Notice to Readers: Offline for Uncertain Period

I’m typing this in my neighborhood cafe. I just moved and I thought that the broadband transfer would be flawless. It has been anything but. An evil company* by the name of Ace Innovative lied and misrepresented what the true nature of service was in my new neighborhood was. (I will have more on this later. Also, please pardon the lack of contractions. I am typing this on a keyboard where I cannot do apostophres. This probably explains why I sound like Data from Star Trek.) I have also lost my landline number. So I cannot be contacted for a while. What this means is that I am essentially out of commission for the foreseeable future. Bat Segundo is now on hiatus. I cannot respond to email. Content has slowed to a halt. I hope to be back up and running sometime in the next few weeks. And hopefully I will be able to offer reviews of films that I have seen (which have apparently been released) and audio interviews that I have conducted. My apologies to the publicists who were counting upon timed release of said content and the readers and listeners who regularly come here. If you need to get in touch with me, try friends or email (very slow response time).

* — As is often the wont for expanding companies, Ace was wonderful until they decided to grow. It was a company run by Russian geeks. Now it is a company run by closet sociopaths.

9-1-10 UPDATE: I appear to have found alternative broadband service. A small independent company who has been nothing less than polite, professional, and transparent about getting this done. Should be back in about two weeks.

The Bat Segundo Show: Daniele Thompson

Daniele Thompson appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #353. Ms. Thompson is most recently the co-writer and director of Change of Plans — a movie that opens in theaters on August 27, 2010.

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Confusing his code with his plans.

Guest: Daniele Thopmson

Subjects Discussed: [List forthcoming]


Correspondent: I wanted to start off about confinement and physical space. In Jet Lag, you have two characters who are predominantly occupying a hotel room. In Avenue Montaigne, you have a broader physical space with the cultural world. And in this [Change of Plans], you have, of course, the dinner party. Eleven characters. It’s the ultimate locked room mystery of life. So my question to you is whether you pursue this confinement as a way to generate dramatic conflict. Or whether this reflects more a concern with the home truths that come out with this human relationship with physical space.

Thompson: Well, we’re dealing with the question of time and space in all fiction!

Correspondent: Yes!

Thompson: It’s true that it’s a challenge to have eleven people in the same place one night, and then again one night a year after not in the same place. I don’t want to give out all the…(laughs)

Correspondent: Sure. But we’re talking predominantly the first dinner party.

Thompson: Right. It seemed that it was the ideal frame for the original idea for the film. The original idea for the film — my original ideas are usually very tiny. They’re like little seeds. And then we have to work on it for weeks, and sometimes months, to find out whether that seed is going to give out some kind of flower or tree or whatever.

Correspondent: Or transform in this case to a baroque redwood.

Thompson: Exactly. So the original idea was fascinating by the fact that when we meet friends in the evening, our friends and ourselves are not the same people in the afternoon. The afternoon or the day or whatever. Because I thought we all have few choices in life. Waking up in the morning and going to work is not a choice. It’s an obligation. 7:00, 6:00, 8:00 in France is later than in America. You can make a decision of not going out to dinner. You have that choice. You can call in sick. I have a headache. I have a problem. So if you do go out, the politeness — the least thing you can do is bring something of yourself. The more sunny side of yourself. And that’s what people do. And therefore people lie. People pretend. And the lovely thing about it, and this is why it’s kind of an apology. It’s an aspect of life that I think is very important in social life. You believe it in yourself. It makes you feel better. You have a sort of entr’acte. An intermission in your own life where you have laughed and told funny jokes, and pretended that everything is going well with your couple and your children and your work. And I thought it was a very funny idea to make the audience aware of what these people’s lives were really going on in the afternoon and then see what happens at night.

The Bat Segundo Show #353: Daniele Thompson (Download MP3)

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Jonathan Franzen vs. Richard Stark: Which Writer Really “Knows” the World?

Sam Tanenhaus: “Once again Franzen has fashioned a capacious but intricately ordered narrative that in its majestic sweep seems to gather up every fresh datum of our shared millennial life. Franzen knows that college freshmen are today called ‘first years,’ like tender shoots in an overplanted garden; that a high-minded mom, however ruthless in her judgments of her neighbors’ ethical lapses, will condemn them with no epithet harsher than ‘weird’; that reckless drivers who barrel across lanes are ‘almost always youngish men for whom the use of blinkers was apparently an affront to their masculinity.'”

Here’s a passage from Richard Stark’s The Outfit:

All the money came to the Novelty Amusement Corporation. It started as small change, here and there throughout the city, and it all funneled into one central office, all the money bet every day on the numbers.

Take one dime. A lady goes into a magazine store and tells the man at the counter she wants to put ten cents on 734. If 734 hits she wins sixty dollars. The odds are 999 to one, but the pay-off is 600 to one. The magazine store owner writes 734 and 10¢ under it on two slips of paper. He gives the women one slip; he puts the other in a cigar box under the counter. He puts the dime into the cash register, but he rings No Sale. At three o’clock, his wife takes over at the counter while he takes the cigar box in back and adds up the amounts on all the slips. The amount is $18.60. He puts all the slips in an envelope and goes out to the cash register and from it he takes a ten dollar bill, a five, three ones, two quarters, and the dime. He puts this cash in the envelope with the slips. He places the envelope inside a science fiction magazine — on Wednesdays, it’s a science fiction magazine — and puts the magazine under the counter.

At three-thirty, the collector comes. The collector is a plump young man with a smiling face, a struggling writer making a few dollars while waiting to be discovered by Darryl Zanuck or Bennett Cerf. He drives up in a seven-year-old Plymouth that belongs to the local numbers organization and which he is allowed to drive only while making collections. He parks in front of the magazine store, goes inside, and asks for a copy of a particular science fiction magazine. The owner gives him the magazine and tells him that will be $1.86, but that’s what the young man hands over with no protest.

The young man then carries the magazine out to the car. He sits behind the wheel, takes the envelope from the magazine, puts it in a briefcase which is on the seat beside him. He tosses the magazine onto the back seat with seven other discarded magazines and taking a small notebook from his breast pocket, he writes in it after several other entries: “MPL 1.86.” Then he puts the notebook and pencil away and drives on to his next stop.

All in all, he buys fifteen magazines, then drives on to the Kenilworth Building and leaves the car in the lot next door. He carries the briefcase up to the seventh floor and enters the offices of the Novelty Amusement Corporation. He smiles at the receptionist, who never gives him a tumble, and goes into the second door on the right, where a sallow man with a cigarette dangling from his lips nods bleakly. The young man puts briefcase and notebook on the desk, and sits down to wait.

The sallow man has an adding machine on his desk. He opens the notebook and adds the figures for the day, coming up with $32.31, which should be ten percent of the day’s take. He then adds up the prices on the policy slips, and gets $323.10, which checks out. He finally adds together the actual money from all the envelopes, once again arrives at $323.10, and is satisfied. Out of this money, he gives the young man $32.31, which is what the young man paid for the magazines. In addition, he gives him $16.15, which is one-half percent of the day’s take from his area — his cut for making the collections. He averages $15 a day, for an hour’s work a day. Well pleased, the young man goes home to his cold typewriter.

The sallow man now takes out a ledger and enters it in the amount of, and the number of, each bet according to the exact location where each bet was made. He adds his figures again to check his work and gets the correct total. By then, another collector has come in. The sallow man is one of six men at Novelty Amusement who each take in the receipts from five collectors. They work at this approximately from four until six o’clock. Each of them clears about $1,500 a day — resulting in a grand total of about $9,000 a day for the entire operation.

Ten-and-a-half percent of this money has already been paid out. The receivers each get one percent. Additional office salaries, rent, utilities, and so on eat up about 3 1/2 percent more. When the sallow man stuffs the day’s proceeds into a canvas sack and carries it back to the room marked “Bookkeeping,” there’s about 85 percent of it left. On an average day, this leaves about $7,700. Ten percent more is deducted almost immediately and put into envelopes which are delivered to law officers and other local authorities. Twenty-five percent is retained by the local organization and split among its chief personnel; the remaining 50 percent is shipped weekly to Chicago — the national organization’s piece of the pie. In an average six-day week, this half of the pie comes to better than $25,000. Each day’s cut is put in the safe in the bookkeeping room, and, on Saturday nights, two armed men carry the cash in a briefcase to Chicago by plane. For security, one of the armed men is from the local organization and one is from the national organization.

On this Saturday, there was $27,549 earmarked for Chicago, in the safe. In the addition there was the $20,000 kept as a cash reserve — on the unlikely chance that, someday, there might be a run on a winning number, or for additional greasing when and if necessary, or for whatever unforeseeable emergency might arise. And further, there was $13,774,50, in the safe, which represents the week’s 25 percent cut for the local organization to be split on Monday. The total in the safe was $61,323.50. Including the dime.

Here’s a passage from Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom:

The most difficult problem he’d had to solve for the Trust had been what to do with the two hundred or so families, most of them very poor, who owned houses or trailers on small or smallish parcels of land within the Warbler Park’s proposed boundaries. Some of the men still worked in the coal industry, either underground or as drivers, but most were out of a job and passed their time with guns and internal-combustion engines, supplementing their families’ diets with game shot deeper in the hills and carried out on ATVs. Walter had moved quickly to buy out as many families as possible before the Trust attracted publicity; he’d paid as little as $250 an acre for certain hillside tracts. But when his attempts to woo the local environmentalist community backfired, and a scarily motivated activist named Jocelyn Zorn began to campaign against the Trust, there was still more than a hundred families holding out, most of them in the valley of Nine Mile Creek, which led up to Forster Hollow.

