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Chongqing’s Number One Noodle Obsessive

One version of my perfect day would consist of nothing but walking from one spicy-noodle stand to another, consuming so much chili oil and Sichuan peppercorns my mouth would no longer feel like it’s connected to my body. At Roads and Kingdoms, Josh Freedman made that dream reality, following Mr. Lamp — Chongqing’s most devoted noodle explorer — around the city, in search of the ultimate bowl of xiaomian.

Lamp steps out to take a call; he returns to tell me it is a reporter for one of China’s national newspapers. The article written about me the day before has been published in the local morning paper, under the headline “American Guy Loves Chongqing Noodles So Much He Flies All the Way to Chongqing to Eat Noodles and Learn About the Ingredients.” Within hours, the article was reposted by the flagship state-run paper, the state newswire, and dozens of aggregators. The article about me writing an article was such a big hit that the national press wanted to redo it for the international edition.

I look around the table, uncomfortable with the attention, thinking about the xiaomian stories that link each person together. Mrs. Lamp and her sister-in-law sit to our right, drinking sugary iced tea and gossiping. Across the simmering hotpot, Ms. Hu and her husband propose a toast to the table. They run a store called Fat Sister’s Noodles, named, they quickly add, after Ms. Hu. They operate the store themselves, with little help, starting before dawn every morning; rarely do they have a free moment to go out and eat with friends. After several rounds of toasting and laughter, Ms. Hu’s cheeks have turned bright red, almost as red as the hotpot broth on the table between us. Brother Lamp sits back, soaking it all in, watching connections borne of noodles grow into friendship and camaraderie. He has started smoking again.

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Chongqing’s Number One Noodle Obsessive

Longreads Pick

In Sichuan’s spicy-noodle capital, a local xiaomian aficionado takes a visitor on a quest for the ultimate bowl.

Published: Nov 21, 2016
Length: 12 minutes (3,028 words)

GQ's Sean Fennessey: My Top Longreads of 2011

Sean Fennessey is the editor of GQ.com. (See more stories on his Longreads page.)

I’ll try to follow a few guidelines for the sake of imagined objectivity, so, no friends; no GQ pieces; no pieces published before January 1, 2011; no stories pseudonymously submitted by my mom; no sandwiches. Here we go, with apologies, to, like, everyone.

***

Lawrence Wright, The Apostate (The New Yorker, February 14, 2011)

An obvious choice made less obvious by the passage of time. It has been only nine months since Wright’s startling, white-knuckled journey to the center of Scientology, with outraged and wounded filmmaker Paul Haggis as his Ahab. In Internet time, this story feels very old—check out Tom Cruise’s new movie, Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, this Christmas!—but it hasn’t budged an inch. Wright has long been a dogged writer-reporter and interpreter of foreign, pre- and post-Judeo-Christian faiths, but he’s never been so simultaneously zingy and stone-faced. TNY fact-checkers famously sent the Church of Scientology 971 questions for confirmation before this was published, followed by an eight-hour inquiry session with the religion’s spokesman. I have 971 questions for Wright. Question One: How?

Alex French and Howie Kahn, The Greatest Paper That Ever Died (Grantland, June 8, 2011)

An arch and hilarious move by the editors at Grantland to lead their launch week with the story of an ambitious, innovative, and ultimately overextended sports publication. Too cute by half or not, French and Kahn, who have contributed great work like this to GQ, too, talk to damn near every wunderkind, wonk, and graybeard involved in the fast construction and faster crumbling of The National, the first (and last) sports-only newspaper. By turns funny, informative, and oddly thrilling, it presages the too-much media by at least a decade. Also, the characterization of editor-in-chief and sports scribe demigod Frank DeFord as a dashing dandy beyond all, an almost Gatsby-esque sportswriter (?!) is remarkable.

Jessica Pressler, “It’s Too Bad. And I Don’t Mean It’s Too Bad Like ‘Screw ’Em.’” (July 24, 2011)

Access isn’t everything, but it’s a lot of things. Refreshing. Enlightening. Embarrassing. Mirth-making. Other gerunds. That much is clear in this loose, funny portrait of one of the most important people in America, drawn small and sorta goofy, but not without empathy by Pressler. Just a damn good and entertaining profile.

