Superficial Reading: Cynthia Ozick and Critical Pygmies

When Zadie Smith reworked E.M. Forster’s Howard’s End* into her excellent novel, On Beauty, few reviewers expressed dismay at her creative methodology. Frank Rich, who raved about Smith’s novel in The New York Times, noted “the blunt declaration of Smith’s intention to pay homage” in Smith’s first sentence. The Washington Post‘s Michael Dirda, who was even more effusive than Rich, called Smith’s novel “subtly laced with learned allusions” — which was something of an understatement. Similarly, Jonathan Lethem’s “The Ecstasy of Influence” was also celebrated for appropriating numerous texts — even included in the 2008 edition of The Best American Essays.

In an age where Girl Talk and Creative Commons are as mainstream as Johnny Mathis, remixing and repurposing is clearly the usual, something to be celebrated among our greatest literary practitioners. Yet it is rather extraordinary that a few reviewers — all conspicuously out-of-touch with this present temperament — have seen fit to punish an author, one who has pretty much earned the right to do anything she wants, for reworking a novel considered to be a classic. What is most interesting about these feeble hatchet men is how little they comprehend the text they wish to feed to the dogs.

Cynthia Ozick’s Foreign Bodies has been bitchslapped by The Los Angeles Times‘s David Ulin, The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel‘s Mike Fischer, and The Seattle Times‘s Michael Upchurch for a novel that is, respectively, “more schematic than engaged,” “doesn’t have the texture or plumb the depths that anchor James’ metaphor-rich prose,” and “a great premise — disappointingly handled.”

Upchurch’s indolent 300 word review — indistinguishable from a cranky Goodreads capsule banged out by a drunk in a matter of minutes — can be easily dispensed with. All Upchurch manages is a chickenheaded concatenation of pusillanimous modifiers (“crude,” “thin,” “choppy,” “baffling,” and so forth) for Ozick’s latest. He guzzles down his precious column inches praising James, as if desiring some librarian to pin a gold star to his lapel for dutiful reading, and he writes that Ozick “introduces [a] bracing, brutal twist without really developing it” without bothering to explain why. (This is not dissimilar Ulin’s sloppy pronouncement that Foreign Bodies “remains curiously unsatisfying.” More on Ulin in a mite.)

When one explores the Goodreads page for Ozick’s book, one discovers that even the reviewers who didn’t care for the book have more clarity and plenitude than Upchurch:

She is really a wonderful writer with a unique presentation and style. However I did not rate this higher as I liked none of the characters, not at all or even a little bit. They all had significant flaws and I found the reading experience unpleasant as they were just all so annoying. I did not care really what happened to any of them although I was curious enough to finish the rather short book and had hopes that they would change a little or something other than what they were throughout.

That comes from a Goodreads user named Allyson. Writing in her spare time, Allyson offers a more valuable negative review than Upchurch. She articulates — in fewer words than Upchurch — that she didn’t care for any of the characters, but notes that she was attracted to the style. And she also seems genuinely taken aback — certainly more than the newspaper naysayers. By contrast, Upchurch writes, “We also get prose that too often flails hyperbolically as it paints its grotesques.” Like Allyson, Upchurch doesn’t really expand on his observation. But Allyson is not so quick to condemn. The outside observer, curious about the balance between style and characters, is more interested in Allyson’s review. Therefore, why would any news outlet pay Upchurch money when we can get the same material for free? I understand that Upchurch has had his space cut. But Upchurch, in sticking with the superficial in his review, offers us no reasonable justification for his professional existence. He is as joyful as a starving urchin in Calcutta. One desperately wishes to feed him.

Of Foreign Bodies, David Ulin claims “there are no overt references to the novel, other than a few puns and one-liners.” Yet even in Ozick’s second chapter (the first after a letter), one encounters quite a number of Jamesian references.

In The Ambassadors, James’s Paris is often quite cold. Chad’s house, formed from “the complexion of the stone, a cold fair grey, warmed and polished a little by life,” takes “all the March sun.” Strether is led into “the rather cold and blank little studio.” Madame de Vionnet leads Strether into an antechamber that’s “a little cold and slippery even in summer.” By contrast, Ozick’s postwar Paris is piping hot, the victim of “a ferocious heat wave assault[ing] Europe.” Bea walks “through the roasting miasma of late afternoon” and in search of nonexistent air-conditioners. A superficial reader may view such an inversion to be merely the “mirror image” that Ulin claims it to be. But if Foreign Bodies is simply swapping the twin taps, why then would Bea also encounter a “visionary living robot” at a department store, which also has the “familiar” consolation of “cold air?” Ozick isn’t simply reversing The Ambassadors. She’s studying how French-American cultural relationships have developed over the fifty years since The Ambassadors. Ozick’s ravaged version of postwar Paris is quite different than the cultural mecca that enticed Strether, yet she daringly suggests that the new Paris appeals to Americans who are “vigorous, ambitious, cheerful, and given to drink” — “literary tourists” who are hoping to “summon the past.” From The Ambassadors:

Nothing could have been odder than Strether’s sense of himself as at that moment launched in something of which the sense would be quite disconnected from the sense of his past and which was literally beginning there and then.

Ulin declares Ozick’s novel as merely “a counterpart” and “a mirror image, James’s story turned around.” But this lazy thesis fails to account for the Suite Eyre spa in California, featured near the end of Ozick’s novel, which serves almost as an wry answer to Thomas Mann’s European spas. Where The National Post‘s Philip Marchand rightfully observes that “not every character in Ozick’s novel is based on Henry James,” for Ulin, Foreign Bodies “seems more schematic than engaged.” By contrast, The Barnes and Noble Review‘s Tom LeClair is more daring (and interesting) in his suggestion that Ozick is responding in a way to a particularly callow interviewer who began his conversation by telling Ozick that her work was cut off from contemporary culture (and who then got his ass handed to him). Evidence for LeClair’s theory can be found within the novel, which concerns itself with sexual candor, abortion, and several other subjects that occupy our present time. But LeClair, in attempting to pursue “the physical revulsion and spleen that circulate through the novel,” offers a more curious and less turgid investigation than Ulin. Ulin’s inability to see Lili as little more than a refugee who marries Julian suggests very highly that Ulin skimmed (if that) the book’s last 100 pages, which offer quite a bit more with a figure named Kleinman.

Ulin’s miserly efforts to corral Ozick’s novel against another are matched by Mike Fischer’s impoverished interpretation. Fischer lauds one Ozick passage that “James could have written” and notes that Foreign Bodies “is filled with similarly uncanny echoes of the Master’s voice.” But he is too much of an incurious James fanboy to consider Ozick’s book on its own terms. He is blindsided by how closely Foreign Bodies aligns with The Ambassadors. And like Ulin, he too seems to have skimmed the final 100 pages. Fischer observes “the washed-out watercolors of Marvin’s two maddeningly inconsistent children,” which isn’t so much a cogent observation but an inept attempt at wit. Fischer likewise doesn’t have the acumen to consider Margaret’s vital presence as anything more than a sketch representing “narrative neglect.” (Never mind that Ozick, imbuing Margaret with a pebble in her heel, is exploring the symbolic possibilities of spousal neglect cast against an American backdrop.) Fischer makes no mention of the book’s careful concerns with the corporeal. And there’s one vital clue for Fischer’s doddering take in this “narrative neglect.” Near the end of Fischer’s review, Fischer claims that Ozick’s readers “stumble in the dark,” because “we’re not given an object lesson on the moral ambiguity that is central to understanding James.” This is no doubt a reference to James’s “The Art of Fiction,” in which the Master threw a famous fit over Walter Besant’s “conscious moral purpose.” But “conscious moral purpose” (or even James’s “air of reality”) isn’t the sole reason to read a novel. (Indeed, this is precisely what James was arguing.) Only a precocious child would ascribe such a singular criteria when assessing a book. But Fischer — “a Milwaukee lawyer and writer” and, quite possibly, a moribund Grisham aspirant — wishes to fish with a puny pole that will never hit the sediment.