Expecting the problem of Forster Hollow, Vin Haven had found the perfect sixty-five thousand acres for the core reserve. The surface rights of ninety-eight percent of it were in the hands of just three corporations, two of them faceless and economically rational holding companies, the third wholly owned by a family named Forster which had fled the state more than a century ago and was comfortably dissipating itself in coastal affluence. All three companies were managing he land for certified forestry and had no reason not to sell it to the Trust at a fair market rate. There was also, near the center of Haven’s Hundred, an enormous, vaguely hourglass-shaped collection of very rich coal seams. Until now, nobody had mined these fourteen thousand acres, because Wyoming County was so remote and so hilly, even for West Virginia. One bad, narrow road, useless for coal trucks, wound up into the hills along Nine Mile Creek; at the top of the valley, situated near the hourglass’s pinch point, was Forster Hollow and the clan and friends of Coyle Mathis.

Over the years, Nardone and Blasco had each tried and failed to deal with Mathis, earning his abiding animosity for their trouble. Indeed, a major piece of bait that Vin Haven had offered the coal companies, during the initial negotiations, was a promise to rid them of the problem of Coyle. “It’s part of the magic synergy we got going here,” Haven had told Walter. “We’re a fresh player that Mathis’s got no reason to hold a grudge against. Nardone in particular I bargained way down on the reclamation front by promising to take Mathis off its hands. A little bit of goodwill I found lying by the side of the road, simply by virtue of me not being Nardone, turns out to be worth a couple million.”

If only!

Based on the above two passages, which writer do you think really “knows” the world better?

The Bat Segundo Show: Gary Shteyngart II

Gary Shteyngart appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #352. Mr. Shteyngart is most recently the author of Super Sad True Love Story. He previously appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #121 and was ambushed by a Noah Weinberg type earlier in the year.

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Too old and too much of a hack for Conde Nast’s cryogenic chambers.

Author: Gary Shteyngart

Subjects Discussed: [List forthcoming]


Correspondent: You’ve probably seen this video of this 11-year-old who’s being cyberbullied by 4chan. Did you hear about this? She’s going by the name of Slaughter. And there’s a video where her dad is shouting in the background. And it’s truly horrifying. Surely, I think people would still value their privacy to some degree. Or they would say, “This is going way over the line.” Harassing people. Providing every bit of personal information. I mean, that’s got to trump any seduction by technology.

Shtyengart: Who knows? Things happen so quickly. Our values are changing so quickly. I mean, one of the things that this book doesn’t state, but maybe believes, is that change is okay. Change is going to happen. The end of slavery was good. Racism, anti-Semitism, homophobia — the dilution of all these things in states outside of Arizona. That’s good. But change happens quicker than we’re able to accommodate it. Because we are really flesh and bone and certain whatevers going on in our heads. But there’s only so much we can do. And when we’re addicted to constant change that’s changing at a breakneck speed, what happens when the change overruns us and begins to condition this group mind that we have brought together? It begins to condition us more than we condition the group mind. That can be very depressing. I mean, going back to the television people — when television was revealed — there was a similar worry. But what this does is a little more insidious. It takes away our privacy, for one thing. But it also deputizes all of us to be writers, filmmakers, musicians. Which sounds lovely and democratic. But when a book ceases to become a book, when a book becomes a Kindle application, when it become a file — how different is it in the mind of somebody from any other file that you get? Sitting there at your workstation — if you’re a white-collar worker — all you do all day long is receive bits and bits of information. And in some ways, you begin to privilege these bits of information. But in another way, one email is as good as another. It’s all just coming at you. Streaming at you. You go home. What’s the last thing you want to do? The last thing you want to do is pick up a hard brick like the one I’m holding right now, open it, and begin to read linear text for 330 pages. It’s the last thing you want to do. Who the hell would want to do it? And I think that because America is such a market economy, there’s still a real love of storytelling. That’s why you look at something like The Wire, The Sopranos, Mad Men. You know, what they’ve done is they’ve very cleverly — and they’ve talked about this — they’ve repurposed fiction — the way it used to exist between covers — in a way that can be transmitted inside an eyeball, in a way that satisfies our craving for storytelling. But without all the added benefits that you get from a book.

Correspondent: Hmmm. Well, I don’t know about that. I mean, to some degree, by having jokes and by writing an entertaining book — which I think this is an entertaining book…

Shteyngart: Thank you.

Correspondent: …you are kind of contributing towards this entertainment-oriented storytelling.

Shteyngart: That’s right.

Correspondent: What makes you different, eh?

Shteyngart: Well, you hit the nail on the head with your big hammer. I still believe that fiction is a form of entertainment. In my crazy world, which may not exist, I’m still hearing about a book that I have to read. And I’m getting out of bed. And I’m running to the bookstore. And I’m buying it. In the way that people run to the cineplex. I’m excited. And that’s what I want fiction to do. If it doesn’t entertain me, then it’s work. When I was researching parts of this book, I had to read a lot of books that were not entertaining. And they were work. What worries me is the academization of literature. When it becomes just an academic pursuit, where we sit around, we create serious works that are then discussed by serious people in serious settings, and the entertainment value is nil. And we become a small tiny society that’s obsessed with things. In other words, we become where poetry is today. Utterly irrelevant. Beyond a certain beautiful wonderful circle of people. And the poetry hasn’t gotten any worse. The poetry’s great. And the fiction hasn’t gotten any worse. Some of it is amazing. But the way we approach these things has become too serious.

Correspondent: Well, to what degree should books be work? I mean, I’d hate to live in a world in which Ulysses was banned simply because it was considered to be too much work. I find it a very marvelous journey to just sift into all those crazy phrases and all that language. But it doesn’t feel like work to me. And I don’t think it feels like work to everybody. And we still have Bloomsday and all that.

Shteyngart: I’m not talking about Ulysses. I’m talking about self-important crap.

Correspondent: Like what?

Shteyngart: Well, I’m not going to say.

Correspondent: Ha ha! Very convenient.

Shteyngart: Very convenient. I’m not going to say. Madame Bovary. Talk about a page-turner. I can’t put that thing down. I read it all the time. Jesus Christ, and there’s still part of me that thinks, “Don’t do it. Don’t do it, Madame B. Stay away from that schmuck.” Because it’s so damn involving. It’s brilliant. It’s funny as hell. You know, the apothecary. There’s so many elements in it that are working. It’s perfectly researched. The language is just right. It doesn’t — I suppose it could be considered work. But it’s not any more work than one needs to do in order to gain the maximum enjoyment and understanding of these characters.

Correspondent: Yeah. But isn’t there some sort of compromise? Aren’t you trading something away for this happy medium? Are we talking essentially to some degree about approaching books and literature as if it’s a middlebrow medium?

Shteyngart: Oh what does it mean? Middlebrow, lowbrow, highbrow. These brows. I raise my brow at those brows.

Correspondent: Very bromidic

Shteyngart: The whole bromidic stuff is nonsense. What makes Jeffrey Eugenides or Franzen’s works — what makes them stay in our minds? They use whatever language they want. If they need to deploy highfalutin language, they’ll do it. If they need to use street slang, they’ll do that. The range is always there. And you try to capture a world. A place and time you try and capture as best as you can with the best people who you can deploy. The best characters you can deploy doing them. And to do that, you need to care about these people. Maybe I failed. But I certainly have tried with Lenny and Eunice more so than with anyone else. I’ve tried to live inside their skin. I’ve tried to make myself feel the love that they both have toward each other in this very difficult world. And you know, that doesn’t sound highbrow. But to me, it’s the most important thing I can do with my art.

(Image: Morbinear)

The Bat Segundo Show #352: Gary Shteyngart II (Download MP3)

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Interview Whiteout with Austin Kleon

Austin Kleon is the author of Newspaper Blackout.

By permanently altering the original newspaper articles, how do you feel that you’re respecting the original authors? Why do you feel that this material is fair game for artistic appropriation?

I could tell you a big story about how I’m respecting the original newspaper writers by rescuing their ephemeral work from lining the trash bin or wrapping fish and turning it into something permanent, something poetic, something eternal…but that would be a huge load of bullshit. Truthfully, I’m a writer that was having trouble finding my own words, and decided to borrow words from the medium that produces millions of them every day and delivers them to my doorstep.

If I were to try to justify it, I’d say that what I’m doing is no different than what writers have done forever. They borrow words from the language, and they rearrange them into a unique order.

I truly love newspapers. I grew up with newspapers. My parents didn’t sit around reading novels, but we subscribed to two daily newspapers. My father-in-law, one of the best writers I know, has worked for a newspaper in Cleveland for over 25 years, and my uncle worked for a newspaper for twenty years before he decided to become a preacher. (A good career move on his part.)

I’ve resisted developing an iPhone or iPad Newspaper Blackout app because I think there is magic in feeling the newsprint in your hand and the words disappearing under that marker line. (I experimented with making poems on the iPad, but I returned mine back after a week.) I think the more that writing is made into a physical process, the better it is. The more writing is something you make with your hands, the more satisfying it is for me. Same goes for books. I like holding on to something.

Were there any legal hurdles from Harper Perennial with regard to fair use? (I’m assuming this is one of the reasons why you couldn’t use photos.) Did the original articles or the typography — that is, the material beneath the blackout — have to be altered in any way aside from the black marker? Also, did you photocopy any of the articles for “drafts” of your poems? What practice did you do? Can you offer an example or two on how you stumbled onto specific word patterns?

