The San Francisco government had gone out of its way to declare the police station “non-intimidating,” It all started when a young innovator had suggested sending brochures to nearby residents by mail. The City, which was still in the early stages of embracing all things digital, thought that this was a pretty good idea. To save a bit of money, it commissioned this conceptual whipper-snapper to write all the copy. When an administrative official two weeks away from a prestigious (read: more lucrative) post in Pennsylvania caught wind of the young man’s purported background in graphic design, the official, hoping to create a mess for the obnoxious new guy to clean up, replied, “Fire up Quark and knock yourself out.” With “public awareness” still a recurring and not easily identified priority, the plan was ridiculously easy to authorize. But when the brochures came in, accompanied by a dubious $2,000 invoice for “special services” from some guy named Randy, the young man was boxed around the ears and let go. The gaudy brochures had come back with the catastrophic header DON’T WORRY! WE WON’T INTIMIDATE YOU! printed in a large and unfriendly font against a sickly yellow and vaguely green background.

Meetings were held. Protocols and terms were fiercely argued. The City, still bracing from Randy’s invoice, contemplated bringing in George Lakoff from across the Bay, before understanding that there was a certain humiliation in relying on Berkeley to solve a San Francisco problem. Remarkably, this wasteful public spending had somehow escaped Matier and Ross’s prying investigative attentions. Randy had been paid promptly to keep things quiet. Yet despite these setbacks, it was agreed that the “non-intimidating” concept had to be conveyed to the public. Bus shelter ads might scare the living bejesus out of the elderly. So the City agreed to a low-key campaign. Use the word “non-intimidating” at press conferences. Mention it in intimidating situations. Have all the earthquake preparedness professionals use it in relation to unanticipated seismic rumbles. But most importantly, describe Park Station as “non-intimidating” on the sfgov website.

Few people remembered that Park Station, once strenuously opposed by the mindful planner John McLaren during its construction, had spent a good century defying public perception. The building, originally flanked by two wings stabling 32 horses, had maintained its stucco facades over the years, but its interior had been replaced by clinical functionalism.

This transformation may have had something to do with Park Station’s successful bombing by bloodthirsty activists, believed to be the Weather Underground. It was thought at the time that the window ledge blasting was related to the Chicago Trial protests. The bombing had killed a police sergeant. Developing technology would later pin part of the crime on members of the Black Liberation Army, but Bill Ayers’s guilt hadn’t been entirely pegged after four decades of investigation. The station had closed, reopened, remodeled, and reinforced itself. Its look decayed and its fortification strengthened with every fresh generation of cops grousing its halls.

Some of the residents living near Golden Gate Park’s southwestern perimeter had traded in their ideals for relentless equity management during boom times, but they came around to believing that Park Station was non-intimidating. It helped that many of these young starving pups had no sense of history. The station was non-intimidating only if you believed that the police would always do their duty. It was non-intimidating only if you believed that the authoritarians wouldn’t confuse the rights of nonviolent protesters with their more intense, pyro-happy counterparts. It was non-intimidating only if you kept your head down and avoided the hassles, the harassment, and the harried interventions of hotheaded cops too eager to crack a few heads.

Review: [REC] 2 (2009)

Nobody seems to agree on the precise pronunciation of [REC]. And I haven’t even brought up the potentially controversial notion of pronouncing the brackets. (A throat-clearing sound?) I had been saying it wrek — in large part because I spent some of my childhood living in a sketchy apartment complex with a dubious “rec room,” and enjoy a little symmetry in my horror nomenclature. I talked with a friendly horror aficionado before the screening who insisted on spelling it out ar-ee-see, as if the title were an acronym. Another film critic pronounced it with a long e. I must presume that the film’s title, much like the film itself, is what you make of it.

But just how do you name a sequel in a franchise based around a camera button? [REC] Again has little zip, suggesting to the audience that they’ve made some mistake, perhaps missing the taping of some vital House installment. [REC] with a Vengeance insinuates that the button has become sentient, transforming into some mechanical Charles Bronson-style vigilante. (This wouldn’t be entirely out of line for the [REC] films, seeing as how the camera is just as much of a character in as the reg folks gone aggro.) In the end, writer-directors Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza have opted for numerical superscript for their sequel — much like the Aliens films. I am pleased to report that the camera perspectives do indeed live up to this squared sensibility.

For those of you who have no idea what the hell I’m talking about, you should probably check out the original [REC]. Unlike many mindless horror franchises, the [REC] movies feel as if the filmmakers have given serious thought to the environment. (Or perhaps they know how to improvise better. The Saw series’s endless “twists” — in which the Jigsaw Killer’s plan becomes increasingly more baroque and laughably improbable with each installment — have readily revealed the creative bankruptcy in milking a cash cow.)

But with [REC] 2, you may be just as lost as the survivors if you haven’t experienced the previous film. Made in 2007, the first [REC] is a pretty terrific little horror film that presents a zombie plague entirely from a single camera perspective. Like The China Syndrome, there isn’t any music. But the results aren’t obnoxious like Mike Figgis’s disastrous (and dated) Timecode — surely the last decade’s answer to Woodstock or More American Graffiti.

A cameraman and a television presenter named Angela Vidal — both filming a disposable reality TV series called While You’re Asleep — visit a firehouse to find out just what firemen do. Angela awkwardly asks the fire chief, “You’re the boss, right?” She puts on a firehat and a uniform, jumping about for camera-friendly frivolity. She suggests to another fireman she’s interviewing that the alarm should go off for full dramatic effect. There is a basketball game that is interrupted by an alarm, which takes yawning firemen and bored camera crew to an apartment building, where a zombie infection is underway.

Life, in other words, needs to be shaped into a juicy narrative by the camera crew. But the viewer is part of a different narrative, thanks to the unedited tape that comes with the epidemic. While this may seem to echo the setup of George A. Romero’s Diary of the Dead (more satirical), The Blair Witch Project (a narrative designed out of a savvy marketing strategy), and Cloverfield (the handheld gimmick used to present a pedestrian Hollywood narrative in a “different” way), [REC] works so well because the camera is instrumental in portraying the panic. When the camera is hit, the audio gets bumped right along with it. Near the end of the film, the camera must rely on night vision.

The camera crew makes desperate efforts to maintain some journalistic facade when sealed in the building by mysterious government forces, continuing to conduct interviews with the survivors. But these efforts soon dwindle as the need to survive becomes more pressing. As the environment becomes more unruly, the cuts between the camera being on and off tell additional stories. Where Diary of the Dead placed its faith in the idea that young people would continue to seek fame when there wasn’t much of an audience left, and where Cloverfield‘s camerawork often proved ridiculously stable near cantilevered edifices, [REC] considered how people would act to apocalyptic events and how the camera would be instrumental in conveying this behavior. And this approach, thanks to Manuela Velasco’s fish-out-of-water performance as Angela and the more naturalistic acting (for horror, anyway), strongly suggested that Balagueró and Plaza had carefully studied The Battle of Algiers (certainly a good deal more than the Blair Witch bunch, who should be commended for bamboozling the American public).

[REC] 2 doesn’t quite match the first film’s gripping suspense, but it comes extremely close. Like the first film, the behavior, dictated by the camera, changes through the movie. We’re introduced to soldiers who are rather by-the-book and not particularly insubordinate. The ostensible commander insists on recording everything. But as the film progresses, a more human element of fear and frustration creeps in, and, with this, a very pleasing sense of revolt that is perhaps best signified by the liberal use of firearms.

[REC] 2‘s narrative feels more like a Valve video game or the Sunday New York Times crossword puzzle — a journey to be filled in once you’ve explored the unknown space.

OBJECTIVES: 1. Get blood vial. 2. Go downstairs. 3. Find Patient Zero.

You get the idea. And if you can’t get behind this crass fun, then I sentence you to a lifetime of soporific Merchant-Ivory movies.

One POV shot, in which a soldier blows away zombies with a machine gun, comes across like a Left 4 Dead installment five years from now, with a better engine and more heat-sensitive hardware. There is a moment in which snipers shoot at the building that had me wondering if I was re-experiencing Half-Life 2. There is even a secret door leading to a bonus world, further cementing the gaming comparisons. Should cinema resemble a first-person shooter? In most cases, I would advise against it. But because the [REC] films are very much about playing with our narrative expectations with the camera-audience relationship, this cross-media mimesis somehow works. It wouldn’t work without the camera. And while sometimes this feels like a cheat, we are given enough unexpected developments to keep feeding in our quarters.

There are more cameras here than the first film — including several lipstick cams placed upon soldier helmets, reminiscent of the second Aliens film, that are occasionally patched into. There’s a second perspective emerging midway through the film. There are more characters — including a group of foolish teenagers. But there are also more opportunities for zombie destruction. Aside from some head explosions, there is also a very satisfying moment in which a zombie flails about with a bottlerocket in its mouth. At one point, when a zombie runs towards the camera, the image freezes on its quite open and terrifying mouth. The filmmakers also offer a greater attention to accumulating scrapes and bruises as our intrepid heroes are attacked.

If you can accept that [REC] 2 is a carnival ride, then you’ll probably like this flick as much as I did. I certainly enjoyed [REC] 2, despite all of its supernatural contrivances, considerably more than the boring art house film I’d seen earlier that day. And maybe that’s because Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza really love making movies — in a way that seems to have eluded the pretentious and the avaricious.

