Court decision that established the legality of abortion, is off-limits.

But as mainstream pro-lifers acknowledge the futility of a head-on battle over abortion, which would likely fail and cost Republicans the prized women’s vote, they are quietly pushing forward on any number of fronts that undermine a woman’s right to control her body. While trumpeting their message on new “Choose Life” license plates, right-to-lifers are busily mounting campaigns to recognize fetal personhood, discourage education about contraception, and force welfare recipients with children to marry.

“The right understands that these issues are connected, while the left stays polarized and single-issue-focused,” says Lynn Paltrow, executive director of National Advocates for Pregnant Women. Pro-life success is also a matter of vehemence, according to Paltrow: “The right can pass legislation because they have all these crazy people saying, ‘Outlaw all abortions,’ but there’s no radical left anymore screaming, ‘Free abortions on demand!’ ”

The anti-abortion right scored its first public-opinion grab in 1995, with the bold war over so-called “partial-birth abortion.” That the procedure wasn’t even mentioned in medical textbooks before pro-lifers brought it up (or cooked it up, as some on the pro-choice side insist) was in keeping with this ground-shifting strategy: Find—or create—a new issue that can relate the drama of woman (or doctor or scientist) versus innocent, unborn life; steep it in outrage; and aim it at the political mainstream.

While a solid majority of legislators support a woman’s right to legal abortion, the focus on the phantom procedure pried some from their usual pro-choice comfort zones. Though the legislation, twice vetoed by Clinton, has yet to make it into law, the “partial-birth” campaign—whose success is still No. 1 on the Christian Coalition’s pro-life wish list—ranks as a public relations victory.

With the Supreme Court striking down Nebraska’s ban in 2000, the right has turned its partial-birth approach to stem cells and cloning. Before he began his crash course on Islam, our president was said to have been reading thick tomes about embryonic stem cells, brushing up on his biology not because these marvels hold the promise of curing diseases such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s, but because they have been enlisted in the political battle over reproduction. Cloning, too, has been reduced to a flash point, with the potential of therapeutic cloning, which is conducted at the cellular level, overshadowed by visions of baby factories.

Some think another largely symbolic proposal is the stealthiest challenge to reproductive rights yet: The “unborn victims of violence” bills being introduced around the country would make it a separate crime to harm or kill a fetus during an assault, though both state and federal versions specifically exempt abortion. Twenty-four states have similar fetal-protection laws already in place. The unborn-victims bills being considered in 15 states would specifically make it an independent crime if a woman loses her pregnancy as a result of an attack.

Douglas Johnson, legislative director of the National Right to Life Committee, says the bill is important primarily because “there are so many of these cases.” Numbers suggest otherwise; the termination of pregnancy through beating is a thankfully rare occurrence. And the federal Unborn Victims of Violence bill, which President Bush has said he will sign in the unlikely event it passes the Senate, applies only in the even rarer situation of such an assault taking place on an army base or other federal property, so there seem to be other reasons why the passage of an unborn-victims bill is among the Christian Coalition’s top five reproductive goals.

“The dangerous reality is that these bills would legally separate a woman from her fetus, which is merely the first step toward eroding a woman’s right to choose,” says Karen Meara, associate vice president for advocacy at Planned Parenthood of New York City. Indeed, in New York State, proposed “unborn victim” legislation would define a person as “a human being who has been born and is alive, or an ‘unborn child’ at any stage of gestation” and murder as including “fetuses at any stage of gestation.”

Two months ago, the local chapter of the Right to Life Committee ran an ad promoting the bill in the New York State Legislative Gazette. Beginning with the headline “One Victim—Or Two?,” the ad features a woman named Tracy Scheide Marciniak, whose son was delivered dead after her husband brutally beat her, and ends with this desperate plea: “Look at the picture of me holding my dead son at his funeral. And then, please, support the bill.”


This no-holds-barred assault on the heartstrings has left opponents of the Unborn Victims legislation in a predictably awkward position. “We all recognize that a pregnancy has incredible value to a woman,” says Heather Boonstra, senior policy analyst at the Alan Guttmacher Institute. “But it should be treated as something that she has lost as opposed to something with its own rights independent of the woman.” In fact, legislation can—and in some states, already does—bolster protections for pregnant women without establishing the fetus as a person, an approach right-to-lifers have shunned for obvious reasons.

In Louisiana, Alabama, Florida, and South Carolina, the war of the charged words is being waged on the backs of cars. The four states have approved “Choose Life” license plates, which deliver the anti-abortion message and generate money for anti-abortion groups. In Louisiana, which along with South Carolina and Alabama has temporarily halted production of the license plates until legal challenges have been settled, the plates bear the picture of a pelican carrying a blanketed baby.

It’s difficult to take a stand against a blanketed baby and its life-supporting message, which Florida governor Jeb Bush has called “a very innocuous statement that most people will agree with.” Yet some are objecting to the use of a government branch for partisan fundraising. In Florida, which in 1999 became the first state to introduce the “Choose Life” licenses, the National Organization of Women sued over the plates, which have already raised more than $668,280 for “crisis pregnancy centers” that counsel women not to have abortions.

Pro-choice groups point to the political imbalance of the arrangement. In South Carolina, the local Planned Parenthood affiliate asked that the state issue “Choose Choice” plates to counter the Choose Life message, though a judge denied the request. “This is the only instance where the government funnels money to one side of a very divisive debate,” says Simon Heller, director of the domestic program for the Manhattan-based Center for Reproductive Law & Policy.

And if some would downplay the significance of the license plate policies of a mere four conservative states, three of which are weighing legal arguments against them, Heller warns against such complacency. “This is where it starts,” he says. “But eventually these things become accepted as the norm in our culture. The risk is that this will spread very widely around the country and you have this government-sponsored propaganda everywhere.”

Judging from the National Right to Life Committee’s Web site, Heller’s concerns are valid. After a Florida court dismissed the suit against the plates in late November, Jeanne Gill posted this message: “We can really start spreading the word about the ‘Choose Life’ license plate. We only have 46 more states to go.”

Back in Washington, left and right are gearing up for a bitter fight over other norms that set the country’s reproductive tone. Discussions have already begun about the reauthorization of the 1996 Welfare Reform Act, which tried to limit out-of-wedlock births by giving financial rewards to states that keep their unmarried birth rates down, promoting sexual abstinence, and cutting back assistance to welfare recipients once their families reach a certain size. In congressional hearings about the reauthorization held earlier this year, the Heritage Foundation’s Patrick Fagan pleaded for even more marriage incentives, blaming illegitimacy and divorce for everything from suicide to a diminished sense of masculinity and femininity in teens.

“The thinking and culture behind today’s federal social programs must be made more marriage-friendly,” said Fagan, who suggested creating an Office of Marriage Initiatives and instituting marriage bonuses for the poor. But for their part, reproductive rights advocates find the marriage enticement approach both coercive and ineffective.

“It’s just such an incredible red herring,” says Wendy Chavkin, professor of public health and OB-GYN at Columbia University. “The issue is that people are poor. If what you want is to have children with stable homes, then you need to provide their parents with living wages. Having two unemployed or two starvation-wage people get married is not going to help the kid.”

The new welfare reform bill, which is scheduled for more hearings this spring, is also expected to increase funding for programs that omit information about contraception and abortion and teach that “a mutually faithful monogamous relationship in the context of marriage is the expected standard of human activity.” While the 1996 bill set aside $50 million in federal funding for such abstinence-only education annually, the 2002 version is expected to ask for upward of $135 million per year.

Even with the impending budget cuts, abstinence proponents can expect Washington to smile on them in the coming months. Bush, an enthusiastic supporter of abstinence, will likely approve the increased spending. Abstinence advocates hope the surge of money will also work to give this approach the moral high ground, quietly shifting it from the margins to the mainstream.


For the most part, pro-choice groups have been playing catch-up, putting out fires rather than igniting their own public relations offensives. But in this state, they have made some use of the right’s lessons in spin. New York State legislators, who have been unable to pass a bill mandating insurance coverage for contraception in the past, are for the first time optimistic about the passage of a “pill bill” this year. The changing fortunes of the Women’s Health and Wellness Act can mostly be attributed to proponents’ repackaging their message along with proposals requiring screening for breast and cervical cancer.

“If this were a stand-alone contraceptive coverage issue, there’s no way it would pass,” acknowledges Kelli Conlin, executive director of NARAL-NY. “It’s much easier if you combine it with a bunch of women’s health issues. It also humanizes us.”


Hipniks: Where Do They Bed-Down When the Sun Comes Up

August 13, 1958

When dawn comes, where does Young Bohemia bed-down? This seemed like a reasonable question to ask. So, the paper put two operatives into the field. Our off-beat survey was interested only in geography, other material was noted but strained out.

Years ago the Bohemian Village was a compact network of streets running west from MacDougal. Today it is a vast, spread-out playground for the cool. But . . . Is it home? That was what we wanted to know. Where do the young people brew their instant coffee, brush their teeth (everyone in America brushes his teeth, even the Bohemians, our surveyors discovered), and have friends over to midnight lunch?

Our men talked to 27 young hipniks (hipnik: a folksy variant of hipster). To strain out the inevitable interloper, who appears during evening hours, they toured the coffee houses in late afternoon while the young people were having breakfast. The accommodations of those questioned, which ranged from an elevator apartment to non-fixed-abodes, were found in such exotic sites as Desbrosses Street (lower West Side), Orange Street (Brooklyn Heights), and a dead-end called Bond Street.

Four said they lived on the Lower East Side. “It’s real groovy over there,” one striking 19-year-old redhead asserted, but admitted that she never spent more than 10 waking minutes in her apartment. Most of the Eastsiders were vaguely looking for Village diggings. Few of them had paid last month’s rent.

While the eight who lived in the South Village (below Bleecker Street), generally, did better on rent, one rotund exception (dark glasses, jeans, and bow tie) explained that he spent at least half his time in a friend’s Hudson Street loft until the check arrived from home (Gary, Indiana). He seemed troubled by the whole process.

