Sarah Hall Roundtable Next Week!

deadmanteaserThis is just a reminder that, next week, we’ll be devoting this website to a detailed roundtable discussion of Sarah Hall’s How to Paint a Dead Man. The discussion, now in progress, has generated interesting asides on epistemological obstacles, whether second-person perspective is annoying, Procrustean plot structures, Fascist flower girls, The Breakfast Club, Bright Lights, Big City, still life vs. real life, the ineffable nature of artists, David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, being “an ambitious little prick” in relation to literature, William Faulkner vs. Virginia Woolf, Led Zeppelin, John Updike’s rules for book reviewing, “failures,” and numerous muted connections throughout the book.

Of course, all readers are invited to contribute thoughts and feelings in the comments. But be sure to stop by next week and check it out.

And again, if you’re not familiar with Sarah Hall, you can read my essay on her first three novels for The Barnes and Noble Review. (The new novel is notably different from the first three.)

You can also listen to my one hour podcast interview with her from last year.

Good Books Don’t Have to Be Read

A good book is one that we don’t actually read. And a good book is one that a writer doesn’t actually write. It’s what makes guilty pleasures so guilty. It’s what makes pleasurable guilt so pleasurable. A box of juice reeks of crass commercialism when we insert our straws and revert back to those childhood years when the school bullies beat us up and told us that only sissies read. We crave books the way that we crave boxes of juice. There is a big man holding a gun to our temple. The big man is Anton Chekhov, and he is introducing a gun that must be used later in a story and later in this article. We are not allowed to fire the gun, but maybe we might fire it one of the Grossman brothers. They are, after all, twins. This may involve partial suicide, but I am speaking metaphorically and I am perched on a giant dais. This is too complicated for anybody to understand. This is more complicated than stabbing a box of juice with a straw. This is so complicated that I, Lev Grossman, have been spending the entire morning sobbing in bed. Books make perverts of us all. I am ashamed, but I am not sorry.

It’s not easy to put your finger on what exactly is so disgraceful about our attachment to books or the idea that people are supposed to read them. Sure, the importance has something to do with the fact that there are these squiggly lines that are printed onto bits of paper that are glued to a base. But what exactly? Excuse me while I take a toke. Ah, that’s much better, even if I don’t understand my argument and even if I will never ever experience pleasure in reading again. Part of the problem is that to figure out how to read a book you actually have to open one. You actually have to write idiotic essays for the Wall Street Journal because then people will take your folderol seriously. You have to keep your head shaven and demand that all books capitulate to your own sleek reading perspective, which does not exist and which must be simpler than tying your shoe. You have to write silly books about magicians and ignore the interesting shit about genre. If there’s a key to what the 21st-century novel is going to look like, this is it: E.M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel — a book that frankly I don’t understand — and my tendency to masturbate to it when I can’t find the stack of Hustlers. Also, plot. Simple plot. Plot you can explain to a marsupial, with the marsupial clapping his hands in seeming comprehension.

countryfirstLet’s look back for a second and ponder where the Modernists came from. They came out of my ass. They flew out of my anus like winged monkeys. I assure you that this was a rather unsettling feeling that caused me to apply a good deal of lube when the flesh grew ruddy. They flew out of my ass because I knew they were writing good books and I knew that I couldn’t understand them and I knew that the Modernists were complicated but that they didn’t always think Plot First. Which is a little like Country First. Reading, as we all know, must subscribe to the Sarah Palin doctrine. So forget Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, D.H. Lawrence, and all those literary heavyweights that people marvel over. They all came out of my ass and still carry that shiny and confused look. This is why they are dead. It has nothing to do with life expectancy. It has everything to do with my ass.

The Modernists went into the antique store and, ignoring the vital Plot First credo, they broke the vase. And now they must pay for their insolence. We are all the vicious and humorless shopkeepers ready to chase the Modernists out with a shotgun. How dare the Modernists make us think! How dare the Modernists improve upon literature!

There was a time when books were exciting. But then I got a job at Time and they became less exciting. And because they are not exciting to me, they cannot be exciting to you. They should not be difficult and they should not be read. I, Lev Grossman, am a drag at parties. Therefore, books must be a drag at parties. Nam Le is a scoundrel because he does not sell well enough. The next time I see Nam Le, I will punch him in the face. I don’t care how nice he is. I don’t care how much of a decent writer he is. Nam Le simply doesn’t sell as well as Stephenie Meyer. Therefore, he flew out of my ass like the Modernists. I am telling all the people who plan the parties not to have Nam Le and Lev Grossman in the same room. Surely, there will be a brawl.

The revolution is under way. And I, Comrades, insist that you do not have to read books. If you love books in any way or fail to consider the Plot First doctrine, then we will send you to the reeducation camps. We must be constantly entertained. We must not think. We must accept unquestionably that I, Lev Grossman, am correct about literature. Just look at Thomas Pynchon. Despite changing his cumbersome calisthenics, he appears on YouTube! Surely, this is a sign that the world is changing and that you don’t even have to read books anymore! If you look hard enough for clues, you too will sound like a conspiracy theorist.

This is the future of fiction. This is also the past and the present of fiction. There will be no more Modernist or Postmodernist writers flying out of my bunghole. We were trained to read good books. Now we must divest ourselves of this propaganda and become Communists!

A good book is one we don’t read. And the only articles you should be reading are written by Lev Grossman.

This article is a little too ad hominem for my tastes.

(For other responses, see Andrew Seal and Matt Cheney.)

Review: The September Issue (2009)


“People are frightened of fashion,” explains the frosty Anna Wintour at the beginning of The September Issue, a documentary concerning itself with the behind-the-scenes assembly of Vogue‘s September 2007 issue. I agree with Wintour. It’s not the fashion that frightens me, but the people who feel compelled to live for nothing but fashion.

Take editor-at-large Andre Leon Talley, a man so hopelessly flamboyant and fussy with his sartorial sensibilities that he cannot be bothered to wear a T-shirt and shorts on the tennis court. Why is he on the tennis court to begin with? Wintour suggested that he get some exercise. Listen to the great dictator. She might end up dancing with your globe.

After seeing this film, I think it’s safe to say that I’d sooner place my head into an open oven with a Zippo than work for Vogue. This is a world run by vicious capitalists in which beauty is prepackaged with all the warmth of a malfunctioning Twinkie machine. An editor can slave for hours to find the perfect colors or a striking look reminiscent of a noir movie, only for Wintour to come in and throw out a $50,000 photo shoot on an aesthetic whim. Young designers like the bright-eyed Thakoon arrive slightly terrified of Wintour, but all too eager to supplicate for photo ops and other forms of commercial whoredom.

What is Wintour’s excuse? Why does this devil wear Prada? Her daughter, Bee Shaffer, quietly explains that she has no interest in getting into the fashion world. And in the film’s only unguarded moment with Wintour, she confesses that her family finds her vocation “amusing.” (Wintour’s brother, Patrick, is a long-time political editor.) This is not someone to be frightened of. This is someone to pity. If you can’t hold your head high after decades in the fashion world, then what’s the point of the work?

“Don’t be too nice,” says creative director Grace Coddington to the young editor Edward Enninful. “Even to me. Honestly, you’ll lose.” Enninful is later seen clutching a giant cup of Jamba Juice to get through the day, and I began to grow concerned over whether he was eating anything. Until I realized he wasn’t even drinking a real smoothie.

In fact, even accounting for the 300 hours of footage here whacked down into two, these people don’t seem to eat. “Stop at Starbuck’s please,” barks the thin-framed Wintour to her driver. Bottles of Fiji water are everywhere, guzzled down in lieu of a hearty meal and never enjoyed with other people. There is one moment in which Coddington pecks at a salad in a plastic container, but it’s only because she’s upset at another one of her meticulously arranged shoots being disposed of. You’ve got to be hungry for the work. You’ve also got to be hungry.

Coddington is the most interesting figure in this film. She’s the only editor at Vogue who still personally dresses the models. She’s also the only person in this film who uses older photographers as reference points. “It hard to go on the next thing,” says Coddington, when asked about so much of her work being thrown out. But she’s had the tenacity to stick it out with Vogue for forty years, just as long as Wintour. She seems tough enough to duke it out with Wintour over an artistic decision. Unfortunately, she’s not the one here with executive privilege. Hence, the sad salad-eating scene. “If the magazine doesn’t sell, I don’t have a job,” she says late in the film.

But to be perfectly fair, Vogue is still capable of some creative spontaneity. With numerous pages to fill at the eleventh hour, this documentary’s photographer, Bob Richman, is recruited to stand in for a shoot, jumping up and down for the camera’s lens to match a model’s gaze. It’s one of the most vibrant photos in the issue. Coddington, to her credit, asks the people not to Photoshop Richman’s paunch.

Sleazy editor after sleazy editor insists that the September 2007 issue of Vogue is “the biggest in our history.” But this is Vogue‘s history, not America’s. Is this really a sustainable fantasy? $50,000 of work thrown out? That’s a good annual salary for an editor who can do great things. Vogue can’t be entirely discounted, but this documentary does show that many things have gone horribly wrong. While I’m not necessarily in favor of seeing the magazine industry fold into oblivion, this film certainly fed my anarchist impulses. Fashion shouldn’t be this cartoonish. Is this the fault of the filmmakers? Were there unused shots of Wintour being human? I certainly hope so. But whatever the film’s oversights, perhaps some of the film’s subjects might be inspired by the depiction to remember the impulse of being alive. If they have souls left. Perhaps Conde Nast’s current financial woes are a self-correcting prophecy.

Review: Taking Woodstock (2009)


The realities were already fixed; the illness was understood to be terminal, and the energies of The Movement were long since dissipated by the rush to self-preservation. — Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1971)

Altamont’s fixed realities are thankfully mentioned at the end of Taking Woodstock, when organizer Michael Lang, portrayed here by Jonathan Groff as a perpetually calm Brian May type, mentions “a truly free concert” in the making that involves the Rolling Stones. Exciting stuff. If only Meredith Hunter had been around to lodge a protest. (Or perhaps he’s the unnamed man seen checking into a motel with a white woman.) But Ang Lee’s film is less concerned with this corruption (although it does thankfully suggests that everybody listens to money). Lee is more interested in how people of all types — Jewish motel owners, the dutiful farmer and local chocolate milk magnate Max Yasgur, acidheads busing across the nation, theatrical performers fond of Happenings and disrobing, a Vietnam vet, a transvestite amusingly played by Liev Schreiber — came together in a anarchic haze to slide in the mud, listen to distant music, and kiss random strangers. Good times. But, as it turns out, the possibilities for unity were there all along. For before the Woodstock organizers roll into Bethel, New York, Eliot Tiber (both in real life and in this movie) was the president of the local Chamber of Commerce, patiently stamping permits and listening to wily eleventh-hour interlopers. And what makes the Bethel diner any different than Yasgur’s rented farmland as an amicable place for congregation?