What Characters Read Books on Television?

The above screenshot is from a Three’s Company episode called “The Lifesaver,” in which even the dimwitted Chrissy Snow could be seen reading a book. The novel is Concerto of Love (fictional, of course) and Chrissy had only reached Page 4. But it does have me wondering. In 1979, even sitcom characters who were more than a few cards short of a full deck were still committed to reading in some form. Can we say the same thing in 2010? What television reading moments have you seen lately?

UPDATE: Here are some observations from Twitter.

Ron Charles: “Isn’t that odd. There are rarely any books in their homes…”
eBookNewser: “There is an episode of the Rockford Files where Jim is reading some kind of detective novel. Tom Select is in the episode.”
Mark Athitakis: “Best-read character on a show currently on the air: Brian Griffin” and “‘Mad About You’ may be the exception that proves the rule.”
James Othmer: “Draper: Meditations in an Emergency; other Mad Men selecs: Lady Chatterly, The Best of Everything, The Sound & the Fury.”
John Williams: “I imagine Lisa Simpson is pretty well read for her age.”
Mike Cane: “Well, duh, CASTLE. But he also writes them.”
Colleen Mondor: “Has anyone mentioned Rory on THE GILMORE GIRLS yet? It was a hallmark of her character.”
Levi Asher: “hmmm … the youngest kid in “Good Times” was often seen carrying or quoting from a book … Dale Cooper … Lucy Ricardo.”

Content Slows Momentarily to a Crawl

Due to my present participation in a rather mammoth undertaking, I don’t anticipate much in this space over the next few weeks — aside from the weekly podcast (several conversations already conducted!) and a few essays on movies. I’m also pushing back today’s podcast to sometime early next week in the interests of balancing content release. Probably curtailing my Twitter activities to a few tweets a day. All is very well. This ain’t exactly a hiatus. But I’m finding myself increasingly committed to offline activities.

The Bat Segundo Show: John Waters

John Waters appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #342. Mr. Waters is most recently the author of Role Models.

(Considerable gratitude to Wayman Ng, who resuscitated this conversation from the data grave.)

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Comparing himself to unspecified reference groups in Mertonian social situations.

Author: John Waters

Subjects Discussed: [List forthcoming]


Correspondent: You observe that listening to what Tennessee Williams has to say could save the reader’s life too. But how can Tennessee Williams save the life of, say, a humorless tax auditor?

Waters: They won’t read him. So I’m not saying he can save anybody’s life. But if the humorless tax auditor — and I actually know one tax auditor who does have a sense of humor.

Correspondent: Yeah.

Waters: If they read Tennessee Williams, maybe they could save their life. Maybe they would overlook one receipt that wasn’t exactly deductible for business if they thought the person was doing art.

Correspondent: Yeah. That’s true. In Role Models, you note that you drink every Friday night. Now in Crackpot, you observe that in your final year of smoking, you smoked only on Fridays.

Waters: Yeah.

Correspondent: Why would you confine vice to one day of the week?

Waters: Well, because the cigarette thing. Didn’t smoke. I used to. I haven’t smoked in — I write it down every day. I could tell you how many days. I’d have to look at my file card. But today — and even before then, I only smoked for three days. I fell off the wagon. But when I smoked every Friday night, it got to be — I couldn’t do that. Because at Thursday night at 11:59, I would light up and hotbox. Do you know what that means? Where you take one drag on a cigarette burn.

Correspondent: Oh yeah.

Waters: A carton! Like right in a row. So I learned that I can’t chip. I am an addict with cigarettes. So that’s why. Friday nights? Because I don’t work on Saturday. And every other ngiht’s a schoolnight to me. I write in the morning. I can’t write with a hangover. I can’t. And when I drank on Friday — I did smoking on Friday night because I knew that I didn’t have to work the next day. I was going to drink too. I might as well do it all.

Correspondent: This is your answer to Shabbos?

Waters: No. It’s just how I get through life really. That I’m very organized during the week. And as I said, I believe if you’re going to have a hangover, it should be planned on your calendar three weeks in advance.

Correspondent: But you can’t plan everything.

Waters: I do plan everything.

Correspondent: You do plan everything.

Waters: Everything! I never have a spontaneous moment. I don’t want a spontaneous moment.

Correspondent: Really.

Waters: Order is important to me. It brings me happiness. Which makes my assistants insane.

Correspondent: Really?

Waters: Yeah.

Correspondent: What do you do when a curveball shows up?

Waters: I plan. Well, a curveball? I deal with it. But I’m saying that I won’t not do something that’s going to be great fun because I didn’t plan it.

Correspondent: Yeah.

Waters: But I make sure that I have great fun planned so I don’t wait around for someone to knock on my door and give me great fun.

Correspondent: (laughs)

Waters: I go out to have great fun. And plan it.

Correspondent: Well, how rigidly do you plan your life?

Waters: Rigidly enough.

Correspondent: Are you like a senator?

Waters: Let’s just say…

Correspondent: Do you schedule when you shit? I mean…

Waters: No. But I usually do that around the same time too. And I get on an airplane. And I can adjust my watch to whatever time it is. Get off and be on that time. I’m organized, yes. But if something — you know, when I go out on Friday nights, something can happen. It’s not like I know what’s going to happen. But I have certain people I go with to different places. Because I don’t want to drink and drive. So I have a great pool that I go out with. And they’ll go to any weird bar. You’ve seen the bars I like to go to. There’s a whole chapter on that.

Correspondent: But I’m curious. Do you allot a two hour time to just go out and observe people? Or something along those lines?

Waters: Well, I’m always observing people. It doesn’t matter. On the subway, I’m observing people. I take the bus in San Francisco a lot to observe people. I watch people in airports get off the plane. I make up stories about every person. And if you look, the ugliest people get off first. They aren’t first class. The cuter they are, the worse seats they have on an airplane. It’s awful. It almost is foolproof. I know that sounds ridiculous. The poorest planners. The ones that lasted till the last minute and got the middle seat in the last row?

Correspondent: Yeah.

Waters: They’re cuter than the ones who are rich or smart enough to plan to use their frequent flyer miles to get one of the few seats available in first class. They’re never that good looking.

The Bat Segundo Show #342: John Waters (Download MP3)

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Review: Cyrus (2010)

“What kind of comedy would you say that was?” said the man.

The marketing guy had observed my considerable laughter during the movie. While I don’t believe in withholding my emotional response within a screening room, and while I cannot in good conscience fall into that dishonest “Oh, I loved the movie!” mode practiced by certain joyless New York film critics judging a flick after observing the collective herd, my approach does run the risk of Bernaysian collisions.

“I’ll give you a hint,” I said. “Albert Brooks.”

Surely my insinuation would lead the man to remember the great film, Modern Romance, where Brooks played a film editor attempting to grapple with his romantic neuroses. Surely this mention would cause the gentleman to observe that John C. Reilly’s character was also a film editor, and just as neurotic as Brooks. Alas, Albert Brooks, as great as he is, cannot be called “box office draw” even after the most creative fudging of the numbers. Alas, this marketing man was more concerned with general taxonomies. This was hardly a matter of artistic comparison. It was crass bean counting.

“Well, is it black comedy?” he said. “Quirky comedy?”

“Psychological,” I replied, beating a hasty retreat to the elevator and hoping to consider my thoughts and feelings on the subway home.

I want to be clear that the man was perfectly nice and was only doing his job. But the idea that a “psychological comedy” — particularly one as well-made as Cyrus — can no longer be marketable is something I must object to. When we live in a world in which a self-serving BP executive bemoans wanting his life back and in which millions of unemployed individuals cannot find jobs (with their unseen plights ignored by media and government alike), it would seem to me that the need to convey American psychology is more pressing than ever. Not through marketing, but through artistic representation.

I am delighted to report that Cyrus lives up to this task. Written and directed by Jay and Mark Duplass, and featuring John C. Reilly, Marisa Tomei, and Jonah Hill in plum roles, Cyrus is one of the few American comedies in recent memory where the character dysfunction invites us to examine motivations rather than bask in base American Idol-style ridicule. It’s a great relief to see the Duplass brothers reclaim reality television’s handheld camera work for their film, which neither overplays its quietly empathic hand nor resists portraying embarrassing truths. This Duplassian commitment establishes itself with our first introduction to John (John C. Reilly), ostensibly in the midst of masturbation. “I have jock itch,” John explains to his ex-wife Jamie (Catherine Keener), who has showed up, unannounced, to check up. It continues when Jamie invites John to a cocktail party, where “people who will stimulate you intellectually” fail to do so. After our intoxicated hero strikes out with libidinous prospects, he goes outside to pee, meeting up with Molly (Marisa Tomei), who quickly responds, “Nice penis. Go ahead. Finish up.” But the two hit it off. They return inside. The Human League’s “Don’t You Want Me?” — which John considers to be “the greatest song” — causes John to dance and embarrass himself further. Molly joins him. Our two middle-aged heroes return to John’s, where John declares Molly “a sex angel.” John awakes to a note reading JOHN: THAT WAS AWESOME. CALL ME. And after Molly accepts an invitation that very evening to a home-cooked meal at John’s, an impromptu relationship is formed.

