The Bat Segundo Show: Yiyun Li

Yiyun Li appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #363. She is most recently the author of Gold Boy, Emerald Girl.

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Confusing golden boys with golden tickets.

Author: Yiyun Li

Subjects Discussed: [List forthcoming]


Li: The way I look at fiction is that the most dramatic moments do not come from physical or real dramas, but from internal dramas. And those moments are actually quite still, if you look from outside, and those are the moments I like to write about in fiction.

Correspondent: I’m wondering why narrative scenarios or stories tend to come more from that than, say, a natural collision of ideas. Or a natural collision of two characters arguing in a coffee shop or something.

Li: Right. I think with that scenario, if you have two characters, or two ideas, bumping into each other, there’s no space for them to stop. It’s like a train wreck. It’s like a crash. As a writer, you have to follow that. Which some writers do really well — following in that crash. By nature, I don’t think I follow that crash. But I like the aftermath of the crash. Or right before that crash. So I don’t follow the event. I follow the crash within the crash, in a way.

Correspondent: Do you feel that — if you had, say, an obvious crash, like two people — that this might complicate a narrative situation that you’re forming in your head? Or something like that? Do you work better from a minimalist narrative scenario than, say, a rather complex one?

Li: Yes. You know, in a way, I think my fiction doesn’t deal with a lot of physical actions. I think maybe that reflects my tendency to back up a little. Just to watch. And when I watch, my attention oftentimes is not with the physical crash or noise. I’m very sensitive to noises. And I think that those moments there — sometimes there’s too much noise. It’s too noisy for me. So I would go away. And I would go into the internal world. Where the noise is a different kind of noise. (laughs)

Correspondent: Have any sentences or any character developments emerged in your head from a noise? I’m curious.

Li: Oh, that’s so funny. No! I think oftentimes that the characters start with a very quiet moment. I don’t think I have — oh, I would say the counterrevolutionary who was sentenced to death in The Vagrants, she was the only one of my characters, I think, that had a little bit of noise in her. I mean, her experience was quite noisy. Loud. So she was the only one.

Correspondent: I mean, this is very interesting. Because I actually wanted to remark on one thing I’ve observed in your work. A very slight internal rhyme to your sentences. And I’m going to dig out some examples here to show that I’m not some paranoid, crazy freak here. “Spring in Bejing was as brief as a young girl’s grief over a bad haircut.” That’s in “Number Three, Garden Road.” In “House Fire,” “the court, as the last resort.” In “Kindness,” “I fumbled under the bundled clothes.” Not exact. But close enough. I mean, you mention sound. I’m curious how rhyme along these lines helps to anchor a sentence for you. How a sentence is formed based on this rhythm. Because there is this really wonderful rhythm, I think. And it comes out more directly to the reader, I think, with the internal rhyme.

Li: Right. So the question is somewhat about how do I come up with this sentences.

Correspondent: Yes! How does this musicality come about?

Li: Right. I think one thing is I have to write to the music. I actually imagine the music of my stories.

Correspondent: Oh yeah.

Li: And that’s one thing that’s really important. I’m not a visual writer. So I don’t imagine the images. I imagine the rhythm and the tone. So in a way, I think, you just have to push a sentence to match to the music in your head.

Correspondent: Aha! So you literally have the song going on.

Li: Yeah.

Correspondent: There’s a musical phrase right there.

Li: (laughs)

Correspondent: You have to get the sentence matching up exactly.

Li: Right.

Correspondent: Even if it’s diatonic.

Li: Right. It’s almost like the sentence has to talk to the music in my head, rather than anything else I think.

Correspondent: Is this why it often takes you so long to come up with a sentence or a story? Because you’re so exact like that?

Li: I am. I think I do pay a lot of attention to the sentences. And I also listen to music. Like sometimes I would choose a specific piece that would match the mood of the story. Or to the novel. I’ll listen to it again and again until I get it. The sentence and the music. They sort of have the conversation.

Correspondent: So I’m curious what kind of music is going on in your head. Are we talking the Ramones? Are we talking classical music?

Li: (laughs) Well, this is a little confession. My first book was written to U2.

Correspondent: Oh yeah?

Li: I was listening to U2 songs.

Correspondent: Which albums?

Li: Actually, all albums of the time.

Correspondent: Oh really.

Li: You know, my husband would make all these files on my computer. So I would have all the U2 sounds. And I would just go over and over again. While I listened to U2, I would write. That’s how my first collection came into being. But then I think my music has changed since then. Now it’s more classic music. I listen to Tchaikovsky a lot. Because I feel very close to his music. And Brahms is oftentimes in my accompanying pieces. And Mahler. I wrote one story — “Kindness,” the novella in the new collection — completely to Mahler’s Symphony No. 1.

Correspondent: Which Tchaikovsky? The 1812 Overture?

Li: 1812 Overture. Yes!

Correspondent: I knew it. That’s so fitting in light of the depressed nature of the characters.

Li: Yes. Tchaikovsky is really close to my mind, I think. I don’t know. His music moves me just beyond words.

Correspondent: I’m curious if you have thought to find composers and artists who are oppressed in some ways — as Tchaikovsky was.

Li: No. (laughs)

The Bat Segundo Show #363: Yiyun Li (Download MP3)

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Review: The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest (2009)

In my review of The Girl Who Played With Fire, I expressed my disappointment that writer Jonas Frykberg and director Daniel Alfredson had failed to include one moment relating to Billy’s Pan Pizza — that mysterious Swedish brand that could rev you up for a day of stealing motorcycles while your name was being smeared in the newspapers. While an unidentified pizza brand does factor into two moments of The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, the third film in the Millennium trilogy, I regret to report that these pizza moments fail to revive a cinematic snoozefest. One curious facet of the Millennium film trilogy is its inverse ratio to the books. As the books get better, the movies get worse. It’s a great disappointment to see our beloved Blomkvist played by Michael Nyqvist as if he is a narcoleptic. There were several times in which I felt compelled to brew a pot of coffee and send it through the screen. It’s also incredibly sad to see the page-turning trial scene transformed into commonplace courtroom drama, which isn’t helped by the film introducing a cost-cutting scene in which the judge orders all non-essential people to leave the courtroom due to the private nature of the matter. (Nice way to cut down on extras. But, man, does that grand courtroom look so lonely!)

The film appears to have suffered a severe shortfall in financial resources. It looks and feels cheap. Aside from the trial scene, it is so cheap that an early moment in the book, offering a reason for Blomkvist and Berger to spend the night at a hotel after some unknown nutjob has messed with Berger’s car, has been excised — presumably because the filmmakers couldn’t afford the car. The spontaneous decision for casual sex has no motivation (and furthermore, if it’s all for crass tits and ass, it’s seen off-screen!). During the press conference and paparazzi moments, there are laughably scant reporters covering this major news story. Larsson’s lurid book worked so well precisely because it demanded to be read as a pulpish opera. But little ambition can be found in this film adaptation.

Unlike the previous two films, the photography here is pedestrian, often containing little contrast or pizazz (this being a production originally made for television) save for a scene within the Constitutional Protection Unit in which cinematographer Peter Mokrosinski lights a cross on the wall behind Blomkvist and a window light hitting against the wall behind his interlocutors. These moody touches would have worked well, had there been more placed throughout the movie. Alas, it is not to be. For goodness sake, the novel constantly makes reference to “a glass cage” that Salander works in. Larsson, for all of his silliness, gripped us because of his hyper-specific detail, which often extended into the visual.

But it isn’t just the lackluster visual execution that sinks this movie. The film’s main problems are with Frykberg’s script. The compelling stalker subplot in the book, in which a creep is sending Berger emails reading WHORE, has been severely downplayed. Not only has the Svenske Morgon-Posten newspaper been eliminated (thus neutering the book’s competitive attitude about journalism, which nicely balances Salander’s redemption), but by merging the SMP subplot into Millennium, the total staff has been reduced to about four people. Thus, there’s hardly a threat or even a red herring (the lovely character Holm) for us to care about. And the stalker’s emails contain relatively silly messages compared to the book. Instead of the novel’s threatening messages (YOU’RE GOING TO GET FUCKED IN THE CUNT WITH A SCREWDRIVER. WHORE!), we get YOU SLEEP WITH THE LIGHT ON? ARE YOU SCARED? I get emails like that all the time. Not from enemies, but from friends. So when Millennium responds to these emails with hysterics, you have to wonder if some harmless YouTube cat video will be enough for them to file a restraining order.

The movie is better with Niedermann (that unfeeling giant who likes to sneak up behind family members and cheerfully announce, “Hello, little sister”) than the book is, balancing the blond titan better against the many subplots. But the women in this film aren’t nearly as badass as they are in the novel. (And on this point, screenwriter Frykberg doesn’t offer much of an alternative. Because he has watered down the subplots where women fight back, he has diminished the women — a strange choice in light of the novel’s curious gender politics. Oh well, let’s hope that Fincher and Zallian make this work, should they adapt the last two books into Hollywood movies.) Because the Berger stalker subplot has been toned down, we never get a chance to see her confront the man who’s harassing her. And because this is a cinematic medium, we don’t get anything close to Salander’s internal thoughts within the novel. She’s more of a laconic type who takes in what occurs around her when she isn’t using slings to stretch her legs against the bed (another cost-cutting tactic that cheapens Salander). This gives the perfectly capable Noomi Rapace very little to do. Sure, I liked her Goth appearance in the courtroom. But anyone who has read the book know that, with Salander, looks aren’t everything.

I enjoyed the first two films. But The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest lacks the vitality that was there in the novel. It seems more of a contractual obligation rather than a fun pulp ride.

The Bat Segundo Show: David Rakoff II

David Rakoff recently appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #362. Mr. Rakoff is most recently the author of Half-Empty. He previously appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #167 and The Bat Segundo Show #168.

PROGRAM NOTE: This show contains many unusual moments: the unanswered phone calls ringing in Mr. Rakoff’s apartment, the race to the Internet to look up the word “vitiate,” the efforts by both gentlemen to assign various forms of depression and optimism to each other, the common counting mistakes (listen carefully to the intro), and Mr. Rakoff opening up a window. Since these flubs and quirks are presented here unadorned for the listener, we must offer at least one correction. Our Correspondent mangles a George Bernard Shaw late into the conversation. The correct quote is “The real moment of success is not the moment apparent to the crowd,” and comes from Caesar and Cleopatra.

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Confusing threes, fours, and fives.

Author: David Rakoff

Subjects Discussed: [List forthcoming]


Correspondent: You just mentioned that you will not delve into certain aspects of your life in writing these essays.

Rakoff: For the most part.

Correspondent: For the most part. This leads me to wonder about “Shrimp.” The essay in which, as a child, you report that you have a desire to have a fast track to adulthood. This led me to wonder if you had even really attempted to view this from the reverse vantage point. Of you as an adult reporting back to David Rakoff the child, “Okay. Here’s what it’s all about. It’s perfectly okay.” You say you have a happy childhood. But you also have this longing to become an adult very, very rapidly.

Rakoff: Yes.

Correspondent: As a quick rung up the ladder. That’s just not the way life works. Why view it from this linear quality? This is interesting because you are often very digressive in your essays.

Rakoff: Yes.

Correspondent: Which is why I like them. But from this vantage point, from childhood to adulthood, you’re looking at only in one direction and not really the reverse. I’m curious why that was. Or if you have made attempts to look at it the other way. Or is that where the essay “Isn’t It Romantic?” comes into play? Is that you — okay, here’s the adult looking back to being a child.

Rakoff: Wow.

Correspondent: Just to throw some things at you.

