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NYFF: The Social Network Press Conference

[This is the sixth in a series of dispatches relating to the 2010 New York Film Festival.]

“It’s fundamentally the same application for myself. It became clear to me after my first reading of the script that, uh, there was going to be, uh, the version of this person, my character in the film, that he wasn’t sort of the hero, so to speak. And, but, no one sits behind a – you know, I obviously, I’m not, you never play anything sitting behind a laptop, you know, twirling your moustache. I think that, like Jesse said, it doesn’t matter – that’s the beauty of this film to me. Uh, just that you really get to pick, uh, sort of who you side with. And I had a friend who recently screened the film and said to me, I thought it was really telling things, as soon as he walked out, he said, ‘You know, I don’t agree with anyone in this movie. But I don’t disagree with this movie.’ Speaking about all the characters, I think that’s what, what kind of makes the dynamic of these three characters tick. But, uh, I feel like you defend your character. No one believes what they’re doing is wrong in life and, and, and so I feel like….”

The above incoherence, which demands a sentence diagramming army led by a Patton-like grammarian, did not come from Sarah Palin. These words were uttered by Justin Timberlake on Friday morning, who appeared at the Social Network press conference in dorky eyeglasses (prescription or ironic aesthetic?) and didn’t seem to understand that, for once, the event didn’t center around him.

“I feel like you’re looking at me,” said Timberlake after Jesse Eisenberg and Andrew Garfield had offered thoughtful remarks on how they felt empathy for the real-life figures they were playing, “and you want me to add what they said as well. I also have empathy for other human beings, thank you.”

It is safe to say that a man who is set to turn thirty in a few months — indeed, one who has been at the receiving end of several hundred interviews — should have a better ability to speak. But as both the film and the press conference demonstrated, Timberlake is at his best when he is given lines to recite or rudimentary causes to champion.

“I don’t have a personal Facebook page,” said Timberlake later, when a reporter asked all on stage (save moderator Todd McCarthy) about their Facebook presence. “But it is nice to know that, through the world of philanthropy, for instance, that you can send out a message and, for instance, raise money for free health care for kids. I mean, it’s a fantastic thing.”

“I’ve heard of Facebook the way I’ve heard of the carburetor,” answered screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, “but I can’t pop the hood of my car, point to it, and tell you what it does.”

Indeed, the presence of Sorkin at one end of the stage and Timberlake at the other suggested a deliberately arranged spectrum of intellect. Perhaps an inside joke from the fine folks at the Film Society of Lincoln Center. But that speculation wouldn’t be fair to the three men sitting in the middle (much less Todd McCarthy, sitting to Sorkin’s right): respectively, Fincher, Eisenberg, and Garfield.

On playing Facebook co-founder Eduardo Saverin, Garfield noted that Saverin seemed “warm, yet kind of reserved.” There was very little documentation to go on, which granted Garfield some wiggle room to invent.

“I had minimal to go from,” said Garfield, “which was actually quite liberating. Even though I did try to find him in a very obtuse and uncommitted way. But it would have been really interesting. Because, of course, if you’re playing someone who really exists, and who is living and breathing somewhere, you kind of feel a massive sense of responsibility to not ruin them on screen. Because we’re all human.”

Eisenberg confessed that he had developed a greater affection for Facebook honcho Mark Zuckerberg while doing press for The Social Network.

“You have no choice,” he explained. “It’s impossible to disagree with a character that you’re portraying. We shot the movie for about five and a half months. And they were very long days. And you’re spending a lot of time working to defend your character’s behavior. So even if the character is acting in a way that hurts other characters, you still have to understand and ultimately sympathize with that character. It’s impossible to play it any other way.”

Sorkin stated that he didn’t think his script was about Facebook, pointing out that he “thought it was a movie that has themes as old as storytelling itself.” He then compared his work to Chayefsky, Shakespeare, and Aeschylus, pointing out that he hoped the deal with friendship, loyalty, and class – the same themes that these masters did. “Luckily for me, none of these people were available. So I got to write about it.”

Fincher viewed The Social Network as an opportunity to dial his pyrotechnic style down.

“There’s no problem in sublimating your desire to show off if what you’re presenting is something that you think is going to take,” said Fincher. “I mean, originally, the script began. It was in black. And you hear the voices over the black. And I kind of wondered, well, why don’t we just see the Columbia logo and start hearing them then? And hear the jukebox and hear all the people talking and let people know, ‘Pin your ears back, man. You got to pay attention.’ Because if we can start over the trailers of other movies, that’s what I want. And at one point, we talked about the notion of putting the credits over that opening scene. So it was like jukebox, cacophony, people, burger plates, two people talking over each other, and unit production manager. Information overload.”

Technology, for Fincher, represented the double-edged sword of “more options” for today’s filmmakers. He noted that a regatta sequence that appears midway through the film, containing approximately 100 CGI environmental shots, was shot on July 4th. This was less than two months before Fincher needed to have the movie locked for prints.

“The way we make movies has changed radically in the last ten years,” said Fincher. “I mean, I’m able to be in two or three different places at once. I have video tests of rehearsals that are happening in Uupsala right now that are being downloaded so that I can look at them when I go back to the hotel room. So that I can say, ‘This is how I want my parade float to appear on Sunday morning.’ I mean, obviously, that’s a great thing.”

Sorkin stated that he and producer Scott Rudin aggressively courted Facebook in an attempt to secure Zuckerberg’s cooperation on the film.

“Mark ended up doing exactly what I would have done,” said Sorkin, “which was decline. We also told him at the time that, whether they participated or not, we would show them the script when the script was done. And we would welcome any notes that they had. So we did give them the script. And their notes largely had to do with hacking. That there was a little bit of hacking terminology that I’d gotten wrong unsurprisingly. I know that there was a rumor a day or two ago that Mark had been spotted at a screening. I doubt it.”

Fincher was later asked about whether anything was sensationalized or sexed up for the movie. He gave the floor to Sorkin, who replied, “None.”

“I’m not going to sell any tickets by making this statement,” said Sorkin, “but I have to tell you that there is less sex in this movie than there is any two minutes of Gossip Girl. Nothing in the movie was invented for the sake of Hollywoodizing it or sensationalizing it. There are, as I explained, because of the three different versions of the story that were given not just in the deposition rooms, but there was a lot of first-person research that I did with people who are characters in the movie and people who were close to the event – most of whom were speaking to me on a condition of anonymity. And there were a lot of conflicting takes. So there are going to be a lot of people saying, ‘That’s not true. That didn’t happen.’ Just as they’ve been saying that since 2003. The work that I did was exactly the same as the work that any screenwriter does on any nonfiction film. When Peter Morgan writes The Queen, he’s going from fact to fact to fact. But Peter Morgan wasn’t in Queen Elizabeth’s bedroom when they were talking about their daughter-in-law. Moreover, and more important, people don’t speak in dialogue. Life doesn’t play out in scenes. There’s work that the dramatist does. But nothing was invented. Certainly nothing was sexualized in order to amp up the temperature on the movie.

The conference concluded with a chunky, pipsqueaked hack journalist — in desperate need of a haircut and elocution lessons — asking a question about whether The Social Network represented a “departure” for Fincher.

“Because it doesn’t involve somebody aging backwards or because it doesn’t involve serial killers?” replied Fincher, who offered a look as if he had just learned of a last minute dental appointment set for the next morning.

The hack journalist foolishly continued with his inane inquiry.

Fincher sighed. Then he said, “You know, I’d like to give it a lot of really deep thought, but I probably won’t.” He politely presented the hack journalist with the boilerplate answer he so desperately coveted. Then the conference came to a close.

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NYFF: The Social Network

[This is the fifth in a series of dispatches relating to the 2010 New York Film Festival.]

A biopic which deals with a dead VIP is one thing, but the unceasing celerity of our present age demands art that skewers the self-important monsters enforcing their limited and autocratic viewpoints on the way we live (and, in the worst of cases, profiting from this egotism). The Social Network, which is one of David Fincher’s best movies and is among the sharpest material that Aaron Sorkin has ever written for film or television, is a highly entertaining movie possessed of such stones, with one endlessly intriguing, Asperger’s-like, socially clueless, self-made Napoleon (that is, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg) as its central character. It is so quietly yet deliciously brutal in its depiction of the world’s youngest (and loneliest) billionaire that the real-life Zuckerberg may have a tough time finding new bona-fide friends who don’t happen to share his continued entomological view of the human race. (Curiously enough, earlier this week, it was discovered that Zuckerberg donated $100 million to the Newark public school system, complete with the apparent allegation that Zuckeberg had intended to do so anonymously. The philanthropy’s suspicious timing, coming a week before The Social Network‘s release, carries the telltale whiff of a convenient distraction. The movie couldn’t come at a better time.)

Yet one is tempted to pity both the real-life Zuckerberg (and his cinematic representation) for this behemoth’s sheer failure to comprehend the totality of his possibly assholic nature. (In the film’s opening scene, Zuckerberg is literally declared an asshole at the aptly named Thirsty Scholar Pub. Later, he is told, “You’re not an asshole, Mark. You’re just trying so hard to be.” Perhaps due to legal reasons, the film chooses to dance around the question of whether Mark Zuckerberg really is an asshole. Or maybe Fincher and Sorkin wish the audience to determine its own answer. Unlike Facebook, “asshole” does not have to be a variable.) Whether Zuckerberg is an asshole or not, at film’s end, this Little Lord Fauntleroy is very much alone, despite the 400 million users on Facebook. He faces (if you’ll pardon the pun) a woman who can size him up without a computer and who can deactivate his likability (a variable just as applicable the courtroom, but one that doesn’t require a logarithm) with a single question. And not even the laptop or the considerable fortune that Zuckerberg clings to can save him from the pitiful truth of his solitary and outmoded existence.