Rents proved to be no higher in the South Village than on the Lower East Side, but apartments were somewhat harder to get, though not impossible. Sullivan, Thompson, MacDougal, Bleecker were the prime favorites.

The West Village, which is true Greenwich Village, is the most expensive of all. The seven respondents who live there feared their days were numbered. From Charlton to 14th Street the word is “improvement,” which means inside johns, heat, and paint. Sometimes this doubles the rent ($20 to $40 is common), but often it quadruples it.

Those with no-fixed-abode gravitate from one friend’s floor to another. “It’s like a game,” said a tall, thin M. A. in Lit; “Who’s going to get me tonight?’ “It’s cheap, but it’s tiresome—I guess I’m too old.” He was 26.

The survey found that the hipniks still stick as close to the Village as they can get. The East Side is the way out of the apartment dilemma. It isn’t Siberia, but then it isn’t Mecca, either. (But who cares if you’re a Zen Buddhist). The individualist may stray into Brooklyn Heights, but he doesn’t stay there any longer than he has to.

It’s the Village they all come back to, unless rerouted to Scarsdale in the process.


Generation Ex

July 13, 1999

This time it’s personal. High school student Reese Witherspoon leaves teacher Matthew Broderick cursing his so-called life in Election. No shocker; couldn’t be a teen film if the kids didn’t have all the options and the adults weren’t a pitiful mass of stifled redundancy.

What hurts is that the emblem of slow rot is Matthew Broderick. Wasn’t he just a teenager a minute ago himself in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, one of those John Hughes films that we, the youth of today, survived puberty with?

Oh, wait. That came out in 1986. Broderick is 37, and we’re not youths at all, even if it still seems to us as if we are because our place in the culture is recognized so damn late.

Once upon a time there was Generation X. I do mean once. In the World Almanacs I grew up with – kind of a pre-web thing – a generation is 20 years, maybe 25.

We got three.

Nirvana sold a few records in 1992, Clinton was elected, and the rotation seemed complete: boomers assumed political power and we post-everythings were going to inherit the counterculture or, better yet, steer the consumer culture. Finally: we were already well into our twenties. Yes, there was groaning as underground went mainstream— that’s part of the drill. But admit it, my fellow Neverminders, it was a kick seeing our own ilk moping up all the attention. (though alternative stuff is not so much self-loathing— for every Kurt, Courtney, Tupac, and Trent there’s a Beck, Breeders, Busta, and Bagge— as larger-than-life in a defensively small way.)

In a blink it was gone. Spice Girls and Backstreet Boys, Dawson’s Creek and Felicity, Teen People and Columbine, Venus Williams and Derek Jeter. Alternative rock dead in the water. Hordes of Star Search, Menudo, and the new Mickey Mouse Club alumni given everything, just as the ’60s dinosaurs were. We’d always been Born Too Late. Suddenly we were Born Too Early as well. It was official: our crew— roughly 25-to-39-year-olds, though culture never breaks neatly— were the needy middle child of the latter 20th century. Caught between domineering elder sibs and spoiled youngsters.

So farewell my never-really-a-generation. We invented college rock and Lollapalooza, before that turned into cute little Third Eye Blind and Matchbox 20. We had women in rock, too, before Liz Phair became Alanis Morissette, who became pedophile’s delight Britney Spears. We championed rap (well, some of us), in the days when it was a genre of smart alecks instead of coddled thug-impersonators with Bill Gates dreams. We reclaimed insecure Jan on The Brady Bunch. We watched The Simpsons. We were the most ironic cast of Americans to date until we went and saw through the promise of irony. No hopes whatsoever! You know the routine.

It all comes down to numbers. Population: the less-than-fabled baby bust that lasted until boomers started breeding in full. And economics: coming of age after 1973, when the U.S. economy slipped badly, we grew up hearing that on average we’d be worse off than our parents. Better dressed for success than any cohort in history, we had it instilled in us that collectively we’d never amount to anything. Our diminutive, ripening demographic was ignored and felt even more ignored: witnessed liberalism kicked in the teeth by Reagan, endured the 1960s as a mandatory rerun, studied postmodernism and identified with the footnotes.

What are we supposed to do now? The stock market is over 10,000, Clinton is a distinctly lesser monster than Ronnie, American triumphalism has been restored, and ready to lap it up is a once-more-humongous teen population that advertisers can’t stop salivating over. Thanks for letting us warm the bed for you, kids.

The group we mostly resemble is the Silent Generation, born in the 1930s, too late to be ennobled by the Depression or fight Hitler, too early for rock and roll and the heights of postwar prosperity. When Clinton was elected they winced for a different reason: it meant they’d never get to elect a president, despite holding their breath every four years since JFK. Like them, we’ve never shown the slightest ability to assume power.

But marginalized minorities have a lot of time to sit around telling jokes. So we’ve taken over comedy, coronating the nebbish so that the Silent Generation’s Woody Allen becomes rule instead of exception. Compare, for example, the Adam Sandler­Mike Myers­David Spade­Chris Rock Saturday Night Live casts with the rampaging likes of John Belushi and Eddie Murphy. It’s the difference between having tasted the revolution and having repeatedly watched Planet of the Apes week on The 4:30 Movie. To proudly slur my own: we’ve all become a bunch of wussy Jews and Canadians.

Now Myers and Sandler are big-deal movie stars, and The Spy Who Shagged Me and Big Daddy perform exorcisms of our insignificance; fantasies as much as Election, but of a universe we actually dominate. It’s a trivial universe, but we’d be fools not to take it. The salvation of Sandler in Big Daddy isn’t ultimately the kid he wants to adopt— it’s a woman he meets who shares his love for Styx. Austin Powers has claimed back the ’60s, proving in the name of freedom that things were just as insipid then as they are now. Myers even beats up on our younger tormentors, scapegoating Seth Green as the doctor’s kid, Scott Evil. Boomer pop like “American Woman” and “Only Love Can Break Your Heart” is defanged by the credless likes of Lenny Kravitz and Everlast.


The game of references as quasi-generational markers never ends. They’re like Elvis sightings for Xers; an easy joke that somehow never gets old. In Neal Stephenson’s new novel, Cryptonomicon, the hero keeps his bearings— Stephenson, too— by taking Cap’n Crunch to the far corners of the planet. Crunch is a low reference. (Our affection for same is called cheesy, which has to be understood in the near-total absence of non-cheesy reference points unique to us.) High references are nearly always obscure, touchstones that will disappear if we don’t save them, like Tinkerbell, by clapping our hands. That ’70s Show‘s theme song revives Big Star; the Farrelly brothers give Jonathan Richman a recurrent cameo in There’s Something About Mary; Myers starts his movie with a They Might Be Giants parody of Goldfinger.

It’s hopeless, of course. Our heroes will remain obscure and our preoccupations strange. Forget becoming president: we’ll never become a Spielberg, either, or make a Star Wars, though liking Star Wars in the teeth of boomer scorn is perfectly fine. Brokaw and Jennings can chart the course of American heroism. We’d rather gargle and spit, like that satirical Xer alt-weekly The Onion and its unlikely bestseller, Our Dumb Century, with 100 years of fake front pages. Sixties: “Sanford, Son Killed in Watts Rioting; Aunt Esther Missing.” And the glorious events of our own lifetime: “Berlin Wall Destroyed in Doritos-Sponsored Super Bowl Halftime Spectacular.”

As The Onion is only the latest to prove, our gift is for mocking, if helplessly adoring, the jargon of official bullshit and formulaic crapola. Accepting the conventions and then stretching them into silly putty, we create products that pervert the lines between art and commerce. Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the work of Xer Joss Whedon, views demons as no more or less serious and scary than high school, acts realistically snide and impossibly earnest, breaks with propriety as casually as slayer Faith asking virginal Xander if he’d like to fuck now that they’re off patrol. Yet the WB didn’t even air the season-ending episode after Littleton. How does one argue that Buffy has too much stature to be trifled with when its greatness roots in its being sold to the network, and still marketed, as a piece of trash?

Similarly, try explaining to someone outside the loop The Matrix, a mixture of the highfalutinly adolescent superhero comic, the Hong Kong action film as it went down this decade with white and then black urbanites, cyberpunk conspiracy theories, and a crazy little thing called Keanu. And these are the successes; good luck with The Cable Guy, Jim Carrey’s one generational nod and biggest flop, or albums where Weezer and Fountains of Wayne let success go to their heads and tried to sing about their, er, roots. Again, Big Daddy and Austin Powers are very wet dreams of a world where our manifold references are commonplace, not just interior landfill fit only for our signal contribution to journalism: the comparative rather than interpretive “charticle.”

Marshal the tidbits! Cover lines from the first issue of McSweeney’s, Dave Eggers’s pseudojournal: “Welcome To Our Bunker! . . . Relying on: Strength in numbers, provided those numbers are very, very small; Hoping for: Redemption through futility.” Protagonists of a story inside: Philip Glass, Stephen Glass, Ira Glass, Seymour Glass, and George Glass. (Footnote: Minimalist composer, discredited young journalist, successful young NPR host, tormented young Salinger character, and imaginary Brady boyfriend.) A story, too, from David Foster Wallace, the big cheese of under-40 lit. Streams of spew he can regurgitate: therapy speak, university theory, sports commentary, metafiction. Favorite letters: i.e. Beginning of recent tale from his collection Brief Interviews With Hideous Men: “The fuzzy Hensonian epiclete Ovid the Obtuse.” Well, exactly.

Eggers and his various cronies may end up taking over the genteel magazines, but only in time to watch them slide into oblivion. Knee-jerk anticapitalists (sour grapes), Xers have a knack for symbolizing integrity in areas that have long since stopped meriting any. Adam Yauch and the Beastie Boys wheeze to put on a Tibetan Freedom Concert every year and redeem pop; alt-rock icons and MTV’s Matt Pinfield will patiently explain the underground history of music to anyone willing to let them yammer. The “literate smut” of fights to keep cheekiness alive on the Net, when everyone knows that unselfconscious bluster is the only way new media spells IPO.