Nathan Rabin, Louis C.K. Walks Us Through Louie’s Second Season (The AV Club, September 19, 2011)

Rabin is a pretty brilliant cultural critic and flotsam scavenger, but he’s secondary here to the form, the increasingly utilized Insta-Tell-All. Though shows like Louie or the rabidly championed Community are seen by relatively modest audiences, rarely exceeding a few million or so, the fandom they inspire is maniacal, bordering on unhealthy. In some instances, I hate this. But when it’s something I care about, I make exceptions. This literal step-by-step, shot-by-shot printed audio commentary track for the second season of comedian Louis CK’s FX series plays out in four parts and in a way that both satisfies in a very grim empty-calorie way and devastates with clarity. Louie isn’t exactly better after you’ve heard about every motivation—it’s fine standing alone, on your DVR. But that doesn’t mean you won’t inhale this series in one sitting and then enjoy this.

AJ Daulerio, The Electric Dock Ellis Acid Test: An Attempt To Recreate His Drug-Addled No-Hitter, On Xbox (Deadspin, July 11, 2011)

Stunt journalism, maybe. Multimedia art project gone wrong, sure. Belly-button-deep inside baseball, yeah, definitely. Doesn’t mean this very funny and very unnecessary attempt to get high and get paid for it (while sort of lampooning the whole Plimptonian, we-can-do-it style of participatory journalism along the way) isn’t a genuinely inventive and uniquely audience-conscious piece of web writing.

Five More

Daniel Zalewski, Show the Monster (The New Yorker)

Guillermo del Toro, a perfect profile subject. Bonus points for savvy multimedia accompaniment.

Dan P. Lee, Travis the Menace (New York Magazine)

Brilliantly crafted. Made a monkey outta me.

Mindy Kaling, Flick Chicks (The New Yorker)

Could probably do with less tweeting and more writing of this kind from Kaling.

Bradford Evans, The Lost Roles of Chevy Chase (Splitsider)
Wherein the Chevy Chase is a Colossal Asshole reputation is burnished, buffed, and efficiently honed in a countdown form that neatly conveys the story of a career coulda-been.

William Bowers, Now What? (Pitchfork)
Made me feel better about all my time spent mining the crevasses of insular music writing.

Best of 2021: Features

text "Longreads Best of 2021: Features" against an abstract backdrop of magazines
All "Best of 2021" images by Kjell Reigstad.

Since we started the #longreads hashtag in 2009 to share great reads on Twitter, curation has been the beating heart of Longreads. We highlight our favorite stories in our weekly Longreads Top 5, and at year’s end — in what is now a decade-long tradition — we revisit and reflect on the pieces we loved most. Today, we’re celebrating our favorite longform features: stories that blend deep reportage, inventive structure, and deft writing to leave an impact like few others do.

A Day in the Life of Abed Salama, Nathan Thrall, New York Review of Books, March 19, 2021

This isn’t just the best feature I read this year. It’s one of the best I’ve ever read, period. Nathan Thrall situates one father’s desperate journey to find out what happened to his son after the boy’s school bus collided with a tractor trailer within the vast, ugly context of Israel’s decades-long effort to make Palestinian lives all but unlivable. In search of basic answers — is his son hurt? is he even alive? — Abed Salama must grapple with the devastatingly mundane consequences of “fragmentation,” Israel’s policy of keeping “Palestinian communities isolated from one another and surrounded by fences, walls, checkpoints, closed gates, roadblocks, trenches, and bypass roads.” Expertly researched and brilliantly told, Thrall’s feature is a masterpiece. —Seyward Darby

Author Nathan Thrall’s pick for the most impactful story of the year:

Carlos Lozada’s Washington Post omnibus review of 21 books, “9/11 was a test. The books of the last two decades show how America failed,” is a piece ​one hopes will stay with American voters and policymakers. “Washington fantasized about remaking the world in its image,” Lozada writes, “only to reveal an ugly image of itself to the world.”

Revolt of the Delivery Workers, Josh Dzieza, New York/The Verge, September 13, 2021

When the pandemic first hit, New York more than anywhere depended on its essential workers: the health care professionals who stood in the path of an epidemiological tsunami, but also the massive community of delivery cyclists who crisscrossed the boroughs to feed the folks privileged enough to shelter in place. The end of lockdown, however, meant a new era of troubles for Postmates and Seamless contractors. Bike thieves snatched away riders’ earning power; apps demanded ever-higher productivity for ever-lower reward; the very people tasked to protect the workers didn’t seem to care. “[They] call it the patrón fantasma, the phantom boss,” Josh Dzieza writes, “always watching and quick to punish you for being late but nowhere to be found when you need $10 to fix your bike or when you get doored and have to go to the hospital.” Something had to break. Something did. Dzieza’s remarkable feature rides along with the riders as they fight for protection and autonomy — lobbying legislators, pestering the NYPD, even running vigilante repo missions for stolen bikes. This isn’t a portrait of sleek, unified collective action; it’s a look at how a workers’ struggle can succeed even when it’s as shaggy and frayed as a winter-ravaged fleece jacket. —Peter Rubin

Author Josh Dzieza on the story he wishes he’d written this year:

Gideon Lewis-Kraus’ New Yorker story “How the Pentagon Started Taking U.F.O.s Seriously” answered a question I’d wondered about and never really thought to answer: Why, seemingly all of a sudden a couple years ago, did government officials and serious journalists start talking about UFOs with a straight face? The answer runs through Cold War history, a straight-up CIA plot to make aliens a laughable idea, military contractors turned paranormal investigators, and an independent researcher attempting to bring rigor to a topic shrouded in kookiness and taboos. It’s a fascinating story about epistemology and the institutional forces that determine which ideas get treated as matters of serious inquiry and which do not.