“My life is really complicated right now,” explains Molly. John drives out to Molly’s house the next morning to knock on her door. His efforts are interrupted by the titular Cyrus (Jonah Hill), who is revealed to be Molly’s son. Cyrus is a boomerang kid — one of those post-teens who clings to parental comforts rather than making a move in the real world. He’s pursuing a dubious music career involving avant-garde keyboard compositions. “Sounds like Steve Miller,” says John after Cyrus plays a sample. “No, it doesn’t,” replies Cyrus. But Cyrus has unspecified psychological problems and a morbid sense of humor. “Don’t fuck my mom,” says Cyrus, once the parental relationship has been laid out. “I’m just kidding,” he says next without skipping a beat.

The Duplass brothers are extremely effective in using our established ideas of these actors to their advantage. Jonah Hill’s warmhearted presence takes some of the edge off Cyrus. And because of this, we become tremendously curious about the hold Cyrus has over his mother. And if John were played by an actor other than John C. Reilly, we might interpret his morning drive to Molly’s home as stalking. Yet Reilly is so good at maintaining an avuncular balance between loneliness and a goodhearted nature that we accept his moves.

And while Marisa Tomei is extremely good in this movie, I’m wondering just how long she’ll be able to play the middle-aged woman who has seen it all and yet quietly accepts her fate. Cyrus follows The Wrestler and Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead in this line. And while these films have permitted Tomei to shine, I’m baffled as to why filmmakers haven’t centered their films around Tomei, rather than making her the supporting nurturer.

Perhaps the answer to that latter concern has much to do with the marketing man who accosted me during the closing credits. Fox Searchlight threw a considerable amount of cash attempting to promote Cyrus. In the week before its release, the film sponsored numerous WNYC programs. Pop-up ads invaded several major movie-related websites. Yet my conversation, which I felt compelled to note here in the interest of ethical transparency, would seem to indicate that today’s studios don’t see “psychological comedy” as an audience draw. That’s truly a pity. Because Cyrus demonstrates why it’s so important to pay attention to the smaller people around the corners. For their stories are often more fascinating than the loud explosions.

RIP Jose Saramago

Nobel Lecture: “The voice that read these pages wished to be the echo of the conjoined voices of my characters. I don’t have, as it were, more voice than the voices they had. Forgive me if what has seemed little to you, to me is all.”

Book Magazine, 2002: “You may disagree with such a pessimistic vision. But if there is a way for the world to be transformed for the better, it can only be done by pessimism; optimists will never change the world for the better.”

Julian Evans, The Guardian: “It is difficult to find dissenters from Wood’s description of Saramago as an ‘attractive and sinuous’ writer, though the Irish novelist John Banville is one.”

“The Unexpected Fantasist,” The New York Times, 2007: “Yet Saramago also often appears to be disliked. In part this is the resentment of a country that has long been dominated by a small elite. In part, it is a matter of Saramago’s own unaccommodating personality. Everywhere I went in Lisbon in June, people described him as ‘cold,’ ‘arrogant,’ ‘unsympathetic.’ When my interpreter inquired at a DVD store if a documentary about Saramago was in stock, the young salesman, startled by the request, replied, laughing, ‘I hope not!'”

The Bat Segundo Show: Reed Cowan

Reed Cowan appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #341. Mr. Cowan is most recently the director of 8: The Mormon Proposition, which opens in numerous theaters on June 18, 2010.

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Conducting investigations on Dick Van Pattern’s possible Mormon connections.

Guest: Reed Cowan

Subjects Discussed: [List forthcoming]


Correspondent: I wanted to also ask about the box of secret documents. You don’t actually cite a source. And there’s no indication in the film that you made efforts to corroborate this with the LDS. Or to even contact the names that were possibly on the emails or the memos. I mean, I’m a viewer — let’s say — who is on the fence. I see this. There’s no provenance. Did you make any steps to confirm the provenance? And why isn’t this in the film? I mean, is there some sort of website component here that one can use to find authenticity?

Cowan: I’ve actually met the person with the documents out of the Church offices. Out of the archives. So there was some corroboration that went on there. And also, what a lot of people don’t know is that, during the federal case that’s going on right now, those documents were provided to the case as well. Which led to subpoenas of other documents from the Mormon Church. In those subpoenas, we were able to see that the documents the Church had to hand over correlated with the ones we have. So it’s a matter of court record, from my understanding with the people inside the trial, that they match.

Correspondent: Which court record is this? Which case?

Cowan: In the federal trial that’s going on right now. Perry vs. Schwarzenegger.

Correspondent: Okay. Got it. And speaking of which, I actually wanted to ask you why you didn’t cover Strauss vs. Horton — the three cases that were consolidated into the California Supreme Court. And the Supreme Court upheld Proposition 8. It would seem to me that that’s just as much a part of the story as the Mormon mobilization. And also the efforts to try and take Proposition 8 off the ballot that were again rebuffed by the California Supreme Court.

Cowan: Well, the thesis of our film is “8: The Mormon Proposition.” And so really the onus is on us to prove their strategy, right? And to prove to the audience how it came together, how the strategy was formed. And so we feel like we did that. And anything else is outside of that focus. And, you know, there’s so much here. I mean, you’re right. There is so much here that if the citizenry really wanted to see what’s going on, I mean, you could produce ten, fifteen hours of programming. Just in the federal trial alone. I mean, the fact that they are not allowing the testimony to be televised, to me, is sickening. And could be hours and hours and hours of documentary material that we could obviously add to the film.

Correspondent: Hours and hours of dramatization as well.

Cowan: Sure. Sure. But I don’t know an audience that wants to sit through ten hours of documentary. And so look for the books, I guess. Look for other documentaries. And I hope there are more made.

Correspondent: I’m wondering if you believe that any Mormon can believe in same sex marriage.

Cowan: I do. I know that some of my high profile Mormon friends believe that I have the same rights as they do. And I have the right to claim those rights. It would be surprising, I think, to a lot of Mormons to know that one of the most popular governors in the state of Utah, Jon Huntsman, and his wife Mary Kaye are dear friends of mine. Jon has now been appointed the Ambassador to China by President Obama. And they are very close friends of mine. And Jon Huntsman has gone so far in that state — now a lot of people wouldn’t like that he didn’t come out and advocate for marriage, but he advocated in that state for civil unions. And that was a huge step. And Mary Kaye said to me, “You realize why we took this stand and took the heat. It was because of you and your partner. It was because of our relationship and friendship with you.” So can Mormons get it? Absolutely. Absolutely.

Correspondent: Then I’m wondering why you didn’t profile, for example, Laura Compton, who started that site I mean, that seems to me a decided apostasy in relation to this particular issue. That not all Mormons are some sort of Borg-like collective.

Cowan: Yeah. You know, there were a few who did dare speak out. There were many who were punished in certain ways for speaking out. And that created a culture where they didn’t dare. So people like Laura are heroes. But again, the thesis was to prove “Look, this was their proposition.” It wasn’t the Catholic proposition. The Mormons were the man behind the curtain. And so again, I welcome any documentary who can profile her or the other few, the minority of Mormons who stood up for marriage equality. And continue to do so. And who are now crossing the aisle and seeing where the inequity happened.

Correspondent: Surely deflecting criticisms from the Mormon Church by having someone like Laura Compton in your documentary would have allowed, I suppose, for those sitting on the fence to consider the issue perhaps a little bit more.

Cowan: Maybe she would have provided a light that people could follow. But again that’s not what the film was about. The film was to show the inequity. Because that was the great wrong that happened. And, you know, in an hour and twenty minutes, that’s the time we had. The time we had to try to prove that case.

The Bat Segundo Show #341: Reed Cowan (Download MP3)

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The Bat Segundo Show: Gary Rivlin

Gary Rivlin appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #340. Mr. Rivlin is most recently the author of Broke USA: From Pawnshop to Poverty, Inc. — How the Working Poor Became Big Business.

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Considering the advances of a seductive loan shark.

Author: Gary Rivlin

Subjects Discussed: [List forthcoming]


Rivlin: One in every five customers is taking twenty or more payday loans a year. So suddenly this effective interest rate of 400% becomes the actual interest rate. I mean, if you’re taking out twenty payday loans a year, that’s pretty much a loan every two weeks. And so you’ve got a couple million people a year in this country who are essentially paying 400% for their money to put it into dollars and cents. For that $500 loan, they’re paying $2,000 in fees for the year. So it’s the trap that a payday loan becomes, that I focus in on.

Correspondent: I wanted to talk about Martin Eakes, the man behind Self-Help and the Center for Responsible Lending. He offers a more reasonable APR through his credit union. His crusading has helped to initiate reform in numerous states. High-interest loans. Mortgage premium penalties. He’s been on it. His opponents, they point to his self-interest in creating caps that are uniquely beneficial to Self-Help. I want to address this. I mean, what of a credit union’s interest fees on overdrafts? Just to give you an example, if a consumer gets a hit, the median overdraft fee is about $27 on a $20 debit card transaction. They repay the charge in two weeks. And, according to the FDIC, that’s a 3,250% APR. That far outshines that $33 per $100 cap in Indiana. That works out to 858% on a two week loan. So I’m wondering if credit unions are, in some way, just as problematic. Or perhaps even more problematic on the overdraft charge than payday lenders, when we consider this?

