Jonah Lehrer: A Malcolm Gladwell for the Mind

As the terrible news of Andrew Koenig’s suicide and Michael Blosil leaping to his death, both after long depressive bouts, emerged over the weekend, the New York Times Sunday Magazine had aided and abetted Jonah Lehrer’s continued slide into unhelpful Gladwellian generalizations by publishing his sloppy and insensitive article claiming that depression really isn’t that bad. Lehrer, an alleged bright young thing who found his own tipping point with How We Decide, appears to have cadged nuanced examples from such thoughtful books as Kay Redfield Jamison’s Touched with Fire and Daniel L. Schachter’s The Seven Sins of Memory, proving quite eager to cherrypick tendentious bits for a facile sudoku puzzle, or perhaps print’s answer to a “fair and balanced” FOX News segment, rather than a thoughtful consideration.

Lehrer attempts to establish a precedent with Charles Darwin’s mental health: a troubling task, given that the great evolutionist kicked the bucket around 130 years ago and, thus, didn’t exactly have the benefit of psychiatric professionals watching over his bunk, much less a DSM-IV manual. Lehrer suggests that the “fits” and “uncomfortable palpitation of the heart” that Darwin referenced in his letters represented depression. While it’s difficult to diagnose a mental condition in such a postmortem manner, John Bowlby’s helpful book, Charles Darwin: A New Life, has collected various efforts to pinpoint what Darwin was suffering from. And Bowlby’s results tell a different story. Darwin, who was very careful to consult the top medical authorities of his time, described his “uncomfortable palpitation” in a letter to J.S. Henslow on September 1837, when he was hard at work making sense of his data after the Beagle had landed back. In 1974, Sir George Pickering made an analysis of Darwin’s symptoms from these shards and attributed this state to Da Costa’s Syndrome, more commonly known as hyperventillation. Da Costa’s is most certainly unpleasant, but it is not depression. Dorland’s Medical Dictionary describes Da Costa’s as “a manifestation of an anxiety disorder, with the physical symptoms being a reaction to something perceived to be dangerous or otherwise a threat to the person, causing autonomic responses or hyperventilation.” (Emphasis added.) This diagnosis was backed up, as Bowlby notes, by Sir Hedley Atkins and Professor A.W. Woodruff.

Later in his book, Bowbly suggests that Darwin may have suffered from fairly severe depression during the months of April and September 1865 — which corroborates the “hysterical crying” that Lehrer eagerly collects and that Darwin conveyed to his doctor. But where Bowbly is careful to note that the “hysterical crying” leading to depression is a speculation based merely on a phrase and an anecdote conveyed by Darwin’s son, Leonard, Lehrer conflates both Darwin’s “hysterical crying” and Bowlby’s other non-depression examples into depression. Furthermore, Lehrer fails to note that the reason that Darwin was “not able to do anything one day out of three” (as he noted in a letter to Joseph Dalton Hooker on March 28, 1849) was because, as Darwin noted, his father had died the previous November. (Lehrer does note Darwin’s grief following the death of his ten-year-old daughter and proudly observes that the DSM manual specifies that the diagnosis of grief-related depressive disorder “is grief caused by bereavement, as long as the grief doesn’t last longer than two months.” But David H. Barlow’s Anxiety and Its Disorders cites a 1989 study*, which points out that “it is not uncommon for some individuals to grieve for a year or longer” and observes that some people may need longer than two months to escape severe incapacitating grief. A major depressive disorder may not necessarily be the result after two months of grief. In other words, the human mind is not necessarily an Easy-Bake oven.)

The basis for Lehrer’s thesis — that Darwin conquered the totality of his apparent “depression” to “succeed in science” and that his “depression” was “a clarifying force, focusing the mind on its most essential problems” — is predicated on a willful misreading of the primary sources, one that apparently eluded the indolent army of Times fact checkers, who only had to consult Bowlby’s more equitable analysis. This was irresponsible assembly from Lehrer: bad and inappropriate badinage intended to back up a sensational headline and convey Darwin as a falsely triumphant poster boy for severe depression. But depression is a deadly disorder, a condition that requires a less specious summary.

Lehrer later cites David Foster Wallace’s short story, “The Depressed Person,” as a qualifying example for how the depressive mind remains in a “recursive loop of woe.” One may find comparisons between DFW’s real depression and the details contained in the story. But the story, written in third person and loaded with clinical details, might also be read as something which depicts the regular world’s failure to comprehend inner torment. Prescriptive analysis may very well apply to patterns of behavior, but fiction is an altogether different measure.

It is doubtful that DFW ever intended his story to be some smoking gun for lazy cognitive science, as Lehrer insists that it is, when Lehrer declares that those with “ruminative tendencies” are more likely to be depressed. Daniel L. Schachter’s The Seven Sins of Memory, a book that Lehrer appears to have relied upon for the Susan Nolen-Hoeksema example, pointed out that people “who focus obsessively on their current negative moods and past negative events, are at a special risk for becoming trapped in such destructive self-perpetuating cycles.” But what of those who are ruminating after a positive mood or after positive events? The danger of using a phrase like “ruminative tendencies” is that it discounts Nolen-Hoeksema’s clear distinction between dysphoric subjects inclined to ruminate (and feel worse) and “nondysphoric subjects [who] would show no effects of either the rumination or distraction inductions on their moods.” Perhaps by warning his readership of “ruminative tendencies,” Lehrer is encouraging them not to ruminate and therefore become mildly depressed about Lehrer’s dim findings. Lehrer is right, however, about the Loma Prieta earthquake data (also found in the Schachter book). But his failure to distinguish between the dysphoric and nondysphoric perpetuates a convenient generalization rather than an article hoping to contend with conditional realities.

Near the end of his piece, Lehrer confesses that the criticisms against the analytic-rumination hypothesis are often responded to “by acknowledging that depression is a vast continuum, a catch-all term for a spectrum of symptoms.” Well, if only he had told us this at the head of the article before leading us down a rabbit hole. He later writes, “It’s too soon to judge the analytic-rumination hypothesis.” Well, it wasn’t too soon to speculate on Darwin’s letters (not all the result of depression) or David Foster Wallace’s inner psychological state, as reflected through a story.

Lehrer also brings up Joe Forgas’s experiments at a Sydney stationery store, whereby Forgas hoped to get his subjects to remember trinkets. He played different music to match the weather. Wet weather made the subjects sad, and the sadness made the subjects more attentive. But in a Financial Times article written by Stephen Pincock, Forgas was careful to note “that any benefits that he has found apply only to the passing mood or emotion of sadness, rather than the devastating illness that is severe, clinical depression.” Once again, Lehrer neglects to mention this scientific proviso, leading readers to conclude that Forgas’s results are more related to depression.

It’s also important to note that the Paul Andrews study Lehrer relies on, which drew an interesting correlation between negative mood and improved analysis, defines “depressive affect” as “an emotion characterized by negative effect and low arousal.” This is a fundamentally different metric from outright depression, which Andrews’s study is clear to specify. But Lehrer confuses the two terms and retreats back to his clumsy Darwin metaphor of “embrac[ing] the tonic of despair.”

I don’t doubt that Lehrer wished to point out how depressive affect, or modest negative feelings, need not translate into a crippling existence. But his distressing conflation of “depressive affect” and “depression,” and his insistence that even a modest negative feeling might be categorized as depression, may very well suggest to readers that hard-case depressives in serious need of care and treatment might do without these essential long-term remedies. As someone who has offered assistance to friends living with this very real condition, I find Lehrer’s willingness to lump every sad behavioral pattern into “depression” truly shocking. I’m also greatly concerned that the New York Times — the ostensible paper of record — has failed to fact-check the selected studies, thus misleading readers into believing that depression is always a “clarifying force.” Depression, as Andrews attempted to convey to Lehrer, is “a very delicate subject.” Andrew did not wish to say anything reckless for the record. It’s just too bad that Lehrer did.