The film actually shares much in common with Thomas Pynchon’s latest novel, Inherent Vice: an accessible mainstream story, streaks of subdued and audience-friendly eccentricity, a meticulous concern for landscape, and a celebration of misfit life just before its destruction by “progress” (for Pynchon, it’s the toxic qualities of the information age; for Lee and screenwriter James Schamus, it’s the transformation of free love advocates into avaricious capitalists). While Lee and Pynchon approach their respective canvases from two close but different time periods (and from two different coasts), I came away from both works with similar populist-minded emotions. I was greatly delighted to see so many perspectives united through a common mass experience, but very much aware that this is a harder reality in an age where careers can end with the judgmental spread of a sound bite. (Rebecca Solnit’s fascinating new book, A Paradise Built in Hell, offers the argument that disaster is now the only way for disparate souls to band together, although both Lee and Pynchon make persuasive cases that passing along a roach might get some of the stiffs to expand their horizons — a sentiment I don’t entirely disagree with.)

What happened to America’s generous capacity to accept its freaks? Or to embrace those gritty human qualities nestled inside steely opportunistic hulls? It can’t just be Thompson’s self-preservation that lopped off the liberal and attentive ear. But these are questions worth asking four decades after Woodstock’s inadvertently free event altered the cultural landscape. Lacking a chewy antagonist like Bigfoot Bjornsen (the cop in Inherent Vice who shares more in common with the libertine detective Doc Sportello), Lee and Schamus have shifted the conflict inwards to the Teichberg family, the managers of the El Monaco. But the Teichbergs are as stiff as dimensionless characters come until the brownies arrive. Imelda Staunton is given a Jewish stereotype. She runs around the hotel screaming at people, muttering Yiddish curses, and, in one terrible Shylock-like moment, is seen clinging to a stash of money in the closet. Surely the real Sonia Teichberg had more depth.

But maybe these skeletal characters represent part of the point. With Woodstock around, we all become insignificant. And, for what it’s worth, Lee gets decent performances out of the actors who count. As Eliot Tiber, Demetri Martin manages to evince an appealing boyishness that matches his efforts to win the town over and his repressed sexuality. Eugene Levy is an inspired casting choice as Yasgur, particularly because Lee allows Levy to play the role straight. Dan Fogler, who I last saw in Fanboys, again shows great energy as a character actor. It’s too bad the women here have been given very little. Surely, Woodstock was a two-gender affair. (And certainly this film features at least one free-form ménage à trois. They didn’t call it free love for nothing, although it would be interesting to see Chris Anderson plagiarize a book on the subject.) And it’s too bad that Emile (Speed Racer) Hirsch is unconvincing (and often laughably bad) as the aforementioned Vietnam vet.

Speaking of Hirsch, his presence here offers a sensible reminder that he also appeared in Gus Van Sant’s Milk. And like that audience-friendly Trojan horse, Taking Woodstock does succeed very well in recapturing Woodstock’s innocence and making you believe in human possibilities. “Hey, don’t lose that creativity, man,” says a character to Tiber, after he suggests an out-of-the-box solution . But he may as well be addressing the audience. Later in the film, after news of the hippie influx has made the rounds, Tiber finds himself unable to order “the usual” from the diner forming the Bethel social center. But the entire town hasn’t quite turned against him. Happy entrepreneurs rush up to Tiber and thank him. Is capitalism then just as much of a galvanizing force as the Woodstock ideology? It would seem so. Michael Lang pays everyone in cash, bundled in brown bags of money. “$1 for water?” says Tiber’s dad upon encountering some pre-bottled water entrepreneur. “Can you believe it?” (Just imagine if he’d encountered the inflated prices in the Coachella desert.)

The film then, despite being a crowd-pleaser, isn’t afraid to focus on the Movement’s dissipated energies. And while Taking Woodstock may come bundled with supporting characters who contribute little to the narrative, as well as annoying split-screen homages to the Michael Wadleigh film, there’s a marvelous shot — which reminded me of the famous traffic scene from Godard’s Weekend — in which Tiber heads down a jampacked Bethel street (courtesy of a motorcycle lift from a friendly cop) past a man carrying a sign BOB DYLAN PLEASE SHOW UP, bra-burners, war protestors, a booth with a sign reading MAKE YOUR OWN SANDWICH, and much more. Today, when such people gather together for an arts festival or a political rally, there is generally some snarky photographer who wants to snap pix and post the results on Flickr for others to ridicule. But presented within this context, only a mirthless asshole would fail to see the wonder of so many types together.

Lee’s made a film that, like The Ice Storm, succeeds in getting us beyond our present historical reference point and reconsidering some of the virtues we abandoned in the past. And maybe the energies of self-preservation will be dissipated by the rush to collective understanding. Yes, that’s a Utopian ideal. But, as Oscar Wilde once said, a map of the world that does not include Utopia is not even worth glancing at.

Little, Nameless, Unremembered

His voice gnawed across three thousand miles of ratty telephone lines in the days before Skype took away the novelty. He expressed kindness to a kid, never knowing how his natural equanimity gave this kid the courage to perceive chaos as a harmless Keystone Cops piefight. All you needed to do was duck or throw a rhubarb. But the kid didn’t know that then. It had been the middle of the night, and the kid was weeping. Weeping over the rushing flush that overcame him when that cute smiling girl two grades higher — a veritable Leslie Burke in the flesh — stayed inside his heart and head and he didn’t know what it all meant and could do nothing other than weep. So the man, who should have been this kid’s father, said, “No problem,” after winning him over with a benign Billy Crystal impersonation and then suggested to the kid that he give his crush — for that was what this feeling was all about — some chocolates. From where? With what money? “Don’t worry,” said the man. And a little more than two decades later, the kid still wouldn’t know where the seven bucks came from, or what the man had said to the kid’s mother to get her to pony up the nonexistent dough.

Two days later, the kid was sauntering around the sandy track stretching around the outside of his elementary school. His crush accompanied him and he quietly gave this girl the box of mints. And she smiled, an apparent cougar-in-training touched by an inexperienced young buck’s brush forward. He took in the adorable goosebumps on her arms, the freckles dashing across her pale skin, her sorta strawberry blonde hair, her ecstatic cheeks, and, of course, her smile, and she gave him a kiss that he would always remember. And they shared this box of mints on the rattling schoolbus that took them to the other school, where allegedly smarter kids got together for a day to be told that they had some hidden genius. But life, as it turned out, was about pretending that you knew what you were doing. And it was just as applicable to the heart as it was the head.

But he wouldn’t have known any of this, had it not been for the distant man’s kindness. He wouldn’t have known that a childhood crush would linger deeper than any of the casual carnal conquests that came later. The man’s kindness had planted a sapling that would burgeon into redwood effrontery. And if, by some chance, the man had decided to stay, maybe the kid might have grown up calmer and saner. Maybe he might have been installed in a safe and harmless job. Of course, what if games are for the parlor. Only self-absorbed fools look back and blame it all on how things might have played out. But kindness begets kindness. And it wasn’t a surprise when the kid grew up and picked up the phone to reach out and touch someone more times than you’ll ever know.

Of Vollmann’s Imperial

Many reviewers have kvetched a good deal about the page count and weight of William T. Vollmann’s Imperial, and this is probably because they have been forced to read the book in a swift period of time. (But if a reviewer possesses such an innate incuriosity, why on earth would she take on the assignment? There are many possible answers to this, and most of them involve snobbery.) For my own part, I am now past the halfway point of Wild Bill’s journey and I don’t feel the need to finish it immediately. By way of its eclectic material, this is not a book to be wolfed down. It is best enjoyed in spurts or between other books, largely because the tone and emphasis can shift from page to page. This is not to suggest that the book is unreadable (far from it: the prose is often quite breezy, entertaining, and fascinating) or that it doesn’t possess its share of problems. (My complete thoughts on the book will be posted here once I cross the finish line.) But in light of a statement I made last year, having now sampled the goods, I believe it is probably an important book worth the price. Although I have never been cheated out of a dollar in my life.

Review: Inglourious Basterds (2009)


The important thing to understand about Quentin Tarantino is that, as an artist, he has no interest in real life. (Mr. Tarantino’s excellent Crate and Barrel adventure from 2004 does not help his cause, but perhaps there is a reasonable explanation.) Several dour and dense critics, most over the age of 50, cannot see this clear truth before them and have been spending the past few weeks willing their collective blood pressure to rise because they cannot pigeonhole Inglourious Basterds into that neat higher category they desire. (One wonders whether the late Don Edmonds, who gave us the first two Ilsa films, would have faced similar reception in the mid-seventies had he possessed Tarantino’s allure.)

I’ll get to these mostly humorless critics later. They include the normally astute Jonathan Rosenbaum (not this time), Daniel Mendelsohn (who is closer in his assessment, but, not nearly close enough), and the characteristically pompous Ed Gonzalez (who doesn’t seem to ken that Tarantino’s talkathons are part of the point).

The important thing to understand is that Tarantino has never been real. This is the man who didn’t see the humanity in Kirk Blatz’s Reservoir Dogs improvisation. (Blatz played a cop and blurted out the line, “Don’t burn me. I’ve got a kid.” Michael Madsen then told Tarantino, “Quentin, I cannot fucking touch him after he says that to me.” Tarantino’s response? “No, no, I think it’s great. I think it’s wonderful. It brings a whole new element to it.”) This is a man who introduces a kid into the Bride’s domestic brawl with Vernita in Kill Bill Vol. 1 for similar reasons. Character development? Oh, hell no. The kid brings a whole new element. And in Death Proof, when Stuntman Mike is asked why he spends so many hours drinking club soda and lime in a bar, Stuntman Mike says, “A bar offers all kind of things other than alcohol. Women. Nacho grande platters. The fellowships of fascinating individuals like Warren here.” Stuntman Mike turns out to be a psychotic. And it’s easy for any person with a remote understanding of life to see why, given this superficial explanation.

But one should not blame Tarantino for all this. He has, after all, been trying to tell us this for quite some time. Here’s Tarantino in an Entertainment Weekly interview for Kill Bill, Vol. 2:

But one thing that was semi-annoying to me in reading a couple of the reviews for ”Vol. 1” was, ”Oh, this is a very wild technique and style is cranked up and the technique has gone up, but it’s a clear retreat from ‘Jackie Brown,’ and the growing maturity was in there.” ”Clear retreat” says I’m running away from what I did in ”Jackie Brown.” I’ve done it. I don’t have to prove that I can do a [mature character study], all right? And after ”Vol. 1” I don’t have to prove that I can do a good action scene.

Maturity? Leave that for the elder statesmen. Tarantino has done it already. No need to repeat it. So what does Tarantino have to prove exactly? And why does filmmaking have to involve “proving” anything? We expect such claims from a high school jock, not a man in his forties. Maybe it’s because the critical and commercial audiences have expected Tarantino to be real, in the same way that they want Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and world peace to be real. Or perhaps Tarantino’s films prove so intoxicating that we really want them to be real. It’s a testament to Hollywood’s failings that Tarantino’s grab bag of cinematic references and outright theft (see Scorsese’s American Boy and Ringo Lam’s City on Fire just for starters) have managed to seem real, particularly for those who cannot see the real before them.