Rakoff: Okay, let me see if I can parse this into something resembling an answer. Part of the reason that I don’t look back — or, you know, look in reverse — is twofold. I’m really not kidding when I said I didn’t enjoy being a child. So I don’t really adore remembering that. I’m not comfortable with who I was. I’m a little embarrassed with who I was. So I don’t spend a lot of time looking back. And also because I don’t generally try to mine my own life. It feels a little — I’m still not entirely comfortable with what seemed to be a certain sort of self-mythologizing aspects I’m not just comfortable using the details of my life. Although it’s a somewhat waffling response. Because this particular book is full of details about my life and things that are quite personal, I suppose.

Correspondent: And possibly the most personal of the three books.

Rakoff: Oh, undoubtedly the most personal of the three books. Yes, absolutely. But in terms of the forward-looking thing, there is that anxiety that marks whatever phase you’re at. And I think it’s an anxiety that marks life in general. Which is: Everything takes longer than you hope it’s going to. Everything. Everything has to gestate. Whether it’s work, whether it’s creativity, whether it’s just having people in the world knowing who you are and therefore throw work your way. It’s always, “Everything takes longer.” Certain recipes, where the congealing of albumen in an egg where you apply heat, you know, that takes the number of minutes that it takes. Everything takes longer than they say it’s going to take. It’s going to take years. To pay your dues. To get out of a job. Whatever. So it’s that source of tension. Which is that nobody wants to wait that long. Nobody wants to put in the time. And everybody hopes to be ushered past the velvet ropes or somehow upgraded on the great flight. To business class without having deserved it in any way. That’s a constant tension. Not just among me, but I think among every person alive. And every child wants to be suddenly older.

I suppose both essays are an attempt to both make sense of that and also to — if they are speaking to those younger people, to say, “It will be okay. This period shall pass.” And you will look back upon it not fondly. Because that would just be a little nostalgic and kind of unrealistic. But at least with some kind of peace. And I no longer quite begrudge myself those feelings, embarrassing though they may have been — you know.

Correspondent: But not wanting to look back. I’m wondering if this is one of the reasons why your sentences — and even more so with this book — are so ornate and modifier heavy and very phrase happy.

Rakoff: I am phrase happy. That’s a lovely expression! I’ve never heard of it.

Correspondent: Well, it’s one that just occurred to me.

Rakoff: It’s so good.

Correspondent: But if this almost serves as a kind of insulating mechanism, so that if you are going back to your self, you’re doing so in such an idiosyncratic way as to not direct kind of…

Rakoff: Oh, that’s interesting!

Correspondent: Putting your nib into your vein and letting the blood flood onto the page, which is what’s often said about writing.

Rakoff: Yes, it’s true. I guess though that being phrase happy is just inevitable. It’s the way that one moves through the world. You know, it’s the way that one looks at things. It’s the way that one speaks about things. Or rather the way I speak about things. You know, conversation and talking is my favorite thing. It’s my meat. So “phrase happy” is inevitable. It’s interesting to me that you would maybe see it as a kind of mediating or obfuscating screen. Because I see it as the opposite. As a way of actually getting at the exact nature of something. Because a reluctance to look back is not the same thing as not looking back. One cannot help but look back. But you know, it’s inevitable. And it’s not really in my control. So insomuch as I’ve chosen to in certain places, the best I can hope to do is to do so in an accurate and evocative manner. So that someone that I’ve taken along with me (i.e., the reader) will feel like, “Oh, I get what you mean.” That seems very vivid to me and I completely understand what kind of house this was, what kind of experience this was, or something. But, no, I don’t think of the barrage. You know, that huge wave of verbal diarrhea — which is the way I both speak and write –as being a mediating factor. I think of them as being closer to the nib in the vein.

Correspondent: Well, I think maybe it could be both. Words can both insulate and also be the telltale indicator to the reader, “Hey, if you want to go down my journey with me, you’re going to have to wend through my conscious patterns.” You know?

Rakoff: Sure.

Correspondent: And I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing. It’s just the way that you are introspective on the page perhaps.

Rakoff: Precisely. And in life. I’m not one of those minimal guy speakers or writers.

Correspondent: Yeah.

Rakoff: I like words. It’s just like having a lot of spices in my kitchen. It’s just that I like having access to all that stuff.

Correspondent: Well, this also leads me to wonder — because you did bring up words in “A Capacity for Wonder.” You report your concern for bad neologisms. Particularly those that are muffed on lexical blending. Words like “innovention.”

Rakoff: Oh yeah.

Correspondent: Or “snackitizer.”

Rakoff: (laughs)

Correspondent:Or “appeteaser.” In your words, “It makes one suspicious, wondering about the ways in which the object in question is found so wanting, so insufficiently innovative or lacking in invention to warrant this linguistic boost.” I’m wondering. Do you greet all words — all language — with some level of skepticism or suspicion? What does it take for you to trust a word?

Rakoff: Oh! What does it take for me to trust a word? First of all, I have to know what it means.

Correspondent: (laughs)

Rakoff: And there are a lot of words — that as often as I pack my ear with them and look them up all the time — I can’t get them. I’ve even said this in an interview. There was one word. “Vitiate.”

Correspondent: It was our interview! We talked about “vitiate” last time!

Rakoff: Yes! And then I even — I’ve still not gotten “vitiate” — and I’ve said it again in another interview with somebody else!

Correspondent: Yes!

Rakoff: Because I still can’t get it into my head.

Correspondent: To wither or to dry.

Rakoff: It means to either strengthen or weaken an argument. Which one does it mean?

Correspondent: No. I thought “vitiate” means to —

Rakoff: Strengthen?

Correspondent: To dry. Like…

Rakoff: No.

Correspondent: No, no, no! Because you’re vitiated! Your energy forces are…

Rakoff: No, it means to either strengthen an argument or weaken an argument. One vitiates one’s argument.

Correspondent: Oh, in rhetoric, that is.

Rakoff: I don’t know. In the dictionary. Should I look it up?

Correspondent: We may as well. Because….

Rakoff: All my stuff is in storage.

Correspondent: Wait, I could do it.

Rakoff: (moves off microphone to computer) Wait, I can do it right here. On the Internet.

Correspondent: I was going to suggest. I’ve got a netbook on me too.

Rakoff: Generally, I use a — is this picking up on the tape, you think?

Correspondent: We could — yeah, I think it’s going to pick up. I can boost it or something like this. We’ll get this moment or I’ll — I thought it was “to wither.”

Rakoff: (still faint, on computer) No, I don’t think so. Vitiate.

(Phone rings.)

Correspondent: Yeah. To impair the quality. To make faulty. Spoil. To repair or weaken.

Rakoff: Revert.

Correspondent: Yeah, yeah, yeah!

Rakoff: Interesting.

Correspondent: Well, do you want to answer? (indicates phone) Because I can stop.

Rakoff: No, no, no. I’ll let the machine pick up.

(Rakoff returns to mike.)

Correspondent: Anyway, now that we have used the Internet to confirm what this word is.

Rakoff: Yeah.

Correspondent: Both of us are coming at it slightly wrong. I drew my attention to the weakening aspect of the word and you drew your attention to the rhetorical quality of the word.

Rakoff: Yeah. To ruin one’s argument.

Correspondent: Yes.

Rakoff: So it’s the same.

Correspondent: We had the same idea. We’re close. But both of us are imprecise. I don’t know what that says about us or the word.

Rakoff: I think we are close. I think we both get the word. But it’s funny that we — Jesus, even five years later.

(Image: Kris Krug)

The Bat Segundo Show #362: David Rakoff II (Download MP3)

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The Bat Segundo Show: Andrew Ervin

Andrew Ervin appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #361. He is most recently the author of Extraordinary Renditions.

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Contemplating alternative forms of freedom.

Author: Andrew Ervin

Subjects Discussed: [List forthcoming]


Ervin: What else do we have but politics to write about? Ultimately. Whether it’s on a personal level or a cultural level or a national level, politics is going to play a part in every element of our lives, I would imagine. You were asking me about anger recently and I think that gets back to Brutus, who is a very angry character. And he’s the way that I found a voice from my intense anger about our political realm in America. I mean, what’s going on is disastrous to me. We’re still an incredibly racist nation. We’re still an incredibly sexist nation. And this character gave me an opportunity to voice that in some way. And it may be a bit over-the-top. It may push the radicalism a little too far in some regards. And perhaps I tried to mediate that with some of the other characters. But I’m not sure.

Correspondent: But with Brutus, you are very clear to point out that he has a good deal of materialistic hypocrisy.

Ervin: Absolutely.

Correspondent: Here’s a guy who goes ahead and he complains about blowing money. He complains about getting ripped off by the hotel and then he’s blowing money on fast food and Tom Clancy novels. And also that shopping trick he makes, where he’s totally fleeced. So for a guy who is in this really terrible and probably not very well-paying occupation of setting rat traps, and for a guy who is really anti-corporate and inflamed and into a possible post-Black Power situation, he is decidedly hypocritical. That his ultimate engagement with politics is actually a way of him getting lost further instead of finding that identity he wants.

Ervin: Is it still hypocritical if we’re aware that we’re participating? I mean, can we ever get completely outside of the system that we’re trying to critique. We can write the great environmentalist novel of our age, but it’s still going to be printed on bleached paper and packed into trucks and carried across the highway system. There’s always some participation in what we’re critiquing. No matter what. My hope is that I’m aware of the extent to which I’m working within a system to critique it to some extent. Not that I have a specific political agenda with this book. I don’t. I really don’t. Every critic that I speak to wants to ascribe one to it. And they tend to be different ones, depending upon whom I’m speaking to. Which is kind of nice. But there’s definitely an awareness both on my part and, I believe, on Brutus’s part — there’s no getting away from what we’re critiquing. We are also participating.

Correspondent: Yeah. So basically, the question I have now is why fiction is the best way to critique this problematic involvement with politics. Because…well, maybe I’m answering your question a bit. (laughs)

Ervin: (laughs) Yeah, would you please?

Correspondent: The thought I had here was maybe fiction serves as this container for you to examine our participation in the system we’re critiquing. Because it is, in itself, a container. And I did actually want to bring up some of the descriptive details about containment. You refer to “the ceiling of the sky.” There’s the Coca-Cola sign that is on the top of the apartment in the third novella. So this leads me to believe that this is indeed a preoccupation. But maybe we can tie in how you arrived at this walled in description with another query about whether fiction is the best way to create a dialogue about this issue. Do you think it is?

Ervin: I’m not sure that fiction is privileged in any way in speaking to those issues. If I could play piano, I would try that. If I could paint pictures, I would do that. I’d be willing to break out an interpretive dance for you.

Correspondent: Please do.

Ervin: If you think you can record that. I don’t know what fiction can do in relation to the other arts or any means of expression or nonfiction or poetry. They all play a part in whatever we’re trying to say. Fiction is just what works for me personally. And I don’t want to claim that it has some kind of privilege. It’s what I do.

Correspondent: Well, in terms of the description of characters walled in interiors, why do you think you’re so focused on this? I mean, you do use “the ceiling of the sky.” That is a very clear indicator that no matter where one goes, one is going to find one’s self in some kind of interior. Even walking outside.

Ervin: Are you telling me that you don’t feel that way?

Correspondent: Well, it depends.

Ervin: (laughs)

Correspondent: You’re asking me to confess perspective versus description perhaps. And maybe that’s the tension we’re describing here.