* Jacobs, Hansen, Berkman, Kasi & Ostfield (1989). Depressions of bereavement. Comprehensive Psychiatry, 30(3), 218-224

The Bat Segundo Show: Justin Taylor

Justin Taylor recently appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #323. Mr. Taylor is most recently the author of Everything Here is the Best Thing Ever.

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Fearful of sanguine book titles.

Guest: Justin Taylor

Subjects Discussed: Not naming protagonists until well into the stories, dissatisfaction with formality, how characters reveal themselves, gender confusion within “Weekend Away,” Taylor’s aversion to “bright neon signs” within narrative, the dangers of being too specific, similes, concluding lines and addressing the reader, the final line of “Jewels Flashing in the Night of Time,” Donald Barthelme and Taylor’s veer from the phantasmagorical, Sleeping Fish and 5_Trope, Shelley Jackson, the Gordon Lish school of writers, Gary Lutz’s “experimental” nature, Taylor’s concern for hair, describing Florida primarily through the weather, the helpfulness of knowing a place before writing a story, boundaries and possibilities within limitations, age declarations at the beginnings of stories, the difficulties of getting all the numbers worked out within “The New Life,” the important of precise age, research that comes after writing a story, eliding the coordinates of a Planned Parenthood, 1960s counterculture, the Grateful Dead, distrust of pithy maxims and prescriptive text, and believing in aspects of a story.


Correspondent: I wanted to go back to the hair. I had alluded to that earlier. It could just be me, but you do have a concern for hair. It’s often quite specific, as I suggested. You begin “Amber at the Window in Hurricane Season” by describing her pushing “a blond lock behind her ear, stray hairs glancing off a steel row of studs.” In “In My Heart I Am Already Gone,” you describe how Vicky “cuts her own bangs, a ragged diagonal like the torn hem of a nightgown.” In “Weekend Away,” the hitchhiker has “black, messy hair mostly covering his ears.” In “What Was Once All Yours,” Cass has hairy forearms. I’m curious about this hair. And also we haven’t alluded to the cat as well. Is it more of a protective element? You know, these characters are often barren against the elements, so to speak. And I’m curious about this. You are a hair man, I have to say.

Taylor: (laughs)

Correspondent: Or are you the President of the Hair Club for Men? I don’t know.

Taylor: I can’t really answer for that. I mean, every writer has certain concerns or tics that they might not even be aware of. I asked a similar question to David Berman once. I got to interview him for The Brooklyn Rail. And I was asking him this question about water. I said, “You know, American Water.” And there’s this line in Actual Air. “All water is classic water.” I had, I don’t know, two or three other examples. And I finally just asked myself, “So what’s the deal with all the water?” And he said, “You know, nobody’s ever asked me that before.” And he really didn’t have an answer. And then he told this story about mowing his lawn on a hot day. Which I think was supposed to exemplify that water is — water’s nice. And, you know, I don’t know. Hair is nice, I guess. I don’t know why. Because it’s mostly haircuts, hairstyles. I don’t know why I notice. Those are like what I’m visualizing with a character that appears or seems to be worth mentioning rather than eye color or height or anything else. I don’t know.

When I was a kid, I never liked getting haircuts. I still don’t like getting haircuts actually. I always feel like I don’t have a good haircut. Like everybody else has the style that they’re supposed to have. And mine always feels a little off. I feel like I’m impersonating.

Correspondent: Not one satisfactory haircut in your life?

Taylor: I’ve had some decent haircuts. But it was like a very early — it was when I was a really little kid. It would get long and I would be worried that I would look like a girl. And they would take me to get my hair cut. And then after it was cut, I would see myself in the mirror and I wouldn’t even recognize myself. And I would really lose it. And that doesn’t happen so much anymore. I’ve learned to recognize myself.

Correspondent: With more confidence, more confidence in hair and haircuts.

Taylor: There’s only so old you can be crying at a barbershop.

Correspondent: I’ve seen very older men cry at barbershops.

Taylor: (laughs) In any case, the answer is “I don’t know.”

The Bat Segundo Show #323: Justin Taylor (Download MP3)

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Review: Cop Out (2010)

As suggested by Peter Biskind’s Down and Dirty Pictures, Steven Soderbergh initiated his “one for us, one for them” plunge into the Hollywood ocean with 1998’s Out of Sight. Richard Linklater’s occasional dips began with 2003’s School of Rock. Both were perfectly respectable movies, but it wasn’t much of a surprise when these distinctive directors’s later compromises floundered. Now Kevin Smith, a tardy arriviste into the strange club of indie filmmakers turned hired hands, has copped a Hollywood feel with Cop Out, a buddy movie that so desperately wants to be Beverly Hills Cop or Fletch (even composer Harold Faltermeyer has been coaxed out of near-retirement to score this flick), but that squeaks like some by-the-numbers franchise sequel co-directed by Brett Ratner and Abraham Zapruder. Cop Out is a hack movie directed as if it were a home movie, a big shaggy dog that really, really wants to be loved. One feels a bit embarrassed watching Smith attempt to put together a car chase, relying on a routine vehicle spin to win some half-baked sense of excitement. And the film’s firm commitment to choppy amateurism is equally evident in the sloppy attention to detail. There’s one scene where, in a stunning display of shoddy script supervision, a slice of pizza disappears from Kevin Pollack’s right hand. In a later shootout, there’s a lazy nod to John Woo’s double-fisted gunning. The visual palette is, as expected, little more than static shots and long takes, with half-hearted efforts at a TV-friendly color scheme. A primitive amber aura for a restaurant showdown. Willis backlit by blue in a bar. These are a student filmmaker’s templates. With eight feature films under his belt, the fair pass that Smith has received for this type of shoddy camerawork must end. It doesn’t help that Smith has this tendency to film his actors with all that dead space at the top of the frame, as if these characters are awaiting some comic book caption or the audience is enduring some bumbling community theater production.

On the other hand, if the Hollywood hostlers give you a cliche-ridden horse (“These assholes are crazy, brother,” reads one of the unnecessary Spanish subtitles) saddled with dated cultural references (the first ten minutes is a tedious farrago of movie quotes and the film’s later use of “All your base are belong to us” is so 2001), why not direct it like a home movie? Unlike Brett Ratner’s films, one can safely assert that home movies emerge from good intentions. Smith is known for badgering his poor actors into highly specific and highly unnatural line delivery. But Bruce Willis, perhaps because he is too big a star to be prodded by an unambitious filmmaker, plays a very good straight man. He reacts to the anarchy around him with John McClane-like head cocks and James Cole-like introspection. Tracy Morgan, whom I’ve long suspected is more than the loudmouth immortalized on 30 Rock and Saturday Night Live, is refreshingly played against type. His character is given numerous opportunities to spout obscure facts and his monologue with a teddy bear nannycam should not work as well as it does. The material is weak, but Morgan thankfully isn’t. Worrying about his wife’s possible infidelities, Morgan momentarily turns a character who might have become a stock wiseacre into a bustling bundle of neuroses. The film is also wise enough to cast the ass-kicking Susie Essman in a small role. Unfortunately, the underrated Seann William Scott, who showed that he was far more than Steve Stifler in the little-seen 2008 film, The Promotion, is given very little to work with.