Eventually, though, most of the successful people crack, finding ways to refuse the honorable Gen-X course of wasting genius on socially incomprehensible piffle. One traditional argument used to explain my group’s lack of overt generational solidarity is that identity politics diverted the struggle elsewhere. Maybe so, but television quickly filled that hair loss for men, idolizing the suave, neotraditional jockishness offered by TV’s waspish anti-wuss Craig
Kilborn and his launch ground, ESPN’s Sportscenter. Sandler uses gratuitous meanness strategically (the fate of the girl who dumps him in Big Daddy, for instance), to dispel the threat of his soft side (or maybe the cuddliness inoculates his inner psychopath). Innumerable other Xers have, too, from the pickup experts in the fiction of Wallace and films and plays of Neil LaBute to all the rap-rock shockers.

But as Myers has proven and Rosie O’Donnell, Will Smith, or Lilith Fair epitomize, a niceness that pretends no animosity exists is just as effective. Rosie can out-Brady the best, she has her undeserving obsession (Broadway), she’s an Xer all right— only instead of manifesting the usual twisted relationship to mass culture we developed from outside she gloats in her newfound access, sings the praises of Kmart. (Cap’n Crunch even advertises to adults on her show.) Carefully, she pitches herself in the most broadly accessible terms, a Regis and Kathie Lee with an encyclopedic grasp of trashlore.

Kilborn and O’Donnell make the X factor palatable, but demographics are demographics and today’s bulging young have won, so many in our group find it necessary to hide who they are. How convenient that our childhood remains a preoccupation. Whedon’s behind-the-scenes role in Buffy is generational drag; for more see Go, a suspiciously complex rave-kids film by Doug Liman, previously known for the less sublimated Swingers. Animation is even better: displace your anomie onto the nuclear family, like King of the Hill and all the other post-Simpsons, and none need realize you’re another slacker.

South Park‘s Trey Parker and Matt Stone needn’t show themselves to be felt, just as they hardly require punk rock to stage Circle Jerks. Their plot says it all; no, not the swipes at family entertainment values, the idea of making those nebbish Canadians, our secret selves, America’s invasion force. And they indulge one sappy musical number after another, long past the funny stage, just can’t stop believing, until ex-Doobie Brother Michael McDonald sings “Eyes of a Child” over the closing credits. What transparent softies.

Ultimately, it ain’t generational drag that’s driven Buffy’s stake through our heart. It’s
the economy, stupid— a boom mentality where rich is best and mopery really does just get
you nowhere. The relentless positivity of
the cyberworld has wreaked a deep schism within us, even as the onset of all the new technology— with its corresponding focus on the very young, those precious early adapters— has made rehashing network television trivia and ’70s rock stars a little quaint. Sure, Web content takes all forms, but the real game isn’t blurring genres now, it’s constructing towering structures of e-commerce.

The teen culture, which happily marries itself to the adult mainstream (with a few honorably cynical exceptions, though usually the teen stars have to age to turn into Robbie Williams), forbids gloominess and incisive parody as a matter of course. I hate my MTV all of a sudden— now broadcasting from a beach in the Bahamas like fucking Gidget, where a particularly glassy-eyed VJ said to Parker and Stone after they bragged about how sick their film was, “I’m sure there’s a message.” In the street-conscious early ’90s I loved it. Not that it’s hard to explain the shift: alternative culture was about the least profitable mainstream variant ever, a product that practically begged to be taken off the shelf.

Our new young masters will achieve greatness; they’re too secure not to, knowing what a winning hand they’ve been dealt. I hear it in the music of those over-21s at that world’s “angry” forefront, the rap-rockers who grew up after Nirvana and Dr. Dre and have never faced the mindscrew of seeing the true sounds of their youth automatically ghettoized. One can point out a million exceptions, raise issues of race, class, gender, and sexuality, but in that famous last instant the underlying dynamics of demographic size and economic context get their licks in, making some cohorts naturally grand and others bite-sized.

And so, entering a new century that removes even our ability to serve as the forlorn coda to the last one, we’ll return to the periphery, play the, what else, quirky relative in teen comedies (Sandler’s little buddy boy is just the start), worry about how to turn irony into sincerity while everyone else is worrying about how to turn sincerity into irony. The children of the boomers will make common cause with their parents, a seamless transition of power, while those of us who haven’t cashed in behind the scenes shake our fists from some wretched little garret. Like a Dostoyevsky character. Or like Matthew Broderick hurling his lunch at the limo bearing Reese and the congressman at the end of Election, smearing up the works for just a second, then running away as fast as he possibly can.


Paper Route

Crusading and independent journalistic beacon that it is, The Village Voice seems like the kind of intransigent social rebel that simply, absolutely can’t be bought. But it turns out that it can—and that it has been, five times since Ed Fancher, Norman Mailer, and Dan Wolf launched it for five cents a copy. Yes, readers, the Voice is a property, an investment, part of somebody’s portfolio, just like General Dynamics and Arby’s. It’s enough to make us all cry onto our 401(k) statements. But at least there’s some consolation in the fact that the following roster of owners has been, er, colorful.

1955–1970: Fancher, Wolf, and Mailer
[Price: $10,000]

The idea for this paper grew out of discussions between freelance writer Wolf, psychologist Fancher, and Mailer. Eventually they decided to launch a weekly, with Mailer and Fancher anteing up $10,000. There’s disagreement over who came up with the name.

In fact, there were a lot of disagreements. A few months after the paper’s launch, Mailer, who had declared himself “General Marijuana,” started writing a column whose first installment dubbed the Voice “remarkably conservative for so young a paper.” A couple of turbulent months later, Mailer ended the column, saying the Voice was too “square.” It was the beginning of years of internal disputes over the paper’s direction—the
suspicion that it had sold out, straightened out, copped out, and basically died.

While Mailer was the big name at the Voice‘s birth, Wolf was clearly its heart. It was Wolf who insisted that the Voice be a writer’s paper, allowing contributors great freedom. But as the times and the paper changed during the 1960s, so did Wolf, growing more conservative and increasingly resentful of some of the staff he had cultivated. Fancher handled the business side for the first two decades of the paper’s existence; after several years of losses, the paper began to turn around, riding the national tide of progressive-radical thought and countercultural exploration that transformed the
Voice from a local newspaper to a kind of generational icon.

1970–1974: Carter Burden
[Sale price: $3.2 million]

After the Voice started making money, Wolf and Fancher thought about selling it, and they found a willing buyer in Carter Burden, a former aide to Robert Kennedy and sitting city councilman. Burden bought 80 percent control of the paper through a company he co-owned with his friend Bartle Bull, a London-born, Harvard-educated lawyer. In his memoirs, Jack Newfield called the sale “a fatal blunder” that “set in motion years of instability.” Some of that turmoil was because of new tensions between Voice management and workers over pay and benefits, and fights among the staff over post-1969 politics. But at the top levels of management, Burden and Bull clashed with Fancher and Wolf over the paper’s finances and ad policies. After their respective associations with the Voice ended, Burden went on to lose a 1978 race for Congress and start an East Coast radio empire. Bull became a novelist; one of his works involves a sex scene with a dwarf.

1974–1977: Clay Felker
[Merger: $2.5 million in debt, 600,000 shares of stock]

New York magazine owes its birth to Clay Felker, and—in the mind of many a Voice insider and observer—this paper owes its death to him. The case against Felker is that he dulled the Voice‘s radical edge by crimping the style of some of its more free-spirited writers, giving undue prominence to fluffy lifestyle pieces, and taking articles off the front page. He also named himself the paper’s editor, fired Wolf and Fancher, and generally drove the staff crazy. “There is no amount of money,” writer Ron Rosenbaum apparently told Felker, tearing up his paycheck, “that can make me work for the piece of shit that you have turned this paper into.” Felker himself would contend that “the Voice was dying when I bought it.” Upset about Burden’s sale of the paper, Fancher, Wolf, and Mailer sued, eventually settling for $485,000. The three founders thought that they had a right of refusal to any sale of control of the Voice and believed Burden had screwed them when he brought in Felker. Soon Felker was the one who got screwed.

1977–1985: Rupert Murdoch
[Sale price: $7.5 million]

In 1977, Felker made the mistake of mentioning offhand to Rupert Murdoch that he might want to sell the Voice. While Fox News Channel was still but a distant nightmare, Murdoch was already a media baron. He decided to take Felker at his word, and while Felker balked and resisted, Murdoch went to the other investors and won control.

No sooner had Rupert taken over than he and the staff—which had just unionized—clashed over his decision to fire editor Marianne Partridge; the staff protested, and Murdoch backed down. “I think everyone looked at Rupert as Russia, and we were Poland,” says Village Voice Media CEO David Schneiderman, who succeeded Partridge as editor, “and the question was when would he invade. He never did, though he had some approaches now and then.” Once Murdoch demanded that Schneiderman fire a reporter (he won’t say who), but Schneiderman refused, and Murdoch relented. Another time Murdoch warned the paper to be careful in a story critical of the New York Post, but he didn’t complain about it to his editors.

That was, of course, because Rupert could see the green. “He’s a bottom-line guy, and he knows if he tried to turn it into some weekly version of the New York Post, he would kill this golden property that was a great source of revenue,” recalls Wayne Barrett, “so he basically left the paper alone.” And then he sold it, freeing cash that helped Rupert launch Fox.

1985–2000: Leonard Stern
[Sale price: $55 million]

Leonard Stern, one of the Forbes 400 richest people, saw the
Voice “as a really interesting business challenge,” recalls Schneiderman, “but he did understand how important it was for the editor and the staff to be able to write what they want to write.” Voicers say Stern never interfered in the running of the paper. He also took the bold move of making the Voice free.

It was a risky gambit for Stern to forgo newsstand revenue. But it was necessary, Schneiderman says, because circulation was falling due to a shrinking number of newsstand sale sites. And it paid off.