Ervin: I guess a large part of what this book is about are the restrictions that are placed on us by social organizations and political organizations. The barriers we put on ourselves. The limitations we’re wiling to put on our own imaginations very often without even knowing it. And this scares me. This frightens me a great deal. That we don’t know how free we are. And we participate in these polite little conversations in front of microphones. And we go out in public and follow the rules. And go where we’re supposed to go and buy what we’re supposed to buy. There’s some part of our humanity that we’ve lost touch with. We’ve lost something that is vitally important to who we are. We’re all so damn polite now.

Correspondent: Yes.

Ervin: And if my characters are constrained some way even by their natural environment, that may be the reason. Because I feel like we are constrained.

Correspondent: And yet you associate this freedom with violence. The end of the second novella has a very specific line about freedom. “This was something that he had not perceived for so long.” And to my mind, that is extremely interesting. Because on one level, what your freedom might be or what Brutus’s freedom might be — and then I think in my mind, Franzen’s idea of freedom, which from my standpoint is very much endorsing the exact system that you’re trying to critique. So since freedom is really a relative term, is it even a term to dwell on? Is it possibly too general a term? Does fiction, by way of ambiguity, allow one — either the author or the reader — to find not necessarily a solution, but at least an understanding of this dilemma that we’re describing?

Ervin: How are we going to know when we are free? I mean, that’s the question. Is it just opening up one more barrier and seeing a slightly bigger horizon? There’s no way for me to be able to answer that. The moment you’re talking about at the end of the second novella, with Brutus on the bridge over the Danube, I think references the [Frantz] Fanon book he’s reading. He’s carrying around The Wretched of the Earth. This great book in many ways about the curative power of violence. And to try and conflate my personal political agenda, if I have one, with that is a mistake, I think. That’s not me. That’s this one character who may have a more enlightened view of the world than I do or a more limited one in some way that I’m not sure. But freedom is not — I mean, what can you say? Who knows?

(Image: Dean Sabatino)

The Bat Segundo Show #361: Andrew Ervin (Download MP3)

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The Bat Segundo Show: Neal Pollack II

Neal Pollack appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #360. He is most recently the author of Stretch. He previously appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #96.

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Stretching for owls.

Author: Neal Pollack

Subjects Discussed: [List forthcoming]


Correspondent: This book isn’t, to me, just about your own personal experience with yoga. I got the sense in reading this of a man who, quite frankly, is really terrified of getting older. I mean, it starts with that review you got in The New York Times Book Review, which was, I think now, completely ridiculous. We joked about it before. Of a man who is terrified of being pegged as “another doughy guy in his thirties.” As a guy who is just looking for some replacement or affirmation of his identity. But that sense of terror is there in your personal quest. Why do you feel that is? And how aware were you of this?

Pollack: Well, the more I got into it, the more aware I was. And I think what it came down to is not necessarily a fear of getting older, but, in the end, the main fear that all of us have. Which is a fear of death. Or, as the Buddhists say, a fear of impermanence. And it’s that fear of impermanence that drives so much pain and suffering in the world. And I had that in large quantities. I had been doing all of this crazy stuff. And my ego was out of control. And a lot of that, I think, was just because I was trying to find a substitute for acceptance of impermanence. I mean, that’s what you say in Buddhism. Not like I’m a Buddhist. But it was very important to me to realize it. Not just think, “Oh, I”m going to die.” But to actually feel it in my bones that, you know, everything around me is impermanent. And that actually made my life a lot easier to live. I’m not nearly as afraid of getting old and dying as I used to be.

Correspondent: But that anger did come out during that New York yoga class. When you saw the woman spouting forth political messages.

Pollack: Yeah, I mean, there was definitely — as part of the journey — I had these eruptions of anger and envy and just reactive behavior. And it was not a smooth transition. And I think the transition is ongoing. But I definitely think I’m calmer and less angry and less envious than I was. And I’m happier because of it. I don’t know if my writing is necessarily better, although I think it is. But it certainly has — it’s made it much easier for me to move through the world.

Correspondent: But the problem here is that if you are still erupting into anger, this is very much still a part of who you are.

Pollack: Well…

Correspondent: You have to accept yourself for who you are.

Pollack: Yeah.

Correspondent: In some capacity. A large capacity, actually.

Pollack: Yeah. I would say that yoga smooths over the rough edges. That doesn’t mean that you’re going to behave exemplary — exemporarily — is that how you say it? — in all circumstances. But it will make you much more aware of how you behave in most circumstances. And so, of course, you’re still going to feel angry or be envious or say something stupid. Or eat too much or drink too much from time to time. But I don’t know. It’s nice to be a little more thoughtful and a little more mindful of the world around me. And of my body and my mind.

Correspondent: Yeah. But I mean, for example, in Thailand, you complained about the cookies they gave you, writing, “Jesus fucking Christ. We paid them enough money. They could at least give us a proper cookie.” I mean, this seems to conflict with the idea of ahimsa, where you’re supposed to be nonviolent and not dislike the world. You’re supposed to embrace it.

Pollack: I bitch to myself and maybe to a couple of friends. I didn’t throw a fit and make them bring me another cookie. It’s not like you lose all discrimination and judgment when you start practicing yoga. I mean, there still is food that tastes good. The food that doesn’t taste good. There are still good movies and bad movies. Good books and bad books. People you like and people you don’t like. That doesn’t go away, but you don’t take it all so personally maybe. And the fact that I wrote down a grouchy reaction to a bad dessert, I just did that to illustrate, “Well, yeah, so I’m still grouchy.”

Correspondent: Yeah.

Pollack: But the difference is that in the past, that grouchiness or irritability may have been destructive. Whereas now, I just like to think of it as a character trait.

Correspondent: So you say things roll off you more now than they did before?

Pollack: Everything rolls off me more easily. Some things more easily than others. But, yeah, because of practicing yoga and meditation, I’m able to take things that happen to me more in stride. It’s never 100% perfect. But even publishing a book has been easier. There are a lot of stressful things going when you publish a book. You’re dealing with editors and you’re trying to figure out how to promote it. And then you’re traveling around. And then you’re wondering if people are going to like it and are going to buy it. And you have good reviews. You have bad reviews. And…

Correspondent: Vicious reviews in this case. Paul Constant. I thought that was far more vicious than David Kamp.

Pollack: By comparison, sure. That was a horrible review. It was really mean. But, you know, I stewed about it for a couple of hours. And in the past I might have really stewed about it and written some kind of screed in response and sent him an email and maybe even call them up. I might have made things worse. And in this case, I just complained to my wife about it for a couple of hours. And then let it go.

Correspondent: Well, wait a minute here. Because with the David Kamp review, I remember this because I read your site for many years. You had to joke about it. And then, when I read this book, I was surprised to see it come back like a zombie out of the blue. I mean, this had been torturing you for a number of years.

Pollack: Well, it wasn’t torturing me anymore. But it was a key turning point in my life to perceive that review. It was like, I don’t think the review was entirely fair. But really, in retrospect, it wasn’t that unfair. It was just like somebody had dumped a bucket of cold water on my head.

Correspondent: Or a bucket of crap.

Pollack: A bucket of crap. And the Establishment said, “No, no, no. We’re not letting you in.” You know? “Sorry, you’re a schmuck.” And to some extent, he was right. And to some extent, he wasn’t. And to a large extent, it doesn’t matter. But it was a key turning point. And I am actually very grateful to that guy for writing that piece. Because it sent me on the path that really helped — it changed my life forever and helped me enormously.

Correspondent: So if I got you and Paul Constant together for a beer.

Pollack: I would prefer not to meet him for a beer. Just because…

Correspondent: He’s actually a nice guy. He probably didn’t mean it.

Pollack: I know people who work at The Stranger. And I didn’t meet him. And if I met him, I would joke with him about it. Because, you know, I’m…I’m not a bad guy. And at the end of the day, I’m sure he’s not either. There was something in the book he obviously didn’t like and he went to the wall against it. And that’s why we have the First Amendment.

(Image: Katie Spence)

The Bat Segundo Show #360: Neal Pollack II (Download MP3)

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Hate Mail Dramatic Reading Project #11

This morning, I emailed a film critic attempting to clarify a recent misunderstanding in civil and reasonable terms. This film critic accused me of being unprofessional, yet, as I pointed out to him, threatening people on Twitter (“you better watch yourself. How fucking dare you call my film review ‘suspicious,'” he had tweeted at a time when most people are sleeping) hardly constituted a professional act. I informed this film critic that I didn’t hate him or his colleagues. Indeed, I still don’t. I will be happy to hug any of the offended parties at the earliest opportunity if it will assist them in civilly responding to the argument. Unsurprisingly, the film critic sent me back a hate mail.

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

The following clip represents my dramatic reading of the hate mail in question, read in the style of Carl Paladino. Or perhaps someone who differs from Carl Paladino. However inaccurate the voice, it seemed the right idea at the time.

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

Click any of the below links to listen.

Hate Mail Dramatic Reading Project #11 (Download MP3)

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Previous Hate Mail Dramatic Reading Installments:

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

Why Devin Faraci is Unfit to Practice Journalism

I am generally quite supportive of fledgling cultural sites, both high and low. And it was with this spirit in mind that I took a quick peek at Badass Digest, a new venture run by the Alamo Drafthouse (a venue I wholeheartedly appreciate) and edited by a man named Devin Faraci, whom I now understand to be in the habit of berating people when he can’t get his way. I was unaware of Faraci’s history when I stumbled upon this erroneous report, claiming that director John Carpenter had “suffered a seizure at Florida’s Spooky Empire convention on Saturday October the 8th.” As someone who hopes that John Carpenter lives long enough to turn out a few more films, I was greatly concerned by this apparent “news.”

The problem was that Dread Central, the site that had initially reported this false rumor, got its news wrong. After someone named “Uncle Creepy” has posted the item, Carpenter’s wife had contacted Dread Central, informing the site that Carpenter did not have a seizure in Orlando and that he had collapsed from exhaustion. Dread Central had the decency to include this update (even if it did not change its misleading headline).

Badass Digest’s Devin Faraci didn’t change his headline either. Indeed, even at the onset, Faraci preferred reveling in the news with his tasteless headline, “Okay, Who Showed John Carpenter Rob Zombie’s HALLOWEEN?” (Never mind that, as interviews with both Rob Zombie and John Carpenter demonstrate, Carpenter urged Rob Zombie to make the film his own. One commenter in the thread would later point this out.)

I left this perfectly reasonable comment:

John Carpenter did not suffer a seizure. According to his wife, Carpenter had a flu and was exhausted. Dread Central updated its post. Please try doing some actual reporting (what real badasses do) rather than spreading misinformation like a common amateur.

Faraci responded in the comments:

Hi Ed. Rather than commenting like a common moron, maybe you could have noticed that this article was published on October 11th, before Dread Central updated its post. Yes, Ed, I was publishing content here before it was public. How embarrassing for you to be calling someone else out on an error when you’re in fact completely wrong. Or do you pick up copies of the New York Times from 2007 and become enraged that they refer to President Bush?

Ed, I hope you deal with the personal problems that would lead you to comb through a newly launched blog in an effort to deliver a correction. Or you can get fucked, whichever suits you best.

Never mind that I had observed in my comment that Dread Central had updated its post. I was aware that this was an October 11, 2010 item. But, on October 22, 2010, the item had not corrected the misinformation.

Indeed, as of today, the post still falsely states that Carpenter was “suffering a seizure.”

Why is this important? Well, let’s frame this as a crass thought experiment. Let us suppose that I am the “common moron” that Faraci suggests me to be. As a common moron, I am too busy to look up from my laptop to see that Faraci’s father is being raped with a night stick. Dread Central has reported that Faraci’s father is merely being kissed by another man. There is tangible experience before me that will help me to get a better handle on the story, if not aid the victim — namely, that Faraci’s father is screaming for help. But under the Faraci School, I must not believe anything else but a single source on my computer.

