Office Christmas Party
Another reminder that allowing your cast to madly improvise instead of actually providing a coherent script with a scintilla of inherent logic often leads to…
I am a privileged person in many ways, but one of the ways in that I’m most privileged, I sometimes think, is that I got to lay eyes on Nat Hentoff’s office at the Village Voice back when the legendary paper had its offices off Union Square in Manhattan. This was in the early ‘80s, at a point when Hentoff had produced enough work and wielded enough influence (over thinkers, not politicians or real estate moguls) to have made several careers and spanned several lifetimes. In other words, the one time jazz critic, music impresario, and ever-tireless gadfly in defense of the First Amendment was as legendary at the paper where he wrote a column and kept an office. That office: I’d never seen anything like it before, and I’ve never seen anything like it since. From floor to ceiling it held what can only be called pillars, stacked, if you can call it that, side by side by side by side, of newspapers and books. You couldn’t see the light fixture at the top of the room. The only open space in the office was its small doorway, a few steps past which was a small desk with a typewriter and a lamp on it, and a chair in front of it.
It was unbelievable, not just because it was a fire hazard, not just because it was the sort of scene that inspired a weird “how do you find anything?” awe. It was also a testament to Hentoff’s attitude to the printed word. He hoarded it. Crazy love, you can call it.
Sometimes, during David Lewis’ engaging documentary about Hentoff, “The Pleasures of Being Out Of Step,” when you look behind the now nearly 90-year-old Hentoff as he speaks from his home office—he was laid off from the Voice in 2006, putting arguably the final nail in the coffin of what that publication had once been, and stood for—you can see a version of that mess in miniature, a stray stack or two. But I wish the doc had a picture of that office, man. It would qualify for some kind of special effects Oscar, I promise.
Lewis subtitles his movie “Notes on the Life of Nat Hentoff,” and that’s wise; at less than 90 minutes in length, there’s only so much ground it can cover. The documentary takes a thematic rather than linear chronological approach. Lewis weaves together material on Hentoff’s love of jazz and his shoe-leather training as a wordsmith, and tries to make a case that the freedom that’s inherent in jazz as a musical form has something to say about the Constitution-guaranteed freedoms Hentoff has spent a good portion of his life articulating and defending. This First Amendment absolutist, an atheist and a Jew, achieved what some might consider a perverse notoriety when he defended the right of the American Nazi Party to stage a parade in Skokie, Illinois. Years later, Hentoff, whom many of his readers had taken for granted was a supporter of all liberal or liberal-related issues, made a lot of enemies by coming out with a stern position against abortion.
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