The Bat Segundo Show: Ken Russell

Ken Russell recently appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #348. Mr. Russell is the director of such films as The Devils, Women in Love, Tommy, The Music Lovers, and Altered States. Beginning today, Russell’s films will be playing at the Film Society of Lincoln Center for one week (many of which are unavailable on video), where Russell himself will be appearing each evening. Considerable thanks to Elize Russell and Shade Rupe for their invaluable assistance.

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Wrestling nude with 83-year-old directors.

Guest: Ken Russell

Subjects Discussed: [List forthcoming]


Correspondent: You got into a fight with Alexander Walker, a man who, by the way, you’ve outlived. Other critics have called your films monstrously indecent. Walker was not the first one. So why did you hit tap him on the head, or beat him on the head, with a newspaper. I’m curious. Do you remember what was going on in your mind at the time? Or did you finally have enough of all these critics who were needlessly shitting upon what I think is a remarkable output?

Russell: Well, I guess I got tired of him putting me down. When he said, “You change things. We actually see Oliver Reed’s testicles crushed.” And I said, “Excuse me. That’s in your mind.” We don’t see his testicles crushed. Because they weren’t crushed. Only in your dirty little mind, you pig. And so he took exception to that. So I hit him over the head with his own review. Which happened to be a tissue of lies from start to finish. So that was a reason.

Correspondent: One of the few filmmakers to really get pugilistic about your critics there.

Russell: Yeah, well, he shouldn’t have said that. I mean, we didn’t see Oliver Reed’s testicles crushed. He may have wished we had. But we didn’t.

Correspondent: It was really — you were sticking up more for Ollie than you were for yourself?

Russell: That’s right. Yes.

Correspondent: I’m curious about a couple of things I’ve heard. One being that Oliver Reed apparently slammed you to the kitchen floor so that you would include the nude wrestling scene in Women in Love. I’m not sure if that’s true. Wanted to run that one by you. There’s another rumor going around that Ollie and Keith Moon were so drunk on the set of Tommy that they were improvising their lines. And then there’s another one that you guys got kicked out of the resort that you were filming at because of Ollie’s behavior. First of all, I wanted to find out if these stories were true. And second of all, given that this obviously must have been a very difficult working relationship at times and I know that you Ollie again until Prisoner of Honor, what accounts for the delay between Tommy and Prisoner of Honor?

Russell: Well, the delay between the two films was simply down to the fact of availability. Oliver Reed was only available at certain times and he wasn’t available. In Prisoner of Honor, that was why I didn’t use him before.

Elize Russell: You got along with him well.

Russell: Yeah, I got along with him very well. He…

Elize Russell: He called him Jesus.

Correspondent: He called you Jesus?

Russell: Yes. That wasn’t a compliment.

Correspondent: (laughs) So a little tempestuous there.

Russell: (laughs) Yeah.

Elize Russell: But he did throw you to the floor and you said that he convinced you to do the scene.

Russell: Oh yes. Yes, he did. I wasn’t going to do the nude wrestling scene. Because I couldn’t think of a way to do it. Because nude wrestling was frowned upon in British cinema.

Correspondent: In more ways than one.

Russell: In more ways than one, yes. So finally, he agreed to do the nude wrestling as long as there was no nude wrestling to be seen. (laughs)

Elize Russell: And how did he convince you to do it in front of the fireplace?

Russell: Well, he dropped round to my house for supper and said, “It could be done! It was very simple to do.” And he showed me how easy it was. You just faced each other, put out your hand and shook it, and threw each other onto the ground.

Correspondent: Did he often persuade you to insert scenes along these lines? Because I’m sure it couldn’t have been limited to Women in Love.

Russell: No. It was one of his favorite methods of perusasion.

Correspondent: Throwing you to the kitchen floor? That wasn’t the only time then.

Russell: Oh no.

Elize Russell: There was a sword fight.

Correspondent: Aha!

Elize Russell: But you won that one by mistake and closed your eyes.

Russell: Yeah.

The Bat Segundo Show #348: Ken Russell (Download MP3)

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Review: Get Low (2009)

There is a type of moviegoer, generally between the age of 30 and 45, who will witness Bill Murray in a movie and laugh at his every tic, his every moment, his every step forward. Yes, Bill Murray is a very gifted comic actor, quite possibly the 21st century’s answer to Buster Keaton. But such a preprogrammed response misses the point of Bill Murray. It suggests very highly that he is some jester for our steadfast amusement rather than a soul to be genuinely interested in. Small wonder then that the roles that Murray has taken in the last ten years have involved sad loners in their autumn years.

Given such thespic expectations (and such tittering moviegoers: two of whom were at the screening I attended), it’s a relief to see Murray playing an opportunistic funeral director named Frank Quinn in Get Low, a supporting role comparable to Wild Things‘s Ken Bowden, Cradle Will Rock‘s Tommy Crickshaw, and Mad Dog and Glory‘s Frank Milo. Few filmmakers seem to ken that Murray best anchors a film when his hangdog mug scatters into the background. Maybe director Aaron Schneider gets this because he’s also a cinematographer. But a movie set in the 1930s concerned with how misfits are judged by a town square’s cruel metric works better with Robert Duvall cast as the misunderstood “freak” and Murray as the lonely man riding his coattails.

Get Low takes it inspiration from Felix “Bush” Breazeale, the nearly forgotten figure who, according to James Ewing’s It Happened in Tennessee, decided to attend his own funeral on June 16, 1938. Breazeale’s funeral was heavily publicized in the papers, in part because Breazeale had been charged with murder many years earlier, with the charges later dropped. But where the real-life Breazeale sifted through the crowd at funeral’s end, signing programs and shaking hands, this movie’s “Felix Bush” views Breazeale’s eccentric act less as an individual’s unusual exertion of identity and more as the tragic aftermath of a misfit’s whims skimmed over and ignored by a capitalist system. This Felix Bush is picked on by the local townsfolk. He introduces a raffle component to his funeral during a radio appearance, encouraging greater throngs to attend. The film’s Uncle Bush is more familiar with marketing techniques. He takes a photograph with his long mane in disarray, only to have a barber trim himself for the big day. (Not so for the real Uncle Bush.) This film’s funeral is held so that Felix Bush can see what stories have circulated about him, whereas the real Bush was a fastidious type who wanted to see his service conducted in the right manner. Get Low takes the position that Bush’s funeral is an act of corrective catharsis, of setting matters straight before a hostile crowd.

Yet despite these concessions to conventional narrative, Get Low mostly works. It feels less like a biopic because of its leisurely pace, its efforts to establish a small town atmosphere, and its willingness to maintain Bush’s personal secret for so long. It understands that, when you have actors as good as Duvall, Sissy Spacek, Lucas Black, Murray, and Gerald McRaney, you let them play out the moments. It has some funny lines, most of them delivered by Murray. Frank Quinn defines his sales track record when he grumbles, “I sold twenty-six of the ugliest cars in the coldest day of Chicago.” Shortly after Bush threatens to put the kibosh on the gambit, Quinn says, “Is it just me or is he extremely articulate when he wants to be?” Yet Murray’s character, for all of his quips, is lonelier than Bush, even when he’s sitting around a table and taking in local gossip. We’re left to wonder why this man had to flee Chicago so late in life. Quinn offers some nebulous story about switching sides of the bed shortly after his wife left him, but it’s just one small part of the story. Just as the stories circulating about Uncle Bush, very much the local recluse, hardly tell us anything we need to know about the man.

And this narrative approach, helped in large part by screenwriters Chris Provenzano and C. Gaby Mitchell, very much turns a shaggy dog tale into something more memorable. There’s a certain irony in this movie opting to print Felix Breazeale the legend, rather than Felix Breazeale the man. Sometimes, Get Low needlessly overplays its hand — such as the brazen need to telegraph its time period with “I’m Looking Over a Four Leaf Clover” or the lost love plot that never quite congeals, even when Duvall bangs on the door in the pouring rain. But its efforts to capture some impression of a bygone time, fusing these with an undervalued human gusto, reminded me of a needlessly forgotten 1999 film called Man of the Century. American culture has been too preoccupied with condemning the oddballs. It’s a relief when a small movie like Get Low comes along to remind us why they’re so interesting, and why Murray isn’t just some aging goofball.