The Other Afghan Women, Anand Gopal, The New Yorker, September 6, 2021

Over the summer, Anand Gopal traveled to Afghanistan to speak with dozens of women living in the countryside, where the endless killing of civilians by U.S. forces turned Afghans against the very people who claimed to be helping them. “On average, I found, each family lost ten to twelve civilians in what locals call the American War,” Gopal writes. This is an extraordinary piece on wartime life across Afghanistan’s dangerous rural terrain, seen through the eyes of women like Shakira, a woman in her 40s who grew up in the Sangin Valley. Gopal provides essential context for understanding what decades of violence and corruption have wrought, and he weaves an incredibly reported and beautifully told account of everyday life outside of Afghanistan’s cities. —Cheri Lucas Rowlands

Author Anand Gopal’s pick for best feature of the year: 

Rozina Ali’s “The ‘Herald Square Bomber’ Who Wasn’t,” for the New York Times Magazine, was a searing look at the men spending decades in prison under terrorism charges despite never having committed an act of violence. Reading Ali’s moving, nuanced profile of Matin Siraj, a bookstore employee who was entrapped by the NYPD, brings home the fact that the roots of the crisis in our democracy go back much further than Trump. It’s one of the most important works of longform storytelling I read this year.

The Lives of Others, Lindsay Jones, The Atavist, March 2021

“Warm” and “intimate” may seem strange adjectives to describe a feature about babies who are switched at birth — but Lindsay Jones paints her story’s Newfoundland setting with such affection that I couldn’t help but feel an affinity with it. Although two children grew up in the wrong families, they were both surrounded by love, living just a bay apart in a homely place where towns are called Heart’s Desire, Leading Tickles, and Dildo. It is this small community that made the story possible, with the children meeting as adults and eventually uncovering the truth about their births. “Such an encounter could only happen in a place like Newfoundland,” Jones writes, “where your neighbors and the wider community, precisely because it’s never that wide, are often intimately familiar; where it’s possible to look at someone and know who their kin are.” As two families navigate difficult times, Jones provides thoughtful insight into a unique, and beautiful, culture. —Carolyn Wells

Author Lindsay Jones’ picks for the most impactful stories of 2021:

I’ve been thinking about Elizabeth Weil’s ProPublica story “The Climate Crisis Is Worse Than You Can Imagine,” about the mental health of a climate scientist and his family, for months. It stretched the bounds of what I thought was possible in a climate narrative. It was deep documentary journalism written with so much empathy that I carry this family with me still, nearly a full year later. To me, that is impactful. Sarah Stillman’s New Yorker story “The Migrant Workers Who Follow Climate Disasters” also resonates. This story is a one-two punch: It reveals the exploitation and death that migrant workers face while cleaning up after the disasters caused by the ever-increasing effects of climate change.

The Marathon Men Who Can’t Go Home, David Alm, GQ, May 21, 2021

For an elite marathoner from Ethiopia like Tadesse Yae Dabi, the U.S. offered opportunities he’d never have in his home country: the chance to run races, to win life-changing prize money, and to support the loved ones he’d left behind. But with races canceled and the pandemic taking away his main source of income, his options have been limited, while returning (or being deported) to a homeland plagued by civil war and ethnic violence is not an option. David Alm spent six months reporting this story, profiling Tadesse and his three roommates, part of the West Side Runners club in the Bronx — a training group that has kept going mainly due to the kindness and support of Bill Staab, an 81-year-old former Peace Corps volunteer. This club is a lifeline and anchor for the athletes, and Alm’s piece is a moving portrait of hope and perseverance, community and camaraderie. —Cheri Lucas Rowlands

What Bobby McIlvaine Left Behind, Jennifer Senior, The Atlantic, August 9, 2021

Do you know that feeling, that need to savor every word when you’re reading an exceptional piece of writing? I went into slow motion after the first line of Senior’s tour de force: “When Bobby McIlvaine died on September 11, 2001, his desk at home was a study in plate tectonics, coated in shifting piles of leather-bound diaries and yellow legal pads.” To write the piece, Senior met with McIlvaine’s mother, father, brother, and girlfriend at the time of his death. In speaking with those closest to McIlvaine, she witnesses very different modes of grief, and how that grief has evolved over time. Through the intensely personal price paid by a single family on and after 9/11, Senior underscores the day’s toll on America at large. —Krista Stevens