But if Inglourious Basterds were real, then why would we accept Adolf Hitler, Joseph Goebbels, Henrich Himmler, and Martin Bormann hanging around 1944 Paris for a film premiere? Innumerable history books refute this. Why would we accept Lt. Aldo’s Apachesque hunger for Nazi scalps? Or his ridiculously inept effort to impersonate an Italian late in the film? This is a movie that presents Goebbels, sitting with a woman who is not his usual French interpreter. The scene itself equires no additional explanation. It is abundantly clear to any thinking mind that this woman is his fuck buddy. And yet Tarantino feels compelled to insert a quick scene of Goebbels schtupping her. Why? Because this film, contrary to all the high-minded talk, isn’t really about the Holocaust. It is more about America’s cathartic response to violence. There’s no need for the Goebbels scene, but we wouldn’t mind seeing it. After all, when our bloodthirst rises, we won’t remember. And what does this say about us?

There’s no need for a long scene in which the thwacks of one vigilante’s baseball bat carry on at an absurd length — to the point where a histrionic Jeffrey Wells, who clearly has his cardiologist on speed dial, called it “one of the most disgusting violent scenes I’ve ever sat through in my entire life.” More disgusting than the Saw movies? We only hear the sounds. “Morally disgusting, I mean.” Oh. But how?

The vigilante in question, known as the “Bear Jew” by none other than Hitler himself, is played by Eli Roth, known predominantly for helming the Hostel movies, which some have described as “torture porn.” But I don’t think his casting is an accident. This is, after all, a movie in which one Frenchwoman says, a few years before the Cannes Film Festival and Cahiers du cinéma have been established, “I’m French. We respect directors in our country.”

But Tarantino can’t be respected in America. Jonathan Rosenbaum ridicules the film’s title, lambasting it with sics and many other charges, but doesn’t remember that Tarantino’s debut, Reservoir Dogs, bastardized the title of Au Revoir Les Enfants. Rosenbaum suggests that Tarantino’s film is “morally akin to Holocaust denial” and doesn’t understand why Jews are giving Tarantino a free ride for this apparent travesty. Maybe Rosenbaum hasn’t lived a second-generation life of nagging and incessant reminders about the Holocaust. (It’s worth noting Lawrence Bender’s reaction to the script. He called it “a fucking Jewish wet dream.”)

Door #2 reveals Daniel Mendelsohn, a critic so lost in the classics that he can’t familiarize himself with the rampant exploitation film violence of the past four decades. Mendelsohn fixates on the scalping as “post-modern fun,” and reveals his true cathartic cards. Mendelsohn just loves seeing the scalped Nazis, thus proving Tarantino’s point — that we are all equal at the cinema. Mendelsohn is smart enough to determine that Basterds is not real life, but he sees this more as a problem than a possibility. Mendelsohn is also wise enough to pinpoint “the visceral pleasure of revenge,” but isn’t willing to come to terms with his own clear pleasure in seeing the Nazis tortured. Here is a high mind who has fallen into Tarantino’s trap, clearly reveling in the violence. One can see Lt. Aldo recruiting Mendelsohn, had he been born only a few decades earlier, and Mendelsohn capitulating his civilized and critical perch for the “fun” of revenge.

This is not, as Mendelsohn suggests, Tarantino’s “taste for vengeful violence,” but the audience’s. If you find the film’s violence fun or cathartic, you will likely wilt into Tarantino’s snare. But is this really so bad as pretending that you don’t have it in for somebody? Perhaps this is where the virtues of catharsis might be found.

Various film people have been raving about Christoph Waltz as Col. Hans Landa, and with good reason. He offers the most compelling performance in this film, and Tarantino has made him the focus of our rage. Here is a man who asks permission to enter a home but who, like Stuntman Mike’s eating habits, will wolf down a strudel without pausing to taste the meal. (When this occurs, and a Jewish woman disguised as French is forced to eat the strudel, Tarantino lingers through closeups on the cream being served atop the strudel, insinuating a kashrut violation.) Is it so wrong to cheer on the despicable Landa’s inevitable fate (comparable as it is to our blind acceptance of waterboarding)? Or are we complicit, as the film suggests later, in approving of the inevitably real results of our cinematic catharsis?

When the four major Nazis attending the cinematic premiere arrive, Tarantino is quick to highlight their names with optical arrows pointing to their location. Here they are! suggests the underlying semiotics. Do you want me to kill them for you later on in the film? If you have a problem with such underlying autocratic flourishes, this film is probably not for you. But if you are a regular filmgoer, then you might wish to consider these questions anyway.

Since Tarantino has spent a lifetime insisting that cinema may very well be the only focal point that he can start from, I found Basterds‘s candor refreshing and I was able, at long last, to accept a Quentin Tarantino film for what it was. Ed Gonzalez, whose review lede reads like a Philip K. Dick protagonist contemplating the paranoia around him, sadly could not, despite his four star rating (which I suspect I agree with). If you’re determined to see everything as “an allusion” or “a pose,” rather than accepting the visceral discomfort before you, then this film is not for you. Which is not to discount Tarantino’s hubris. A film that dares to call into question our cathartic response is arrogant by its very nature. But if we’re so content to feel outrage about whether a film may or may not be exploiting us, one wonders why we’re so determined to put such energies into the duplicities of narrative rather than the more salient (and fixable) cons before us in the real world. If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people may eventually come around to believing it. Especially in cinema. Tarantino has told a big lie. And if the town hall lunatics believe that Obama is Hitler, then I suspect that even our most nimble critical minds will have similar thoughts about Tarantino’s vision. For those of us who have accepted (and enjoyed) exploitation films all along, revisiting this source may prove a strange panacea. And if this anodyne lasts beyond our immediate epoch, then it will be Tarantino who has the last laugh. And for this grand illusion, he may rightly deserve the spoils.

The Bat Segundo Show: Maggie Estep

Maggie Estep appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #304.

Maggie Estep is most recently the author of Alice Fantastic.


Condition of Mr. Segundo: Hoping to see Alice at the next opportunity.

Author: Maggie Estep

Subjects Discussed: Efforts to determine if it’s good to be happy, animals throughout Estep’s work, how love for animals is directly proportional to love for human beings, Of Mice and Men, literary allusions, “The Rocking Horse Winner,” women who are described as tiny, the reverse symmetry of characters being kicked out of bed, mother figures, manuscript revision and cleavers, the difficulties of writing something in 1872, being accused of deliberately being shocking, idioms that pop up in lines, “take a raincheck” as a generational cliche, fantastical survival systems, the ethics of plucking from real life, getting bogged down in the minutiae, living in the Lower East Side in the 1980s, characters with brown hair, being dismissive of blonde people, Uma Thurman, people carrying gingerbread houses, Rikers Island, getting procedures right, nothing but raw chicken necks in the fridge, the naming criteria for 17 dogs, Ira from Yo La Tengo, people who were mad at Estep’s first book, asking permission from lifting life experience, Estep’s horse racing experience, soundtracks that are more musical than fingers on a chalkboard, internal rhyme, Estep’s spoken word background, vomiting as a MacGuffin, being mildly clumsy, vacation, and quirky translation.


maggieestepEstep: “Our love of animals is directly proportionate to our indifference to human beings.” It’s a little bit of an exaggeration. I grew up around all sorts of horses and cats and dogs. To this day, my mom — if I want to get her talking to me for more than two minutes — it has to be about the dogs. So it’s an off-the-nose dialogue where we’re talking about the dogs. But really we’re talking about something else.

Correspondent: Interesting. And in this, you are talking about something else with the dogs. Because from the very beginning, the big oaf with the puppy and all this reminded me very much of Lennie from Of Mice and Men, among many other literary allusions. First of all, I want to ask if some of these literary allusions that are there — “The Rocking Horse Winner,” for example — were these intentional or were these just part of the whole…?

Estep: It’s never, never deliberate. It’s all there swimming around in my little brain and comes out inadvertently sometimes.

Correspondent: Little brain. I wanted to ask you about littleness. Because one thing that is very curious is that many of the women in this book are described as tiny.

Estep: Oh.

Correspondent: You have the tiny goth girl waitress. And Eloise is described as tiny by her mother. And, of course, Kimberly is described as tiny. And then, of course, there’s Tina in this. Tiny. Tina.

Estep: (laughs)

Correspondent: I’m getting a little theme here that most of the women in this book are tiny. And I’m curious as to why this is. What is it with this modifier here?

Estep: I actually had not really thought of that. (laughs) I don’t know. But Alice, who is sort of the main one, is not tiny. She’s rangy. I don’t know. There’s something about small women who are very tough that’s really a beautiful prototype. And until you pointed it out, I didn’t realize that’s what was going on in the book.

Correspondent: There’s an inverse ratio between height and toughness in your mind?

Estep: (laughs)

Correspondent: Is that your theory?

Estep: Maybe. That might be something.

Correspondent: Okay. Did you develop this theory over the course of time? Or did it just apply to the particular universe of this novel?

Estep: It just came out at this very moment. (laughs)

BSS #304: Maggie Estep (Download MP3)

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The Bat Segundo Show: Philip Alcabes

Philip Alcabes appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #303.

Philip Alcabes is most recently the author of Dread.


Condition of Mr. Segundo: Attempting to understand the certainty of certain dread, and the dread of dreadful certainty.

Author: Philip Alcabes

Subjects Discussed: Overstating the three Ps (pandemic, pestilence, and plague), contending with a hypothetical situation involving a Norway rat eating your sandwich for lunch, the acceptable level of fear that is required in Western society, the media’s initial coverage in 1982 of AIDS as “the gay plague,” fear of social dissolution, epidemiology as a reasonable response to a disease outbreak, Jerry Falwell and Pat Buchanan, whether initial irrational fear is demagogic, germ theory, calls for healthy skepticism, the linguistic misuse of “tragedy,” being flexible with the word “epidemic,” swine flu and confirmed deaths, reconsidering hysterical value, recent cases of plague, the National Research Act of 1974, Harriet Washington’s Medical Apartheid, the Tuskegee syphilis study, the ethics of administering PolyHeme to unconscious patients in Chicago, contending with correlations between race and poverty, how a story about an epidemic becomes shaped around race, Nushawn Williams, parallels between painting Xs on houses infected with plague and prejudices in the 1980s against gay clubs (and calls to tattoo gay men), positive and negative liberty and how much the government is permitted to go in protecting us, the possibility of scientists being co-opted into political campaigns, the ethics of tweeting, and science at the behest of elasticity of terms.


palcabesCorrespondent: Reading this book, I got the sense that the three Ps — pandemic, pestilence, and what’s the other one? plague! — that we’re essentially overstating them. But I want to start off by offering a hypothetical scenario. If I’m sitting at a restaurant, and a Norway rat jumps onto the table and starts nibbling at my sandwich, I’m going to have some understandable concerns. So I guess the question is, if we are in a culture of needless dread about the three Ps, what is the amount of fear that is acceptable for you? Some general terms.