I can’t say that I hated this movie — certainly not as much as the people around me. But I also can’t say that I loved the movie either. I’m as fond of crass humor and dick jokes as the next guy. And to ensure that I absconded with any lingering pretensions, I took along the thriller novelist Jason Pinter to the screening. But he felt the same way. While there are a few funny moments, there isn’t a single gag in this movie that is as creative or as funny as Axel Foley stuffing hot dogs up a tailpipe. And while Morgan may have energy, despite my praise for what he does with the material (including a funny scene where he insensitively crunches on tortilla chips), he’s simply not given much of a character to work with. Sitting in a hotel room with a sexy woman has only so many variations before the material gets old. And say what you will about 1985’s Fletch, but Chevy Chase owned that role, even if the script wasn’t nearly as good as Gregory McDonald’s books. Willis may anchor this movie with his serious presence, but because Cop Out hasn’t been written to fit Morgan, what should have been a breakout role for him devolves into more of the same. He’s far more interesting than Chris Tucker, but, unfortuantely, thanks to writers Robb Cullen and Mark Cullen, he’s just as forgettable.

Smith, of course, came very close to rebooting Fletch for the big screen, with Jason Lee set to play McDonald’s famous reporter. And the closing credits, just before a scene set in a morgue, grace us with Stephanie Mills’s “Bit by Bit,” the theme song from Michael Ritchie’s 1985 movie. Clearly, Cop Out, a film that more than lives up to its title, must have appealed to Smith as a fun substitute for the aborted Fletch remake. (Indeed, Smith took a reported pay cut to ensure the R rating, although the film flinches from depicting violence and is about as safe as a PG-13 movie.) But if Cop Out is the lackluster result, it appears that audiences may have dodged a bullet.

The Bat Segundo Show: Kevin Sampsell

Kevin Sampsell recently appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #322. Mr. Sampsell is most recently the author of A Common Pornography.

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Airing his dirty laundry.

Guest: Kevin Sampsell

Subjects Discussed: Maintaining an emotional spectrum within the two editions of A Common Pornography, balancing sweet material with darker installments, how the death of Sampsell’s father (and subsequent revelations) altered Sampsell’s perspective, the great lie of memory, how memory affected chapter length, wrestling, changing people’s names, telephone conversations with mysterious legal people, the photo that didn’t make it into the book and inappropriate implication, passing on a textual legacy, the pretensions and dangers of writing about one’s self in a heroic or self-deprecatory manner, the emotional incongruity of writing about the past in the present, Jonathan Ames, Kevin Keck, the ideal word unit to access the past, on not passing judgment from the present vantage point, mathematical precision within prose, the stigma of counting the number of times you make love with someone, the influence of sports statistics upon consciousness, rash speculations on football players wearing a jersey with the number 63, determining divorce status from gesture, candor without commentary, self-deprecation and snark, arresting opening lines, in which the correspondent (due to the lateness of the hour) hallucinates a list of questions that doesn’t actually exist in the book, effective ways to arrange a pornography collection, Pee Chee folders and why some people don’t know about them, how to organize manuscripts vs. how to organize porn, debate over whether Mr. Sampsell has remained “normal,” the difficulties on reconnecting with people through Facebook, learning about unexpected outside perspectives while chronicling the past, putting it all on the line, and the difficulties of identifying one’s self as a writer.


Correspondent: What was it about the radio school instructor’s body language that suggested “a few divorces in his past?”

Sampsell: (laughs)

Correspondent: I bring this up because given how your family and your friends judged you — at least based off of my reading of the text; I obviously wasn’t there — such as Pam claiming that her little brother had beat you up. Isn’t there a certain paradox in ascribing such judgment to others within the text like this? Or do you exonerate yourself from the judgment, because as we’ve been discussing, you’re doing candor without commentary.

Sampsell: Yeah. I mean, I don’t think I should say, or we should say, that there is no commentary throughout the book. Because there probably are a few times where there is some understated commentary or maybe some snarky comments. The radio/TV teacher that I had — I totally remember him as being this kind of Marlboro Man kind of guy. And he did have this posture that was kind of slouchy and defeated. And he seemed — I think he was probably like in his fifties or something like that. And he just kind of had this sloppiness to him.

Correspondent: Maybe he was happily married and he just didn’t like his job.

Sampsell: Maybe.

Correspondent: I mean, “a few divorces in his life.”

Sampsell: Yeah.

Correspondent: That’s pretty judgmental, man.

Sampsell: (laughs) Yeah, I don’t know. I think as a kid, when you see people like that, I think most — a lot of my teachers, anyway — I remember as being fairly upbeat. Maybe stern. Maybe a little cheery or whatever. And then there are some that just seemed worn out. And I just remember him being this kind of worn out kind of character. I liked him a lot.

Correspondent: But how do you get from worn out to divorce?

Sampsell: (laughs) Well, maybe that’s just my perspective.

Correspondent: Aha! There is commentary, I see.

Sampsell: Because there’s commentary in other places too. Like the chapter about the prostitute. I mean, there’s a number of — I’m sure — snarky comments about her. There’s snarky comments about me as well.

Correspondent: Well, let’s be clear on this. I mean, are self-deprecatory comments about yourself really snark?

Sampsell: Yeah, I don’t know. I’m not sure what you’d call it.

Correspondent: Selfark? I don’t know. “Taternuts” begins with a line, “This is how I learned about cunnilingus from a policeman’s wife and became a legendary fryer at the same time.” Now that’s an opening line. It reminded me of Anthony Burgess’s Earthly Powers — that famous line. But it invites the reader to plunge further and yet other sections don’t quite have that lede. And I’m curious why you felt particularly compelled to grab the reader by the lapels with that particular section.

Sampsell: Oh, I don’t know. Yeah, that’s kind of interesting. When I write fiction, I am a firm believer that the first sentence should be really strong. And that comes from the Gordon Lish/Gary Lutz/Diane Williams school of writing. Or whatever it is like that. That’s what you’re supposed to do. Have a really great first line. Build your story sentence by sentence. I don’t necessarily do that in this book. But, in fact, a lot of the first lines in this book — a lot of the first lines in the chapters — I think are probably pretty simple.

The Bat Segundo Show #322: Kevin Sampsell (Download MP3)

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Steve Weinberg, Russell Carollo, and Christopher Szecheny — Scientology’s Sleazy Bitches

In today’s Washington Post, Howard Kurtz reports the alarming news that three “journalists” — Steve Weinberg, Russell Carollo, and Christopher Szecheny — were paid money by the Church of Scientology to examine the St. Petersburg Times‘s “conduct.” This ad hoc “investigation” was commissioned because the newspaper has devoted considerable resources to examining the ostensible religious organization. But the new study is highly suspect. Weinberg reveals in the article that the final results may be withheld from public dissemination, should the Church not find the report to its liking. And in Weinberg’s case, this condition is especially duplicitous — given that his last book was a volume on the brave journalist Ida Tarbell.

Let’s clarify why this is a dark day for American journalism. A journalist is someone who typically goes out of his way to remain as impartial as he can. If he investigates a story, he is very careful not to accept remuneration from any of the parties involved. He remains ideally a third party. He must, if he is to remain ethical, investigate all sides of the story and remain as transparent as possible.

Numerous newspapers have established codes of ethics, which can be readily perused online.

The New York Times maintains a very solid ethics policy on neutrality, stating:

Staff members and those on assignment for us may not accept anything that could be construed as a payment for favorable coverage or for avoiding unfavorable coverage. They may not accept gifts, tickets, discounts, reimbursements or other benefits from individuals or organizations covered (or likely to be covered) by their newsroom. Gifts should be returned with a polite explanation; perishable gifts may instead be given to charity, also with a note to the donor. In either case the objective of the note is, in all politeness, to discourage future gifts.

Similarly, the Los Angeles Times also maintains rigid standards about conflicts of interest:

Staff members may not enter into business or financial relationships with their sources. Similarly, staff members may not cover individuals or institutions with which they have a financial relationship.