It’s bad enough that Upchurch, Ulin, and Fischer’s conservative-minded deference for the original text prevents this bubble gum chewing trio from appreciating what Ozick is trying to do. Updike’s first Rule for Reviewing — “Try to understand what the author wished to do, and do not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt” — has clearly been tossed out the window. But what makes these three reviews especially troubling is the instant drift to the superficial. This is especially dishonorable with a novel embedded with all manner of treasures. Not one of these three men proved capable of observing the canny way that Ozick closes the book at the turn of the year. Not one of these three men proved capable of understanding composer Leo Coopersmith’s role in the narrative, much less paying close attention to the way Ozick describes voices and musical instruments. (An opportunity to explore what Ozick’s novel in music might have been welcomed in a newspaper. But why attempt serious criticism when you’re firing blank bons mot?)

Robert Birnbaum, writing about Ozick in The San Francisco Chronicle, is quite right in suggesting that “the enterprise of book reviewing has become degraded.” When critical pygmies wish to denigrate an author that they lack the time or the curiosity to comprehend, one wonders why such infants aren’t devoting their pens to matters more suited to their collective ken: perhaps snarky synopses of television episodes or vapid profiles of Hollywood celebrities. If these are the hollow considerations we’re getting, then the death of newspapers couldn’t arrive any faster.

* — One fun fact: Forster, rather famously, didn’t care much for Henry James. Of The Ambassadors, Forster wrote:

The James novels are a unique possession and the reader who cannot accept his premises misses some valuable and exquisite sensations. But I do not want more of his novels, especially when they are written by some one else, just as I do not want the art of Akhenathon to extend into the reign of Tutankhamen.

The Bat Segundo Show: Isabel Wilkerson

Isabel Wilkerson appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #366. Ms. Wilkerson is most recently the author of The Warmth of Other Suns.

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Warming up to fascinating history.

Author: Isabel Wilkerson

Subjects Discussed: [List forthcoming]


Correspondent: I wanted to ask about one of the key pieces of conflict relating to the Great Migration that fascinated me. You pointed out that the old timers — meaning the African-Americans who had lived in the northern territory before the Great Migration — were harder on the influx of new African-American migrants moving into the northern areas than almost anybody else. The Chicago Defender has this list of dos and don’ts. The endless articles about what you’re supposed to do as a new migrant. I’m curious. Based on your research, to what degree did this conflict — what effect did this have on the progress that came later in the 1960s? Did this deter efforts at unity? You kind of get into it the book. But I wanted to see if your research led to other areas here.

Wilkerson: I think that it was generally a low-grade competition rivalry — and maybe resentment — that really grew out of fear. It grew out of an insecurity. Because the people who were already there in the North were small in number. They had been pioneers from way back. And they finally established themselves in these often hostile and alienating cities. And their rival of basically country cousins in huge waves to the big cities obviously raised questions for them about what was going to happen to them. What was going to happen to this perfectly balanced, well-honed alchemy that they created with the majority of the people in these big cities. And they felt embarrassed by them. They felt shame. They felt resentment. And they often didn’t want to be around them. I must point out though that, while they were most likely to be resentful of them, and to maybe be sneeringly judgmental of them, they were not the ones who were actually hurting them physically in the same way that others were. I mean, when they moved out into other neighborhoods, when they arrived in these big cities, that was when they might be firebombed. Because they were going into a neighborhood where they were not welcome. So the people who were there, there was more a sort of insider resentment and fear that’s very different. But actually, it’s just as painful to the people who were arriving. Because the people who were arriving were like people arriving from any far away place to a new land that they hoped would be better. And they felt very hurt by that. Very hurt. And it actually limited their ability to move about. They couldn’t join certain churches. So it was an in-group stratification that is kind of an inside baseball thing, but kind of human nature. It’s about survival.

Correspondent: It also seems to me to be about class divide. And that’s one aspect of 20th century black history that we really don’t discuss. Going back to the original question of whether an internal class struggle like this, I mean, did it really have a serious deterrent upon advancement?

Wilkerson: I think it did in the beginning stages. You know, while the people were new and untutored into the ways of the North, the people, they were pretty much rejected and not welcome. Over time, like any immigrant group that’s ever come in — and they were immigrants in the true sense of the word. Because they were born in the United States. They were American citizens. They went to another region in order to realize the rights that they were born to. They essentially acted as any immigrant would. And so they went to the people who were there. And they found that it was difficult to make that adjustment. But once they did make the adjustment, they in turn would become as sneeringly judgmental as the people coming behind them. That’s just the way human beings think.

Correspondent: The retrousse noses.

Wilkerson: Yeah, that’s right. Ultimately though, larger forces would intrude. And as a group, they found themselves all hemmed in by the larger economy that didn’t really want to have them. And I wouldn’t say that it impeded progress to that degree. There were rivalries in every group. I think that it certainly didn’t help. It was very disheartening for people who just arrived. It is. Because you’re rejected by your own people. It’s very painful.

Correspondent: Instead of having a polarization effect. To really fight a lot of the racism that was going down. The firebombing and the Cicero riots.

Wilkerson: Exactly.

Correspondent: Well, this is very interesting. Because you cite this 1965 census survey, in which it was revealed that a lot of the migrants moving in had more education — equal sometimes, but often more education — than the native white Northeners.

Wilkerson: Exactly. Which is astounding. I mean, when I saw that, it was just hard to believe. But part of this is remembering the era that we’re talking about. We’re talking about an era in which many of the people were children of the Depression. And many of them had had hard lives, no matter where they were. Many of them were the children or actual immigrants from other places. So the early part of the 20th century was not a time of great enlightenment overall, unfortunately. So life was hard for everybody. But how ironic, actually, that the people who came up in this Great Migration were actually slightly better educated when it came to the numbers. Now that doesn’t mean that we’re not getting the quality. Because the quality of education in the South was markedly unequal clearly. But they had put in the time. They had gone as far as they could. And then they left finally for hopefully a better life in the North and the West. But it’s interesting that the mythology and the misconceptions about these people. Once I began to discover them, I found that that became a big focus of the work that I hadn’t anticipated.

The Bat Segundo Show #366: Isabel Wilkerson (Download MP3)

This text will be replaced

The Bat Segundo Show: Tom McCarthy II

Tom McCarthy appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #365. He is most recently the author of C. He previously appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #154 and The Bat Segundo Show #155.

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Considering the vital associations between the third letter and the need to sweat.

Author: Tom McCarthy

Subjects Discussed: [List forthcoming]


Correspondent: Tom, how are you doing?

McCarthy: I’m fine. How nice to see you again.

Correspondent: Yes, how nice to see you too. I’ve been advised by you to ask not how you feel.

McCarthy: (laughs)

Correspondent: So now I’m wondering, by asking you how you’re doing, if I’ve betrayed what I’ve just said.

McCarthy: No, no, no. I’m doing a brisk —

Correspondent: Okay.

McCarthy: Briskly.

Correspondent: So we can have at least one bit of small talk. That’s acceptable.

McCarthy: Yeah. (laughs)

Correspondent: Okay. Serge says late in the book that the newspaper headlines have a nice alliterative ring.

McCarthy: Oh yeah. Beaulac bludgeons Mr. Block, bludgeoned in blue Beaulac.

Correspondent: Yes. Similarly, this book — it’s safe to say — that it could be read as a game of monkey see, monkey do. Ecce homo. Insert your bad pun of choice. In a word, there are numerous words beginning with — actually, not in a word, but in several words — there are numerous words that begin with the letter C. Carapace…

McCarthy: Cocaine, cyanide.

Correspondent: Copper, cable, control. You name it. The four parts are named after C. So this leads me to wonder. At what point did this come into being during the course of writing? And I’m wondering if there was a maximum C word count that you established during the course of writing this book. Just to start off here.

McCarthy: It came pretty early. Because the genesis of the book — well, there were several geneses.

Correspondent: Genesii?

McCarthy: Genesii. But one of them was thinking about Carter and Carnarvon, who dug up Tutankhamun. And I knew that a kind of hybrid of those two historical figures was going to be part of — I mean, Serge is a composite of several things. But that’s kind of one part or two parts of it. And so as a marker, I just used the letter C. I said, “Well, Carnarvon. Carter. Let’s just call them C for now.” And it was stuck. I liked the single letter title. It made me think of Sesame Street. You know, how every episode is brought to you by the letter.