On Her Wedding Day, My Fantasies Come to an End

The great love of my life marries today, the woman who bobbed her head up and down on my large and throbbing cock anytime I commanded her (both in reality and in my fantasies), and I am not the groom. I, Andrew Cohen, have at long last seen my egotism, my narcissism, and my rampaging douchery, vaster than the greatest expanse of human possibilities, crushed in a single go. Please mourn for me, for I may not fully recover. The sweetness of my life has demonstrated a capacity to make decisions, something I thought exterminated from the female species. I had thought the uppity bitch best confined to popping out babies from her uterus (my children, not hers!), cooking multicourse meals in the kitchen, massaging my feet when I was tired, and cleaning up my castabout black socks in the bedroom. I had thought that such variables were the basis of a lifelong relationship. But I, Andrew Cohen, finally now understand that my casual misogyny, even sweet casual misogyny, is not enough. Sometimes, as the romance novelists know, living in the wrong century is everything.

But today is not a day for remorse. It is not a day for lost causes. For I might still find some throwback minx to cater to my every whim. Today is a day for celebration! While my great love is getting hitched, this is merely one minor tilt in the Andrew Cohen Masterplan. The woman I once promised to keep oppressed is oppressed. For she has once again encountered the institution of marriage! She tells me she is marrying a wonderful man, a man more wonderful than me. A man who has actually read Gloria Steinem and bell hooks. A man who recognizes the equality of gender. I do not understand such strange concepts. For I only exist within my own universe, which is filled with nothing more than little versions of me jumping up and down screaming my name. It’s a bit like a Beatles concert, except the four bandmates are Andrew Cohen (vocals, guitar), Andrew Cohen (vocals, bass), Andrew Cohen (the quiet one, guitar), and Andrew Cohen (the drummer). Every one who has paid a ticket to this show is named Andrew Cohen. All that’s left for me to do is consider a potential universe (is there one?) in which there is someone not named Andrew Cohen. I presume that my love, my true love, the woman who has filed a restraining order against me, the woman who told me that sixteen voicemails a day was too much and twenty text messages every hour was a tad excessive, is happy. I must wish her well and find another old hag — perhaps one who dares to question my specialness — to suck my cock without question.

The present I humbly send my sweetheart today is this column: this public note, which comes with a photocopy of my penis, which came courtesy of the AOL photocopy machine, along with a series of measurements from professional surveyors (upheld by several affidavits) indicating that my penis, much like my ego, extends well beyond nine inches. No one ought to have dealt with a cock that was bigger than nine inches for so long. But my love, my glorious ex-wife, certainly did. I demonstrated my great affection by performing one-man bukkake upon her fresh lily white face whenever I wanted to. And I hope that my affections, rendered here by the magic of the keyboard, will elicit the same response.

I want to thank her, mostly, from knocking upon the doors of my neighborhood and informing the kind men and women — but mostly the men — that I was not, in fact, a creepy sex offender. When we met, back in the spring of 2005, I was nearly 40 and my days revolved around masturbating to photographs of myself. I had lost faith in relationships. Other people had grown noxious and smelly. I had given up on love. She arrived, with a sympathetic heart, and showed me what was possible. Eleven years younger than me, I figured that she would be young enough to fall for my commanding tone. Young enough to forget that Naomi Wolf had ever happened. Young enough to be fooled into thinking that Katie Roiphe and Caitlin Flanagan represented the way women felt and thought.

It wasn’t too long after we met that I began imagining what our wedding day would be like. She would have her feet bound together like some maltreated Chinese courtesan. I nonetheless pictured her not taking it too seriously, for surely she would see the situation as I did — through the singular prism of my almighty hubris. I pictured me slipping her a mickey if she got, pardon the pun, cold feet. There, at the altar, she would capitulate to my male empowerment and say “Yes” even within the dewy-eyed emptiness of unconsciousness. My sweetest love would be my own personal Girl Gone Wild.

Well, dear reader, I was wrong. She has married some other man. So at last my wedding toast today is backhanded yet sincere: I wish the deepest and most profound love of my life. I will confess that there is little else to my life than creepy Politics Daily columns and casual misogyny. But it is my happiness to give. Even if, as some of our friends have opined, she is much happier than I am. Even if I have not quite understood why she didn’t invite me to her wedding.

The Bat Segundo Show: Sally Potter

Sally Potter appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #347. Ms. Potter is the writer and director of the 1992 film Orlando, adapted from the Virginia Woolf novel, which opens in re-release on July 23, 2010.

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Hoping to live forever or die trying.

Guest: Sally Potter

Subjects Discussed: [List forthcoming]


Correspondent: One interesting aspect about Orlando, from my standpoint, is that it’s almost a textual collage. You don’t really use a lot of the prose that’s in Virginia Woolf’s book. And if you do use it, you often modify one word or two words. There’s Spenser’s The Faerie Queene. There’s Joseph Addison’s The Tattler. There’s Shelley’s “I Arise From Dreams of Thee.” If you’re a literate person, there’s a smorgasbord of collage and possibilities. And I’m curious why you made this particular decision. Was the idea here to reinforce some of the sexism of the literary world? That Virginia Woolf’s true prose would not be represented in the film version of her work? What happened here?

Potter: Well, I think the essence of her prose is the skeleton of the film. I tried to make a distillation of what she’d done to further distill her own project of distillation. She writes in her diaries about wanting to exteriorize consciousness, writing in images rather than language. And where usually she was working with a kind of inner monologue — the stream-of-consciousness project through the word — in this case, she was working through the description of images that were like watching the inner mind unfold, but not as one individual’s mind. A kind of collective mind. Now she was also working with a tapestry of references. So the book is littered with one reference after another. When you go back to her diaries, and look at her essays — which I did — and go back to her sources, you see that she was doing a kind of postmodern collage herself.

Correspondent: Yes.

Potter: So all I tried to do was stay true to that principle, but make it work in cinematic terms. Anything else would have been a disservice to her as a writer.

Correspondent: But in terms of using the other — mostly; in fact, all male — writers, instead of specific quotes — with the exception of, for example, the trial and the poetry scene with Greene, I’m curious how you made that selective process. Did some reference in the book cause you to grab for the Norton Anthology? What happened there? And also, I was curious in terms of changing one specific word from a passage. Did you encourage the actors to paraphrase from the script? Or did you actually have the…

Potter: Oh no no.

Correspondent: Okay.

Potter: No. But I did so many drafts. My first draft — in fact, when I took it to my script editor at Faber & Faber. He picked it up, weighed it, and said, “Go and take out a hundred pages.” It was really long. The first adaptation. So it was clear that it had to be cut. And some words work spoken. And some words work written. And so through the very long development process — I mean, multiple redrafts and redrafts and redrafts. And Tilda [Swinton] reading aloud to me. And so on. First of all, I learned about the importance of things actually working, rather than working in theory, as you intended them, and to try to be very open to listening and observing what worked, and make things fit so that they had, in a sense, a natural feeling for voice and body of that particular actor who’s manifesting the idea. So that entails changing things from time to time. But, for example, Nick Greene’s satiric poem about Orlando and Orlando’s bad poetry are not in the book. I had to write them.

Correspondent: I figured as much.

Potter: From clues. So I had to fill in, in a way, certain gaps that, had she written them on the page, they would have had a different status. And also, from her, she does a sort of sketch of 18th century authors. And you know who she’s referring to. And again, I had to fill them with actual quotations. So my guiding principle always was: Stay true to the spirit and the intention, but not to the letter of the book.