Author David Alm on What Bobby McIlvaine Left Behind”:

Senior’s story is not just beautifully and deftly told, but is also an empathic, compassionate examination of the magnitude and vagaries of grief. I read this piece on a plane, and when I finished it, I just sat there for several minutes looking at the final sentence. I anticipated precisely such an ending early in the piece, when Senior very subtly intimated it, but its impact was even greater than I expected.

Explore our Best of 2021 collection

A New Leaf: A Post-Legalization Cannabis Reading List

neon marijuana symbol with the word "legal" below

By Peter Rubin

If you were a pot-smoking teenager in the ’90s, chances are you heard the same urban legend I did. Marlboro’s just waiting for weed to be legalized, man. They’ve got the tobacco fields ready to repurpose; they’ll even use their green menthol pack when they start selling joints. Someone’s sister knew a guy whose college professor had seen the mockups! What’s weird about this particular wish-fulfillment conversation isn’t how dumb it was; it’s that even a stoned 16-year-old could grok the conflict brewing in the fantasy. Sure, the idea of walking into a store to buy a spliff seemed so far-fetched that imagining it was akin to arguing about who would win a fight between Batman and Boba Fett. But if that day ever did come, we sensed, it would become a commercial battlefield.

Surprise: that’s exactly what happened. After California allowed medicinal use of marijuana in 1996 — and then truly after 2012, when Colorado and Washington became the first states to legalize cannabis for recreational use — a new industry sprouted. The “green rush,” as it immediately became known, wasn’t just a financial opportunity; it nurtured the best and worst that U.S. capitalism had to offer. For every underdog, a huckster; for every scrappy botanist, a shadowy billion-dollar concern; for every newly minted entrepreneur, a stinging reminder that even legal cannabis has a way of perpetuating inequities. Whether or not the devil’s lettuce ever becomes legalized at a federal level (and Marlboro finally gets involved), the journalism compiled below makes clear that the stories of post-legalization America are in many ways the stories of the nation itself.

1) The Great Pot Monopoly Mystery (Amanda Chicago Lewis, GQ, August 2017)

Few journalists have been covering the weed beat longer or better than Lewis; she’s knowledgeable, well-sourced, and has reported on everything from how Black entrepreneurs have been shut out of the cannabis boom to how the company Weedmaps has cultivated a booming business with a selective attention to legality. But my favorite work of hers might just be this feverish jaunt down the rabbit hole of BioTech Institute, a company that reportedly struck fear into the heart of the industry by trying to issue utility patents on the cannabis plant itself. Sounds dry? Not when it feels like the plot of a noir movie, with Lewis as the dogged detective:

Outside of these patents, BioTech Institute barely exists. The company has no website, manufactures no products, and owns no pot shops. Public records for BioTech Institute turned up two Los Angeles addresses—a leafy office park an hour northwest of downtown and a suite in a Westside skyscraper—both of which led to lawyers who didn’t want to talk.

A source familiar with BioTech Institute’s patenting process estimated that the company had spent at least $250,000 in research and legal fees on each of its patents. I knew that if I could figure out who was paying for the patents, I might learn who held the keys to the future of the marijuana industry. But I hardly knew where to start.

There’s no definitive aha twist in this movie — no moment that the camera skews to a Dutch angle and the violins screech in the score — but its shagginess is kind of the point. Watching a reporter follow bum leads, spool out her own thinking, and otherwise externalize her shoeleather fact-finding turns this from a Shadowy Conspiracy saga to something somehow far more satisfying: a process story.

2) Half Baked: How a Would-Be Cannabis Empire Went up in Smoke (Michael Rubino, Julia Spalding & Derek Robertson, Indianapolis Monthly, August 2021)

In November 2020, Indianapolis Monthly ran a small item on Rebecca Raffle, a woman who had moved to town and opened two CBD bakeries in the city. A few fact-checking bumps aside, the piece was uneventful, the kind of local-business profile that pops up in two dozen city magazines every month of the year. But as 2020 turned into 2021, those fact-checking bumps turned out to be the first in a long saga of upheaval and deception, exhaustively recounted here by a team of journalists that would expose Raffle’s business talk for what it truly was: talk. 

None of this seemed in line with the chill entrepreneur with the bubbly personality and perpetual ear-to-ear smile. A gay, Jewish, California-transplanted working mom, Raffle conveyed an endearing underdog quality and a compelling girl-boss backstory. A lot of people bought right into it.