The lawyers took a look at the project and gave it the green light before we even signed a deal.

I stopped using photos a while back when I realized that using complete photos would move the poems out of the realm of fair use. (Occasionally I’ll use a little sliver or a crop of a photograph, like in this poem, “In A Honky Tonk In Texas.”)

What’s interesting to me is that I think legal constraints actually lead to better poems.

There are basically four factors that determine fair use: 1) how transformative it is, or “purpose and character” of the use; 2) the nature of the copyrighted work (usually if it’s non-fiction or fiction); 3) the “amount and substantiality of the portion taken”; 4) the “effect of the use upon the potential market.”

So some of my own rules are actually based on these factors: 1) I try to transform the text into a poem that doesn’t resemble the original subject matter of the article, or if it does, it parodies or reverses it; 2) I only black out newspaper articles; 3) I usually take less than a sentence or a phrase at a time and black out way, way more than I keep. When it comes to number 4, I probably have a positive (if tiny) effect on their market, by giving people another reason to buy newspapers!

What you see in the book are actual scans of the marker on newsprint. I didn’t do any photocopying to practice or create a first draft, although, there were some poems where I wish I had. (Permanent marker leads to all kinds of accidents.)

The book was made in a six-month period from June – December 2008. I cut up newspapers into little paperback-sized clippings, and kept the clippings all in a folder, and on the bus ride to and from work , and in the basement of my office on my lunch break, I’d pull out a clipping and get to work.

I wish I could show you or explain how these things happen, but usually I just see an anchor word or an anchor phrase that grabs my attention, and I just work out from that, slowly. (Here’s a time-lapse video of me doing one that might give you an idea of how it works.)

In some cases, we can see that you’re running low on ink (such as the poem on Page 39) as you’re slashing through the newspaper. To what degree did such practical ink conditions affect the form of the poem? (I ask because the Page 39 poem also begins with the phrase “Gasoline is running out,” thus mimicking the ink problem.) Additionally, were there specific “low ink” markers you kept nearby for specific textures or looks?

I wish I was that smart, but in fact, it was just a matter of whether the marker I had in my bag was low or not. I went through a few dozen markers making the book. It’s funny how the ones where the marker doesn’t completely cover everything look way more interesting. I resisted touching them up when I got back home because I liked the way they looked.

I read an article in The Believer about the history of the permanent marker, and was shocked to find out that government censors, back when they still used markers, would use red or brown markers, so you could still see the text that was redacted, then they’d run the redacted documents through a photocopier set on high contrast, which is what gives them that stark black and white look. After I read that, I toy ed with the idea of doing all my blackouts from now on in red ink…

The poem on Page 50, for example, certainly could not look the way that it does without physical contact with the article. On the other hand, I’m naturally quite suspicious about the arrows on Page 60, which were surely aided by scanning and digital retouching to get the precise look of the arrows. To what degree did you rely on digital enhancement for these poems? Were there any specific ground rules that you established along these lines?

There was actually little digital manipulation involved. When I scanned the poems into the computer I set the contrast way high (like a photocopier) so they got that high-contrast look, and then I cleaned up some of the leftover words around the black marker on the edges. In a few very rare instances, I would use Photoshop to fix a screw up where I accidentally marked over a letter. (Only to reveal a letter that had been blacked out, not to put in a letter where it wasn’t before.)

The arrows were made on the original newsprint with a ballpoint pen and the white space from the lines in between the words.

All the poems became image files, which, when they were sent to the publisher, had the added benefit of being incredibly hard to edit — in fact, aside from my editor pointing out a few weak poems, there wasn’t much editing done to the poems in the book at all.

There are actually typos on pages 50 and 84. Each page contains duplicate words, which can easily be fixed with a marker. (I’ve turned this into a shtick at book signings: “Would you like me to fix your typos?”)

Speaking of the little boxes that form thin flowchart lines leading from one word to another (there’s a very nice series of dashed boxes on Page 111 or, even more impressively, on Page 113), how did you arrive at the specific length and width for these little etchings? Did you ever consider using a portion of a letter to help create or nudge a shape?

All those little lines were constrained by the white space in between the words of the article. I honestly didn’t plan them out too much.

When you are highlighting a clustered phrase, such as “detectives gathered at the scene of a mystery” on Page 62, isn’t this a little too easy? Should not the reader’s eye be trained not to find the obvious patterns within an article, but the not so obvious ones?

I try to make it as easy to read as possible. I don’t want to have people struggling to make sense of the poem because they’re not sure in what order the poem is supposed to be read. I get a lot of poem submissions from folks on the Newspaper Blackout Tumblr, and sometimes I have to really stare at a poem to figure out how it’s supposed to be worded. It can be frustrating. And frustrating readers is the last thing I want to do.

On the other hand, I do like that the form can make people slow down and think about the language. My wife is a speed reader, and she finds it incredibly difficult to read these things, because it forces her to slow down and really focus on one word at a time.

Capitalized letters and only letters often serve as crutches (see Page 146) for you to get a poem out of what I presume was difficult material. But I’m wondering if you worked in a deliberately counterintuitive manner for some of these articles (i.e., did you see an obvious poem and deny yourself the pleasure because it was “too easy”).

I never deny myself the pleasure of an easy poem! Nine times out of ten, I’m usually tearing my hair out when I do these things, so when an easy one appears before me, I take it, because I know the next one won’t be so easy.

Why Did Scott Pilgrim Tank?

The Expendables was the top grossing movie over the weekend, raking in $35 million, and beating out Eat Pray Love‘s $23.7 million. The Other Guys finished at third, with $18 million, followed by Inception at $11.4 million and, somewhat astonishingly, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World at $10.5 million. The results have caused some to scratch their heads, while others have reacted with the fury of an aging FOX News anchor just a few steak dinners short of a myocardial infarction.

Scott Pilgrim‘s box office failure over the weekend has little to do with Jeffrey Wells‘s deranged dichotomy of “the rank-and-file” warring with “the elite geek-dweeb set” — an impractical characterization that one expects from a paranoid schizophrenic looking for a few magic beans that will grow a tin foil vine. But it was evident from some of the film’s early reviews that the old reactionary guard — which included the hysterical Wells and the frumpy David Edelstein — were going to trash the movie for its audacious syntax — namely, the very visual language that allowed Kick-Ass to make nearly $20 million in its opening weekend back in April.

I don’t think the lackluster business had much to do with Michael Cera. But it’s worth observing that Cera has yet to prop up a phenomenally successful Hollywood movie on his presence alone. He’s found commercial success as a supporting character, although Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, a $10 million movie that grossed $33.5 million, might qualify as a modest success. But when one considers that Scott Pilgrim‘s budget was closer to $100 million, the decision to use Superbad/Juno momentum as a selling point wasn’t terribly wise. Cera, assuming audiences haven’t tired of him by now, will probably be just fine if he can figure out a way to reinvent his one-note Williamsburg hipster schtick and keep his acting roles confined to second bananas. The man lacks leading man gravitas, and now has the commercial track record to prove it.

On the other hand, it’s possible that Cera can’t entirely be blamed for Scott Pilgrim‘s failure. One only needs to look at the moronic marketing quacks who pushed this movie as if they were lame ducks. Not only did the film’s bright red poster do everything possible to occlude Cera’s presence in the movie, but it failed to communicate what the movie was about. The “epic of epic epicness” tagline tells someone in the dark nothing at all about Scott Pilgrim. And you have to wonder how much money some Universal wordsmith was paid to whip up such anti-commercial inanity.

The first big mistake made by Universal — and there were many — was in failing to market this as a quirky date movie that a young couple might agree upon. (Or perhaps not. Abigail Nussbaum has offered a provocative post suggesting that Scott Pilgrim is misogynistic.)

The second big mistake was in opening Scott Pilgrim during a weekend in which the audience division came down to gender lines. If you were a man, you were expected to see The Expendables. If you were a woman, you were expected to see Eat Pray Love. The Expendables Call to Arms trailer, released a good month before the movie, permitted enough time for these demographic lines to become fixed. And Universal, rather catastrophically, failed to create a Scott Pilgrim trailer that used the movie’s humor as a self-deprecatory selling point to avoid both movies. (I should also point out that, despite my numerous requests to attend a New York press screening, Universal publicists failed to respond by telephone or email. This is not something I can say about the people at Lionsgate, who were very quick to respond, extremely friendly and accommodating. Guess which film received a 1,400 word essay here.)

While it’s true that Scott Pilgrim received a big Comic-Con buzz, it’s very clear that this didn’t translate into mass moviegoers paying to see the flick. It’s also clear from both Scott Pilgrim and Kick-Ass‘s respective takes that a more daring comic book movie isn’t going to translate into an Iron Man 2-style box office bonanza, even as audiences have signaled their desire to be challenged by plot-heavy movies like Inception. A risk-taking comic book movie with a $20 million budget can certainly make a healthy profit, but it’s a harder sell at four or five times the budget. This weekend certainly isn’t the end of movies like Scott Pilgrim. Just don’t expect future movies of this type to have large budgets or originate from the studio system in a good long while. Indeed, had Scott Pilgrim not been up against two pandering movies, it might have attracted more of the crowd. But apparently there’s gold to be panned when you use the Internet to pigeonhole prospective moviegoers into predictable demographics.