Correspondent: C is for cookie.

McCarthy: C is for cookie, right.

Correspondent: But there isn’t a cookie in this.

McCarthy: No, there’s no…there’s no.

Correspondent: You do have cunt at one point.

McCarthy: (laughs) Yeah, that’s true. There was lots of Cs going on. I mean, the caul. With a U. Of the Wolfman. That was where it originally came from. Although quite a few critics later have pointed out that Copperfield — another C.

Correspondent: The Jennifer Egan review.

McCarthy: Yes, of course. And several others. And other people who have pointed out that, when he’s born, not only does he have a caul. But there is a copper being brought to make a transmission field. And I shouldn’t not take credit for it. Because it’s brilliant. But I wasn’t actually thinking of it at the time.

Correspondent: Well, maybe we can establish how much of the riffing on C was subconscious and how much of it was planned.

McCarthy: Yeah. I mean, that’s the thing. I think of it like pinball. You put a certain number of balls up. And then you hope they’re going to hit some buffers. And maybe, if you’re lucky, you may go into multiple modes. When there’s like three of them all going around the ramps and going crazy. But you’re not going to control every collision and every which lighting up of each little mushroom buffer at which point. So yeah, there were some very deliberate throwings out of different Cs. And not just Cs. A whole change in association along different mutating phonemes that’s really what the book is. More than characterization or whatever.

Correspondent: It was your own little bubbling chemical equation, essentially. With lots of Cs.

McCarthy: Yeah, kind of. Exactly. But you know the really exciting thing was when I remembered C as the chemical sign for carbon. Which is the basic element of all life. And it has a kind of proximity to writing, right? White, black. Carbon paper. CCs. Carbon copies.

Correspondent: BCCs.

McCarthy: A BCC and all this kind of stuff. It just seemed right. It started off as a marker and then it became the main thing.

Correspondent: The carbon association then came late in this act of writing.

McCarthy: No, it came early. But not at the outset. I didn’t start out thinking, “Oh, it’s all going to come down to the sign for chemical carbon.” I hadn’t even remembered that C was the chemical sign for carbon. I never did chemistry in school.

Correspondent: And then, of course, the third novel, C.

McCarthy: Yup. And already D figures in the new one. And the next one as well.

The Bat Segundo Show #365: Tom McCarthy II (Download MP3)

This text will be replaced

Review: The Next Three Days (2010)

A Paul Haggis movie inevitably makes you feel like a well-trained parrot who has recently learned to squawk, “Hey hey, ho ho, intolerance has got to go!” Instead of the stale cracker offered as reward, one is asked to sit dutifully through the end credits.

In attempting to understand Paul Haggis’s position in the film world, I’m considering the time-honored Monet chestnut: “People discuss my art and pretend to understand as if it were necessary to understand, when it’s simply necessary to love.” But Paul Haggis’s movies — all containing lack of logic, stock archetypes, and soupy storylines — are altogether too easy to understand. These movies are about as challenging as inking in a TV Guide crossword puzzle. But even the best stupid movies give us very good reasons to love them. By contrast, when The Next Three Days features an early moment (not in Pour Elle, the template for Haggis’s remake) with privileged scum making reductionist statements about gender to prove how “authentic” Haggis is in getting “real” people, it becomes almost effortless not to love it.

The Haggis apologists rebut with Casino Royale and Letters from Iwo Jima (and sometimes the overrated In the Valley of Elah) when presented with the perfectly reasonable observation that the Oscar-winning Crash, with its tawdry caricatures spouting racist sentiments like loutish anchormen reciting whatever is on the Teleprompter (instead of, say, communicating the origin point of a character’s deeply developed atavism through performance), was last decade’s answer to Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. Haggis may very well be the Stanley Kramer of our time. Like Kramer, he is without subtlety. Like Kramer, his work will not date well. Like Kramer, he preaches to the converted. But there’s something more invidious about Haggis — something that goes beyond Kramer’s redolent earnestness — that I need to pinpoint here.

Casino Royale‘s “gritty” reboot was applied to a well-known and entirely fantastical archetype. Should Haggis really be commended for such ostensible authenticity? James Bond is enjoyable, but he is hardly a Doestoevsky character. (One can likewise make a similar claim about Christopher Nolan’s Batman films. Indeed, Jonathan Lethem did, writing in 2008 that he “couldn’t shake the sense that a morbid incoherence was the movie’s real takeaway, chaotic form its ultimate content.”) Letters from Iwo Jima is rightly considered to be a historical corrective to The Greatest Generation. But might not its cheap flips of the coin be similarly styled “morbid incoherence?” (It’s telling that screenwriter Iris Yamashita was able to interpret Haggis’s cornball situations in another language. American audiences, in turn, get these subtitles for lines that were adjusted from whatever vile banter Haggis brought to the table.) We see World War II from the Japanese side and we’re supposed to believe that the film is down with it because American soldiers incinerate the Japanese with a flamethrower. But what makes this narrative exercise any different from the old Twilight Zone episode, “A Quality of Mercy,” which uses the battleside switcheroo for the purposes of conceptual speculative fiction?

Haggis’s scripts are proud liberal exercises that make me profoundly ashamed to be a progressive. Real progressives don’t wave their fingers at their audience. They don’t bully people into enlightenment or self-awareness. Hell, good people of any political temperament don’t do this. They actually listen to people. They encourage. They plant clues. Accordingly, Haggis’s appropriation of genre tropes for movies that are condescending with their apparent “insight” into humanity makes me profoundly ashamed to be a moviegoer. It isn’t often that I’m so severely disappointed by a film. What the hell. I may as well go a few steps further and suggest that Paul Haggis has no business being declared a realist, a decent filmmaker, or even a worthy screenwriter. He’s using so many old inversion tricks that his films can never competently reflect the real world. When even the critics who like his movies — such as Moveiline‘s Stephanie Zacharek — feel compelled to point out that Haggis “doesn’t seem to know how to establish real couplehood closeness without equating it with hot, unfettered sex,” one detects an “artist” who is hardly curious about people and who is more interested in feeling superior when he sketches the kind of crude character doodles that would get him roundly bitchslapped at an MFA workshop or a bar. Or as Rolling Stone‘s Peter Travers succinctly noted, “It’s damn hard to enjoy a thriller when you don’t, won’t, can’t believe a word of it.”

The Next Three Days is a remake of Pour Elle — a French film that did have a rather unbelievable storyline about a high school teacher trying to spring his wrongfully accused wife from jail. But Pour Elle managed to transcend its melodrama by imbuing its characters with passionate qualities, by making their struggles interesting to us. The Next Three Days is, rather curiously, without such vim and vigor. Pour Elle had the decency to give us carnal intensity from the get-go. With a few simple moments of visual lust established in the beginning, we could understand immediately why Julien Auclert (John Brennan in the remake) would do anything to rescue Lisa (Lara in the remake). But in the Haggis universe, John and Lara have to ask if their kid is asleep before opting to fuck each other blue. And this safe and hackneyed stance, calculated to appeal to unadventurous suburban audiences, is deeply offensive to me as an American. Because the ostensibly straitlaced are, let’s face it, more screwed up than they are willing to admit. But aside from this practical consideration, wouldn’t it be more interesting to have the Brennans screw each other ravenously with their kid awake? With their kid queasily aware at an early age (like many) of how intense his parents are fucking? How’s that for a family dynamic? If Haggis had the balls to play things out like this, then we’d have a far more interesting film. But that ain’t the way Haggis rolls. When it comes to sex, he’s nearly as virginal in his approach as Spielberg. One wonders if Haggis has ever had the guts to live a little on the wild side.

The Next Three Days is also too damn long. A good thirty minutes have been appended to Haggis’s adaption. But why? Pour Elle cut straight to the chase. After Lisa gets arrested, our next shot of her is in prison. Her son Oscar spurns his kisses when he comes to visit with Julien. Lisa asks about some girl from the parking lot. Julien informs his wife that a detective has been looking into this, but it’s been three years. This is near perfect narrative economy that permits us to fill in the gaps. Why would you want to mess with it?