We bought right into it.

Self-mythologizing is nothing new; people often believe what you tell them, and many a business owner has scraped through the lean times by acting as though their aspirations are already reality. But the meta-wrinkle in this particular story — the writers grappling throughout with the role they and their magazine played in elevating this particular mythologist — makes “Half Baked” much more than an exercise in grifter-gets-caught schadenfreude. Whether Raffle’s a Fyre Fest-level charlatan or just a woman whose ambitions outpaced her expertise, you won’t get to the end without a hefty sense of emotional conflict.

3) The Willy Wonka of Pot (Jason Fagone, Grantland, October 2013)

Once upon a time, weed strains were like broadcast TV networks: there weren’t many, and everyone knew all of them. But nothing Acapulco Gold can stay. These days, Maui Wowie and Panama Red have given way to Blueberry Kush, F-13, Azure Haze, and a seemingly infinite repository of other strains — and a great many of them, it turns out, originated with a press-shy breeder from Oregon named DJ Short. In this shining gem of a ridealong feature, Jason Fagone connects with Short at what might just be the apotheosis of his long and accomplished career: the first Seattle Hempfest held after Washington legalized recreational cannabis.

“DJ Short’s here!” said a large man in a tie-dyed tank top. He was sitting next to Short on the dais at Hempfest. His name card said STINKBUD. “I was growin’ his Blueberry back in the ’80s,” Stinkbud said. “One of the most famous guys in the entire world! DJ Short! This guy’s a legend.”

The panel’s moderator, a Canadian researcher, said, “I’ve been moderating this panel for seven or eight years. I’ve never seen Stinkbud so humbled.”

It’s not all stoner sycophancy, though. Fagone portrays Short as a man who knows how much he’s contributed to the current state of the cannabis world — and yet finds himself unable to stop that world from roaring by, leaving him behind in its rush to monetize his lifelong passion. Whimsical headline aside, there’s a real melancholy lurking here, even as Short accepts his laurels. A portrait of the artist as a forgotten craftsman.

4) Is Cannabis Equity Reparations for the War on Drugs? (Donnell Alexander, Capital & Main x Fast Company, April 2018)

A 2020 study by the ACLU found that in the U.S., Black Americans are 3.64 times more likely than white people to be arrested for marijuana possession. That same year, 94% of those arrested for cannabis offenses in New York City were people of color. Clearly, legalization has not alleviated the disproportionate burden that low-level drug enforcement has historically placed on the Black community, nor has it prevented Black entrepreneurs from getting shut out of the space. That’s why, in California, a number of cities have attempted to enact cannabis equity, reserving up to half of their marijuana business permits for those living under the median income line or who have a previous cannabis conviction — and in this piece, Alexander chronicles how Oakland’s equity program can set a model for others.

No state has a relationship dynamic remotely like the one between California and marijuana. We officially consume 2.5 million pounds of the drug each year, more than any other state. California produces more than 13 million pounds annually. This means that, even before dipping its toes into the uncharted waters of restorative justice, the legal weed market must contend with vast market and political forces. 

Those forces culminated in a near-failure for Oakland’s program; while the city had set aside millions in no-interest funding for these startups, it was having a difficult time facilitating the necessary partnerships between white and Black applicants. The solutions — or people, as the best solutions tend to be — don’t provide much in the way of narrative tension, but they do offer a necessary perspective on what it’s really like trying to change the system in a fundamental way.

5)  Inside the Underground Weed Workforce (Lee Hawks, The Walrus, October 2018)

Legal or not, all the cannabis that enters the supply chain starts with the same thing: human labor. Trimmers, those who take scissors to plant to free the psychogenic flower, have long been the backbone of the industry. Yet, as the workforce swells and legalization drives prices down, the livelihood isn’t as dependable as it once was. A blend of reportage and the pseudonymous Hawks’ own experience — numerous trips from Canada to work California’s harvest season — makes his account of “scissor drifter” culture an urgent one. 

In 2017, when Willow last went to work in California, trimmers were expected to buy and cook all their own food. There was one outhouse and an outdoor shower, and she slept in a tent. She was paid $150 (US) per pound. When she checked around, she discovered this was the new status quo. In fact, there were rumours of trimmers being paid as low as $100 per pound. Some trimmers will work in exchange for weed and are just happy to have a place to stay and be fed. Every year, there’s a new crop of trimmigrants with lower and lower expectations. Unfortunately for Willow, the harvest was subpar, and she struggled to finish a pound per day. She left after two weeks, staying just long enough to recuperate her costs. A poor crop can make any situation intolerable.

