Weekly Culture Review: Patti Smith, Frank Ocean, and More

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In “Gravity and Grace,” Simone Weil wrote, “Absolutely unmixed attention is prayer,” and lately I’ve been chasing total absorption wherever I find it—as if, like a prayer, it might deliver me from evil within or around me, or at the very least serve as a conduit to something I want. Unmixed attention is what Frank Ocean offers, and what he modelled onstage last Friday night, at the Panorama music festival, on Randall’s Island. As the dusk darkened to blackness, Spike Jonze chased him around the stage, the audience sang along tunelessly, and Ocean blocked it all out with his headphones, in continual search of a vulnerable and unadulterated center. There’s a stretch on his most recent single, “Biking”—it starts with the line “I don’t get weak in the knees” and ends with “God gave you what you could handle”—that’s as prayerful as anything I’ve ever heard.

So is Patti Smith’s tribute to her buddy Sam Shepard, who died last week, at the age of seventy-three. How does she write like that, with such alchemical kindness? “A sleep that led to an unwitnessed moment, as love surrounded him and breathed the same air.” Smith was far away from Shepard when he died, and still they were together; rain fell on both of them. I’ve read this piece over and over, and each time the last paragraph makes me burst into tears.

It can take weapons-grade stuff, in the midst of this news cycle, to hold one’s attention fully. Maybe that means Bruce Willis, in freefall in an elevator shaft, catching himself by the fingertips on an air vent. (Richard Brody recently watched “Die Hard” for the first time.) Maybe it means watching “The Defiant Ones” just for the studio footage of Stevie Nicks recording “Edge of Seventeen” in 1980, whipping her long skirt around, working herself into a fever as her boyfriend and producer, Jimmy Iovine, bops along. (Nicks, incidentally, is featured on Lana Del Rey’s latest album, “Lust for Life.”) For me, this week, thanks to a great Twitter recommendation, I’ve hidden inside Alan Hollinghurst’s “The Line of Beauty,” which is mesmerizing, luxurious, and so finely observed: rain “gleamed and needled in the street lamps”; an August day fades into “weak violet heights.”

The Immoral Artistry of Kathryn Bigelow’s ‘Detroit’,” by Richard Brody. The movie’s protracted scenes of captivity, terror, torture, and murder are the moral equivalent of pornography.

The Iconic Image of the Scaramucci Era,” by Vinson Cunningham. The micro-historians of the Trump Administration might use this photo as the prime totem of the brief, heady Mooch Moment.

My Buddy, Sam Shepard,” by Patti Smith. Our ways could not be defined or dismissed with a few words describing a careless youth. Sam Shepard and I were friends; good or bad, we were just ourselves.

Farewell, Michiko Kakutani!,” by Alexandra Schwartz. The retirement of the Times’ daily book chief daily book critic marks the end of a literary era.

The Land of the Large Adult Son,” by Jia Tolentino. The President has called Donald Trump, Jr., a “good boy.” He embodies an Internet meme that once seemed purely amusing.

Questions for Me About Dying,” by Cory Taylor. Do I have a bucket list, have I considered suicide, have I become religious, am I scared? My answers haven’t changed since I was first diagnosed.