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Boris Pasternak’s ‘Doctor Zhivago’ and His Nobel Prize

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If you were the only person in the world who thought yourself a genius, it would be an embarrassment to be named Barry Parsnip.

Robert Zimmerman solved the nomenclature problem. He became Bob Dylan – and Hey Presto! He won the Nobel Prize for Literature for 2016.

Barry Parsnip (aka Boris Pasternak) didn’t solve the problem. But it was solved for him by a combination of the British, US and Soviet secret services, with an assist from the Dutch and Italians.  He won the Nobel Prize for Literature for 1958 before his novel, Doctor Zhivago, had been read in the original Russian by more than a thousand people, counting government officials. Following the prize-giving until now, about 10 million people have read it, mostly in translation.

But time and numbers haven’t improved either on Parsnip or on Zhivago. It is still, as Vladimir Nabokov said at the start, “a sorry thing, clumsy, trite, and melodramatic, with stock situations, voluptuous lawyers, unbelievable girls, romantic robbers, and trite coincidences.”  Kornei  Chukovsky, Pasternak’s neighbour and comrade, thought the novel was “boring, banal.”  Yevgeny Yevtushenko said it was “disappointing”. Anna Akhmatova told Pasternak to his face that Zhivago was a bad novel “except for the landscapes.” She was being ironic – there are no landscapes in the book.

Not to Pasternak’s face, Nabokov went for Pasternak’s jugular – his vanity. Nabokov called Pasternak’s composition “goistrous and goggle-eyed.”  That turned out to be the perfect picture of a victim, and MI6 and the CIA were able to provoke the Soviet authorities into persecution  of Pasternak the victim. That operation, codenamed AEDINOSAUR,  confirmed  what the West wanted the world to believe – that Russians are bad by a standard noone else in the world is held to.

Pasternak’s story, when it happened and still today,  is also confirmation of the readiness of some Russians to believe that however crapulous and despised they are at home, there will always be love for them across the frontier, in the West.  

In prose Parsnip, er Pasternak was, as Americans used to call them, a poor Johnny One-Note.

He knew a small section of old Moscow, where Tverskaya Street ran into Brest (now Belarus) railway station. His countryside was restricted to the banks of the Kama River, around Solikamsk, in Perm region, where he spent World War I, disqualified from military service on account of a leg injury. He also spent World War II in the relative safety of Chistopol, in Tatarstan, 800 kilometres east of Moscow.

Left to right: Leonid Pasternak; Rozalia Kaufman; Boris Pasternak, aged 26, in 1916

As a youngster, he tried drawing and painting, but was never as promising as his father, the portrait painter Leonid Pasternak. He tried music, but was never as adept as his mother, Rozalia Kaufman, a pianist. Alexander Scriabin, a visitor to his parents’ dacha, persuaded him to drop university studies in music and law, in favour of philosophy. After a term in Germany, he graduated with a thesis on “Hermann Cohen’s Theoretical Philosophy”. He then decided on literature for a career. He went to soirees where he distinguished himself presenting papers with titles like “Symbolism and Immortality.”

The year was 1913, and there was a surplus of that. Pasternak knew little else. He didn’t follow birds, cats or dogs. He didn’t hunt or fish; collect mushrooms; drink vodka or champagne; play cards; cultivate a garden; ride horses, drive cars. His experiments with women were limited to those making few demands — household servants and prostitutes, not his fellow students. He didn’t join university clubs or run in political demonstrations. His only autobiographical recollections of the 1905 student riots and general strike in Moscow were of a drawing by his father of a wounded student; of his father’s meetings at the time with Maxim Gorky; and of “stray bullets whistling down the empty streets”. Pasternak was absent.  He was also absent at the Bolshevik Revolution and the civil war, after which his mother, father and sisters emigrated to Berlin, and then on to England.

What Pasternak knew from experience, and what he imagined, he repeated in print every five years or so.  The Childhood of Luvers appeared in 1922; Safe Conduct was written between 1929 and 1931;  The Last Summer in 1934.  In 1956, when he recapitulated the same life stories, he conceded the earlier effort “was spoiled by its affected manner, the besetting sin of those days”.  That’s vintage Pasternak – blame was always elsewhere.