Review: Neshoba: The Price of Freedom (2008)

When it comes to examining vicious crime, it remains a common practice among American journalists and the general public to ignore the story once the suspect has been apprehended or the verdict has been delivered. We want our deadliest realities to confined away from us, sight unseen. But an astute human observer understands that resolution is never quite this tidy and criminals are not always reformed. Human lives continue. One monster’s acts will have consequences upon another life, often creating sharp yet silent obstacles that are too piercing to discuss.

Thankfully a new documentary, Neshoba: The Price of Freedom, offers a rare angle that defies these conventional narrative trappings and attempts to tackle this wider canvas. The film focuses upon recent efforts to bring Edgar Ray Killen — an ex-Ku Klux Klan organizer who helped organize the vicious 1964 murders of three civil rights workers in Neshoba County, Mississippi — to justice. As the film is swift to observe (indeed, sometimes too swift), the ugly scab from this aftermath remains a painful eyesore that the Neshoba County residents haven’t entirely come to terms with. When, in 2004, a group of outraged citizens demands reopening the case upon the 40th anniversary of the killings, the documentary suggests a dichotomy between this multiracial coalition and predominantly white citizens who wish to bury this ignoble history. “What’s happened has happened,” says one man. “It’s been too many years,” says another. “I think he’s suffered enough.” (This latter statement, suggesting the idea that Killen’s ongoing “suffering” is worth more than the families of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwermer, mirrors another of the movie’s hypotheses — that, had not two white Jewish kids been killed among the three, the murders would not have received national attention.) Certainly after Killen’s conviction, the then 80-year-old had enough support within the community to raise $600,000 for an appeal bond — a development that the filmmakers skim over. Indeed, one of this documentary’s curious qualities is that it never quite captures the violent sting of the 1964 murders. But if the movie is making a good faith effort to chronicle the present atmospheric aftermath, perhaps this is just as it should be.

Killen himself features quite prominently in this documentary, which centers itself mostly around the reopened trial. And Killen’s stature as an entitled monster, along with his crazed rants about the illusory Jewish Communist conspiracy, make for fascinating viewing. Killen is so ostensibly religious that he has placards of the Ten Commandments spoked into his lawn. And despite his clearly racist fulminations, he insists that he’s not a Jew hater. But the film is ballsy enough to suggest that this vicious cycles often continue in unanticipated ways. Among its prodigious roster of talking heads include several family members and relations to the victims — one of whom calls out for Killen’s blood in a manner not dissimilar from the hate speech that Killen and his collaborators are so fond of. While Killen must be punished for his crimes, there’s an important question here of whether one becomes just as savage as a homicidal white supremacist when howling for blood. Western civilization, as Gandhi once quipped, would be a pretty good idea.

So while this documentary is sometimes quite pedestrian in its assembly (collected interviews, dusty archival footage, perfunctory vox populi interviews), it has the great advantage of being caught within the shoals of an important story.

Review: Animal Kingdom (2010)

The Australian import, Animal Kingdom, has been identified as something close to a masterpiece by several critics — perhaps because writer-director David Michod has been shrewd enough to populate his mobster epic with enough characters to rival a Tolstoy novel’s head count. But much like a Christopher Nolan movie, Animal Kingdom carries the stench of a film that thinks it’s more clever than it really is. Here is a film that knows how to balance its characters, but it doesn’t always give its fictive population time to breathe or inhabit a tableau. And very often the illusion is lost. Yes, the film does probe into a mob’s family dynamics, both biological connections and those tenuous ties forged out of sweaty necessity. Animal Kingdom is often interesting when pursuing fluid rites of passage — such as a surrogate father ordering his surrogate son about the importance of washing his hands. It maintains a static aesthetic, somewhat voyeuristic with its camera, where grocery stores transform into impromptu offices and bland subdivisions become killing fields for thugs to mete out vengeance. This ability to suggest a topography functioning on multiple levels, often unseen by the very people who reside there, did hold my interest. I also appreciated the moral sketchiness of the police, who prove more fungible in their allegiances than a politician offering his avaricious palm to the highest bidder, along with the cavalier way in which one man invades a kid’s privacy, walking into a bathroom while the kid is showering to deliver an order. Such grittiness invites modest comparison to John Cassavetes’s The Killing of a Chinese Bookie. Michod must be applauded for attempting to break free from the conventional yoke.

The problem here isn’t the execution, but the material. While Guy Pearce (as a detective investigating the operation) and James Frecheville (as an orphaned teenager inducted into the savage criminal life) both deliver strong performances, the movie is so bogged down in plot that it doesn’t quite have enough room in its suitcase for that pivotal mob movie atmosphere. Howard Hawks was courteous enough to give us those enticing Xes scattered quite delightfully across Scarface‘s mise-en-scene. Gordon Willis’s sepia pools of light in The Godfather and Michael Ballhaus’s famous Steadicam club scene in Goodfellas likewise cemented the visual feel of those two masterpieces. And even that dependable Method man Cassavetes, in The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, demanded that his nightclub scenes be shot through gels. Abel Ferrara’s films likewise understand this pivotal balance between the unctuous wheels of organized crime and a theatrical visual palette.

So if these are the standards with which to judge Animal Kingdom, then this particular mob movie doesn’t quite hit the mark. None of the characters here have the personality of Vincent Cassel playing the titular serial killer in Mesrine: Killer Instinct. This is a universe in which most human beings have thrown in their respective towels, no matter where they may be situated on the food chain, and it’s only a matter of time before animal nature kicks in. Yet this movie lacks the curiosity to investigate precisely how these figures got there. Yes, some move into the criminal world by accident or circumstance. But at the risk of dredging up a Heisenbergian aside, a movie so content to wallow in resigned sad sacks doesn’t entirely capture the human condition. Michod is happy to turn vaguely stable souls into animals, but he doesn’t have the courage to suggest indeterminacy. And this inability to fully embrace anarchism is more than a tad incongruous within a mob movie.

Animal Kingdom is certainly stylized in this prefigured inertia. The camera is often static. It is sometimes singular in hue, such as the dark reds captured within a hotel room, whereby figures begin to spin about as if caught in circular existential traps. There’s often the dim drone of a television set playing somewhere in the background or a menacing car in the distance. Michod certainly loves his corridors and often enlists his cinematographer Luke Doolan to shoot them deep. The film is also very solid in its framing. There are some conversations in which shoulders never depart from the shot. But when you have characters say “What’d you let me fall asleep for?” or offer such homilies as “You survive because you’ve been protected by the strong,” it becomes self-evident that Animal Kingdom‘s rigid philosophy is, like Nolan’s films, rooted in a libertarian-minded philosophy that doesn’t account for the full human spectrum. In a world that presents us with such delightful souls as Steven Slater cracking open a beer and shooting down a JetBlue slide, Animal Kingdom, to my minority mind, tackles a needlessly narrow focus.

The Bat Segundo Show: David Mitchell III

David Mitchell appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #350. He is most recently the author of The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. He previously appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #1 — the very program that started it all — along with a two-part podcast from 2006 (Show #54 and Show #55).

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Annoyed by hotel security.

Author: David Mitchell

Subjects Discussed: [List forthcoming]


Mitchell: I think of words as vehicles that convey what is in my imagination into someone else’s. And we’re sort of in a dialogue. Because they don’t just replicate what’s in the imagination. They can alter it. You can mistype and you get a word that actually can be better than the one you meant. Words can feed back and suggest to the imagination, “Well, would it be neater if you imagine this instead?” Language itself is a kind of a writing partner, separate to the writer, who is deploying the language. I think. I think this is true. Has that answered your question?

Correspondent: It sort of does. Actually, there’s one thing I wanted to ask you and that is with Orito. You investigate the flashback of her sexual assault. Yet in the shrine, we don’t really see the true horror of what’s going on. I mean, granted it’s from Orito’s perspective. But I’m wondering why you didn’t really go into what was happening. I mean, she could have observed the engifting. I mean, it sounds horrific in terms of a “what is not seen” standpoint. To use a cinematic idea. But I’m wondering why you didn’t go full-borne. Or if there was a draft where you did in fact go into that dark territory and it proved just too disturbing? I don’t know.

Mitchell: I didn’t know how to do a sex scene that involved engiftment for it to not stink of misogyny. And as a male writer, that’s even worse. You know, in blunt terms, if you can ever hear a writer jerking off as he’s writing, then that’s it. Then the book’s dead. That’s a crude thing to have said.

Correspondent: You can say whatever crude things you like here.

Mitchell: But it’s what I meant. And you kind of know what I mean.

Correspondent: Yeah, I do. But on the other hand, you are dealing with an age from centuries ago where it was in fact a very misogynistic atmosphere.

Mitchell: Oh certainly. Certainly!

Correspondent: You certainly get a lot of that in the book. But I’m just curious why. I mean, don’t we have to really look at these terrible dark feelings squarely in the face in order to really get at the truth?

Mitchell: If it’s happening now — at a place about a quarter of a mile from the Helmsley Hotel that we’ve just been kicked out of in downtown New York, and it’s a social wrong, and women have been trafficked from godforsaken parts of the world and are being exploited like this — dead right. Shine cold hard truth or truth of light onto it. Please. It’s got to be stopped.