The Bat Segundo Show #347: Sally Potter (Download MP3)

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Review: The Concert (2009)

Here are some of the reasons why The Concert does not work:

1. Eran Kolirin’s The Band’s Visit — a highly charming movie in which an Egyptian police band accidentally goes to the wrong town and learns quite a bit about existing along the way — hangs in recent memory. There is little doubt in my mind that The Concert was acquired by The Weinstein Company or set into motion by its motley group of multinational financiers with this association. But its premise — a ragtag Russian group of musicians impersonates the Bolshoi Orchestra to play in Paris — is problematic.

2. The premise is problematic because it asks us to suspend our disbelief again, and again, and again. This causes us to resist the movie. We’re expected to believe that, because one fax has been intercepted, a fax that wouldn’t be followed up with an email, a phone call, or any other attempt to verify provenance, the ersatz Bolshoi commanded by our hero would happen. We’re expected to believe that the Théâtre du Châtelet, a long-standing house that premiered Stravinsky’s Petrouchka and is home to the Kirov Opera, would throw around a good deal of money without, say, consulting the Bolshoi’s website to ensure that these people are who they say they are. We’re expected to believe that these impostors can get away with their scheme when a Russian TV crew is chronicling them, and it is quite likely that friends and loved ones of the true Bolshoi would proffer hysteria and consternation when seeing the con unfold. We’re expected to believe that an entire symphony, nearly all of them out of practice, will somehow get its act together. And we’re expected to believe that, in a post-9/11 age, not a single fabricated passport, nearly all obtained at the eleventh hour, would be scrutinized by a single authority. And obviously, since a world-class orchestra is attending press, there are likely to be journalists or bloggers who are going to be checking into the Bolshoi performers. (Then again, what if nobody cared about the Bolshoi Orchestra in Paris? What if the reason why this phony orchestra passed for the real thing was because classical music had become less valued? Even in a metropolis priding itself on culture! Suddenly, there’s a more legitimate tension here over whether or not the impostors will be discovered or even appreciated!)

3. In short, scenarist and director Radu Mihaileanu hasn’t thought these basic questions through. Strangely, Matthew Robbins, the screenwriter who wrote such campy movies as Corvette Summer, Warning Sign, and The Legend of Billie Jean, is credited as one of the collaborators. “Collaborator,” in this case, is rightly associated with the connotation I derived from Isser Woloch’s Napoleon and his Collaborators: The Making of a Dictatorship. What we have here is an illogical mess that will frustrate any thinking audience member. Never mind that Aleksei Guskow is actually quite good as the disgraced former conductor of the Bolshoi Orchestra toiling decades later in the Bolshoi as a janitor and who sees the ruse as a way of restoring his reputation. The points I’ve raised in the previous paragraph work against story logic. Furthermore, the secret daughter plot introduced deep in the film’s second act disastrously detracts from the redemption narrative.

4. Look, I get that the movie wants to be the 21st century answer to Ernst Lubitsch through a Russian prism. (The Concert immediately reminded me of the much superior Ninotchka, and I grew antsier as the film progressed.) But Lubitsch (and Billy Wilder, one of Ninotchka‘s co-writers) understood that when you’re creating fantastical elegance of a somewhat implausible ilk, it needs to be buttressed by such ideas as a champagne pop being confused with a gunshot or funny lines like “The last mass trials were a great success. There are going to be fewer but better Russians.” And while there’s a certain amusement in seeing the fates of several symphony members (a few elderly musicians are now providing the orgasmic soundtrack of a porn movie), as well as a gypsy musician prove himself before edified musicians, The Concert doesn’t have what it takes to invite us into its deception. Furthermore, in explaining the plot, it relies upon an obnoxious strobe effect for belabored flashbacks. And in these flashbacks, the film hasn’t even bothered to make its fifty-year-old composer look or feel like a man in his early twenties.

5. I forgot to mention one of the film’s subplots involving a man attempting to revitalize the Communist Party with a speech delivered on the night of the Bolshoi performance. This story angle is neither funny nor interesting. A long-winded speech, check. A reduced audience, check. Flags and uniforms rescued from the mothballs, check. What’s lost within all these cliches is the true cost of attempting to recapture a past identity. The film’s ultimate failure comes with its diffidence to confront genuine human emotions, save through a work camp flashback that comes near the end, which feels appended by some slick marketing type wanting to ensure that “all the elements are in place” for mass consumption. A film coming from France and Russia shouldn’t feel like some thoughtless bibelot churned from a Hollywood machine.

The Bat Segundo Show: Jennifer Weiner III

Jennifer Weiner appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #346. She is most recently the author of Fly Away Home. Ms. Weiner previously appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #198 and The Bat Segundo Show #14.

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Hoping to be frightened by The Motherland sometime soon.

Author: Jennifer Weiner

Subjects Discussed: [List forthcoming]


Correspondent: It seems to me that you are really gravitating more towards this extremely dark expanse of human behavior. At least from my vantage point. And it seems that you really want to push further in this direction. And yet, to some degree, you almost stop short of really pushing yourself fully into something so dark. And I know you’ve got it in you. So I’m wondering: why ride the comic tone? Out of obligation to your readers? Or what here?

Weiner: Well, I think, for me, it always feels natural to have both. To have the darkness and the comedy. That’s just how I am as a person. And I think that my own family history has made me that way. There’s been horrible things that have happened, but me and my sister and my brothers always wind up laughing about it. Because what else can you do? But it’s interesting. That darkness. Because it’s a tough tension to maintain. And I don’t want… (pause) See, here’s the thing. I don’t think writers choose the books they’re trying to write. I don’t think writers choose the tone they’re going to take. I think that it’s a blood type. Like it’s what you’re born with. Stephen King gave the example. He and Louis L’Amour could be sitting at a pond. And Louis L’Amour would come up with this Western about water rights in a town that was having a drought, and what would happen? And Stephen King would write about something that comes slithering onto the banks, and first takes the dogs, and then takes the cattle, and then takes the kids. It’s just the way you’re wired. And I think that I’m wired, for good or for ill. I mean, there was a lot of sad stuff in Good in Bed too.

Correspondent: That’s true. But we’re talking about rape.

Weiner: Rape.

Correspondent: We’re talking about neglected children.

Weiner: Yes.

Correspondent: And during those sections in both of these last two books, it gets really, really serious.

Weiner: Right.

Correspondent: And then we go back to the laughs. But I’m wondering why not go ahead and spread this further? It’s not to say that you can’t explore light and dark. You can do a double plot thing. Like Crimes and Misdemeanors or something. I don’t know.

Weiner: (laughs) And then when you turn the book over…

Correspondent: (laughs) Yes.

Weiner: …they go shoe shopping!

Correspondent: Yeah, exactly.

Weiner: Well, who’s doing that well? Zoe Heller obviously.

Correspondent: Yes.

Weiner: Who else? Who do you like? Because Zoe Heller’s funny too.

Correspondent: I’ll bring up Richard Russo. Richard Russo does that very well too. And in fact, I….

Weiner: Mmmmm. My mother loves him.

Correspondent: I’m trying to go ahead — you and Russo are actually on the same team here. You know, that whole description of the development of the grocery store?

Weiner: Yes. Yes.

Correspondent: I could find that in a Richard Russo book, as I could in a Jennifer Weiner book. He writes about this kind of stuff too.

Weiner: Right.

Correspondent: You write about this too. And I’m telling you. What do we do to get some kind of diplomacy here?

Weiner: But I…

Correspondent: It’s not Russo’s fault that your mother was blabbing about him!

Weiner: Oh my god.

Correspondent: It wasn’t his fault.

Weiner: Okay, let me set the scene for you. The year is 2001.

Correspondent: (laughs)

Weiner: And my first book is out. And I’m in a bookstore with my mother. And I’m signing stock, as you do. And my mother, who is very friendly and chatty. This woman comes up to her and says, “Oh, I need a great book for the summer. Have you read anything?” And my mother says, “I just read the best book. It was funny and it was sad. And the characters felt so real.” And I’m like, “Wait for it. Wait for it.” And my mom’s like, “It’s called Empire Falls by Richard Russo.” And I’m like, “Mom!” Because do you think that Richard Russo’s mom is up in Maine pimping my books?