However, going free might have been risky for the paper in another way. It’s widely acknowledged that nowadays, the Voice isn’t as influential as it once was. Perhaps that’s because a free paper isn’t taken as seriously in the rest of the media world. Or perhaps it’s because the country has moved away from the liberal politics the paper has usually espoused, or that the media landscape is too crowded for any outlet to have the same clout as in the good old days.

2000–present: Weiss, Peck & Greer
[Sale price: $170 million]

Nowadays, when people ask, “Who owns the Voice?” you have to set aside time to answer. Stern sold out for a neat profit to a group of investors, including the investment firm Weiss, Peck & Greer, Trimaran Fund II (a private equity firm linked to the Canadian Imperial Bank of Com-merce), and several others. Weiss, Peck & Greer is itself owned by Robeco Group, a European-based entity worth $100 billion that, among other things, holds a chain of community newspapers and a set of radio stations.

Just over 24 hours before this anniversary issue went to press, Village Voice Media (which includes the Voice and papers in L.A., Minneapolis, Nashville, Orange County, and Seattle) announced its plans to merge with New Times, which has 11 papers and is the country’s biggest alternative-newspaper chain. The deal is subject to Department of Justice approval, a process that could take up to six months because the DOJ is expected to request additional information from the companies.

Wolf, Burden, and many of the other characters in the Voice‘s story are dead. Many of the current staffers were born years after the founders sold out. And among readers and former readers, one often hears a lament for days gone by. The newspaper where people used to write all in lowercase and smoke reefer in the office now has cubicles and a dental plan.

There are pluses and minuses in getting older, for papers and readers alike. One of them is selective memory. Ross Wetzsteon once said of the paper where he wrote and edited for many years, “No matter what anybody says about how great the Voice was in the old days, we published a lot of garbage back then.”

Folks only remember the great stuff. Lucky us.


Peace Strike Under Way – No Violence, Police Tactful

February 1, 1962

Hundreds of Villagers and other New Yorkers are putting most of their energies this week into protests against nuclear testing and the “war economy.” The Worldwide General Strike for Peace began on Monday at points all around town with high enthusiasm if relatively few participants. The elaborate schedule of activities comes to a first round conclusion on Sunday evening, February 4, with a rally at the Village Gate and a torchlight parade up Sixth Avenue to Times Square.

Following last week’s refusal by the New York Times of the ad for the General Strike, the New York Committee submitted the ad to the Herald Tribune and the Post. Both rejected it. According to Julian Beck, an initiator of the strike concept, the Herald Tribune gave no reason for this rejection. The Post, he said, demanded deletion of the words “strike,” “work-stop-page,” and “boycott,” and required that the ad not announce picketing at the U.S. Army recruiting station in Times Square or at the New York Stock Exchange. The Post has recently initiated a stock-market report section.

Picket the Times
On Friday a group of about 20 advocates of the strike picketed the Times, wearing placards explaining the aims and planned activities of strike week. Retreating from the rain into Cobb’s Corner Coffee Shop, on the corner of 43rd Street and Eighth Avenue, the picketers held a brief press conference, at which the Times, the Tribune, and The Voice were represented.

On Monday a group of strikers estimated at more than 300 marched down Fifth Avenue from 59th Street to Washington Square. In a kick-off speech in front of the Plaza Hotel, David McReynolds, of the War Resisters League, said: “We declare peace against all the governments of the world.”

Festive Occasion
The mood of the occasion was festive despite the 26-degree cold and the apparent indifference of most passers-by. A large group of the walkers, centered on folk-singers Pete Seeger and Gil Turner, sang “I Ain’t Gonna Study War No More,” “You Can Dig Your Grave in Your Own Backyard,” and other songs of protest. Arriving at Washington Square, the group was diverted by good-natured police to the sidewalk along Sixth Avenue south of Waverly Place. There Julian Beck spoke briefly, telling the demonstrators: “It is beautiful to see you here today. You are the hope of the future.” “Peace torches” were then lighted and carried to points where vigils will be maintained throughout the week of the strike.

Later that day a General Strike rally was called at Community Church on East 35th Street; Paul Goodman spoke of the philosophical basis for the strike. He said: “When the institutions of society threaten the very foundation of the social contract, namely, biological safety–then the social contract is very near to being dissolved. He continued: We have now not a political but a biological emergency. The government’s almost total commitment to the cold war cannot be stopped by ordinary political means.

Dorothy Day, editor of the Catholic Worker, spoke of the present need for “responsibility, sacrifice, and asceticism.” Julian Beck described the act as a “call” to action, “our way of declaring the pollution of things as they are, of the governments’ deep involvement in war-preparing.” Judith Malina said the strike is a “means of satisfying our most urgent need to take some action.”

No Civil Liberty
The meeting also heard Specialist 4th Class Aulden Fowler, the solider who had picketed in mufti the Fort Jay ferry entrance the Battery earlier in the day. Fowler described being taken to Governor’s Island for an “investigation” being told eventually that “there was no regulation” against what he was doing–he was on a six-day pass at the time–and finally being released under certain orders not to participate further in the demonstrations for peace. Fowler ended his brief talk by reflecting: “There is no civil liberty in the Army.”

Also on Monday Villager Robert Nichols organized a vigil at Sixth Avenue and Waverly Place from 2 until 10 p.m. The office of the Manufacturers Trust Company at that location called the police to request that the vigil be moved elsewhere, and this was accomplished without incident. Nichols reports that the police were “unusually tactful.”

Police are Gentlemen
Further evidence of police gentlemanliness came on Tuesday, when 38 demonstrators sat down in front of the New York Operations Office of the Atomic Energy Commission, Hudson and Houston Streets. A picket line of more than 100 persons gathered before the building at 11 a.m., where a police line had been set up.

The group intending to sit down in front of the building’s entrance adjourned at 12:30 to a nearby sidewalk, where last-minute advice was offered by those experienced in non-violent demonstrations. Jim Forest, an initiator of the action, told the group it was likely that some or all of them would be arrested. “It is extremely difficult to be non-violent,” he said. “You can’t be sure that your non-violence will be met with non-violence.” He continued. “I ask you who are not sure of your belief in non-violence not to participate today. This is not a time for testing yourself.”

The group was solemn during the two-block walk to the AEC building. On arriving at the police barricade, the demonstrators tried politely to pass through the line of policemen. The police, apparently under orders to avoid using or provoking force, made no great effort to prevent the protestors from reaching the building’s door, and within a few minutes the entire group was sitting on the sidewalk effectively blocking the entrance.

“I’m a Playboy”
The day’s only violence occurred when a man in a black coat and hat attempted to bodily drag several of the sitters away from the door. Asked whether he was a member of the police force, he replied: “No, I’m a playboy.” Pressed further, he snarled: “I don’t have to tell you a goddam thing!” Before long, meeting no opposition, he gave up and vanished.

A number of people apparently employed in the AEC building were seen looking out of windows and peering through the glass entrance doors at the demonstrators who, when a soaking rain began to fall, borrowed placards from the continuing picket line to use as umbrellas. But few persons were seen entering or leaving. A police officer explained that there was another entrance around the corner, but that employees had been instructed to eat lunch at their desks on the day of the demonstration.

Later in the afternoon one demonstrator, Michael Graine, was arrested on a charge of “simple assault” and taken to the 4
th Precinct station. According to Julian Beck, this occurred when the door of the AEC opened from the inside and Graine attempted to enter the building. As The Voice went to press, Graine was scheduled to appear at Tuesday night court.


Brain Humor

October 26, 1999

It was always self-evident that when Spike Jonze, the most offhandedly avant-garde and whacked-out of the MTV brats, moved on from commercials and music videos to feature films, the result would acquire instant cult significance. But even his most inventive promos (the Beastie Boys’ “Sabotage,” Fatboy Slim’s “Praise You,” the Levi’s operating-theater spot) could not have prefigured the sustained ingenuity of Being John Malkovich (opening October 29).
In first-time screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, Jonze has found a partner in inspired lunacy.

Recklessly absurd, Kaufman’s premise is a brain-bending amalgam of Borges, Svankmajer, Kafka, and Alice in Wonderland: Craig, a frustrated puppeteer played by John Cusack, stumbles upon a portal that leads into the head of John Malkovich (playing himself). The woman Craig is smitten with, Maxine (Catherine Keener), sees the discovery as a cash cow and starts charging admission; for Craig’s wife, Lotte (an unrecognizably dowdy Cameron
Diaz), the experience is so transportive it’s the first step to sexual reassignment surgery.

Though its surreal, fabulist quality invites metaphoric readings, the beauty of Being John Malkovich is that its headlong lysergic logic prevents the film from lingering on any one theme. The movie unearths, in Craig’s words, one “metaphysical can of worms” after another, and like the pure-pop fantasia it is, deems them all disposable— like a really good trip, it’s always hurtling toward something somehow crazier and more profound. Throughout, Jonze directs with a poker face that sneakily downplays the relentless forward motion and renders the underlying sense of mischief doubly anarchic.

Celebrity fixation ends up as the most superficial aspect of Being John Malkovich, though Jonze and Kaufman get to the root of the condition more succinctly and less glibly than any Hollywood media-age parable ever has. The company slogan for JM Inc., the portal-exploiting enterprise Maxine and Craig set up, is “Have you ever wanted to be someone else?” and it’s implicit that the fundamental desire being served is not adventure but escape (have you ever not wanted to be yourself?). As a matter of course, the film goes further, folding erotic frustration, romantic paranoia, and sexual-identity crises into a gender-bending mindfuck of a love triangle— a quadrangle, if you count Malkovich the vessel body, which you probably should. And there’s more still: the philosophical implications of virtual reality; mortal fear and the transmigration of souls; human frailty and the desperately real need for personal reinvention.