Rivlin: Right. You’re giving the argument that the payday lenders make that I was starting to make myself before. That you could look at our 400% interest rate. But go start doing the math. As you just did. On bounced checks or late credit card fees. And again, that’s a legitimate point. Martin Eakes is one of the main characters in my book. He’s just a really interesting, quirky fellow. A few fun facts. He claims he’s never had a sip of alcohol in his life. He testifies all the time before Congress. Gives speeches. He owns a single suit to save money. His wife cuts his hair. My favorite quote from him is “Half the people I know would take a bullet for me and the other half would fire the pistol.” And that’s accurate. He’s really been out there as a leading crusader, not the leading crusader, against subprime mortgage abuse. Against the payday lenders. Against some of the more abusive policies.

Correspondent: And the people who work for him have salary caps as well. It’s not exactly a lucrative prospect to work for him.

Rivlin: The payday lenders and others try to tar Martin Eakes. But he’s a little bit Ralph Naderish in that way. He’s hard to tar. There’s a rule within his credit union that no one can be paid more than three times more than the lowest paid employee. And that means that this guy, who runs essentially a billion dollar operation — they’ve done a lot of home loans — is getting paid $69,000 a year. I guess everybody roots for the receptionist to get a raise.

Correspondent: Yeah. Well, hopefully the MacArthur money was disseminated around. But you do have to make some kind of money. And as we’ve determined with this overdraft situation, that’s quite an interest.

Rivlin: Well, a few things. One way you misspoke was that his credit union doesn’t offer payday loans. His colleagues in North Carolina. The big North Carolina credit union for teachers and state employees. They offer a payday loan with an effective annual interest rate of 12%. 12% versus the 400%. And I met with the fellow who runs that credit union. And he called it the single most profitable loan that they offer. But getting back to the criticism that they level at Martin Eakes — that isn’t he just a competitor? Isn’t he just fighting the payday loan industry because he’s looking out for the bottom line of his own credit union? Well, one problem with that is — it was in 2001 that Martin Eakes and others in North Carolina kicked the payday lenders out of the state. Martin Eakes’s credit union — you’re only eligible to participate if you live in North Carolina. So he won the fight in 2001. Why is he still fighting the payday lenders across the country given that his bottom line is only affected in North Carolina? I find the argument — I heard it from every payday lender I met with — that Martin Eakes is just a competitor; it’s just very specious. He’s a crusader. He might see the world in black and white, where these things should be outlawed period. But I think he’s genuine in his criticism. I don’t think it has anything to do with his credit union. His credit union doesn’t even offer credit cards to rack up the late fees.

Correspondent: But how much does he charge for overdraft fees?

Rivlin: Twenty bucks.

Correspondent: Twenty bucks.

Rivlin: I was really curious about that question too.

Correspondent: I mean, that’s just — you’re still dealing with a pretty substantial APR. When does that $20 kick in?

Rivlin: Yeah. Well, you know, the problem with APRs on a bounced check is that it depends upon how long it takes for you to become whole again. I mean, there’s that $20 fee. But then there’s interest and other penalties when you’re late. But we can just say it’s enormous. It’s typically higher than 400% for the payday.

Correspondent: It’s below the median rate. That’s for sure.

Rivlin: Martin Eakes runs a not-for-profit credit union. He charges a bounced check fee like everybody charges a bounced check fee. It’s lower than the average, but still high. You know, I don’t know what to say about that. But I do think, as long as we’re talking about Martin Eakes, that this credit union he started, dating back to the 1980s, they’re a subprime mortgage lender. I mean, I hasten to add, given the association people have that he’s a different kind of subprime mortgage lender and started charging four or five or six or seven percent above the conventional rate. He charges 1%. You know, his loans didn’t have huge up-front fees. He made sure that you could pay it back. That if you make $25,000 a year, that you’re buying a house for $50,000, let’s say, rather than a $300,000 house that you’re never going to be able to afford. But this credit union is specifically for those of modest means. About half his customers are single moms. About half the people who bought homes using loans from him are people of color. He’s making loans in rural communities. People who live in trailers who can move into a modest-sized house and have, as he would put it, a bricks-and-mortar savings account. A home. He is doing a lot of good. Thousands and thousands of North Carolinans are living in a home who wouldn’t otherwise.

The Bat Segundo Show #340: Gary Rivlin (Download MP3)

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Review: Finding Bliss (2010)

It’s become increasingly impossible for any movie, whether mainstream or independent, to depict the porn industry with anything approaching accuracy. Show a penis — even a flaccid one — and you’ll be given the NC-17 stamp of death. Show any sexual act and, as the 2006 documentary This Film is Not Yet Rated sufficiently demonstrated, be prepared to get into a lengthy censorship battle with the MPAA. But feel free to maim or kill another human being and you’re likely to garner a PG-13. One of the ongoing hypocrisies about American culture is that violence remains fun for the whole family, while any hint of sexuality is considered Puritanical. Sex isn’t strictly verboten. Just don’t expect to get your film distributed within the present system.

In Finding Bliss, writer-director Julie Davis — who mined similar territory in Amy’s Orgasm — does her best to work her material around this problem, visualizing her adult entertainment production company (Grind Productions) as a locale with screwball possibilities. (It can’t be an accident that a poster of My Man Godfrey hangs in the main character’s apartment.) Leelee Sobieski plays Jody Balaban, a fresh film school grad who did not remind this writer of the actor Bob in any way. She can’t get a job. Even Garry Marshall (playing himself) won’t return her messages. She needs to make her movie, but she isn’t quite willing to pay her dues. Yet despite this steadfast drive, Jody proves quite diffidently vanilla in her sexual attitudes. She gets an editing job at Grind, figuring that she can secretly make her film at night using the surprising resources at her disposal at night while cutting together banging during the day.

The idea that true outsider art can only originate from porn’s “anything goes” exigencies isn’t a bad one for a comedy. Jody’s quest for clandestine respectability is shared, in part, by Grind, who hopes to make a film that can at long last play in mainstream theaters. This is also a production company where actors actually rehearse their lines around a table — an implausible joke that doesn’t quite pay off, but that permits a few meet cute moments. In one of the film’s surprisingly sparse concessions to perversity, Jody finds herself masturbating to the material she’s editing. She falls for disgraced director Jeff Drake (Matthew Davis), who is discovered to have once been a hot art house director and who is now pumping out porn at a steady clip. Drake, however, is remarkably faithful in his relationships. He eschews the casting couch favored by Hollywood and porn alike. When Jody’s initial cast learns of the ruse and flies the coop, Jody is forced to finish her film with porn actors. Jody’s opus is a run-of-the-mill coming-of-age drama that can be found in needless abundance at any third-tier film festival. The film seems to be suggesting that some middle-of-the-road adult entertainment company is now required to flood the marketplace with derivative independent films. (This is interesting when one considers that 1975’s Ilsa: She-Wolf of the SS was shot using the Hogan’s Heroes sets. Can one even imagine an underground film being made today using the sets for Modern Family?)

Davis’s film is somewhat entertaining. She’s helped in large part by her cast. Sobieski has been rightly heralded as a serious dramatic actress. It’s a pity, however, that this very talented actress isn’t cast in more comedies. Even when asked to go needlessly over-the-top in a few reaction shots, she manages to sell her character’s pigheaded predicament without coming across as needlessly steely. (Had Katherine Heigl been cast in this film, Finding Bliss surely would have been a disaster.) We very much believe in Jody’s hangups, even if we don’t quite believe in the material. Matthew Davis is also pretty good, imbuing his character with a cocksure unctuousness. The criminally underemployed Kirsten Johnston, whose snappy quirks haven’t quite been understood by casting directors since 3rd Rock from the Sun, is also on hand as a co-worker. Even Denise Richards, who is best known for bimboing it up ten years ago, daringly announces to Jody (and the audience) near film’s end, “I’m a better actress than you thought.”

So Davis has cast well. She knows how to appropriate the best moments from other romantic comedies, such as the rooftop scene from The Goodbye Girl, for emotional effect. And Finding Bliss is much better in using porn as a refuge for misfits than, say, Kevin Smith’s Zack and Miri Make a Porno. Unfortunately, Davis’s film (much like Jody’s) doesn’t entirely trust itself. Instead of letting the audience read the conflicted emotions on Sobieski’s face, the film prefers to bombard us with imaginary voices for Jody to react to. It’s almost as if Davis doesn’t entirely trust her character, much less Sobieski. There’s one scene that Sobieski plays, sitting in an awkward position with her knee up. And this comes across as desperate blocking that needlessly delimits the film’s potential. The film is also awkward when Jody’s parents enter the equation and when, during conversations between Jody and Jeff, it brings up the tired philosophy of women being aroused by more than just an emotional connection. It’s on firmer ground when trusting in the quite mythical Grind, and pursuing the film’s artificial disparity between mainstream and adult entertainment which reflects the very real discrepancies between how Americans live and what our national culture allows us to reveal about ourselves. This film didn’t need Ron Jeremy or Stormy Daniels — who both show up near the end. Had it called more bullshit on the self-imposed censorship system that prohibits real human emotion and real art from flourishing, it might very well have lived up to screwball subtext.