Alcabes: So what is the amount of fear that is acceptable?

Correspondent: Yeah.

Alcabes: Well, I accept any amount of fear. People feel the fear that they fear. But to answer your question about the rat, would I eat the sandwich? No. Would I think I’m going to die because I saw the rat? No. Is that what you’re getting at?

Correspondent: It’s what I’m getting at.

Alcabes: Would I think that the black death is about to start again? Also, no. And do I think that we’re too worried about pandemics, pestilence, and plague? Well, we’re how worried we are. What’s odd is that we’re as worried as we are, given that we know so much. In the 14th century, which is when plague came to Europe and became what we now know as the Black Death, people didn’t know much about that illness. They didn’t actually know that it was connected to rats. They didn’t know that it was spread by fleas jumping from rats to humans. They didn’t know that it was caused by a bacterium. They didn’t know exactly how to prevent it. They didn’t know, as we do now, how we can cure it. It can be cured now by common antibiotics. But given that we know so much now, why do we get so panicky? Why do we still think that we’re about to be consumed by some new black death? And that’s the more puzzling question. It’s really the question that launched my book.

Correspondent: When the media initially covered AIDS in 1982, they referred to it as “the gay plague.” But one might argue that here we are twenty-seven years later and most people are not going to use the insensitive term “gay plague” to reference AIDS or HIV. And I’m wondering if you’re possibly being a little hard on people when some new development or some “epidemic” actually occurs. Because people are going to try and want to pinpoint it. They’re going to be frightened. They’re going to be scared. How do we transmute that initial impulse of fear that goes into atavistic territory into something that is more reasonable along the lines of what you’re suggesting? Since we have the knowledge, how do we deploy it among the general public so that they don’t freak out like this?

Alcabes: You know, it would be unreasonable for me to say, “Don’t be afraid.” People are afraid. And, in fact, I think that one of the premises of my book is that we carry with us innate, inchoate dreads. And the innate ones are about death, at least from what the psychologists tell us. And there are inchoate ones — I think this is what you meant by “atavistic territory” — that have to do with a kind of ineffable dark realm of randomness where anything can happen. And I think some people have called that a fear of social disarray, of the dissolution of society. And I think that’s a way to put it. We’re afraid of whatever’s out there. And it’s not unreasonable to think that we’re going to stop being so afraid. I do think that it’s quite reasonable to do epidemiology on it. I was trained as an epidemiologist. It’s a reasonable response to collect data and try and make sense of a disease outbreak. Where I think we let ourselves go wrong, where we let ourselves harm our own society, is when we let our fears shape narrative, if you will, of disease outbreaks, in which somebody’s to blame. Somebody has crossed a line, imperiled the rest of us. And I think your example of the early days of AIDS is really well taken. Because that’s a great example of some people looking at AIDS as a kind of ratification of suspicions they had about what some people were doing that was “bad,” right? That people were suspicious that the sexual revolution of the ’60s was going too far or who had a specific fear about homosexuality allowed themselves to see AIDS as a validation of those anxieties.

BSS #303: Philip Alcabes (Download MP3)

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The Bat Segundo Show: Lizzie Skurnick II

Lizzie Skurnick appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #302.

Lizzie Skurnick is most recently the author of Shelf Discovery. She previously appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #13.


Condition of Mr. Segundo: Sacrificing his manhood to fight the patriarchal overlords.

Author: Lizzie Skurnick

Subjects Discussed: [List forthcoming, but oh quite a strange potpourri! Everything from redheads, television rape, Jean Auel, whether patriarchy or elitism is responsible for YA/genre ghettoization, and whether or not Judy Blume’s Wifey involves punishing the heroine.]


skurnick2Skurnick: You know, you make up a story for what you’re trying to do later, but who knows what you were trying to do?

Correspondent: Well, then I’m going to go ahead and put my own particular question of interest to you.

Skurnick: Go for it.

Correspondent: Okay. The concern for redheads in your review of The Moon by Night.

Skurnick: Oh.

Correspondent: The author who has the redheaded stepchild in A Gift of….A Gift of Magic. Yes. I’m sorry. My handwriting’s terrible. But I found out last night that there are, in fact, a streak of redheaded people in your family.

Skurnick: Yes.

Correspondent: And so, as a result, I must put forth the psychological question to you, Ms. Skurnick, over whether this preoccupation with redheads reflects this familial genetic scenario.

Skurnick: Okay. It’s hilarious. Because if you — I don’t know if you notice this at the party. Because not all of my friends were at the party. But my Grandma Dora was a redhead, my father is a redhead, my Aunt Francine is a redhead. Growing up, one of my good friends Becky was a redhead. I think I have another good friend who was a redhead. And throughout my life — it’s hilarious — two of my dearest friends — Casey and Jane — were redheads. I have dated many redheads. And my new nephew Asher is a redhead. So I think that certainly I have a huge streak of redheadedness in my life. And I could not tell you why. And it is actually funny. Because whenever I write about Meg’s boyfriend — Calvin is redhead — and there’s quite a few redheads in L’Engle, in general. You know, Polyhymnia is a redhead. Calvin’s daughter. And when you write about it, there’s always a few girls in the comments who will go, “Oh, Calvin, I love a ginger!” Like if you do it with Prince William and his brother, you’ll get that too. So there is — that is a theme in my life. But it is also a theme in YA.

Correspondent: Yeah.

Skurnick: It’s a huge theme in YA. And I don’t know. I guess it’s because — I’ve never understood this because, like I said, there’s zillions of redheads in my life. But redheadness in society does always — it’s like you are marked as a very different thing. Everybody looks at redheads. You know, when Asher, my nephew, was born, it was the first thing five people told me. And then when people looked at him, they would say, “He’s a redhead.” You know, that’s like the first thing. And so I guess it’s often a little bit of what the author is talking about. You know, the sense of being deliberately put outside. And then what do you do with that? What do you do with the fact that you are an individual. You know, redheads are forced from a very young age to be individuals in the way that we are not. And I think maybe that’s…

Correspondent: I was a redhead, you know.

Skurnick: Really?

Correspondent: Yeah, yeah. You’re drawing a generalization here. But I’ll let you continue. I am very curious to hear your answer.

Skurnick: Well, all of the redheads in my life are actually like fire red. You know, it doesn’t go away. Like I actually have some red in my hair, although you can’t tell right now. Because it’s wet.

(Image: Tayari Jones)

BSS #302: Lizzie Skurnick II (Download MP3)

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Hate Mail Dramatic Reading Project #1

hatemail1Last week, I learned that somebody really hated my guts. This person never actually told me why. So I sent this person an email with my phone number, inviting the person to give me a call and make amends through civil discourse. I received a most extraordinary response from this individual — one that has quite pleasantly inspired me to start a new audio series. The following clip represents my dramatic reading of this individual’s hate mail to me, read in a melodramatic, quasi-Shakespearean style.

I hope to start reading more of people’s hate mail. And if you like, I will be happy to read any specific hate mail that you’ve received. (If you do send me hate mail for potential dramatic readings, I only ask that you redact the names of the individuals.) And if there is enough demand, I may even start reading some of the really stupid emails I’ve sent over the years to various people.

Click any of the below links to listen.

Hate Mail Dramatic Reading Project #1 (Download MP3)

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That Old Reading Magic

My review of Richard Russo’s That Old Cape Magic appears in today’s Chicago Sun-Times. And just to be clear on this, I filed my review weeks before I offered my thoughts on the Newsweek contretemps and before my second interview with the man.

But there’s an additional issue that worries me, one recently voiced by Jennifer Weiner. Like Russo’s latest novel, Weiner’s book, Best Friends Forever, includes a lengthy chapter in Cape Cod — a surprisingly dark and creepy flashback that reveals significant behavioral details — and, like Russo, concerns itself the theme of adults having to come to terms that they are indeed their own parents. Both novels approach the subject from entirely different perspectives. But because Weiner writes from a female-centric perspective, her novel is judged an ersatz beach read and because Russo writes about men, he is “a misogynist.” Such cavalier assessments, which violate John Updike’s first rule of trying to understand what the author wish to do, underscore the more troubling issue. A novelist who writes in a light and straightforward tone about human behavior is often written off by the critical snobs, particularly if the novelist has any commercial success. Weiner and Russo, in other words, are really on the same side.

And here’s Weiner in her blog post:

After the fifth or sixth time this happened, I pulled Fran aside and explained that I doubted that Mrs. Russo was endorsing my book, so she needed to quit pimping Richard Russo’s work. Which I still haven’t read, but probably should.

But Weiner, as it turns out, was wrong. At the end of my interview with Russo, I asked him if he had read Jennifer Weiner. He said that he hadn’t, but that he had read and enjoyed Lauren Weisberger’s The Devil Wears Prada. But he assured me that he would read Weiner at the earliest opportunity.

It was very heartening to learn that Russo was committed to reading “high” and “low,” far and wide, and literary and commercial. Reading isn’t about confirming your preferences or your perspectives. If it were, how could anybody be passionate about books?

The Bat Segundo Show: Richard Russo II

Richard Russo recently appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #301.

Richard Russo is most recently the author of That Old Cape Magic. He previously appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #152.


Condition of Mr. Segundo: Shoving Cape Cod mackerel down his throat.

Author: Richard Russo

Subjects Discussed: [List forthcoming, but lots in the latter half of the show about the Newsweek piece and the perceptive problems with close third-person.]


Books RICHARD RUSSOCorrespondent: Bon Jovi’s “Living on a Prayer.” Why “Living on a Prayer” over “You Give Love a Bad Name?”

Russo: (laughs)

Correspondent: Was “Living on a Prayer” the tune that was more applicable to weddings here?

Russo: Ed, Ed, you’re trying to make me feel regret now, aren’t you? Because that would have been perfect as well.

Correspondent: Was it more about living than love? With the emphasis in the book.

Russo: It was the result of my wife and I having gone recently to a number of weddings and being absolutely fascinated by the way young people my daugghters’ age react to the song. Because it is so much before their time. And for a lot of young people — 28, 29, 30 — it is a kind of anthem And the way they not only know the words, they have a kind of routine worked out on the dance floor. Those in the know have this routine on the dance floor that involves the fist-pumping, which they do in unison. Sometimes forty or fifty of them, young people out on the dance floor, to a song that is just so much before their time. But they’ve adopted it. So it was a wonderful way to show a bridge between those generations. And Laura, who does such a kind act in that redeems her father, at least temporarily. It just fit that slot so nicely. It also suggests that when Griffin begins this novel, he’s had a tiff with his wife. But it’s really just a tiff. I mean, he has a kind of tenure in his job. He loves his life. He loves his wife. He loves his daughter. Everything is right. And yet by the end of the first half of this book, he’s living on a prayer. And he knows it. Whereas he didn’t in the beginning.