As he repeated the stories, Pasternak’s lack of experience began to show in the increasing strain of his imagery.  He became the master of the mixed metaphor. A cat “flaps its wings at aprons and plates”; a bulldog raises his head “like a slobbering old dwarf with sagging cheeks”; a blackbird whistled “as if blowing through a clogged flute”;  rye before harvest in the field has “such a sinister dark brown, the colour of old, dull gold”;  an engine releases steam “with a singsong burble, as if it were milk coming to the boil in over a spirit lamp in a nursery.” Snow, which ought to be the speciality of every Russian imagist, turns out, for Pasternak, to “pour with the convulsive haste of some white madness”. On another occasion, it flew “obliquely…as if trying all the while to make up for something”. And then again, “over the blue line of the snowdrifts the snow greedily absorbed the pineapple sweetness the sun poured into it.”

Leon Trotsky called Pasternak in for a 30-minute meeting  in August 1922, but Pasternak didn’t let him get a word in edgeways. Except for this question: “Yesterday I began struggling through the dense shrubbery of your book. What were you trying [sic] to express in it?” Pasternak replied that Trotsky should decide for himself, whereupon Trotsky closed the conversation and sent Pasternak off.

Joseph Stalin committed a great many sins, but deconstructing Pasternak wasn’t one of them.

Stalin, a voracious reader, collector and annotator of books, considered Pasternak so unexceptional, unserious and unthreatening, he didn’t think he was worth reading. For what Stalin did read, click.

In December 1935, Stalin publicly declared that Vladimir Mayakovsky “was and remains the best and most talented poet of our epoch”. Earlier Pasternak had been envious of Mayakovsky’s acclaim, and resented Mayakovsky’s criticisms; they included the recommendation that two of Pasternak’s early books of poetry should not have been published at all. When Pasternak said he liked Mayakovsky, it was after he “discovered certain unexpected points of similarity in our technique.

Mayakovsky’s suicide in 1930 was Pasternak’s chance at put-down. “Mayakovsky shot himself out of pride,” Pasternak wrote years later, “because he condemned  something in himself, or close to him, to which his self-respect could not submit”. But when Stalin spoke more positively of Mayakovsky, Pasternak  wrote this to Stalin:  “Your lines about him had a saving effect on me. Of late, under the influence of the West, [people] have been inflating [my significance] terribly and according [me] exaggerated significance… they began suspecting serious artistic power in me. Now, since you have put Mayakovsky in first place, this suspicion has been lifted from me, and with a light heart I can live and work as before, in modest silence, with the surprises and mysteries without which I would not love life. In the name of this mysteriousness, fervently loving and devoted to you, B. Pasternak.

This was false modesty; Stalin wasn’t fooled. More than a decade later, in 1949, Stalin told a prosecutor to take no action against Pasternak. “Leave him,” Stalin said, “he’s a cloud dweller”.

To his fellow writers and colleagues in the Writers Union, the cloud on which Pasternak sat himself was so puffed up with vanity and self-seeking, he had almost no peers for supporters. When he started reading excerpts of Doctor Zhivago, as he composed them, there were a handful of acolytes, but no professional endorsements. By the time Stalin died in 1953, Pasternak knew that no one in Moscow took his work seriously. Still, in December 1955, after he had written the last lines of the book,  Pasternak told an acolyte: “You cannot imagine what I have achieved! I have found and given names to all this sorcery that has been the cause of suffering, bafflement, amazement, and dispute for several decades. Everything is named in simple, transparent, and sad words. I also once again renewed and redefined the dearest and most important things: land and sky, great passion, creative spirit, life and death.

The book on the operation appeared in 2014.   Although Finn and Couvee applied to MI6, they report that the British intelligence agency refused to release its Pasternak files. The CIA records indicate that the British probably hatched the idea of promoting the novel as a propaganda strike against Moscow before the Americans thought of it.

In May 1956, five months after Pasternak had finished Doctor Zhivago, he gave a copy of the  manuscript to an Italian for relay to the Milan publisher, Giangiacomo Feltrinelli.  Pasternak had already submitted the work for publication in Russian, and there had been an anticipatory notice of its appearance in April 1956. But Pasternak told the Italian “in the USSR the novel will not come out.” The reason, he said, was that “it doesn’t confirm to official cultural guidelines.”  The more often Pasternak repeated that line to foreign visitors, the more he believed it, the more foreigners showed up to request the manuscript  – and the more certain the outcome became.