I mention this plot development, while trying to be coy about this conclusive exchange, simply because I fear that Fincher and Sorkin will face some criticism for the way that women are treated in this film. They may be intending to remark upon the throwback “gentlemen from Harvard” virus that managed to seize the tech industry in the last decade (still seen in such overblown conferences as Tools of Change that feature more dicks, both literally and temperamentally, than a stag club or a fraternity in an elitist Ivy League school). Yes, there are women who practice law in the two trials framing the flashback narrative. But the film does make the choice to portray women as groupies who blow Zuckerberg and co-founder Eduardo Saverin in bathroom stalls. When two of these women ask what they can do during the early days of Facebook (then known as TheFacebook), it is implied that there is no role for them. And the men behind these dot coms (including Napster’s Sean Parker, also depicted in the film, of which more anon) have difficulty remembering the names of the women they sleep with – an interesting irony, in light of Facebook being built upon hard objective data and its later efforts to seize control of the words and images generated or shared by its users.

Thus, there can be no doubt that this misogyny originates from Zuckerberg, and that it was this very atavistic attitude that fueled Facebook’s massive development. With Sorkin wisely quoting Zuckerberg’s real-life LiveJournal entries (in which Zuckerberg called his ex-girlfriend a “bitch” and compared her to an animal), this is one of many brilliant instances in which Sorkin uses airtight facts (gleaned from Ben Mezrich’s The Accidental Billionaires and, as Sorkin intimated in the post-screening press conference I attended, independent research from anonymous sources) to not only reveal an asshole without naming him as one, but to damn a world that, as Joanne McNeil has recently observed of the Apple Store’s glass staircases, prefers clean and functional aesthetics to sound moral judgment.

There are some very minor moments in which Fincher and Sorkin telegraph some of these points a bit too much, particularly with the needlessly ironic casting of Justin Timberlake as Napster founder Sean Parker. Timberlake is a charming enough screen presence, but he simply doesn’t have the sheer moth-attracting neo-blueblood light that the fast-talking Jesse Eisenberg has as Zuckerberg, much less the Harvard boy-next-door aw-shucks naivete of Andrew Garfield as Saverin. (Saverin, a business major, is so intoxicated by Facebook – even after Zuckerberg cuts loose to California without him – that he doesn’t even read the legal papers he has to sign, little realizing that he has been screwed over by Zuckerberg, his only real friend and co-founder.) But I think Fincher is smart enough to be cognizant of this imbalance. During the first meeting between Parker, Zuckerberg, and Saverin, Fincher stages a good portion of the scene with the dialogue remaining silent. Appletinis and enticing sushi are brought to the table, as yet another jagged yet rocking music cue from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross plays, leaving Timberlake to bounce war stories off the wild-eyed admirer Zuckerberg. It is Parker who serves as an encouraging older brother figure to Zuckerberg (curiously, the film doesn’t mention anything about Zuckerberg’s family), who offers perfectly sound advice (“Lose the ‘The,’” he says during the TheFacebook.com days), and who sees entrepreneur Roy Raymund’s suicide not as a parable, but as a tale to inspire empowerment.

But I’m being needlessly pedantic. Really, this is an excellent movie that no self-respecting filmgoer of any type should miss. The Social Network breezes by at such a breaknecking speed that I truly believed a mere thirty minutes had transpired when The Beatles’s “Baby You’re a Rich Man” played during the closing credits.

Some might see The Social Network as “a departure” for Fincher (as one extremely idiotic journalist suggested at the post-screening press conference, leaving a visibly flustered Fincher to point out politely that he doesn’t work this way), because the film limits its technical tomfoolery to actor Armie Hammer playing a pair of identical twins (Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss – the “Winklevii,” as Zuckerberg condescendingly calls them – who saw the conceptual framework for their Harvard Connection stolen by Zuckerberg). These same people have forgotten that Fincher has managed to get great performances out of his actors (Robert Downey, Jr. in Zodiac, the cast of Seven, Brad Pitt and Edward Norton in Fight Club) and remains quirky enough to cast at least one musician in a supporting role (here, Timberlake; in previous films, Dwight Yoakam in Panic Room, Meat Loaf in Fight Club, and so forth).

Fincher has shot The Social Network on RED, an imperfect but evolving digital camera system that feels right for Facebook’s inevitably ephemeral legacy. Cinematographer Jeff Cronenwerth keeps the first hour’s palette confined to Bostonian browns and reds. A chicken ensnared within a cage recalls the incarcerated bird within Erich von Stoheim’s Greed. There’s a rapid-fire rowing race montage midway through the film that recalls Fincher’s early music videos, but it also signifies a slight narrowing of perspective for any of the audience members who haven’t yet caught onto one of the film’s visual motifs. For as the Facebook story unfolds, Fincher includes many shots in which the backgrounds are deliberately out-of-focus, a vicarious signal to the audience that Zuckerberg and his enemies can’t see much beyond their own hollow bubbles. (This includes one of Sean Parker’s conquests, in our first introduction to him, removing her clothes in the fuzzy background. And it’s also used quite well in another scene in which a silk scarf burns in a background blur.)

I haven’t yet commended Aaron Sorkin’s language. Sorkin, as usual, writes in a way that is, well, undeniably Aaron Sorkin. Like Mamet’s dialogue, Sorkin writes more with parallel precision than absolute verisimilitude. But it works incredibly well here. Sorkin finds a remarkably adept balance between his usual pursuits of heady-sounding but ultimately pedantic subject matter (the film starts off with a consideration that the United States has more people with genius IQs than China) and Matt Zuckerberg’s arrogant technobabble. This results in some great zingers that go well beyond the “I believe I deserve some recognition” now made famous by the trailer.* “Did I adequately answer your condescending question?” replies Zuckerberg in condescension to an attorney during a deposition. Larry Summers is depicted in one scene, when the Winklevii desperately petition him to seek early redress for Zuckerberg’s theft. “Punch me in the face,” he says to his secretary upon hearing the Winklevii’s feeble request. “You want to buy a Tower Records?” says Parker to Saverin, when attempting to demonstrate consequential change that the failed Napster was able to make.

So The Social Network isn’t just that rare film where popular and critical audiences will likely leave the theater happy. It’s very much a film of our times, for our times. It’s a near-perfect synthesis of pitch-perfect direction, great writing, and incredible characters. It’s a gripping two hour experience depicting the pleasures and pitfalls of living in a digital world, but, unlike its subject, The Social Network lets its audience question the authority, and, in so doing, respects them.

* – As an aside, considering the recent YouTube and Twitter parodies, I’m wondering if any movie trailer has generated nearly as many homages in recent memory.

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Review: Enter the Void (2009)

The Void, in Gaspar Noe’s third feature film, is a Tokyo nightclub. This being a Gapar Noe film, the Void is somewhat dicey. It isn’t nearly as bad as the Rectum, that sleazy nightclub with the annoying audio pulse and the vengeful men running in with the fire extinguisher, which appeared at the beginning (the end!) of Irreversible, or even another strip club down the street from the Void. But this does leave one to naturally wonder if Noe’s second film was originally titled Enter the Rectum.

Does Noe considers his audience to be on the receiving end of a two hour sodomizing session? I’m happy to report that I didn’t feel sodomized by Enter the Void – in large part because I think I’ve caught onto what Noe’s trying to do. He presents himself as a provocateur, but he’s really more interested in chronicling an entirely ridiculous human experience on film – masked by the “intensity” of ten minute rape scenes, creepy incest, crude drug addiction, and the like – and seeing if the audience will accept it. This makes Gaspar Noe more of a carnival barker (and personally I have no problem with this) than a bona-fide behavioral chronicler, although I suspect Noe, like any desperate man who thinks he is a revolutionary, would argue that he is serious. (This may also explain why his three feature films have become progressively less “real” and more centered around some outre cinematographic approach. In the case of Enter the Void, the film starts from the perspective of Oscar, a drug dealer tripping the not so fantastic in his Tokyo apartment. And when I say it is from his perspective, the film is literally what he sees through his eyes – a technique that hasn’t been attempted at length since Robert Montgomery’s Lady in the Lake.)

Because most audience members are likely to be shocked (four critics walked out of the press screening I attended: they clearly didn’t know what they were missing!), Noe wins the “game” by default. And for those who hate his movies, the ones who stick around out of obligation or because they don’t want Noe to win, Noe still wins because this audience doesn’t get it.

And then there’s the rest of us: the ones who accept Noe’s films, finding varying degrees of admiration (this funny Frenchman certainly isn’t devoid of talent), but who eventually grow out of them. The last time Noe tried to tie me up in one of his artistic dungeons, I was in my twenties and thus more impressionable. It was a badge of honor to sit through a Gaspar Noe film to the bitter end and find a way to appreciate it. And even though I still admire Irreversible (and, for that matter, I Stand Alone), I don’t think that Noe’s films are going to hold up very well. Before Enter the Void (and in tandem with my recent interview with Vincent Cassel), I decided to watch Irreversible for the first time in eight years. While I still appreciated Noe’s narrative technique (a scene unfolds, and is subsequently followed up with another scene before it), the handheld camera and the long takes (to say nothing of the homophobia) made the movie feel very much like a bad trip-hop band or an angry zine editor from the 1990s who didn’t realize he was repeating an endless cycle: it was something forgotten for a very good reason.

Noe’s approach is very similar to the behavior of an online troll. And it’s too bad that Noe feels the need to cloak his films like this. Because it will cause otherwise astute yet easily offended filmgoers from appreciating his visual innovations and his creative audacity. Here is a man who is willing to include a shot of a vagina, taken from the inside, with the cock sliding in and out. It’s a silly and brazen image, one that recalls the many giant penises throbbing within Ken Russell’s greatly underrated Lisztomania. But no real cultural appreciator can discount a filmmaker who has the balls (so to speak) to risk ridicule like this. (Childish, you say? Lowbrow? Obscene? Well, what makes Noe’s cock any worse than the asshole kissing in “The Miller’s Tale?” Which is not to suggest that Noe should be compared with Chaucer. I don’t want to feed the man’s ego if he’s reading this. But propriety is too delimiting a value with which to assess or experience art.)