Just as there is a difference between “seizure” and “flu,” there is also a pivotal distinction between “raped” and “kissed.” Faraci’s father, in addition to recovering from a vicious rape that the insensitive “common moron” has failed to report properly (let alone assist in stopping), now has to spend a good deal of time attempting to clear up the misinformation that the alleged journalist has helped to promulgate.

Yet this is precisely the line of reasoning that Faraci promulgated in relation to John Carpenter. Had Faraci been an actual journalist, he would have picked up the phone. He would have called Carpenter’s people. He would have called the Spooky Empire convention. He would have contacted the hotel. He would have enlisted social networks to fish for eyewitness confirmation. He would have called the hospital. He would have talked to a doctor. In short, Faraci would have conducted actual reporting. Confirmation of rumors before reporting them.

All this would have made Faraci a journalist instead of some amateurish hack junketeer who screams at publicists like a petulant infant when isn’t given his rattle and who tells anybody calling out his slipshod standards to get fucked.

Rather than tell Faraci to get fucked, I have attempted to frame his incompetence through a crude patois he might understand. Let me attempt a more dignified approach.

Getting the details right are important. If you don’t believe this to be the case, then your blog — whether newly launched or well established — simply has no right to exist. You have no right to call yourself a news site. You have no right to be taken seriously by anyone.

For what it’s worth, I didn’t comb through Faraci’s site to find the Carpenter error. I stumbled upon it after devoting perhaps 30 seconds of my time to the site. But I think I will take up Faraci’s suggestion in an effort to demonstrate why he is unfit to practice journalism and why Badass Digest is deserving of either death or serious improvement (perhaps through a more capable employee than the incompetent Faraci).

Beyond the ignoble Carpenter gaffe, the real question here is just how much misinformation Devin Faraci can spread in one day. The unsurprising answer — based on going through a random day at Badass Digest (October 22) — is a quite considerable tally.

Adam Green post: Faraci erroneously refers to Hatchet II (Roman numeral) as Hatchet 2.

Green Lantern report: Faraci describes the forthcoming Green Lantern as “the most cosmic superhero movie ever,” proceeding to note that its “scope is so big it spans from the West Coast of the US to a planet at the center of the galaxy.” Aside from the needless hyperbole (which comes, apparently bought and purchased by studios, after Faraci had “visit[ed] the New Orleans set of the film”), if Faraci actually knew what the word “cosmic” meant, he’d understand that its extraterrestrial definition stands in sharp contrast to the earth itself, and that his vapid praise extends to misunderstanding the very modifier in question. But then Faraci is a guy so naive and unquestioning that he sees “life-sized cardboard cut outs of Tomar-Re and Kilowogg, the alien GLs who help train Hal Jordan,” and it never occurs to this incompetent that these cutouts might be red herrings to throw junketeers off. Has Faraci read the script? Has he talked with the director about this issue to get confirmation of Tomar-Re and Kilowogg’s appearances? He has not. But he has talked with the director, although not about any of the information he purports to be true (whether any of his hunches will prove to be the basis for the later report Faraci tends to file is a mystery, but his unwillingness to impart even one quote in support of his assertion should demonstrate his unquestionable indolence). Yet he is more happy to impart that “there was a Sinestro-themed cake for [Mark Strong] at lunch.” Journalism’s just desserts!

It also doesn’t occur to this profoundly naive man that he might have been invited to attend the set precisely because he had expressed his disappointment with footage at Comic Con 2010.

Faraci states that he got “the impression that Johns – the guy who has been writing Green Lantern’s comic book adventures for the past couple of years – was incredibly influential on the tone and direction of the movie.” But he never actually interviews Johns, who is standing right there, or anybody else to confirm that Johns’s Secret Origins storyline was part of the Green Lantern movie. In other words, Faraci is your typical rube taken in by flash and filigree. The writing equivalent of a baby elephant who jumps on his forelegs whenever he sees a bag of peanuts. The dog trained to salivate by Pavlov. One goes to Comic-Con to encounter dweebs like this. That they would believe themselves to be journalists merely by standing within five feet of a notable figure reveals the lax standards of present cultural journalism.

Of course, since “this isn’t the full report,” Faraci “can’t tell you too much.” Which begs the question of why he’s even bothered to file this piece in the first place. Journalism shouldn’t contain secrets. It should contain answers to questions. Quotes. Information that nobody else has. Confirmation of information. We get nothing even close to rudimentary journalism in Faraci’s blog post. But he’s happy to impart some “incredible concept art” that was given to him by the studio, urging his readership to “put this stuff on the side of a van” rather than parse it. Faraci, the used car salesman in action.

Over the Top toy story: Faraci’s lede: “Remember when Sylvester Stallone’s arm wrestling opus Over the Top changed the world for professional arm wrestlers everywhere? Probably not. In fact, if you think about cinematic arm wrestling at all you probably think about The Fly, which came out the year before, and had Jeff Goldblum snapping a fellow’s armbone [sic] through his skin during a heated bar match.” An “armbone,” eh? Is it the humerus? The forearm? Aside from the wretched prose, one is stunned that Faraci would be incapable of being more specific bout what is snapped — particularly since Brundlefly snaps his opponent’s wrist.

This lede offers some clues as to Faraci’s motivations. Here we have an aging man motivated by cinematic nostalgia, circa 1986 and 1987, that most adults have forgotten. (This pathetic nostalgia is also in place when Faraci appraises Black Francis as “one cool guy.”) Indeed, the nostalgia is so contagious that Faraci has only an approximate idea of what he’s seen rather than a working knowledge of it. Then again, this is the same misogynist who writes, “So what did you think of Paranormal Activity 2? Were Katie’s boobs as good as the first?” It is unclear whether Faraci is referring to the actress Katie Featherston or her character. One gets the discomfiting sense that this boob-hunting boob is probably referring to the former. As Joanne McNeil suggested back in September, “If you do something sexist, I think you are as dumb as the creationists. In some cases maybe even dumber.” (And Faraci says that I’m the one with personal problems.)

Faraci is indeed dumb as come. And that stupidity extends to more hypocrisy one post earlier when Faraci points to a double standard (indeed, the one that so many other journalists had brought up earlier in the day) between Mel Gibson being sacked from The Hangover 2 and Mike Tyson, a convicted rapist, appearing in The Hangover without a problem. How can a man, whose primary reason for seeing a horror film is to see if “Katie’s boobs [were] as good as the first,” even attempt to comment on such a moral issue? Faraci even closes his “editorial” by writing, “We love art and entertainment, not gossip and bullshit.”

“Were Katie’s boobs as good as the first?” The Green Lantern report laden with gossip and bullshit? Faraci’s feeble statement couldn’t be anything further from the truth.

Rabbit Hole trailer: “What else is it about? I don’t really want to know; all I need to know is that my buddy Scott Weinberg is quoted on the trailer giving effusive praise. And he’s a horror guy!”

More worthless speculation. Not only does Faraci announce how incurious and lazy he is in finding out more about the movie (“I don’t really want to know”), but the man is relying on a blurb from a suspicious review, in which Weinberg claims Rabbit Hole to be “flawless” and “quite simply, one of the best films I’ve ever seen at a festival.” Such over-the-top praise, coming from either a friend or a stranger, should make any real journalist suspicious. But Faraci, as has been clear all along, isn’t even a real writer. His puny excuse for a mind can’t even perform the most basic investigative inquiry, even if you pushed a pistol into his temple. His writing appears to have been purchased, whether by blind loyalty to a friend or blind loyalty to a studio. He doesn’t have the courtesy to link to Weinberg’s review to provide his audience with context. He doesn’t link to other reviews that might cast the film in a different light. Devin Faraci is no different from a hypnotized conformist staring into the camera, saying, “I loved it. It was much better than Cats. I’m going to see it again and again.”

Faraci also incorrectly italicizes Pulitzer. He refers to the Toronto International Film Festival as the “Toronto Film Festival.”

Spielberg a badass? If Faraci is seriously claiming Steven Spielberg, one of the most mainstream directors, to be capable of delivering “badass sci-fi,” then he clearly has no taste — particularly if he’s holding up War of the Worlds — a movie as safe as a turkey dinner — as a “badass” film.” (He makes no mention of Minority Report, which would arguably be more closer film to “badass” territory. This may be because, while Faraci apparently longs for 1980s nostalgia, his memory is worthless for any film in between what is instantaneously released and the movies he barely remembers from his wasted youth.) With typical illiteracy, Faraci doesn’t even mention Daniel H. Wilson’s name. Wilson is merely “the dude who wrote How to Survive a Robot Uprising, one of those 150 page, double spaced impulse buy novelty books that make people rich while you still work in a cubicle.” On the contrary, Wilson was a doctoral candidate at Carnegie Mellon’s Robotics Institute when he wrote the book. I’m also curious how someone can be an “ex-Buffy alum.” To my knowledge, Drew Goodard hasn’t renounced the widely regarded program which helped to kickstart his writing career. An alumni is a former member of an association. So Drew Goodard is merely a Buffy alum. Devin Faraci again demonstrates how little he comprehends the words he uses. He throws words around like a sad drunk walking into the kitchen and claims to be a culinary expert simply by recklessly swinging a hatchet.

The Spider-Man WTC poster: Once again, Faraci lets sensationalism preside over the facts. This time, he gets several facts wrong about a Spider-Man poster recall. The poster, issued before 9/11, featuring the World Trade Center reflected in Spidey’s eyes. On September 12, 2001 (not September 13, as Faraci claims), Sony issued a letter to theaters, asking:

Due to the devastating events that took place yesterday and out of respect for those involved, Sony Pictures Entertainment is requesting that all Spider-Man teaser posters and trailers be taken down and returned to the studio.

There is nothing in this statement to indicate that Sony wanted these posters to be destroyed, as Faraci suggests. But then what else can you expect from a man who uses the phrase “expense trailer?”

* * *

All of the above occurred during a 24 hour period. I shudder to think how many additional embarrassments I could find, should I decide to waste my life poring through this sad excuse for a website any longer. In one day, Faraci managed to misinform his readers, mangle the English language, fudge the facts, express casual misogyny, wiggle his sycophantic tongue in response to information he didn’t bother to investigate, get movie titles wrong, encourage his readers to blindly consume concept art that a studio fed him, wallow in nostalgia, and epitomize conformist opportunism at nearly every moment.

On August 19, 1896, when Adolph S. Ochs began to manage the New York Times, he published this announcement:

It will be my earnest aim that The New York Times give the news, all the news, in concise and attractive form, in language that is permissible in good society, and give it as early if not earlier, than it can be learned through any other reliable medium; to give the news impartially, without fear or favor, regardless of party, sect, or interest involved; to make of the columns of The New York Times a forum for the consideration of all questions of public importance, and to that end to invite intelligent discussion from all shades of opinion.

It is clear by the evidence that Devin Faraci is not only unwilling, but incapable of living by anything close to this credo. Here is a man who does not have exclusives. He cannot deliver the news impartially. He laps up any half-truth from the studios, living in fear that he will be ejected from screenings and garnering favor so that he won’t (which gives him license to shriek at publicists). He is utterly incapable of considering questions of public importance and, most importantly, incapable of inviting intelligent discussion from all shades of opinion.

Should Mr. Faraci decide to respond to the claims contained in this 3,000 word essay, and I certainly invite him to do so, it is doubtful that he will have much to offer beyond “you can get fucked.” And how does that make him any different from a common thug? How does such erratic behavior, such steadfast sloppiness, and such laughable entitlement make him any more qualified than some random guy plucked from a bar?