By the summer of 1956 Pasternak had given a copy to Helene Peltier for publication of a French translation in Paris. Days later, he gave Isaiah Berlin a copy for an English translation and publication. Berlin is described in the Finn book as an Oxford don and an academic scholar.  Omitted was Berlin’s wartime service with British intelligence and the Foreign Office, and his ongoing links with the Soviet operations branch of MI6 at the time Berlin was meeting with Pasternak.  Berlin was one of the first of fluent Russian-speaking Britons to receive the manuscript from Pasternak. There were others.  It was not until December 1957 – eighteen months after Berlin received Pasternak’s manuscript — that MI6 sent its copy of the book in Russian to the CIA. What was happening in the interval was that the news of MI6’s interest in the book leaked to the KGB, and the British decided to withhold what they had from the Americans.

Here is the declassified CIA document.   The implication on the British side is that this was the first time Pasternak’s book had been sent to the CIA. The implication in the CIA document release is that the agency had thought Pasternak was a “cloud dweller” and hadn’t thought of Doctor Zhivago for literary merit or info-warfare before.

Berlin wrote later that as soon as he had read the manuscript in mid-1956, he recognized its value. Spot Berlin’s qualifications: “Unlike some [sic] of its readers in both the Soviet Union and the West I thought it was a work of genius. It seemed – it seems – to me to convey an entire range of human experience, and to create a world, even if it contains only one genuine inhabitant [sic], in language of unexampled [sic] imaginative power.” Apparently, Berlin kept shtum in front of Americans.

In August of 1956, a few weeks after Berlin had launched Pasternak’s book in London, a KGB general, Ivan Serov, reported to the Kremlin that Feltrinelli was preparing the book to appear in Italian, and that Pasternak was trying to get the book out in France and the UK. That is the Feltrinelli version. Exactly how, and from how many sources, the KGB had learned of the book’s publication plan in the West isn’t known.  What is certain is that publication of Doctor Zhivago was interpreted in Moscow as an operation by hostile foreign intelligence agencies for anti-Soviet propaganda.  At this point, the Soviet Central Committee decided on a quiet reaction – they would try to block the Italian edition through their Italian Communist Party links to Feltrinelli; and they would ask the Writers Union to stop Pasternak’s unexpurgated version from appearing in Russian.

If possible, the Central Committee calculated, it might get Pasternak to agree to edit his manuscript, so that the Russian edition would lack the anti-Soviet propaganda elements. Who then would be able to tell where they came from?  This under-estimated Pasternak’s conviction that his genius would brook no editing of the book at all.

When the foreign blocking moves failed, and it appeared Feltrinelli would be followed by editions in French and in English, the Soviets escalated, to match what they believed the western campaign was escalating against them. Just five paragraph-long excerpts from the 700-page book were repeatedly cited; in the Vintage Classics paperback edition  of 2011 they can be found at pages 267, 285, 362, 365, and 460.  “What was conceived as ideal and lofty,” Pasternak had concluded in the third last paragraph of the book, “became coarse and material. So Greece turned into Rome, so the Russian enlightenment turned into the Russian revolution”.  After quoting lines from an Alexander Blok poem of 1910, he added: “now all that was metaphorical has become literal, and the children are children, and the terrors are terrifying…

Pasternak did not object to the attention, but his amour propre was offended that so little of his masterpiece was being read, at home or abroad. Late in 1957 he told a German visitor: “Everybody’s [sic] writing about it but who in fact has read it? What do they quote from it? Always the same passages – three pages, perhaps, out of a book of 700 pages.

In retrospect, Soviet officials have also conceded this was all they had read of Doctor Zhivago; noone wanted to bother with the rest. But the crackdown on all of Pasternak’s works, his wife, lover, and friends commenced in earnest. What he had actually written in the pages of Doctor Zhivago became as irrelevant to the Soviet campaign against its anti-revolutionary excerpts as the evidence of Pasternak’s genius meant to the promotion of Doctor Zhivago in Milan or in London. For a year the campaign succeeded with almost no readers.

Just 3,000 copies of the Italian translation were printed in November 1957 and subsequently sold. On December 12, 1957, the Psychological and Paramilitary Staff branch at CIA headquarters recommended that Doctor Zhivago “should be published in a maximum number of foreign editions for maximum world distribution and acclaim and consideration for such honor as the Nobel prize.

Since noone at the CIA had twisted Levin’s arm into saying this — not even his wife, Elena Zarudnaya, translator of Trostsky’s Diary in Exile — Levin’s promotion of Pasternak has never been qualified as manufacturing propaganda. Six months later, though, in July 1958, that is exactly what John Maury, head of the CIA’s Soviet Russia Division and director of AEDINOSAUR, saw as Pasternak’s value through Russian and translation printings of the book, culminating with the Nobel Prize.  Pasternak’s message, Maury wrote in a memo to Frank Wisner, the agency’s head of operations, “that every person is entitled to a private life…poses a fundamental challenge to the Soviet ethic of sacrifice the individual to the Communist system. There is no call to revolt against the regime in the novel, but the heresy which Dr. Zhivago preaches – political passivity – is fundamental.