The Associated Press Managing Editors also maintain a Statement of Ethical Principles, noting:

Financial investments by staff members or other outside business interests that could create the impression of a conflict of interest should be avoided.

Thus, by nearly every professional standard, Weinberg, Carollo, and Szecheny have failed. Even if they consider what they do to be “objective,” they have accepted payment from one of the key parties. They have entered into a business relationship with one of their sources. They have willfully thrown away their integrity for these numerous conflicts of interest, taking the Church of Scientology’s money to give it the report that it wants. And the lack of transparency on the Church’s part leads any reasonable outsider to conclude that the motives here are far from noble.

Carollo and Szechenyi explained to Kurtz, “Every entity has the right to receive fair treatment in the press.” And while fairness is certainly a laudable standard, this statement rings hollow when one considers the conditional nature of this pursuit. When Weinberg confesses, “I can certainly use the money these days,” he demonstrates unequivocally what his real motives are. And the whole exercise becomes a willful distortion of journalism, where news stories are sold to the highest bidder. The truly sad thing here is that Weinberg sold out his principles for a pittance — a mere $5,000.

Because of these disgraceful indiscretions, these three men have capitulated their right to be identified as journalists. They no longer have the right to be taken seriously by any major news organization. And if their bylines are to be found within newspapers again, then readers must reject these names as bona-fide upholders of the Fourth Estate.

Needless Counting Exercises

Words, being silly little units of language reflecting emotional and synaptic activities, are subject to frequent bursts of growth which are known to frustrate the unadventurous reader, possibly causing a regrettable series of eructations. The ambitious novel containing many words is greeted with suspicion, as if all minds are expected to conform to some craven concision. The slim novel may likewise be received by those eagerly wishing to plant plaints, but these impatient toe-tappers are often considering the words-per-ounce (and unspoken words-per-dollar) text stat introduced by the seemingly unstoppable commercial forces of Amazon. But if the novel is any good, it will invite a return visit, irrespective of length. So why perform a counting exercise? It’s not as if you’re likely to count the number of times you make love to your sweetheart — a taboo recently investigated by Kevin Sampsell in his memoir, A Common Pornography. But you will count the number of books you’ve read in the last year or the number of pages you have left. If passion (or bodily fluids) are exchanged through such bookkeeping exercises, then is this not equally crass? A novelist has likely made love or masturbated during the creative process, likely relieving the remarkable tensions that accumulate. Some readers may very well be lucky to engage in carnal relations with the author as he eats poorly and catches a few winks in sketchy hotels during the course of a book tour. But think about this. If you cannot sleep with the novelist, you have a book in your hands that, if it is good, will elicit a similar sensation. And while you may expire after fifteen minutes in the boudoir, with a book, you may very well keep the blood pumping and the balls bouncing for several weeks. And nobody has to know. Given the established covenant between novelist and reader, one does not have to fret about adultery. For all this is perfectly legal. One may be vexed by stains, either of a literal or metaphorical nature. But then I’m the one emitting the gushing comparative point. More chaste-minded readers may consider the novel a fantasy, an escape, or an edification — and such pursuits may not necessarily drift towards the explosive rumination that I am imputing. Does one parallel lead to more dutiful marking of notches on the belt? Perhaps. But it all seems a needless counting exercise that defeats the purpose of reading.

Review: Happy Tears (2010)

It is difficult to muster much enthusiasm for Mitchell Lichtenstein’s latest film, Happy Tears — in part because Tamara Jenkins gave us the similarly-themed The Savages three years ago, a remarkably moving film about middle-aged scions learning to care for a decaying father — and in part because Lichtenstein strikes me as an insensitive dilettante all too happy to humiliate the talent he has at his disposal. I could very well be wrong, but a gnawing feeling kicked in upon seeing Rip Torn, a talented actor who has had a series of alcohol problems preceding this film’s production period, cast as an alcoholic man climbing into the rough crag of dementia with two near-the-hill daughters. It continued with Ellen Barkin, a talented thespian who, like many aging actresses, has had an army of surgeons carve up her face into something bearing little resemblance to natural physiognomy, cast here as a cartoonish junkie. To a lesser extent, it carried on with Parker Posey, an enjoyable indie film queen whose peppy demeanor has worn a bit thin, who is cast here as a flighty and imbalanced woman wanting to pop a baby with her flighty and imbalanced husband. There’s one point in the film where Lichtenstein is so desperate to pound home this tired character trope that he places a denuded Posey in a cheap-looking CGI aura, the result of drugs, where a voice chants, “Everything turns out for the best.” If that isn’t a desperate deus ex machina originating from an “artist” uninterested or incapable of examining human behavior, then I don’t know what is.

But I’m straying a bit from my point. Torn, Barkin, and Posey were certainly complicit in taking these roles. Still, from an ethical standpoint, it seems to me that a writer-director, working in an occupation that involves protecting the actors, bears a sizable responsibility for ensuring that his cast is given the best opportunities to demonstrate why we marvel at them in the first place. If a director has any decency, he will be aware of where an actor is presently situated in the careerist food chain and will do his damnedest to accommodate. Even Quentin Tarantino, doped up as he is on too many movies, has sought second chances for his overlooked actors. No such luck with Lichtenstein. Judging by the needlessly glossy press booklet I received from the amicable publicist, and from Lichtenstein’s ability to nab Demi Moore for this film, I’m guessing that Lichtenstein made this movie shortly after running into a bit of money from his father’s comic book painting magic. Again, I could be wrong. But I was so underwhelmed by this film that I’m too lazy to Google it. Still, let’s go with it. If Happy Tears (rather than A Single Man) is the result of such lavish self-financing, then perhaps the presentation of connective failings isn’t always compatible with the unfettered expansion of purse strings.

There’s a plotline in this film involving Torn’s character hiding some buried treasure somewhere in his Pittsburgh backyard. One gets the strong sense that this reflected Lichtenstein’s muddled creative process. When Posey’s character divests the family home of furniture, instead of being drawn into the film, I envisioned Lichtenstein tapping away at the keyboard, wondering how he could squeeze some life out of this minimalist situation (and failing). The characters are given cardboard-thin domestic situations with which to mutter predictable lines. Lacking the ability to make these characters pop, Lichtenstein tosses in random backstory (both daughters stripped at one point; dad slept around) that is presumably intended to shock, but that draws additional attention to how one-dimensional these characters are. He can’t even capture Alleghany County very well. He throws his characters in flat-looking Chinese restaurants, but lacks the contrapuntal ability to extend his visuals beyond the mundane. This seems counter-intuitive, seeing as how Lichtenstein wants to make a greater point about what it takes to move forward and stay relatively sanguine when you regularly have to clean up your father’s shit (quite literally). Altman would have made something of this. But Lichtenstein, despite appearing as one of the fresh Vietnam recruits in Streamers, is no Altman. I don’t even know if he’s even a real filmmaker.

Gordon Lightfoot is Not Dead

Several major news outlets erroneously reported that Gordon Lightfoot was dead. None thought to perform the basic journalistic task of confirming the news against, oh say, a medical examiner or a coroner. Perhaps everybody wanted to believe that Gordon Lightfoot was dead. His music, after all, has fulfilled some marvelous need for schmaltz.

But I’m very pleased to know that Gordon Lightfoot is still alive, still determined to honor us with his unique brand of cheese and sensitivity. Let us all then celebrate the magnificent force known as Gordon Lightfoot, letting the inspiring message of “If You Could Read My Mind” and “Sundown” bask our souls in this grim economy.


Anthony Burgess: I want to ask you a very fundamental question.

Dick Cavett: Yeah.

