“Charles Manson Today: The Final Confessions of a Psychopath” by Erik Hedegaard, Rolling Stone
Let’s start this list off with a lie – this Manson profile is actually from the December 2013 issue of Rolling Stone. But it’s so engaging and creepy and captivating that I decided to include it anyway. Like just about everyone I know, I’m casually obsessed with Manson, and this article does a great job briefly sketching out the well-documented elements of the Tate-LaBianca murders before moving into a profile of present-day Charlie. There’s plenty of Manson’s distinguished brand of eccentric insanity – he claims The Beach Boys stole the song “In My Room” from him, which he had originally written as “In My Cell” – but it also goes deeper than that, giving us a glimpse of the strange, sad man beneath all of the insane bravado.
Choice Excerpt: “’Look, here’s how that works,’ he says. ‘You take a baby and’ – here he says something truly awful about what you could do to that baby, worse beyond anything you could imagine – ‘and it dies,’ and here he says something equally wretched…And it’s at moments like these that you realize prison is the only place for him, and hope to hell he never puts his hand on your skin again.”
“Livin’ Thing: An Oral History of ‘Boogie Nights’” by Alex French and Howie Kahn, Grantland
This is a riveting account of the genesis and filming of Boogie Nights, one of the best films of the 90s and the breakthrough for the incredible and enigmatic Paul Thomas Anderson. PTA declined to be interviewed, which is a bummer, but he is present throughout with snippets from previous interviews he’s done. The piece is rife with juicy gossip – like a very disgruntled Burt Reynolds getting into separate physical altercations with PTA and Thomas Jane – and super-cool insights into the film’s production, like PTA dragging the cast to real porn shoots and sabotaging screenings of the studio’s butchered edit of the film. Like the film itself, it’s trashy and smart and fun and substantial.
Choice Excerpt: Paul Thomas Anderson: “It’s true [that I saw my first porno at 9 years old]. My dad was the first guy on the block to have a VCR. The Opening of Misty Beethoven. Very, very, very well made – one of the best. It terrified me at the time, really scared the piss out of me. A blow job was a blow job, but the sex stuff was a bit confusing. I was trying to figure out: Is that in her butt or what?”
“The Reckoning” by Andrew Solomon, The New Yorker
More so than nearly any other American tragedy, Sandy Hook defies explanation – there is no possible context for the murder of 20 children and 6 staff members that occurred at the Connecticut elementary school. While debate after the shooting revolved around gun control, this piece profiles Peter Lanza, father of perpetrator Adam Lanza. Although the unspeakable horror of Adam’s crime undoubtedly looms ominous over every sentence, “The Reckoning” spends most of its time chronicling the Lanzas’ repeated and fruitless attempts to diagnose and treat their son’s increasingly troubling emotional and social struggles. “The Reckoning” is freaking heartbreaking and spectacularly well-crafted – analytical and humanizing, beautifully written and meticulously researched, concerned with broader issues and filled with granular detail. Haunting.
Choice Excerpt: “All parenting involves choosing between the day (why have another argument at dinner?) and the years (the child must learn to eat vegetables). Nancy’s error seems to have been that she always focussed on the day, in a ceaseless quest to keep peace in the home she shared with the hypersensitive, controlling, increasingly hostile stranger who was her son.”
“Wu-Tang, Atomically” by Amos Barshad, Grantland
By his own admission, Amos Barshad’s chronicle of the Wu isn’t a definitive history, but a colorful profile of the wild and wonderful personalities that populate the group. Barshad somehow – and seriously, the impressiveness of tracking down these perpetually scattered dudes is not to be understated – managed to catch up with every living Wu-Tang member (R.I.P ODB) and talk to them about the group’s history and present state. The piece captures what makes Wu great – their authenticity and their eccentricities – and what makes them so goddamn frustrating – their crippling in-fighting and almost bureaucratic inefficiency. It’s a pleasure to spend a few paragraphs with each of these personas (magnetic Meth, mercurial Ghostface, overlooked Inspectah Deck), distinct characters populating a group with a backstory to rival any Shaolin epic.
Choice Excerpt: “The anniversary album’s tentative title, A Better Tomorrow, wasn’t approved by the group before it was announced, which created dissension early in the process, something the fractious Clan could scarcely afford. ‘It’s like getting the United Nations to all agree on one fucking thing,’ Rae sputters. ‘Italy ain’t having it. Japan is on some shit. You know what I mean?’”
“GHOSTBUSTERS: An Oral History” by Jeff Labrecque, Entertainment Weekly
Esquire also commissioned an oral history for the seminal classic’s 30th anniversary, but I preferred this meatier EW version. As a diehard Ghostbusters fan, I knew most of the trivia (John Candy nearly played the Rick Moranis part, Slimer was intended as a homage to John Belushi, etc.), but this history does uncover some new nuggets. A particularly fascinating subplot describes a devastated Ernie Hudson discovering on the day before shooting that his part had been tremendously cut. The mostly marginal Winston was inexplicably my favorite Ghostbuster as a child, so I enjoyed hearing Hudson’s take on a character the piece calls “the Ghostbusters’ Ringo.” Bill Murray, as you would expect, declined to participate, but other cast members’ reminiscences on working with him are some of the best bits.
Choice Excerpt: Harold Ramis: “The first day we were shooting on the street in New York, Bill and Danny and I were just hanging out on the street, and everyone recognized Bill and Danny from SNL. Someone walked by and said, ‘Hey! Bill Murray!’ And Bill said, in a mock angry voice, ‘You son of a bitch!’ And he grabbed the guy and he wrestled him to the ground. Just a passerby. The guy was completely amazed – and laughing all the way to the ground. And then Bill left him there.”
“INTERSTELLAR and the Death of the Penis” by Devin Faraci, Badass Digest
Devin Faraci has been my favorite film writer for years. Once you get past his site’s rather unfortunate name, you’ll find that at Badass Digest Faraci has cultivated an atmosphere of giving serious attention to what used to be called “low culture” – genre films, comic books, popular music, etc. That’s not hard to find anymore – I’ve personally written like 10,000 words on Arnold Schwarzenegger movies – but rarely is it done with Faraci’s insight and personality. And he’s funny! Even his news updates come with titles like, “New TRANSFORMERS Trailer Reminds Us Of The Inevitability Of Our Own Deaths.” My favorite Faraci piece this year was this analysis on the gender allegory of Interstellar. It’s grounded and convincing and, like any good analytical interpretation, it totally added to my enjoyment of the film. It only clocks in at a little over a thousand words, so it’s not even a longread, which makes this the perfect opportunity for me to begin and end this list with a lie.
Choice Excerpt: “Rocket ships are giant dicks, ripping their way up into empty expanse of space. Our language for exploration – space and otherwise – is loaded with imagery of sexualized conquest. We penetrate the unknown and land on virgin lands.”