Alas, Paul Haggis has. He’s adjusted a scene with an attorney (played in this remake by Daniel Stern; the attorney was a woman in the original), where John fires him when he reveals the insurmountable evidence against Lara. But in Pour Elle, Julien was more stoic. He is told by his attorney that he has to accept that his wife Lisa is in prison. And he walks away, without any tantrum. Now since we’ve seen Julien in wild lust with his wife earlier in the film, this makes us wonder if Julien’s energy is going to spill somewhere else. It provides a narrative tension that naturally connects with Pour Elle‘s cinematic momentum. But in the Haggis version, John is a passive guy prone to occasional outbursts that are more the result of convoluted plot advancement. In other words, where French writer-director Fred Cavaye was careful to alter his rhythm in relation to his characters, Haggis treats his characters more like automatons who must capitulate to a gilded template of Hollywood cliches.

For example, why would you meet with a man in a bar (played by Liam Neeson, who adopts one of the most unpersuasive Brooklyn dialects I’ve ever heard from an actor), one who has escaped from several prisons, while other people sit very close by, and ask him about his methods? In Pour Elle, Julien meets this guy at a racetrack, with the camera establishing a reasonable crowd buffer with which to safely discuss the verboten topic. Furthermore, Julien asks Pasquet, this prison escape expert, if he can tape the conversation. Pasquet replies, “No, it’s not valid evidence.” So we immediately understand that Pasquet is a seasoned expert and we know why he would meet in public like this. Furthermore, the setting, which involves people blowing money on the horses, is one in which some guy giving cash to another isn’t going to draw much attention. Not so with Haggis’s bar, in which the dissemination of cash is likely to be more flagrant. Julien also offers the pretext that he wishes to “teach” Pasquet’s book. There’s no pretext at all with Haggis’s John.

There is also something unpardonably stupid about a movie in which a man breaks into a truck delivering supplies to a prison and the parking lot, rather remarkably, doesn’t include a single security camera or a guard. John even snaps photos with his iPhone (uh, ever heard of GPS tracking?) of documents he’ll need to forge. But given how shaky the light can be on an iPhone camera, how can he be expected to nab a decent image to forge the documents? Furthermore, if you’re going to learn how to forge a document for a prison escape, why would you attend a community college class on Photoshop and draw attention to yourself? Wouldn’t you learn it on your own? When John learns how to make a bump key, he does so by consulting YouTube videos. Does this guy even clear his browser cache? Is Haggis even understand how Google tracks its users? Cutting a bump key isn’t a skill that Alton Brown can teach you overnight.

I haven’t even discussed The Next Three Days‘s laughable attempts at streetcred. To offer just one example, John asks around the Pittsburgh underworld, trying to obtain fake passports. When he finds his first prospect, the bar John enters is as harmless and boisterous as a sports bar. (By contrast, in Pour Elle, the bar that Julien enters was committed to a silent intensity, letting the audience fill in the blanks about the possible danger.)

But it isn’t just these basic behavioral issues that Haggis has failed to parse from the original. He also hasn’t learned how the little visual details made Pour Elle work. In the above still, we see a police officer giving Julien a dirty look (on the left half of the frame) in the hospital room when he visits his wife after a suicide attempt (the moment captured on the right half of the frame). This visual bifurcation establishes the two separate worlds that the law and Julien’s predicament are going to be operating in. It’s a nifty psychological nudge to the viewer. Yet we don’t get anything this sly from Haggis. Then again, Haggis is not a man known for his visual chops.

Because I’ve been so hard on Haggis, I’ll give the man some small credit for casting Lennie James as a detective. James has proven to be quite watchable in everything. But even the confident expertise he establishes with his presence is undermined by the shoddy material.

The bottom line is that The Next Three Days gives its actors very little to do (the dependable Elizabeth Banks, in particular, is woefully underserved) and tries the audience’s patience. I can highly recommend the French original, but I cannot in good conscience declare Paul Haggis to be anything close to an essential filmmaker for our times.

The 2010 National Book Awards

4:10 PM: I just got back from interviewing a National Book Awards nominee for a future installment of The Bat Segundo Show. Now I have about an hour to shave the five days of stubble off my face and the top of my skull and find something nice to wear before hitting Wall Street. At least three friends have informed me that adopting a clean-shaven approach is the only way that the National Book Foundation will let me penetrate the inner sanctum, although this esteemed organization has been nice enough to grant me (perhaps unwisely) press credentials. I sat out the National Book Awards last year. Ended up getting sucked in through Twitter. People thought I was there. And I guess it comes down to this. Just when I thought I was out, they pulled me back in. Every November, I’m the Regis Philbin of the literary scene. Or maybe the Fred Willard.

This year, there will be two places to find me: this page and my Twitter account. I have just eaten a very large burrito to ensure that I will have a ridiculous amount of energy for the floor. If someone gives me drinks, I’m sure there will be additional craziness. Charging the batteries for my sound equipment. Charging the netbook. Charging the jet black fire of my soul.

6:29 PM: There was a fashion emergency at Atlantic Mall that required the swift purchase of a shirt after the other one decided to commit a unique self-immolation. But I am now ensconced at the press table. Cal Reid from Publishers Weekly is to my left. There is a thick rope separating the press area from the fancy tables. The rope is not the kind you use for jumping, nor for hanging a man. Although I suspect that if some author gets better tonight, there’s always the prospect for eccentric violence. You don’t see kids playing with this kind of rope. It’s the kind of rope that tells a man that he’s not so good to sip gimlets or snort blow. I don’t anticipate seeing gimlets and blow tonight. But maybe there will be some debauchery in the restrooms or off-premises. Will investigate if there’s time.

7:06 PM: Fiction judge Samuel R. Delany and nonfiction judge Jennifer Michael Hecht are both staying mum about whether there were any heated deliberations or exclusions. Delany did not venture an opinion to me in relation to Franzen’s Freedom, which, rather notoriously, was kept off the list. Hecht told me that the judges weren’t allowed to attend last night’s readings. And while, like Delany, she stayed mum on the politics, she did tell me that the process was surprisingly civil. The one thing they both agreed upon: lots of reading.

7:22 PM: Audio interview with Samuel R. Delaney.

National Book Awards 2010 — Samuel Delany (Download MP3)

This text will be replaced

7:34 PM: Audio interview with Jennifer Michael Hecht (nonfiction judge).

National Book Awards 2010 — Jennifer Michael Hecht (Download MP3)

This text will be replaced

7:41 PM: Audio interview with Patti Smith.

National Book Awards 2010 — Patti Smith (Download MP3)

This text will be replaced

8:12 PM: Andy Borowitz is a perfectly respectable fifth-rate Vegas entertainer. I keep looking around for relatives in Hawaiian shirts. There was a very lame act about Best Subtitle in a book. The material here is, well, can you trust a guy who can’t tie his bowtie? Elmo has just shown up. That should tell you everything.

8:19 PM: Have just asked two other press people about this, but it is apparently important enough for me to report that Elmo is voiced by a black man.

8:41 PM: Tom Wolfe is presently delivering one of the most rambling speeches I have ever heard. And that includes the crazy shit my great grandmother said after a stroke.

8:52 PM: I’ve timed Tom Wolfe’s long-winded speech at around 25 minutes. People are now relieved to be eating dinner.

9:15 PM: Yes, it’s true. People are still eating dinner. No awards yet. Now I’ve covered a few of these National Book Awards ceremonies and I can tell you this is par for the course. The journalists are now talking with each other. I think that, aside from the award announcements, I will save my energies for the tweets.

9:44 PM: The Young People’s Literature Award goes to Kathryn Erskine’s Mockingbird (Philomel).

9:50 PM: The Poetry Award “by unanimous vote” goes to Terrance Hayes’s Lighthead (Penguin).

9:59 PM: Patti Smith wins Nonfiction! In her speech: “There is nothing more beautiful in our material world than the book.”

10:05 PM: In a surprise victory, Jaimy Gordon takes the Fiction Award for Lord of Misrule.