Correspondent: But your mother was probably pimping your book too!

Weiner: Uh uh.

Correspondent: No?

Weiner: Mmm mmm.

Correspondent: Not at all?

Weiner: Well, maybe a little bit.

Correspondent: Oh okay. Well, there you go.

Weiner: But I think the woman asked what she read that she loved. And I think that [my mother] read Good in Bed in galley months ago. But, no, I love Richard Russo. But I don’t know.

Correspondent: So wait. You have read him.

Weiner: Of course!

Correspondent: Okay. Okay. So this is…

Weiner: I’m not a philistine here!

Correspondent: (laughs) So what’s the issue here? It can’t just be your mom. There’s something else going on here.

Weiner: I like Richard Russo. Have I talked smack about him?

Correspondent: Yeah. You’ve been suggesting, “Oh. Richard Russo. I don’t talk about him because of this whole mother thing.”

Weiner: It’s a joke! It’s a joke!

Correspondent: Okay.

Weiner: I like him. I don’t like Jonathan Franzen.

Correspondent: Yeah.

Weiner: But I don’t think Jonathan Franzen likes anybody. So I think it’s all good. Like I don’t think he wants me — I don’t know? Does he want to be liked? Did you read the essay that his girlfriend wrote?

Correspondent: Yes.

Weiner: Where was it? The Paris Review?

Correspondent: Kathy Chetkovich. It was in Granta. [EDITORIAL NOTE: Issue 82, to be precise. Now behind a paywall, but an excerpt appeared in The Observer. See above link.]

Weiner: Granta.

Correspondent: Yes. Exactly.

Weiner: Weird guy. About birding.

Correspondent: Yeah, I know. But actually, since we’re talking about the literary world…

Weiner: Yes!

Correspondent: I should also bring this up. Why give so much credit to The New York Times Book Review? I mean, this whole thing with the full-page advertisement.

Weiner: I know.

Correspondent: And I read your Twitter feed. And I know that you’re there on a Friday afternoon. At 5:00. When they put up the new articles. And you are looking through those articles.

Weiner: Right.

Correspondent: Why? Why give these folks credence?

Weiner: Well, you know what it is? They’re kind of the only game left in town. The Philadelphia Inquirer, where I used to work, once had a free-standing books section. And there used to be — I think the Hartford Courant, where I grew up, had a books section once upon a time. But honest to god, the truth is that my dad read The New Yorker and read The New York Times Book Review, and would get all of his reading suggestions from those two places. So if you weren’t in there, you didn’t really matter. And I think that I internalized that to a very great extent. But honestly, I think that the die was cast when I went with Atria instead of Simon & Schuster. Like way back in the day. When I was choosing who was going to publish my first book. And it’s like, well, Atria is much more commercial. And I knew that I loved my editor. I love my editor still. I love my publisher. They got the book. Like on a really visceral level. They were going to a great job of promoting it. Do a great job with me. But I wasn’t going to get reviewed by the Times. But then again, if you call your book Good in Bed, are you ever going to get reviewed by the Times? I don’t think so.

Correspondent: Unless you name it The Surrender.

The Bat Segundo Show #346: Jennifer Weiner III (Download MP3)

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(Image: pplflickr)

The Bat Segundo Show: Dan Chaon

Dan Chaon appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #345. Mr. Chaon is most recently the author of Await Your Reply.

[PROGRAM NOTES: This conversation, conducted in May, was almost lost when a Seagate drive bit the dust. Considerable gratitude to data recovery specialist Wayman Ng, who managed to resuscitate this conversation from the grave. My apologies also to the very kind and patient Dan Chaon for the unanticipated two month delay, which came after an aborted attempt to talk with the man during the book’s hardcover release. Additionally, during a moment in which the conversation shifts to Lost, narrative momentum, and concision, the Correspondent misidentifies Charles Beaumont’s “The Howling Man” as “The Wolf Man.” The short story, not to be confused with the Twilight Zone adaptation, can be found in Beaumont’s Night Ride and Other Journeys, along with several collections and is well worth reading (along with Dan’s books, for that matter).]

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Tired of waiting on dying hard drives.

Author: Dan Chaon

Subjects Discussed: [List forthcoming]


Correspondent: I have to remark upon the frequency of auto accidents in your work. In Await Your Reply, Lucy Lattimore’s parents die in an automobile accident. There’s the car accident excuse offered by Jonah in You Remind Me of Me. The car accident identity similarly appropriated by George Orson. And all this reminded me of Charlotte Haze’s death in Lolita. Similarly, in You Remind Me of Me, Jonah kidnaps Loomis in a car. And this reminds me very much of Humbert Humbert taking away Lolita. And, of course, the epigraph for the second part in Await Your Reply is from The Real Life of Sebastian Knight: “Whatever his secret was, I have learnt one secret too, and namely: that the soul is a manner of being – not a constant state…” So I must ask you, first and foremost, about the Nabokov influence in these books and whether this preoccupation with cars is sort of a Lolita thing. I’m curious.

Chaon: The car thing is not a Lolita thing. It’s just that I spend a lot of time in cars. And when I was in my twenties, a psychic told me that I would die in a car accident.

Correspondent: (laughs) Really?

Chaon: I haven’t yet. But I have a fear of car accidents. Partially because I do a lot of driving, but I’m not known as the best driver. I’m a spacey driver. My sister has me listed as one of her top five worst drivers that she’s ever driven with. I’m only at five though.

Correspondent: This psychic premonition — were there any other premonitions? Did they have any effect on your stature as a writer? “Go write, young man?”

Chaon: No. It was one of those things where it was like this weird friend of my wife who fancied herself a medium type person and was always making pronouncements and things like that. But it did stick with me. So I guess car accidents are one of my fears, along with being in a house that’s burning down. Which is also something that I tend to write about a lot. Burning houses. The Nabokov stuff though — I mean, I do feel like it’s a big influence on me. I mean, both Lolita and Sebastian Knight. Despair as well. Which is also about identity theft. I don’t know if you’ve — have you read Despair?

Correspondent: I haven’t.

Chaon: It’s about someone who switches identities with a hobo. So, yeah, I definitely think about the big in quite a bit. In terms of people that I’ve read over and over, he’s one of the main ones.

Correspondent: Was Despair one of the guides for this particular book? Or the plot?

Chaon: I guess I had it in mind to some extent. I mean, I don’t feel like I have the same kind of intellectual or verbal chops that Nabokov does, of course. But I certainly admire his work and I think about him a lot as a writer.

Correspondent: I wanted to also ask, since we were on the topic of mediums and the like — I mean, there are a lot of aphorisms contained in this book. The Eleanor Roosevelt maxim “Nobody can make you feel inferior without your consent.” And these aphorisms are almost out there — little driftwood that the characters can clutch upon. But they don’t actually take heed or comprehend the aphorisms. And I’m curious how that came about.

Chaon: Well, I wanted the book to be full of a kind of webbing of different references and a level of gamesmanship that was thinking about the ways we put together ideas about the self and ideas about our lives through various quotations and mediums, and the way that that’s actually encouraged in our education, right? We’re being presented with various models about how to behave and how to think about ourselves, and so on and so forth. So I had a lot of these things that I was playing with. I mean, there’s self-help stuff. There’s the kind of quotes that you see in high schools to encourage kids to be good citizens or whatever. And there’s the kind of things that people try to pull out when they’re trying to make intellectual pronouncements — some of which are real and some of which are made up. And some of them — I found some interesting quotes that are misattributed. There’s a [Anais] Nin quote in there that is often attributed to her. But she never really said it. And that’s another fun thing. There are all these quotes out there that people get attached to, but they don’t really belong to those people.