The CIA has revealed that Zhivago for Kremlin regime change was proposed by Maury to get Wisner’s approval for money to implement Operation AEDINOSAUR. Even today the CIA has censored the amount from the declassified document. Finn and Couvee report that several million dollars – about $20 million in current dollars – were spent on paying for Dutch personnel, printing and distribution costs for the first thousand copies of a Russian edition, produced by the Dutch intelligence service in Amsterdam. It appeared in the first week of September. About 500 copies were then smuggled into the USSR over the following weeks. On October 22, 1958, the Swedish Academy announced Pasternak had been awarded the Nobel.

Suppose the KGB knew what the MI6 and CIA were up to, in league with the Italians and Dutch. Kim Philby, the KGB agent inside MI6,  was no longer working in London  when Berlin brought Pasternak’s book in; Philby was in Beirut, Lebanon, but he was still connected. If Philby read Pasternak, it’s still secret.

In short retrospect, Pasternak got what he thought he deserved. “I would have hidden it away,” he wrote in a letter to the Central Committee in August 1957, “had it been feebly written. But it proved to have more strength to it than I had dreamed possible – strength comes from on high, and thus its fate was out of my hands.

In longer retrospect, the Central Committee and the KGB over-reacted. It was from on high that the fate of Doctor Zhivago was sealed, but not from Pasternak’s divinity. Had Soviet officials done less or nothing —  had they encouraged Pasternak’s critics and rivals in the Writers Union to make light of the work, or poke fun of Pasternak’s obvious weaknesses, the Anglo-American intelligence assessment might have let the opportunity for regime change  go. Time has let the air out of the Pasternak legend – it’s now the 197 minutes of the film of the book, not the book which western audiences recall. In Russia the audiences have evaporated. It’s a standing joke among Russian literary critics  to say they haven’t read Pasternak, but feel strongly about Doctor Zhivago and what happened in 1958.

Zurab Tsereteli has offered to turn a maquette into a monument to Pasternak, but for several years in a row the Moscow city government hasn’t agreed to a site.

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In Washington Maury’s Operation AEDINOSAUR was one of the very few he managed at the Soviet Division which was a success on its own terms. Maury was rewarded with a promotion to Athens, Greece. There he was the CIA station chief during the military putsch of 1967. That’s the only regime change operation at which Maury succeeded, though not for long.

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Ramón Estévez regrets his name change to Martin Sheen | Culture

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At the beginning of the sixties, Ramón Estévez was desperate. His first steps as a television actor had gone well, but he felt stuck in that medium and wanted to get into theater and film. However, at the time, his name held him back: there were few successful Latinos in the United States. “Whenever I called for a position, whether for work or for an apartment, they answered me hesitantly when I gave my name, and when I arrived, I found the position already filled.” He said in 2003. And so, Ramón decided to create an artistic name by merging the name of Robert Dale Martin, the CBS network’s casting director, who had helped him in those essential appearances on the small screen, and that of Bishop Fulton J. Sheen, who, as Estévez’s little sister Carmen recalls, “regularly appeared on TV.”

This is how Martin Sheen came about, and owing to his great talent, he triumphed first in theater and, later as an actor in the movies, notably: Badlands, Apocalypse Now, The Departed, and Wall Street. However, the identity of Ramón Antonio Gerardo Estévez did not disappear: this name remains in all of Sheen’s official documents (passport, driver’s license and marriage license)… and in the actor’s soul. Last week, in an interview with Closer magazine, he confessed that one of the great regrets of his life was his change of name. He speaks with pride of the obstinacy of his son Emilio, who kept it despite “his agent’s advice to change it”. In relation to his own decision, he reflects: “Sometimes they convince you, when you don’t have enough insight or even enough courage to stand up for what you believe in, and you pay for it later.”

Martin Sheen in 'The West Wing' reunion, last October.
Martin Sheen in ‘The West Wing’ reunion, last October.