So it’s frustrating that Gaspar Noe has given us his best film with Enter the Void, styling it with so many reckless yet incredible ideas (a drug experience captured from first-person; an effort to depict the experience of dying from several camera angles; the camera transcending voyeurism and actually entering a character’s head while fucking; a stripper dancing around a pole from a top angle, with the camera capturing the crude leers of the audience; an overview of Tokyo with cardboard cars and buildings rendered flat; the hilariously inappropriate end credits not appearing at the end, causing uncomfortable audience members to flee the theater before their thoughts are read by others – to name but a few), while lacking the courage to be an adult. Certainly the best way to appreciate a Gaspar Noe film is to accept Gaspar Noe as Gaspar Noe. And the film’s first hour is the most focused work that Noe has done as a filmmaker. It is steeped in isolation and loss, with an older figure, just as dissolute, approaching the young DMT-craving Oscar with new ideas on how to live (and giving him The Book of the Dead). This is all primitive philosophy, to be sure (as is the cosmic camera featured throughout the film, shuttling between live and dead characters; one is viscerally struck by the idea of stray souls conveyed as radio signals, yet when one stops to think about the idea…). As a filmmaker, Noe has never been what one might call a deep thinker. But I appreciated the way that Noe made an attempt to offer a crude framework for his shopworn street material. (And I would argue that Noe’s reliance upon silly character developments and his view of his own characters as mere playthings is his primary weakness, the very quality that prevents him from being one of our greatest filmmakers.) The film sustains this tone for quite a while before Noe the Adolescent returns yet again, playing the incest card in an utterly camp way. (“Do you remember that promise we made?” might almost be viewed as a postmodern line conveying the covenant between audience and filmmaker. There’s one moment midway through the film where “Gaspar” is named as the guy entering a character into a seedy locale. At least this time around, Noe is more transparent about the “game” at work here, which is also mirrored by a prominent portion of the film photographed solely from the back of a character’s head.)

No doubt Noe would accuse me of succumbing to petite-bourgoisie values in my older age for expecting more out of him or for hoping for artistic evolution beyond the visual. (I would reply by showing him by extremely shaky bank statement and my punkass book collection.) But while Enter the Void is very much a movie that I can recommend to a cineaste who doesn’t have a stick up his ass (and one that I will probably see again), I’m wondering if Gaspar Noe even has a persuasive fourth feature film in him, or even a movie that can stand toe-to-toe with someone like Bunuel or Pasolini, both of whom were more genuinely interested in perverse human behavior. You’d think that a man in his mid-forties would have worked out most of his adolescent expressive fixations by now. While the film world certainly needs a guy like Noe, maybe this is all Gaspar Noe has to give the film world.

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Some Annoucements

Due to my inability to secure a reliable broadband connection after a recent move (a lengthy Kafakesque tale that is currently without end) and an apparent spate of mental fatigue that friends and loved ones have had the kindness to help me identify (I believe the question “Are you out of your fucking mind?” is what encouraged me to come to my senses), there are a few things I need to announce.

1. My coverage of the New York Film Festival will continue, but at a reduced clip. With so many enticing films on the schedule, I had initially envisaged a Herculean commitment, where I might write essays for the lion’s share of the titles. What I failed to account for in my enthusiasm was my involvement with several other projects. I do have a great deal of energy, but everyone does have an omega point. And it became quite evident that hitting nearly every press screening while working on these other things was akin to fighting a two (or three!) front war. So I’ve decided to sit out more days than originally planned. But there are a great deal of reviews in the works, screenings to attend, as well as a few interviews. (I’m especially excited to talk with one director.)

2. I’m going to be slowing down Bat Segundo production in the next month or two. There will still be new shows. I’m sitting on six interviews and I have a few more scheduled over the next few weeks (including some in relation to The New York Film Festival). But the upshot is that, between all this and my other activities, I don’t want to burn out. So to preserve my sanity, I’m not going to adhere to a weekly schedule. So expect at least nine or ten new shows before the year is up. I anticipate returning to a regular weekly schedule at the beginning of 2011.

3. Todd Pruzan, who edits the freshly launched consumer finance site Get Currency, enlisted me to write a little article on video-on-demand. Check it out.

4. Eric Rosenfield has enlisted my co-participation in a new reading series called Wold Newton, named after Philip Jose Farmer’s famed universe. As far as I know, this is the only reading series in Brooklyn devoted to speculative fiction. The first one is set to go down this Sunday, September 26, 2010, at 6:30 PM, at Word Bookstore. And it features the amazing combo of Charles Yu and Brian Francis Slattery for its debut. There will also be live music, poetry from Jonathan Berger, and Eric and I performing some rather silly interstitial material. Do check out the site to find out more about it. It looks to be a very fun time, and I’m especially excited about it. (We’re already planning a second Wold Newton reading in November, and there are more we’re working on for 2011.)

5. Due to the present DSL nightmare, my ability to respond to email is extremely limited. Please have patience. If you really need to get in touch with me, you can do so through friends and loved ones. I’m doing the best that I can to work without a Net, and I hope to reply to everybody once my Internet connection is operational again. In the meantime, new content is being uploaded to this site through various wi-fi signals, some legitimate and some stolen.

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NYFF: Le Quattro Volte

[This is the fourth in a series of dispatches relating to the 2010 New York Film Festival.]

Michelangelo Frammartino’s Le Quattro Volte is probably my favorite NYFF film so far. Its commitment to capturing animals on film (and the men who herd them) is reminiscent of last year’s excellent documentary, Sweet Grass. But its scope, which involves a church, an understated examination of the relationship between man and nature, and some intriguing glimpses into a local wood coal industry, is slightly broader and richer. With its soundtrack denuded of intrusive incidental music (the thwacks of manual labor replace the accustomed callow explosions in the rear speakers!), the film is compelling, philosophical, and often quite beautiful in its bucolic splendor. The film shares that Italian cinematographic devotion to capturing slivers of life within a vitrine mise-en-scene – a sort of artsy Where’s Waldo? recalling mid-career Antonioni, but, more importantly, it offers a respectful nudge for audiences to observe the world more closely. Do you notice that artificial bird tied atop a tree? Or the insect crawling across the canvas of an animal’s face (mimicking an earlier shot in which an ant crawls about a dying shepherd’s face)? And what exactly is that smouldering mound at film’s beginning? (No worries! For those bothered by “plotless” movies, there’s a payoff.) Why is dust swept off a church floor later blessed by its caretakers after it is wrapped within ripped magazine sheets? (And is this disposal method altogether sacrosanct?)

Le Quattro Volte is a humble yet moving 88 minute visual poem capturing the cycles of small town life – one that, at times, nearly had me in delightful tears. Frammartino keeps his audience slightly removed from what his human subjects are saying; their Italian words are often just outside earshot – as if to suggest that, because we are mere cinematic observers, these largely unseen toilers have the right to their privacy. Rather interestingly, he has photographed and edited his film as if we’re seeing these striking images from the vantage point of surveillance cameras, and yet the film doesn’t feel invasive of its “subjects.” Certainly, what’s captured could not be confused with scratchy footage. A door opens diagonally, directing us to a table, with its edge mirroring the door’s slant. And on this table, we see a man arranging objects into a bucket. What is he doing? An aging herder climbs a hill with several thin trees shooting up from the ground. With one simple pan to the right, we see not only what a physical burden it is for the man to climb this hill, but how the trees near the top of the hill grow at a less horizontal angle. With one elementary camera move, Frammartino establishes the relationship between man and nature in a matter of seconds. And he implicates the viewer by throwing us under a dark philosophical hood through the black leader edited into the film at strategic intervals.

And there’s one especially amazing long take in which goats sit safely behind a fence lined next to a road, with a protective dog on the other side. A small Catholic parade approaches from the distance, led by men dressed as Centurions. The dog barks at them. The Centurions chase him down the street. The camera pans with the dog. The dog hides in the forest. The parade passes, diminishing in the distance. The dog retreats from his hiding spot and returns to his original position, the camera panning with him. The dog encounters a stray figure from the parade, possibly a boy (we’re not sure, because it’s in the distance), and the boy tries to move past the dog. But the dog barks back, defending his territory. What follows is an amusing interplay, before the boy psychs the dog out with an illusory throw and passes onward. The dog searches about for the stone, and unrustles a vehicle, which proceeds to roll down the adjacent street and into the fence containing the goats. But instead of permitting us to see this collision, the camera moves away.

This moment was – well, for me, at any rate – dazzling cinema. The simple manner in which every behavioral moment led to yet another fascinated me. And keep in mind too that this was merely one poetic piece of the puzzle. And I was further pondering how Frammartino had tracked down such a well-trained dog to make this happen, along with the number of takes it must have required to get this single shot so right.

And yet, for a notable contingent of snobs chattering after the screening, Le Quattro Volte was considered a dud. “I don’t want to see animals falling out of animals,” muttered one such myopic specimen, who then proceeded to describe how she found another film containing a very conventional narrative quite gripping. Well, I certainly don’t want to listen to whiny critics who are interested in having their narrow viewpoints confirmed. But I respect the right of anyone who wishes to live so unadventurously, even if I don’t quite understand why they would be covering a film festival devoted to world voices. Shouldn’t these isolationists be picketing mosques?

For my own part, I was spellbound by the aforementioned animal birth, followed as it was by a mother licking the sticky dew from her fresh baby’s head. How could anyone interested in life not be moved by that? How could anyone not find joy with a goat bleating incongruously atop a table or rowdy men surfing atop a recently felled tree being trawled down a steep slope? Le Quattro Volte offers a wondrous floodgate of such moments. As some guy in Brooklyn seeking fresh perspectives outside his own, Le Quattro Volte was a totally unexpected surprise. This is a movie that reminds us of how inconsequential our actions may be, yet how magical our lives are when seen from afar.