Correspondent: This may be an obvious observation, but I wanted to compare You Remind Me of Me with Await Your Reply. You Remind Me of Me reveals, to my mind, how characters cannot fit into the world before them. And then in Await Your Reply, you have a situation in which, well, let’s go further. Now you have to invent an identity to fit within the world. And I’m wondering if the idea here with Await Your Reply was to approach the same idea of You Remind Me of Me in a manner that was (a) more representative of 21st century life and (b) represented a greater pigeonholing of possibility through this invention of identity.

Chaon: Yeah, I think to some extent. You Remind Me of Me is very much a regionalist novel in some ways. I mean, I think I was still thinking about myself in terms of the Midwest and in terms of what the possibilities of the Midwest are. And Await Your Reply, I think, comes out of having, for the first time in my life, traveled a lot. I mean, in some ways, it comes out of book touring.

Correspondent: (laughs) Free research. I know David Mitchell, he keeps meticulous notebooks when he is on tour.

Chaon: Yeah. But I guess I started to think about the way the characters — even in Await Your Reply — would, by this point, be in larger touch with the world. Whether they wanted to or not. In Await Your Reply, people are affected by the globalization of media and by all that stuff in a way that probably the people in You Remind Me of Me weren’t — only because of the time period that they were living in.

Correspondent: I’m curious about this Midwestern jumping point. I’m not sure if that was really a straitjacket for you. But I’m curious if it was difficult, when you’re starting to envelop a larger world with this book, to really keep those limitations which you set up in You Remind Me of Me — the bar and so forth. I’m curious to what degree this was a challenge with Await Your Reply.

Chaon: Well, I wouldn’t say that it’s a challenge. A lot of the energy that I get from the landscape of the Midwest is fed into my inspiration for writing. A lot of times I’ll start out with landscape. And a lot of times, I’ll start out with these isolated places that, for whatever reason, are emotional touchstones for me. That’s the place where I’m usually starting. It was fun to start to branch out and start writing about places that I never tried to write about before. Like the Arctic. Or like Ecuador. Or like Las Vegas. And it was also fun realizing that I didn’t necessarily have to have lived in those places to write about them. I think there was a part of me that always felt that you had to have this deep instinctive sense of a place before you could write about it. And I guess I feel, after writing this, less constrained by that sense.

The Bat Segundo Show #345: Dan Chaon (Download MP3)

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(Image: ALA)

Review: Inception (2010)

A good filmmaker doesn’t need to be invitational, but it certainly doesn’t hurt. But if an auteur can’t inveigle an audience, if he doesn’t have a basic understanding of showmanship, then the least he can offer is a distinctive voice. Alas, Christopher Nolan offers neither quality with Inception — a hopelessly unimaginative film that has been overly esteemed by many. Inception is reliant on perfunctory globetrotting, lights dangling atop ceilings, and repetitive amber hues for its “look.” It does contain an admittedly intricate plot structure, which cannot be immediately discounted. But when a film feels as dead as a greedy investment banker’s onyx soul, one isn’t exactly enlivened to clap. In fact, nearly all of the characters resemble Goldman Sachs employees hungrily hording your tax dollars: slicked back hair, lifeless eyes, and needlessly expensive suits. It can’t be an accident that the dollar amount of an expensive wallet is mentioned several times, or that the reason this group is invading a man’s head concerns some cartoonish explanation of the global energy market. In other words, this is a film with a childish understanding of our world; a Tinkertoy assemblage you’d gladly celebrate if it were handed to you by a five-year-old, but not from the 39-year-old man who has made Insomnia, Memento, Following, The Prestige, and two passable Batman movies.

It is truly a sad sign of American cultural decline that the rich now exist to be worshiped rather than depicted with anything approaching dimension. Inception‘s emphasis hardly inspires an everyman identification point, much less audience sympathy. Here is a cinematic opportunity to explore the dream state — to plunge into the depths explored by David Lynch, Guy Maddin, Terry Gilliam, Ken Russell, Jean-Pierre Jeunet, and countless other cinematic fantasists still alive and working today. Nolan has been given a $160 million budget to get a mass audience to confront its deepest visceral fantasies, but, with Inception, the collected reveries resemble a pedestrian heist movie. It would be one thing if Nolan possessed the theatricality of someone like Arch Orboler, the wackiness of Dan O’Bannon, or the outré singularity of Italo Calvino, but his derivative vision of snowbound fortresses invaded by machine-gunning skiers or decaying seaside cities is divested of such punch or possibilities.

Consciousness should resemble something more than a bad pulp novel. In Inception, you won’t find phantasmagorical creatures or perverse sexual encounters. You won’t find a dream that is truly dangerous. For this is a movie that has been rated PG-13 — a rating explicitly designed to prohibit human truth from the multiplexes. But you will find plenty of mindless gunfights and tedious slow-motion images of a van falling off a bridge, along with the fine comic actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt underused as a guy floating around zero gravity collecting twined bodies into an elevator. (Why the repeat images? Well, the film’s final few reels take place in three, later four, separate levels of the dreamworld, with each level operating on a different unit of time. What passes during seconds in the top level will be weeks on the second level and months on the third level. This permits dreams within dreams within dreams. It’s a clever hook, but Nolan overplays his hand by treating his audience like a bunch of unthinking baboons who can’t remember the club sandwich atmosphere even after the fifteenth series of cutaway shots.)

It’s never a wise idea to name a protagonist after a salad, but our man Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a flinty expert at invading people’s consciousnesses. He carries the mental detritus of his dead wife, storehousing these memories in various levels of his mind and unable to control these stray elements from invading a dreamscape. And while there’s a certain appeal in seeing an old school elevator traveling between internal cerebral levels, there’s simply no emotional impact with a foot-crunched wineglass or a totemic top. Nolan introduces numerous projections of the subconscious — figures who detect when the mind is being invaded and start attacking intruders like white blood cells. But Nolan is crass and careless with his semiotics. The symbols serve merely to demonstrate that Nolan is the guy driving the car, rather than presenting us with any real insight into trauma.

Recruited by a rich man named Saito (Ken Watanabe) to plant a motivation inside a corporate heir’s mind, Cobb assembles a predominantly male group of operatives, with the token female played by Ellen Page — a precocious student who seems capable of grand conceptual innovation, but who spends most of the film staring doelike at DiCaprio or offering banal responses to “surprise” twists.

The film fills every spare moment with so much expository chatter that we never get a chance to marvel at the world Nolan’s setting up. Cobb and his cronies are never permitted a moment to breathe. Nolan doesn’t seem to understand that film is a visual form, not a chatty medium. He’s taken the same minimalist approach that he offered with his two Batman movies — neuter the images with austerity so that they feel “real,” but don’t bother to layer the mise en scène with elements that capture our imagination. And even then, the dialogue is so crummy, so indicative of a man who read a slim Baudelaire volume over the weekend and thought himself a philosophical giant, that it’s hardly worth dredging up. We get bad pulp ultimatums (“Do you want to take a leap of faith or become an old man living with regret willing to die alone?”), laughably specific training lessons (“You have two minutes to design a maze that it takes one minute to solve”), and vapid declarations of life experience (“Do you know what it is to be a lover?”). Even poor DiCaprio, who delivers a fairly lively performance under the circumstances, is directed to talk like a two-packs-a-day Batman near the end, barking “I feel guilt” in one of the film’s many phony emotional revelations.

Taken with the film’s limited worldview, a place where people exist solely to betray each other, there is little excitement here in relation to the human spirit. Indeed, the “cognitively dissonant milkshake of rage, fear, and, finally, absolving confusion” that Jonathan Lethem identified within The Dark Knight is more applicable to Inception. The film feels like some feral holdover from the Bush Administration. It’s a love letter to conservatism, a chapbook steeped in cruelty and duplicity, where the only real evolution comes with how well you can screw over your partner.