Ed’s Rules for Interviewing

1. Listen. I can’t stress that enough. It’s amazing how few journalists do this. Watch body language, the face, and especially the eyes. Pay very close attention. This will also tell you when the other person is getting tired and when you need to wrap things up. Keep within the time you have (unless the other person really wants to talk). Choose an interview location where the other person feels comfortable. Try to avoid sterile environments such as recording studios and boardrooms. (Cafes and restaurants work very well.) Be absolutely sure that the interviewee has eaten. Publicists sometimes forget about the human need to eat. So if the other person is famished, be sure get her fed before you talk. Buy the other person a drink if he really needs to loosen up, but don’t drink yourself. Unless the other person is a bit nervous and the conversational environment calls for social solidarity or minor debauchery. Be sure to tie your questions into what the person has already said, particularly on subjects that the other person gets very excited about, so that you can maintain a continuous thread.

2. Be genuinely excited and interested in what the other person has to say. I’m not talking fake excited. You’re not a fucking brand. You’re doing this because you like to do it. You really want to talk with this person. So you’d better be curious. If you’re not, you’re a charlatan. Don’t conduct an interview if you can’t stand the author or if you didn’t care for the latest book. (It took me about 150 shows to figure that last point out.) If you don’t care for the person you’re talking with, then the only reason you should be there is because you are immensely curious and interested in that person’s perspective or the ideas she is promulgating. If you’re writing the interview up for an outlet, avoid those hackneyed personal details (“He downed a beer when the conversation shifted to Spinoza”) unless the moment is really interesting and specifically relates to the conversation.

3. Don’t be afraid to ask challenging questions, but present them in the friendliest possible manner. Civil disagreement is possible. Be familiar with the Socratic method. Don’t be afraid to be a little theatrical. (The other person may very well be theatrical with you, and some very fun silliness will ensue.) If the person doesn’t want to answer the question, move quickly to the next one. Maintain conversational momentum, no matter what.

4. You cannot plan a conversation in advance. Learn how to improvise. Improvisation often results in the best conversational moments. (See Dick Cavett’s moment with Norman Mailer.) Make the interview a conversation. Become highly familiar with the following interviewers: Dick Cavett, Tom Snyder, Mike Wallace, Terry Gross, Charlie Rose, Bill Moyers, Michael Silverblatt, Bob Costas (Later segments), et al. Study what makes these conversations work (or not) and what makes these interviews interesting. But don’t emulate these people. Learn from these folks. Be yourself. David Letterman, contrary to popular belief, is not your role model. You’re having a conversation, not participating in a junket.

5. Maintain eye contact when you ask those pivotal first few questions. Don’t look down at your question list during the opening minutes. You’re a talker, not a reader. You want to communicate to the other person very early on that you’re intimately familiar with her work and that you’re very much interested in being there.

6. Read and listen to other interviews with the person you’ll be talking with. Note the questions asked. Strike the commonly asked questions off your list. You want a unique interview, right? Find several angles that nobody else has thought to bring up. These angles exist. You just have to do the work. Do serious preparation and research, and you’ll be ahead of 90% of other interviewers. Don’t rely on a research team.

7. When someone’s been on the interviewing circuit a very long time, she’s going to have a certain boilerplate. Learn how to recognize boilerplate in conversation and learn how to steer the other person off boilerplate with highly specific queries. Encourage the person to be thoughtful, goofy, and spontaneous. Also keep in mind that your questions may not be as unique as you think they are. Keep in mind that these folks have heard it all. Don’t try to be special. Don’t strive to do the “ultimate” interview. Great interviews happen by accident. Just do the best job you can and stay relaxed. Serious preparation and practice will stand you in good stead.

8. Don’t do too many interviews. You’ll burn out quick. And don’t just do interviews. Have at least four other fun things that you’re doing. One of the reasons why so many great interviewers fizzle out is because they are asked to do five or more interviews a week. Don’t do this. Try not to do more than one or two interviews a week. Take long breaks from time to time. Interviews require energy. Make sure that you do plenty of other activities that have nothing to do with interviewing and that have nothing to do with your expertise.

9. Have fun and, for goodness sake, don’t take yourself so seriously. Even when you’re having a conversation about a serious subject. Don’t be humorless. Humor goes a long way in making a conversation fun — both for the interviewee and the people who read or listen to the interview. Also, don’t make any assumptions about how the conversation is going to go. It may go well. It may be okay. It may not go well. Your job is to do the best that you can with the time and the resources you have at your disposal. And if you’re having fun, you’ll be more relaxed. And you’re going to want to be relaxed so that the other person will feel relaxed. Remember that fun can be quite contagious.

10. If the interview fails, it’s your fault. Not the other person’s. Yours. You failed to attract interest. You failed to read the cues. You failed to engage the other person. And you’re going to fail sometimes. No matter how good you are, you’re going to have a few stinkers. (Case in point: There are four interviews I’ve conducted that I never posted.) If the interview fails, don’t dwell on it. Pick yourself off the ground and kick some ass on the next one.

The Bat Segundo Show: Kathryn Schulz

Kathryn Schulz appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #339. Ms. Schulz is most recently the author of Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error.

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Feeling wrong about whether or not he’s right.

Author: Kathryn Schulz

Subjects Discussed: [List forthcoming]


Correspondent: I wanted to first of all start off with Thomas Kuhn, who you bring up a few times. You note his observation that the breakdown of one belief system and the dawning of another is always characterized by an explosion of competing hypotheses. But he also argued that it was impossible to conduct science in the absence of a preexisting theory. This brings to mind the F. Scott Fitzgerald maxim that the sign of a first-rate intellectual is to be able to hold two opposing notions in the brain at the same time. How can the two opposing viewpoints viewpoint be reconciled with the Kuhnian viewpoint? Do you have any thoughts on this? Or is it really a matter of cognitive dissonance taking care of this problem?

Schulz: I don’t know that those two things are at odds with each other. I suspect that Thomas Kuhn would have been very much in favor of Fitzgerald’s notion that really sophisticated thinking involves the capacity to hold a belief while also being willing to entertain its antithesis, or entertaining evidence that potentially undermines it. And, of course, that’s what practicing scientists — at least in theory — do all the time. Now in practice, is everyone always out there in their labs questioning their own theories? Probably not. But it is part of the ethos in science in general. And there’s a political scientist I quite like named Philip Tetlock, who I cite in the book, who describes this kind of thinking as self-subversive thinking. Which is a phrase I really love. It’s this notion that you can believe something and simultaneously have this undercurrent in your brain that’s saying “Well, what if it’s not true in this situation?” or “What if this part of it’s right or that part of it’s wrong?” or “What if the whole thing falls apart?” And to me, that is the sign. Fitzgerald got it right. That is the sign of sophisticated thinking. And unless I’m missing something, I think Kuhn would have supported that.

Correspondent: Yeah. Well, he believed in this kind of halfway house. Of having competing hypotheses. Or even just having some middle ground. Some transitional middle ground. That’s why I ask the question of whether that middle ground is really reflective of the same Fitzgeraldian viewpoint.

Schulz: Right. I think one distinction is whether you’re talking about an individual person or a system. And I think what Kuhn was getting at was that when you have a scientific paradigm collapse. Like let’s say that we think that the sun revolves around the earth. And suddenly there’s a lot of challenges to that. And we start seeing some counter-evidence. Then there’s this exciting, but also panicky air where everybody is generating new theories to account for this evidence that doesn’t seem to make sense under the old theory. And so you have a whole system that’s in crisis and is generating new theories. And then you’re exactly right. You shift the pedals down. And you arrive at one that new established theory. And I do think that that’s how systems work. Whether it’s science or, for that matter, book publishing. Book publishing is in the middle of a Kuhnian paradigm crisis right now. Where we have an old model. we don’t know what the new model is. And in the meantime, there’s a million competing hypotheses. But within any given individual, I still think that you can hold a belief. And if you are a sophisticated thinker, undermine it, question it, and challenge it in all these ways.

Correspondent: I want to shift tacks and bring up the case of Penny Beerntsen, who you bring up in the book. She was absolutely insistent that Steven Avery had raped and assaulted her. DNA testing demonstrated that Avery was innocent. Then Avery got out of jail and proceeded to murder Teresa Halbach in 2005, the first and only time in the history of the Innocence Project that an exoneree has gone on to commit a violent crime. Penny though, which is a very interesting case — despite the assault, the misidentification, the murder trifecta – she was able to accept the objective evidence of Avery being innocent in relation to her, but guilty in relation to this other woman. What do you think factors into account for that fixed belief? Of being able to look upon the scenario with some objective quality? Is it a matter of having gone through the act of denial? Do you have any particular speculation? Or does it go back to this Kuhnian idea? That once she had gone through the bridge, she was able to reconcile the truth, so to speak. She was not wrong.