Correspondent: But it’s interesting. Because your timing is absolutely perfect! Recently, on YouTube, there’s this video that’s been going around, that 18 million people have seen, of this elaborate dance at a wedding all set to music.

Russo: Oh really? I hadn’t seen it.

Correspondent: Well, I know. I don’t think you’re much of an online guy.

Russo: (laughs)

Correspondent: I wanted to talk about the notion of the home in this book. There’s a sentiment that is expressed: “You aren’t a real adult until you have a mortgage you can’t afford.”

Russo: Right.

Correspondent: Griffin is pressured into home ownership. And he and his wife often sift through the real estate catalogs, splitting up properties into Cannot Afford It and Wouldn’t Have It As a Gift.

Russo: Right.

Correspondent: And then also, 13-year-old Sunny Kim says, “You have a lovely home,” later on in the book. Home though is not necessarily where the heart is in this. This is a couple that is united by home as a piece of property, as opposed to a place where one can establish a family. This is a couple that settles on The Great Truro Accord and actually figures that this prearranged stratagem will aid them in deflecting every curveball of life thrown their way. So I wanted to just ask you why the home, of all things — or even just property in general — would be the central place for this couple’s failure to (1) deal with life and (2) come to the real terms that they are their parents and that they share a lot of family qualities. That’s a lot of points. I’ll stop there.

Russo: No, no, that’s — yes, I’m overwhelmed by the question. The other conflict, of course, is that Griffin’s parents, of course, are confirmed renters. So their notion of a home is something which recedes before them. Like the Cape itself. I mean, home for them is a place that you can only visit. And so, for Griffin, home is something that he is really reluctant to go to. Joy loves her parents’ home. She loves the vacation home. The same home that they rent every year. For her, home is a central place, as you said. It is the place where love resides most powerfully. And I think I would also expand that to say that home, like marriage, is not just a private thing. Just as marriage institutionalizes love in some way, home institutionalizes family. So when Sunny Kim — the outsider — comes in and says, “You have a lovely home.” He’s saying, “You have a lovely daughter with whom I’m in love. You have a lovely marriage to which I aspire. You have a lovely home that I would like to live in one day and you have a lovely nation that is now my adopted home.”

So just as your question is big, my answer is kind of big. In the sense that the notion of home, by the time we get to the end of this book — especially that final Sunny Kim scene — that notion of home has gone from something at the beginning — it was two people separating real estate property on a place they can’t afford into those two categories — Can’t Afford It and Wouldn’t Have It As a Gift. And by the time we get to the end of the novel, it’s almost something that you would expect to be taken over at some point by Department of Homeland Security. (laughs)

BSS #301: Richard Russo II (Download MP3)

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Review: The Time Traveler’s Wife (2009)


“Come with me if you want to love.” I expected that line at several points, and I confess that great expectation as a man who wanted to believe in this film. You see, aside from being a geek, I am also known to be something of a romantic sap. But the line never came. Henry, our buck naked SNAG and presumed protagonist, has this troubling tendency of emerging in some random time period, often fumbling around for fresh clothes, sometimes smashing in a car window, but always speaking in that deep and dependable Christian Bale-style Batman voice. (Such circumstances cause him to approach a preteen girl naked, and one wonders why he isn’t listed on the Megan’s Law database. If only Jean-Claude Van Damme were around to play Timecop.) Here’s a guy who seems to have found the time to smoke a few cloves before disappearing into the void (how else to explain his vocal affectations?), but who is incapable of drinking. You see, all that wine causes him to jump about from year to year too frequently.

But he isn’t interesting. He isn’t the Henry that I read and enjoyed in Audrey Niffenegger’s novel a few years ago. (But to hell with him. What of Clare?) But he does look an awful lot like Michael Biehn’s Kyle Reese, and he does shout the line, “What year?” as if some California governor is on his trail hoping to collect some tax revenue to salvage the plummeting state budget. (Not a chance. This film is set in Chicago, but lacks the late John Hughes’s gift for showing off the town.) But then this is Eric Bana, an actor never known for great depth. He’s the guy you call when Christian Bale isn’t available, or when you need some one-dimensional Romulan heavy for a reboot of a profitable franchise. I’m sorry to be so prejudicial, but it’s the truth. I want Eric Bana to wow me, but he reminds me too much of Michael Paré in the 1980s.

And it’s difficult to take any movie that includes a line involving “the most serene gestation on the planet” too seriously. As much as it pains me, we can blame screenwriter Bruce Joel Rubin for such colloquial absurdities. The man did give us, after all, Jacob’s Ladder and Ghost — two perfectly respectable flicks. Because I’m feeling generous, I’ll even give Rubin some plaudits for the Wes Craven joint, Deadly Friend, which had the decency to feature a silly basketball beheading scene. But Rubin isn’t that writer anymore. Or, rather, the system won’t allow him to be that writer anymore. When Henry meets his future father-in-law, he’s Philip Craig playing Philip Abshire playing Christopher Walken in The Wedding Crashers. You can imagine, at times, a bunch of screenwriters trying to cut and paste bits from other commercially successful films. Henry and Clare aren’t afforded the time to establish their relationship. The book had the decency to keep things cheerfully foggy, in large part because Niffenegger knew very well that the high-concept premise needed to ride on how Clare perceived this forever-shifting man of mystery. But the film version pins much of the perspective on Henry. And it’s almost as if a bunch of marketing guys had the following conversation:

MARKETING GUY #1: Dude, not only do we get the rom-com crowd, but we can get an entirely different audience!


MARKETING GUY #1: Time travel, dude!

MARKETING GUY #2: Stop calling me, dude. Sir is okay. But not dude.

MARKETING GUY #1: Whatever, man. Anyway, you’ve got all these sad fucking guys who have to take their girlfriends to some piece of shit rom-com.


MARKETING GUY #1: But we get them too!

MARKETING GUY #2: We already have them.

MARKETING GUY #1: No, no, no! Time travel! You’re not listening.

MARKETING GUY #2: Some of that sci-fi stuff?

MARKETING GUY #1: Dude, I totally got some action in San Diego.

MARKETING GUY #2: Dude, don’t call me dude.

And so on. Insert swagger and comparison of penis sizes. But the point here is that Marketing Guy #1 and Marketing Guy #2 seemed to think that The Time Traveler’s Wife could work as both a science fiction movie and a romantic comedy, thereby killing two demographics with one stone. But the book wasn’t designed this way.

See, here’s the thing. Niffenegger’s book is good, but don’t burrow into the damn novel hoping for deep insight. We needed to believe in the time travel plot. Indeed, it’s essential we believe in the time travel plot. Because, truth be told, the behavioral observations — which include the couple’s two best friends (one played in the film by the dude from Office Space!) — are about as dimensional as the regulars on a half-decent but instantly forgettable sitcom. It’s more Monica wondering what Chandler is up to this week, rather than John Cassavetes nuzzling his shaky camera into Gena Rowland’s soul. But in the book, we don’t care about the narrative shortcomings. Because the time travel plot is pretty damn cool and the perspective is told mostly from Clare. And we want to know what happens.

But in the film version, we know about Henry’s backstory. Because it’s told almost entirely from his perspective at the outset and there really isn’t room for speculation. And, again, he’s played by Eric “Hunk of Meat” Bana. If I wanted to spend 100 minutes with a hunk of meat, I’d waste my time in a meat locker. Bana gives us constantly blinking eyes and that husky voice of emo certainty. The makeup people can’t even age the dude with any verisimilitude. A streak of gray indicates that he’s in his early forties, but his wrinkles stay the same.

I can’t fault director Robert Schwentke for this, because he does his best to make this movie visually interesting. There are endless shots of hallways and doorways, establishing an interesting spatial quality that matches Henry’s time-traveling. But the cheesy Spielbergian handprint on the window had me howling for the Subtlety Police, as did the obligatory growing-up montage. I want to ensure anyone who is reading this that I’ve seen worse films of this type, but truthfully, I had more fun with the 2001 time travel romantic comedy, Kate & Leopold.

“How dare you! You tricked me!” “I never had a choice!” Not exactly the most nuanced dialogue centered around a vasectomy for a couple that knows each other over many years. But then this is a film that lacks the guts to take on the maturity or even the blossoming of romance, which I did find within Niffenegger’s novel in spurts.

The upshot is that you’re probably better off reading the book, which doesn’t have to contend with this obeisance to the marketing team and manages to make improbable moments work because of context, including the infamous lottery ticket scene. Speaking of striking paydirt, I’m not sure if Niffenegger deserved $5 million for her second novel, but at least she has passion. The team that put this movie together is more interested in getting you excited about young, attractive, and ultimately superficial people. I’ve complained about the Hunk of Meat, but Rachel McAdams wins my approval and deserves better than this. So too does the audience.

Review: Taxidermia (2006)


I don’t know if I would go so far as to call György Pálfi our next Fellini (circa late 1960s), our next Pasolini, or even some predictable filmmaker going out of his way to offend us — even if the visual cues for his most recent film suggests all this. But he does have talent. And Taxidermia, which finally gets a limited and long overdue American release this Friday, is certainly not for weak stomachs or limited-minded men who cloak their shallow prejudicial insights inside the sheltered caverns of higher education. The distinguished critic sitting behind me, not the type to sit through a Saw installment, made numerous sounds of disgust. I kept slouching downward in my seat so that the remnants of some half-digested lunch wouldn’t hit me unexpectedly in the back of my head. But thankfully the critic was civilized.

The New York people may not get this film. But then again, they might. For my own part, I feel inclined to applaud it. For there is a regurgitation-heavy eating contest here that makes the “Lardass” scene in Stand By Me look as innocuous as a Disney film. Two men, having just finished shoving spoonfuls of some disgusting stew in their mouth, are now regurgitating their stomachs out of view of the audience. They then begin discussing a woman they’re trying to impress in the audience, all the while puking their guts into a bucket. When they return back to the competition, Pálfi’s camera sweeps through the crowd with an unexpected excitement. I was both disgusted and galvanized by this, and it is a rare film indeed that can dislodge two entirely differing feelings like this at the same time. And this audacious emotional combo made the Hollywood movie I saw afterward seem notably limp by comparison.

But Taxidermia isn’t just a film of scatological shock value. If you’re willing to give this film a chance (and, again, I hesitate to recommend this to those of flaccid constitutions), it offers some inventive visual ideas. A joyful man pisses fire. A camera circles across a floor containing a bathtub, revealing yet another matching bathtub, which houses any number of strange sights in its cavity (an animal carcass, a recently born infant, et al.). An act of bestiality has the violated animal transforming into various women. An enormous man — that champion eater, pictured above, a few decades later — sits permanently in an apartment with endless boxes of chocolate bars. There are giant cats he keeps in a cage and that he keeps big by having his son — a taxidermist — constantly feed them butter. Should I mention the ejaculation mass that shoots into a starscape? Or the creepy pederast we discover in the landscape of a pop-up book? Or, for that matter, the cock (penis) that gets pecked by another cock (animal)?