Burgess: And before I ask you it, I’m going to answer it myself. In my own terms. This is this: People have asked me, “Why do you write books?” My answer is, “I write books for a living. Because there’s no other job I can do successfully or with any measure of expertise.” Obviously, you have another kind of living. Therefore, why did you write this book?

Cavett: It’s that…

Burgess: You didn’t write this book for money, did you?

Cavett: No. In fact, I’ve been told there’s no money in books.

Burgess: There is no money in books. It’s quite so.

Cavett: Well, that in itself would explode a myth, I think, for most people, who must think, “Hey, so and so’s on the bestseller list. He must be raking it in.”

Burgess: No, that’s what — Barbara will, Barbara would say something very apposite of all that.

Barbara Howar: If she were here, she would. (laughs)

Burgess: Well, yes, quite obviously. No, but nobody, nobody writes books, I think, with the intention of becoming rich overnight. The person who believes he’s going to write a bestseller, and be famous and wealthy forever, is very rare. I write books — probably my two friends here write books — because it’s a trade. It’s a trade we can carry out more or less successfully. We’re happy to have made a thing. The only moment of joy we have is that moment when the proof copy comes — you know, when what’s between you and the printer, more or less. After that, the thing is launched. It’s somebody else’s concern. But back to this question.

Cavett: Yeah.

Burgess: Why did you write this book?

Cavett: I seem to have evaded your question.

Burgess: You really did.

Cavett: Partly there’s a practical reason. Publishers constantly asked me, “Because you’re on television, you ought to write a book.” And I thought, “Well, maybe there’s something to that. But I have no idea how.” But I guess I wanted the experience of knowing what it is like to get something down the way you want it…

Burgess: Right.

Cavett: …rather than the frustration of when you’re on television. Everything is sort of off the top of your head. It’s ad-libbed. It’s about the way you wanted it. Sometimes better than you thought. Sometimes worse. Never quite the way you planned. And I somehow envied writers, the idea that you could get a thing and finish it the way you want it, and then pass it on. And then also to put an end to a certain irritating and repeated questions year after year about myself that people constantly ask me. I think, maybe this will stop that now and I can move onto something else.

Howar: To set the record straight.

Cavett: Is that the answer you wanted?

Burgess: There was another answer I thought you might give. But we all know, and it’s repeated in the book, that you are one of the few people alive — perhaps the only person alive — who has read all of Henry James’s novels.

Cavett: Well, I…that’s a terrible thing to know about me. But in fact…

Burgess: But it’s true. It’s true.

Cavett: There may have been some I missed. I think that may have been exaggerated by a journalist.

Burgess: Well, you admit it in this book. Now the point is that I have a feeling that you have a literary ambition.

Cavett: Really?

Burgess: And that this talk show business is a kind of — what’s the French word? Pis-aller. It’s a second best. But your real ambition is to use words in some permanent form. And this is a shy attempt at showing yourself to be a literary practitioner.

Howar: Exactly, Anthony. He has a very nice use — a command of the English language. And you’ve got a romance going with it, whether you know it or not.

Cavett: Ain’t it the truth?

Howar: It sure am. And I want to take Anthony’s question a step further. Why, when you have made your career in television and you have had a reputation for being a cold cucumber and not exposing much of yourself, you would say, “Oh, Cavett doesn’t go into his own feelings.” And all of a sudden…

Cavett: Can’t get off that word, can you? When you’re exposing.

Howar: …exposing them. Well, I…

Cavett: Good.

Howar: And then all of a sudden you writing a book, which is really very revealing. I mean, the jump between — I mean, do you really feel that you might have let ABC down because you didn’t expose yourself on the airwaves again?

Cavett: (laughs)

Howar: And then for Harcourt Brace, you’ve just let it all show.

Cavett: I never thought how I would write the thing. [Co-author Christopher] Porterfield came up with a way of writing it, which I could never come up with. And I know him to be an organized and talented person. And I thought, “Well, it would be good to work with him on something.” And it would be about me, which, of course, is a fascinating subject to me. As Noel Coward once said, “I find the subject endlessly fascinating.” He said. But, uh, I don’t know. I guess I can’t quite answer that. Except that once you get going, the only way to do is to open it up. And the myth of it. It’s very hard to be honest about yourself. It turns out to not be so true. In fact, in a way, it’s kind of sickeningly exhilarating.

Burgess: You are interested in words, right? You are concerned about words.

Cavett: Yeah.

Burgess: You’re the only person on this kind of business who is concerned about words. Most of the talk show pundits one sees that fit — that thin man with the fat jackal, I forget their names. The rest of them. Vermin Griffin or some such name. These other people. They’re full of expletives. They’re full of sounds like “Yeah. Yeah, ” and “I guess so.” And “Wow.”

Howar: Sounds like the White House Tapes.

Burgess: But I…

Cavett: And they’re all very good friends of mine.

Burgess: But this show — this show that I know. The only popular show of that is built on language. Am I right in saying that? It’s your aim to build this thing on language.

Cavett: No. You’re wrong. It’s not my aim. It may have accidentally happened. That my obsession with words has just come out or something. But it’s not an aim. In fact, I’ve never had an aim. Any real aim. But I would like to hear you comment on this. You said that you could never write a book that’s very personal. I suggest that maybe you’d find it sickeningly easy to do so. Because haven’t we all had the experience of spilling our guts to a stranger on a train? Or in a sidewalk cafe? Am I the only one?

New Scarlett Thomas Novel Has American Publication Date

If a new David Mitchell novel wasn’t enough for you, The End of Mr. Y author Scarlett Thomas also has a new book coming out this year. The latest novel, Death of the Author, is set to be published in the UK on April 2010. I’ve made inquiries, and Harcourt has informed me that the novel will also be published in the States, under the title Our Tragic Universe, in September 2010.

RELATED: Bat Segundo interview with Thomas from 2007.

Bat Segundo Calls It a Snow Day

Due to an unexpected delay in getting some equipment repaired, there won’t be a new installment of The Bat Segundo Show this week. But Bat Segundo plans to atone for this deficit by offering a special pair of sister podcasts, the first in the program’s history. The two podcasts will feature two authors, each participating in a separate conversation, with the other offering unusual interjections, jocular banter, and/or possible defenses. The order of these interviews will be determined by a coin toss.

Because of this rather silly and elaborate approach, these two installments will go up sometime during the weekend of February 20th. And the following week, we will return to the regularly scheduled Friday slot.

The Other Google Super Bowl Commercial: Chicago Paranoia

Google’s heartwarming Super Bowl ad, “Parisian Love,” has been viewed by more than three million people on YouTube. But were you aware of “Chicago Paranoia” — the more disturbing version of the ad?

The above video could not have been assembled without the help of CamStudio and the invaluable Lagarith Lossless Video Codec — both of which can be downloaded for free.

Super Friends: An Origin Point

It is difficult to explain the now extinct Saturday morning cartoon experience to anybody under twenty-five, but it shared certain qualities with a Sunday morning religious service, where one dressed in ratty pajamas and multihued Underoos in lieu of serge suit and neck-restricting tie. A soaky bowl of cornflakes replaced the stale sacramental pomp and circumstance of wafers, offering an altogether different eucharist metaphor with slightly more nutritional value. Leaden and predictable hymns, in which one was badgered into belting out a tinny tune identified by number, were uprooted by Hoyt Curtin’s jazzy cues for Hanna-Barbera. And the ethical lessons arising from a pastor’s ponderous sermon found an uncanny surrogate with the didactic messages tacked onto the end of an animated adventure. Both slipped through the mind like a sieve.

But since nostalgia is a dangerous narcotic, the cartoons have retained an entirely irrational hold upon my imagination. Years later, a piece of dialogue or a backdrop hastily painted by an underpaid artist has often rustled through my mind without prompting, latching atop a more tangible life experience and sometimes threatening to supercede it.