Schulz: Well, a couple of things. I mean, first, I will say that having spent quite a lot of time with Penny Beerntsen to get this story out of her and hear all the details, she impressed me as someone who is exceptionally, exceptionally thoughtful about wrongness. And in that respect, could be, probably should be a role model for all of us. And then I think the underlying question is, the one that I assume you’re getting at, is that, well, why? What is it that makes her so able to be responsive in the face of shifting evidence? Because it’s very, very hard to do. Especially in a situation where the stakes are so high, so emotional, so personal. And I asked her that question straight up. You know, how is that when so many people around you were unable to face this evidence — and for that matter, when so many people are unable to face very trivial instances in coping with wrongness — what do you think it is about you that made you able to do this? And it was obviously something she’d thought about a lot, and didn’t have a completely clear answer. In part because personalities are so complicated. And at the bottom of what’s going on, it has something to do with her personality. But one thing she said that was very interesting was that she had spent many years between her assault and Steven Avery’s exoneration working in the prison system. She essentially decided to take the horrible experience that had happened to her and tried to heal herself and other people by working with violent criminals and try and help them understand the impact of their crimes on their victims and on their communities, and really work within a rehabilitation law of criminal justice. So she spent years and years and years talking to people about facing up to being wrong. And I think that she ultimately felt like her turn came. And she could not fail to practice what she had preached.

The Bat Segundo Show #339: Kathryn Schulz (Download MP3)

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Review: The Karate Kid (2010)

Age has always been a dicey variable in the Karate Kid universe. In The Karate Kid, Part III — perhaps the most preposterous entry in the series — the 28-year-old Ralph Macchio passed himself off as a “kid” abandoning college, with his character dating the 17-year-old Robyn Lively (thus lending a creepy and statutory quality to the relationship). One of Daniel-San’s adversaries was the 27-year-old Thomas Ian Griffith, a scenery-chewing babyface who tried to pass himself off as a military man who served in ‘Nam with the 43-year-old Martin Kove. Meanwhile, the 57-year-old Pat Morita claimed battle experience for a war that went down when Morita was a preteen.

But these mathematical discrepancies are harmless solecisms when compared to the remake’s shaky moral framework. This time around, the “kid” is truly a kid — even if the “karate” is kung fu and not karate. (I must assume that Hollywood’s rule for any Karate Kid film is to get just one of the two right.) The martial arts here, a watered-down take on Yuen Woo-ping, are both hilarious and disturbing. Here is a film that asks us to celebrate Jaden Smith beating another 12-year-old in the face — a move that would surely have disqualified him from the 1984 original’s All Valley Karate Tournament — shortly after he has pinned his opponent on the mat. The remake’s aggressive sound mix invites us to revel in the bone-crunching prospects of children being thrown into the air and viciously attacked, demonstrating that America’s post-Guantanamo moral laxity has expanded considerably since Jack Bauer first waterboarded a suspect. And I’ll certainly be curious if some family values moralist emerges from the log cabin to condemn the film’s fondness for having kids beating the shit out of each other.

Here is a remake that imbues ridiculous infographics into the tournament finale, where digitized avatars of the participants rotate like some Ritalin-happy bastard progeny conceived between Mortal Kombat* and FOX News, and every round’s most violent moment is replayed for the crowd. This is all quite amusing, but it’s worth pointing out that John G. Avildsen only needed ringside cutaways, medium shots of the fighting, and Joe Esposito’s silly song, “You’re the Best” to generate suspense. (Watch that linked clip and you’ll see that Avildsen, who co-edited the movie, was smart enough to avoid long shots of the crowd. He photographed the tournament more as a vicarious experience. And because Robert Mark Kamen’s script was smart enough to layer Daniel’s predicament with serious stakes, we were very much invested in the outcome. It became surprisingly easy to forget that The Karate Kid was a film directed by the same guy who helmed Rocky.) The remake, by contrast, is more concerned with making the arena loud and large, rather than giving us ringside seats for a conflict that we hope will end all the needless violence.

Director Harald Zwart feels more compelled to give us spectacle with this remake. He scores some points with the supporting cast. If Jackie Chan’s Mr. Han can’t hold a thespic candle to the Oscar-nominated Pat Morita, Taraji P. Henson’s single mother is good enough to match Randee Heller in the original. (Heller was drawn to California for a computer job. But here’s one unsettling aspect of the remake. It’s intimated that Henson’s character, who has moved to China from Detroit and works in an “auto factory,” is a manager at some plant paying Chinese workers a pittance. I can only speak for myself, but the film’s inadequacies might best be expressed by the fact that I found myself far more troubled by this narrative aspect than anything that Jaden Smith was going through.) Even better is newcomer Wenwen Han as Meiying, Jaden Smith’s love interest, who displays a strong talent for expressing contained emotions, even if the material doesn’t give her the opportunity to slug a caddish boy in the face. (I feel compelled to point out that Lady Gaga’s “Pokerface” replaces Bananarama’s “Cruel Summer” for the film’s Golf N’ Stuff-like moment. This is an acceptable choice, but a DDR-like machine is hardly a substitute for a hockey machine’s conversational possibilities.) Zwart has a decent cinematographer (Roger Pratt) rigging some impressive Fincheresque dissolves between several shots using the same computer-controlled camera motion and opting for a more handheld feel for the coverage. Zwart is also sensible enough to hire a composer (James Horner) who is just as overblown (if not more so) than the original film’s composer (Bill Conti).

The problem here isn’t Zwart’s direction, but Christopher Murphey’s workmanlike script. While Murphey offers a few new spins on Miyagi’s “wax on wax off” training techniques and skillfully transposes many of the original film’s scenes (and even a good deal of the dialogue) into the new China setting, Jaden Smith’s Dre Parker isn’t nearly as winning as Daniel Larusso. Where Daniel was a decent kid from New Jersey who immediately introduced himself to a crazy old woman in the apartment building and brought her dog a bowl of water, immediately securing audience sympathy, Dre is more of a spoiled brat who drops his jacket on the floor, whines too much, and doesn’t even have Daniel’s soccer ball bouncing moves to impress the girl. (Instead, Dre, after attempting a vicious top spin move in a ping-pong match, gets his ass handed to him by an old man.) It also doesn’t help that Jaden Smith has an annoying habit of mugging for the camera. He rolls his eyes and folds his face to the spectator instead of inhabiting his character the way that Macchio did. Perhaps the charm Smith offered in The Pursuit of Happyness was less rooted in acting and more associated with being in close proximity to his real-life father. Whatever the case, in all my years, I never thought I would ever write the next sentence. I actually longed for Ralph Macchio.

Because of this, even though it’s more entertaining than most remakes, 2010’s The Karate Kid can’t come close to matching the original. And that’s because the 1984 movie was something of a masterpiece. Aside from the original’s clever method of using the Protestant work ethic as a pretext for “training” (one might make a case that Daniel’s dawn-to-dusk shifts are one of Hollywood’s greatest portrayals of efficacious slave labor), the movie was a sneaky parable about cultural appropriation. Kreese (the Martin Kove character), the military man turned dojo master, and the Cobra clan, with its Erhardian “No Fear! No Mercy!” mantra, not only presented us with a shameful bastardization of karate’s peaceful roots, but it certainly helped that Kreese, Johnny, and the various lieutenants acted like a cokehead asshole brigade. Miyagi lost his wife and daughter for reasons that involved a Japanese internment camp — one of the most disgraceful moments in American history. And the class divide between Daniel and “Ali with an I,” when taken with the feminism of Ali pursuing Daniel (rather than the reverse) and clocking the boorish Johnny, created an environment where hard work and a commitment to discipline could pull you through the American nightmare. Sure, these were Protestant values. But it did the trick for mainstream audiences.

But the remake has done away with most of this. Like Miyagi, Han has lost his wife and daughter. But it’s not rooted in historical precedent, and the scene is played out with Chan sobbing with overwrought tears. Avildsen was right to portray the moment in one long take, not have Miyagi break down, and center the scene around Daniel’s discovery. But in the remake, Dre exists to comfort Han. And the film itself exists to comfort the audience, who will instantly forget it.

All this is too bad. Because had the remake’s script considered the original film’s underlying principle — that resorting to violence is only applicable when there are no other choices — it might have packed a greater punch.

* — Maybe some reader can confirm this. This review has become much longer than I anticipated and I’m too lazy to look it up. But I understand that the first cultural usage of “Finish him!” originated in the 1984 version of The Karate Kid. Mortal Kombat then appropriated this phrase. And, sure enough, the phrase has returned to the 2010 remake. So the Mortal Kombat infographics do make a certain amount of sense. The only real surprise is that nobody thought to include this in 1994’s The Next Karate Kid, which appeared in theaters two years after Mortal Kombat enticed kids in video arcades.

Is the New York Times Banning “Tweet” in the Newsroom?

This morning, The Awl‘s Choire Sicha reported that New York Times standards editor Phil Corbett had issued a memo to the newsroom suggesting that “tweet” (that verb used to refer to the act of posting on Twitter) was being actively discouraged within the Gray Lady’s mighty halls. The memo, which announced that “‘tweet’ has not yet achieved the status of standard English” went on to express dismay about “tweet” being used as a noun or verb. How could a word — reflecting a colloquialism, a negologism, or jargon — ever be used in a serious newspaper? Corbett advised using the staid “say” or the vanilla “write” as a surrogate.

Rumors then began to circulate on Twitter — in part, promulgated by The Awl — that the Times was banning the use of “tweet” entirely. New York Times Artsbeat blogger Dave Itzkoff was the first to declare that the ban was not true. Yet there remained the matter of confirming the memo’s veracity.