Over time, Sheen recovered his Galician roots, the land where his father, Francisco Estévez Martínez, was born. His father was an immigrant who left Parderrubias, in Salceda de Caselas (Pontevedra), for Cuba at the age of 18 in 1916. He left with no Spanish, a language he learned on the Caribbean Island. In the early 1930s, he emigrated to the United States to a modest Irish neighborhood in Dayton (Ohio), where he married another immigrant, Mary-Ann Phelan.

Martin Sheen’s life has been profoundly marked by his childhood. His father worked at NCR Corporation, an industrial conglomerate that began manufacturing cash registers. Shortly after his marriage, the company sent him to the Bermuda Islands where his first children were born. Sheen was the seventh of ten children (nine boys and one girl), and the first to be born in Dayton, in 1940, after the family moved to the US. His left arm was clasped by forceps during birth, leaving it three inches shorter than his right arm. As a result of this, the character that Sheen interprets in the series The West Wing of the White House, President Josiah Bartlet, puts on his jacket with a strange twist of the body. As a child, he suffered from polio which kept him bedridden for a year, and at the age of 11 his mother died. Thanks to the support of a catholic charity and his own father’s efforts, the family remained united against the distribition of children to orphanages or foster homes, a common practice at the time.

Martin Sheen abd Francis Ford Coppola during the recording of 'Apocalypse Now'.
Martin Sheen abd Francis Ford Coppola during the recording of ‘Apocalypse Now’.

He was the eccentric of the family: he decided to go into acting. Against his father’s objections, Ramón, the most reserved son only enjoyed the theater and decided to study acting. “You don’t know how to sing or dance!”, his father told him, to which his son replied: “You love westerns and in those nobody sings or dances”. “But you don’t ride a horse either!” was his father’s comeback. Despite this discouragement, he moved to New York, following in the footsteps of his idol, James Dean.

In the mythical episode Two Cathedrals of The West Wing, he explains how the character President Bartlet reflects the experiences of his own childhood and adolescence. Estévez/Sheen: a practicing Catholic and relentless campaigner against global warming, a man in favor of civil and immigrant rights, he was arrested several times during demonstrations outside the White House. His activism began when he was just 14 years old in a golf club where he worked. He led a strike of caddies, protesting against the club members’ use of bad language in front of children.

Actor Martin Sheen takes part in a "Fire Drill Fridays" protest calling attention to climate change at the U.S. Capitol in Washington
Actor Martin Sheen takes part in a “Fire Drill Fridays” protest calling attention to climate change at the U.S. Capitol in WashingtonJOSHUA ROBERTS (Reuters)

And then there’s the Spanish context. Francisco Estévez did not teach his children Spanish, but the Estévez family went back to their roots. Francisco was able to return to his hometown in Galicia in 1967 (just as Sheen landed his first big role in In the Custody of Strangers), where he began building a house, while making regular trips back to Dayton. He would never see this house finished. He died in Dayton in 1974, and was buried with his wife and son Manuel, who had died in 1968. His only daughter, Carmen, ended up working as an English teacher at a school in Madrid, where she married. For years people in Madrid have bumped into Sheen during his visits to his sister. Carmen finished building her father’s house and inaugurated a river promenade dedicated to his memory. Indeed, she has kept the memory of the Estévez alive in Salceda de Caselas.

The Camino de Santiago, a dream come true

In the early years of the 2000s, Sheen, his son Emilio Estévez and his grandson, Taylor, walked the Camino de Santiago. In Burgos, the grandson met a girl, and at the end of the walk he decided not to return to Los Angeles, but to remain in the Castilian city, where he got married. Influenced by that experience, Sheen and Estévez made the film El camino (2010), in which both co-starred and the latter directed. A few months ago, Sheen spoke proudly of El camino, a great success, and a faithful portrayal of his spirituality. During filming, at a lunch under huge pergolas at the back of Burgos cathedral, Sheen explained: “I am a Catholic, and a lot of that spirituality is in this movie. I have had an extremely happy life, with the normal highs and lows of a career. I have survived disease and my family is wonderful [his four children, including Charlie Sheen, are actors]… I believe in a church that does incredible work in the Third World. Other things, like some of the pronouncements from the Pope [at that time, Benedict XVI], are more difficult for me. I live my faith, and it is between God and I.” A few meters from Sheen and the journalist, at the long tables, was a strange group that didn’t not look like actors: “That’s my wife, that’s my sister and her husband, that my best childhood friend… I’ve invited them to come and have a good time with Emilio, Taylor [who worked as an assistant] and me”. Taylor Estévez currently works as a stunt coordinator in California.