Review: Morning Glory (2010)

It doesn’t matter if some generous groomsman (or bridesmaid) has plied me with good scotch or not. It doesn’t matter if the DJ or the band has the musical taste of a humorless military historian who blasts nothing more than John Phillip Sousa. If you encounter me at a wedding, chances are that you will find me dancing. There seems to be no better way to celebrate the union of two than putting two feet together. Very often, I will have no clue as to how I began dancing. Sometimes it will start with a trip to the men’s room. Upon relieving myself and washing my hands, I will often return with some terpsichorean fervor that astonishes the other wedding guests. I will dance with anybody. Grandmothers. Kids. Other men. I have been known to corrupt small children with some of my more libidinous moves, whereby I swing an invisible lasso around another man’s neck and proceed to rope him in, concluding my cowboy allemande with a rakish leer which suggests that I will be taking my partner to an indecent location. I have seen kids reproduce these moves.

What does any of this have to do with Morning Glory? Well, somewhere within this watered down Broadcast News knockoff is a mild audience-friendly satire screaming to cut the rug. Last week, with Due Date, we saw how director Todd Phillips and his co-writers managed to update the Planes, Trains, and Automobiles template into an enjoyable comedy that still had the smarts to include some dark observations about our present age. Morning Glory – with its egotistical anchors, its rider-mandated fruit platters, and its accidental caption beneath Jimmy Carter’s photograph – has a few promising steps. But it is too often that stiff partner that lacks the courage to get up and go, to take more than a few perfunctory chances. It is a movie in desperate need of some hip-shaking and a hip flask.

Rachel McAdams plays Becky Fuller, a television producer who foolishly believes that the Protestant work ethic still applies in the television industry. She longs for some higher rung because she has toiled for many years (sans boyfriend, sans many friends aside from her co-workers) as an assistant producer on the morning show, Good Morning, New Jersey. The big boss asks her in for a big meeting. And Becky thinks that she’ll at last land that promotion. Wearing a YES, I ACCEPT tee beneath her clothes, Becky is shitcanned instead. She then spends the early portion of the movie trying to land a job, with her chirpy go-go energy lacking Holly Hunter’s can-do spunk in Broadcast News. It’s really more of a fey merge between Hunter and a mid-1990s Renee Zellweger. Becky is so desperate to be liked that she is very often channeling the needy qualities contained within Aline Brosh McKenna’s script.

She somehow talks her way into a job as executive producer at Daybreak, a network morning show in last place. Becky must endure dull segments about weather vanes, sleazy reporters who wish to take photos of her feet, and a staff that expects Becky to fall through the revolving door. Certainly, the audience is inclined to sympathize with the Daybreak staff. McAdams’s relentless peppiness is, at times, a liability to our willingness to believe in the movie. One does not occupy a top perch in the media world without giving a few orders to ice the unruly subordinates. And while Becky does deliver at least one such ruthless move, we’re never entirely convinced that she has the organizational chops to keep this show together.

Becky places her faith in the aptly named Mike Pomeroy (Harrison Ford), a respected journalist with Pulitzers and Emmies in his closet who lost some vital television spot some years ago. Alas, he’s referred to as “the third worst person in the world” among some former co-workers. Still under contract to the network, Becky installs Pomeroy as Daybreak co-host. The big joke here is that Pomeroy would rather use words like “abrogate” on air or report on serious news stories rather than remark on Easter bunnies. While there’s some late stage conflict between Ford and McAdams, the comedy is hindered by Ford’s terrible performance. He shamelessly overacts in his part: widening his eyes, pointing his index finger, and barking his lines with a sad “Get off my plane!” gusto that transforms a chief character into a regrettable cartoon. It’s sad to remember that Ford was once an actor capable of great control in Frantic, Witness, and The Mosquito Coast. (On a positive note, I can report that Diane Keaton is wonderfully controlled, as always, as the grumpy host who has been on the show too long.)

The movie is most effective when it drifts away from its obvious inspiration. When McKenna and director Roger Michell comprehends that Rachel McAdams is not Holly Hunter, that Harrison Ford is not Jack Nicholson, that Patrick Wilson (McAdams’s love interest, whose receding hairline and look resembles William Hurt in 1987) is not William Hurt, and the guy with the half-grown facial hair playing McAdams’s producer who I’m too lazy to look up on IMDB is not Albert Brooks. (Sorry, guy with the half-grown facial hair playing McAdams’s producer. I had to turn around this review fast.) James L. Brooks certainly never needed a live camera capturing a reporter screaming while he rides a rollercoaster or howling in pain when getting a tattoo buzzed into his flesh. But our present epoch of reality television and YouTube does requires such moments.

It’s too bad that this promising satirical thrust couldn’t extend to the rest of the film. There are worse films than Morning Glory out there. But McKenna and Michell don’t seem to know that there was this writer named Ben Hecht and this director named Howard Hawks, and these actors named Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell, and this talent all came together and created an indelible comedy, with the dialogue gunning at a .45 Thompson’s pace. They can’t recall that we remember that film so well seventy years later because Hawks had the wisdom to swap gender roles from the original source (the play The Front Page), with Hawks agonizing over the casting. I have to wonder: Who will remember Morning Glory seventy years from now? What might have happened if McKenna and Michell had the courage to defy their straitlaced obligations and dance?

The Bat Segundo Show: Paul Harding

Paul Harding appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #364. He is most recently the author of Tinkers.

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Tinging with Mingus and tinkering with Tinkers.

Author: Paul Harding

Subjects Discussed: [List forthcoming]


Correspondent: We were talking before all this about the idea of novels and whether or not they can actually serve as a handbook for life. Something I don’t necessarily believe in. And I don’t think you do. But I wanted to address that. Because your book, Tinkers, does, in fact, present life. And I’m wondering how you, as a writer or just in general, arrange text as a way to present life rather than dictate life. Was this ever a struggle for you when writing this?

Harding: Not with this. I think I had done my apprenticeship to bad prescriptive moralizing writing and just ended up writing very bad propaganda.

Correspondent: (laughs)

Harding: You know, it was just designed to show people how progressive and enlightened and intelligent I was. And then I’d say the kind of operative word is description. And precision of description. And if you describe things precisely, you end up bearing witness to the truth of your characters — in this case, characters’ lives — in a way that does them the kind of moral justice that’s misplaced when you think you’re going to moralize. For me, it even starts with the writing process. The difference between writing declarative prose and writing interrogative prose. Like I don’t presume that I know something and I’m going to tell you how it is and that afterwards, if you’re lucky, you’ll be as smart as me. What I do is that I try to write interrogatively, discover things, work through revelation. It’s just a type of aesthetic. But then what you leave on the page behind you — when the reader reads what you’ve written, the reader will have the same kind of revelations and moments of recognition. To me, that’s like the greatest experience as a reader. Those moments of recognition. Where you read something and you simultaneously realize, “I’ve always known that’s true. I’ve never thought about it consciously and I’ve never seen anybody put it into language before.” So there’s a kind of morality to that. There’s some sort of confirmation of common humanity or whatever. But it’s not prescriptive, small-minded minor kind of moralizing.

Correspondent: I’m very glad that you brought up description. Because one thing that I really think is interesting about this book is the hyperspecific nature of the description.

Harding: Right.

Correspondent: To offer an example, you have George “reading by the dim light of a small pewter lamp set on the rolltop desk at the far end of the couch.” Now that’s extremely specific. And I’m wondering if that serves as a way for you to get the reader inside George’s head. Or is this a way for you as a novelist to kind of know where everything is situated? The only person I think who writes that hyperspecifically is possibly William Gibson or someone like that. A lot of the 19th century authors do.