If such sights trouble you, you should probably blame Lajos Parti Nagy, whose short stories provided the source material for Pálfi to go crazy here. And while the last ten minutes of the film does feature some minor torture porn and the results, on the whole, don’t always work, I doubt very highly that I will see another film in which two champion eaters are enlisted to eat caviar on a boat to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Communist liberation. The film can be cartoonish at times. (Gergely Trócsányi’s shouting as the champion eater grows a bit tedious, but he is replaced by another actor in the next installment. I should probably point out that this film is also a three-part multi-generational epic.) But it’s easily one of the more alive films I’ve seen in a while.

The Underestimated Nicholas Meyer

In today’s Barnes & Noble Review, I take on Nicholas Meyer’s The View from the Bridge. Meyer is best known as the man behind Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, the film that arguably saved the Star Trek franchise (for better or worse). But people often overlook the fact that Meyer also wrote a series of amusing Sherlock Holmes pastiches (beginning with The Seven Per-Cent Solution), as well as the 1983 TV movie, The Day After.

Meyer is a far more interesting figure than most people give him credit for. While there are several unanswered questions in the book, the memoir does provide an interesting glimpse into an accidental career. But go to the B&N Review to get the full skinny.

Review: Wolke Neun (2008)


My first instinct was to dismiss the silly second half of Andreas Dresen’s Wolke Neun (Cloud 9 for Yanks), which wallows in childish dialogue (“That’s just so mean!”) and betrays its wonderful first half. But after chewing on this film over the last few days, I’ve found, much to my surprise, that it has stuck with me. I’ve come around to the possibility that these melodramatic developments are, in fact, essential to the film’s broader point. I don’t believe (and my apologies to Jane Juska) this film is really about older people having sex or even elderly characters schtupping about and having a bit of fun, but about the many ways in which civilization has made sex the province of the young, the healthy, and the bendable. We all know that plenty of other people have sex too, but we settle for these smooth and unwrinkled depictions. Aside from the surefire crowd-pleasers of lesbians or ménages à trois, that’s the only sex these days that really sells. But have we lost sight of the awkward gaffes, the intercourse we have when we’re languid or not so virile, or, found sometimes in the troubled suburbs, those clumsy attempts at spontaneity?

Cloud 9 wants us to consider these questions. By casting exceptional actors in the parts (Ursula Werner and Horst Westphal, who resembles, at times, the German answer to Jack Lemmon) and by focusing on a sexual affair not often portrayed in cinema — one between Inge, a 67-year-old married woman, and Karl, a smiling 76-year-old bachelor — Dresen may be asking us to ponder our relationship with authenticity. (Incidentally, this is a subject that Dresen is quite punchy about in interviews: “There is no authenticity in the cinema! If you want authenticity, you should look out the window. You can see truth in the cinema, but you don’t see anything that’s authentic.”) But because Cloud 9 is committed to an inauthentic truth, I’m inclined to accept the inauthentic telephone call that comes near the end of the film and some of the closing corny sentiments (“Perhaps everything has its time.”). For why should we expect constant authenticity from cinema? Maybe we don’t really want to know the authentic truth and maybe we should be spending more of our time looking out windows. (Certainly this film’s failure to depict Viagra caused me to question the dutiful thrusts of our charming septuagenarian bronco.)

Here is a film that initially sets most of its action indoors, suggesting a sedentary life of decay. What do Inge and her husband Werner do for fun? They spend their time listening to records containing train sounds. When they do leave the house, they take a random train and take in the window’s view. “He loves train rides,” explains Inge. Karl, by contrast, offers buff and tangible ambles. “I prefer bike rides through nature,” says Karl. These distinctions may seem clear-cut to us, but Inge actually finds Werner’s locomotive fixations to be not loco, but touching. This is, after all, the man she’s been with for thirty years. Why should she expect otherwise? But then Inge’s lifestyle isn’t so much about expanding her self-discovery, as it is about approaching existence much as she takes on her part-time job: sewing alterations for handsome strangers. No surprise then that our smiling friend Karl meets Inge through her work. But this isn’t exactly Last Tango in the Nursing Home, because these characters thankfully remain independent. But that impending possibility is suggested with Werner’s father, who is infirm and in a rest home. “If I ever end up like my father,” says Werner, “you can shoot me in the woods.” It’s safe to say that Werner lacks Karl’s smooth touch. But then this is Germany.

During the scenes in which Inge rubs lotion on Werner, I was reminded of the creepy scene in Mike Leigh’s Hard Labour, in which Liz Smith rubs her husband’s hairy back. But Inge and Werner seem to get along better than Leigh’s happy couple. Does it all come down to physicality in the end? If so, that’s one hell of a cinematic conceit. But it would be foolish to suggest that this intriguing film is just a dialectic. (Perhaps this is simply what I wanted it to be.)

I should probably point out that during one of the film’s many long takes, I became strangely fixated on the two breast-like bowls hanging on the dining room wall. I doubt that many critics will confess this. And I need not go into the redblooded male’s unwavering interest in mammary glands. But I found this visual to confirm my strange hypothesis. Why on earth would I concentrate on this? Because Dresen may understand that my cinematic mind, like many, is programmed to accept inauthentic truth. And even when there’s a living, breathing character before us, art forces us to fixate on the potential symbols. “That’s just so mean!” says Inge over and over again when Werner eventually levels with her. Childish? Oh yes. But if we were more honest about cinematic authenticity, we wouldn’t have to be reminded. And if we were more truthful about such matters, we wouldn’t have to go to the cinema.

But Cloud 9 is an interesting film.

Sarah Hall Roundtable

deadmanteaserDuring the week of September 7, 2009, this website will be devoting its attentions to discussing Sarah Hall’s forthcoming novel, How to Paint a Dead Man. The novel, recently longlisted for the Booker Prize, concerns itself with four stories taking place over half a century. And we have assembled a rowdy crew to oar through these promising waters.

If you’re not familiar with Sarah Hall, you can read my essay on her first three novels for The Barnes and Noble Review.

You can also listen to my one hour podcast interview with her from last year.

Linkrot on Steroids: The Problems with URL Shorteners

As Simon Owens recently observed, — a service that shortened URLs — is now gone. The links that it once helpfully compressed are now useless. For those who may have passed on a link to a pal, tweeted a particularly helpful article, or otherwise stopped an unruly URL from breaking in two because of a monitor’s constraining width, this metadata means nothing. How long will it be before all the other URL shortening services are about as valuable as a maniac with a fetish for smearing Crisco on random monitors or some sad and anonymous man who wastes his entire weekend on the Internet pretending to be somebody else on Twitter? Twhirl, the Adobe AIR app aiding folks in posting silly thoughts and links to Twitter, presents us with,,,, and as link-shortening options, all desperately needed if anyone expects to use the 140 character limit. But will these shorteners even exist in six months? Shouldn’t the mad scientists at Twitter come up with an in-house standard to ensure some longevity? (All this, of course, assumes that our tweets, or anything we put online, is even permanent — a subject I rambled at length about last week.)

There’s also the problem of linkrot. The ever-shifting Wikipedia page suggests that Tim Berners-Lee was the first person to warn against these constantly changing links. Some extremely lazy excavation reveals that Jakob Nielsen was on the case on June 14, 1998, pointing, with unintentional and unanticipated irony, to “a recent survey by Terry Sullivan’s All Things Web.” But the link today is no longer good. I consult The Wayback Machine, waiting a few patient minutes for some hopeful snapshot of the Sullivan site in question, getting a total of 91 versions between 1998 and 2008. And of course, a click to one of these surrogate McCarthy functions takes another 40 seconds, and I don’t know which version is even the optimal one. And I find dramatic differences between the last version of the site in 2008 and the first version of the site in 1998. To name just one modification, the 2008 version reveals that the survey was conducted in April 1997. I am directed to the actual survey, which thankfully still maintains its original URL. But for how long?) There is no such date in the 1998 version. The 2008 version compares three State of the Web surveys. But what if we want to know what Terry Sullivan wrote about the original survey in 1998? The new page gives no indication that Sullivan changed the page and doesn’t address us to an older version. (I should point out that the Guardian has, And if you try and call up All Things Web in Firefox 3.5.2, you get a 403 error. What was once public is now private or “down for maintenance” (as of August 9, 2009, 9:13 PM EST). Nielsen has referenced only general details in his piece, as well as the original URL, which the patient types will attempt to extract through the Wayback Machine.

But let’s say that Nielsen had used something like to point to Sullivan. Would we be able to conduct this experiment? Instead of having 91 versions of Sullivan’s website to examine, we’d have to perform some guesswork, assuming the page was referenced by others and assuming that this was the only page in which Sullivan wrote about the “recent survey” in 1998.

Let’s also consider that all of the content and all of the links that we type into Twitter (or, for that matter, a webmail service) involves relying on a third-party website. A third-party website that has been prone to outages, lost tweets, lost followers, and lost information. What steps then is Twitter taking to ensure that all of the data generated at a historical moment is preserved? What are the URL shorteners doing to ensure that the regular versions of URLs are preserved?

Five years from now, will anyone investigating the manner in which CNN and The New York Times relied on Twitter for its news about recent events in Iran be able to check the original data that these ostensible reporters relied on? Will these reporters keep any notes they generated? Will their links still be good? Will the New York Time‘s links still be around? (Hell, will the New York Times even still be around?)

Our cavalier refusal to ask these questions only exacerbates the problem of linkrot. There are thankfully methods of backing up your Twitter data, but how many Twitter users will even do this? We are forced by necessity to shorten the links, but “abuse of the service” may cause it to be temporarily disabled. helpfully offers a “history” of recently shortened links. And it even tracks the URLs that you’ve recently shortened even if you’ve never signed up or signed in. But days later, the history is cleared.

Just for fun, I performed an advanced Twitter search on all uses of “” on Twitter through February 28, 2009. “No results for until:2009-02-28.” I know this cannot be. But let’s give Twitter the benefit of the doubt. All uses of “tinyurl” on Twitter through February 28, 2009? “No results for tinyurl until:2009-02-28.”

These search results are, as anyone who has used Twitter and URL shorteners in the past two years, outright wrong. Twitter lacks the resources to preserve our data from six months ago. How can we expect it to preserve our data six months from now? In our great rush to adopt tools of change, our failure to backup the data we’ve already generated is the Internet’s equivalent to the explosive silver nitrate film stock and reckless cataloging that has permitted only 10 to 15% of silent movies to survive, with the remainder thought to be lost forever. (And who knows if there will be some online answer to Carl Bennett?)

But then many of the prospective answers to these questions depend on how much we value the services we’re using, and just how much we’re willing to waste our weekends on a desperate effort at tenuous restitution.