This is fiction. Two hundred years ago. And it hasn’t got that same imperative. That wrong, in this day and age, does not exist to be righted. If there’s an echo of Dejima, which is also a place that no longer exists, it’s a novelist’s requisite. That’s what the shrine on Mount Shiranui is. And for me to be offering the scenes — sort of on camera as opposed to off stage, where such physical exploitation is taking place — I think would have gone over a kind of writerly ethical mark in the sand. Which I chose not to go over.

Correspondent: What would that ethical mark in the sand be for you? I mean, it seems to me that other people — like Brian Evenson, who comes to mind — will go across that mark. And by doing so, really risk the idea of being impugned as a misogynist. Even though there is no misogyny in their particular intent. I’m wondering if it’s an overstated concern perhaps on your part. Or whether this is just one of those lines in the sand that you will possibly cross in the future or some capacity. Staring some really terrible truth in the face like that. I mean, you do. Don’t get me wrong. But this is an interesting question.

Mitchell: If it’s a real terrible truth, it has to be stared at the face. If it’s an unreal, made up, quasi-historical fictitious terrible truth, then to be describing institutionalized rape on the page in hard porn vocabulary terms, I feel that it sounds like me jerking off into my laptop. And all of a sudden, 98% of my readers have left the building. And I probably have gone with them, had I been a reader of the book.

Correspondent: Would you call something like Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho jerking off?

Mitchell: Firstly, I can’t say what I’ll be writing in the future. I don’t know. Secondly, to go back to the question that you’ve — well, two questions ago and actually one question ago as well. I don’t begin to sit in judgment on other writers who handle this, who make this call in a different way. And I’ve read that book. And it works very well. It’s distressing and awful and upsetting. And it works very well. And good luck to him really. But here in my book, in The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, it felt wrong. And I’ve had a really blessed life. But I’ve also had enough hurt and pain to know it’s real stuff. And it’s not to be toyed around with just because, “Hey, I’m going somewhere no one else has gone before.” No. You have to treat your own female characters with respect as a male writer. Why I’ll stop being afraid to show the moral hypocrisies going on and the way that these things are justified quite plausibly, quite kindly, by the men who are conducting this kind of farm — that I’m not afraid of at all. Why would I be? But the language that they use. Just like a term like “ethnic cleansing.” These soft little euphemisms when reality is too horrific to be true. What gives? What bends? There’s actually language used to describe it. And these euphemisms. Rendering. Waterboarding. They sound quite pleasant. They sound quite Beach Boy-esque, don’t they? Always watch out when you hear words like that. Because it means reality is too horrific for that spade to be called a spade. Now this kind of thing, I really have to explore in the book. And I do it. And that’s great. But the thing itself that is being euphemized about — this farming of newborn children for purposes I’m not going to talk about, because I don’t want to spoil the book for anyone who hasn’t read it — it’s crucial that I don’t wobble my fingers in that gore in a sort of gratifying, self-regarding, “Look how brave I’m being” kind of a way.

Correspondent: I bring that up because it does resemble the farm that’s in the midsection of Cloud Atlas.

Mitchell: Yeah, it does. Doesn’t it? I hadn’t thought of that. So it does.

Correspondent: And you seem to be really concerned with the idea of slavery. Particularly in the first two parts of the book. And this is why I’m convinced that what we’re talking about here is an interesting fusion between these moral hypocrisies and, of course, the narrative steam engine. At the end, we’ve got the clearly influenced Patrick O’Brian. Which is great and all. But what I’m wondering is: Can you really pursue these dark and dangerous and really heavy topics that involve serious exploitation? I mean, I haven’t even brought up the slave chapter that was from the perspective of Weh. The only time the book slips into the first person. This is also interesting to this question. Can you really explore dark terrain like this and stop short of the mark? That’s the question. Is this something you’re still figuring out?

Mitchell: It is. And it’s an ongoing debate I have with myself. If you feel the book works, then I can and one can. If you feel the book doesn’t work, then perhaps one of the reasons it doesn’t work is because it can’t be done. You do have to slip into — not sexual porn, but a kind of pornography of violence. Maybe you do. I can’t judge my own books. I’ve no idea if they work or not. I never do. Never do.

The Bat Segundo Show #350: David Mitchell III (Download MP3)

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The Bat Segundo Show: Vincent Cassel & Rachel Shukert II

Vincent Cassel and Rachel Shukert both appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #351. Mr. Cassel stars in Mesrine: Killer Instinct, which opens in limited release on August 27, 2010, followed by Mesrine: Public Enemy No. 1 on September 3, 2010. Ms. Shukert is most recently the author of Everything is Going to Be Just Great and previously appeared on Show #217. (The true Shukert completist can also listen to Ms. Shukert on Show #173, where she appears in a group discussion on sex writing.)

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Dodging persuasive serial killers and angry Swiss listeners.

Guests: Vincent Cassel and Rachel Shukert

Subjects Discussed: [List forthcoming]


Correspodnent: Does movement offer a more creative place to establish a character? More so than the backstory, research, or anything?

Cassel: Of course it does. I mean, look, you walk down the street. You see somebody that you’ve never met. And you see him walking. You just see his back. And you already can say a lot of things about him. Is he drunk? Is he somebody sad? Happy? What kind of energy he has. You know, all that.

Correspondent: I’m glad you mentioned that you use different movement. Because I have noticed that about your performances. I mean, Mesrine and your role in Irreversible are two completely different movements. What do you do to prevent yourself from repeating a particular gait? Or a particular walk? Or a particular way of entering a room? Or a way of inhabiting an atmosphere or what not? Do you worry about this? Repeating yourself for each character?

Cassel: No, of course. I mean, I think it’s important that you not do twice the same. But the main reason is that otherwise I get bored. So what I do is that — I’m very instinctive, I have to say. It’s not really something I think of in a very precise way. But I can feel if it’s something — actually sometimes, I start a scene and I have this feeling of deja vu. And sometimes I don’t really understand where it comes from. But that’s enough for me to just [snap] switch to something else and try something else on the moment, and then think about it. Afterwards, I understand. “Oh yeah. I did this on that scene from that movie.” But at the time, on the moment, I don’t really analyze. It’s just a question of feeling. Like most of acting is really.

Correspondent: Have you ever had a situation where an entire scene needed to be altered because you were physically adopting some cliche that you couldn’t quite identify? But it just didn’t feel right.

Cassel: Very much so. Especially in a movie like Mesrine. Because I’m so close to Jean-François Richet, the director. We were literally: get on the set in the morning. We would try. And suddenly something is wrong. Let’s change everything. Because I think acting and moviemaking in general — maybe more for an actor than for a director — it has to be organic. Whatever that word means. You don’t have too much time to think on a movie. It’s very much about the acting and being involved physically in what you do. That’s the only way to see if it’s real or not really. So, yes, you try things. It’s about trying and finding solutions.

* * *

Correspondent: You note of [your future husband] Ben that, as you watched him calmly rub soap into his hands by the communal sink, you realized that you had known all along that you would see him again. I’m wondering what it is about hand hygiene that serves as your personal madeleine.

Shukert: (laughs) I don’t know. I remember that moment. It was very calm. And he didn’t seem surprised to see me. And I had been thinking about him and having this sense that we would bump into each other again. I think it was seeing him doing something that was very mundane. We were at home together. Even like moments now. It felt almost as if we had skipped in time and we were standing in our own bathroom while he was brushing his teeth and I was trying to put my makeup on. Do you know what I mean? It felt very familiar in that sense. It’s sort of an instance of fact seeing somebody washing themselves in some way or grooming.

Correspondent: So really any guy could have come along, if they had done any remotely regular gesture at that point. They could have swept you off your feet!

Shukert: I don’t know. I was definitely in a different place. (laughs)

Correspondent: The title Everything is Going to Be Great comes from a sentiment expressed by Pete — a guy with a girlfriend who you got involved with and who had a problem of hitting on other women in restaurants. Including you. You became involved with him, justified your involvement by noting a Dutch study where a woman’s neural activity at the moment of climax is equal to that of someone in a vegetative state. I must go ahead and ask. Surely hindsight offers the basis of 20/20. Lust may indeed make us do stupid things. But there’s often another reason why we’re driven to the irrational. So I’m wondering why you’re content to throw away this particular introspection.

Shukert: But I feel that it’s really describing that moment more. I feel like later, in the exploration of that relationship, other reasons come to light. The fact that we were both — and I feel that this is there in the book — that sort of explains why I couldn’t slap him across the face in that moment. Do you know what I mean? But as far as getting involved with him later, we were both kind of lost. We were both adrift. I was, at the time, really lonely. And things were not working out the way that they were supposed to. I think I mentioned how he suddenly gauged escape to this adventure that he was supposed to be having. He made it feel like there was a point, that I was here to fall in love and have this incredible adventure. And it turned it into a narrative. It turned it into a story, as opposed to this aimless time-waster. And I feel that if I had been here, if I had been on my home turf, I don’t think that we would have gotten involved. I feel that being abroad, you are off your center of balance. Away from the practical things that you really think about. You’re removed from all of that. And there were so many things I didn’t have to deal with.

The Bat Segundo Show #351: Vincent Cassel & Rachel Shukert II (Download MP3)

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Review: The Expendables (2010)

On Wednesday night, there were two press screening options in New York. The dichotomous choice fell along gender lines. One involved three verbs slammed together in the title and starred Julia Roberts. I had the feeling that it would anger me. The other one involved an aging action star who was still inexplicably given millions of dollars to make movies. Presumably his movies had made money or he was highly persuasive. Since I was too lazy and too busy and too hazy to decide, I naturally went with the choice carefully marketed to appeal to the bulge I was born with, that mighty chorizo contained within my boxers. But because I am committed to the truth, I am sorry to report that I could not summon up an erection during the entirety of The Expendables. I have failed my fellow men. Either that or I have an independent mind.