The Many Decades of Bond

Sean Connery and Honor Blackman in 'Goldfinger', 1964. (Photo by Express/Getty Images)

By Carolyn Wells 

It had been so long since I had walked down those steps into a poorly lit foyer with low-hanging ceiling tiles, where the scent of buttery popcorn filled the stagnant air, and posters hung limply off the walls. That’s right, I went to my local cinema: I actually saw a film with other people, on a big screen, and wore proper outdoor clothes. After nearly two years of viewings from my sofa, largely in pajamas, this felt unnerving — and exciting. Granted, the seats were still uncomfortable, the chocolate was still overpriced, and a large family walked in late, discussed loudly where to sit, and then chose the seats right in front of me. But there was also surround sound, laughter, and Daniel Craig. 

COVID-19 had kept No Time To Die, the latest James Bond film, out of the cinemas for as long as it had me; it was supposed to be released in April 2020, but when cinemas shut down around the world, 007 (or at least Universal Pictures) refused to stoop so low as a streaming platform. And so we waited. It was worth it, it’s a good film, and improbable car chases across dramatic snowy landscapes do lose something outside of the big screen. (I found myself wondering what brand of winter tire he uses, very grippy.)  

Although I don’t proclaim to be a particularly ardent James Bond fan, watching an aging Daniel Craig strut his stuff did make me start to ponder the incredible longevity of this franchise. We had waited a year and a half for this film, but that’s nothing to a spy who has been in the field since 1952.

***

James Bond has always been in my subconscious. Growing up in the UK, there were four TV channels, and I remember the films on all of them around Christmas — the broadcasters having decided we deserved a treat at that time of year. First, it was Roger Moore, arching his eyebrow at me, then he gave way to a smooth Pierce Brosnan, who my mum excitedly ordained “rather dishy.” Moore and Brosnan were my Bonds. I had missed the very start, the era of Sean Connery — and so, my curiosity piqued after my cinema trip, I decided to dig deep into my streaming platforms and watch a Sean Connery classic: Goldfinger

It’s from 1964, so I was not expecting the production values to be particularly high, and I was duly rewarded in the first scene when Connery appeared with a bedraggled stuffed seagull on his head as a disguise. We quickly move on to him kissing a woman (sans seagull), when he sees someone with a hammer sneaking up on them reflected in her eye — impressive at such close range — and in an incredibly unchivalrous move, he swings the woman round so that the man whacks her on the head rather than him. And this was all before the opening credits. 

It gets worse. In one scene 007 is getting a massage by the pool, and, just as he creepily asks the masseuse to “go a bit lower,” a guy comes up to speak to him. Connery, I kid you not, tells the masseuse to shove off, it’s “man talk,” and proceeds to slap her bottom as she exits. He then pulls on a hot pants onesie apparently made out of a used towel — a look he deserves at this point. It gets more troubling later when he pushes Pussy Galore into a hay pile and forcibly kisses her as she tries to fight him off. By the time Goldfinger has him tied to a table with a laser beam tracking toward his penis, I’m rooting for the laser beam. 

In contrast, No Time To Die does not even open with Bond, but with a little girl who, when chased by a villain, pulls a gun out and shoots right back. A retired James has also been replaced by a new 007 — a Black woman. While it is impossible to apply today’s values to a film from the early ’60s, I am pretty happy that being dismissed with a quick bum slap is no longer acceptable, and the stark differences between the two films made me again appreciate just how long Bond has been around. When he first pulled out his gun on-screen it was a very different world, and that license to kill still hasn’t expired. How has someone who is a borderline rapist, a murderer, and a potential sociopath endured through all these decades? 

We could consider the fact that all the films share the same enjoyable elements — it’s always fun to hang out in an exotic beach location, drive beautiful mountain roads, and then pop home to share some quips in a British government office. Villains with metal teeth, white cats, or dubious accents have a certain timeless appeal; and submarine cars, magnetic watches, or X-ray sunglasses are always cool. And then there is the music — the iconic theme songs have an attraction all of their own. I particularly remember Madonna’s Die Another Day, due mostly to my younger self crashing my dad’s car while trying to dance along to the bizarre techno part. (Do not dance and drive, however fun the song may be.) There are many other classics: One of the few times in Goldfinger where a woman is actually allowed to shine is Shirley Bassey singing the theme song. It’s magnificent. However, the locations, the gadgets, and even the songs cannot be enough to keep this unwieldy franchise going. 