Martin Sheen at the Santiago de Compostela Cathedral with his sister Carmen, 2009.
Martin Sheen at the Santiago de Compostela Cathedral with his sister Carmen, 2009. Andres Fraga

Carmen Estévez says that for decades the family did not understand their father’s deeply Galician sense of humor, until they realized that for much of the time he was not being serious. This sarcasm was inherited by his son Ramón/Martin, and he made a display of this in Burgos. In response to a question about his career, he said: “With my resume full of bad movie titles, what can I say. I’m an actor and that’s how I’ve supported my family. But I’ve been in about 10 films that I can be proud of…” at which point he dropped his cup of coffee and blurted out: “See? For gloating over my career. Divine punishment”.

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Buzz Lightyear: To Lesbians and Beyond | Culture

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Buzz Lightyear and Alisha Hawthorne in a still of 'Lightyear' (Disney/Pixar, 2022).
Buzz Lightyear and Alisha Hawthorne in a still of ‘Lightyear’ (Disney/Pixar, 2022).Pixar (AP)

The first homosexual kiss in a Disney movie has been more than expected. Many of us wanted to see it in Frozen: some interpret the ice princess’s song “Let it Go” as a reference to being gay. Lots of people awaited it in Luca, where the love between protagonists Luca and Alberto was at times more obvious even than that of the cowboys in Brokeback Mountain. We longed for a legendary, effervescent kiss, the fruit of a rebellious and passionate love. It was going to be a vindictive kiss, full of fireworks. It would be one of those kisses that precede the mythical The End, when the screen fades to black behind the lover’s mouths. It was a kiss that was going to take everything over. Above all, it was going to be the great kiss of the 21st century, undoubtedly the century of homosexual visibility and the century of the gender revolution, the moment when women fall in love and kiss for the first time and do all of it on the big screen. (Well, not all of it.)

The first lesbian kiss in Disney history appears in the recently released Lightyear, and it has sadly led to the censorship of the film in 14 countries in the Middle East and Asia. The kiss takes place in 1995, that is, 27 years ago. The first homosexual kiss of the Disney Pixar factory recognizes that it is years late. It is a 90′s kiss. It comes not from the 21st century, but the 20th. How? The film starts with the following premise: in 1995 Andy, the protagonist of Toy Story, went to the cinema to see Lightyear. This is the movie he saw then. Lightyear, therefore, is not the end of the saga but its prequel. In addition, the controversial kiss does not happen between a young protagonist and her girlfriend, but between two mature women who have been married for years. We are not facing a rebellious kiss, much less a political or ideological one. This kiss is not intended to be a novelty or to make anything visible. It is an absolutely conventional gesture. Thank you, Disney Pixar for going beyond my wildest dreams when it comes to normalizing visibility. And thank you for listening to your workers and refusing to remove the scene. In the long run, it will be more profitable to sacrifice box-office earnings than dignity.

In addition to being between two women, the kiss happens between two mothers, on the day that they celebrate their son’s birthday. It is not the classic Disney kiss, a culmination of the romantic love between the leading couple, but a stolen moment of quotidian happiness. It is a fleeting kiss, insignificant in the history of lovers. It lasts just seconds. It is not charged with any special meaning in the love story. It speaks of a way of building affections and meaning different from that imposed by the traditional heterosexual canon: seemingly unimportant gestures of are everything. It represents a kind of love where kisses do not represent a turning point in the lovers’ lives, but rather small anchor points in their story history. In this gesture, romantic love is not ultimately the center of life but part of it. In Lightyear, we witness the anodyne kiss on the lips between space explorer Alisha Hawthorne and her wife, and we realize that partners are not at the center of any story, but rather one of those fragments that give meaning to life. It is a sapphic kiss in the sense that it is another way of building love, more horizontal, quieter and healthier.

Alisha—a female, lesbian and black—does not have as much screentime as Buzz Lightyear—male, white and the story’s protagonist. She is the protagonist’s friend, confidante and inspiration. Together they are trapped on an uninhabitable planet due to a mistake he made. From that moment on their lives run parallel but radically different–almost like the story of lesbian and heterosexual love. She adapts to the circumstances and begins to live the life that has befallen her, without rejecting its difficulties. The conditions are not the best, but Alisha falls in love–with a woman–and celebrates her luck. Together they have a son. Along the way, she takes care of those she loves, she has a granddaughter, she fights and she investigates. She fills her life with meaning, and she dies. Buzz, on the other hand, insists on “finishing the mission,” “being important,” “saving the world,” “succeeding,” “being a hero,” “doing things alone” and “being the first.” Buzz, who will never know love, embodies many of the traditional values of heteronormative love, starting with the desire for protagonism and the sense of a linear life narrated through love or milestones, leading only to deep, intimate failure.