One feels needlessly bullied by this movie. Nolan is so keen to show off how clever he is that the film’s internal workings are more adorned than felt. It’s as if Nolan is some obnoxious conversationalist at a cocktail party who can’t take the hint that he’s hardly the smart charmer he thinks he is. Unfortunately, because cinema is a passive experience, you can’t pour the punch bowl over the smug man’s head.

While I suspect the film’s numerous defenders will point to the fact that the dreamworld here is flat because most of Inception takes place inside a privileged man’s head, I must point to Mary Harron’s American Psycho, Kubrick’s needlessly condemned Eyes Wide Shut, and even Cameron Crowe’s flawed Vanilla Sky as examples of dormant and often dangerous desires explored in contemporary cinema. These filmmakers understood that even the most comfortable members of society can be driven to, respectively, homicidal rage, restricted perversion, and self-evisceration in their dreams. No such luck with Inception. We’re promised Limbo, a mental sublevel so intense that the dreamer eventually returns to the real world as a mental vegetable. One imagines Bosch landscapes or truly terrifying images. But what do we get? Some tame universe that looks like it was whipped up in UDK over a few days by some bored kid.

So this film will dazzle any dummy unfamiliar with Bergman or Bunuel. It will entice any viewer who has set the fantasy bar quite low. It will make a good deal of money. And there’s little that anyone can say to dissuade the inevitable march of capitalist progress. But the hyperbolic comparisons of Nolan with Kubrick are foolhardy. There used to be a time in which we didn’t compare a common pickpocket dressed in a flashy suit with a criminal mastermind who had the decency to respect the mark. But in a post-BP, post-bailout age, it comes as no surprise that our affluent cultural thugs would be declared the new Jesii by lifeless critics who are too diffident and too easily seduced by a shiny bauble. Ain’t that a kick?

Harvey Pekar (1939-2010)

Harvey Pekar, the comic book writer best known for the long-running American Splendor, died this morning in his Cleveland home. He was 70 years old.

Pekar was devoted, more than many of today’s lifeless literary practitioners, to depicting the truth behind everyday moments. And it is especially painful to know that Pekar’s passing comes a little more than a month after David Markson’s. Like Markson, Pekar knew that life didn’t offer any tidy resolutions and that art, even at its best, served as an intermediary. “Ordinary life is pretty complex stuff,” he would write most famously. It was one of the key lines that made it into the 2003 American Splendor film adaptation. But the film, as great as it was, couldn’t compete with the work on the page.

Pekar was not the type to pull punches or avoid the harsh truth. He wrote fearlessly about his testicular cancer scare, his failings with women, his anger, and his inadequacies. But his work was never solely about a lifelong exploration of the self. He wanted those who read his work to understand the world. For Pekar, that universe was Cleveland. And Pekar demonstrated that it was hardly just some flyover state to be overlooked by the bicoastal snobs. He described the hopeless art of trying to pick the right checkout line when standing behind an old Jewish lady. He wrote about Emil, the Ukranian laborer who lived next door to him in the mid-1960s, moved into a rough Cleveland neighborhood, and saw his idealism dissolve into racism. Of his jury duty experience, he would point to the hypocrisies of “rich people like Nixon and Agnew” staying out of prison while poor people were thrown into the slammer for less serious crimes. These anonymous lives presented stories that were just as important, but more recklessly forgotten.

Pekar’s later volumes became more ambitious than these Cleveland chronicles. There were graphic histories featuring Students for a Democratic Society and the Beats. With Michael Malice and Macedonia much like Emil, Pekar investigated the hypocrisies behind idealistic commitment. But regular people remained very much a priority with an adaptation of Studs Turkel’s Working.

Righteous indignation was an essential part of Pekar’s work. (Indeed, one story from 1986, “Hysteria,” depicts Pekar getting so worked up that he lost his voice.) But he did have a good deal to be angry about. Here was a very sharp autodidact toiling as a file clerk, who was often needlessly ridiculed. The most infamous scorn came from David Letterman, who booked Pekar on his show so that he could lob potshots at the weirdo he never bothered to read or appreciate. These regular appearances ended when Pekar got sick and tired of being the butt of the joke, shortly after he rightly condemned Letterman for his ties to General Electric. He would write about this experience in 1988’s “My Struggle with Corporate Corruption and Network Philistinism.”

But even Pekar’s most vocal mainstream supporters didn’t seem to ken him. I know this, because Pekar contacted me by telephone to talk about it. With Dean Haspiel’s help, he sought me out shortly after I had written a blog post in his defense. The Los Angeles Times‘s David Ulin claimed that Pekar was writing too much in his later years. But Ulin had failed to note 2005’s The Quitter, which I declared “an inarguably raw and mature portrait of a younger Pekar developing some of his anger while being tormented on the Cleveland streets.” And he had failed to cite anything specific in his criticisms.

“This David Ulin guy doesn’t know what he’s talking about,” barked Harvey over the earpiece. “Look, man, I’m trying to stay alive.”

He was. He took any gig he could and he did his best to offer something worthwhile. And should a man be condemned for his work ethic? Not when he’s constantly contriving new ways of staying fresh. Pekar employed eclectic artists to keep his stories new. There was Rebecca Huntington’s photorealist approach in the 1988 story, “I Don’t Wanna Seem Judg-Mental, But…,” the dependable boxiness of longtime collaborator Gary Dumm, Val Mayerik’s free-form frameless approach in 1985’s “A Marriage Album,” and, of course, those early innovations with R. Crumb. He was often quite generous in soliciting other artists to collaborate with. And the artists were very often supportive in return. In later years, he would refer to Dean Haspiel as “my agent.” Haspiel helped Pekar to book gigs as the post-retirement medical costs accumulated.

I was lucky enough to talk with Pekar very early into The Bat Segundo Show. I was new at this interviewing business at the time, but I did ask the man why he continued to use the “STRAIGHT OUT OF CLEVELAND!” line for so long during the American Splendor run. And he told me that he had always intended this declaration as an alternative to superheroes. And indeed, why bask in nothing more than spandex-soaked chronicles when the real world has never had to retcon its glaring realities? A comics world without a new Harvey Pekar volume every year will be a much sadder place. For Pekar wasn’t just some gloomy guy. He was a committed cultural chronicler.

RELATED: The Bat Segundo Show #40: My 2006 radio interviews with Harvey Pekar and Dean Haspiel.

Review: The Girl Who Played with Fire (2009)

When I read Stieg Larsson’s The Girl Who Played with Fire, I learned that it was possible to subsist on little more than Billy’s Pan Pizza when taking down a shadowy human trafficking organization. I learned that Billy’s Pan Pizza could get you through the day when your name was slandered in various Swedish broadsheets, and when your family’s malicious nature was revealed, and when you needed to hack into computers using tactics that the 2600 crowd would surely find dubious. Eat enough Billy’s Pan Pizza and you too would be able to access a powered down laptop! Perhaps it was a surrogate for a wild weekend involving a bag of shrooms and a fifth of scotch. Or merely the workaholic’s answer to intense labor. But it was certainly enough to alter reality and make it persuasive. If you had two breaks for Billy’s Pan Pizza, you could spend most of the day at your computer “with only a big bottle of Coca-Cola for company.” This was a Donnean existence to be sure, but then Billy’s Pan Pizza could take you quite far. If you walked into a 7-11, it was absolutely impossible not to walk out with several boxes of Billy’s Pan Pizza, along with an obsessive need to announce your shopping list to the reader. Because of this, I felt very sorry when Salander had exhausted her Billy’s Pan Pizza supply. Without the pizza, there was no way for her to win.