With the recent release of Super Friends‘s first season onto DVD, I set out to understand this allure and found an oddly methadonic satisfaction. If I did not entirely put away childish things during this revistation, I certainly began to understand the draw.

In the early 1970s, Hanna-Barbera wrested away the animation rights to DC Comics’s characters, restyling the Justice League of America as “Super Friends.” It was the beginning of a gallant fourteen year run under numerous incarnations. Challenge of the Super Friends was the best of the bunch, pitting eleven superheroes (which included the newly invented Apache Chief and Samurai, both awkward nods to multiculturalism) against thirteen of their worst enemies (led by Lex Luthor) who never offered an explanation as to why they spent so much of their time shuffling around the swampy Hall of Doom. But in other versions, such as The World’s Greatest Super Friends, one had to endure Zan and Jayna – a somewhat vexing pair of siblings clad in cheesy purple uniforms, accompanied by a blue monkey named Gleek. (Presumably, fashionistas did not exist on the planet Exxor. Or maybe everybody there just liked bluish tones.) This teen duo, who had a surprisingly crisp command of American teen vernacular (or so the writers wished to believe), could, respectively, turn into water form and animal form shortly after announcing “Wonder Twin powers, activate!” Due to this verb’s alarming mechanical quality, there was considerable schoolyard speculation over whether the Wonder Twins were elaborate androids rather than extraterrestrial beings. But at the time, all of us wanted to believe in this cartoon – in part because there were then only three networks and a wild mix of UHF stations to choose from.

But the flagstones for this escapist enterprise were set down with the first season’s one-hour format, which featured a mere five superheroes (Superman, Batman, Robin, Aquaman, and a curiously underemployed Wonder Woman), while cadging archetypes and vocal talent from Scooby-Doo. The quintet that everyone tuned in to see was accompanied by three “junior superheroes,” who proved to be infinitely more annoying than the Wonder Twins: Marvin White, a redheaded Shaggy clone voiced by a young (and now legendary) “Franklin Welker,” who proved to be even stupider than his inspiration (“Wow, I’d like to be big and strong,” says Marvin in an episode called “The Shaman ‘U’,” which is then followed by a Peter Griffin-style titter); Wendy Harris, who merged Velma’s eccentricities with Daphne’s patient encouragement; and Wonder Dog, a spaced-out Scooby replica fond of scarfing down hot dogs. This trio, possessing neither pluck nor superpowers, proved so unremarkable (and unlikable) that they did not last past the first season. (Comic book writer Geoff Johns would later viciously mutilate these irksome tagalongs in a 2006 issue of Teen Titans.)

Considering these conversational conditions and Colonel Wilcox’s constant interruptions on the TroubAlert, the Super Friends’s patience is to be commended. In early episodes, Batman made futile efforts to get Marvin thinking about photosynthesis and atmospheric conditions. But by “The Shaman ‘U’,” this friendlier (and more dulcet-voiced) Dark Knight leveled with Marvin when the boy wished to accompany him, simply explaining, “We’re not taking you with us.” I can understand Batman’s reticence. Robin was a competent teenage sidekick (voiced by longtime American Top 40 host Casey Kasem) only a few years older than Marvin, but, in the hands of Hanna-Barbera, he was never a noxious pipsqueak.

While this prototype offers some unintentional laughs courtesy of tacky animation (Wonder Woman is inexplicably illustrated with thunder thighs, an animation involving Aquaman summoning three whales shows up multiple times, and Superman’s X-ray vision resembles a cheap flashlight running on dying batteries), there’s an interesting eco-friendly theme to these stories. In “Too Hot to Handle,” an alien attempts to change the Earth’s atmosphere after his home planet has become polluted. “The Weather Maker” features a scientist attempting to manipulate the Gulf Stream so that it will warm up his frigid nation. “Dr. Pelagion’s War” features a scene that is now unthinkable, where business magnates puff on expensive cigars in an executive boardroom. One cries out, “There’s no harm in a little smoke,” and offers a flourish to the smokestacks fulminating just outside his window.

But the standout here is the accidentally prescient “Professor Goodfellow’s G.E.E.C.,” whereby a giant Google-like computer named G.E.E.C. controls everything on the planet. Like Google, it can find you a cab. Like YouTube, it can educate you with a video. At the time that Super Friends was produced, “geek” didn’t yet take on its present tech-savvy connotation. And when Marvin offers to “write a letter to the G.E.E.C.,” one can just as easily imagine him firing off an email.

Narrator Ted Knight (who would find greater success as the bumbling Ted Baxter on The Mary Tyler Moore Show) doesn’t quite have the gravitas of his booming successor, William Woodson. And the primitive transitions between scenes can’t compare to the three stars shooting towards the viewer in later years. But Robin’s exclamations were more epigrammatic during the first year. (He lets loose “Holy misnomers!” and “Perambulating plexiglass!”) Danny Dark, later known as “the voice of NBC,” is suitably slick, perhaps too slick, as Superman. Dark’s confident voiceover, taken with Superman’s frequent collaboration with Aquaman to resolve some amphibian crisis, makes one feel as if poor Aquaman, who merely has the ability to communicate telepathically with his “ocean friends,” is unfairly upstaged by Superman’s considerable talents.

These were imperfect entertainments, divested of grit and violence, that would be severely dwarfed by the Cartoon Network’s Justice League during the 21st century. But someone had to work out the kinks and get kids excited. Super Friends‘s enduring appeal can be measured by the limitless YouTube remixes, the unceasing flow of cultural reference (a recent episode of Family Guy opened with a parody of the opening credits), and the fact that superheroes, even those contained in watered-down narratives, still capture the imagination.

The Super Bowl: Madison Avenue Misogyny

It was a great game, perhaps the most gripping final NFL showdown of the past five years, with a second half opening with a daring onside kick and Garrett Hartley becoming the first placekicker to make three field goals over forty yards in any Super Bowl. Marvelous. And I might have come away from the annual experience howling in the streets for my avenged Jets, had not my viewing been sullied by an atavistic rash of misogynistic commercials.

Granted, your average redblooded spectator does not necessarily watch television sports commercials with the intent of seeing women presented as positive role models. We’ve become used to seeing women objectified, often dressed in bikinis and/or using their anatomy to sell some vacuous commercial experience. But Super Bowl XLIV’s commercials were much different. They were cruder and uglier, going well out of their way to not only objectify women, but to suggest that anyone with a vagina who asserted herself should be ridiculed.

There was the Motorola commercial featuring a naked Megan Fox in a bubble bath, referring to her phone as “this little guy” and permitting her objectified photographic form to cause a series of disruptions. But that was comparatively modest with the misogyny to come. There was the FloTV commercial in which a man suffered from an allegorical injury in which his girlfriend had removed his spine, “rendering him incapable of watching the game.” FloTV’s underlying idea, of course, was that women could not possibly enjoy football and that women are natural ballbusters who force their boyfriends to go shopping. There was the Dodge Charger Commercial, in which various men are seen, with their internal thoughts voiced by Dexter star Michael C. Hall, who announces the perfunctory domestic demands from other women: “I will eat some fruit as part of my breakfast. I will shave. I will clean the sink after I shave.”

But the real big-prick offender was probably Bud Light’s Book Club ad (which can be viewed above), which combined its misogynistic message with an anti-reading subtext. The commercial begins with a woman describing how there’s “so much passion” within the book she’s reading. A man then arrives wearing a sports T-shirt and shorts, saying, “Have a nice book club. I’ll be at the game.” He then eyes several chilled bottles of Bud Light and then sits down on a couch between two women, rudely interrupting their discussion. “So what’s the story?” he says, as some rock and roll music emerges onto the soundtrack. “We were discussing the relationship of two women…”

“Two women,” he interrupts, immediately connoting a lesbian fantasy, perhaps with the two women he is squeezed between.

