2022 was a relatively good year for me, but, all things told, it was pretty similar to 2021. I wrote, I directed, I performed. I took a whack at going back to school. I continued to struggle with an ambivalent relationship to New York. With many stops and starts (and perhaps with not as much efficiency as would be ideal) I continued to find my way. Like a man with no hands in a dark room.
In this Good & Productive year, there were three theatre projects which could be called the “main ones.”
In March, my play Edmonton premiered with Sewer Rats Productions in Philadelphia.
In August, I directed Oscar Wilde’s Salomé at Stag & Lion, a little classical theatre company in Manhattan with whom I’m so glad to be involved again after a too-long absence.
Then, in December, I returned to the stage as an actor (just an actor! none of that writing-directing business!) in Yehuda Hyman’s Secret of the Possible.
I was so glad to be involved in all of these projects, and was so grateful to have my writer, director, and performer sides variously called upon depending on the project and its needs. I’m reminded of how in June of 2021 I wrote The Voyage of the Solinas with my Spectral Citadel friends, then in August directed The Gods of the Mountain, then in October produced my Penis Inspection Day with the Yale Cabaret. So, in that way, my life’s slight repetition begins to take on a pleasing symmetry.
Oh yeah, and I took my first teaching job with the Elm Shakespeare Company as part of their summer camp program. Much more of that kind of thing to come in the future, I hope.
But, without further ado (because I know this is what you’ve been waiting for all year), here are…
THE BEST THINGS I READ, SAW, AND HEARD IN 2022*
*because things that came out this year are not necessarily more interesting to me than things that came out in previous years.
Imaginary Interviews by André Gide
Gide was 73 when he wrote these essays while living under Nazi rule in Vichy France. In them, he imagines a young journalist visiting his home, and writes both sides of their conversation. Their discussions are wide-ranging and cosmopolitan, but mostly literary and/or political in nature. Alone in his room and concerned for the world after the war, Gide and his homuncular companion trawl their vast knowledge of history and culture to formulate a loose state of union on contemporary letters– and on wartime life. This short, late-career piece is endowed with a certain delicate empathy, as the aged, professorial Gide did not know if would survive to see the end of the war, or a future for France. Part literary criticism, part memoir, part history, and with a touch of winking metafiction, these deep and genre-tricky essays are full of wisdom, good taste, and originality of thought.
Moby-Dick by Herman Melville
What can I say? It’s Moby-Dick! I don’t see how I could summarize my relationship with this book in one paragraph, but I will mention that I adored fruity, philosophical Ishmael, and was thrilled at the occasional suggestions of his inchoate queer sexuality, as in Chapter 4, “The Counterpane” (“Upon waking next morning about daylight, I found Queequeg’s arm thrown over me in the most loving and affectionate manner. You had almost thought I had been his wife”) and fascinating, bizarre Chapter 94, “A Squeeze of the Hand,” a chapter-long aria in which he convinces himself that he’s become drunk on what he thinks to be whale semen. He is intelligent and friendly, but sometimes lacks social grace, and misunderstands or miscalculates situations that require the sort of knowledge that can’t be found in books. He is taken to brief obsessions (as in Chapter 42, “The Whiteness of the Whale,” or in the aforementioned cumdrunk Ch. 94), is a bit susceptible to being “had” and harassed by others, and is a complete truant when it comes to the responsible business of having a career, a family, any real sum of money to his name, etc. I see myself in him profoundly. I could not have asked for a better guide on this mission than Ishmael– if that is his real name. My edition was copiously illustrated by Gilbert Wilson’s visionary, nearly psychedelic paintings, which were jaw-dropping.
Angels in America, Parts One & Two by Tony Kushner
This is one of those classics that I had long intended to read because I figured I was supposed to. I felt pretty foolish when I finally read it and found that I absolutely loved it and should’ve read it far earlier. It is a true epic, simultaneously respondent to history and in direct communication with contemporary life. Prior Walter goes with Troy Maxson and Shelley Levene on a very short list of post-60s dramatic characters who belong to eternity.