So I was considerably disappointed when the film adaptation failed to understand the true power of Billy’s Pan Pizza. Yes, it pimped Vaio and Mac and IKEA and other non-food products. The Swedish television industry (for this cinematic release is actually the first half of a TV miniseries) has learned a thing or two about product placement. But the problem here was that the filmmakers haven’t considered the right item to pimp. Aside from an unidentified pizza box tossed against a kitchen wall, there was no indication of Billy’s Pan Pizza maintaining its essential role. For this reason alone, I must condemn writers Soren Staermose and Jon Mankell and director Daniel Alfredson for this lackluster offering. The Millennium trilogy has been a remarkable commercial bonanza. Is it not fitting to maintain the commercialism in these cinematic counterparts? If these filmmakers cannot comprehend the importance of such a vital frozen food product, then they are as morally dissolute as tax cheats.

But maybe this criticism isn’t entirely fair. While I could complain about my failure to read the Swedish subtitles due to the crowded house and the screening room’s highly acute grade, I won’t. I’ll only say that I was seated behind The Girl Who Didn’t Understand That Her Fat Head Prevented Others from Reading the Subtitles. This extenuating circumstance may have had some bearing on my ability to review the film properly. Nevertheless, I was able to make out 95% of the missing words by listening. And I was delighted to encounter more overlap between Swedish and English word roots than I anticipated.

While I could point out that Staermose and Mankell don’t quite have the knack of synthesizing a mammoth novel that the previous writers (Nikolaj Arcel and Rasmus Heisterberg) had with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, I should point out that they are good enough to make the book’s “giant” relatively laconic. Director Alfredson has cast a rather silly blonde man named Micke Spreitz as Ronald Niedermann. He isn’t quite Richard Kiel. He resembles what might have happened if some Tiger Beat model from twenty years ago grew up and replaced his morning Wheaties with steroid shakes. Menace isn’t exactly his strong suit. He’s preposterous and not nearly as intense as he should be. But he’ll do.

There is semi-hot lesbian sex, which I’m sure will please a certain redblooded demographic too diffident to walk past the beads into a video store’s adult section. Not exactly Deneuve and Sarandon from The Hunger, but it will also do. Salander’s surprise breast implants didn’t find their way into the film, suggesting some mammary diffidence. The hospital flashbacks are shot in black-and-white, suggesting a chiaroscuro commitment to spelling out the bleeding obvious. But Michael Nyquist (Blomkvist) and Noomi Rapace (Salander) aren’t too bad in this. Yes, Nyquist and Rapace don’t really get many moments to confirm their onscreen chemistry this time around. And Nyquist, who was quite the studly lothario in the last one, doesn’t quite have the “talent” that Larsoon was keen to delineate in the book. My hope here is that Nyquist will be getting his rocks off in the next film to demonstrate how old school journalists are the new stallions.

Thanks to budgetary constraints, the Millennium‘s office (this time around) looks more like some fly-by-night startup rather than a major muckraking magazine. I was also disappointed that the juicy line “Your mother was a whore!” was uttered so calmly. For goodness sake, this is Swedish melodrama! We need such lines to be uttered with scenery-chewing integrity!

Nevertheless, I had fun with the film. Even if I did notice that other critics were baffled by the plot. I am not certain that they had read the book. And I’m still not sure if the Millennium film trilogy quite captures Larsson’s lurid feel. These films are certainly not the Red Riding Trilogy. But they’ll do.

The Bat Segundo Show: Dan Ariely

Dan Ariely appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #344. Mr. Ariely is most recently the author of The Upside of Irrationality.

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Looking about for Dichter’s egg.

Author: Dan Ariely

Subjects Discussed: [List forthcoming]


Correspondent: The question is whether or not there is some kind of maximum threshold. An escalation of that one item that makes something unique before we realize that it’s really a ruse.

Ariely: I don’t think so. I think that we’re actually going the other way in terms of society. A long time ago, we had to hunt and spend time finding food and cooking and so on. And right now, you can do it in thirty seconds. So what do you do with the rest of the time? I think we get conceptual conception. I mean, we’re still occupied with consumption. But it becomes much more about the idea behind it right now rather than the thing itself. You know, we can get enough food. That’s no problem. It’s about: what does the food mean and what do the clothes mean and the vacation that we get. And so on. As we strive more for meaning and ideas and stories, I think that actually we get more and more involved in this aspect of loving what we create. By the way, I also think this has a lot to do with how things turn out in the housing recession. As the housing market was going down and down and down, Zillow — the website — they did a survey that asked people, “Have houses in your community lost value?” People said yes. “Has your house fallen in value?” And people said absolutely no. And I think that the reason is that we have our own house and we’ve tailored it just to ourselves. So we put much of ourselves into it. And we expect other people to value it. Maybe not as much as we do, but to a much larger extent. So people become immune from thinking that other people don’t see things in the way that they do.

Correspondent: We’re talking about that interval between social norms and market norms. Obviously, you’re dealing largely with behavioral economics. But in this case — like, say, a home — we almost have a social and a market norm. And so, as a result, it becomes a dicey proposition when we’re trying to analyze why people place this extraordinary value on their own particular possessions. Because it may not necessarily be interpreted — at least from their perception — as a possession.

Ariely: Yeah. So housing is complex. Again, it’s one of those things that, when you try to get people to think about the house from the perspective of the market, they have a hard time. First of all, they are connected to the price they bought the house at. It’s irrelevant, right? It’s irrelevant how much you bought the house versus how much you can sell it for. But people get attached to it. But on top of that, I talked with many real estate agents. And they say that when they get a seller to express a price, if they get an offer that is way too low, they take it as a personal offense.

Correspondent: Yeah.

Ariely: It’s not a personal offense! But, no, people really get upset.

Correspondent: Well, you were upset when they did the same to your house. When you had taken out the walls and they asked you to put them back in so you could sell the home.

Ariely: That’s right. So assuming that I did lots of changes to a house and made it just so — so we loved it — lots of other people loved it as well, but didn’t want to live in it. And eventually what we did was we put some walls back. We changed some of the beautiful things we’ve done for our purposes. And actually so many people wanted to see it afterwards then. All these changes. It was really heartbreaking.

Correspondent: But there’s also an interesting irony there. About something that you’d customized.

Ariely: Yes.

Correspondent: It becomes off market.

Ariely: That’s right.

Correspondent: So I guess we need to start off with a baseline item for market value. And then we get into a tricky situation where our own personal — the unique qualities we place…

Ariely: The unique taste that you have might also make the house less valuable.

Correspondent: Yeah.

Ariely: But it’s very hard to see it. Because if you like blue, it’s very hard for you to understand that people might not like blue windows. Or blue something. Especially if you spend lots of time and energy on it. And you do it just so. It’s really hard to imagine. I mean, I can tell you as somebody — so I wrote a couple of books. It’s the same thing. I invested a tremendous amount of effort and energy into those things. And if somebody doesn’t like them as much as I do, I don’t understand how can that be. Right? I expect everybody to love these books. In fact, in my view, they’re better than any other book in the world almost.

Correspondent: (laughs)

Ariely: But once you invest so much effort, you get blinded to the projection of other people.

Correspondent: But how does humility factor into something like this? Just from a scientific standpoint. I mean, I don’t think you really believe these two books are the best books in the world.

Ariely: No, I don’t. (laughs)

Correspondent: I’m going to have to break it to you. You know, if I had a choice between your book — which is great!

Ariely: (laughs)

Correspondent: I would choose Ulysses over that. No offense.

Ariely: Well, talk to my mother.

Correspondent: (laughs)

The Bat Segundo Show #344: Dan Ariely (Download MP3)

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The Blank is Dead

Once upon a time, an elephant-sized ego wrote a vapid article about the blank being irrelevant. The article inspired other articles and other blog posts and other comments and other tweets. Never mind that the blank wasn’t dead. Never mind that you could walk into any blankstore and encounter so many blanks that even the most impotent customer couldn’t ignore them. Never mind that you could look upward at the beautiful cerulean sky and see a bountiful blank filled in by the swirling clouds, annotated at ground level by human interpretation. The blank couldn’t be dead. It was like saying that life was dead. And anyone who believed that all human possibilities had halted overnight probably didn’t have much of an existence in the first place.