“…who are thrust in by war,” continues the woman.

“Oooh,” he replies. “Thrusting.”

“A war neither of them understands,” she continues, offering a modest nod that indicates her role as either patient nurturer or someone barely able to understand the book that she’s discussing.

“Awesome,” he says. “Good times. I love Book Club!”

And in a rather sly move by the director, sealing the woman’s objectified place, the woman’s red sweater slips down her left shoulder, revealing more of her anatomy.

We cut back after a product announcement and observe an exchange between the man and another woman. The book club has degenerated into a beer drinking session.

This new woman says, “So then do you like Little Women?” (Little, get it?)

He says, “Yeah, I’m not too picky. No.” And the commercial then stops, ending on this open-ended sexual proposition.

Here then is the ad’s anti-women and anti-reading worldview: Women, no matter what their goals, aspirations, or interests, have no other role in society other than getting fucked by men. Let women have their “little” book clubs, which can be easily interrupted on a masculine whim and which women will never dare object to. They will set everything aside to give you head or to serve you beer.

And, by the way, if you’re a man, you don’t even need to read to get ahead in the world. (Indeed, one of the commercial’s curious philosophical positions is that one cannot both enjoy beer — at least the stuff better than the undrinkable swill that is being sold in this commercial — and books. Speaking as a man who enjoys beer, books, and football, and who finds intelligent women far sexier than empty-headed centerfolds, I happily refute these stereotypes through my very existence.)

Some might argue that the advertisement is not intended to be taken seriously — that it is a jocular offering to be easily disregarded. But because the Super Bowl is watched by close to 100 million people and because the Super Bowl commercials are subjected to such intense post-game scrutiny (to cite one example, as I write this essay, a message now appears at the top of YouTube: “Watch and Vote on Your Favorite Commercials from Super Bowl Sunday. Vote Now.”), it is perhaps more important for us to consider the impact that one Super Bowl commercial has on its audience. Let us assume that 1% of the Super Bowl audience (or about 1 million) take the Book Club advertisement seriously. Will they, in turn, be inspired to avoid books and break up female book clubs?

The great irony here is that these misogynist commercials were aired, including an anti-abortion Focus on the Family advocacy ad, even as CBS rejected a gay online dating commercial. And, indeed, if women are deemed so problematic by the Madison Avenue hucksters, then why shouldn’t the audience consider a man instead?

The open-ended question of whether Super Bowl commercials should be guided by some morality was indeed broached by Chicago Tribune religious reporter Manya Brachear. To this, I would respond that Super Bowl XXXVIII’s infamous Nipplegate controversy established very clear moral guidelines. Show part of a woman’s breast (adorned with nipple plate) and you will be hounded by the FCC and Christian moralists. But feel free to objectify a woman’s breast all you like. Because the need to sell more Coca-Cola outweighs human dignity.

[UPDATE: A reader correctly points out that, in this essay’s original form, I confused this year’s Teleflora ad, which involved a similar setup, with last year’s Teleflora ad. Accordingly, I have removed the following description from the piece, preserving it at the end to demonstrate another example of Madison Avenue’s commitment to Super Bowl misogyny: “Then there was the despicable Teleflora ad, in which a woman receives flowers and the flowers talk back, ‘Oh no! Look at the mug on you! Diane, you’re a trainwreck. That’s why he always sent a box of flowers. Go home to your romance novels and your fat smelly cat,’ followed by another sully: ‘Nobody wants to see you naked.’ The Teleflora commercial presented an additional punchline: a male office worker named Gary who comes up to Diane not to ask if she’s okay, but to announce, ‘I’d like to see you naked’ (surely a violation of sexual harassment law), before being cut off by the humiliated Diane.]

[UPDATE 2: Survival of the Book’s Brianoffers a thoughtful response to my post, pointing out one minor point I neglected to mention — that the women were the ones who procured the Bud Lights for their own enjoyment in the commercial. This raises the possibility that they were trying to get rid of the jock so that they could enjoy their beer with their books. It’s a fair interpretation: one that I might entirely agree with, had the women not been presented as sex objects in the latter portion of the commercial. Brian’s interpretation permits the Book Club to serve as a male fantasy. But if this crude male fantasy involves sneering down at women and books, then I stand by my original assessment.]

The Bat Segundo Show: Christian Berger

Christian Berger recently appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #321. Berger is the cinematographer for The White Ribbon and was, most recently, nominated for an Academy Award for Best Cinematography.

This conversation is related to The Bat Segundo Show #316, in which writer-director Michael Haneke was interviewed.

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Wondering why so many moviegoers are named Jacques.

Guest: Christian Berger

Subjects Discussed: Reasons to visit New York, establishing a black-and-white look with a color negative, specific hues used for gray tones, pressure from financing, grayscale limits in post-production, lighting and negative tests, differences between film and digital, ASA stock and characteristic curve, how Berger maintained minimal lighting to assist actors during sensitive moments, Barry Lyndon, reflective light, Haneke’s insistence on darkness, Haneke’s stubborn adherence to visuals, on not believing in the “We’ll fix it in post” maxim, managing film and DVD versions, sharing a cinematic vision with Haneke, the impact of HDTV on movies, and psychoanalytical influences on the creative process.


Berger: Then came pressure on the production side from one TV station who was participating in the financing system. They were asking for at least the chance to have a color version. Because they were scared from black-and-white. The old story. And now I hope nobody speaks anymore about it with the success. (laughs) But that was the reason we started to think of color negative. Then after the test, I was very happy about that. Because, with the old black-and-white negative, we could never achieve that result. Which is logic in a way. It was only a nostalgic reaction. “Ah, black-and-white.” Like in the old days. It would have been wrong. Color negative is really on the top of the technical possibilities. Now the last generations. And, for example, the rich color space — color room, you say, I think — you have in the negatives. You can transfer it to a very fine grayscale. That’s already a big difference. And it’s already an answer from what you asked me, yeah? This you can not really do in the post-production. Because the grayscale is quite fixed, given by the colors. So that we were testing before with the production designer, with costumes. Very important. Because we had a few very nice textile — a very good costume designer. The woman. But they gave the same gray, for example. Different blues. Yes, a different red can do it too. Production design, the same problem concerning the studio and the equipment from the rooms, color from the walls, furniture, everything. But that you could test out relatively easy.

The second part, direction, of the tests was how to handle the light level from oil lamps, from torches, from candles, natural fire sources we were depending on. So the whole lighting, which was necessary of course, had to go in relation to that level, which is very low. And there, the digital post-production possibilities came about again. Because we have a few very important scenes — very dark scenes — where it was definitely not possible to copy them analog. It was not enough. But with the digital way, you scan the original. And each little silver grain which was touched by light can work it out without grain. And that gives too a new look, I think. The combination of that.

Correspondent: But if you’re touching up every silver halide, the question remains whether there’s a disadvantage towards something looking perhaps too crisp or too clean.

Berger: Do you have that feeling?

Correspondent: Well, not entirely. Because you left a lot of dark areas. Particularly that great doorway shot, where there’s the corporal punishment seen. Where we see the camera go through different doors and you see various black expanses as the doors open.

Berger: Yeah.

Correspondent: So you’re telling me that you were able to — if it looked too crisp or too clean, you were able to corral this. Because you lit a lot of areas very dark. Was that your strategy?

Berger: Dark is usually a problem on the analog way. Because it’s grainy. It’s not a standing state of dark. And I think Haneke was quite happy with that clean quality. He loves it.