The answer is simple: By any standard, Devin Faraci is unfit to practice journalism in any form.

[UPDATE: An earlier version of this post, apparently loaded up from WordPress through a previous draft and not the correct one, misspelled Scott Weinberg’s name at one point as “Feinberg.” That error, noted by a reader, has been corrected. Additionally, Devin Faraci, despite the fact that he told me to “get fucked” on Badass Digest, has decided to ban me from commenting further on Badass Digest. He seems to think that I have started a fight with him or that I’m trying to drum up traffic. He is wrong on both counts. I don’t hate Mr. Faraci. I merely wish for him to examine what he is doing. But any kind of examination along those lines is outside his purview. Mr. Faraci has refused to respond to this article, claiming that I have mental problems and that this post is merely “an epic accounting of my typos.” He is wrong on both counts (again), but, to paraphrase Voltaire, I will defend his right to spout forth what he wishes. Unlike Mr. Faraci, I will let the readers make up their own minds about this article. And unlike Mr. Faraci, I will certainly not tell any commenter responding to this article to get fucked.]

[UPDATE 2: So I step away from the Internet for six hours to live my life, and I return home to find that Devin Faraci is accusing me of spamming his site. When, in fact, I haven’t visited it since he banned me. Again, Mr. Faraci demonstrates that he’s more interested in false accusations than pursuing facts, which continues to support my thesis that he is unfit to practice journalism.]

The Most Clueless Political Candidate of the Century

Chris Coons: I believe churches have the absolute right to believe whatever religious doctrine they wish to, but you cannot impose…

Christine O’Donnell: And do local schools have the right to teach that?

Chris Coons: They do not.

Christine O’Donnell: Local schools do not have the right to teach what they feel? Well, there you go.

Chris Coons: Religious doctrine does not belong in our public schools.

Christine O’Donnell: Do you want a senator who is going to impose his beliefs? Talk about imposing your beliefs on the local schools! I’m saying that if the local community wants to teach the Theory of Evolution, it’s up to the School Board to decide. But when I made those remarks, it was because the School Board wanted to also teach the Theory of Intelligent Design, and the government said that they could not. You have just stated that you will impose your will over the local school district, and that is a blatant violation of our Constitution.

Chris Coons: And to be clear, Ms. O’Donnell, I believe that creationism is religious doctrine and that evolution is a broadly accepted…

Christine O’Donnell: How about the Theory of Intelligent Design?

Chris Coons: Creationism, which is…

Christine O’Donnell: Theory of Intelligent Design!

Chris Coons: ….is a religious doctrine.

Christine O’Donnell: No, two different things.

Chris Coons: Evolution is widely accepted, well-defended, scientific fact. And our schools should be teaching science. If we want to instruct our children in religious doctrine and religious practice, as my wife and I choose to, that’s wonderful. That’s what our churches are for. That’s what private or parochial schools are for. But our public schools should be teaching broadly accepted scientific fact, not religious doctrine.

Christine O’Donnell: Wow, you’ve just proved how little you know, not just about constitutional law, but about the Theory of Evolution. Because the Theory of Evolution is not a fact. It is indeed a theory. But I’m saying that theory — if local school districts want to give that theory equal credence to intelligent design, it is their right. You are saying it is not their right. Then that is what you’ve gotten our country into this position. It’s the overreaching arm of the federal government getting into the business of the local communities. The Supreme Court has always said it is up to the local communities to decide their standards. The reason we’re in this mess we’re in is because our so-called leaders in Washington no longer view the indispensable doc, uh, principles of our founding as truly that. Indispensable.

Chris Coons: And why doesn’t this…

Christine O’Donnell: We’re supposed to have limited government. Low taxes….

Moderator: All right.

Chris Coons: Can I have one of those? The indispensable principle is the separation of church and state.

Moderator: Okay. With that. We’ve had a very good dialogue. We appreciate that. Let’s move on so we can get through all the panelists and cover other areas.

Christine O’Donnell: Uh, where in the Constitution is separation of church and state?

(Uncomfortable laughter from the audience.)

Zadie Smith: The Literary Material Girl

There are many unpardonable qualities within Zadie Smith’s recent New Yorker confessional, which should bother anyone who has even a shred of empathy for anyone making less than $50,000 a year.

There is the embarrassment in Zadie Smith blabbering about a very private matter with a “friend” in a very public magazine (did further calumny emerge when the New Yorker‘s notoriously thorough fact checkers contacted this woman?). There is Zadie Smith’s callousness in collecting a loan from someone who is clearly impoverished (particularly when the money was “no skin off my nose,” as Zadie Smith reports; it is certainly “no skin off my nose” to buy a homeless man a sandwich from time to time, but one would never consider asking for the sandwich back). There is Zadie Smith using her privileged position as a New Yorker contributor, where she will collect a check she really doesn’t need for an article in which her friend receives no compensation (indeed, if anyone who knows both Zadie Smith and “Christine” connect the dots, Zadie Smith’s friend actually loses some “value” in this Faustian bargain). Zadie Smith characterizes her previous self as “a working-class girl who’d happened upon money” with her “essential character unchanged,” which sets up Zadie Smith, a 34-year-old debutante, to come out to her discreetly charming bourgeoisie demographic. (We do know that Zadie Smith attended the Franzen party, where she was “surrounded” by Nathan Englander, Mark Ronson, and Patrick McGrath. It would be difficult indeed to detect blue-collar bonhomie from this bunch.)

In short, Zadie Smith has written a tremendously insensitive article that is essentially the confession of a selfish and stingy ablutomaniac who seems to possess little desire in comprehending the motivations of anyone outside her bubble. This is the same novelist (“Fail Better!”) who confessed that she couldn’t write fiction after reading David Shields’s Reality Hunger, but who didn’t even have the guts to stand by her words — much as she didn’t have the nerve years ago to stand by her characterization of England as “a disgusting place”. (Go to the Guardian site now and you’ll see that the Shields article “has been removed as our copyright has expired.” And isn’t it interesting that this essay, published in The Guardian, on November 21, 2009, didn’t appear in the paperback version of Changing My Mind, while there’s no such problem with other essays published at The Guardian. One expects such cowardly backtracking from an army of publicists surrounding an overly protective Hollywood actor.)

But it’s this George Sand mess that I feel the overwhelming need to clean up. From Zadie Smith’s article:

Until this episode, I’d thought of myself as a working-class girl who’d happened upon money, my essential character unchanged. But money is not neutral; it changes everything, including the ability to neutrally judge what people will or will not do for it. George Sand: “Charity degrades those who receive it and hardens those who dispense it.” Well, it needn’t, but it does the way I do it.

Forget the split infinitive. The Sand quote, which Zadie Smith has lazily leeched from the shaky website, doesn’t appear in five editions of Bartlett’s Quotations that I consulted. And that’s because the quote doesn’t really come from Sand, but from a character within La Comtesse de Rudolstadt: a youthful-looking, middle-aged Zingara with a beautiful guitar beneath her cloak who is trying to express how she lives and relates to other people. Zadie Smith (like many self-published quotation books before her) leaves out a key part of the passage she’s quoting from. Here is the appropriate context:

Charity degrades those who receive it and hardens those who dispense it. All that is not a true exchange will disappear in the future society. We, I and my mate, practice that exchange and so enter the ideal.

This specific translated phrasing can be found in Joseph Amber Barry’s Infamous Woman: The Life of George Sand (New York: Doubleday, 1978), 284. Barry quotes from a three volume edition that was published in Paris in 1959. Regrettably, he doesn’t indicate whether or not this is his own particular translation from the French. (There was a three volume Classiques Garnier edition of La Comtesse de Rudolstadt published in 1959.) But other translations of the same passage suggest that Sand was getting at much more than some facile “leave them out in the cold because they won’t appreciate your succor” philosophy, as implied by Zadie Smith, the self-declared “financial illiterate.”

Here is the Gretchen Jane Van Slyke translation: “We, on the other hand, we have no need of the rich man’s money, we’re not begging; alms demean the receiver and harden the giver. Everything that is not exchange must disappear in future society. In the meantime, God allows my husband and me to practice that life of exchange and thereby to partake of the ideal.”

The Francis G. Shaw translation: “As for ourselves, we have no need of the money of the rich; we do not beg; alms debase him who receives and harden him who gives. All that is not exchange must disappear from the society of the future. In the meanwhile God permits us, my husband and myself, to practice this life of exchange and thus enter into the ideal.”

The Frank H. Potter translation: “We do not need the money of the rich, we do not beg; alms degrade those who receive them and harden those who give them. All that is not an exchange should disappear from the society of the future. Meanwhile, God permits my husband and me to practice this exchange, and thus to enter into the ideal.”

The Sand quote is one of the article’s most irresponsible components. For it paints George Sand — a literary figure who was very much concerned with charity — as a Reagan Republican. Let the bums starve on the streets. They’ll feel degraded anyway. And you, the benign charity giver, will harden your heart. It’s all about money, which isn’t neutral. Etcetera.

This clearly isn’t what the Zingara suggests at all. The rather idealistic viewpoint being promulgated by Sand’s characters is that all actions should be predicated upon exchange and that life, which does involve giving and receiving, would be more manageable with mutual consideration.

Zadie Smith chooses to view her exchange with her “friend” Christine as one that is centered around material goods. Give the “loan” to a friend and ask for the money back, rather than give the “loan” to a friend because it is the kind thing to do. Whoops! It was never about giving the money back. Christine then performs the charity of forgiving Zadie Smith, perhaps hoping that Zadie Smith will learn that what she did was extremely shitty. A fair enough exchange. But Zadie Smith hasn’t learned at all. Zadie Smith feels “degraded.” So Zadie Smith seeks a new form of exchange by memorializing this incident for the New Yorker in a professional capacity, where, presumably, others reading the incident will be able to pay this “exchange” forward. But it’s not really an exchange at all, because Zadie Smith will be remunerated materially for her inhumane solecism.

Writers routinely mine from their own personal experience. This has been true of artists as far back as Lascaux. But George Sand was very clear about how charity factored into her craft. Here is her epigraph to her autobiography, Story of My Life:

Charity before others; Dignity towards oneself; Sincerity before God. Such is the epigraph of the book I undertake. — April 15, 1847

The date is only five years after she had written La Comtesse de Rudolstad.

In an October 28th, 1854 letter, Sand would write to Armand Barbès:

But let me tell you what my sentiments are. There are actions which are beautiful and good. Charity may impose silence upon honor itself. I do not mean real honor, that which we keep intact and serene in the depths of our conscience, but visible and brilliant honor, honor as a work of art and as an historical glory. (Emphasis in original)

Barbès, of course, was an opponent of the July Monarchy — a period in French history when the haute bourgeoisie very much dealt the cards. When the Society for the Rights of Man was broken up by the police, Barbès created the Society of Avengers and was thrown into prison. There was also the Society of Seasons. In 1849, Barbès was sentenced to life imprisonment after attempting to bring down Auguste Blanqui, a one-time revolutionary collaborator who had become his enemy.

Barbès was, as many histories have shown, a fiery and colorful character. Sand was a friend. She was responding to Barbès’s sentiment (“I acted in a moment of surprise, when thinking more of my own interests than of those in the cause”) in relation to the Blanqui incident. She knew Barbès to be capable of charity.

In a May 11th, 1861 letter, Sand would write to her cousin Pauline Villot, in reference to the possibility of the Academic Francaise proposing Sand as a candidate for the Gobert prize:

I should not think it honest to accept a charity to which others in worse circumstances have real claims. Should the Academy accord me the prize, I would accept it, not without regret, but so as not to pose defiantly and to allow the morality of my works (which are said to be immoral) being openly declared. (Emphasis in original)

In other words, should any writer accept a great honor, they should view the honor as a form of exchange. The charity should be reciprocal. And as far as Sand was concerned, that reciprocity extended to not delimiting the morality contained within her work.