Confessions of an English Opium-Eater by Thomas De Quincey
Gorgeously poetic, sharp and self-knowing, occasionally foppish and ridiculous, De Quincey guides us on a long and discursive exploration of what it means to be in society, but not of society.
Sasha Masha by Agnes Borinsky
The gentleness, the love of mundane things, the sweet and novel turns of phrase which cast a clarifying light on familiar feelings and ideas– it all feels very much like the Agnes Borinsky I know, who was a good teacher to me when I needed a good teacher. I am not a habitual reader of young adult fiction, but I liked this novel very much, and eagerly polished off chapter after chapter, often with a lump in my throat and a sort of mist before my eyes. Very organic and brave is a “coming-out” narrative that ends with the narrator only beginning to “come out,” embarking on a primarily personal path that is loving and never-ending.
Honorable mentions: The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, Woza Shakespeare! by Antony Sher and Gregory Doran, André & Oscar: The Literary Friendship of André Gide and Oscar Wilde by Jonathan Fryer, The Quare Fellow by Brendan Behan, Pojagi by Ping Chong
Please to See the King by Steeleye Span (1971)
The first time I heard Steeleye Span’s rendition of the traditional English song “Cold, Haily, Windy Night” I was utterly transfixed. Intertwining electric guitars, mazelike bass, and a screeching, wheedling violin line interlocked and suggested an English music I had never before known. Here is the Merrie Olde England of Falstaff and Robin Hood, but it is darker and dangerous and more wistfully mysterious. When you hear Steeleye Span bang out traditional jigs with all the foot-stomping verve of proto-metal, or a familiar ballad like “Lovely on the Water” with a fleck of the elusive ethereal that would later go into goth and darkwave, you begin to wonder why this album didn’t launch a thousand imitators. How was London in 1972 not swimming with electric adaptations of indigenous British music that amplified its inherent tension, doom, mysticism, and pounding, incessant drama? Please to See the King is a little glimpse of that other timeline, that other London.
Bright Phoebus by Lal & Mike Waterson (1972)
Twelve infectiously catchy, lightly psychedelic folk tales from deep in the backwoods by brother-sister team Lal & Mike. Spooky naivete and occulted mystery a la The Wicker Man are the order of the day on tracks like “The Scarecrow”
As I roved out one fine spring day
I saw twelve jolly dons dressed out in the blue and the gold so gay
And to a stake they tied a child newborn
And the songs were sung, the bells was rung, and they sowed their corn
and it’s all nearly too alien and discomfiting, even as it is achingly and undeniably beautiful. Then comes “Bright Phoebus,” the masterpiece title track and final song, with its heart-breaking and matter-of-fact meditation on the gift of creation and the possibility of starting anew.
Today bright Phoebus she smiled down on me for the very first time
For the very first time
She smiled on me.
Alles ist gut by Deutsch Amerikanische Freundschaft (1981)
1981 was a decisive hinge point for rock, punk, and electronic music. How appropriate, then, that Alles is gut is an uncanny Frankenstein amalgamation of all three. “Sato-Sato” begins the album with galloping, undead attitude, a little too gangling, inorganic, and eerily syncopated to feel entirely familiar (although you don’t need to know German to know what “schwitzt, meine kinder” means). “Der Mussolini” is the second track, and at this point your feeling is confirmed; nothing about this experience will be comfortable or normal. This is bone-jangling, adversarial, inside-out music.
Skylarking by XTC (1986)
The definitive soundtrack to the effervescence of summer, to the idea that the occluded second act to all of youth’s decadent exploits is the looming and greedy debt of entropy. As Andy Partridge sings on the swooning opening track “Summer’s Cauldron,” “Please, don’t pull me out / This is how I would want to go.”