Harding: Yeah. And I’ve certainly spent all my reading time trolling around 19th and early 20th century fiction. I mean, I almost think of Thomas Mann’s little preface he has to The Magic Mountain. That we will be long on detail, but when was a book ever short on interest that was long on detail? People would argue against that novel’s glacial — but it’s sort of a bit of both. Which is while I’m writing, I’m blocking the scene out, you know? And since my characters in Tinkers — it’s so interior that I knew from the beginning that I had to keep the world embodied. I had to keep it physically, tangibly present. Because otherwise it would just be feasting on ether. So there’s that. There’s the kind of geography of the room. But then it’s also to make the reader feel like he or she has been put in a real place. Actually put in a place where there’s a chair to your left. There’s a certain physical feeling you get when you feel that there’s a chair to your left and a sofa over here and a painting over there. That sort of thing. I also just believe in the virtue of concrete nouns and verbs. And I think it’s true too that there ends up being something hyperreal, rather than surreal, about it. But there’s really a cool kind of bandwidth of unintended affects that you can’t predict. But you use that process of total precision, almost pointillist precision, that you end up getting into these kind of transcendent or metaphoric realms. But not by lifting up out of the world or evaporating off of it, but by going deeper into what’s imminent. So you’d get so materialistic about it that then it turns into something you don’t recognize and you sort of double back on yourself and it becomes unrecognizable and sort of unsettling and hyperreal. So I love that. I just love that phenomenon.

Correspondent: But it’s not just also in relation to materialism. It’s also in relation to place. Of course, the clock theme that goes throughout with The Reasonable Horologist, which I presume is invented.

Harding: Yeah, that’s all invented.

Correspondent: I’m wondering if that text within the text [The Reasonable Horologist] was included almost as a way to distract the reader from the fact that the text, the prose itself, is almost written in this kind of William James, 19th century mode. And that by having this, you can almost justify the style that you’re doing within the actual prose itself.

Harding: It’s a little bit of — on the most generic level, it’s just to change things up. It’s just to use relief. So much of the book is very somber and funereal and twilit. And this is just a little more verbose and florid, and kind of tongue-in-check. It’s kind of humorous. And so it keeps the textures changing. But, yeah, I think it’s also true. Because the writing is formal and that kind of precision leads to that kind of, “It sounds formal, so it sounds archaic to some extent.” It was also just a fun way to write in that kind of, “Welcome, dear reader, to Reason!” You know, it just worked emotionally with the character, with George the clock repairman. His upbringing was so chaotic and disorderly that the idea of the deterministic, mechanical view of the universe is appealing to him. The idea that you can fix things, that it’s mendable, and that there’s an order to everything.

The Bat Segundo Show #364: Paul Harding (Download MP3)

This text will be replaced

Review: 127 Hours (2010)

I’m relieved to report that 127 Hours, a very pleasant movie about mountain climber Aron Ralston quite literally giving up his right arm, cuts straight to the point. The early moments see director Danny Boyle slashing the screen, De Palma-style, into three partitions. Our introduction to Ralston (played by James Franco) involves a spastic man fumbling about for his Swiss Army knife (with the camera staying inside Ralston’s cabinets, much as it will later inhabit the inside of Ralston’s water bottle, where we will see the inside of James Franco’s throat, which is quite possibly an image that is more disturbing than the bloody hackwork to come), surreal shots of cyclists shooting past Ralston’s car in the dead of night, and James Franco leaping across canyons like some video game character unaware of real world physics.

At the risk of shortening my flourishes, Danny Boyle’s latest movie is a cut above Sean Penn’s Into the Wild – in part because, unlike Penn, Boyle has a rapier wit. He stabs at the regrettable inconvenience of getting one’s arm caught by a boulder from several points, approaching it as a laughably common Gordian knot, a psychotropic experience, and a wounding nightmare. But these methodical slashes into the predicament also inspire astonishing momentum. Like David O. Russell’s Three Kings, Boyle’s camera enter the very body itself. Like the final moments of Darren Aronofsky’s Pi, Boyle blurs out the soundtrack with distorted tones as Ralston has the nerve to feel his nerves as he saws away to the bitter end. I can also report that Boyle even has the balls to quietly broach the subject of how Ralston will jerk off without his dependable right palm. But I don’t want to give Boyle’s hand away here.

It helps that James Franco has the chops for the part, imbuing his Ralston with a crazy edge. This lacerating insanity comes in handy when Ralston slices through the last of his rational equanimity, concocting a radio show (with a laugh track added to the film) to pass the time when he’s not guzzling down his own piss. But it also slays at the truth: Ralston is a solitary man. (“You’re going to be so lonely,” says a prophetic ex-girlfriend as Ralston relives a lost relationship from the comfort of a shitty situation.) Our hero has driven himself to his sticky predicament because he didn’t bother to tell anyone where he was going. That has to hurt. And even though we know that Ralston will be saved in the nick of time, Franco arms his performance with enough ambiguity so that we wonder what torments are stabbing away inside, when we aren’t subjected to intriguing hallucinations of family and friends watching the proceedings unfold from a comfortable couch (much like the audience!).

One never feels strongarmed by this approach, although some audiences have reportedly fainted because they expected a shot of morphine or something. They are wrong. For Boyle has plenty of tricks up his sleeve. A raven always flies over the cliff at the early morning hour. For a brief period, even Scooby-Doo serves as an way to greet the possibilities of living with open arms.

I was almost determined to cut my losses just before the blood spurted, but, thankfully, the moment is almost anticlimactic when it arrives. I appreciated the way in which Boyle had caught me redhanded in my anticipation.

The upshot is that this is a bloody good movie – a handy reminder of the creature comforts we take for granted. Should I ever lose my hand, like Ralston, I’ll stay a betting man in the great game of life.

Review: Due Date (2010)

A comedy featuring a masturbating dog certainly hits the right stroke. Thankfully, there are capable hands behind Due Date, a gutsy and often side-splitting movie that further cements Todd Phillips’s rep as a comedy auteur far more interesting than Adam McKay and Nicholas Stoller. Like those two directors, Phillips often relies on stock situations – predominantly featuring men – to propel his unapologetically adolescent anarchy. Men in early middle age start a fraternity in Old School. Four men celebrating a bachelor party in Vegas can’t remember what happened the night before in The Hangover. And in Road Trip, The Hangover, and Due Date, it often takes a long drive to work out these lingering issues of rootlesness.

Despite all this late stage wandering, one detects a grown-up somewhere within Phillips. With his two most recent films, Phillips seems to be working the territory somewhere between Terry Zwigoff’s hilariously bleak assaults on the American climate and Seth MacFarlane’s free association. In The Hangover, Mike Tyson (playing Mike Tyson) factors into the plot. We see Carrot Top and Wayne Newton in the closing credits slideshow. In Due Date, the sitcom Two and a Half Men becomes a part of the story.* RZA turns up as a TSA man. .

Given such attention to the real and the imaginary, Slavoj Zizek could very well host a Lacanian kegger after taking in the Phillips oeuvre. (It’s worth pointing out that Phillips cut his teeth with the controversial documentary, Frat House, in which Phillips and co-director Andrew Gurland faced allegations that they paid fraternity members and staged several scenes.) But if Phillips’s films were only about this (and, more importantly, if his films weren’t flat out funny), they probably wouldn’t be worth considering. Any Family Guy viewer knows damn well that a promising installment often flounders when MacFalane’s writers rely too much on reference.

But Phillips has Zach Galifianakis’s Belushi-like presence to counterbalance all this. I enjoyed Galifianakis’s raucous mania in The Hangover, but felt that he had exhausted his possibilities in the HBO series, Bored to Death. It turns out that I was mistaken. Jonathan Ames’s lazy and ungenerous writing, which fails to view Galifianakis as anything more than a fat guy foil for Jason Schwartzman, was largely to blame. In Due Date, Galifianakis bustles as brightly as he did in The Hangover. The man has the talent to turn a physical gag on a plane with his belly into something that somehow makes us less aware of his physicality and more intrigued by his character. (Chris Farley was one of the few portly comic actors to do this as well: most notably in his famous Chippendale’s sketch with Patrick Swayze on Saturday Night Live.) As aspiring actor Ethan Tremblay, Galifianakis knows how to deliver his lines so that the audience is constantly recalibrating its estimation of Tremblay’s intelligence. (And in light of the film’s observations about underestimating people, and a nation that relies too much on swift judgment, this performance helps steer the film in the right direction.)