Image: Cinematografo

The Bat Segundo Show #321 (Download MP3)

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Paul Fischer: The Unpardonable Hack Who Charmed His Fellow Junketeers

There was once a time — before the Internet, or perhaps not at all — in which film critics conducted themselves with something approximating journalistic standards. It was never very much. These were, after all, film critics — often underpaid, most having lost the capacity to marvel at the frequent cinematic magic playing before their eyes and most lacking the dignity to recuse themselves from professional duties before they soured. But the nagging need to catch up with some perceived discrepancy between the fruitless remuneration from their cold analysis and the wanton luxury enjoyed by film stars, to matter in some arrogant and misguided manner, soon caught up with these desperate crayfish. If you have ever had the misfortune to attend a press screening populated with these types, you will encounter, for the most part, wan and humorless individuals with an insufferable sense of entitlement who announce, in all seriousness and with all the subtlety of a Wlliam Shatner line delivery, the big star that they’ll be talking to for ten minutes tomorrow (is that what they truly live for?) and who check their email in the dark instead of paying attention to the flick, the thing before them that they are, after all, paid to take in.

But no so long ago, fly-by-night pettifoggers who scarfed up every scandalous junket that arrived in their barren laps weren’t taken so seriously. Anyone who violated the vital covenant between journalist and reader was rightly left to rot. And while there remain some individuals devoted to upholding this trust, such as Erik Childress, a man who thankfully shows no reticence in exposing today’s frauds, these golden years, as the Vancouver Sun‘s Chris Parry has sufficiently demonstrated, are now over. The so-called “critics” — most of them now online — who pretend to stand before some shadow of journalistic truth are now defending the diabolical hacks. And they too wish to fatten their gastropathic bellies from the complimentary buffet.

The latest charlatan is Paul Fischer, a man who proved so amoral and so egotistical that he actually plagiarized whole sentences from the Sundance film guide blurb in his “reviews,” believing that he wouldn’t get caught. Parry offered countless examples. And Parry’s invaluable efforts have caused Dark Horizon’s Garth Franklin to take note. Fischer has rightly disappeared into a bottomless pit of his own making. His reviews have been removed.

But the story isn’t over. Because several of Fischer’s pals have lambasted Parry for daring to point out the obvious truth that this Little Lord Fauntleroy wore no clothes. As Parry points out, Edward Douglas, an amental “journalist” I have already taken to task, has declared, “…so what if he uses the OFFICIAL PLOT SYNOPSES from the notes or festival guide. That is what they’re there for, to inform… his actual opinion about the movie is completely his own.” In other words, Douglas is supporting the junket whore’s right to pilfer whole sentences, claiming the work as his own. Cutting and pasting a press release may win you many allies in the publicity department, but it cannot possibly constitute plausible journalism in any form.

But that wasn’t all. Douglas also wrote, again demonstrating his primitive panache for all caps, “but it’s INCREDIBLY UNPROFESSIONAL on the part of the Vancouver Sun to waste its readers’ time with what is essentially an attack on a colleague in the entertainment business.” Really? Is it “incredibly unprofessional” to reprimand Jayson Blair for fabricating a story? Is it “wasting the reader’s time” to steal the hard labor of others and claim it as your own, as Nada Behziz did?

But let us be clear and let us even be liberal. We are not talking about stealing the work of other journalists or even making up a story. It might be sufficiently argued — and it certainly it is within David Shields’s forthcoming book, Reality Hunger — that what writers pilfer isn’t nearly as original as what it seems. Even if you do manage to pull a James Frey and invent details, as odious as Frey’s antics may be, there remains some faulty independent effort to create a narrative. But Paul Fischer couldn’t even do that. He lacked the writer’s basic skill to change even more than a few words from the original source. He was essentially paid by Dark Horizons to do what anyone with a basic understanding of word processing could accomplish in seconds.

And that is why Fischer must be nailed to the wall by anyone who values the written word. He didn’t just betray the reader’s trust. He didn’t just whore himself out to the studios. He didn’t just shit in his own pants because he couldn’t even slap together a decent sentence. Fischer failed at the basic act of writing. He couldn’t even create something. And, as a reporter who couldn’t shoot straight, he failed at the basic act of journalism.

Yet improbably, among some gutless hacks lacking a shred of ethical compunction, Fischer has emerged as some strange dethroned hero. The Independent Eye‘s Vadim Rizov has seriously suggested that the only reason people care about Parry’s article is because of “complaints from filmmakers that negative reviews (since pulled from their host websites) were being propped up with blatant laziness.” Hardly. A film review may not live up to the journalistic value of Woodward and Bernstein, but it is still a piece of journalism, whether it appears in print or online. A reader trusts that the journalist has gone to see a film and has developed an independent opinion about it. If “normal people” didn’t care about such basic trust, then why then would they leave so many comments on Rotten Tomatoes about Armond White’s suspicious contrarianism? Why would Pulitzer Prize-winning film critic Roger Ebert canvass his readers to understand? Why have so many regular Joes flocked to Red Letter Media’s brilliant takedowns of Avatar and The Phantom Menace? Because on some basic level, normal people, contrary to Rizov’s elitism, imbue commentary with a level of trust.

You can blame the system, as Rizov does, all that you want. But you can’t ignore the fact that, in less than a week, 417,215 people have viewed a video review of Avatar performed in a satirical style. That people are flocking in droves to some guy with a creepy voice who has creatively edited together some footage from The Garbage Pail Kids Movie, suggests that the crisis in American film criticism and that the need for trust has reached an unprecedented level. People want to understand why a film does or does not work. They want to have their assumptions challenged. Therefore, it’s incumbent upon film critics to not only explain these nuts and bolts, but to do so in a manner that is ethical and entertaining.

The minute that a film critic or a journalist steps on board a junket plane financed by a big studio, he abdicates his right to call himself a journalist. He surrenders his ability to take in the situation with anything approaching objectivity. And the minute that a figure like Paul Fischer is justified, well, the defender may as well spread his legs, lie back for the Big Five, and call himself a junket whore.

[UPDATE: In fairness to Fischer, it’s worth pointing out that Chris Parry wrote an article in 2004 lambasting Fischer and reporting on a shared history that was not sufficiently disclosed in Parry’s Vancouver Sun article.]

February 15th! Reader of a Lonely Heart!

Read your work. You always read your work. Never thinking of the future. Prove yourself. You are the book you make. Take your chances win or loser.

This silly lyrical reference is a roundabout way of saying that the exuberant Russ Marshalek has organized yet another fantastic installment of his infamous reading series, “Just Working on My Novel.” It’s set to go down on February 15, 2010, whereby new and established writers read unpublished and/or new novels. The latest episode will center around love letters, breakup stories, sad sack notes, and other harrowing emotional indictments befitting the day after Valentine’s Day.

The sexier-than-you Jami Attenberg be hosting this event, and I can think of few people better suited to the exigencies. In addition, due to the unexpected reception of Hate Mail Dramatic Reading Project, it appears that I’ve been enlisted to read one of the proffered pieces in a wildly theatrical manner that may involve the breaking of glass. And as an added incentive for curiosity seekers, I’ll also be performing an excerpt from my sprawling novel-in-progress, Humanity Unlimited, which will involve a pregnant attorney, an eccentric restaurant, and a dissolving relationship and contains the striking sentence, “Perhaps maternal canvassing was a form of social suicide.” This section has not been read before and it may perplex some audience members unfamiliar with recent developments in upscale cuisine.

But more importantly, there are the readers! Sign-up spots before the event are limited. But you can email Russ directly to secure your spot.

It all goes down on Monday, February 15, 2010, starting at 7:00 PM, at The Tank, located at 354 West 45th Street (near 9th Avenue).