It’s just as well that their film is so richly and casually suggestive, since Jonze and Kaufman’s idea of PR seems to involve not discussing the movie in any meaningful way. It’s the day after BJM‘s U.S. premiere at the New York Film Festival and the glitzy postscreening party at the Harvard Club, which was decked out for the night with gilt-framed Malkovich portraits and swarming with Malkolookalikes reciting the mantra “Malkovich, Malkovich” (an echo of one of the film’s funniest and most unnerving scenes, in which Malkovich tunnels into his own head to discover a sea of Malkoviches intoning his/their name). Malkovich, Jonze, and Kaufman are gathered in a midtown hotel suite, and observing the three together, you’re amazed that their collaboration proved so cohesive— they don’t even seem to be from the same planet. Malkovich’s stream of consciousness emanates in a dreamy, almost disembodied monotone; Jonze, though friendly and keen to please, falters every time he opens his mouth; Kaufman, unaccustomed to interrogation, spends most of the interview squirming.

Of the three, Kaufman seems most guarded, especially when the conversation turns to the cerebral foundations of his screenplay. “I don’t know if the movie’s saying one thing,” he says. “I mean, I didn’t write it that way. I wrote it as an exploration of different things, and I just wrote it as I wrote it. I didn’t have a master plan.”

Could he at least say why, of all people, he chose John Malkovich? “Does it make sense to you why it’s John Malkovich?” Yes, kind of, but could he elaborate? “I’d rather not because if it makes sense then it works. I’d rather let people have their experience of it. I just thought it was right, and I never veered from that. There were times when it looked like it was going to be made and Spike and I didn’t know yet if [Malkovich] was going to do it and we had to think of other people and it was impossible for us to come up with anybody else that was satisfying. I feel therefore Malkovich is the right person— we spent all this time trying to think of who else it could be and couldn’t.”

Jonze, even more hesitant, offers his theory. “One of the things I think is interesting, which is one of the reasons Charlie— I don’t want to put words in his mouth— chose John is, you don’t know much about him so you project onto him.”


Malkovich— whose first words upon entering the room are “Great, I can finally put these two kids under fire”— says it wasn’t too difficult to divorce himself from the John Malkovich of the script. “I didn’t think about it in terms of me. It’s a construct. I didn’t really think about why he chose me, or really worry about it.” Malkovich is, of course, perfect for the role. A wholly distinctive enigma, he’s either the most affected actor on earth or the most affectless. Few performers can mesmerize like Malkovich, yet his blustery screen presence and insidiously knowing manner beg for deflation— and, in subtle ways, he is often his harshest deflator. This becomes deliciously evident when, asked if he approached the role differently than he would any other, he responds, “Without being too polemical, I don’t really think of myself as John Malkovich.”

As self-parody, Malkovich’s performance is immaculately brutal— he’s portrayed as a windbag, somehow respected even if no one can remember anything he was in except “that jewel-thief movie.” By the end of the film, he’s literally reduced to a puppet— and forced to perform something called “Craig’s Dance of Despair and Disillusionment” in a towel. Yet, Malkovich says, “My concern was never about making fun of me. My only concern was that the things that made it appealing to make fun of me also made it difficult for me to make the decision [to be involved]. If you’re a public person who’s constructed a quieter private life, the world is so freakish that this makes you a target. You’re opening a door, you could become a sort of stalker’s delight, and that concerned me.”

Is he speaking from experience? “The last [stalker] I had was in England. I hit him on the head with my knuckles about 400 times. I never saw him again. I was doing a play in the West End. He was outside after the show with a sandwich board on which he had scrawled hundreds of thousands of times with an ink pen, ‘I’m waiting.’ And I just sort of literally flipped my wig— I was wearing a wig— and went downstairs and just started rapping him in the head, and said, If you really think you’re going to come here and play a psychopath with me, you’d better go away and study for a while. I’ve been waiting for you my whole life. When I talked to a psychiatrist, he said it was probably very well-handled. Not because of the bullying but because if they sense the fear, that’s fatal. It’s not a massive concern of mine. Usually it’s pretty harmless. Phoebe Cates had a Japanese guy who moved from Tokyo to New York and changed his name to Phoebus Catus. . . . ”

Having read and liked Kaufman’s screenplay at an early stage, Malkovich eventually met with Jonze in Paris after receiving a call from Francis Ford Coppola, now Jonze’s
father-in-law (Jonze recently married Sofia Coppola), who told him, “We’ll all be working for this kid in 10 years.” Says Malkovich, “I realized that if I said no, this really original, funny thing that talks about really important ideas either wouldn’t get made at all or wouldn’t get made in the spirit it was written.” Replacing the subject, he adds, “would be like saying if you wrote a script about Jackson Pollock that suddenly you had to make it about Rembrandt because they both work with crayons.”

Even if he was playing “himself,” Malkovich says he felt in no position to offer any insights or request changes to his portrayal “because the script by its nature takes that right away. I don’t think Charlie’s stupid, I think he knew enough about me to know I’d probably find it funny on some level. The only fear I had was that in the desire— the very good and proper desire— to get the film done, Spike and Charlie would feel like they had to make it gentler, or less mocking.”

Jonze adds, “Not only did he liberate us
to be mean, he said the meaner the better. On the shoot, he made everyone comfortable with playing with this character John Malkovich, not taking this character seriously, and it enabled all the other actors to feel very loose. There’s this scene where Malkovich and Catherine Keener are having sex on the sofa, and she slaps him on top of the head, and
it makes this really loud smacking sound, and I don’t think she could’ve done that if John hadn’t come into it with this attitude of having fun with it himself.”

No less than Malkovich’s gameness, Jonze’s well-established flair for understating the ridiculous (see matter-of-factly insane music videos like “Praise You” and Daft Punk’s “Da Funk”) is what juices the film. Kaufman says it was the exact approach he’d had in mind for his delirious fable. “I never envisioned it as wacky. I’d always thought these people’s situation was a terrible one, tragic and serious, and Spike interpreted that in a very nonstylized way, so that you didn’t get lost in the pyrotechnics, or the weirdness of it.”


Spike? “Yeah, well, I mean, I guess I figured the less you show, the better. And, um, the less we try and, you know, the more we leave open to people to just imagine, what you want to fill into the blanks, the more, um, the more sort of real it would be.”

The burden of interpreting the movie falls on Malkovich: “I think there’s a need for us to escape ourselves for some period of time, escape our existence, our ridiculousness, our nature. And there’s the idea that a celebrity’s blowjobs are interesting and yours aren’t, which our culture insists on as a constitutional right and our media promulgates in the most vicious, irresponsible, ludicrous, cynical way. But there’s also something deeper which is very innocent about this film— the metaphor of discovery. In the case of actors, writers, directors, you open that portal and that’s really what we get to do. We get to go somewhere for Warhol’s 15 minutes. In that way, the film is a defense of the theater, of movies, of creation, and it’s very moving in a weird way— people going through a process of creation to discover everyday joys. In that way, it’s sort of like Our Town.”

But are celebrities, whose blowjobs are already officially interesting, perhaps more likely to respond to the fear of people wanting to get inside their heads? Would they not identify with the vessel? Jonze: “Part of being a person is just being, you know, the insecurities that make you think, lead you to want, feeling, having the feelings of wanting to be somebody else.”

Malkovich: “I agree. But it’s also a lack of narcissism to think, He’s interesting, wonder what he thinks, what he must feel. To have that kind of voyeurism must imply some respect for the other. It doesn’t just mean that whatever you’re doing is pathetic. It means also that you kind of know what you’re doing, but you don’t know what they’re doing, and it might be nice to find out. I’ve never wanted to be anybody else without particularly liking myself.”

While it’s not unreasonable to wonder how an oddity like Being John Malkovich will impact its star’s career, the man himself seems more concerned with the potential spillover into his personal life. “If you’re an actor who plays people, you can say, ‘Look, I’m a professional actor, fuck off, go bother someone else.’ But if you start becoming the subject, then I think that’s clearly a line that’s crossed.”

And what happens now that he’s crossed it? “I don’t know, we’ll see.”

Laughing, Jonze tells him, “At the very least, people are going to come up to you and say, ‘Hey, you were in that jewel-thief movie.’ ”

“I think it’ll probably just be that,” says Malkovich. “People will go, ‘I love you in that jewel-thief movie’ instead of saying some line from Con Air.”

Without taking anything away from Jonze or the cast, it’s clear that the real revelation of Being John Malkovich is its screenwriter— who, in New York, seemed a little overwhelmed by his first brush with public exposure (he’d skipped the film’s world premiere in Venice). A couple of weeks later, speaking on the phone from the safety of his home in Los Angeles, Kaufman was relaxed enough to answer a few more questions.

You seem reluctant to say too much about the film.
I want to allow people to have their experience of it rather than an experience colored by something I say.

Does it pain you to hear people’s interpretations? No, I actually get a kick out of it. I don’t think it’s possible to misinterpret the movie. And I certainly don’t mind if a critic interprets the movie. If it’s not me, it feels a little cleaner.

What kind of films do you like? I like things that I don’t see as commercial. Not that I’m anticommercial but if I feel like something’s been designed to manipulate or control me, I bristle.

I hate to do this because people see it, and go, oh, that’s what you’re doing. A lot of David Lynch . . . now that I’ve named just one it’s
going to seem even more so. I’m going to have to name a list of people: Mike Leigh, David
Cronenberg, the Coen brothers, Tom Noonan’s film What Happened Was . . . I like it when no one’s telling me what I’m supposed to feel.


Tell me a little about Human Nature [a film Jonze and Kaufman are producing, written by Kaufman, to
be directed by music-video veteran Michel Gondry, with Patricia Arquette starring]. Spike said it was about a woman who grows hair at an uncontrollable rate. It’s difficult to describe it without making it sound wacky, which it isn’t. It’s about people struggling, lost people.

Like Malkovich. Hopefully not too much. It doesn’t have a supernatural component.

So the hair thing is a medical condition? There are medical conditions like that. The film doesn’t deal with that element, though. It’s just what it is.

I hear you’ve also written a script about [Gong Show host] Chuck Barris [with Mike Myers reportedly
interested in the role]. It’s called Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, and it’s adapted from his memoirs, in which he claimed he was an assassin for the CIA. I was interested in whether it was true, and if not, why he would say something like that— it’s fascinating to me either way. I’ve also written a script for Jonathan Demme’s company. It’s called Adaptation, and it’s an adaptation.