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NYFF: Oki’s Movie

[This is the third in a series of dispatches relating to the 2010 New York Film Festival.]

It’s often a wise move to distrust any movie featuring a moviemaker as the protagonist, even the ones offered by interesting directors – just as one avoids reading novels involving novelists. It’s the easiest and most cannibalistic creative decision imaginable, akin to a fresh father barraging you with buckets of baby photos. You smile politely, but after the sixth hour flicking through photo albums, you courteously explain that there’s a little more to the world. In the case of the creative artist offering the creative artist narrative dilemma, either the story has to be truly remarkable or it must offer a fresh spin. (Even Stephen King understood this with Misery.) So one approaches Hong Sang-Soo’s lackluster medley of four short films – all featuring the same three characters – with tremendous frustration, baffled as to why such a one-note offering would be selected for a world-renowned film festival. Was there a shortage in South Korean submissions? Was it Hong Sang-Soo’s brand name? (Hong has had many of his films play previous festivals.) Is there an inherent selection bias towards movies about moviemakers?

Whatever the reason (and lest this essay be misconstrued as a takedown, please note that I am not anti-Hong), it is worth pointing out that the fourth of the four films, the titular “Oki’s Movie,” does demonstrate that Hong has a gift for Eric Rohmer-like meditations and is really the only short that should have been considered. It makes no explicit mention of moviemaking, aside from the narrative suggestion that what we are witnessing is a desperate reconstruction or perhaps a young adult’s early stab at pegging the world. Told from the viewpoint of Oki (Jung Yumi), a woman who loves both an older man (Professor Song, played by Moon Sung-kuen) and a younger man (Jingu, the filmmaker character played by Jung Yumi), it offers a storyline in which Oki takes both men to Mt. Acha on differing winter days, with Oki’s voiceover indicating the difference between the two men. The older man stops to admire a wooden deer and a pavilion. The younger man whooshes right by. The older man takes Oki inside for a lunch of wine and seafood pancakes, while the younger man uncouthly slurps noodles outside. This comparative basis offers a striking perch to perceive human differences. But on the basis of the three shorts preceding this, you wouldn’t know that Hong had this kind of rumination in him.

“A Day for Incantation” (the first short) follows Jingu after he has become something of a success, with a few films under his belt. Jingu is the most annoying of creative character stereotypes: the struggling artist who feels entitled to create art, but who doesn’t want to work and acts like an asshole. He lives his life drinking and smoking too much, trying desperately to get into the pants of any unmarried woman (such as one woman who takes a photo of him on the bench, who he runs away from upon learning that she is married). There is a scene in which Jingu attends a screening Q&A and an audience member accuses him of philandering and breaking a woman’s heart. But these pedestrian comedy situations, combined with the film’s visual inertia (Hong often shoots very long takes with two characters where they don’t even move), as static and as unfunny as a comic strip, makes one wonder if Hong has momentarily transformed into a Korean Jim Davis.

One doesn’t expect a student film narrative situation from a film festival selection. But that’s just what we get with the second short, “King of Kisses,” which follows Jingu’s college days, where he desperately tries to fall in love with a woman. Here, Jingu is more humble, if more spastic. His friends call him “Psycho” and it’s largely because he has a stalker’s tendency to pester Oki, claiming that he has never dated before. I saw this type of film too many times back in film school. It’s amusing enough if you happen to know the people behind the movie, but, beyond this, there’s a very good reason why this formulaic storyline stays in film school. Lonely guys with a film camera who aren’t far from twenty are hardly the best assessors of relationships. The student film feel is further bolstered by the tendency for a crisp off-camera voice reproducing the other party in a telephone conversation. Perhaps the point that Hong is making is that his characters are so ensnared with recreating life that they cannot live it – even if what we’re watching may very well be some recreation of their life experience (as suggested by the fourth short). But he offers us very little material here to care.

The third film, “After the Snowstorm,” is a little better than the first two. Professor Song awaits his two students, Jingu and Oki, after a snowstorm has hit. His students bombard him with questions about life (“Are we human beings or animals?”), for which Song, claiming himself to not be particularly wise, doesn’t have many good answers. It’s an interesting concept that doesn’t really go anywhere, even if it does set up the more thoughtful perspective of the fourth film. But at least there’s a fun moment when Song pukes up a live octopus. (Come to think of it, Hong’s tendency to zoom in on his characters is reminiscent of John Waters’s early films. But Waters had genuine wit and iconoclasm within his dialogue and the mighty Divine to deliver it. It is safe to say that not one of the three leads here has Divine’s gravitas.)

While I haven’t exactly written off Hong, these four shorts are a poor introduction for anyone unfamiliar with the man who included a behind-the-scenes hentai moment in The Day a Pig Fell Into the Well. (“Once more with feeling!” ordered the director to the actress moaning into the mike.) These Hong films don’t feel particularly subversive or, for that matter, particularly interesting. They are as shallow as the filmmaker character contained within the narrative. Let’s hope that Hong himself has avoided the same fate.

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NYFF: The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceauşescu

[This is the second in a series of dispatches relating to the 2010 New York Film Festival.]

“The film we just saw,” muttered a nameless tastemaker just after the screening. “Who is it for? Romanians? Political junkies?”

“Humorless film geeks? Cultural masochists? Those who view watching paint dry as too adventurous?” I was tempted to rejoin. Some random canvassing revealed I wasn’t alone in my assessment. Even so, who was I to judge this film when my own grasp of Eastern European history was so tenuous? My knowledge of Ceauşescu was as dependable as a quadriplegic being asked to prepare a Caesar salad. (Indeed, one could stab both shaky offerings with a plastic fork. I apolgize to Romania.) But it seems to me that a movie collecting the life of a possibly clueless, possibly calculating leader prone to genocide, basking in his private personality cult, and a view of his subjects out of step from the reality of their privations (I believe Ceauşescu’s eventual assassination by Romanian revolutionaries should have been the telltale sign that something was awry on this last point) shouldn’t be so lackluster. I certainly hadn’t felt blasé about Shoah or any of the countless political documentaries with protracted running times that I had wolfed down in my twenties.

I suppose that the dry intellectuals — the so-called film dweeb crowd that certain online lunatics complain about, but who aren’t nearly as bad as paranoia elsewhere would suggest — are likely to appreciate this formalistic exercise. At three hours, this film is so oppressively long, with few pleasures laced within its Bucharest Death March, that the viewer feels very much without options, much like a citizen of Communist Romania. If this is the emotion that director Andre Ujica intended to convey, I can safely report that he has succeeded. It was only my commitment to judging the entire film that prevented me from stomping out of this snoozefest and carrying out my own private revolution with a bottle of scotch.

Let me dwell first on a few aspects I enjoyed: (1) a volleyball game, taken from what appears to be home movies, in which Ceauşescu is physically awkward and hilariously girly, recalling George Herbert Walker Bush’s wimpy image (Remember that pathetic baseball throw? Infinitely worse than Obama and the man was captain of his Yale baseball team!), (2) a ridiculous parade for some Communist triumph featuring surreal floats depicting sporting matches pushing slowly down the streets (two boxers going at it as the individuals holding the ring move forward, a volleyball game in which one team constantly paces backwards, et al.), (3) up to a certain tedious point, the repeat imagery of world leaders jetting away from airport runways, thus demonstrating how ephemeral their alliances with Ceauşescu are, (4) the occasional jarring cuts to Romanians dancing to pop music (I wish there had been more of this, but this film prefers to drag), and (5) Ceauşescu’s failed attempts at aristocratic flourishes (his awkward efforts with a sled, his unpersuasive claim that he is an intellectual, et al.).

In other words, the film is, at times, an amusing counterfactual. Apparently, it truly takes Communist oppression to get filmmakers to take the piss out of their leaders, particularly when Ceauşescu – with his unbrushable childish curls protruding atop his head, his puffed up cheeks, the suit that doesn’t quite fit his chubby form, and that lower lip resembling, at times, a half-inflated condom accident – strongly resembles an assclown. (I wish some enterprising underground filmmaker would make a similar film about Bush the 43rd or Tony Blair. If the Autobiography succeeds at one thing, it demonstrates the elastic nature of contextualized found footage.) Even so, three hours of world leaders shaking hands, Ceauşescu engaging in photo ops, and Ceauşescu supervising projects that we know will fail (inter alia) does get more than a bit tedious. And the moments I’ve mentioned can only be mined after some tedious ten minute setpiece. Andre Ujica does demonstrate a certain flair for visual association (the clean and orderly buildings of Communist China compared against Communist Romania’s industrial chaos, leading one to ponder whether it’s the man, the system, or the people which causes this kind of disparity), but his film is centered more around Ceauşescu as Buffoon. Does a buffoon kill 70,000 people? I suppose that moral question depends upon how swift you are with reductionist assertions and your worldview. But this Autobiography, while not explicitly referencing Ceauşescu’s early days as a peasant, chooses to gloss over the suffering and the death. Yes, I get that Ceauşescu very much did the same thing and that the film is meant to be a vicarious expression of this. But this seems an incomplete and needlessly limiting portrait of a man who, despite his frippery, was as calculating as he was flip.

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NYFF: Nuremberg / Holocaust Survivor Ernest Michel

[This is the first in a series of dispatches relating to the 2010 New York Film Festival.]

During Thursday’s press conference for Nuremberg — the only film of the Nuremberg trials commissioned by the United States Army (and subsequently banned from being shown in theaters by the U.S. government) — Holocaust survivor Ernest Michel began the proceedings with a short statement. Michel was the first Holocaust survivor to turn journalist and cover the war trials. What follows is a transcript and an audio file.

Richard Pena: Is there a statement that you wanted to start out with, Michel? I see that you have something there on your left.

Ernest Michel: Yes. But before looking at my notes – because I didn’t trust myself to speak without any notes – this is the second time I’ve seen this film. And I still do not believe that I survived what you saw on the screen. I can’t believe it.