So let’s look at how it started — with a rather posh English chap called Ian Fleming. He penned the first 007 novel, Casino Royale, in 1952, and proceeded to write another 11 Bond novels and two short story collections. The timeline in these books is rather vague, but Bond’s penchant for cars, drinking, and women remains consistent. It was a successful formula, and Fleming sold 30 million books in his lifetime — although it wasn’t until after his death that Bond entered a whole new medium, with an American film producer named Albert “Cubby” Broccoli first bringing the character to screen in 1962, under his production company Eon Productions. Unbelievably, Bond never left the tight grip of the Broccoli clan: 58 years after Bond’s first outing the producers of No Time To Die are Albert’s daughter Barbara Broccoli and stepson, Michael G. Wilson. Albert having handed the Aston Martin keys over to them back in 1995. This is a family dynasty that likes control — No Time to Die was originally supposed to be directed by Danny Boyle, who brought along his regular writer, John Hodge. This didn’t work out so well. Hodge’s script was rejected, and Boyle quit, stating “The producers wanted to go in a different direction.” The Broccolis weren’t happy, there was no way he could stay.

I think it is this iron control that is the key to Bond’s success. The Broccolis know what they are doing — after all, the family has been doing it for nearly 60 years. They have been the ones to choose the lead, the director, the locations, and now they have finished Ian Fleming’s material, the stories. A 2015 New York Times interview revealed that the creative process begins with Barbara and Michael trying to decide on a premise and a villain that can embody some topical issue or prevalent fear. This is critical: Their Bond films change to reflect the world they are going to be viewed in. It was a strategy first started by Albert Broccoli: When Star Wars turned space into a trend, 007 also reached for the stars in 1979’s Moonraker. And as Dr. Jaap Verheul, editor of The Cultural Life of James Bond, has said, “Each time a new actor becomes Bond, the series takes the opportunity to recalibrate itself to the ideology of the audience it’s trying to talk to.”

Michael Wilson and Barbara Broccoli did just that after brutally dismissing my mum’s crush, Pierce Brosnan. In 1997, Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery rather wonderfully satirized the movies, making things groovier, but much harder for Brosnan’s rather tongue-in-cheek style to continue working. Then 9/11 happened, and the Broccolis felt the world needed a rougher, darker, Bond: A thug with hidden complexities. Brosnan had to go. They wanted Daniel Craig. With this reinvention, some of the more unpalatable elements of Bond were also tackled — for example, in Casino Royale, Bond’s drinking is portrayed for the first time as a coping mechanism for his internalized guilt. 

During this dive into the world of 007, I discovered that one of my favorite writers, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, the star of Fleabag, had worked on the script of No Time to Die. She has said of Craig’s portrayal of Bond that he “let us in a bit, which makes the moments he shuts us out even more arresting … Overall he grounded a fantasy character in real emotion, which is what I think we hadn’t realized we’d missed amongst the action and the bravado. So basically, with Daniel Craig, Bond isn’t all about the arse-slapping. In fact, this Bond actually falls in love, actually cries. What I didn’t realize at first, as I sat in the cinema somewhat confused having missed the preceding film, Spectre, is that the Craig films also follow on from each other in a series — so for the first time Bond even ages as well.  But even as James Bond gets older, he is still never diluted — the Broccolis don’t allow any spin-off shows where M is venturing out to run a start-up spy business. It’s always all about 007.

These producers are smart. They know how to handle their baby. No Time To Die is Craig’s last film as 007, and the rumor mill of who will be next has started, with some speculation that it could even be a woman next time round. I don’t think it will be. The Broccolis have a good thing going. Bond is invariably going to be a white guy — there was enough backlash when he went blonde — but they will make sure to always keep shifting him just enough to make sure he is palatable to the audience, whatever decade we are in. And with the next generation of Broccolis already in the business, I suspect there will be many more. 

***

Further Reading

During my research for this post, I came across three particular long-form articles that I enjoyed — so if you feel you would like to dwell a little longer in 007’s company, keep on reading. 

What the Future of Bond Movies Could Look Like (Al Horner, BBC, September 2021)

“The world has moved on, Commander Bond. So stay in your lane. Or I will put a bullet in your knee.” — Nomi, No Time To Die.

This article is a fascinating look into how Bond has changed over the eras.

Heart of An Assassin: How Daniel Craig Changed James Bond Forever (Sam Knight, GQ, March 2020)

A thoughtful insight into the franchise through the eyes of Daniel Craig. 

The Broken Pop of James Bond Songs (Adrian Daub & Charles Kronengold, Longreads, October 2015)

A look at the messy and glorious world of the Bond Pop song. 

 

Michaela Coel and Donald Glover Have a Lot to Talk About

Longreads Pick
Source: British GQ
Published: Sep 29, 2021
Length: 31 minutes (7,896 words)

The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

(Photo of Kurt Cobain by Michel Linssen/Redferns via Getty Images)

This week, we’re sharing stories from Michael Azerrad, Matthew Shen Goodman, Lisa Wells, Daniel Wells, and Mary Kay McBrayer.