So it’s a meta-adaptation? Perhaps. It’s based on Susan Orlean’s The Orchid Thief, a nonfiction book about the world of orchid collectors, and specifically this man, John Laroche, who stole a rare orchid out of a swamp in Florida.

Are you working on any original screenplays? I’m working with Michel Gondry on a story that takes place almost entirely in someone’s

What’s it called? Right now it’s called “Untitled Memory Project.”

That’s catchy. Maybe you should keep it. I might. I’ve done stranger things.


Lust Horizons

In 1972, Karen Durbin showed some passages from her journal to a friend who was writing a book about the counter-culture and wanted to quote her on living in the age of radical feminism. After reading the material he told her, “This is great stuff! You should expand it into an article.”

“But who would publish such a thing?” she said. Personal journalism was still an oddity then.

The Village Voice might.”

The journal entries became Durbin’s first Voice essay, “Casualties of the Sex War.” It was a cri de coeur against the devolution of the women’s liberation movement into puritanical condemnations of heterosexuality (“We’d been living together for two years. As far as I know, only my parents and the movement disapproved”) and the devolution of the sexual revolution into the glorification of loveless fucking. The piece told its feminist, countercultural readers what we already knew and didn’t want to admit: that feminism had crested on the radical utopian wave of the ’60s, and two years into the new decade radical utopianism was on the skids.

Durbin’s title echoed that of an earlier Voice foray into this genre, Ingrid Bengis’s 1970 “Heavy Combat in the Erogenous Zone.” That essay and two sequels mulled, in graphic and intimate terms, the contradictions of female sexuality in a male-dominated society. Though pretty mild by today’s standards, at the time they made a sensation. You just didn’t read this kind of stuff outside hermetic movement circles. This was what the Voice became for many of us: the place where we could read about what we were feeling and thinking, and the arguments we were having, in the kind of language we actually used.

The Voice did pull its punches a bit, segregating Bengis’s and Durbin’s pieces under the rubric Personal Testament (“a department open to contributions from readers”). And after the label was discarded, the attitude remained. There was news — serious matters like city politics — and then there was this . . . what was it, exactly? In 1973 Durbin attracted a lot of attention for another highly personal piece, “On Sexual Jealousy.” A male Voice writer allowed that this was all very well, but when was she going to write about something real? “What’s real?” Durbin inquired. The writer suggested the Board of Estimate — a former city government structure that sexual jealousy has managed to outlast.

In those days, it seemed to me that half the feminists I knew were freelance writers, and half of those were writing for the Voice. Women like us gravitated toward freelancing (which of course paid badly — at the Voice it paid almost nothing) in part because journalism jobs were largely a male preserve. We were young, struggling to make our way in the world, a prime feminist constituency. The Voice already had a tradition of women writers — some, like Susan Brownmiller and Vivian Gornick, embraced the movement and found in it a compelling new subject. The paper’s willingness to let writers follow their obsessions, its emphasis on the individual writer’s voice, its laissez-faire attitude about subject matter and style were in sync with the let-a-hundred-flowers-bloom mentality of the early movement. From the consciousness-raising session to the pages of the Voice was not such a long journey.

My own obsession was picking apart culturally conservative arguments; my Voice debut tore into an anti-feminist book by Midge Decter. After that I wrote for the paper sporadically until 1979, when I became a staff writer and columnist. A few years later I was a senior editor whose self-chosen specialty was cultural issues. The radical-feminist presence on the paper loomed large. Karen Durbin was arts editor and the equally hard-nosed M. Mark had created the Voice Literary Supplement. A critical mass of female voices—writers like Judith Levine, Kathy Dobie, Debbie Nathan, Michele Wallace, C.Carr, Donna Gaines—wrote on everything from surrogate motherhood to black nannies to ritual sex abuse trials to teenage suicide.

The cultural backlash was going strong, but there was little point in attacking the Christian right or Ronald Reagan to Voice readers. As writers and editors the feminists at the Voice were more concerned with confronting the left — which increasingly defended “traditional values” and disparaged feminist concerns like abortion as an elitist distraction from “real” issues — and conservative trends in the feminist movement itself.

During the ’80s the Voice became the prime public forum for “politically incorrect” radical-feminist libertarians who continued to criticize marriage and the family, insisted on defending abortion, not just “choice,” and advocated what would come to be known (after a piece of mine called “Lust Horizons: Is the Women’s Movement Pro-Sex?”) as “pro-sex feminism.” We took on the anti-pornography movement, which had dominated the feminist conversation about sex: As we saw it, the claim that “pornography is violence against women” was code for the neo-Victorian idea that men want sex and women endure it.

During this period, internal tensions at the Voice ran high, in the latest version of the old battle between (mostly straight male) writers and editors of “real” political news and (largely female and gay male) purveyors of culture. We feminists saw the male politicos as hopelessly conservative. (Nat Hentoff, having decided to join the small left wing of the right-to-life movement, was a particular irritant, though in retrospect I see his presence as a useful challenge — it certainly forced me to rethink and sharpen my arguments.) They did not take kindly to our efforts to raise their consciousness about sexism in the office and in the paper: We might have thought of ourselves as sexy rebels against feminist party lines, but they called us “Stalinist feminists,” in a foreshadowing of Rush Limbaugh’s “Feminazi” label. We retaliated by dubbing them “the white boys.” The fights often spilled over onto the Voice‘s pages — yet another way the paper was unique in documenting the culture of the left.

The iconic example of these clashes was the Great Yam Furor of 1986. C. Carr, who was covering the performance-art scene, wrote a piece on Karen Finley, then an obscure performer working in small clubs. Carr called her “a raw, quaking id,” describing in riveting fashion her obscene, scatological monologues and penchant for smearing herself with food and other substances; in one such routine, called “Yams Up My Granny’s Ass,” Finley applied canned yams to her own butt. Men in her audiences often freaked out. “A filthy woman (in any sense of the word) has stepped further outside social mores than a man can possibly get,” Carr observed. The story made the cover and the “white boys” went bananas, nicely illustrating her point. In his column Pete Hamill sarcastically reassured his political writer friends that Carr’s piece had to be a parody rather than “vile, disgusting, contaminating,” as they thought. The letters about yams poured in.

Many years after leaving the Voice, I still think of the Karen Finley story as summing up what I most appreciated in the paper’s relationship to feminism while I was there: It captured the rawness of our urge to transcend limits. It’s a different publication now, in a profoundly different time—an era in which feminism has been assimilated as common sense even as its more dangerous impulses are forgotten or stylized to death. How fortunate to have that outrageous cover, those incendiary words, to remind us that the unsocialized woman existed, and will rise again.


‘Mass Naked Happening’

February 1, 1968

I have seen the future—and it doesn’t work.


“Those things never start on time,” I was informed.

So I showed up about 10.40 just as the first young man slipped off this shirt and pants. Within seconds half a dozen young men joined him, all body-painted, all well-lit by the over-lapping flash of photographer’s bulbs.

On a stage at the far end of the gym, the Group Image was performing against a huge backdrop of multiple-projections. It isn’t accurate to say they play extremely loudly—like many groups, they don’t seem to make sound at all, but to have entered another sensory dimension altogether. Movies were projected on several screens hung from the ceiling, moving lights dappled the walls, and from time to time strips of paper were thrown from the balcony. Two or three hundred hippies—the term is still valid in certain environments—were dancing in various stages of consciousness.

And in a kind of pen at the entrance-end of the gym, about the size of a boxing ring, with fluorescent posts at the corners and a C-movie projected on a screen at the back, the naked dancing continued—now 10 or 12 young men, and a few on the main dance floor itself.

“Put your clothes on,” the owner of the Gymnasium vainly implored, but suddenly, in a heterosexual followup to last week’s naked happening at the Palm Gardens, a fleshy blonde girl stroke naked into the pen, and the crowd, merely curious up to this point, clustered quickly around the area. The girl danced for a few minutes, then disappeared as quickly as she’d come—into clothes and into newsprint.

A little later, another girl lay down in a corner of the pen and casually smoked a dubious cigarette as her boy-friend gently lifted her skirt and deftly painted—but not so deftly that it didn’t tickle—what John Cleland referred to as “nether lips.” Eastman-Kodak stock must have jumped at least a point, and a Time reporter, more indignant than curious, asked “is this what’s going on in New York?”

For the next hour or so the over-30 reporters and photographers waited around, Marty-like, for more what used to be called “action.” But finally Kusama admitted that that was pretty much it for the evening, and she seemed as disappointed as anyone.

Actually, I’d very much wanted to like it. On the way up to the subway, I vowed not to use the banal and obvious jokes like telling boys from girls who having it up the here with nudity. After all, everyone had said that the Ann Halprin dance concert at Hunter College last year was exhilarating and liberating, many people in our time regard utopia as a sexual rather than a social ideal, and we have been told that the younger generation is finally overthrowing 2500 years of Platonic idealism in favor of tactility. This was to be a glimpse of the unrepressed future. Animal vitality and acceptance would sweep the world. Que viva body mysticism!

But how sad and depressing it was. The utopian fantasies, collapsed, and somewhere in between the titillated media and the post-civilization on 71st Street lay hopes that this was not to be the way of all flesh.

For the most disturbing thing about the evening was its complete sense of unreality. At first I thought they might be laughing at how serious everyone was getting about such a trivial thing—wow, we just take off our clothes and people write articles about the “glimpses of the unrepressed future.” But they weren’t putting us on, they weren’t even there. It was very much like one of those press conferences at which a public figure makes statements for television cameramen. The cameramen are bored, the public figure is just putting on his act for the cameras—the “reality” of the event, its essence, when it actually “happens,” is when the film is shown on television six or eight hours later.

Similarly, the reality of the “mass naked happening” seemed to lie in the media, in the pictures, in the gesture—which meant nothing except insofar as it was reported. I felt at first that it would be unfair to comment as a voyeur, that one would have to swing with it in order to understand it (another Voice reporter arrested), but the only reality of the situation WAS voyeurism. We had achieved a situation in which the voyeur was more real than what he observed.