Ballads of Sacco & Vanzetti by Woody Guthrie (1947)
It’s evident from this album’s slight repetition and occasional echolalia that Guthrie was commissioned by Folkways to write on the theme of accused anarchists Sacco & Vanzetti; it seems likely that he had more songs to record than he had ideas to put in songs. But good artists often thrive within the strictures of unyielding materials, and when Guthrie was here in contact with his muse, he was in rarified lyrical and musical form. With a brilliantly simple country-western melody, “Vanzetti’s Letter” unfolds its argument with a focused and highly specific humanism (“Sacco has been a good cutter, Mrs. Sacco their money has saved / And I, Vanzetti, I could have saved money, but I gave it as fast as received”) while it’s the very universality of “I Just Want to Sing Your Name” (“I never did see you, see you / I never did get to meet you / I just heard your story, story / And I just want to sing your name”) that imbues it with the hymnlike utility of a song like “This Land is Your Land.”
Honorable mentions: One World by John Martyn (1977), Aspera Hiems Symfonia by Arcturus (1996), Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe in You by Big Thief (2022), Singin’ the Blues by B.B. King (1956)
The Forbidden Room (dir. Guy Maddin, 2015)
Kaleidoscopic, antiquarian adventure-fantasy by one of our chief auteurs of imaginative cinema. In this loving pastiche of early sound cinema, you will infiltrate the clan of the cave wolves and rise the ranks of their society, you will evade the vampiric Aswang in a sweltering rainforest bar, you will learn how to take a bath. Every performer is introduced with an individually-designed title card and music sting. Silly comedy, blearily gorgeous effects, and deliriously giddy adventure burst from every seam. The Forbidden Room seems to be fueled by the happy tears of our love of cinema and its possibilities.
The Peacock King (dir. Lam Nai-Choi, 1988)
As difficult as it was to summarize The Forbidden Room, now I have to summarize The Peacock King! Hong Kong genre filmmaker Lam Nai-Choi couldn’t make a bad movie if he tried. Horror, fantasy, action, and 80s camp are his stock and trade. Some of you may know him from his work on the cult classic martial arts movie Riki-Oh, but Riki-Oh is only the beginning. In The Peacock King, a villainous witch splits her body in two to become a hideous, slavering monster, and there’s still about forty minutes of the movie left by the time she’s defeated. Both this and The Forbidden Room are the kind of movie that normally only exist in your dreams.
In America (dir. Jim Sheridan, 2002)
But I can talk myself down for a moment to discuss In America! This tear-jerking immigrant drama spoke to me profoundly this spring when Edmonton was opening and I was contemplating where to go once my stay in Connecticut had to come to an end. The Sullivans decide to move to New York, as I have done many times now, and they are as entranced by this city’s scale and majesty as they are ground down by its grueling hostility. To me, that is New York; it gives and it takes, and in great proportions.
Heavy Metal (dir. Gerald Potterton, 1981)
I remember trying to watch Heavy Metal when I was around sixteen. I thought it was kind of lame and I think I shut it off before it ended. But there was a blessing in disguise at work. Many years later in 2022, I got to watch the entire thing, including its closing Taarna segment, in more ideal circumstances– sinking into a couch, good friends on either side of me, totally and completely stoned. Viewed from that lens, Taarna’s bravery and sacrifice is pretty damn powerful, almost numinous.
Barbarella (dir. Roger Vadim, 1968)
To say nothing of this movie’s marvelous technicolor whimsy, it’s at its most moving and profound when it depicts a world and a people that are so socially advanced they prioritize the goodness of love above all else. As Fonda herself said on the press circuit, “Barbarella is not a so-called ‘sexually liberated woman.’ That would mean rebellion against something. She is different. She was born free.”
She was born free.
Honorable mentions: Deathstalker II (dir. Jim Wynorski, 1987), Mace the Outcast (dir. Lucio Fulci, 1983), Hearts & Armour (dir. Giacomo Battiato, 1983), The Mist (dir. Frank Darabont, 2007)
That’s all you’re gonna get out of me! Happy New Year!