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1. My Time with Kurt Cobain 

Michael Azerrad | The New Yorker| September 22, 2021| (7,102 words)

Music journalist Michael Azerrad’s piece about his friendship with Kurt Cobain is honest and lucid. Azerrad recounts a number of moments with the late Nirvana singer, starting with the first time they met in 1992, when he visits the small Los Angeles apartment Cobain shared with Courtney Love to interview him for Rolling Stone. As a journalist, Azerrad gains Cobain’s trust, and eventually goes on to write a book about the band, Come as You Are: The Story of Nirvana, which was published in September 1993, the same month their third and final album, In Utero, was released. Azerrad remembers encounters over the next few years — an epic show at the Reading Festival, a business dinner with executives (“the grownups,” as Cobain referred to them), tense moments between band members while on tour, flashes of Cobain’s heroin addiction. My favorite bits, though, are Azerrad’s quiet, beautiful descriptions of Cobain away from the spotlight: the intimate hours the two spent in a Seattle hotel room as Cobain read Azerrad’s manuscript, and the time they wandered around an eerily empty downtown Dallas with daughter Frances, who was just 15 months old at the time. —Cheri Lucas Rowlands

2. It’s Triller Night, Marv!

Matthew Shen Goodman | n+1| September 18, 2021 | (4,386 words)

Look, just because I had zero interest in watching a card of fights between retired ex-champions on the twentieth anniversary of 9/11 while Donald Trump and his namesake son commentated doesn’t mean I have zero interest in reading a gimlet-eyed, absolutely bonkers polemic about it. And that’s exactly what Matthew Shen Goodman delivers in his slightly drunken, extremely lurid critical essay, which also marks his first inclusion as a Longreads Pick. The horrors on display are many, whether Snoop Dogg “performing” with the late Marvin Gaye (the essay’s headline details Snoop’s literal answer to Marvin’s titular question during a rendition of “What’s Goin’ On”) or onetime mixed martial-arts great Tito Ortiz’s plodding defeat to other onetime MMA great Anderson Silva (“veterans of one sport playing at another, their takedowns and elbows and kicks and joint breaks pared down to only punches, four-ounce semi-articulated gloves replaced with the bulbous curve of twelve-ounce boxing mitts”). The piece is half exhausted sigh, half feverish deconstruction, and entirely memorable. Punching down may be easier than the alternative, but sometimes it’s just what you need. —Peter Rubin

3. To Be a Field of Poppies

Lisa Wells | Harper’s Magazine | September 20, 2021 | (6,064 words)

This is a story about a company that is pioneering natural organic reduction (NOR), or the composting of dead bodies. Readers get all the dirt—sorry, sorry—on the science and business behind the venture, but writer Lisa Wells offers so much more than that. Her piece is a meditation on intention and guilt; grief and fear; life and loss. Perhaps above all, it is about our species’ fraught relationship with the natural world. I will be thinking about it for a long time. —Seyward Darby

4. The Secrets of The World’s Greatest Freediver

Daniel Riley| GQ | September 21, 2021 | (7,369 words)

Daniel Riley clearly relished reporting on the freediving competition Vertical Blue — a chance to be around 42 divers who feel they are doing something “sublime.” This event at Dean’s Blue Hole in the Bahamas is a mecca for all serious divers, but Riley focuses on Alexey Molchanov, who, as the world’s best freediver, is tremendously skilled at staying present in a dive, with nothing “beyond the body, the breathing, the intense focus of the next meter,” until he reaches a depth where there is no light, no sound, just sensory oblivion. Riley pulls you into the water with Molchanov, to such a degree that I went from feeling the serenity of the stillness to intense claustrophobia, as we go down and down — a rather impressive gamut of emotions to feel while in fact sitting on the sofa with a cup of tea. Riley’s respect for Molchanov is evident throughout the piece — he is, after all, a man who has dedicated his life to a sport that killed his mother, and has the potential to kill him too. —Carolyn Wells

5. Dollhouse of Horrors

Mary Kay McBrayer | Oxford American | August 31, 2021 | (4,784 words)

Come for an introduction to the uncanny work of miniature construction and collecting, stay for a rumination about what it means to cope with chaos and cruelty. “I cannot control any of the horrors that happen at me,” Mary Kay McBrayer writes. “But in my dollhouse, I own everything. I make the horrors happen. I am the one.” This is a piece for fans of Hereditary and Shirley Jackson, and for anyone struggling to make sense of our world gone mad. —SD