Lightyear attempts to travel into space to escape from the planet where he is trapped, failing over and over again. Additionally, though, time is altered every time he subjects his ship to hyperspeed. Every time he returns, a few minutes have passed for him and a few years–four, ten or twenty–for Alisha. He burns through life, while she lives it. In one of the final moments, Buzz Lightyear explains to Alisha’s granddaughter why he and her grandmother became space rangers. “We just wanted to be important,” he says. “Trust me, she was,” she says. And the hero understands that his whole life has been a huge misunderstanding. He will have to return home, knowing that his home is the one he has tried to flee all his life.

The film is a masterpiece, full of action, emotion, humor and imagination. Its commitment to diversity includes a warrior over seventy years old, a rebel whose role is essential in saving the world. No one is talking about the old woman for the simple reason that old age remains invisible even when it occupies the center of the scene. The film also gives us Sox, an adorable robotic cat that demonstrates how the only technology that works is that which helps people, not that which attempts to change them. It is truly one of the great Pixar movies, much more than action and stars.

At this point, it had gotten hard to explain why we humans want to keep going to infinity and beyond. But there is a moment, at the end of the film, when we understand: when the elite protectors of the universe excitedly observe the bronze statue of Alisha, a black lesbian woman, the source of meaning for humanity, because she is the one who knew how to live a small life with greatness.

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George Michael revisited: binge-eating ice cream, sex and ecstasy | Culture

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George Michael abhorred fame and avoided interviews. Over his 30-year career, the singer of “Faith” released only four studio albums as a solo artist. But his figure left a lasting impact on popular culture. The public’s fascination with him lingers even today, as demonstrated by the recent release of both a documentary and a book about his life, just when the artist would have turned 59. The two works depict the pop star’s life from dramatically different perspectives.

The musician himself worked on the film George Michael: Freedom Uncut with his former collaborator, David Austin. It follows the career of one of the best voices in pop, starting in the eighties and ending in 2016, the year of his death. Narrated in the first person, the documentary gives a partial glimpse of the star. In contrast, journalist James Gavin’s book George Michael: A Life explores the singer’s dark side in great detail. The biography chronicles Michael’s addiction to GHB, also known as liquid ecstasy, his depression and his dependence on sex. According to the account, Michael spent his later years sinking into drugs and prostitution and alienating his friends, including Andrew Ridgeley, the other half of Wham!. Gavin spoke with more than 200 friends and acquaintances of the artist, resulting in a portrayal of an emotionally fragile and insecure man. According to the author’s thesis, which several friends corroborate but his family denies, the performer died not of a heart condition, as was said at the time, but of an intentional overdose: suicide.

The documentary film focuses on the eighties and nineties, the artist’s creative peak. The book, meanwhile, primarily describes his last years of life, when he made headlines more for his arrests than for his music. Both are pieces of a puzzle that the artist created before the public over three decades.

It is difficult to understand the career of George Michael, who would turn 59 this June 25, without delving into his biography. Born Georgios Kyriacos Panayiotou in 1963, he rose to worldwide fame alongside his school friend Andrew Ridgeley. Together they formed Wham!, a group adored by teenage girls and despised by critics. Michael enjoyed a global fame that he never wanted. He felt undervalued as an artist, relegated to the status of a teen star. He also didn’t take well to playing the role of a heterosexual idol in order to sell records to the female public. He was ready to embrace his sexuality, but society wasn’t. At the time, both Elton John and Freddy Mercury were married to women. In Spain, Miguel Bosé walked hand in hand with Ana Obregón. A mainstream artist couldn’t afford to be gay.

George Michael in Rotterdam.
George Michael in Rotterdam. Rob Verhorst

Still, George Michael represented his sexuality with a certain impudent joy in public. In his later years, looking back, Michael said his sexuality had been an enigma, even to him, but his music was always honest. “I do want people to know the songs I wrote when I was with women were really about women and the songs that I’ve written since have been fairly obviously about men,” he said. “So when it comes to my work I’ve never been reticent about defining my sexuality.” George Michael was sex. His music was too.