It’s quite possible that I was distracted by the fact that the 65-year-old Kurt Loder (a man who has, rather sadly, pretended to be young for half his life) was sitting nearby. Loder was there watching (reporting for MTV?) a movie co-written and directed by a 64-year-old action star (also starring) who was trying to recapture his former glory. The irony had not escaped me. It’s quite possible that I was distracted by the rather cheesy-looking CGI dismemberment — a stylistic tic that Stallone had carried over from his last film, Rambo in Denial: Death to the AARP.

But the truth is that I had hoped for more masculinity. More style. More the orphaned action movie I had grown up watching. I expected fading action stars to shoot hard bullets into silly supporting characters and demonstrate their right to cinematic existence by channeling some entirely unforeseen element from a hackneyed script. Dolph Lundgren, for example, redeeming himself for being forced to appear in Universal Soldier: Regeneration. In The Expendables, Lundgren does have a great moment when he stomps a man’s head, the bootprint still visible on his dead opponent’s face, with Lundgren simply replying, “Insect.” But for the most part, Lundgren’s character is fairly useless to the team and negligible to the movie. Yes, there’s a minor scene in which Stallone meets up with Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger. But the scene is so poorly written and pointless that it feels more like a contractually obligated Planet Hollywood commercial filmed fifteen years too late.

I expected men to ride highly efficient killing machines and display an expertise in weapons and destroy mighty topographies in five minutes. But what has Stallone done with The Expendables? Well, he (with fellow Expendable Jason Statham) sets a pier on fire after spilling two lines of fuel from an airplane and igniting the charge. Is that really manhood? Not in my book, if the lessons I learned from VHS are anything to go by. A real man kills twenty men with his bare hands or, if he must, uses weapons with style. And he does it on the ground. Stallone and Statham have to do it from an aircraft. That’s not manhood. That’s cowardice.

Statham does, however, have a rather hilarious moment that pretty much sums up what this film is: namely, a big-budget Golan-Globus homage. Statham, seeing that his former girlfriend has been given a shiner by the man she’s now with (this movie, needless to say, isn’t kind to women: one even gets waterboarded), tracks down the abusive man at a basketball game. He punches the man repeatedly in the face, grabs the basketball, kills it with a knife, and then says, “Next time I’ll deflate all your balls,” while laying on top of him with the blade. And it’s silly juxtapositions like this keep The Expendables a somewhat fun diversion for anyone who once raided the action movie section at a 1980s video store. But for some inexplicable reason, The Expendables doesn’t quite have the courage to go over-the-top. A car chase sequence that should be either silly or preposterously derivative, featuring Jet Li shooting a machine gun in the trunk of a truck, is merely ho-hum. The conclusive hacienda battle wishes to mimic Commando‘s gloriously violent finale. But in Stallone’s hands, it just feels perfunctory.

And let’s face the hard truth. I don’t hate Stallone. But as a director, Stallone isn’t nearly as interesting as Mark L. Lester or the late George P. Cosmatos. What makes a film like Cobra (starring Stallone, directed by Cosmatos) unintentionally entertaining is the bizarre backlighting when the cult is practicing. Yes, it’s a failed artistic choice. But it is a choice. And you have to give Cosmatos credit for trying something different. (Same goes for the exploding soldier near the end of Rambo: First Blood Part II. No, it doesn’t work. But why on earth does Cosmatos bother to build up the tension when this soldier can’t even shoot straight? If you’re anything like me, you’re left wondering about Cosmatos’s strange artistic decisions for years.) Even Lester’s Showdown in Little Tokyo (which shouldn’t be nearly as entertaining as it is) managed to get several funny moments from Dolph Lundgren, an actor who is hardly known for his range. Indeed, with Lundgren so thoroughly wasted in The Expendables, one wishes that Stallone would have done the gentlemanly thing, getting Lester some much-needed work (that is, if Lester’s presently scattershot credits on the IMDB are any indication).

Within these mostly forgotten action movies from two to three decades ago (and not just the ones made by Cannon), there are failed yet interesting efforts to create cinema. There are filmmakers attempting to exert voices, to offer personalities. The guys making these movies are truly having a ball, even when they are making disastrous movies. And what makes The Expendables so frustrating at times is that it wishes to honor these films without putting itself on the line.

The only actor in The Expendables who seems to understand what’s going on is Eric Roberts. This shouldn’t be a surprise, seeing as how Roberts cut his teeth on silly movies like Best of the Best and Blood Red and he is cast (thank you, Stallone!) as the bad guy. Roberts is one of the few working actors whose scenery-chewing appetite only grows with age. That’s intended as a compliment. I’m convinced that if you threw Eric Roberts into the middle of a soporific art house movie, he’d figure out a way to get the pretentious actors to up their game and he’d certainly get the audience awake. If you give the man an apple to smell, as Stallone is good enough to do, he will find a melodramatic way to signify its presence. In The Expendables, Roberts’s character enters the movie shooting a man and uttering the line, “Now I can see inside of him. And I see lies.” Preposterous, right? Absolutely. In the hands of any other actor, this moment would be disastrous. But Roberts manages to sell it. Because Roberts is smart enough to understand that contemporary cinema presently has a paucity of melodramatic villains — which, incidentally enough, was the action movie’s (circa 1989) bread and butter.

I can’t say that I hated The Expendables. But if you really want a lively action flick, you’re better off with Mesrine: Killer Instinct (coming out on August 27th), a must-see gangster movie with a fantastic performance by Vincent Cassel which I’m hoping to find time to write about. If anything, The Expendables has caused me to unintentionally come out as a cheesy action movie fan. Well, so be it. But when a movie causes you to remember its predecessors and its influences, is it really a movie to remember?

Chris Abani Censored by Florida School District

On Friday afternoon, JAX-4 TV reported that Chris Abani’s Graceland — a book that had been placed on a 10th grade summer reading list — was pulled because of a parent objecting to its content. The mother, who contacted JAX-4 anonymously by email, objected to the following passage:

Then, whistling softly under his breath, he began rubbing a cool white paste all over Elvis’s body. It felt good, soothing almost. Jerome smiled as he noted the expression. Still smiling, he took Elvis’s penis in one hand and gently smoothed the paste over it, working it up and down. Elvis felt himself swell. Jerome laughed and massaged Elvis’s penis faster and faster. It was not long before Elvis shuddered and shot semen all over his torturer’s hand.

Of course, if you think that Abani’s passage is hot stuff, consider how tame it is in comparison to the language found within Deuteronomy 23 — which comes from a book that I understand is quite widely available in Jacksonville, Florida:

He that is wounded in the stones, or hath his privy member cut off, shall not enter into the congregation of the Lord. A bastard shall not enter into the congregation of the Lord; even to his tenth generation shall he not enter into the congregation of the Lord.

So castration and violent warnings are okay for kids. But the consensus from this Florida handful is that the Abanai passage isn’t. It remains unclear how many parents objected. But it’s worth pointing out that the book is being banned at the high school sophomore level, not the elementary school level.

JAX-4 reported that the Mandarin High principal agreed with the complaint and proceeded to pull the book from the reading list.

What’s extremely curious is that another Mandarin High summer reading list for this year includes Chimamanda Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus for tenth-grade students. And if Jacksonville parents are truly frightened by the prospect of high school students reading about sexuality, Adichie’s novel features the following passage:

“Obiora says you must be having sex, or something close to sex, with Father Amadi. We have never seen Father Amadi look so bright-eyed.” Amaka was laughing.

I did not know whether or not she was serious. I did not want to dwell on how strange it felt discussing whether or not I had had sex with Father Amadi.

So it seems quite hypocritical to remove one book for sexual description while keeping another openly available. Yet this is precisely the tactic that Duval County Public Schools has taken, fitting in with its prohibitive history.

The Chris Abani ban is hardly the first time that DCPS has removed or attempted to remove books from school libraries. In 1992, J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye was removed from DCPS libraries for “lurid passages about sex.” Additionally, in 1992, Shel Silverstein’s A Light in the Attic was restricted to students who had parental permission to read the book. The cause? Because the book featured a caricature of a bare-bottomed individual stung by a bee. And according to the book Banned in the USA, in 1997, the Reverend Dale Shaw, president of the North Florida Ministerial Alliance, attempted to remove Richard Wright’s Black Boy from libraries, complaining of profanity at a Duval County School Board meeting. “It has historical value,” said Shaw at the time, “but that doesn’t make it right for high school students.”

But what’s the basis for Duval County’s protective approach? How precisely does Abani’s passage offend? Whatever the reason, the authorities in question appear to be just as anonymous as the mother who complained to JAX-4 News. As of Monday afternoon, representatives from DCPS and Mandarin High did not return my telephone calls for comment.

Review: Lebanon (2009)

Back in March, The New York Times published a Michael Kamber essay in which Kamber took The Hurt Locker to task for its “realistic depiction.” While the film went on to garner numerous awards, including the Best Picture Oscar, its apparent inaccuracies were enough to unsettle Kamber and others who had served in combat. Despite The Hurt Locker feeling “realistic” to those who had never set foot into a war zone, the film was a sham for Baghdad vets.