I arrived in Nuremberg on November 20, 1945 to cover the Nuremberg War Crime Plan. I was not just a newsman. I was also a survivor. I went through all of that that you saw on the screen. And I cannot for the life of me understand what saved me and what made it possible for me to come back to life. Seven month before I arrived in Nuremberg. Seven month before I escaped from the last concentration camp. I spent all together five an a half years in the camps. First, forced labor camps. And later on, extermination camps.

I was twenty-two years old when I arrived in Nuremberg. I was kicked out of school at sixth grade because I was Jewish. Never been back to school again. I came to the United States five month before the open of the Nuremberg trial. How I got to the trial is another story and I won’t bore you with that.

I had no job. I had no training. I had no money. I had no family. I was all by myself. And here I was, in Nuremberg, as a special correspondent for the German news agency DANA. Not for American papers. Not for any other papers. For the – for German newspapers. And I sat there in the gallery. The press gallery. There was Edward R. Murrow. Walter Cronkite. Who I got to know. They interviewed me. They couldn’t understand how a survivor was sitting here as a reporter at the Nuremberg trials. I had to pinch myself. This was really me. And if I get a little nervous, a little shaky, I…I saw this for the second time. I don’t know whether I can take it to sit…to sit…to see it again.

The crimes committed during World War II were the height of anything drastic and horrible that could have ever imagined in…in mankind. This is what makes the Nuremberg trials such a unique event. It was the first time that leaders of an elected country — a Western country, Germany – were committed for the greatest crimes ever committed in history. Six million of us were killed. We were eighteen million Jews around the world before the war began. And we were twelve million afterwards. I don’t know if we will ever catch up and make up for what happened.

I insisted that my byline, which I wrote for all the German newspapers, insist that it be called Ernest Michel, Auschwitz Special Correspondent, Former Inmate of Auschwitz 104995. That’s a number I wear. And I wear it with pride.

When I come to the trial, twenty-five feet away from me, second or third row, sits Hermann Goering. I never met him with the exception of one time I may have time not to tell you about. But there I was reporting from the trial. And I was told to be objective. As I said, I had no education whatsoever. I had a brief training process by DANA in order to be able to know what to say, how not to say it. “Please be honest. Straight. Directly. You are not here as a survivor. You are here as a correspondent. To tell what is happening in front of you.” And this is what I did.

My articles appeared in all German newspapers. The defendants were not allowed to read any other newspaper. So everyday, in Nuremberg, they read Ernst Michel, Auschwitz Survivor 104995. I want them to know who was in Nuremberg reporting for the German newspapers.

I was the only survivor to cover while I started in November 1945 – on the 20th November. When [Robert H.] Jackson opened the sessions. And I left the trial in June 194[6]. I couldn’t take it anymore. And then I emigrated to the United States.

The only other film that was shown in Auschwitz was a Russian film.

Sandra Schulberg: You mean in Nuremberg. Shown in Nuremberg.

Michel: In Nuremberg. In Nuremberg. I’m glad you added that.

The only other film that was shown and made by the Russians when the Russian Armies – forgive me, you know, I’m getting a little shaky, but I can’t help it. This is – my family’s there. Was there. My friends, my future, my life, anything. And yet I’m here and I’m coming. Despite my hesitation in talking about it.

This film is the only film made by the United States. And as you probably know, I don’t know if it was explained to you, the American government did not permit this film to be shown. And it is a credit to you that you took your time, your many years, to make this film available. It must be shown so that what happened to me and my generation will never happen again at any time, at any place to anybody.

It was the first time in history that a country, a government, was taken to task. You saw it on the screen. For me, the only thing I can tell you, it was the great experience of my life. There has never been anything like it. There will have been never anything like it. And it is a credit to you that the world will now see what we filmed – our American Army filmed – in Nuremberg. It’s a sight that will never, hopefully never happen again.

NYFF 2010: Ernest Michel (Download MP3)

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Review: Never Let Me Go (2010)

In 2005, Kazuo Ishiguro wrote a nifty science fiction novel named Never Let Me Go. Despite the fact that Ishiguro’s narrative was steeped in speculative fiction cliches (organ harvesting, parallel universes, extended human lifespan creating an underclass, the belabored philosophical inquiry over whether an artificial creation has as much of a soul as its creator, et al.), the novel was inexplicably categorized in the fiction section, leading to many uncounted stoned conversations among frustrated geeks over the question of whether twenty dollar bills had been slipped into the hands of bookstore managers. But it was more likely that Ishiguro eluded the genre ghetto, garnering that vital all-access pass awarded to certain literary titans, by way of putting together imagery and story considered graceful and/or beautiful by the cultural elite. (To cite one example, Tommy reacting to a piece of news as if the messenger was “a rare butterfly he’d come across on a fence-post.”)

The literary critics at the time, mostly unfamiliar (as always) with speculative fiction, praised the novel as if nobody had told similar stories before, or as if the “genre” was confined to certain moonlighters. The New Yorker‘s Louis Menand smugly declared that “the book belongs to the same genre as Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America, counterfactual historical fiction,” as if Harry Turtledove (or Fritz Leiber’s wonderful novel, The Big Time, for that matter) could not exist in the same bookstore. The fiery and often superficial Michiko Kakutani was even more dismissive, writing, “So subtle is Mr. Ishiguro’s depiction of this alternate world that it never feels like a cheesy set from The Twilight Zone, but rather a warped but recognizable version of our own.” (Never mind that the majority of The Twilight Zone was truly brilliant and paradigm-changing because of its commitment to writing and acting. Only a superficially bourgeois critic would condemn art purely on its aesthetic.)

And for those of us who read literary and pulp novels because we genuinely appreciated both, it was a bit embarrassing to witness all this ignorance. And let’s be honest here. Take away Ishiguro’s beauty and Never Let Me Go is little more than a rewrite of the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode, “The Measure of a Man.” At least the British Science Fiction Association had the decency to shortlist Never Let Me Go for the Arthur C. Clarke Award, where Ishiguro lost to Geoff Ryman. (A few years later, the critical elite would deliver similar plaudits towards Cormac McCarthy’s YA dystopian novel, The Road. The great irony is that Oprah Winfrey would be the one to push the book hardest. Through the populist medium of television, Winfrey’s endorsement dwarfed all the fulsome praise eked out by a handful of pedantic mice.)

Now Ishiguro’s book has made its way to the big screen, where the mass medium of cinema hopes to reframe it yet again. Never Let Me Go is hardly the first time Ishiguro has tangoed with celluloid. In 1993, there was a film version of The Remains of the Day put together by the Merchant-Ivory team, a cold and highly overrated team of collaborators who are more committed to putting audiences to sleep than producing art that pops. I have tried to watch the movie three times over the past seventeen years and was only able to make it to film’s end once without falling asleep – and this was only because I wished to respect my sexy videowatching companion, who counted herself as a Merchant-Ivory fan. Yet despite the film’s bland and soporific qualities, it was afford all sorts of award nominations. A more successful Ishiguro collaboration was Guy Maddin’s The Saddest Music in the World (2003), but one suspects its giddy qualities emerged only because Maddin and his co-writer George Toles had the decency to rewrite a hypothetical dud. I avoided 2005’s The White Countess, largely because James Ivory had directed the film and I had no desire to relive the trauma of The Remains of the Day in any form.

So when I learned that director Mark Romanek (the man behind the underrated One Hour Photo and several music videos) and hit-or-miss screenwriter Alex Garland (once a brilliant novelist) were involved with Never Let Me Go, I figured that this adaptation would be more Maddin than Ivory, that the Ishiguro cinematic stigma would be salvaged. I regret to report that this was not the case. Never Let Me Go bored me to fucking tears.

The film’s sloooooooooooooooooooooow pace, presumably intended to invite comparisons to needlessly protracted slideshows or weekend corporate retreats, is perhaps best epitomized by the following exchange (character names replaced by variables to avoid spoilers):

A: We’re going to do it.

(Unfathomably long pause before cutting to B.)

B: You’re going to apply.

(Another needlessly fucking long pause before the next line; never mind that all this would have been tightened by the line, “We’re going to apply.”)

A: Yes.

(A pregnant pause. Good Christ, Garland, you should know better than this.)

B: Good.

And that’s it. That’s Romanek and Garland’s idea of exposition. And we’re supposed to accept this weak narrative because the characters here, as the film telegraphs without subtlety, are sequestered from society and committed to providing organs through “donations.” (That’s not really giving anything away. If you don’t figure this out in the first twenty minutes, then you’re not paying attention.) But the atmosphere never feels particularly disturbing (as Romanek’s last feature film did, perhaps more because he had the smarts to tap into Robin Williams’s undeniably discomfiting qualities), which is odd given that Romanek has a great visual knack at conveying isolation (such as the mostly barren blue wall of an apartment or the Gordon Willis-like amber glow of a dark hospital corridor illuminated solely by the sun). Romanek gets the feel of the class structure here by framing many of his shots with the backs of heads to the camera. He gets a great performance from Carey Mulligan, who is especially good at disguising her unshakable sadness, pretending to be human with tragically feeble smiles and fine cheekbones. But scenes from the novel that should feel creepy, such as the scripted laughter at a television sitcom, feel more like obligatory than vital.

The fault here must be leveled at Alex Garland, who has clearly traded in his fiction talent for the lucre of video games and passable screenplays. It’s almost inconceivable to be reminded that Garland once had his finger firmly on the pulse of his generation. Clearly, those days are gone. Garland doesn’t seem to understand that Faulkner and Fitzgerald aren’t remembered for their Hollywood work, but the attentions they committed to the page. And Garland’s failure to evoke Ishiguro’s subtle style on screen isn’t just the indication of a screenwriter out of his depth. It’s the sad story of a burned out talent, once capable of reaching a mass audience and defying myopic critics, who doesn’t even have new novels to atone for the hackwork.