David Ulin: A Books Editor to Be Deactivated

If you are a humorless books editor packing mundanities (while also resorting to the groundless Sven Birkerts-style grumbling about online interlopers who express more enthusiasm about books in 140 characters than you can in 800 words) into a badly written piece about just how gosh darn hard it is for you to sit down and read, then you have no business keeping your job. David Ulin’s piece is not so much an essay, as it is a confession from an out-of-touch and calcified man who clearly does not love books and who lacks the courage to take any chances. He may as well have written an open letter of resignation — not just from his editorial position, but from the rustling possibilities of books. (If you don’t have the ability to “still [your] mind long enough to inhabit someone else’s world, and to let that someone else inhabit [yours],” then you may as well sell overpriced stereo systems to unthinking schmucks.)

It has been disheartening to watch the Los Angeles Times‘s books coverage burn into mediocrity in the past year. While Sam Zell did indeed unleash any number of unsuspecting Santa Anas to fan this conflagration, the brigade trying to extinguish the fire are more content to let the foundation burn. Carolyn Kellogg’s once exuberant voice on the Los Angeles Times‘s book blog, Jacket Copy, has transformed from its early promise into soulless corporate boilerplate. Here is a recent opening paragraph from a post titled “Hello, cutie! New Sony e-reader scores on style”:

Yesterday Sony announced a new bargain e-reader: Just $199, it’ll be among the cheapest e-book readers around when it hits stores later this month. But it doesn’t look cheap — in fact, it’s really cute!

Beyond the troubling sense that one is intercepting a note handed from one bubble gum-chewing teenager to another, how is this any different from a recycled catalog description insulting the audience’s intelligence? Kellogg’s approach is vituperative in its own way, disingenuous in its abuse. Kellogg’s post isn’t so much a piece of journalism, as it is an unpaid Sony advertisement. (Kellogg, incidentally, was observed sheepishly trailing Ulin at BookExpo America and resembled not so much an independent-minded journalist, but Ulin’s executive assistant for a hopelessly institutionalized outlet. At what price an email address?)

I have already explored at length Louisa Thomas’s unconscionably bumbling review from April. But I must ask how such pieces as Amy Wallen’s snarky assault on misfits make it into this seemingly esteemed newspaper? Much as Newsweek‘s Jennie Yabroff recently declared Richard Russo a “misogynist” because of her own inability to understand human behavior, so too does Wallen misinterpret humanity in attempting to “take down” Jennifer Weiner. Wallen cannot understand why a bank teller working at a low hourly wage might indeed find the financial lucre and an adventure of a bank robbery enticing. (When was the last time she worked a minimum wage job?) Wallen cannot comprehend how another character is attempting to corral the present with the past by revisiting place. (The fact that such snark appeared during the same week as Erin O’Brien’s moving essay about her brother makes Wallen’s piece particularly egregious.)

And at the end of last year, there were a number of surprisingly humorless pieces written by the overrated but occasionally enjoyable Brooklyn writer Edward Champion, an apparent legend in his own mind who was inexplicably assigned morose dead authors instead of the giddy subjects that serve this writer’s admittedly limited strengths.

But back to Ulin’s essay. If Ulin actually cared about anybody other than himself, then he might indeed devote his bumbling mind to another’s point of view. If Ulin truly sought contemplation in books, he would have a more tangible memory of Malcolm Lowry’s book rather than the beach he lived at. He also misreads Frank Conroy’s Stop-Time (indeed, in the very manner that Conroy warned about). Here is the complete Conroy passage that Ulin quotes from:

It was the winter of my seventeenth birthday, presumably my last year of high school. I made a half-hearted attempt to pass my courses, knowing that in any event I’d have to go to summer school to make up for previous failures. I wanted the diploma that year. I wanted to get it over with so I could leave the country, go to Denmark and meet my grandparents, see Paris, but mostly just to get away from home. I withdrew into myself and let the long months go by, spending my time reading, playing the piano, and watching television. Jean too had retreated into himself. He’d watch the screen silently for hours on end, wrapped up in a blanket Indian fashion, never moving his head. Night after night I’d lie in bed, with a glass of milk and a package of oatmeal cookies beside me, and read one paperback after another until two or three in the morning. I read everything, without selection, buying all the fiction ont he racks of the local drugstore — D.H. Lawrence, Moravia, Stuart Engstrand, Aldous Huxley, Frank Yerby, Mailer, Twain, Gide, Dickens, Philip Wylie, Tolstoi, Hemingway, Zola, Dreiser, Vardis Fisher, Dostoievsky, G.B. Shaw, Thomas Wolfe, Theodore Pratt, Scott Fitzgerald, Joyce, Frederick Wakeman, Orwell, McCullers, Remarque, James T. Farrell, Steinbeck, de Maupassant, James Jones, John O’Hara, Kipling, Mann, Saki, Sinclair Lewis, Maugham, Dumas, and dozens more. I borrowed from the public library ten blocks away and from the rental library at Womrath’s on Madison Avenue. I read very fast, uncritically, and without retention, seeking only to escape my own life through the imaginative plunge into another. Safe in my room with milk and cookies I disappeared into inner space. The real world dissolved and I was free to drift in fantasy, living a thousand lives, each one more powerful, more accessible, and more real than my own. (Needless to say, emphasis added)

Conroy read so many great writers “very fast, uncritically, and without retention!” And this is the virtue Ulin calls for! This is the method of reading that Ulin cops to — an endless and uncomprehending cacophony that is less predicated upon understanding others and more predicated upon the accomplishment-centric egos of those “who have written” rather than those who “are writing,” or those “who have read,” rather than those who “are reading.” (Shortly after this passage, Conroy confesses that this milk and cookies ritual encouraged him to be a writer.) This is the apparent “state that is increasingly elusive in our over-networked culture.” But it seems to me that if you are reading without thinking, without masticating, without having your heart and your humility and your dedication to others soar, while various internal angels and demons sing earnest hymns and ribald rockers to humanity and these are shared with others, then this is hardly a state to strive for. Ulin has confused Conroy’s ephemeral approach for contemplation. This has nothing to do with the digital age, but everything to do with personal choice, the rejection of smartphone trinkets, and one’s self-discipline.

These are disheartening statements to hear from the self-absorbed Bernaysian automaton who edits books coverage for The Los Angeles Times.

For my own part, I spend long hours disconnecting entirely from all forms of technology, applying the discipline required to understand another person’s perspective, which often humbles my own. Who cares if the perspectives are old or new? (Certainly, William T. Vollmann does not in his mammoth book, Imperial, which I continue to peck away at.) Indeed, knowing past perspectives and folkways recently erected permit one to discover how humanity regularly dupes itself. And reading Ulin’s essay allows us to understand his perspective, which comes across as that of a prejudicial and undisciplined narcissist. Or perhaps he’s just a permanently anxious man who might better love the world if he realized that his thoughts and feelings weren’t nearly as significant as he believes them to be. Or if he wasn’t busy firing people and striking “eccentric” freelancers of his list (save Tod Golberg) because he desperately wants to keep his salaried position.

RIP John Hughes

John Hughes was associated with launching the careers of Brat Packers Molly Ringwald and Anthony Michael Hall and for lacing his entertainments with candid teenage dialogue of rare understanding. But it was John Candy who made Hughes a true comedic filmmaker and who gave Hughes the heart that his films needed to extend beyond populist entertainments. Hughes’s “adult” period, initiated by his masterpiece Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, produced a series of unusually accessible takes into middle-class culture. And it’s a pity that Hughes didn’t trust himself to push his perceptive prowess further. She’s Having a Baby‘s unexpected explorations into parenthood was followed by the funny but predictable Uncle Buck. Was Hughes smarter than he was letting on? (On the Ferris Bueller’s Day Off director’s commentary, which was removed from subsequent DVD editions by Hughes’s request, Hughes mentions that he shot the scene in the Chicago Art Institute as his tribute to culture.) But Uncle Buck was the last film Hughes would direct until 1991’s Curly Sue. But by then, it was too late. Hughes’s talents were lost forever. And he knew it. Which may be why he disappeared or made a mad dash for the pots of gold that executives often wave in front of talented men with mortgages.

It’s no accident that, with Candy’s death in 1994, Hughes’s films slipped into a series of vile (and seemingly endless) Home Alone and Beethoven sequels, along with wretched and inferior remakes of childhood classics. Eventually, Hughes got off the grid entirely, never emerging in our present age of Twitter and Facebook, refusing all interviews and abstaining from all work, save the many scripts still circulating in Hollywood.

What happened? Only the Lonely may be “a Chris Columbus film” of rare quality. But it was John Hughes’s powerful script that gave Candy a rare dramatic stretch as a shy Chicago policeman. The needlessly maligned film, Dutch, scripted by Hughes, transcended its formula (working-class dad takes privileged kid home for Thanksgiving) and its Planes, Trains, and Automobiles hand-me-downs by not only presented Ed O’Neill the thespic opportunity to prove that he was more than Al Bundy, but throwing this bickering pair into a rootless urban wilderness.

Hughes wanted his audience to know that comic actors appealing to blue-collar audiences during the 1980s and the 1990s were capable of delivering more, and that regular audiences shouldn’t be shy about asking for more. His color symbolism was often blunt (watch the hotel room scenes in Planes, Trains, and Automobiles and pay attention the blue worn by Candy and the white worn by Steve Martin, as well as the color of the blankets on the bed). He asked his actors, as seen in the above clip from Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, for extremely stylized dialogue delivery and facial mannerisms. But none of these artistic decisions undermined Hughes’s ability to get through to regular audiences in a more intelligent way than today’s Dennis Dugans. Hughes had a surprising talent for embedding touching character revelations that never really felt phony. Maybe because, with all the lowbrow jokes about hot dogs coming from lips and assholes (The Great Outdoors) or the conversational image of men playing Pick Up Stix with their buttcheeks (Planes, Trains, and Automobiles), we never expected the material to tug at our heartstrings. (No surprise that Kevin Smith and Judd Apatow are both heavily inspired by Hughes.)

But is it possible that Smith and Apatow, as skilled as they are, are mere craftsmen who have been spending their careers mimicking the genuine artist? And what does that say about the present state of the Hollywood sausage factory? If mimesis is the standard by which we judge a filmmaker great, then John Hughes’s passing certainly demands our reverence.

The Impotance [sic] of the Editor

Editor & Publisher has revealed that Kill Beller doesn’t believe editors is necessary. Beller, whom is the Executive Washroom of the New Turk Times, believes that Assendup Stanley, the media critic who got a few things wrong about Walter Disney’s recent death, is “a brilliant critic.” But the future of the public editor has remained “much debated within out walls.”

In congress with James Rainey to the Los Angles Time, Beller moaned loudly about some “cocks” being given too much leeway. But most of the Beller comics were not used as Rainey focused on cameras on former Times public editors and other uncircumcised Times newsroom fluffers.

In that full dimpled cheek, Beller defends the New Turk Times‘s correction prances; says that any editor who fails to fuck a writer about an error because of the writer’s supposed ass is failing to blow their job; and admits the fluffing of the public editor position is in serious jeopardy.