On his first solo album, he broke away from his good-boy image to present himself as a sexually liberated man–in a trajectory later imitated by many pop artists, including Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera. His first solo song, “I Want Your Sex,” was dedicated to a man, but his then-girlfriend, makeup artist Kathy Jeung, appeared in the music video. “[Kathy] was in love with me but she knew that I was in love with a guy at that point in time. I was still saying I was bisexual,” he explained in a 2004 interview with the British magazine Attitude. The song caused controversy for defending promiscuity in the harshest years of AIDS, and its explicitly sexual lyrics were censored on several radio networks.

In the music video for his second single, “Faith,” Michael played the role of the American macho, wearing a leather jacket, jeans and cowboy boots, combined with close-ups of his butt swaying to the beat. The singer was asserting himself as a mature composer. At the same time, he was sexualizing himself. The song made him a worldwide success. He began to rub shoulders with pop royalty, including Michael Jackson, Madonna and Prince. At that time, pop stars were at the heart of popular culture. But only George Michael used his role to confront record companies and eventually renounce media overexposure.

If singers were kings, MTV was their palace. In the 1990s, a good music video could boost a song’s sales and its artist’s fame. That’s when George Michael decided to disappear. He barely promoted his long-awaited second album, much less commercial than the first. Its first music video, “Freedom,” featured the five most important top models of the moment. The video was directed by first-timer David Fincher, who before revolutionizing Hollywood already revolutionized MTV. It has gone down in history as one of the best video clips of all time.

Freedom: Uncut, the new documentary, focuses on that creative stage of the singer. Some of the participants in that video, such as Cindy Crawford, Kate Moss and Naomi Campbell, give interviews about Michael, and the film includes discarded footage that Fincher did not use. While the documentary focuses on his art, it also touches aspects of his personal life, including the deaths of his mother and Anselmo Feleppa, his great love, who died of complications from AIDS in 1993.

The two deaths had a devastating effect on Michael, and they triggered the spiral that Gavin focuses on in his book. The author calls the singer a “pathetic, lonely and broken figure.”

George Michael did not publicly come out of the closet. He was wrenched out in the most shameful way possible. In September 1998, a plainclothes officer made a pass at him in a public restroom in Los Angeles, California. When the artist played along, he was arrested. Searching him, police found marijuana and crack. The former leader of Wham! was fined only $810, but the media’s penalty was devastating. Tabloids on both sides of the Atlantic lashed out at him. It was no longer the eighties, but a scandal like that could still end anyone’s career. He explained himself the best way he could: with a song. The video clip for “Outside,” the single from his greatest hits album, was based on the famous incident. It portrays several men dressed as police kissing in the bathroom of a club, while a press helicopter records different couples having sex. Michael took control of the narrative, as sexual and as honest as ever.

George Michael, during a show in Paris, 2012.
George Michael, during a show in Paris, 2012.Francois Mori

But no song could silence the news that followed. A few months later, the musician was arrested again after a car accident. The police found him “drenched in sweat” with “eyes open and pupils dilated.” It was his seventh arrest in 12 years. In the biography, Gavin expands on this stage, at the time portrayed by the press at the time in a disjointed and sensationalistic way. The author places it in the context of the impulses of a depressed, frustrated man taking refuge in drugs and sex. “For Michael, GHB seemed heaven-sent,” the journalist writes about the drug, a central nervous system depressant closely associated with sex parties. “Apart from fueling his sexual compulsiveness, it made a depressed, self-hating man feel attractive. It brought joy where there was little. GHB gave him confidence … but it also took him to a new and terrifying level of self-destruction.”

Gavin describes one of the music industry’s brightest stars as a lonely, friendless man, secluded in his mansion. He spent his days watching episodes of his favorite soap opera, Coronation Street, while binging on Haagen Dazs ice cream and junk food and using GHB. The author writes that the singer held parties with prostitutes and large amounts of drugs in his mansion in north London.

The journalist’s description is consistent with statements made this week by Kenny Goss, who had a relationship with the singer between 1996 and 2009. In an interview on the English program Piers Morgan Uncensored, the art dealer recounted that everyone around him knew that Michael would die soon. “I spent a lot of time worrying about him,” he recalled. “What’s the line he says in one of his songs? He says, ‘I can see it in your eyes when you look at me that way, it tears me in two’. And it really did.”

George Michael died on Christmas day of 2016. The official report says that the death was due to heart failure. His fans remembered him with “Last Christmas,” a song that many read as a Christmas carol, but which actually tells a tragic story about heartbreak and distrust. “All my songs are autobiographical,” the singer used to say.

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