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Video: Bat Segundo Visits the 2010 Brooklyn Book Festival

On Sunday, September 12, 2010, Bat Segundo — or some gentleman claiming to be him — went to the Brooklyn Book Festival to conduct some slipshod journalism. While Mr. Segundo did catch sight of a television truck, he did not observe any attractive reporters walking the quad and talking to the many amicable literary people who had taken the time to congregate in the rain.

Fearing that there was a journalistic vacuum, Mr. Segundo attempted to fill in the gap. He did not know how to hold an umbrella and asked the authors to do this for him.

In his first interview, Bat Segundo met up with Karen Lord, a very friendly woman who happened to be a novelist. She identified herself as the author of Redemption in Indigo, a novel put out by Small Beer Press. Mr. Segundo learned more about the book, but proceeded to complain about New York literary snobs who look down on genre. Despite this apparently egalitarian position, Mr. Segundo failed to understand his philosophical hypocrisy when considering who was actually holding the umbrella.

More rain poured. And Mr. Segundo had more interviews to conduct. The precipitation did not deter Mr. Segundo’s efforts to talk with Sean Ferrell, the author of a novel named Numb. Mr. Ferrell had a booth of his own — quite far away from the Harper Perennial booth. Yet while Harper Perennial had a tent covering, Mr. Ferrell was provided with no such protection, save for a dutiful smile and a can-do attitude. The two gentlemen discussed the weather and just what it takes to attract a literary crowd on a rainy day. He too proved unexpectedly cooperative in holding the umbrella above Mr. Segundo’s head.

In the early afternoon, Mr. Segundo accosted a very excitable gentleman named Michael Northrop. There was apparently something called a “flashmob” set to go down at the stroke of two o’clock. And Mr. Segundo had the good fortune of arriving only a few minutes before the momentous clang! He remained uncertain as to what a flashmob was, but he was informed that some fly-by-night outfit called One Story had set it all up.

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Review: Heartbreaker (2010)

The Lavender Hill Gang, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, A Fish Called Wanda, just to name a handful. These films, balancing crime with comedy, work so well because they contained the telltale results of a very specific talent: namely, a peculiar attention to behavioral rhythm. It’s the same skill that can be observed in a mystery master like Donald E. Westlake, who could oscillate between his Dortmunder novels (light comedy) and his Parker novels (wonderfully callous and crisp page-turners!) precisely because he was so committed to portraying every motivation, every nuance, every nicety behind the gambit.

Heartbreaker — a title bearing Benatar allusions, but which I assure you is a French film — doesn’t explicitly deal with crime. But it does concern itself with a close cousin: deceit within the private sector. And even though this charming French comedy contains a rather absurd storyline (three people are privately commissioned to split up relationships; they have a 100% track record at this) and a rather absurd setting (mostly Monte Carlo), it manages to slough away these implausibilities due to its commitment to a post-Lubitsch presentation of an illusion along the lines of Westlake.

Screenwriter Laurent Zeitoun* and director Pascal Chaumeil get us interested by establishing how these three operatives work in a lengthy pre-credit sequence photographed partly from the mark’s vantage point and partly revealing the ruse. The mark here is a woman on holiday who wants to see the dunes. Her boyfriend is more preoccupied with lying by the pool and contemplating the possibility of a wet t-shirt contest. A dashing young man offers to driver her out to the dunes when layabout bf fails to fulfill his pledged transit. Said man (who we later learn is named Alex) mentions something about his dead partner. He offers “treatment” to indigenous kids, which we see to be a staged sham. Alex is romantic to the woman in ways that her present partner is not. We later understand that he recites the same lines, eliciting the same response.

Since a relationship can be essentially dissolved by several lines of code, we’re left wondering if this is some kind of bizarre cinematic conceit. Particularly since none of Alex’s women can detect the ruse. (Indeed, they remain completely understanding why he cannot enter a relationship, even after his anemic yet precise explanation.) So is it the specific turf that Alex is working? Is Alex’s Eliza-like heartbreaking some statement from the filmmakers on the folly of love or the silliness of narrative? Is his inflexible script sustained by the fact that he has two able accomplices capable of donning costumes and roles to impede upon this presentation of reality?

Whatever the reasons, we’re swiftly entertained by Alex and his petty heartbreakers. And this human interest is aided by some not bad casting. As Alex, Romain Duris is competent. But there’s the wonderfully expressive Julie Ferrier (one of the best elements in Micmacs) playing Melanie, Alex’s sister, able to infiltrate a hotel desk faster than a speeding locomotive and Francois Damiens as Marc (married to Melanie), who has been looking for the perfect assignment to try out his own problematic roles.

The films storyline hinges upon whether this trio can split up a very perfect couple in ten days. Juliette (Vanessa Paradis) is a 30 year old wine expert who is marrying Jonathan, a seemingly perfect Englishman, in ten days. (Indeed, Jonathan is so perfect that he donates his doggie bag to the trio, momentarily bedecked in sloppy apparel and confused as vagrants.) In other words, here’s another cliched case of whether an expert can succeed at his toughest assignment, with the additional cliché of Alex falling for Juliette as the job carries on and yet another additional cliché of Alex owing a considerable amount of money to the mob.

Yet I enjoyed the movie as a form of stylistic escapism. Not because of the storyline, but because – much like Micmacs – I was more interested in how the filmmakers would sustain the illusion. There is one funny scene in which Alex, pretending to be Juliette’s bodyguard, insists that he has no feeling in his leg. He claims that it’s the result of an injury. This doesn’t stop another character from stabbing his leg with a fork in order to test Alex’s resolve, leading Alex to wince off the pain. And in an effort to find some connective point with Juliette, Alex preposterously claims that he’s a fan of George Michael and Dirty Dancing (two of Juliette’s cultural interests unearthed during Alex’s research). The former is unconvincing, but the latter results in Alex learning the moves for the film’s final dance in his hotel room and the eventual recreation of said routine. I’m hardly a Dirty Dancing fan (no fault of the dearly departed Patrick Swayze, but I recall much male shouting in video stores on the subject circa 1987), but I was both amused and troubled by the idea of cultural reenactment as a method to win a woman’s heart. I mean, how sad is that? I could buy this behavior from twentysomethings. But these people are professionals in their thirties. And when one considers the deceit motivating Alex’s Swayze replay, if you’re anything like me, then you may very well be able to kickstart some ethical debate with your date for this date movie.

The film does ultimately present a less fabricated form of love (outside Marc and Melanie’s marriage), but this “genuine” presentation isn’t nearly as interesting. I kept hoping that this film would go the distance, portraying Alex as a man who sadly can’t see any option but deceit, even in his non-professional obligations. A coda more befitting its con.

* The press notes offer this oddly phrased CV-like tidbit for Zeitoun: “Visits Paramount Studios in Los Angeles and discovers the profession of screenwriter.” This leads me to wonder if folks now visiting the City of Angels now observe lavish naumachiae bankrolled by Hollywood studios, with the spectators invited upon three Spanish ships to discover unexpected vocations when they aren’t looking for escape routes leading to the West Indies.

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Review: Bran Nue Dae (2009)

Bran Nue Dae ain’t quite the Aussie answer to Tommy – even if Jimmy Chi’s bouncing baby has discarded similar placentae in its nearly three decades of development. Chi, one of several Aborigines sowing his wild oats in Broome and asked to insulate his roots with Catholicism’s electrical inflexibility (see any number of texts for historical confirmation), wrote several fun and punchy tunes about living and resisting these conditions in the early 1980s. He performed the songs with his band, Knuckles. (Regrettably, VH1 still lacks the creative vision, much less the fist, to push beyond their white bread nostalgia and commission a Behind the Music segment on Knuckles. In considering Bran Nue Dae‘s roseate production history, one wonders if there was some behind-the-scenes, bottle-smashing fracas swept beneath the rug.) By decade’s end, Chi had constructed a musical around these songs, which opened in the 1990 Perth Festival and became such a national success that Chi was given the “State Living Treasure” honor by the West Australian Government in 2006. (Why my dim nation – the You Ess of Ay, perfervid in its belief that it remains numero uno – lacks the decency to afford similar titles to its cultural wunderkinds is a topic that another rabblerouser may wish to address at length.)

Thirtysomething years ago, I did not pop out of a uterus in Australia. I have yet to set foot in that magnificent continent (and, assuming anyone is foolhardy enough to give me a boatload of cash, I certainly hope to before my inevitable arm wrestling match — nay, a knuckle-twisting contest! — with the Grim Reaper!). So I feel compelled to report that, up until now, I was entirely ignorant about Jimmy Chi and Bran Nue Dae. Indeed, had you merely given me the first word, I may very well have confused you with a General Mills representative. And had not someone had the decency to send me a press invite to Rachel Perkins’s film adaptation of Chi’s musical, I may never have known about it. Clearly, there is some ancillary kismet in getting laureled State Living Treasure. (NEA, are you listening?) I must likewise confess that, having not experienced the musical, I am probably ill equipped to deliver an appropriately comparative summation of this “film by Rachel Perkins” to its native material. (It must be noted that Perkins has co-written the screenplay with Chi and the playwright Reg Cribb.)

With that disclosure out of the way, I can report that Perkins’s film is a pleasant, if somewhat clumsy adaptation. It feels like a fey Frankenstein monster composed of random components that have been cluttering up the laboratory closet a bit too long: part musical, part road movie, part coming-of-age drama, and part social satire. To some degree, watching this film is the cinematic equivalent of a yard sale where you end up unexpectedly buying a good deal of disused goods without feeling terribly guilty. (Guilt? The reverse here is true! You’re left wondering why these dusty little bibelots have been ignored for so long and you’re grateful to know that the abandoned items are now traveling to good homes. Hell, if you’re anything like me, you’re probably buying a lot of this stuff for friends and acquaintances, volunteering to varnish or paint the rattled or pockmarked after an evening of steady scotch.)