For the scene—or at least this one example of it, which we can only hope is an exception—seemed like nothing so much as those futuristic movies (some of which were projected on the screens) full of pale, emotionless zombies. The participants were obviously in a state of ecstasy—but it seemed such a solipsistic, masturbatory ecstasy that the pleasure-principle itself may need re-definition. What a sad and lonely and disembodied ecstasy.

When telegrams announce the arrival of the Noble Savage, tactility has become the final abstraction.


AIDS: The Agony of Africa

November 9, 1999

Penhalonga, Zimbabwe—They didn’t call Arthur Chinaka out of the classroom. The principal and Arthur’s uncle Simon waited until the day’s exams were done before breaking the news: Arthur’s father, his body wracked with pneumonia, had finally died of AIDS. They were worried that Arthur would panic, but at 17 years old, he didn’t. He still had two days of tests, so while his father lay in the morgue, Arthur finished his exams. That happened in 1990. Then in 1992, Arthur’s uncle Edward died of AIDS. In 1994, his uncle Richard died of AIDS. In 1996, his uncle Alex died of AIDS. All of them are buried on the homestead where they grew up and where their parents and Arthur still live, a collection of thatch-roofed huts in the mountains near Mutare, by Zimbabwe’s border with Mozambique. But HIV hasn’t finished with this family. In April, a fourth uncle lay coughing in his hut, and the virus had blinded Arthur’s aunt
Eunice, leaving her so thin and weak she couldn’t walk without help. By September both were dead.

The most horrifying part of this story is that it is not unique. In Uganda, a business executive named Tonny, who asked that his last name not be used, lost two brothers and a sister to AIDS, while his wife lost her brother to the virus. In the rural hills of South Africa’s KwaZulu Natal province, Bonisile Ngema lost her son and daughter-in-law, so she tries to support her granddaughter and her own aged mother by selling potatoes. Her dead son was the breadwinner for the whole extended family, and now she feels like an orphan.

In the morgue of Zimbabwe’s Parirenyatwa Hospital, head mortician Paul Tabvemhiri opens the door to the large cold room that holds cadavers. But it’s impossible to walk in because so many bodies lie on the floor, wrapped in blankets from their deathbeds or dressed in the clothes they died in. Along the walls, corpses are packed two to a shelf. In a second cold-storage area, the shelves are narrower, so Tabvemhiri faces a
grisly choice: He can stack the bodies on top of one another, which squishes the face and makes it hard for relatives to identify the body, or he can leave the cadavers out in the hall, unrefrigerated. He refuses to deform bodies, and so a pair of corpses lie outside on gurneys behind a curtain. The odor of decomposition is faint but clear.

Have they always had to leave bodies in the hall? “No, no, no,” says Tabvemhiri, who has worked in the morgue since 1976. “Only in the last five or six years,” which is when AIDS deaths here took off. Morgue records show that the number of cadavers has almost tripled since the start of Zimbabwe’s epidemic, and there’s been a change in who is dying: “The young ones,” says Tabvemhiri, “are coming in bulk.”

The wide crescent of East and Southern Africa that sweeps down from Mount Kenya and around the Cape of Good Hope is the
hardest-hit AIDS region in the world. Here, the virus is cutting down more and more of Africa’s most energetic and productive people, adults aged 15 to 49. The slave trade also targeted people in their prime, killing or sending into bondage perhaps 25 million people. But that happened over four centuries. Only 17 years have passed since AIDS was first found in Africa, on the shores of Lake Victoria, yet according to the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS), the virus has already killed more than 11 million sub-Saharan Africans. More than 22 million others are infected.

Only 10 percent of the world’s population lives south of the Sahara, but the region is home to two-thirds of the world’s HIV-positive people, and it has suffered more than 80 percent of all AIDS deaths.

Last year, the combined wars in Africa killed 200,000 people. AIDS killed 10 times that number. Indeed, more people succumbed to HIV last year than to any other cause of death on this continent, including malaria. And the carnage has only begun.

Unlike ebola or influenza, AIDS is a slow plague, gestating in individuals for five to 10 years before killing them. Across East and Southern Africa, more than 13 percent of adults are infected with HIV, according to UNAIDS. And in three countries, including Zimbabwe, more than a quarter of adults carry the virus. In some districts, the rates are even higher: In one study, a staggering 59 percent of women attending prenatal clinics in rural Beitbridge, Zimbabwe, tested HIV-positive.

Life expectancy in more than a dozen African countries “will soon be 17 years shorter because of AIDS-47 years instead of 64,” says Callisto Madavo, the World Bank’s vice president for Africa. HIV “is quite literally robbing Africa of a quarter of our lives.”


In the West, meanwhile, the HIV death rate has dropped steeply thanks to powerful drug cocktails that keep the disease from progressing. These regimens must be taken for years, probably for life, and they can cost more than $10,000 per patient per year. Yet in many of the hardest-hit African countries, the total per capita health-care budget is less than $10.

Many people-in Africa as well as the West-shrug off this stark disparity, contending that it is also true for other diseases. But it isn’t. Drugs for the world’s major infectious killers-tuberculosis, malaria, and diarrheal diseases- have been subsidized by the international community for years, as have vaccines for childhood illnesses such as polio and measles. But even at discounted prices, the annual cost of putting every African with HIV on triple combination therapy would exceed $150 billion, so the world is letting a leading infectious killer for which treatment exists mow down millions.

That might be more palatable if there were a Marshall Plan for AIDS prevention to slow the virus’s spread. But a recent study by UNAIDS and Harvard shows that in 1997 international donor countries devoted $150 million to AIDS prevention in Africa. That’s less than the cost of the movie Wild Wild West.

Meanwhile, the epidemic is seeping into Central and West Africa. More than a tenth of adults in Côte d’Ivoire are infected. Frightening increases have been documented in Yaoundé and Douala, the largest cities in Cameroon. And in Nigeria-the continent’s most populous country-past military dictatorships let the AIDS control program wither, even while the prevalence of HIV has climbed to almost one in every 20 adults.

Quite simply, AIDS is on track to dwarf every catastrophe in Africa’s recorded history. It is stunting development, threatening the economy, and transforming cultural traditions.

  • Epidemics are never merely biological. Even as HIV changes African society, it spreads by exploiting current cultural and economic conditions. “The epidemic gets real only in a context,” says Elhadj Sy, head of UNAIDS’s East and Southern Africa Team. “In Africa, people wake up in the morning and try to survive-but the way they do that often puts them at risk for infection.” For example, men migrate to cities in search of jobs; away from their wives and families for months on end, they seek sexual release with women who, bereft of property and job skills, are selling their bodies to feed themselves and their children. Back home, wives who ask their husbands to wear condoms risk being accused of sleeping around; in African cultures, it’s usually the man who dictates when and how sex happens.

    Challenging such cultural and economic forces requires political will, but most African governments have been shockingly derelict. Lacking leadership, ordinary Africans have been slow to confront the disease. Few companies, for example, have comprehensive AIDS programs. And many families still refuse to acknowledge that HIV is killing their relatives, preferring to say that the person died of TB or some other opportunistic illness. Doctors often collude in this denial. “Just the other day,” says a high-ranking Zimbabwean physician who spoke on condition of anonymity, “I wrote AIDS on a death certificate and then crossed it out. I thought, ‘I’ll just be stigmatizing this person, because no one else puts AIDS as the cause of death, even when that’s what it is.’ ”

    Why is AIDS worse in sub-Saharan Africa than anywhere else in the world? Partly because of denial; partly because the virus almost certainly originated here, giving it more time to spread; but largely because Africa was weakened by 500 years of slavery and colonialism. Indeed, historians lay much of the blame on colonialism for Africa’s many corrupt and autocratic governments, which hoard resources that could fight the epidemic. Africa, conquered and denigrated, was never allowed to incorporate international innovations on its own terms, as, for example, Japan did.

    This colonial legacy poisons more than politics. Some observers attribute the spread of HIV to polygamy, a tradition in many African cultures. But job migration, urbanization, and social dislocation have created a caricature of traditional polygamy. Men have many partners not through marriage but through prostitution or sugar-daddy arrangements that lack the social glue of the old polygamy.

    Of course, the worst legacy of whites in Africa is poverty, which fuels the epidemic in countless ways. Having a sexually transmitted disease multiplies the chances of spreading and contracting HIV, but few Africans obtain effective treatment because the clinic is too expensive or too far away. Africa’s wealth was either funneled to the West or restricted to white settlers who barred blacks from full participation in the economy. In apartheid South Africa, blacks were either not educated at all or taught only enough to be servants. Now, as the country suffers one of the world’s most explosive AIDS epidemics, illiteracy hampers prevention. Indeed, AIDS itself is rendering Africa still more vulnerable to any future catastrophe, continuing history’s vicious cycle.


    Yet AIDS is not merely a tale of despair. Increasingly, Africans are banding together- usually with meager resources-to care for their sick, raise their orphans, and prevent the virus from claiming more of their loved ones. Their efforts offer hope. For while a crisis of this magnitude can disintegrate society, it can also unify it. “To solve HIV,” says Sy, “you must involve yourself: your attitudes and behavior and beliefs. It touches upon the most fundamental social and cultural things-procreation and death.”

    AIDS is driving a new candor about sex-as well as new efforts to control it, through virginity testing and campaigns that advocate sticking to one partner. And slowly, fitfully, it is also giving women more power. The death toll is scaring women into saying no to sex or insisting on condoms. And as widows proliferate, people are beginning to see the harm in denying them the right to inherit property.

    The epidemic is also transforming kinship networks, which have been the heart of most African cultures. Orphans, for example, have always been enfolded into the extended family. But more than 7 million children in sub-Saharan Africa have lost one or both parents, and the virus is also killing their aunts and uncles, depriving them of foster parents and leaving them to live with often feeble grandparents. In
    response, communities across Africa are volunteering to help orphans through home visits and, incredibly, by sharing the very little they have. Such volunteerism is both a reclaiming of communal traditions and their adaptation into new forms of civil society.

