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Anger Management

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In the novels of Horacio Castellanos Moya, the political is personal

“It’s not possible to speak of intellectual life in El Salvador.” That’s what Joan Didion heard from a group of Salvadoran writers and professors, as they huddled together in the then safe (and soon to become unsafe) precincts of San Salvador’s Universidad Centroamericana, for an American Embassy-sponsored coffee hour in 1982, four years into the country’s 12-year civil war.

Two different presidents had moved troops into the National University campus — one forcibly shutting it down for two years, the other killing 50 students and systematically destroying facilities — even before the war had begun. During the war, professors were regularly disappeared if authorities took issue with their lessons. Outside the ivory towers, mutilated corpses were found each morning by roads, in parks, in a “lunar field of rotting flesh” known as El Playon. And in the countryside, the killings were truly unspeakable. In December 1981, to take but one example, the CIA-trained Atlacatl Battalion murdered 767 indigenous people, of whom 358 were infants and children under the age of 13. All in all, 70,000 Salvadorians were killed during the war, which made it difficult to speak about civilization let alone of intellectual life.

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Not for You

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The growth in consumption inequality means more movies are made for the dwindling numbers of top earners

WHO goes to the movies? In America, a reliable answer to that question for the past decade has been “fewer people than last year.” The number of tickets sold hit a 20-year low in 2014. In 2015, Avengers 2, Jurassic World and Star Wars brought a slight rebound, but that year’s sales remained below 2013’s numbers. Nonetheless, theater owners’ and movie companies’ profits keep going up. The way this works isn’t too complicated, of course: Have you tried paying for a movie ticket lately?

Still, to justify continually rising ticket prices, movie theaters have been getting innovative. On a recent visit to my parents’ home in Massachusetts we caught a movie at the local multiplex. I used to love that particular theater because, for at least a decade and a half, its lobby featured a Time Crisis 3 machine, arguably the greatest arcade shooter of all time. But Time Crisis 3 was gone, along with the whole tacky arcade. Its room on the side of the lobby had instead been converted to plush seating and bar tables where you could enjoy the $11 draught beers now on offer at the Bar & Lounge counter next to the concession stand.

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Time Is a Killer

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Aging, as a staged theme, provokes other forms of performance to become strained and uncertain

“She was also an actress, which made the discussions of her even more real because she could be anything. She was a good actress, she was brilliant at pretense. She was more real in suspended disbelief than most things are just standing there. Her body, the one that you touch with your hands, unfolded into other people, and she was so sunk into performance that things got funneled into moments as hard as diamonds. The moments shimmered and hung in the air, they were at her fingertips, they were her craft.” —Eve Babitz, Eve’s Hollywood

“She was a great actress, but only in real life.” —Hilton Als, White Girls

 

THERE is a 30-second scene at the end of Quentin Tarantino’s 1997 revved-up blaxploitation film Jackie Brown where Ms. Brown (Pam Grier) is practicing. She’s practicing to brassily draw her gun, a firearm named a Colt Detective Special. With the gun carefully placed in an open desk drawer, easily reachable, Ms. Brown purses her lips three times, sometimes smiling, always grabbing the gun and pointing, punctuated by a sigh. In each sequence, part of a triptych, her left forearm is posed gracefully on the desk, in secretary-like fashion. She is bracing herself for what’s to come; she is staring beyond the camera. The eponymous heroine is a flight attendant for a crappy Mexican airline and, in conjunction with her lack of professional success, is often described as a “middle-aged woman,” struggling to get what’s hers.

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Death by Immortality

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Cancer is a tainted bonus

Immortality:Debility

“If we seek immortality, then so, too, in a rather perverse sense, does the cancer cell.”
—Siddhartha Mukherjee, Emperor of All Maladies

“(mutations in cancer genes accumulate with aging; cancer is thus intrinsically related to age)”
—Siddhartha Mukherjee, Emperor of All Maladies

IN 2015, my mother turned 70. A good Christian woman, she proclaimed that she had achieved her threescoreandten promise. Anything after that was a “bonus.” The joke about the “bonus” has been going on since she turned 65, a joke-not-joke rooted, in part, in her family history: a father who died at 73, a mother who died (of cancer) at 71, a husband who, carelessly, forgot to line up for the bonus and died at 51. Less than six months after turning 70, she was diagnosed with cancer.

Cancer is also a bonus. Cancer cells are “immortal”: they replicate incessantly, refusing to obey signals to moderate their speed or to die. They are, in fact, death-defying cells that kill. Immortality cannot survive in our bodies. From a cancer cell’s perspective, debility, that condition most associated with aging, is for other cells, cells that do not know how to adapt, how to beat death, how to live forever. That cancer cells produce debility because they are immortal speaks to one of the central contradictions of aging: increases in life expectancy are heralded as signs of progress, even as debility inevitably accompanies such increase. The bonus is tainted. According to cancer researcher Siddhartha Mukherjee, rates of cancer will increase as life expectancy increases, moving from one in four to, possibly, one in two. The bonus is tainted.

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Recoil Operation

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Small Arms, Long Reach: America’s Rifle Abroad

ON January 16th 2016, two California National Guardsmen pleaded guilty in a Federal court to a variety of weapons trafficking charges. They had previously worked in an Army National Guard armory not far from San Diego, and, being entrepreneurial sorts, had gone about gathering a small cache of guns to sell themselves. Some were military-issued, others were purchased in Texas (both over-the-counter, with serial numbers, and “hot,” with serial numbers defaced). The Guardsmen thought the guns were destined for south of the border; in fact, their client was an undercover ATF agent, and his purchases from the Guardsmen – three AR-15-style rifles, an AK-47, numerous high-capacity magazines, more – ultimately wound up as evidence at their trial, which was well-reported. Coverage from multiple sources all underlined one particular detail: for one of their meetings with that ATF agent, the two soldiers had arrived in full military uniform.

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