Perhaps I felt this way because the movie is set in 1969. Perhaps I was simply in the mood for a homespun movie put together by people who obviously had a lot of fun making this movie. Perhaps my recent move from one apartment to another led me to be in close kinship to the film’s peripatetic characters. A modest rundown then of things I grooved to: I very much enjoyed Perkins’s blocking tic of having actors joyously spiraling their way around reedy support beams during musical numbers. I was astonished to learn that Jessica Mauboy, who appears here as a very pleasant romantic interest, had not acted before and I was further alarmed to discover that she was a runner-up in Australian Idol. So whoever adeptly plucked the moonfaced Mauboy from an amateur pool deserves a great pat on the back, as her girl-next-door demeanor does help to atone for Rocky McKenzie’s modest limitations.

Yes, the film rests heavily on McKenzie’s shoulders. He is not quite up to the task, but he is, after all, playing an adolescent. McKenzie plays Willie, who is diffidently attracted to Rosie (the aforepraised Mauboy). He lives in Broome. He attends Catholic boarding school and contends with Father Benedictus (Geoffrey Rush), who has terrible plans to civilize his students. (The word “civilize” is not mentioned, but it may as well be. Rush delivers as usual, his performance reminiscent of a man who has spent several weeks rereading Kipling.) Willie stands up to this domineering docent (“Thou Shalt Not Starve Either” is Willie’s rejoinder to the prohibition placed upon Benedictus’s arsenal of Coke and Cherry Ripe bars; said snack munitions used to woo stray strangers into doing Benedictus’s bidding) through the medium of an amusing song. Soon he escapes and is on the road, and on the lam from Benedictus. Willie meets up with his Uncle Tadpole in the streets. (Yes, it’s one of those problematic coincidental run-ins. But this movie is based on a musical.) Tadpole takes the rest of Willie’s money and spends it on booze. Vaguely guilt-ridden about this, he agrees to take Willie back to Broome.

The film’s early efforts to establish Tadpole as a paternal figure (the experienced older man guiding the shy stripling) aren’t terribly successful – in part because of the contrived run-in that I mildly kvetched about in a parenthetical statement, with some understanding of the developmental Cuisinart this movie no doubt girded through. But when this dynamic duo encounters two hippies traveling through the outback in a VW bus, the film likewise hits the gas. For the two manage to take advantage of their starry-eyed sentiments to hitch a ride back home. Conflict ensues, along with the unanticipated run-ins one expects from a road movie. Aboriginal football teams, bad Chinese restaurants, an older woman fond of drink who tries to make it with Willie under a tree with inflated condoms and is chased away by her jealous man just before consummation. All photographed with splashy bright hues and directed with a sanguine disposition.

Of course, with so many characters and subplots thrown into this madcap gumbo, the film’s final moments are as cluttered as the fifth act of Cymbeline (of course, if George Bernard Shaw were to rise from the grave to rewrite Bran Nue Dae, he would be rightly labeled an imperialist). But if I’m going to nitpick a film that mostly works a pleasant diversion, I may as well spend my time condemning a bowl of jellybeans.

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The Bat Segundo Show: Scarlett Thomas II

Scarlett Thomas appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #357. Ms. Thomas is most recently the author of Our Tragic Universe. She previously appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #117.

Play

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Unusually pedantic about modifiers.

Author: Scarlett Thomas

Subjects Discussed: [List forthcoming]

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: I wanted to address one review. Jessa Crispin in The Smart Set. She said, “Well, you adhered to the two laziest storylines that the world of fiction has ever thrown up. Love Conquers All and Secretly a Princess.” But to my mind, I thought this was a severe misreading and misunderstanding of the book. I mean, the book is very much concerned with how narrative must rely on contrivances in order to present life. On the other hand, when you have, for example, the deus ex machina of the magic money appearing in Meg’s account, this is something of a risky proposition for someone who is accustomed to the page-turning of your previous books. So I’m curious as to how much you worried or agonized over this, coming off of a fairly substantial success — particularly in the UK and particularly here among bloggers and the like. Did you just not care? Or did you worry about people misreading this? Because you’re presenting narrative within narrative within narrative and some people are clearly not picking this up.

Thomas: Yeah, I mean — God, there’s quite a lot there. I read the Jessa Crispin piece and I feel quite frustrated with it. Because the reading that she presents is the reading that’s set up for you in the book. That, in fact, it’s one character’s analysis of what’s happened. But the book sets it up as probably wrong. The reading that’s there –- I mean, this is just my own reading. Everybody is welcome to read it the way they like.

Correspondent: Sure.

Thomas: But the idea is that you actively go through and think, “Oh! Aha! So it was the cosmic ordering that gave her the money. And then this and that and the other. Oh my god, everything’s prearranged. And there’s no free will and everything’s perfectly placid. And it’s just like Kelsey Newman. Do I actually want to live like that? Or would I rather read it a different way?” So that’s what you’re supposed to be doing with those ideas. And Jessa seems to have stopped a bit too early. The money device – it’s not really a deus ex machina. Because Meg has written these novels. And they have been optioned for TV. And she has got the money for it. And I think, as most writers know, you do these things. And everybody’s always talking about optioning this and optioning that. And you might get some money. And you never do. And one day, you open your online banking. And there’s some money. And it does kind of change your life. For me, The End of Mr. Y did so well in the UK and Europe that there were days when I’d open up my bank account and think, “Whoa! Where has that come from?” For the first time in my life. Because, you know, I’ve always been pretty poor. And I wanted to try and write out that experience of suddenly having some money. But, of course, it’s really hard to do in a novel. Because the novels are supposed to be about drama and struggle and conflict, and somebody striving. You’re supposed to get the money at the very end of the book. I wanted to play with the idea of getting the treasure in the middle. And then what happens to life after that? But I have to say that Meg is not really a princess. Not for me anyway. What was the other thing?

Correspondent: I was going on about how narrative has to rely on contrivances to some degree in order to represent life. But to phrase that in light of your last answer, what I think we’re talking about here is the problem with coincidences, which occur in reality and life all the time. And yet when you put them into a novel, then, all of a sudden, it seems like “Oh, that can’t possibly happen!” And that’s the problem with structure, I suspect.

Thomas: Well, you see, another thing I’m trying to do in the novel – maybe not so obviously; well, maybe it is obvious – is to look at coincidence. Is the world and our experience of it – is that somehow structured in a scientific or positivist and rationalist way? Is it structured on the spiritualists on some level? Because that’s also a structure that’s imposed. Is it completely random? Or the fourth option – I may have just said there are three.

Correspondent: Well, that’s okay. We’re not counting.

Thomas: (laughs) Yeah, I don’t think you can count. But the fourth option is more interesting to me. And I think that there is no structure. But there are lots of people who are aware of lots of different structures. Which is interesting. And there are things that happen that aren’t pure coincidence. So that things don’t just happen out of nowhere. But they happen through plots or series of events leading up to that that are so minute that you almost can’t see them. So, for example, towards the end of the novel, Frank and Vi turn up miraculously on the River Dart, where The Beast maybe is, and end up taking place in some action there. And for me, I really liked putting them there. Because I thought they were there because they read Alice Oswald’s poem about the Dart. So it’s not that they weren’t there randomly by complete chance. Everybody does everything for a reason. I’m really interested in that. And so looking at the reasons for why people do things, and why that might lead to something else, that’s what’s really fascinated me in this book. So I really don’t believe in complete coincidence. I believe in choices and desire and motivation of characters, and just how interesting it is when you look at the tiny aspects of that.

Correspondent: You’ve created almost by necessity, however, a system. And life is what happens when you make other plans. So I’m not certain if I entirely buy your causist explanation for these characters. Because I think you also portray much of the attempt to explain the universe, or explain the world around us, as a trap. And a way to avoid living without absolute cognizance. So I’m curious about how you managed to depict this double-edged sword here.

Thomas: Yeah, it might. I don’t know. I mean, you don’t have to buy it. But it’s absolutely how I wrote the book. That okay, on some level, when you write a novel, you do have to impose some kind of scheme on things which don’t have a scheme like that. You need a beginning, a middle, and an end. You need to choose when you take up with the carrots. When you let them go. All of that. Yes, you do impose a structure. But for me, one of the most interesting moments in the book was when I realized that Arthur Conan Doyle, when he believed in the Cottingley Fairies. For him, the fairies were more believable than these working-class girls who could actually forge pictures of fairies. I found that so fascinating. Because for that to be your explanation – because it was impossible for him to believe in the motivation of the girls, for him to think his way into their lives and the way they would have planned something, wasn’t just a coincidence. They didn’t just happen upon the pictures. They actually made them. And that’s a wonderful thing to imagine. I think it’s great and so inventive. And then, for him, it was easier to believe in the fairies. For him, the more believable plot or the more believable story is that the fairies exist. And, for me, that was a really central image in the whole book.

Correspondent: So even if you don’t clutch to the Kelsey Newman-like idea, you still can find solace in either the Conan Doyle fairies or, as Meg has in this childhood flashback, where there’s this guy who says, “I can teach you magic.” Which is interesting in light of the fact that her father is very much about finding an explanation for the universe with numbers. And so it seems to me that the burden of these characters is very much to find any kind of explanation –- or even the self-help books that Meg must review for this particular column. That this is really the onus for almost all the characters. Either that or you have the option of just tossing your car into the river.

Thomas: Yeah, absolutely. I’m fascinated with the process of looking for explanations for things, and understanding things scientifically. Which has always been my urge. Even though I’m not into the kind of — this nouveau atheist movement is not my thing at all. Because any explanation that makes sense would be okay for me. Usually it’s a kind of scientific explanation. Sometimes, it’s not. But if I’m up in a plane, I want to know how it flies. I want to know why I’m not crashing.

The Bat Segundo Show #357: Scarlett Thomas II (Download MP3)

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The Bat Segundo Show: Mary Robinette Kowal

Mary Robinette Kowal appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #356. Ms. Kowal is most recently the author of Shades of Milk and Honey.

Play

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Confusing magic with milkshakes.