Aside from her experiential blunder, why then is Zadie Smith showing so little charity to the intricate moral questions contained within George Sand’s work? Why does Zadie Smith show so much dishonor not only to her friend, but the moral possibilities of writing?

It is because Zadie Smith does not appear to understand this vital “exchange” component of charity. It is because Zadie Smith blithely assumes that the New Yorker readership does too. It is because Zadie Smith has given George Sand a superficial read.

One must therefore ask how Zadie Smith will be able to take up the Harper’s New Books column with anything less than self-serving motivations. One of Zadie Smith’s predecessors — the late John Leonard, who wrote the same Harper’s column for many years — objected in 2007 to the sense of opportunism and entitlement that afflicted so many young critics. But now those young critics are growing up. Like Zadie Smith, the critics who remain entitled now approach writing not as a calling, but as a way to declare how little they care for viewpoints outside their own. That isn’t charity by any definition. It’s a writing approach that has the rare distinction of both degrading and hardening its practitioners.

The Bat Segundo Show: Joe Dante

Joe Dante appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #359. He is most recently the director of The Hole.

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Doing his best not to feed Mr. Dante after midnight or before 10:10 AM on October 10, 2010.

Guest: Joe Dante

Subjects Discussed: [List forthcoming]


Correspondent: I want to talk about the inside jokes. There are a few in The Hole. I noticed the yellow smiley face from The Howling in the background at one point. But it seemed to me that you were almost dialing down the inside jokes within the shots with this movie.

Dante: I did. Because, at heart, it’s kind of a sad movie, if you think about it. When you find out what’s in the hole, it’s much more melodramatic and personal than you would expect. It’s not little monsters coming out. And so the tone of the movie, it’s a little tricky to do a lot of those nudge nudge wink wink things, which I learned early on in my career. That you can’t do things at the expense of people who don’t know what you’re talking about. In The Howling, I had a scene in which Roger Corman looks for a dime in a phone booth. And it was funny to people who knew Roger. But when people didn’t know Roger, it was like, “Well, the scene is over. Why are you lingering on this extra piece? Because it didn’t mean anything to me.” And I realized that you can’t do that. You have to play within the rules. And if you do something that’s off the point, it should be done as an aside or in the background or as a tail — so that people maybe notice the second time when they see the picture.

Correspondent: Well, this is interesting. You’re talking about a lingering moment. And this leads me to wonder if it’s more difficult these days — not just from a financial standpoint, but also from an aesthetic standpoint — for you to convince a producer to give you work. Because your movies do, in fact, linger on that beat. Like that Corman moment in The Howling you were just mentioning. I even watched your episode of CSI out of morbid curiosity, and I’m seeing all these really great Dante master shots that unfortunately are being butchered by the crazy editing that goes on with that show. So the question is: How can a guy like you, who is extremely skillful with these Panavision-like shots, the 70mm that you did in Explorers and the like — I mean, is this more of a tougher sell?

Dante: It’s not a tough sell. People hire me for various reasons. But when you sign on to do a TV series, you must adopt the style of the TV series. Now I can shoot the stuff any way I want. But I know that in TV, you do your cutting. You hand it in. And then you see it on TV. And it’s always different. Because the show runners come in. And they change it to the style that they prefer. So you shoot a lot of long takes. But you just have to give them enough material for them to turn it into what they want. It’s never an expressive job. You don’t really feel you’re putting yourself into it. Although as much as I could, I stuck myself into it. And I stuck people who were familiar to working with me in the show. And it was, I think, a little bit different. A little bit offbeat from the usual episodes of the show. But the problem with doing a show like that, there’s an overarching storyline that happened before you came and that’s going to continue after you’re gone. So there’s really not a lot of space for you to insert yourself. Because you’re doing a job of work. And you’re not the auteur of the show. The auteur of the show is the writers. Because they’re the ones who are mapping out this entire scenario. The great thing is if you can get in on the ground floor and get in on the pilot.

Correspondent: Yes.

Dante: If you do the pilot for the show, which I did for Eerie, Indiana, then you get to not only choose the cast.

Correspondent: You set the aesthetics.

Dante: You set the aesthetic and you get to influence the way the stories go and which direction they go. And even sometimes who’s hired to direct them. So that’s very creative and interesting and fulfilling. Doing one-offs is financially rewarding and a chance to work with a lot of talented people that you probably wouldn’t get to see otherwise. But it’s never like making a feature. It’s never like saying, “Okay, this is my movie.” And that’s why I prefer on TV to do anthology shows. Because it’s much more like doing a short film than it is to coming in and doing it. Illustrating an episode of somebody’s series.

Correspondent: Is it also a way of staying in shape so you don’t atrophy?

Dante: Well, it’s also a way of paying the mortgage.

Correspondent: (laughs) That’s true. That’s really the reason you did the CSI: New York episode.

Dante: Uh, I did it because it would be fun. But also, yeah, I did it because I wasn’t working. The great thing about Eerie, Indiana was that if I was going a feature, I could do that. I could go away and then do more Eerie, Indianas. But then it went off the air. And then I couldn’t do that anymore. So the trick is to try and find a way to keep yourself employed that doesn’t turn you into a hack. Basically. I mean, I always try and do things that — for movies, my yardstick is I don’t make movies that I wouldn’t go see. And I think if more people did that, we’d have better movies.

The Bat Segundo Show #359: Joe Dante (Download MP3)

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The Bat Segundo Show: Matthew Sharpe II

Matthew Sharpe appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #358. He is most recently the author of You Were Wrong. He previously appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #132.

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Abandoning the animal experiment.

Author: Matthew Sharpe

Subjects Discussed: [The truth of the matter is that there doesn’t appear to be enough time in the day for me to summarize subjects anymore . Again, I am sorry and can only offer the lame “forthcoming” answer. Please beat me with a pool cue should we next meet, if this proves unsatisfactory for your capsule needs.]


Correspondent: Does this improvisational nature explain in part why the book is so violent? I mean, it has the rather extremely creative usage of a pool cue against a gentleman’s head. Which I thought was a very idiosyncratic form of violence. I’m curious why the book was so violent, number one. Number two, how you settled on the pool cue to the head?

Sharpe: Um…

Correspondent: That’s not an easy thing to do, you know. The head is going to move around.

Sharpe: It’s not an easy thing to…

Correspondent: To hit the head, yes.

Sharpe: To brain someone with a pool cue?

Correspondent: Yeah, I know.

Sharpe: Well, if it’s an old guy and he’s not expecting it. (laughs) Let’s see, why was it so violent? That’s a really hard question to answer. I really — it’s not a part of my temperament as a social being or even as a private individual in this house. For whatever reason, when I write fiction, I guess I’m on the lookout for conflicts. And in some way, pain and impediments — as my friend the writer Lynne says, the body is the first and last metaphor. And if you want to show someone in difficulties, show somebody whose body is being impinged upon.

Correspondent: But you also are playing a bit of a marionette with these characters — the characters serve as marionettes. Because you often have Sylvia, for example, you are extremely specific about the way she sits on the bed, about her posture. And speaking of the body, there’s also much imagery with the face. Particularly with relation to Karl and how he views people. In fact, one of the curious things about this book that I have to ask you about is that Karl perceives Sylvia only in terms of the color and the generic item of clothing. Like “a blue shirt” and “an indigo bra” or what not. And that goes on throughout the entire book. There’s probably about seven or eight of them. So how did you arrive at that generic syntax? That shorthand for Karl perceiving Sylvia? And what of this idea of these characters placed in very specific forms of posture? I mean, to some degree, it’s very hyperspecific. To some degree, it’s almost mathlike in its generic description as well. From Karl’s perspective.

Sharpe: Yeah. Wow, you notice stuff that nobody else notices by the way. So I have to think about these answers. But I just actually want to circle back to a question I didn’t answer, which is the pool cue. You know, I really wanted to place the pool table and the piano next to each other. Because I wanted this very much to be a novel about a bourgeois home. Of the kind that I grew up in. Though luckily I didn’t grow up with the kind of family that Karl had.

Correspondent: (laughs) I would hope not!

Sharpe: But I was thinking at that moment of the beating on the head of John Millington Synge’s Playboy of the Western World. Which I’m sort of deciding whether to give away a major plot surprise. I think I probably won’t give it away. But that’s a play in which a guy walks into a bar in a strange town at the beginning, having just beaten his father with some kind of implement. I can’t remember what kind. But he beats him in the head. And so I was thinking, okay, how do I transpose Synge’s rural Irish play to Long Island at the beginning of the 21st century? And I thought, okay, I actually can’t remember right now what he beats him with. Maybe a farming implement? So I’m thinking, okay, what would be handy in a house like this? So that’s the answer to that question.

About the careful description of the people’s bodies and their posture, I think I just became fascinated through Karl’s eyes with the body of his beloved. Which he is very, very attuned to. Because he really, really digs it. And he’s constantly looking at it. He just is fascinated by her body. And Karl knowing in a sense that maybe he has something like what we could call Asperger’s. Or some kind of weird disorder where he’s not very good at reading faces. He’s always trying super hard to read faces and he really thinks, “If I can only learn the vocabulary of facial expressions, I will finally be able to decipher what the hell people are ever intending toward me.”

(Image: Felicia C. Sullivan)

The Bat Segundo Show #358: Matthew Sharpe II (Download MP3)

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NYFF: Another Year

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

“I’m concerned in making films that talk to people. Like anybody, I only want to talk to anybody who wants to listen, who wants to know, who wants to share, or have a conversation with me, as it were. I can’t deal with the kind of media-obsessed, decadent position that can’t decode the film for what it actually is. Which is to say an open, honest look at real people and how real people are, with their needs and all their vulnerabilities. Warts and all. If you can’t embrace that, then go away basically. You’re quoting people at Cannes. Journalists, no doubt, who say that these are people I wouldn’t want to meet at a cocktail party. Well, you know, you’re not going to meet these people at a cocktail party. Clear off to the cocktail party and don’t worry about this sort of film. Because you’re not interested basically. And if people are not interested, I can’t do anything about it.” — Mike Leigh, in a soon-to-be-aired Bat Segundo interview conducted on October 4, 2010

It is a ubiquitous truth that distinctive art often polarizes. But Mike Leigh’s films often cause some of the more catholic critics to reveal their unadventurous sensibilities. (One of Leigh’s masterpieces, Naked, was, by way of depicting particularly nasty behavior, declared misogynist.) While there’s nothing wrong with responding to a movie like one of Harry Harlow’s monkeys from time to time, a cinema intake composed of nothing more than genetically modified bananas will inevitably cause an otherwise sound mind to bray for his cloth mother.

Yes, I’m a Mike Leigh fan, but not slavishly so. Topsy-Turvy is overlong, but quite admirable in its historical ambition. (And it was absolutely the film Leigh needed to make to get to his next “historical” film, Vera Drake, which is one of his masterpieces.) Secrets & Lies, for all of its brilliance, resolves too tidily. I’ll take Abigail’s Party over Life is Sweet, even though I revere both flicks (and enjoy Alison Steadman in both). But aside from these very minor complaints, Leigh’s characters — whether you like them or not — may be more realized than those of nearly any other living filmmaker.

As Leigh’s films have defiantly chronicled the human in an age more concerned with calculating clinging, certain critics have revealed their not so closeted misanthropy — in other words, an innate disposition towards an unchallenging and predictable type of film.