More wads to blow as the information comes loudly.

An Open Letter to Newsweek’s Richard Smith and Jon Meacham

Dear Messrs. Smith and Meacham:

It was bad enough when you obliterated nearly all of your arts editors and senior cultural critics with the March 2008 buyouts. But, even before this great purge, your magazine was notably egregious. Malcolm Jones couldn’t be bothered to perform the basic professional task of reading the entirety of Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day, but you ran his “review” anyway instead of canning his ass. (Interestingly, Mr. Jones’s “review” has been conveniently deleted from the Newsweek website.)

The Newsweek “article” posted today, Jennie Yabroff’s “Is Author Richard Russo A Misogynist?,” an ostensible “review” of Richard Russo’s That Old Cape Magic, is easily the stupidest and most gaffe-ridden article I’ve read this year. And I read a good deal of arts journalism. To call your magazine a “news outlet” would be as honorable and unpardonable as handing out AK-47s to mass-murderers. You people are amateurs on the arts front. And you have no business running such sloppy journalism.

Beginning with Yabroff’s misuse of “sprung” (instead of the grammatically correct “sprang”), your editors proceed to permit Ms. Yabroff to commit a relentless series of mistakes, all easily confirmed against the book in question. Ms. Yabroff does not seem to understand that Russo’s male characters are helpless without the women who surround them. But because Russo often writes in a comic tone, Ms. Yabroff overlooks the “roughness” within Russo that she praises in several elder literary statesmen. “Humankind” is one word, not two. Kent Haruf a “homey” writer? Uh, no. Haruf’s novel Plainsong deals with brothers who leave their ranch to go to college. (So, for that matter, does Wally Lamb in part with college.) Homey is “home” or “comfortable,” not small town. And I think it’s safe to say that Lamb’s Couldn’t Keep It To Myself: Testimonies from Our Imprisoned Sisters puts to rest Ms. Yabroff’s false conclusion. (And if interviewing women prisoners doesn’t “extend to readers who carry Y chromosomes,” I don’t know what does.)

And that’s just the first paragraph. Where the hell were your copy editors? Or your editors? Did they even read the piece?

Ms. Yabroff writes, “Shrew or saint, they are single-minded and laser-focused on their goals, which are either to aid (the angels) or thwart (the bitches) the protagonist in his pursuit of happiness.” Um, no. It is actually Joy (Griffin’s wife) who is rather certain with her goals, while it is Griffin who cannot decide whether he wants to be a professor or a screenwriter (or even a fiction writer). You see, in the book, which it appears that Ms. Yabroff skimmed instead of reading, the couple settled on The Great Truro Accord, in which Joy and Griffin agreed to get their act together by a certain time. It is she who demands that Griffin take a loan from her parents and be an adult. And in the example that Ms. Yabroff uses from the story “Monhegan Light,” she fails to point out that Martin is regularly revealed to be wrong. The story’s first sentence? “Well, he’d been wrong, Martin had to admit as the Monhegan began to take shape on the horizon.” We immediately understand that the claims of wrongness come from Martin’s perspective in close third-person. His observations about Beth come from the same perspective, as does the raised eyebrow. But what Ms. Yabroff doesn’t report (and this is pivotal to the story in question) is that Martin’s wife has died and Martin hasn’t been honest with Beth. And he hasn’t been honest with himself. His grief has colored his ability to relate to all people. This is clearly not Martin’s pursuit of happiness. Later in the story, Russo writes: “What folly, Martin couldn’t help concluding, bitterly, as he contemplated the lovely young woman sleeping at his side; it was his destiny, no doubt, to sell her short as well.”

Russo’s women “aren’t afforded the luxury of conflict or shortcomings?” Where do we begin to refute this false generalization? Empire Falls‘s Janine — the ex-wife of Miles? Or Tick, the angry daughter disapproving of Janine’s marriage to the Silver Fox? Bridge of Sighs‘s Sarah Berg, who must choose between two high-school classmates while knowing that she is the one who keeps them together? (Her choice, incidentally, forces her to confront significant artistic shortcomings.) Or how about Nobody’s Fool‘s Beryl? The octogenarian landlady who knows more about life than anybody in the novel? It appears that Ms. Yabroff has possibly confused Russo’s deceptively simple prose for the insipid sitcoms she appears to be quite fond of. Understanding Russo involves enjoying the subtextual behavioral mannerisms and the quiet little lines that reveal wisdom. What does Griffin’s mother say to her son in That Old Cape Magic? “Wait till you’re my age and memory is all you have.” One sees with this simple line the perceptive failings that transcend both age and gender. This is a long way away from trashy television.

And, no, Joy doesn’t “condescendingly” inform Griffin of the line. The specific phrasing from the book: “as if she would’ve liked to ask where in the world he’d done his graduate work.” The meaning here is clear. Here is a professor so supposedly smart, but unable to see what’s before him. That’s not condescending. It’s the “Geez, you dolt. It’s all right in front of you” reaction that people are prone to adopt. I don’t know how young Ms. Yabroff is, but I suspect that she is quite possibly not possessed of the pivotal life experience required to understand such distinctions. Either way, such a clear misreading of Russo indicates that she was obviously not cut out for the job.

I believe I’ve already sufficiently responded to Ms. Yabroff’s outright irresponsible claim that “Russo’s books simmer with hostility toward women in general.” And if Ms. Yabroff is such a sheltered and terrified individual (certainly, your magazine must be if it cannot find the courage to print the commonplace word “pussy”) as to not understand the everyday conversational exaggeration that occurs when men get together (an opening scene in Empire Falls cited, rather ridiculously, as “resentment”), then she cannot be helped in comprehending the fantastic spectrum of humanity.

No, Ms. Yabroff is such an incompetent reader that she finds one passage “troubling because it’s impossible to tell who’s speaking.” As I have already elucidated in the paragraph about “Monhegan Light,” Russo commonly employs a close third-person narrative device. If Ms. Yabroff is incapable of comprehending the difference between first-person and third-person — a rudimentary aspect of reading comprehension that is taught in most elementary schools — then your contributor clearly lacks the brains, the interpretive exigencies, and the perceptive acumen to review books for a national magazine. I do not know how such a boneheaded and incompetent reviewer could have possibly been selected for your pages — particularly when Newsweek has the pick of the litter what with many freelance journalists looking for work and a rising unemployment rate.

The only logical conclusion is that Newsweek isn’t a serious magazine and isn’t interested in employing serious writers or editors. It is far more concerned in proving its irrelevancy with such astonishingly amateurish pieces. And you will die a very hard death if you keep this up. The people aren’t nearly as stupid as you think they are.

I demand an explanation for how you could allow so many mistakes and so many curdish and tone-deaf observations to pass through your ratty cheesecloth.


Edward Champion

[UPDATE: Bethanne Patrick also offers a lengthy post refuting Yabroff’s claims.]

2009 is Boring By Comparison

At the bash at Jimmy’s that Warner Brothers records gave for Alan Price (he wrote the score for “O Lucky Man!” and performs in the film), Malcolm McDowell’s cock was the center of attraction. The wife of a rock writer couldn’t take her eyes off of his pants and she said she’d give a year of her life to be with Malcolm — in them. Malcolm posed for photos with Alice Cooper. Alice wore teeny hot pants which showed his inverted belly-button and little else. He said the last film he saw was “Sleuth” and he had to take it easy because a fan got him in the head with a tequila bottle in Texas.

Ed McCormack of Rolling Stone sat on the floor and showed off his Russ Tamblyn haircut. Fran Lebowitz of Inter/view sat on a barstool and showed off her new figure. Alan Price sloshed up to Jude Jade O’Brien and tried to convince her that ignorant people will understand “O Lucky Man!” and Jude said that everyone in the world is ignorant and Alan called her a snob and Jude yawned in his face. Jude, earlier, asked Malcolm McDowell if his bedroom had a mirror on the ceiling. Lindsay Anderson looked uncomfortable. An r&r man vomited while talking to Alice Cooper and Alice said it was cool and they continued as if nothing had happened. A stench filled the corner of the room. Lisa Robinson left the party. Everybody left the party, except six people, who talked about the sweetness of Malcolm. The joints came out.

From “Hype! Hype! Hooray!” by Arthur Bell, The Village Voice, June 21, 1973, p. 12.

Yes, you can now find the Village Voice inside Google News Archive Search results. 3,000 word columns devoted to science fiction, Andrew Sarris reporting from Cannes, Jill Johnston’s feminist columns. It’s certainly a lot more exciting than anything published in newspapers today. Or even anything published in Salon or the Huffington Post. We’re all pussies by comparison. Yes, people were actually paid to write this stuff. And here’s the thing. They were encouraged to take chances. Do you want to save newspapers? Do you want to save culture? Do you want to save the publishing industry? Well, take a trip down Memory Lane and see what used to be done. It would certainly be a start. Also, grow some balls.

The Critics

thecriticThe critics fidgeted in their fat chairs, boasting of long lunches with publicists and grand gifts from studios, while waiting for the descent into darkness. They were all men – or, at least, the kind of inactive men who were becoming more commonly accepted in the early years of the twenty-first century. They couldn’t be bothererd to take a stand, unless you counted the pretentious essays they wrote for well-funded websites (and maybe one of those rare dead tree outlets) that only a handful of snobs regarded. They could talk for hours about the Italian Neorealists, but they would never dare fly to Italy unless someone else was footing the bill and their assistants had remembered to obtain passports.

The critics were truly amazing – not because of what they said or wrote about movies – but because they represented a sad and peculiar type of human specimen who remained almost completely out of touch on almost every important issue. You could call up these critics and ask them to rattle off Takuya Kimura’s last eight roles, but you couldn’t get them to say anything intelligent about the subprime crisis or the rising unemployment rate or Goldman Sachs. You couldn’t possibly get them to remark upon the warm smell of a Louisiana cypress or the first time they had truly loved a woman. But they could tell you of such moments that occurred within the woeful world of cinema. That tree’s slight sway in that one Tarkovsky shot. Was it intentional? It was at the 33:42 mark on the DVD, and it looked better in Blu-Ray than the torrent. And what had Kent Jones said about it at that panel that twenty-three civilized people had attended?

The critics would fight long and hard over whether Vertovian or Eisensteinian montage had made more of a cultural impact, but they would never stand up for the colleague who lost his job because he was considered too old and too wise. The critics would never look out for the young whipper-snapper who was lucky to have a job. The critics’s asses were relentlessly fixed to their chairs and it would be difficult to extract them. And, if one must delve down a sad opportunistic path, it might make a good reality TV show to see if these men could perform honest labor and demonstrate the extent of their bravado.

But there was a movie to write about. No notes required. The fastidious days of erudition were over. This would be a 300 word review. Oh Christ, longer than 90 minutes? Subtitles? Hope I don’t fall asleep. But there’s that junket tomorrow. Too bad I don’t have the balls to ask a real question.

The lights went down. The darkness might have cloaked the critics if the professional exercise had not been so transparent.