Author: Mary Robinette Kowal

Subjects Discussed: [List forthcoming]

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: I wanted to start with the specific language in this book. The specific Jane Austen template that you laid out. You took great care to mimic Jane Austen’s particular spellings. You used chuse with a U instead of choose with double O. Shew instead of show. Surprize and teaze spelled with a Z. But on the other hand, you didn’t, for example, hyphenate today. And things along those lines. And nuncheon! Jane Austen never used nuncheon!

Kowal: That’s not true. She used it twice.

Correspondent: When? And where?

Kowal: She used it in Lady Susan and Sense and Sensibility.

Correspondent: Ah, okay. Well, in any event, the hard choices of vocabulary. I wanted to first of all start with how this came about. Why go ahead and emulate this language? Was the idea here to create a series of limitations with which to approach a long-form novel? What came first here?

Kowal: I thought that language reflects society very closely. The reason I wound up using some of her spellings, it’s really an affectation. I am trying to pretend that this is something that could have been written then. I deviated from her spellings in places where I thought it would be confusing. In places where I didn’t feel the word was going to appear often enough for a reader to get used to it. An example of a word that was confusing was that she spelled stayed – like stayed at home – S-T-A-I-D.

Correspondent: That’s right.

Kowal: Which is a different word now. The word sofa appears, I think, once in the novel. And she spelled it S-O-P-H-A. And there’s not actually a reason to stop people. I actually thought that they were going to make me change all of the spellings. But I guess you can think of it as dressing up in Regency clothes, but remembering of course that it’s still going to a costume party.

Correspondent: By “they,” are you referring to Liz Gorinsky?

Kowal: Yes.

Correspondent: Or the copy editors?

Kowal: Well, Liz Gorinsky. The production department. I thought that someone in the editing line was going to say, “Hey, we need to change that.” The copy editor, once we had decided with Liz and marketing to keep the spellings — and we did lift out some of them – then I gave the copy editor a style sheet that said, “These are the correctly misspelled words. Please do not change them.”

Correspondent: Which words didn’t make the cut? I’m curious.

Kowal: Sopha. Staid. All of the to-days and to-morrows.

Correspondent: Oh! So those were originally spelled that way in your original draft.

Kowal: Yeah.

Correspondent: Okay. Wow.

Kowal: I can’t remember what some of the others were. But I did a find/replace. I can’t remember where I found it, but I found a Jane Austen spelling list. And I went through and did a find/replace on everything. And then they went back and undid that. So it’s funny. There’s a couple of places. I know that there’s at least one chuse that we missed and it’s still spelled with two Os. But you know.

Correspondent: Well, goodbye to that, I suppose.

Kowal: You know. Second edition.

Correspondent: Well, this is interesting. Because I’m wondering if it took you several practice tries to write in this particular meticulous style.

Kowal: I would read a chapter of Jane Austen and then write a chapter of Jane Austen. So I was reading Persuasion while I was writing this. And one of the things I picked up from the puppetry is that I frequently have to mimic somebody else’s style. So once I decided to do this, I sat down and started reading Austen. And then the reason that I was writing right after finishing reading a chapter was because I knew that the language would stick and the rhythms would stick. But I don’t really think I did a practice run.

Photo: Annaliese Moyer

The Bat Segundo Show #356: Mary Robinette Kowal (Download MP3)

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The Bat Segudo Show: Allegra Goodman

Allegra Goodman appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #355. She is most recently the author of The Cookbook Collector.

Play

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Confusing cookbooks with novels.

Author: Allegra Goodman

Subjects Discussed: [List forthcoming]

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: Jonathan’s dialogue is so reflective of Sergey Brin. I mean, he says things like “Introduce me. I’m serious.” Very Star Trek-like in his dialogue.

Goodman: Actually, I’m glad you raised that. Because in terms of research into the dot commers, I did not go to libraries obviously and do that kind of research. You can’t research them like you would a group of rare cookbooks. But my research consisted of listening to the way they talk. I’m very interested in voices. The way somebody like Bill Gates talks. The way somebody like Sergey Brin talks. I’m interested in their militant casualness. They’re very bright. They’re very ambitious. They’re very driven. And they’re very chummy and casual. Like “Let’s all just make this happen.” In a way, anti-intellectual in some ways. In their rhetoric. Not that they aren’t intellectual, a lot of them. And I don’t mean to lump all of them together. But I listened to the rhetoric that they used.

Correspondent: Who did you listen to? Specific tapes or recordings?

Goodman: I was interested in Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and some of the younger voices that I was reading in interviews in magazines at the time. The way researchers talk. The way techie people talk. The way programmers talk. Not necessarily just the powerful ones. But these are the words that they use. And I was interested actually – you know, Jess and George are very literary. And their dialogue and their banter has a lot of references to books and things like that. People have mentioned this about my book. But there’s a counterweight that people don’t mention. Maybe they don’t hear it because it’s so obvious. It’s like what we hear all the time. It doesn’t stick out. But it’s very not literary. It’s very anti-intellectual. Techie.

Correspondent: Well, Jonathan quibbles with “tenuous” at one point, looking at it like a mystified word. But this is interesting. Because I’m wondering if one of the motivating factors to write this novel is because the 1990s – God, that time was incredible in the way we documented everything about the dot com era. We documented everything about our culture. We wanted to publicize our own vacuity, so to speak. I’m wondering if this made things easier from a novelistic standpoint.

Goodman: Well, it’s really interesting. Because we did document that era and we still do. It’s been so well documented. But what I always thin is, “Well, what can my contribution be as a novelist?” As opposed to being a historian or an economist. Or even a psychologist. A sociologist. People talked about the different syndromes of sudden wealth at the time. There was a tremendous amount of journalism at the time. And after. The aftermath. The postmortems. So what could I contribute as a novelist? And what I contribute is to write about it from the inside rather than the outside. To give an intimate portrait rather than the broad overview. And as I did in Intuition, to talk about motivation. Which journalists are really not allowed to talk about, but novelists get to do.

The Bat Segundo Show #355: Allegra Goodman (Download MP3)

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The Bat Segundo Show: Prince of Broadway & Adam Langer II

Sean Baker, Darren Dean, and Adam Langer all appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #354.

Sean Baker is the director and co-writer (among other things) of Prince of Broadway. Darren Dean is the producer and co-writer of that same film.

Adam Langer is most recently the author of Thieves of Manhattan. He previously appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #175.

Play

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Searching for princes and publishing insiders.

Guests: Sean Baker and Darren Dean, and Adam Langer

Subjects Discussed: [List forthcoming]

EXCERPTS FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: Because this was a low-budget operation, I have to say that there had to be at least one moment where it was guerrilla shooting.

Baker: Oh yeah.

Correspondent: Could you talk about this? I mean, how much of this was sneaked….

Baker: Do you want to talk about it?

Correspondent: Can you talk about it?

Baker: I don’t know if we can talk about this.

Dean: (laughs)

Correspondent: You can hint at it.

Baker: The fight scene.

Dean: Yeah, we can talk about it.

Baker: I think so.

Dean: We had permits for everything. Which fight scene? The first fight scene or the second fight scene?

Baker: No, the second fight scene.

Dean: We had permits for everything. And we just ran up against the wall. And at the very, very end, we were like, “Oh my god! We forgot this fight scene!”

Baker: Yeah.

Dean: But we shot in the parking lot. We got up that day and we said, “Well, we need to shoot this scene.” Our permits were gone.

Baker: We ran out of insurance that morning.

Correspondent: Wow.

Dean: Everything was gone. This was the last scene we had to shoot or one of the last scenes we had to shoot. And we got up. We went to Prince. And we said, “Here’s $10. Or $15. For each guy you can find. Tell them we need them for twenty minutes. There’s going to be a fight. And meet us at that garage over there.” I went over to the gate of the garage, talked to the guy who was working the garage. I gave him twenty bucks. I said, “We’re going to be here shooting for fifteen minutes and then we’re out.” Shot the scene and literally took off. And that was it.

Baker: That was the one point where we just had to resort to that. Because we were running out of money. We ran out of insurance. And to get the film completed, it took those drastic measures.

* * *

Correspondent: John McNally at the San Francisco Chronicle called you a “publishing insider.”

Langer: Oh yeah.

Correspondent: And I’m wondering why he thought this. This is a book, after all, that has the rather implausible idea of US News & World Report having a books editor. I thought that was rather absurd, I have to say. If you’re a “publishing insider,” that should have been the big tipoff.

Langer: Yeah, I know US News & World Report. But that’s also from the perspective of someone who doesn’t know a hell of a lot about the book industry. The guy who identifies himself as a US News & World Report guy. But publishing insider? I mean, I don’t know. I write books. So I’m inside publishing that way. I’ve never had a job in publishing. I worked as an editor for a book magazine. I don’t know. If you’re a sportswriter, are you inside the sports world? Maybe. I don’t know.

Correspondent: It could very well be that the literary world, or the publishing world, has only so many cliches or is so diaphanous in its subject matter that anyone could, by way of delving into it, could become a publishing insider.

Langer: Yes. Guilty as charged. But I never really thought of myself that way. And I wish I had a few more editorial jobs to give myself a little more streetcred in that regard.

Correspondent: Well, going back to the names of people you brought up, did you have to go through Legal to get permission in house? Was anything considered to be defamatory in any capacity?

Langer: No. Not everything is defamatory in the book necessarily. I mean, I really didn’t want to slag individual people in the book. But at the same time, I wanted it to be taking place in the real publishing world. So I didn’t want anything in there fictional. I mean, if someone’s at a party, I wanted people who would be at these parties intermingling with fictional characters. In the same way I like to talk about how you have Bob Hoskins in Who Framed Roger Rabbit? But you also have Jessica Rabbit running around. So I like the intermingling of cartoonish and reality. But I had no desire or interest in ragging on anybody specific in publishing. And anyone who is libeled in the book is fictional, I would say.

The Bat Segundo Show #354: Prince of Broadway & Adam Langer II (Download MP3)

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