There’s a scene in which Galifianakis’s character is asked to perform material within a public restroom, so that he can prove to the disbelieving Downey that he’s a bona-fide actor. Tremblay delivers an unexpectedly poignant performance, using the edge of a bathroom stall as a wall. And this moment works on several interesting levels: (1) Todd Phillips is communicating to his audience that Galifianakis is more than just a funny fat man, (2) Ethan Tremblay is communicating to his snobbish white-collar traveling companion that he has some serious chops, (3) Ethan Tremblay is being asked to give it his all in a public restroom, quite possibly the most ignoble venue to prove himself (and the one you are least likely to see chronicled in the newspapers), and (4) the savvy symmetry between (1) and (2) gives Phillips some leverage to continue his exploration of the real and the fictional.

That all this is going on, while Phillips is presenting his populist audience with a genuine emotional moment, suggests very highly that the director who once gave us Starsky & Hutch has more moves than any half-literate moviegoer could have anticipated six years ago. How’s that for underestimation?

John Hughes’s Planes, Trains, and Automobiles serves as Due Date‘s obvious template. Yes, Phillips and his writers have taken the blue collar/white collar framework of Planes, updating the film to reflect a post-9/11 America. Yes, they have taken an actor known in part for his wackiness (here, Robert Downey, Jr., previously, Steve Martin) and made him grumpy and straitlaced. Yes, they’ve even taken whole lines from Hughes (“I have a winning personality”) and converted them over.

But Phillips has also paid close attention to what Hughes did so well visually in the motel room scenes: the blue colors for John Candy, the white colors for Steve Martin. In one notable moment from Planes, we see Martin grabbing a blue blanket covering Candy and putting it over his frame, a nice visual suggestion of class integration in a motel room bed (like the restroom moment in Due Date, also evocative of the dignity discovered within “low” environments).

Twenty-three years after Planes Trains, and Automobiles, the income disparity between the rich and the poor has worsened. So in Due Date, our white-collar protagonist now wears a purple shirt, as if his white collar had become somehow stained by blue-collar contact. (It is also interesting that, when Downey’s character breaks his arm, his cast is blue.) Meanwhile, the Tremblay character wears blue jeans (2010’s answer to Candy’s blue collar pajamas?) and a red shirt (post-Dubya assumption about red staters). Additionally, the pregnant white-collar wife stuck at home wears a pristine white sweater, bearing faint blue stripes. Is she imprisoned by class? Or is she besmirched by it? And what does it say that Downey’s character suspects a black man of having an affair with her? Might he be just as capable as Tremblay of rallying with an OBAMA = SOCIALIST sign? What does it say that Tremblay lets a “zebra baby” epithet slip from his lips that is entirely accidental? If our language and our actions remain under constant scrutiny, how then can we learn from our mistakes?

It’s a lesson that both sides can profit from. Because class lines are more ruthless than they were in 1987. In Due Date, the the yuppie is much meaner. At one point, Robert Downey’s architect character, Peter Highman, clips a kid in the stomach to get him to stop harassing him. Is this brutal solution a harbinger of fatherhood to come? (Or violent liberals to come?) Meanwhile, Ethan Tremblay commits far more destruction than John Candy’s Del Griffith. Forget Michael McKean’s cop. Phillips ups the stakes and brings in the border patrol. Minutes into the movie, Tremblay manages to get Highman on a no fly list. These skirmishes against authority make Due Date a more political film (think gleeful anarchism) than Planes, Trains, and Automobiles. But like Zwigoff’s movies, Due Date skillfully uses politically incorrect humor to defuse any hypothetical political agenda and thus make these considerations more palatable to the common man, which is very much where Due Date‘s heart is. And rightfully so. The reason why this movie works so well is because our fragmentation is more common than most of us are willing to accept.

* The use of Two and a Half Men is suspiciously well-timed, leading one to imagine an iniquitous PR flack, happily trading in misfortune for money, encouraging Charlie Sheen to engage in more headline-grabbing behavior right before the film’s release.

The Cooks Source Scandal: How a Magazine Profits on Theft

On the last Thursday of October, Jeff Berry sent an email to his friend, Monica Gaudio. Berry informed Gaudio that an article called “As American as Apple Pie — Isn’t!” had been published in Cooks Source Magazine.

“Is this you?” asked Berry. “Is this your article? And how did you get it published? Because I’m trying to break into any market that I can.”

Gaudio, who identified herself to me over the phone as “an amateur medieval enthusiast,” went home last Thursday and discovered that an article she had written on Gode Cookery, which contained a clear copyright notice at the bottom of the webpage, had been reprinted on Page 10 in Cooks Source‘s October 2010 issue.

“They used the website that I had,” said Gaudio. “I own the domain name. Jim Matterer owns most of the content. However, that article is mine.”

The first thing Gaudio did was call the number listed at the Cooks Source website. An hour or two later, Judith Griggs — editor of Cooks Source — called Gaudio back. Gaudio missed the call. Griggs told Gaudio to contact her by email. This was the best way to get in touch with her. Gaudio emailed Griggs, pointing out that Griggs had published her article.

“Well, it was on the Internet,” replied Griggs by email. “Didn’t you want it published?”

Gaudio wondered how to respond to the email. Initially, she thought that Griggs was a new copy editor who was perhaps a bit nervous on the job. But she began to wonder if Griggs was something more sinister. Perhaps a database collecting her private information. When it became apparent that Griggs was actually running the show, Gaudio grew dismayed.

“I couldn’t believe I was explaining copyright to a magazine editor,” said Gaudio. “This is not fair use.”

In that first email, Griggs asked Gaudio what she wanted to do about this. Gaudio replied that she wanted three things: an apology on Facebook, an apology in the magazine, and a $130 donation (ten cents a word for the 1,300 words that Griggs had published without Gaudio’s permission) to the Columbia School of Journalism. She decided upon CSJ because the famed New York school was considered to be an excellent one for journalism and because it was easy to make an online donation.

Griggs replied by email to Gaudio’s request last Thursday, pointing out that the Cooks Source staff was very busy and was trying to publish an issue.

Gaudio sent additional emails to Griggs. She figured Griggs and her staff were leaving for the Halloween weekend.

Then, on Election Day, Gaudio received Griggs’s response. Gaudio’s Livejournal entry, chronicling her story, kickstarted a massive Internet awareness campaign that, as of Thursday afternoon, had counted writers Neil Gaiman and John Scalzi among the supporters. When I spoke with Gaudio early Thursday afternoon, she told me that she was afraid to look at her email.

My phone calls to Judith Griggs were not returned. But in Griggs’s email to Gaudio, partially excerpted on Gaudio’s Livejournal, Griggs suggested that Gaudio should compensate her for the time she put into rewrites.

“It was ‘my bad’ indeed,” wrote Griggs in her email, “and, as the magazine is put together in long sessions, tired eyes and minds somethings forget to do these things.” Griggs also insisted that Gaudio’s article was “in bad need of editing.”

But a Thursday investigation revealed that not only is Cooks Source in the practice of stealing articles and publishing material without permission, but the magazine often pilfers the images which accompany the content. Such was the case with two entries stolen from the website, Simply Recipes. In Cooks Source‘s July 2010 issue, the Simply Recipes entry on tandoori chicken was taken wholesale from the website, with the photo merely flipped over in print. (On the same page, a sidebar item on garam masala recycles text from the Wikipedia entry.)

I spoke with one publisher by telephone, who asked to remain unnamed for this piece, about a book excerpt that had run in a recent Cooks Source issue. The publisher later informed me that it hadn’t worked with Cooks Source before and that the magazine had never sought permission to use the excerpt.

On July 6, 2009, the website Behind The Curtain published an essay on a raspberry fritters recipe that she found in a 1942 cookbook. Not only did Cooks Source print the majority of the essay on Page 21 of its July 2010 issue, but three photos taken by Kathy Zadrozny had also been reproduced. This occurred despite the fact that Zadrozny’s About page contained an explicit copyright notice in relation to her images.

“I haven’t seen any reproduction of my articles anywhere nor have I heard of Cooks Source,” said Zadrozny by email.