I contacted Corbett, and he confirmed that the memo published by The Awl had indeed been disseminated around The New York Times. “I specifically say that ‘tweet’ may be acceptable in some situations,” wrote Corbett in an email. “I’m basically urging people to view it in the category of colloquialisms, which we might use in for special effect and in contexts that call for an informal, conversational tone. But we try to minimize use of colloquial language — as well as jargon — in straight news writing.”

In other words, if a New York Times reporter is using Twitter to get a quote from a source for a big news story, the very practical notion of using “wrote” instead of “tweeted” is sound policy. But does “tweet” get an outright ban? Hardly.

The Diary

10:00 AM: Ass in chair. Write 1,000 words.

Sometime After: Live life, collect ideas, talk with friends and strangers, maintain giddy and optimistic faith in the universe despite all pessimistic curveballs, read, and do fun shit that is none of your business.

Next Day: Repeat.

There is no mystique. There are no excuses.

New Review: Tom Bissell’s EXTRA LIVES

I don’t confess nearly as much as Tom Bissell in my review of his excellent book, Extra Lives. But I do nevertheless come out to some extent in today’s Barnes & Noble Review:

When Valve recently updated its shiny Steam client—that flashy desktop app permitting the user to waste numerous hours on video games and to spend precious dollars on special weekend sales—I received the soul-shattering news that I’d clocked in an alarming 131 hours of Team Fortress 2. I had not asked for this statistic, yet this seemingly benevolent software company had given it to me in the game launch window. And the size of this embarrassing timesink felt incommensurate with my daily duties as a books enthusiast. It was enough to make me wonder if I needed to register for some national time-offender database.

Far more important than any any of this introspective flensing, of course, is Bissell’s book. Read the rest of the review to find out why Extra Lives is a must read.

RIP David Markson

David Markson, who was one of my favorite living writers, has passed away. He was 82.

It’s difficult to convey just how much of a loss this is for American letters, but I’ll do my best as I now fight back tears. Along with John Barth, William Gaddis, and Gilbert Sorrentino, Markson was one of the few writers who proved that experimental writing need not be prescriptive. For Markson, chronicling the consciousness was often tremendous fun: both for him and the reader. And if you were fortuitous enough, it could extend beyond the book. If you lived in New York, Markson could often be located in the Strand’s basement, amicably chattering in good humor with any stranger willing to engage in wanton mischief. The first time I met him, when he was being inducted into the American Academy of Letters, he shouted, “You’re drenched!” in response to my offered hand. This was just after he observed my rain-soaked white shirt. There was the funny five-minute conversation about burlesque and Lili St. Cyr, where we talked about the geometric possibilities of a woman’s derriere. Another run-in where we discussed Ted Williams. On the fourth unexpected collision, he said he would do Bat Segundo if I gave him a call. I neglected to follow up. But maybe this was just as well. For Markson was one of those rare authors who was so great and so thorough that he didn’t really need to offer much more beyond the books. He’d write to you if he liked you. Or if you reminded him of some slinky figure from his carousing days. My girlfriend was the recipient of several flirtatious postcards.

His textual tinkering was never pretentious, never explicitly postmodern, and always good for great laughs. It’s extremely disheartening to know that Markson’s The Last Novel will have the misfortune of living up to its title.

Markson was best known for Wittgenstein’s Mistress, along with a remarkable set of novels beginning with Reader’s Block, whereby random facts about cultural figures were carefully interspersed in short paragraphs, with the “Author” or “Writer” often stepping in with jocular asides. “Writer is almost tempted to quit writing,” begins This is Not a Novel. Was the “Author” Markson himself or some construct? Well, that question was entirely up to the reader.

Roy Campbell was an anti-Semite.

And was one of the few writers or artists aligned with the fascists during the Spanish Civil War.

Like Dali.

Why is Reader always momentarily startled to recall that Keats was a fully licensed surgeon?

Does Protagonist even have a telephone?

Just consider how the associative mind is depicted in these five sentences from Reader’s Block. The Reader is not only invited to confirm these “facts,” but she is very interested in sharing the Author’s surprise about Keats. Was Markson, or the Author, alone in this sentiment? And why should cultural figures be lionized when they were just as fraught with human flaws as anyone else? Markson cemented most of his novels with a very specific consciousness, but he wrote his books in such a way as to include any reader who might be keenly excited about these questions.

The sad irony is that his books never sold very well. Perhaps in passing, Markson’s genius will be rightly recognized. Bestselling authors skimping out on such subtleties have prevaricated about a reader being a friend, but Markson understood that the author-reader relationship worked both ways. If life offers no tidy resolutions, then why should the novel? Does this have to be a depressing prospect? Or can we laugh at such folly along the way? Why can’t the reader share in the predicament? Markson’s books were shared connections between the author and reader, but all participating parties required other texts, other resources, and other souls to make sense of the madness. The other option was Donnean perdition:

Still, what I am finally almost sorry about is that I never did write to Martin Heidegger a second time, to thank him.

Well, and I certainly would have found it agreeable to tell the man how fond I am of his sentence, too, about inconsequential perplexities now and again becoming the fundamental mood of existence.

Unless as I have said it may have been Friedrich Neitsche who wrote that sentence.

Or Soren Kierkegaard.

That last passage comes near the end of Wittgenstein’s Mistress, where the narrator is a woman who believes she’s the last person on earth. But as we start to comprehend the real fiction that she has used to transform her reality, we see that her lonely sentiments matter more than anything else. Text itself is no panacea. Indeed, the very ability to remember text has dwindled without the emotional necessity of other souls. Or as Markson would declare in Vanishing Point, “Do certain people actually remember learning to read?”

Many of Markson’s “facts” were true. They were true in the sense that the tantalizing tidbits originated from some unspecified origin point, but could not be confirmed outside of what was inside the text. Much as an untrue rumor circulates without anybody bothering to consult the originating party. Much as an author would rather talk about his instant passions than the work he has long put away. Because living life is just too damn important.

(Image: adm)

UPDATE: Rather predictably, not a single newspaper or news outlet has thought to report this sad news. But additional remembrances can be found below:

UPDATE 2: Mainstream outlets are starting to get it together. The Associated Press’s Hillel Italie has the best article so far, getting quotes from Elaine Markson. There’s also a blurb from Los Angeles Times blogger Carolyn Kellogg with a quote from Martin Riker. I’ve also been informed by other editors that more obituaries will be arriving in newspapers over the next few days.

UPDATE 3: New York Times obit.

The Bat Segundo Show: Ander Monson II

Ander Monson appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #338. Mr. Monson is most recently the author of Vanishing Point, as well as a poetry collection called The Available World, which nobody had thought to send to Mr. Segundo’s motel room. Contrary to photographic evidence, Mr. Monson does not have a beard.

Mr. Monson previously appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #21, just before Mr. Segundo had finally switched over from Betamax to VHS.

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Pointing at the designated vanishing spot.

Author: Ander Monson

Subjects Discussed: [List forthcoming]


Correspondent: The subtitle for this book is “Not a Memoir.”

Monson: Yes.

Correspondent: Is it safe to say that you’re not a writer and I’m not a journalist. Maybe we can establish some terms here.

Monson: I think so. Yeah, I think so. I mean, it’s a little tongue-in-cheek. But I don’t consider it to be a memoir. But at the same time, as soon as you call something “Not a Memoir,” it sets the tone of the conversation.

Correspondent: Yes.

Monson: So a number of the reviews have been suggesting the ways in which it is a memoir. But it’s also explicitly not a memoir, in the sense that the book is really not — is interested in taking apart the idea of memoir.

Correspondent: Yeah. But it’s also not a manifesto.

Monson: It’s also not that.

Correspondent: Yeah.

Monson: That’s true.

Correspondent: Maybe you need a subtitle to grab the reader’s attention for more conceptual stuff.

Monson: No, it’s true. The subtitle was actually suggested by one of the designers at Graywolf. I think they were looking for something besides “Essays.” And I actually liked it. I thought the subtitle worked quite well. Because it’s a little bit in your face.

Correspondent: In your face? Just by saying “Not a Memoir?”

Monson: I think so.

Correspondent: Really?

Monson: Yeah, I think so.

Correspondent: But then again, you can always…

Monson: I mean, “in your face” as far as nice Midwestern boys writing experimental literature.

Correspondent: I didn’t find it that way. I found it more of a playful thing.

Monson: Well, it is.

Correspondent: Yeah.

Monson: I think so too. But some of the reviews have taken it as a shot across the bow or whatever.

Correspondent: Really? I didn’t see thee reviews.

Monson: There was a review — I want to say one of the first reviews it got — Booklist maybe? Or Library Journal. One of the two did a review of it, with eighteen new memoirs.

Correspondent: Yeah.

Monson: But seemed to review it as a memoir. Which kind of pissed me off. Because it’s…

Correspondent: It’s very clearly on the title. “Not a Memoir.”

Monson: Yeah. It says very specifically. I don’t know. It’s hard to be pissy. Because it’s gotten really good reviews otherwise.

Correspondent: Yeah, but what if this thing gets categorized in the memoir section? Then what are you going to do?