The criticisms against The Hurt Locker are hardly a new development for the war movie. Full Metal Jacket, Flags of Our Fathers, Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor (no surprise), We Were Soldiers, Glory, 300, and Apocalypse Now — just to name a few — have all been saddled with the “inaccurate” charge, leaving one to wonder the war movie’s purpose. Just how accurate does the narrative experience have to be? We accept the subjective nature of a documentary. Why can’t we do so in a cinematic narrative?

It’s possible that Lebanon, which is photographed primarily from a tank’s viewpoint, works as well as it does primarily because it has the audacity to be subjective from the get-go. Aside from an image of flowers that bookends the film’s beginning and end, Lebanon remains quite resolutely within the interior. I have no idea how accurate writer-director Samuel Maoz’s film is in relation to the 1982 Lebanon War, and I don’t very much care. What matters here most is that Maoz has established a horrific simulacrum from personal combat experience. We feel as confined as he once did. His frequent shots of dripping black fluid, the terrible blur of dead bodies thrown into the interior with cold alacrity, the squeals of men being chained up and tortured in multiple languages, and the tank’s terrifying whines as it attempts to tread across a battlefield while both severely damaged and under attack unsettled my senses. But then I have never served in combat. Is Lebanon meant for people like me? Or must I recuse myself from the question of accuracy because of my inexperience? If so, I would happily join the company of Stephen Crane, who wrote The Red Badge of Courage despite never having observed a battle.

Whether one insists upon accuracy or not, Samuel Maoz’s movie has rather bravely taken on the same perspective that we’re used to “seeing” or “perceiving” a military environment from a first-person shooter’s detached comfort zone. Iis the video game’s detached alternative more faithful or “accurate” to the combat experience? If you’ve ever played Call of Duty or Day of Defeat: Source online, you’ll inevitably encounter a server populated by former or active servicemen. One rarely hears these men complaining about the “accuracy” of a first-person shooter, perhaps because the video game is more participatory (and therefore perceived as less agenda-driven) than the war movie.

Some critics have called Lebanon an “anti-war movie,” but I don’t think this simplistic label does Maoz’s film justice. Yes, it does feature moments that discourages damn near anybody from wishing to participate in war. A gunner is ordered to fire upon a building and hesitates when he realizes that people will die. His pause causes a soldier on his side to die. Every action — the decision to fire or the decision to freeze up — has a mortal consequence. But is that anti-war? Or is that reflective of human behavior?

I would argue that it better fulfills the second question. A war movie works not so much for its “accuracy,” but for its willingness to explore uncomfortable or conflicted feelings. I’ve described Lebanon to some friends as “Das Boot in a tank,” but, in hindsight, this is probably too formulaic a description. For Lebanon is courteous enough to remind us that these flawed soldiers are caught within a mobile prison, and that the jail cell extends to curtailed interaction. One young man asks if a message can be sent to his parents and is denied. Another man thinks he speaks another language, but remains unfamiliar with the dialect of the man he needs to talk with. These crushing moments of isolation offer us some idea of the fortitude it takes to stick through a neverending war stint. Perhaps there will be ferocious discussions among about whether Lebanon does such communication among soldiers justice. Maoz has stated that he wishes to open up a dialogue with this movie and get people talking about vital issues. And if a film (or a filmmaker) is open to such dialogue, the question of “accuracy” is largely irrelevant.

The Bat Segundo Show: Adam Ross

Adam Ross recently appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #349. Mr. Ross is most recently the author of Mr. Peanut.

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Caught within the vertiginous sensation of a Mobius strip.

Author: Adam Ross

Subjects Discussed: [List forthcoming]


Ross: I think that what keeps us going day in and day out as we live our lives — and certainly we live our lives, hopefully, as members of caring relationships — is the belief that we can improve and change. And when I think of the idea of change, progress, and the improvability of character, that to me is a belief that character is somewhat linear. Right? That, okay, I learned that lesson back then. I’m never going to do it again. And yet my experience as a guy who’s been successfully married for fifteen years is that the experience of living with someone you care about a great deal for a long period of time is to come up against the reef of circularity, but also to enjoy the bliss of recurrence, right? So it’s paradoxical. There are these competing desires. The closed circles that Mr. Peanut presents. The entrapment, which is the same experience, I think, of looking at Escher. Which is that weird — you look at the art object from the outside. But if you really enter an Escher, you have this perceptual experience, where it’s inescapable and then you have to step back. It’s to me kind of analogous to the experience we often feel with those closest to us. Whether it’s brothers/sisters, mothers/fathers, or husbands/wives, we want to believe that we could get past X. But we often don’t. And that, to me, is the heaven and hell of marriage.

Correspondent: Yeah. So what you are suggesting here….

Ross: I’m suggesting tension. I’m suggesting a tension between those two.

Correspondent: Well, that’s true. But you’re also suggesting that by David embarking on this manuscript, by embarking on his marriage from the outside, and then also actively discouraging himself to look at the actual symbols — everything lines up. That’s really the dilemma that you’re laying down here. And then simultaneously you add an additional meta element by having the reader involved. Because then the reader is looking from the outside from the outside from the outside.

Ross: Yes. Well, let’s — because there’s nothing better to me as the writer than having this kind of a conversation. Because you’re putting your finger exactly onto me. What I was trying to examine. And so the first question I would say, in terms of decoding some aspects of Mr. Peanut is this. When is David writing this? Because essentially the book hints that there is a period of him being terribly blocked. And then there is a period where he is liberated to close the circle. Close the Mobius band, right? At the same time, it is, to me, powerful works of art — a movie that comes to mind just off the top of my head is either something like Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now or the great movie, Francis with Jessica Lange — where the effect of the work is to shock you and stun you. Another book like this would be John Hawkes’s The Lime Twig. Where the power of the nightmare is forceful enough that you emerge from it not just still reeling from the things you’ve seen, but also hopefully more awake to what’s right in front of you in the real. And so the question is: Is the virtual a prophylactic from life? Or does it have this possible saving power? Does a reader — who I bring in and as you say look from the outside in at all these moments that are fraught with conflict and violence and moments of joy and missed opportunities — is the reader there more awake to his or her life? Or, to the reader, is it just another entertainment? Is it just another enchantment? I don’t have the answer to that. My hope would be that it’s a wake-up call. But my experience is that these wake-up calls — we’re on the band also. We’re constantly forgetting. Does that make sense?

Correspondent: No, it totally does. And actually I want to lay out just a sampling of the numerous Hitchcock references in this book to jump off of this point.

Ross: Sure.

Correspondent: You have, for example, Nurse Ritter referencing Thelma Ritter in Rear Window. David encounters business cards made out to Dr. Fred Richmond from Psycho, Dr. Alex Brulov from Spellbound, which is also the name of his software company. Jesslyn Fax is a co-worker of Alice’s, but also the actress who played Miss Hearing Aid in Rear Window.

Ross: Yes.

Correspondent: And so on. So I’m wondering, based off of your last answer, whether there was a specific science in these particular references. Or whether they were all pure MacGuffins. Pure ways of detracting the reader, of inviting the reader to look in at something — again, going back to the question of semiotics — that is either complete bullshit. Or whether there is any kind of remote justification. Or whether it was just you having fun. Again, it works on this level of “Here, reader, look from the outside. But if you peer in, you will find nothing.”

Ross: I’ve been watching Hitchcock films intensively for twenty years. And it would be pure postmodern kitsch — pure postmodern trash — if those references didn’t have, as it were — that they didn’t rhyme thematically. In fact, there is, throughout the novel, a semiotics of naming which you’ve already put your finger on. And with some of the names you’ve already brought up for instance. Ward Hastroll is an anagram for Lars Thorwald [Raymond Burr’s character from Rear Window]. It’s the Hastroll section in terms of the way names are used. And not just names. They’re the Escher obverse of Rear Window. So, for instance, and I’ll only give a few of these away, but to give you an idea that there is method to the madness, I mean, the newlyweds that Ward Hastroll interviews are named the same actors in Rear Window.

Correspondent: Yes.

Ross: And if you go through, it actually in some ways — for instance, in that case — it modernizes the conflict that the couple has in Rear Window. Ross Bagdasarian is the name of the piano player in Rear Window. And his wife — that’s Judith, he says — is the woman who’s also named Miss Lonelyhearts. And so they clearly — in that one quick cameo that Ross Bagdasarian has — they clearly had a happy life. But now their life is fading from memory because of his Alzheimer’s. So there’s that. There is the superstructure. But more importantly, in the Sheppard section — and I wouldn’t want to give too much of this away, because I’m waiting for people like yourself to start really dealing with it. The Sheppard section is comprised both in terms of content and certain kinds of rhyming themes of multiple Hitchcock narratives. Vertigo plays an enormous part, both in terms of content and thematically in the Sheppard section. Shadow of a Doubt. Strangers on a Train. Marnie. Rear Window. To name but a few. Spellbound, as you said, does reemerge. I could go on. North by Northwest. Which also has its very clear semiotics of the kind of spy action caper. Because I think Hitchcock, at the time, was very tired of the action caper MacGuffin and wanted to introduce an element of absurdity. So, for instance, Cary Grant’s wallet in North by Northwest — this teeny little wallet — never empties of money. And he’s constantly doling out cash throughout the whole film. Little tricks like that. A Hitchcock scholar will start to enter that labyrinth and will start to see a way in which these themes — even on the level of mise en scene. I mean, if you look at the way certain characters are dressed in the Sheppard section, and where they go to buy clothes, it is not just using Hitchcock locales and settings.