    But even heroic efforts can’t stop the damage that’s already occurred here in the hills where Arthur Chinaka lost his father and uncles. The worst consequence of this epidemic is not the dead, but the living they leave behind.

  • Rusina Kasongo lives a couple of hills over from Chinaka. Like a lot of elderly rural folk who never went to school, Kasongo can’t calculate how old she is, but she can count her losses: Two of her sons, one of her daughters, and all their spouses died of AIDS, and her husband died in an accident. Alone, she is rearing 10 orphaned children.

    “Sometimes the children go out and come home very late,” says Kasongo, “and I’m afraid they’ll end up doing the same thing as Tanyaradzwa.” That’s the daughter who died
    of AIDS; she had married twice, the first time in a shotgun wedding. Now, the eldest orphan, 17-year-old Fortunate, already has a child but not a husband.

    Few people have conducted more research on AIDS orphans than pediatrician Geoff Foster, who founded the Family AIDS Caring Trust (FACT). It was Foster who documented that more than half of Zimbabwe’s orphans are being cared for by grandparents, usually grandmothers who had nursed their own children to the grave. But even this fragile safety net won’t be there for many of the next generation of orphans.

    “Perhaps one-third of children in Zimbabwe will have lost a father or mother-or both-to AIDS,” says Foster. They are more likely to be poor, he explains, more likely to be deprived of education, more likely to be abused or neglected or stigmatized, more likely to be seething with all the needs that make it more likely that a person will have unsafe sex. “But when they get HIV and die, who cares for their children? Nobody, because they’re orphans, so by definition their kids have no grandparents. It’s just like the virus itself. In the body, HIV gets into the defense system and knocks it out. It does that sociologically, too. It gets into the extended family support system and decimates it.”

    Foster’s chilling realization is dawning on other people who work in fields far removed from HIV. This year, South African crime researcher Martin Schönteich published a paper that begins by noting, “In a decade’s time every fourth South African will be aged between 15 and 24. It is at this age group where people’s propensity to commit crime is at its highest. At about the same time there will be a boom in South Africa’s orphan population as the Aids epidemic takes its toll.” While some causes of crime can be curtailed, Schönteich writes,
    “Other causes, such as large numbers of juveniles in the general population, and a high proportion of children brought up without adequate parental supervision, are beyond the control of the state.” His conclusion: “No amount of state spending on the criminal justice system will be able to counter this harsh reality.”


    More AIDS and more crime are among the most dramatic consequences of the orphan explosion. But Nengomasha Willard sees damage that is harder to measure. Willard teaches 11-and 12-year-olds at Saint George’s Primary School, located near the Chinakas and the Kasongos. Fifteen of Willard’s 42 pupils have lost one or both of their parents, but he’s particularly worried about one of his students who lost his father and then, at his mother’s funeral, cried inconsolably. “He doesn’t want to participate,” says Willard. “He just wants to be alone.”

    “I see thousands of children sitting in a corner,” says Foster. “The impact is internalized-it’s depression, being withdrawn.” In Africa, says Foster, the focus on poverty eclipses research into psychological issues, but he has published disturbing evidence of abuse-emotional, physical, and sexual. Meanwhile, the orphan ranks keep swelling. “We’re talking 10 percent who will have lost both parents, maybe 15 percent. Twenty-five percent who will have lost a mother. What does that do to a society, especially an impoverished society?”

  • Among his students, Willard has noticed that some of the orphans come to school without shoes or, in Zimbabwe’s cold winter, without a sweater. Sometimes their stepfamilies put them last on the list, but often it’s because grandmothers can’t scrape together enough money.

    Among economists, there has been a quiet debate over whether HIV will harm the economy. Some think it won’t. With unemployment rates in sub-Saharan Africa between 30 and 70 percent, they reason that there are plenty of people to replenish labor losses. One scenario is that economic growth might slacken, but population growth will also dwindle, so per capita GNP might hold steady or even rise. Then, says Helen Jackson, executive director of the Southern Africa AIDS Information Dissemination Service (SAfAIDS), Africa might face the grotesque irony of “an improvement in some macroeconomic indicators, but the exact opposite at the level of households and human suffering.”

    But evidence is mounting that the economy will suffer. Between 20 and 30 percent of workers in South Africa’s gold mining industry-the mainstay of that country’s economy-are estimated to be HIV-positive, and replacing these workers will cut into the industry’s productivity. In Kenya, a new government report predicts that per capita income could sink by 10 percent over the next five years. In Côte d’Ivoire, a teacher dies every school day.

    Then there are the effects that can’t be quantified. “What does AIDS do for the image of Africa?” asks Tony Barnett, a veteran researcher on the economic impact of AIDS. To lure investors, the continent already has to battle underdevelopment and racism, but now, he says, many people will see Africa as “diseased, sexually diseased. It chimes in with so many stereotypes.”

    Beneath the corporate economy, millions of Africans subsist by cultivating their own small plot of land. When someone in the family comes down with AIDS, the other members have to spend time caring for that person, which means less time cultivating crops. And when death comes, the family loses a crucial worker. Studies have documented that among rural AIDS-stricken families, food production falls, savings dwindle, and children are more likely to be undernourished.

    For Kasongo and her 10 orphans, food is a constant problem, but now it has become even harder. On her way back from the fields, carrying a basket of maize on her head, Kasongo tripped and fell. Her knee is swollen, her back is aching, and cultivating the fields is close to impossible. Here, under the radar of macroeconomic indicators, Kasongo’s ordeal shows how AIDS is devastating Africa.

    This is the context in which one of Africa’s most agonizing debates is taking place: Should doctors administer drugs to pregnant women that sharply reduce the chances that a baby will be born with HIV? So far, the debate has centered on the cost of the drugs, but a new, inexpensive regimen has pushed thornier arguments to the surface.

    The “vaccine for babies,” as it is sometimes called, does not treat the mother and so does nothing to reduce the chances the baby will become an orphan. That’s why Uganda’s Major Rubaramira Ruranga, a well-known activist who is himself infected with HIV, opposes it. “Many children in our countries die of malnutrition, even with both parents,” he argues. “Without parents, it’s almost certain they’ll die.”

    Isn’t it impossible to know the fate of any
    given child and presumptuous to decide it in
    advance? “That’s sentimental,” he snaps. Even Foster, who believes “every child has a right to be born without HIV,” wonders whether the money is best spent on the “technical fix” of giving drugs to the pregnant women. The medicine is only a part of the cost, for women can infect their children during breast feeding, which raises expensive problems such as providing formula and teaching mothers how to use it safely in places where clean water may not exist. Would all that money, Foster wonders, be better spent alleviating the root causes of why women get infected in the first place? “It’s very difficult to stand up and make such an argument because you get portrayed as a beast,” he says. In fact, such arguments testify to how the epidemic is forcing Africans to grapple with impossible choices.


  • Weston Tizora is one of thousands of Africans who are trying to give orphans a decent life. Just 25 years old, Tizora started as a gardener at Saint Augustine’s Mission and threw himself into volunteering in the mission’s AIDS program, called Kubatana, a Shona word meaning “together.” Next year he will take over the program’s leadership from its founder, British nurse Sarah Hinton. Kubatana’s 37 volunteers care for homebound patients, and they help raise orphans by, for example, bringing food to Rusina Kasongo’s brood.

    Just a few steps from Kasongo live Cloud and Joseph Tineti. They’re 14 and 11, respectively, and the oldest person in their home is their 15-year-old brother. They are, in the language of AIDS workers, a child-headed household. Who’s in charge? “No one,” Joseph answers-and it shows. Their one-room shack is strewn with dirty clothes, unwashed dishes, broken chairs. On the table, a roiling mass of ants feasts on pumpkin seeds and some kind of dried leaves.

    The troubles run deeper. Their father, who had divorced their mother before she died, lives in nearby Mutare. Does he bring food? “Yes,” says Joseph, “every week.” It’s not true, Tizora maintains. Kubatana members have even talked with the police in their effort to convince the father to take in his children or at least support them. But the police did not act, explains Tizora, because the father is unemployed and struggling to provide for the family of his second wife. Once a month-sometimes not even that often-he brings small amounts of food, so the orphans depend on donations from Kubatana volunteers.

    But if little Joseph’s version isn’t true, it’s what an orphaned kid would want: a father who at least brings food, stops by frequently, and acts a little like a dad. And his mother: What does Joseph remember of her? The question is too much, and he starts crying.

    Kubatana volunteers are supposed to look after the Tineti orphans, so why is their home so unkempt? There used to be two volunteers in this area, explains Tizora. One has been reassigned to work in the nearby mining village, ravaged by AIDS. The other has been away at her parents’ home for two months, attending to a family funeral and to her own late-stage pregnancy.

    And everyone in these villages has their hands full. Standing in a valley, Tizora points to the hillsides around him and says, “There are orphans in that home, and the one over there, and there by the gum trees. And see where there’s that white house? They’re taking care of orphans there, too.” By the time he finishes, he has pointed out about half of the homesteads. When the Kubatana program started, in 1992, volunteers identified 20 orphans. Now they have registered 3000. In many parts of Africa, notes Jackson of SAfAIDS, “It has actually become the norm to have orphaned children in the household rather than the exception.”

    Foster makes some quick calculations: Given the number of volunteers in the Kubatana program, there’s no way they can care for all their orphans. So when a volunteer gets pregnant, has a family emergency, or gets sick, kids like Cloud and Joseph fall through the cracks. Says Foster: “You can’t lose a quarter of your adult population in 10 years without catastrophic consequences.”

    In his office, Tizora has a wall of photographs showing the original 20 orphans. One is a girl who looks about 12. She lost her parents and then she lost the grandma who was caring for her. At that point, she started refusing to go to school, hiding on the way there. Now, she’s run away and, Tizora says, “we don’t know where she is.”

    Additional articles in this series.