But for this unnamed and very sad man, the blank was dead. All forms had been filled out. The government had stopped issuing tax forms. There was no more money to collect and no more cash to spend. All calendars had been confiscated. All paper had been taken and filled up with words and scribbles. All pens were removed from homes and offices to prevent any potential blanks from being filled in.

The blank was dead and there was nowhere more for the human race to go. It had ended on June 22, 2010, at 4:53 PM — the very moment that the article had been published. On June 22nd, there was no further need for the human race to feel or think. The human limit had maxed out. It was time for the blankless world to become the new reality.

Humans could no longer feel giddy when they filled in a conversational caesura with a catty quip. They could no longer fill in a crossword puzzle or jot down a liaison with a scandalous lover into a blank square. But weren’t all those feelings trivial? Wasn’t life more comforting when you knew what was happening every damn minute?

Because the blank was dead, every possibility had been prefigured. Every social occasion had been predetermined, down to the guest list and the specific manner in which you dipped a carrot stick into ranch dressing. Every meal had been prepared. If you wanted to order sushi on a whim, well, then you’d have to consult the fatalist texts to see if the decision had already been made. Because the blank was now dead.

Life went on like this for a while. Until people started to understand that the blank had only disappeared because the man had said so. And those who had easily placed their faith in the foolish pachyderm began to wonder why they couldn’t ignore the wrongheaded article that had caused all the fuss. Somehow, the man had willed the blank into dying. Or perhaps he permitted the unimaginative types who couldn’t believe in the blank to come out of the closet — much in the manner that Proposition 8’s passage had revealed dormant homophobia. Fortunately, there were a few doubting Thomases. When those who believed in the elephant felt ashamed by their unthinking leaps forward, it became necessary for some of the more stubborn acolytes to take cold showers. It became necessary for them to find a blank, any blank, with which to funnel their hopes and galvanize their passions. The truly hopeless committed suicide. If the blank wasn’t dead, these sad sacks could demonstrate their commitment to the end in another form.

Of course, for those of us who never believed in the false prophet, there was no such perceptive problem. We were quite happy living our lives, filling in blanks and finding new ones. And for those writers who insist that the blank is dead, one must naturally ask why you’re talking about blanks in the first place if your mind is so blank and your soul is so dead.

(Image: Jo Naylor)

The Bat Segundo Show: Marcy Dermansky

Marcy Dermansky appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #343. Ms. Dermansky is most recently the author of Bad Marie.

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Misidentifying French landmarks and attempting to make peace with copy editors in sketchy motel rooms.

Author: Marcy Dermansky

Subjects Discussed: [List forthcoming]


Correspondent: I want to touch upon coincidence. Because it does create possibly a problem for a reader who is looking for a plausible reality.

Dermansky: Yes.

Correspondent: And I’m wondering if you can justify the use of coincidences or convenient run-ins because this is a work of fiction.

Dermansky: Right.

Correspondent: Because anything goes in fiction. Because you should be aware that it’s an artifice. Do you think that verisimilitude was just not required for this particular work?

Dermansky: Well, I think to some extent. There are crazy coincidences in life. And why not? I mean, there goes a motorcycle.

(A motorcycle passes.)

Dermansky: You never know who you’re going to run into or what’s going to happen. When I was signing books at BEA, someone came up to my table and said, “I want you to sign this for Alexa.” And I said, “Okay!”

Correspondent: Who was Alexa?

Dermansky: I have no idea. It was like her cousin or her niece. But at the table next to me, somebody walked up and said — and I just overheard; we were right next to each other — she said, “Could you sign this book to Alexa?” And it was just a different person next to me. And I just thought, “How many Alexas are there in the world that other people want?” And so that happened. And that’s not as dramatic as reading a book in prison and then coming out and finding out that your best friend is married to that author. But there are coincidences.

Correspondent: Did you make any efforts to track a third Alexa?

Dermansky: No. (laughs) I should have done that.

Correspondent: I mean, maybe there was a run-in of Alexas. Maybe there are a lot of Alexas in the publishing industry!

Dermansky: I stopped signing the book and said, “Isn’t it strange that there’s another Alexa?” And the woman whose book I was signing thought I was odd. And she’s just like, “Sign my book.” And I kept going on about how I thought that was interesting.

Correspondent: Did you find out what her name was?

Dermansky: No. I didn’t find out her name.

Correspondent: Oh.

Dermansky: Yeah.

Correspondent: Maybe she was Alexa. Maybe she liked to refer to herself in the third person. We don’t know.

Dermansky: Possible. Yeah, you don’t know. The normal people are often that. That’s what I was saying.

Correspondent: But on the other hand, we are dealing with narrative vs. reality.

Dermansky: I know. It’s true.

Correspondent: And while we can accept numerous coincidences, numerous associations, numerous situations, numerous parallels — that’s not necessarily going to line up neatly in a book. And in this, it seems to me, reading it, that you just didn’t care.

Dermansky: I think I didn’t care. I mean, I could put it back on you and I could ask you that. And you could be truthful. If that bothered you as a reader. Did you say, “Oh my god! She’s gone too far!”?

Correspondent: Well…

Dermansky: (laughs)

Correspondent: It did and it didn’t.

Dermansky: Okay.

Correspondent: I mean, I would say that it is rather curious that your book has a lot of outsider characters who are observing the situation. And then they mostly get involved with the narrative. And I wanted to actually ask you about that. There isn’t a single real stranger who’s looking upon all these weird characters — or unusual characters — or characters who came from a normal author.

Dermansky: Okay. (laughs)

Correspondent: They don’t just sit back and express disgust, save for that waiter. And I’m curious why you felt the need to pull in all these side characters into the narrative like this. As opposed to just letting them look at the situation and offer some expression of disgust, some expression of dismay, or what not.

Dermansky: Right. I was trying to remember who’s the waiter. He’s the waiter at the French restaurant.

Correspondent: Yes.

Dermansky: And he’s very disgusted because they put all the food on the table. And the cat on the table.

Correspondent: Yeah.

Dermansky: Well, I mean, don’t you, when you introduce a character to the story, they have to become part of the story?

Correspondent: Not necessarily. I mean, if you’re in a crowd, and these characters are often running into crowded situations when they’re not in rooms, you’re going to have people give them glances or expressions and the like.

Dermansky: Yeah, that’s true.

Correspondent: So to me, it was interesting that you decided any remote run-in with someone, I mean, immediately they become a supporting character or even a minor walk-on character.

Dermansky: Yeah. I guess that’s true. Like there’s that scene in the bathroom in Paris.

Correspondent: Yeah.

Dermansky: Where the woman walks into the bathroom. And she doesn’t just walk in and out. Well, they’re two teenage girls. They walk in and out. And they give Marie a dirty look. But then a woman in a hijab comes in. And she actually helps Marie change Caitlin’s diaper. So she becomes a character just for that scene. I don’t know. I think, if you put somebody into a room, you want to use them. Or why do that? You can’t just have a book with four characters either. It gets very claustrophobic. And so I do that a lot. I feel that as a writer — I’ve taught writing. So I’ve told students that you don’t introduce a major character in the third act of your book. You don’t. You have to have all of the players in there. But at the same point, it gets so flat and stale. Like new people come in. It’s a little bit like life. So a movie star walks in at the very end of the book.

Correspondent: That’s right.

Dermansky: And that seemed okay to me.

Correspondent: Is this, I suppose, the mark of a very socially inclusive personality?

Dermansky: I don’t think of myself as a very socially inclusive person.

Correspondent: (laughs) Just like you like to introduce people at parties, you like to introduce characters in novels? In your writing?

Dermansky: (laughs) No, I’m the person at the party who stands back and just gets introduced to other people.

Correspondent: You’re just defying all the expectations here. This is great.

Dermansky: I think I defy the expectations without thinking! (laughs)

(Image: Rachel Kramer Bussel)

The Bat Segundo Show #343: Marcy Dermansky (Download MP3)

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