The Bat Segundo Show #349: Adam Ross (Download MP3)

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Review: The Other Guys (2010)

For the record, I enjoyed Anchorman. I was lukewarm on Talladega Nights. I skipped Step Brothers. But now that I have seen Adam McKay’s disastrous cop-buddy comedy, The Other Guys, I think that I can safely conclude that McKay is turning into a gutless fauxteur more on the level of Dennis Dugan rather than Judd Apatow. He’s a man who might improve his floundering artistry, were he to live by a more literal mantra of the comedy website he co-created with Will Ferrell. Had there been some creep screaming “Funny or Die!” into McKay’s tinnital ears every five minutes or a psychotic aiming a gun at McKay and his co-writer Chris Henchy as they were banging out their flaccid script, it is quite possible that The Other Guys would not be such a stunning sack of shit. At least I’d like to think so. And I’d like very much to believe that McKay is more than Anchorman. I am, after all, an optimist at heart. But the truth here is that McKay has turned out a film that is worse than Kevin Smith’s Cop Out, a movie that is not even worth folding your laundry by. That alone takes a stunning paucity of talent. McKay’s mind is a Costco storehouse of discount humor. He’ll point his mass audience in the right direction. But when it comes time to make a purchasing decision, you’re limited to the stock at hand. You’re then forced to stand in line a very long time for only a few saved bucks. And your only real consolation is the cheap hot dog on the way out.

The cheap hot dog in question is a series of helpful infographics playing during the closing credits, featuring such left-leaning stats as the plummeting value of an average American’s 401K account, the uptick in the average executive’s salary, and the growing disparity between the rich and the poor. There was a part of me very tempted to give McKay more of a pass for having the audacity to pull an unexpected progressive parlor trick at the end of a multiplex film. But then I remembered that I had just endured a particularly unfunny film, sitting next to two annoying ringers who laughed at every dud, that had contained abundant misogynist jokes and several strange potshots at the eco-friendly Toyota Prius. And if McKay wanted to make a statement about corporate greed within a mainstream comedy, then why didn’t he have the balls to do it during the preceding 90 minutes?

I’ve called McKay “gutless.” I’ve called him a “fauxteur.” Let me explain. McKay is gutless because he features a potentially funny scene in which two cops address an elementary school classroom, pointing out that African-Americans and Hispanics are more likely to get involved in crime. These are, of course, racially insensitive remarks. The camera cuts to a reaction shot. And the true horror of what these two cops are saying might have been funny and disturbing if the kids had been composed entirely of African-Americans and Hispanics, an ironic twist that would have improved the joke. But in the reaction shot, it’s a largely Caucasian crowd. McKay is a fauxteur because he doesn’t understand that repeating a gag several times over a movie doesn’t necessarily make it funny — particularly if it’s a tired cultural reference. Case in point: Will Ferrell’s character, Allen Gamble, likes to play Little River Band to rev up his masculinity. It’s somewhat funny to hear “Reminiscing” once, groan-inducing the second time, and nauseating the third time. (Also, if Gamble really was into “River Band,” would his taste not extend into tunes beyond the popular hits?)

Just as McKay disguised his Talladega inadequacies by casting Sacha Baron Cohen as a very funny Frenchman, he resorts to casting a British comedic legend (Steve Coogan this time) to quickly paint over the cracks in the wall. Alas, the astute McKay viewer will recognize quite rapidly just how much the man is slumming it. The criminally underused Michael Keaton fares better than Coogan and even finds some ways of improving the material with his performance, offering a spontaneous wink just after a so-so line to get a big laugh. But these living legends are merely the supporting players.

So it falls upon Mark Wahlberg and Will Ferrell to anchor the comedy. Both fail spectacularly. In Wahlberg’s case, it’s not his fault. He previously demonstrated that he had comic timing as a stiff sergeant in Martin Scorsese’s The Departed. But in The Other Guys, McKay has directed him to be a one-note caricature of that role. And his presence becomes needlessly tedious. Wahlberg’s character, Terry Hoitz, is stuck to his desk because he accidentally shot Derek Jeter. (Because of this, he is partnered with Ferrell’s Gamble, which I’ll get to in a mite.) Hoitz has an estranged relationship with a ballet teacher and even shows up at her studio to demonstrate his dance moves. But Wahlberg just doesn’t have the material to sell his character. He rants and complains about his failure to get some action on the streets, about Gamble’s reluctance to take a radio call. He makes goo goo eyes at Gamble’s wife. But none of these qualities offer us enough to care.

As for Ferrell, one must now ask the perfectly reasonable question of whether the man is still funny. I’m becoming increasingly convinced that he’s blown his wad and will end up starring in lackluster family films like Eddie Murphy: a withered husk of whatever jones he had in the first place. Allen Gamble falls into the same one-note Ferrell archetype. Suburban middle-aged dork has a crazy past and a wild streak that comes out from time to time. Which we saw before with Old School‘s Frank Ricard and on countless Saturday Night Live sketches more than a decade ago. In this case, before he became a police accountant, Gamble was a pimp in college. Aside from the fact that a police background check would make it utterly impossible for Gamble to be employed, the flashback that reveals this backstory relies not so much on wit or character detail, but on Ferrell increasingly resembling a pimp. Chains appear around his neck. He starts to talk in ghetto cliches. In short, it’s the kind of humor one can easily discover in a high school drama class, not what one expects of comedy professionals.

Hoitz and Gamble are paired together, but they never get any action on the streets (thus motivating the movie’s raison d’etre: “comedy” fused with noisy car chases and constant shoe pilfering). These guys are NYPD office drones. Gamble sifts through paperwork and finds the buildings erected without construction permits. And all this is, in Hoitz’s eyes, rather boring. The movie could have had a stronger premise if it had played this idea up. What if Hoitz and Gamble, these ostensible bureaucratic stiffs, actually uncovered greater danger than the assaults, robbery, and mayhem on the streets? Certainly, the end credits suggest that this angle may have been a stronger priority in an earlier screenplay draft. But had the film maintained this emphasis — similar to Ron Burgundy’s sexist values being challenged by the 21st century or the clash between Ricky Bobby and Jean Girard in Talladega Nights — it would have played more to McKay’s comedic strengths: namely, finding the comedy within ideological conflict.

But McKay and company appear more interested in wallowing in misogyny. Gamble is ridiculed for having a man purse. “I feel like we’re literally driving around in a vagina,” says Hoitz upon driving in Gamble’s Prius. Gamble gives Hoitz a gift: an FBI mug that spells out the acronym FEMALE BODY INSPECTOR. But McKay reveals just how much of a women-hating frat boy he is by having Eva Mendes show up as Gamble’s wife. The joke here is that Will Ferrell can’t possibly have married such an attractive woman. But despite Mendes’s character being a resident doctor, we never really see Dr. Sheila Gamble at work. We see her constantly cooking, constantly encouraging, and being told by Ferrell that her dinner tastes like dog testicles. And what’s the draw here in the relationship? That the Gambles have wild sex. It apparently hasn’t occurred to McKay that Mendes’s character may possess a professional life that supersedes such throwback I Love Lucy duties. Contrary to McKay’s fantasies, women are interested in more things than fucking and supporting their men. So it turns out that Ron Burgundy’s misogyny isn’t terribly removed frmo McKay’s. And if that isn’t enough, McKay thinks it’s funny that the homeless here like to engage in circlejerks (“It’s called a soup kitchen!”) within any abandoned Prius.

Much like a loutish neighbor who believes that skimming an issue of The Economist makes him a responsible citizen, The Other Guys would like its audience to think that its a liberal bomb trapped within a mainstream comedy. Hardly. The comedy here is a bit like watching a white supremacist group attempt to make sense of Brown vs. Board of Education. You really hope that the participants will become enlightened, but the atavism won’t go away.

Hate Mail Dramatic Reading Project #10

Earlier in the day, I had emailed a “journalist” some off-the-record information — no specific quotes, just some key data that he might wish to investigate for a story. I believed that this information might be of help to him. Despite being clear to point out to the “journalist” that the email sent to him was “off the record” and that I could not divulge the specific quotes or the absolute specifics out of respect to my subject, the “journalist” violated my trust and posted the email anyway. I then telephoned the “journalist,” asking him to remove the post in a firm yet polite tone.

This “journalist” then emailed me an ALLCAPS email. Who sends emails in ALLCAPS anymore?

Therefore, my audio series — Hate Mail Dramatic Reading Project — must continue.

The following clip represents my dramatic reading of the hate mail in question, read in the style of Mel Gibson talking on the telephone. The names have been changed.

I plan to continue reading any and all hate mail that arrives my way. And I will be happy to read any specific hate mail that you’ve received. (If you do send me hate mail for potential dramatic readings, I only ask that you redact the names of the individuals.)

Click any of the below links to listen.

Hate Mail Dramatic Reading Project #10 (Download MP3)

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Previous Hate Mail Dramatic Reading Installments:

#9 A hate mail read in the style of Tennessee Williams
#8 A hate mail read in the style of Jimmy Stewart
#7 A hate mail read in the style of Glenn Beck
#6 A hate mail read in the style of a Miss Manners schoolmarmish tone
#5 A hate mail read in the style of Richard Milhous Nixon
#4: A hate mail read in the style of a drunken Irishman.
#3: A hate mail read in the style of a quiet sociopath
#2: A hate mail read in a muted Peter Lorre impression
#1: A hate mail read in a melodramatic, quasi-Shakespearean style