Monson: Well, it kind of has to be. In a certain sense. Or else like what? Cultural criticism? They say it’s “Literature/Essays.” I mean, [John] D’Agata’s book is “Cultural Criticism.” Which I guess is apt, but…

Correspondent: I wanted to talk about this idea of the memoir. Because near the end of the book, you suggest that by reading memoir, we pretend to comprehend a life. I’m wondering if it’s more accurate that a reader, by way of seeing a life placed in narrative, might comprehend a pretense of some kind. That pretense is probably more truthful than any cold and clinical declarations of the truth.

Monson: I mean, I think so. I think that the thing that attracts readers to memoir is that you read memoir to understand your own life. In as much as you understand some semblance of a life. That whatever — simulation, which is kind of what the memoir genre offers. So I think in that sense, that’s right.

Correspondent: Well, on the subject of karaoke, I’m wondering how a song can be truly liberated from its original form. I mean, aren’t we talking about possibly some secondary or supplemental component that comes with the karaoke? Aren’t we talking more about performance than the actual song?

Monson: Well, you know, karaoke is a complicated thing. It’s partially because what it does. It allows readers or listeners to participate in the song in a way that I think people want to do now. With film, now people can remix. There’s a billion — like, homegrown — versions of Star Wars. And those kids who are doing the shot-by-shot remake of the Raiders of the Lost Ark film.

Correspondent: The Super 8 version.

Monson: Yeah. So there’s this real participatory instinct. But there hasn’t been ways to do that in books in a certain sense. Which is partially why the book is structured kind of the way that it is. You can type in some into the website and so on. But karaoke is trickier. There are songs that, by singing them, you liberate it from the original context of the crappy version, and how you felt about it, and who you were when you first heard that song. And how much you disliked it. And in some ways, it is sort of overlaying the one on the other. But it really does become a new thing by singing. If you’re doing it at all well. And there is certainly an element of performance, which is a big part of why people are successful at singing karaoke. You’ve got to deliver the rock if you’re going to sing a rock song. So there is that element. But it’s also interesting to see the way that people decide to do it. Because some people — do you choose to try and sing it like the original singer? Or it’s sort of like the ironic guy, who’s going to do the kind of William Shatnerization of things.

Correspondent: Sure.

Monson: Or are you even trying to do the voice? Which a lot of people try to do the voice. Which is also what keeps me doing AC/DC.

Correspondent: But if you’re talking also about camp, I mean, some people find a voice through an artificial delivery of a preexisting song.

Monson: They do. They do. And I think that’s in some ways that’s kind of an analogue for the ways in which a lot of writers — I mean, you learn by imitation. You love this thing. You sort of try to get it inside you and you do it. And even if you’re not doing that intentionally, trying to copy The Sun Also Rises — like type out every line. Which is not a bad exercise for a writer. You know, I read Underworld by DeLillo one summer. And I wrote a story, which is in Other Electricities, which is a very DeLilloesque story. And I still kind of recognize that in a weird way. I think the story works on its own. So there is a sense in which — I mean, you do get to a sense of your own personal voice by either opposing or working from other models. And some of those models are, just like the thousands of songs you’ve heard, the ways you’ve heard people sing, it’s pretty hard to do something really original.

The Bat Segundo Show #338: Ander Monson (Download MP3)

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BEA 2010: An Impromptu Conversation with Gary Shteyngart

The following is a transcript from an impromptu conversation with Gary Shteyngart at BookExpo America. Due to inexplicable file degradation, the color within the video is not what it was in reality. Mr. Shteyngart’s skin proved so stunning that it caused at least 300 heads to turn during the course of the interview. And we only talked for two minutes! 300 heads in two minutes isn’t a statistic to easily discount. We regret to report that the video degraded, thus sullying Mr. Shteyngart’s charismatic complexion. There were several attempts at color correction, but the technical team proved too lazy (and too deadline-challenged with paying work) to do anything about it. So we present the results from the decent elements we could cobble together. You can listen to the conversational madness by playing the file at the bottom of this post. This Shteyngart guy, who is apparently under forty and designated as “hot” by The New Yorker, has some novel coming out called Super Sad True Love Story, which we hope to read more closely. We were unable to perform the appropriate tests to confirm Mr. Shtyengart’s “hotness,” but we hope that some scientific authority will gauge his body temperature in the immediate future and prove the inevitable.

Correspondent: Okay, so I’m here with Gary Shteyngart, who has a new book that’s apocalyptic. You’re apocalyptic-minded now!

Shteyngart: I’m apocalyptic-minded! (mimes plane crashing into an illusory horizon)

Correspondent: Yeah. Would BEA be the apocalypse?

Shteyngart: This is the end of all-known literature. After today, no more books.

Correspondent: Oh really?

Shteyngart: Yes.

Correspondent: Super Sad Love Story is your final book.

Shteyngart: Super SadTrue.

Correspondent: Yes, I know. It has too many modifiers.

Shteyngart: Oh my God! Modify this! This is definitely it. I’m hanging up my gloves and I’m becoming a duck farmer in Maine.

Correspondent: Okay. Duck farming is easier than writing novels?

Shteyngart: It’s what Henry Roth did. After he wrote Call It Sleep. he became a duck farmer. Every good Jewish boy becomes a duck farmer.

Correspondent: And there’s a new Henry Roth novel coming out from scraps! So you have a bunch of scraps you’re sitting upon while you’re writing. While you’re doing the duck farming.

Shteyngart: And plucking. And plucking the duck. Oh my God! It’s called dressing the duck.

Correspondent: Well, this is apocalyptic. There are credit poles involved. And there are numerous aspects. I’m curious. Was your checking balance poor these days? Or what happened?

Shteyngart: Well, you know, Ed, I grew up in one failing empire. And now I’m living in America. So I’m sick of doing Russia. I said, “Hey, why not try something new?” And this country is giving so much now. Everything’s falling apart! And I love it. So I really had a good time with it. When I started writing the book in 2006, I predicted stupid things like the collapse of the financial system. And then it actually started happening. So I had to make it worse and worse and worse. So in the end, everything gets bought by a huge Norwegian hedge fund.

Correspondent: So you contrived all these apocalyptic aspects years before they happened. And yet the novel takes two years to come out.

Shteyngart: That’s the thing! That’s the thing with goddam novels. You can’t keep up. That’s why my next book will be set thirty years in the future. We don’t live in the future anymore. We don’t live in the present anymore. There’s no present. It’s all the future now.

Correspondent: Really? So I’m not actually talking to you now. I’m talking to you in 2018.

Shteyngart: You’re talking to me in 2018!

Correspondent: You’ve aged very well.

Shteyngart: Thank you. You too!

Correspondent: Hey!

Shteyngart: Oh my God! We’re looking pretty good for our age.

Correspondent: I know.

Shteyngart: We’re what? Like 73 at this point, I am? Excellent.

Correspondent: I don’t know. You do the math.

Shteyngart: I can’t do math.

Correspondent: All right. You can write novels though.

Shteyngart: Yes, I’m trying. I’m trying so hard to write them. Oh, but this is the last one. From now on, duck farming.

Correspondent: Unless of course, you’ve already written three before this in the future.

Shteyngart: Yes! And somebody bought the options to the movies. Then we’re set.

BEA 2010: Gary Shteyngart (Download MP3)

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Against the Status Galley

The so-called “status galley” — that is, a prepublication edition of a book, generally of massive size and/or literary challenge, possessed by an underpaid and often illiterate member of the publishing world who has no intention of reading beyond the first few chapters — is among the most vexing amalgams of materialism and literature that the 21st century has ever known. It is a relatively recent phenomenon, augmented by the Brobdignagian burst of journalists attending trade shows. The good ones are savvy enough to recognize a mini-Hubbert’s Peak among some publisher upon sight. I’m quibbling about those who take the galleys that they will never read or write about, who hector certain publicists and editors and peck away at the diminishing supply. This is admittedly a pedantic vexation, hardly commensurate with the junket whores in the film world or the predatory bastards who cripple working stiffs with a sneaky high-interest subprime loan that will cause them to toil unduly in their seventies, their eighties, and their nineties. But it bothers me nonetheless.

The status galley reduces a book not merely to a thing (let us accept that fetishism is ineluctable), but to a vapid item that is trotted around like a fashion accessory. And we’re talking about an item, often a work of art, isn’t even finished. If you have a status galley and boast about it, it is very likely that you have no particular interest in reading it. Nor are you courteous enough, like most avid literary people, to give it to someone who may be in need of it. You take a vital galley from the limited supply, horde some volume that has taken an author many years of hard labor and treat it like a bag of Doritos that you toss into the street.

This seems to me worse than the book pirate (largely mythical), who at least has some vested interest in reading a book or getting excited about an author. This seems to me worse than some guy at a book signing who asks an author the same question that she’s heard several hundred times. (At least, that hypothetical guy has enthusiasm.) Such actions may be executed through clumsiness or cluelessness, but they are at least sincere and enthusiastic in intent. However, to obtain a galley just so that you can have it is perhaps one of the most disrespectful acts you can perform. It does not come from a place of passion. It comes from a onyx sinkhole of consumerism. It comes from a place of needless competition, whereby you have the book that someone else does not. It works against the book’s undeniably communal nature. And it reveals you for the superficial con that you are.

Again, this is a highly pedantic concern. Probably nothing worth shooting up a post office over. But it bugs me.