Yes, Mike Leigh’s latest film, Another Year, features a very sad and troubling character clinquant in dimension played by Lesley Manville. The cookie-cutter protagonists and antagonists you asked for are available at the multiplex, thank you very much.

But I’m convinced that Another Year‘s mixed reception at Cannes (alas, a few rumblings were overheard in the Walter Reade Theater) can be squarely divided between those who are interested in life and those who are not. For Another Year dares to show several sides to kindness, a topic that has been very much at the forefront of Leigh’s films since Vera Drake. Leigh seems to share the sentiment behind Kurt Vonnegut’s famous declaration from God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater: “God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.” But he’s also smart enough to understand that societal forces threaten to crush this human spirit. Thus, housekeeper Vera Drake sees her illegal abortions as an act of kindness (and receives no pay for this) and is almost incapable of perceiving her actions as wrong, even as her family and others attempt to explain why she’s in such trouble. Merciless government permanently transforms her. Happy-Go-Lucky, by contrast, sees a very happy character, Poppy, finding her natural temperament tested — particularly, by a humorless driving instructor — and is, even at film’s end, asked not to be so nice (or kind) to everyone. She defies this. And in Another Year — the first of Leigh’s films to be squeezed into a yearlong sectional narrative (although certainly not the first to concern itself with cyclical behavior) — the human spirit’s effort to flourish is very much determined by vocational expectations. (And, as my moviegoing companion and I agreed, one minute of Another Year contains more understanding of people than the whole of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom.)

But let’s first consider the naysayers (with much gratitude to David Hudson for rounding them all up). The Hollywood Reporter‘s Ray Bennett complained that most of the film’s characters would be the type “whom you would go out of your way to avoid at a party.” Time‘s Mary Corliss offered similar sentiments: “All the actors make the most of their time before the camera; eventually a plot emerges and a narrative crescendo is reached. It’s real life, processed for the cinema in Leigh’s practiced style. But the real life it simulates is too often that of an evening that turns into an endless night with friends one wishes might just get their coats and get out.” Never mind that Bennett and Corliss fail to see certain advantages to “meeting” such apparently unpleasant people on film. Yes, they rightly compare Leigh’s film to a cocktail party, but they don’t seem to understand that a forty foot screen protects them from social immersion. The audience is not chatting up these characters, but Leigh presents them so vividly (the final look on one character at the end of a long dolly shot, Manville’s masterful head and shoulder bobbing as Mary, a widower’s laconic vernacular and the look in his eyes as he observes the madness around him; to cite just three) that it is nearly impossible not to lose yourself (as my moviegoing companion and I did, sitting still and mesmerized for 129 minutes) and feel that You Are There. And the idea of going to a movie, whether for entertainment and enlightenment, to have your worldview confirmed strikes me as antithetical to existence — diametrically opposed to why any enthusiast soaks up culture. In other words, why did these critics bother to go to Cannes anyway?

And then there’s Todd McCarthy’s schematic assessment via blog: “For me the film is obvious, schematic and lacking in interesting undercurrents or subtext.” Never mind that McCarthy is unwilling to describe what precisely that “obvious” and “schematic” perception is. But thankfully, his tepid criticism can be easily rejoined by what is contained within the movie.

You cannot call Another Year‘s Tom and Gerri “obvious” and “schematic,” because, despite the fact that this couple is somewhat privileged (an apparently stable marriage, reliable middle-class income from geologist Tom and counselor Gerri, a garden allotment, and so forth) and permits maladjusted people into their home with a kind of liberal guilt and empathy that may not be entirely reconciled, they do not offer any defense when friends ridicule Mary (over the fact that she doesn’t know the precise engine type in the used car she has just purchased). Gerri, despite being trained to recognize a narcissist, nevertheless permits Mary to crash into her family home with the same shaky skill she has behind the steering wheel. And when there is the inevitable skirmish during the autumn, Gerri still waits until the winter to state, “You have to take responsibility for your own actions.” Which is something she has been meaning to say all along. There’s also something slightly predatory about the way Tom and Gerri invite friends who are less successful than they are into their house, such as their old portly friend Ken, who appears in the summer, but is a few beers short of a cardiac arrest. Yet Ken, despite being lonely and unhappy, has refused retirement. He is content to “eat, drink, and be merry,” but, from the vantage point of Tom and Gerri, he is “better” than Mary by way of remaining employed in a more lucrative job. (Mary toils as a secretary; interestingly enough, at the same workplace as Gerri. When Gerri invites her for a drink, Mary says that she has only an hour to spare — the exact amount of time that she would devote to a patient) One is left wondering whether Ken would be in worse mental shape, were he to be toiling in a similar position as Mary. (In an ironic bit of casting, no doubt entirely unintentional, Leigh has cast Peter Wight as Ken. Wight played the security guard in Naked, who urged Johnny not to waste his life.)

Aside from this intriguing relationship between happiness and class, there is also Janet (played by Vera Drake lead Imelda Staunton), who appears at film’s beginning (in spring). She is a cautionary character and, if we are to look at Another Year as a cycle, she represents what Mary may very well transform into. Janet is depressed. She cannot sleep. She rates herself 1 on a scale of 1 to 10 on how she feels. And when we are first introduced to her, the camera initially concentrates on little else but Janet’s face. We gradually see more of the doctor who is treating her, and the first detail we notice is that the doctor is pregnant. Thus, Janet (like Mary) is very much consumed by her own internal world. Does society then have a duty to treat people like Janet and Mary? Is it “kinder” to retreat from miserable people (as the above mentioned critics clearly have) or to let them into your home with the hope that your kindness will help them figure life out?

Since this is a Mike Leigh film, there aren’t any easy answers. But the film’s commitment to such concerns is a much needed reminder for any humanist, whether lapsed or well-practiced. Another Year, like the best of Leigh’s films, is very much a Rorschach test. It will be appreciated and understood and felt by anyone who understands that even the unpleasant and the marginalized have souls. I haven’t even begun to scratch the surface of this considerably embedded masterpiece, but it’s definitely one of the year’s best films. And I’ll probably have another go at it just before release date. Anyone who compares Another Year to “an endless night” probably doesn’t have the guts to leave her cloistered comfort zone.

NYFF: Hereafter

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

It seems inconceivable that Clint Eastwood would direct a film that uses the facile falsehood of psychic ability to drive its story, and that Peter Morgan (Peter Morgan! The man behind Frost/Nixon!) would write the screenplay. Eastwood, who told the tale of a bigoted Korean War vet adjusting to multicultural reality in Gran Torino, explored moral complexities with The Unforgiven, and expressed a willingness to invert 20th century historical expectations with his 2006 pair of World War II pictures, is hardly a fool. And he’s certainly not the type who would suddenly show up on late night TV with a psychic hotline – even when one accounts for such late-career misfires as Space Cowboys and Blood Work. But I’m pained to report that Eastwood’s latest film, Hereafter, is so utterly preposterous and condescending that I actually longed to revisit The Eiger Sanction. At least that disastrous film had some soul in the unlikely George Kennedy.

Psychic ability is not only unscientific. It is one of the most egregious and overused plot devices used to advance a story, particularly those which are outside genre. Indeed, even the Star Trek: The Next Generation series bible – a document for a franchise that proved too complacent to steer out of its utopian comfort zone – was careful to forbid its writers from including such omnipotent character types. Psychic ability is the reason why the fourth Indiana Jones movie was such a dud. It is often the reason why some cheesy movies are best enjoyed with friends over beer. And when Spielberg’s regrettable name emerged as executive producer during Hereafter‘s end credits, I immediately wondered if Morgan and Eastwood had been pressured, much as George Lucas and Spielberg had muscled out Frank Darabont during Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, to insert such nonsense into a later draft. After all, consider one side character at a resort who offers the line, “As a scientist and atheist, my mind was closed to this,” and who then states that the evidence is “irrefutable.” It’s almost as if this script was designed to recruit wild-eyed naifs.

What the fuck, Clint?

Whatever the film’s production history, I doubt that any of us will be privy to it anytime soon. There’s just too much money and too much power at stake to get an accurate glimpse through the dust motes. Maybe it’s possible that age has finally caught up with the old gunslinger and he’s now firing blanks. But what we have in the meantime is a colossal dud that is easily the worst film of Eastwood’s career. It’s as if Eastwood has traded in his class for the cash. Sure, Eastwood directs a pleasant scene with Matt Damon and Bryce Dallas Howard (who appears as a fresh San Francisco transplant escaping a bad breakup in Pittsburgh – or possibly Pittsburg, over by Antioch; whatever the case, she’s just about the only character in this movie with personality) flirting with each other in a cooking class. One wears a blindfold. The other spoons in mouthfuls of sauce. It’s hardly 9 ½ Weeks (or even Hot Shots), but the two confess their real reasons for attending night school. Alas, just as this promising relationship develops, Matt Damon’s George confesses his secret talent – which is the ability to find psychic connections within people, a “talent” that filled up the coffers in halcyon days. (That George asks each recipient to only reply to these sessions with yes and no answers, and that he wins them over with such painfully leading inquiries – “You’ve lost someone recently” and so forth – leads one to believe that he’s a con. Unfortunately, the film lacks the courage to view George’s ability as even vaguely illegit, and his internal conflict is narrowed as a result. This is too bad for Damon, who offers a quietly commendable performance here. Indeed, his graying hair and sad mug reminded me of a young Gary Cooper.)

In Hereafter, Eastwood is sometimes competent at conveying the visual isolation of his characters by having them depart into dark corners of a room, where their faces blend into the dark murk. Such old school panache would be welcome if Eastwood wasn’t operating off of a script that’s stacked with unacceptable and unpersuasive anti-human twaddle.

Hereafter is a three-plot story that takes place in three countries, and that ties up through several highly contrived circumstances at the London Book Fair. It is a movie so fundamentally stupid that it believes that some kid can call up a publisher and find out which hotel a famous Frenchwoman is staying. It is naïve enough to presume that someone who toils at a sugar factory can pay rent and live alone in what appears to be a spacious North Beach apartment. (The press information sheet I have laughably refers to this character as “a blue-collar American.”) It believes that book publishers will actually have the time and the decency to set up a failed manuscript (written by a troublesome author who can’t even turn in the Mitterrand book she promised) with another house.

What else can one expect of a flick that offers psychic ability as its great instigator? But nobody goes to a Clint Eastwood film to get frequent flashes into a shadowy white realm occupied by dead souls. That’s M. Night Shyamalan territory. And it’s extremely disheartening to see a living legend adept with human nuance debase himself like this.

I didn’t so much mind the surprise tsunami at the film’s opening or the unanticipated explosion close to the film’s end. Such melodramatic interventions are not only the stuff of crass Hollywood, but recent headlines. But I couldn’t abide Morgan’s veneer-thin stereotypes. Aside from the one-dimensional George, you have Marie, the celebrity journalist (so famous that she’s appearing in BlackBerry ads; how’s that for journalistic integrity?) suddenly incapable of asking the tough questions after surviving death and who doesn’t understand why her tale of phony psychic victimhood won’t sell. You have Marcus, the angry kid who pickpockets 200 pounds and won’t talk to an adult about his grief. (Hey, Peter Morgan, ever heard of a little thing called counseling? Social workers don’t just knock on doors.) Morgan doesn’t even nudge us towards how these three vapid and disparate stories will merge together. I mean, even Paul Haggis had the decency to do that. And he doesn’t give us much reason to care.

Amidst such anemic archetypes, Morgan makes a foolish move and references Charles Dickens, informing his audience of a novelist who created quirky and unforgettable characters and telegraphing that, with this script, he’s nowhere near the same league. And if that isn’t enough self-sabotage for you, believe it or not, Morgan actually has George visit Dickens’s house!

And consider these lines:

“I don’t want to be here without you!” (during a moment of angst-ridden confession)

“I promise you I’m not going to let you down.” (during a moment of overwrought crisis)

“It’s what you are! You can’t run from that forever!” (during a moment of confidence building)

“I didn’t know you were going to be here.” (during a “surprise” run-in)

If Peter Morgan is not nominated for a Razzie for these unpardonable cliches, and for such an unfathomable surrender of his faculties, I will be stunned.

But Morgan isn’t the only one here who should be thrown to the wolves. It was Clint Eastwood, a man of advancing years, who signed on for this nonsense. It was Eastwood who knew damn well that he has perhaps a handful of films left in him and who believed that this shoddy material was the place to deposit his talents. This film is beyond embarrassing. It’s indefensible.

The Emails They Downloaded

First the unemployed Jimmy Cross downloaded emails from a girl named Martha, a dropout at Mount Sebastian College in New Jersey. They were not tweets, but Jimmy Cross was hoping that he and Martha would be Facebook friends and follow each other on Twitter, so he kept Martha’s emails in his inbox and made sure they were copied to his iPhone. She did not return his emails. In the late afternoon, after a day’s laze, he would send text messages to Martha, wash his hands in the sink with unclean dishes, look at his iPhone again, tilt his iPhone so that the window would shift from portrait to landscape, and spend the last hour of light wondering if he should bother to turn on the kitchen light. He would imagine romantic trips to the cafe only three blocks away. He would sometimes hit refresh, hoping that Martha would send him an email or update her Facebook status. More than anything, he wanted Martha to friend him as he had friended her. The emails had been mostly chatty, elusive on the matter of friendship. She was “single,” he was almost sure. Facebook was communicating every personal detail on her wall. Last night, she had attended a party and uploaded drunken photos of herself. The caption was “LOL.” She was into Farmville, and she wrote clumsily about her friends and roommates and acquaintances and even her 72-year-old neighbor, who was not on Faceboook but who she had set up an account for. She often quoted other tweets by retweeting them; she never mentioned whether she ordered a tall or a grande, except to say to her friends, “Meet me at Starbucks.” The grande weighed 16 ounces. They had a crude corporate logo that displeased Jimmy Cross, but Jimmy Cross understood that BRB was only a way of signing and did not mean what he sometimes pretended it to mean. At dusk, he would wait for Martha to Be Right Back. Then he would return to his bed and watch the night and wonder again if Martha would return his emails.

NYFF: Old Cats

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

I am pleased to report that, in addition to the promised titular felines, the film Old Cats features a few dogs and numerous actors in bee costumes. And I don’t think it’s possible to convey in words just how much it tickles my heart to find a film going well beyond the anticipated tally!

The literal old cats here, living with metaphorical old cats (that is, a couple in their eighties), serve the story well. Their flapping tails reflect the octogenarian couple’s inevitable last sighs. It helps immensely that we’re introduced to Isadora (Belgica Castro) and Enrique (Alejandro Sievking) as they are being lazy in bed. And, indeed, this Chilean flick is most interesting when it sticks resolutely to the interior (in this case, an eighth floor apartment with a malfunctioning elevator) and when it evades narrative demands. It is clear to me that filmmakers Pedro Peirano and Sebastian Silva have a great desire to portray consequential life (more on that rickety lift in just a mite), but they have a distressing distrust towards realism. This is odd, because Peirano and Silva have such a knack for it. When Isadora experiences senility, her declining mental state is telegraphed by a rumbling tone and what sounds like sequenced strings in the background. Considering the film’s China Syndrome-like commitment to drama sans music, and considering the film’s willingness to depict (almost in toto) the failed boot of a dying desktop computer*, these belabored attempts at surreality detract rather than grab.

This may be part of the point. After all, if you’re making a film featuring an older woman with a middle-aged narcissistic daughter who enjoys snorting up coke in her mother’s bathroom (not that Isadora notices this, but at least her writer husband is on the case), then a little perspective is in order. And I wouldn’t ding the directors so much over this lunge towards the phantasmagorical if they hadn’t delivered so many scenes in which the absurdity of a domestic situation hadn’t been sufficiently established already! I’m thinking of such moments as Rosario (the above-mentioned druggie daughter, played by Claudia Celedon) trying to unload some “healing tablets” (bars of soap that, like any phony New Age narcotic, profess to deliver great cures to their users) while visiting her mother. And if this “surprise” isn’t bad enough, sadly timed after Rosario’s nostril tangos with a spoon, Rosario deigns to reads out the instructions to all assembled. Later, when Rosario doesn’t get her way, she’s calling mom “an evil witch” (actually, something worse in Spanish) when she isn’t trying to get her to sign a power of attorney. Oh, and did I mention that Rosario has a lover named Hugo, whose original name is Beatrice, and that Isadora’s failure to comprehend a woman named Hugo forms one of the running gags? (Later in the film, a few stray family members show up to put this troubling Isi-Rosario dynamic in perspective.)

So the film’s first hour has the twisted dynamic you’d expect from an early Mike Leigh movie (Abigail’s Party comes to mind), where the character actions naturally escalate into chaos and lead us to wonder just how much boorish behavior Isi and Enrique will tolerate before they throw Rosario and Hugo out. I mean, they’ve had a wonderfully lazy morning, complicated by the elevator going out (meaning that Isi, who has hip problems, is trapped upstairs). There are cats who are starving and need food. Isi has just had an unanticipated episode in which she has kept the faucets on and overturned a drawer of knick-knacks upon her bed. And then the irksome Rosario shows up, tyrannically demanding that the cats be shuttled away into another room because she’s allergic to them. Anyway you slice it, this is a great setup for a farce or a melodrama. Hell, you don’t even need a plot. Just let the characters wander about and do what they do.

But unfortunately the filmmakers feel some strange need to tie it all together. The strange need to provide an answer to everything is what ultimately simplifies an initially charming domestic mystery. Earlier, I mentioned the dudes in bee costumes. Well, that’s all part of some television commercial that’s shooting across the street from the apartment building. That metaphor, in and of itself, is all that is needed here to illustrate the point that certain atavistic qualities are buzzing about on the outside the building: the insects that will sting, searching for their honey. (That wouldn’t be Rosario and Hugo, would it? Preposterous figures who will sting you in an instant.) And yet the filmmakers opt to return to these bees late in the film that just isn’t necessary when there’s the more fascinating aspect of Rosario being incapable of parsing her mother’s state of mind (“She’s playing the victim!”) or remembering long-term memories.

Thus, I feel compelled to conclude this review with an Emily Dickinson poem:

Like trains of cars on tracks of plush
I hear the level bee:
A jar across the flower goes,
Their velvet masonry

Withstands until the sweet assault
Their chivalry consumes,
While he, victorious, tilts away
To vanquish other blooms.

His feet are shod with gauze,
His helmet is of gold;
His breast, a single onyx
With chrysoprase, inlaid.

His labor is a chant,
His idleness a tune;
Oh, for a bee’s experience
Of clovers and of noon!

* If there are any hard-core geeks or Wired contributors reading this (he posited ever so humbly), are there any other movies that have lingered on a computer booting up? I’m honestly drawing a blank. But Periano and Silva are to be commended for replacing kitchen sink realism with heat sink realism!

NYFF: Foreign Parts

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

The Willets Point area is a haven for Mets fans, its rich spectrum reduced to a superficial stop on the 7 train or a distant speck from an ignored window just before the touchdown at LaGuardia. But for those who toil in the salvaging yards, and who continue to fight for the right to maintain a livelihood, the Iron Triangle is a vital community where a sexagenarian native lives with a blunt enthusiast who is overly familiar with the hoosegow. The native takes the time to observe the sparrows that return every May, defying the waste, the uncharted museums of car parts, and the steadfast flooding that comes with the rain’s brutal pounding into the pocks. The blunt enthusiast lacks money, but cannot offer a reliable explanation as to where his drugs from. Meanwhile, seemingly wiser and truly unsympathetic city forces rush to “redevelop” and “renew,” without bothering to communicate their half-made plans to those trying to subsist at the other end of the bulldozers.

Such is the perfectly sensible worldview promulgated by Foreign Parts, a mostly engaging picture that invites comparisons to Ramin Bahrani’s Chop Shop. This documentary was shot by a pair of Harvard anthropologists named Verena Paravel and JP Sniadecki, and it deserves both a distributor (for how else will the film’s subjects find an audience?) and a few criticisms. For while Foreign Parts does a fair job at portraying life without commentary, it doesn’t give an outside observer the full picture of Bloomberg’s avaricious intent until the very end – a rather strange choice, considering its obvious though admittedly mild subjective position.

The first twenty minutes are something of a visual essay, with subway trains and planes reflected in mucky puddles, cars gutted and thrown onto their sides like corpses, and ripped off rear view mirrors dangling as surrogate vanities. But when the people photographed start to speak at roughly the twenty minute mark, the two anthropologists-turned-filmmakers — despite their efforts to capture bistec barbeques (with the striking juxtaposition of a spare steak accidentally thrown atop a wrench), gritty locals dancing without apology in diners and around gutted engines, and a good deal of hustling – reveal their conspicuously Anglo-Saxon approach. Which is to say that Paravel and Sniadecki prefer to talk to people who speak English – “the only white girl in the junkyard” and so forth – instead of those who speak Spanish. While these subjects are certainly interesting (one late middle-aged man shouting in the streets, directing approaching cars to those who have the parts, could almost be confused with Bruce Willis), this seems a glaring and elitist omission for a community in which 80% of the people don’t speak a word of English. This divide is perhaps best epitomized by one lengthy take of a Hispanic parts-gutter rattling off the names of automobile brands. I kept wishing that the filmmakers possessed the humility to learn some Spanish, hire an interpreter, or figure out a more effective way to flesh out this man’s story. Surely he is more than the sum of his parts.

But the filmmakers are somewhat recused by their good intentions. It’s very clear that the final result comes from a place of passion. Yes, the duo isn’t particularly street smart. They are easily fooled by the performances of two men engaged in some male swagger over drug habits. (A discussion relating to this “performance” point was brought up during the press conference, which you can listen to below in audio form. It starts around the 19:18 mark, with Paravel talking about the difficulties of “penetrating the space” and “giving equal parts to the human being.”) But they do talk to those who shiver in vans during the winter. And they are good enough to not invade the space of a smiling and diminutive woman with a slur, who is a quiet but friendly presence among the neighborhood and who proudly declares why these are “her people,” but who doesn’t entirely impart her life history. And there is one very pleasant shot where the camera almost dances with this woman. It’s a nice invitational nod to the audience to pay attention.

Yet a documentary that concerns itself with the outskirts of life has the obligation to make more concrete connections to its privileged audience. The film snobs who tend to flock to movies like this often fail to understand that twelve George Washingtons represents a good deal of green. And I greatly wished that Foreign Parts had been strong enough to force some of these contemptuous assholes to understand that the Willets Point scenario sees callous greed paving over the working poor, that lives are now being crushed, and that souls are being left behind in the Almighty Dollar’s cold shadow. In the end, the people who will see Foreign Parts will walk out of the theater and spend the next hour talking over wine and cheese and confirming how “enlightened” they are. And eventually they’ll forget about the people who live in Willets Point. I’d curse the filmmakers for keeping a vital story so tepid, but then people who have rarely known a day without a hot meal and who rarely speak outside of theoretical vernacular often don’t know any better.

NYFF: Foreign Parts Press Conference (Download MP3)

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