The July 2010 issue also reproduced at least seven recipes from The Food Network. Shawn White of The Food Network’s Licensing Department did not return my calls, but I alerted him to the recipes in my voicemails to him. The Cooks Source issue contained the following Food Network recipes: Chicken Chopped Mediterranean Salad with Feta Vinaigrette (page 10), Blackberry Lemonade (page 10), Mixed Berry Soup with Gelato (renamed Mixed Berry Soup) (page 11), Fresh Mozzarella BLT with Pesto (page 11), the Best Burger Ever (reprinted as “Alton Brown’s Best Burger”) (pages 12-13), Napa Valley Basil-Smoked Burgers (page 13), and the Feta Sun-Dried Tomato Stuffed Prosciutto Burger (republished as “Jairs Burger”) (page 13).

On Thursday afternoon, I was informed by nutrition consultant Dana Angelo White that the legal department was looking into a Cooks Source article on page 24 taken from two of White’s pieces written for The Food Network’s Healthy Eats blog: “What Does ‘Natural’ Mean?” and “9 ‘Healthy’ Foods to Skip.”

On page 12 of the July issue, Cooks Source also reproduced this hamburger history article. The original website has a clear copyright notice from Linda Stradley at the top, but Stradley hadn’t returned my email to confirm that the article had been used without her permission.

For every reproduction that I found, I made efforts to contact the original copyright holder. And the above examples demonstrate unequivocally that nearly the entirety of Cooks Source‘s material has been taken from other sources and that, in at least four instances, Cooks Source did not obtain the necessary permission to reproduce the material. The onus is now on Cooks Source to produce the appropriate paperwork to demonstrate that it secured the release. But since Judith Griggs is uninterested in returning telephone calls, since she has demonstrated a lack of concern for copyright, and not a single writer, publisher, or organization has come forward with proof positive that Griggs has played by the rules, one can conclude from the presented evidence that Cooks Source is a magazine that profits on theft.

While big companies like Scripps (which owns The Food Network) have generous coffers with which to resolve legal matters, enthusiastic amateurs like Monica Gaudio don’t have that luxury.

“My understanding — and again I am a lay person — is that a copyright has to be litigated in federal court,” said Gaudio. “Federal court costs a lot of money. Hundreds, if not thousands of dollars. So will I litigate? Possibly. It’s so small.”

Gaudio told me that it’s “unfair” for her to spend so much money to defend her copyrighted material. Yet despite all the Internet attention and Griggs’s recalcitrance, she hasn’t adjusted her demands. She simply wants Cooks Source to make two apologies (in print and on Facebook) and donate the $130 to the Columbia School of Journalism. She’s played by the rules. She’s filled out the form on Facebook. All this would just be over if Cooks Source would own up and apologize. But according to Cooks Source‘s message machine, last contacted at 4:00 PM on Thursday, the staff is just too busy to talk.

11/4/10 LATE PM UPDATE: First of all, thanks to Neil Gaiman and many others for the overwhelming traffic that this story has received (and with great apologies for the bumpy server). In the interest of tying up some loose ends, I’ve heard back from Elise Bauer, of Simply Recipes. She had this to say by email:

For the record, Cooks Source has used my copyright protected content without my permission. The copyright notice has been on every page of my site for 7 years.

I’m astonished by the flagrant plagiarism and copyright infringement. I’m also dumbfounded by the Cooks Source publisher’s response to complaints that have been made about the use of other bloggers works without permission. This person honestly believes that everything on the Internet is public domain.

So that gives us five definitive cases instead of four.

I have also heard back from the head of a publishing imprint who was very interested in speaking with me on the phone. I’m going to touch base with this individual tomorrow morning and report back any additional news pertinent to this story, if warranted.

11/5/10 LATE PM UPDATE: In the comments, Linda Stradley left this message:

I’ve just read your article, The Cooks Source Scandal: How a Magazine Profits on Theft, and was very surprised at reading my name.

I also was never contacted to ask permission to use my copyrighted article on the “Hamburgers – History and Legends of Hamburgers.”

That brings the tally up to six.

Jon Stewart and the New Political Privilege

“Think for yourselves, and let others enjoy the privilege to do so, too. It is the sole consolation of weak minds in this short and transitory life of ours.” — Voltaire, “Toleration”

I did not attend Saturday’s rally because, like many Americans, I could not afford to. I did not have the cash for the $60 Boltbus round trip, the $100 or so to spring for a night in a motel room, and the $40 (very conservative estimate) for food and water. $200.

Now imagine the tab if you have a kid. Factor in childcare and you’re easily getting into the $400 range if you were a parent hoping to participate in a rally that was being compared in some corners to Martin Luther King. Sure, you could blow a few hundred bucks to make a purported difference or you could put that money into your kid’s Halloween costume. Or maybe that’s a few weeks of much needed groceries. Or maybe that’s what you need at the end of the month to make mortgage or rent.

The upshot is that, in this economy, $200 is a lot of money for many people. If you are among the 10% of Americans who remain unemployed, the ones who are being told that economic recovery is just around the corner, then those two Ben Franklins are worth a good deal more. And these are the people we’re not talking about. These are the people we can’t talk about. Because unless it’s a message from the Rent is Too Damn High Party, talking about poverty and class division isn’t nearly as entertaining as an episode of Jersey Shore.

If you could afford to go to Washington last weekend, you practiced your new political privilege. This privilege was reflected in the mostly white demographic that turned up in Washington. It was reflected in Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert’s performance of “The Greatest Strongest Country in the World”:

Stewart: They don’t care about the gays
Colbert: That’s mostly true
Stewart: They’re terrified of Muslims!
Colbert: Well, they scare you too!
Stewart: But I would never talk about it / Folks would get annoyed
Colbert: You’re a coward
Stewart: Yes, but I’m still employed (going into a falsetto yodel)

The satirical song’s message, a sentiment also reflected in Stewart’s closing speech, is that there is no longer any room for hyperbole, extremist rhetoric, and “insanity.” If you’re lucky enough to remain gainfully employed, maintaining a Spock-like commitment to cold “logic” while others face the savage brunt of rising costs and diminishing prospects, keeping your job is more important than speaking your mind or commiserating with the hard realities of a family who has to skip a few hot meals. The message is this: It could have been you, but, hey, you’re still employed. Don’t take a chance. People might get annoyed.

And how exactly does this represent togetherness? Togetherness doesn’t mean shunning people, but listening to the viewpoints you despise. And while you may be bathing in a Stewart-Colbert afterglow, the “insane” people will be there in the voting booths on Tuesday. There will be hard and possibly irreversible developments because a bright red cluster was just told that its feelings didn’t matter. That the manner, however inappropriate, in which people responded to justifiable concerns about unemployment and foreclosure wasn’t valid. Yes, they amplified their messages until their posters turned into increasingly stranger exemplars for Godwin’s Law. But if the corporations had given them jobs as Wall Street enjoyed its best September since 1939 or someone had listed to justifiable concerns about being forced to pay exorbitant costs thanks to one of the biggest giveaways to private industry in American history, would we even have Christine O’Donnell as a candidate? Would we even be diminishing political discourse by considering the gentlemanly angles on muff diving?

While keeping atavistic sentiments out of evenhanded analysis is a worthwhile goal, there are several problems with Stewart’s overgeneralized view of the way the media and the political conversation operates — hardly limited to what David Carr has courageously and reasonably offered. As Glenn Greenwald wrote in September, where’s the space for someone engaged in genuinely independent and non-ideological inquiry? The fact that the audience applauded strongest when Stewart yodeled about keeping his job suggests that public discourse is not necessarily about the politics, but about keeping one’s privileged position. The new privilege is, irrespective of Rick Sanchez, being able to hold onto your job and being able to spend money to go to a rally. What of those who aren’t part of this illusory middle class? The ones who were left behind like the poor saps missing the rally, stuck in traffic on the “free” Huffington Post buses? Was Saturday, as Mark Ames suggested, more of “an anti-rally, a kind of mass concession speech without the speech–some kind of sick funeral party for Liberalism, in which Liberals are led, at last, by a clown?”

I don’t want to pin the blame on the 215,000 people who attended the rally, particularly since many conservatives are attempting to undermine this number with dubious metrics. These goodhearted people attended this exercise in good faith, seeking confirmation that there was a safer way to express their political commitment. As someone who witnessed firsthand in San Francisco the manner in which suburban people were squeezed out of the Iraq opposition rallies on February 15, 2003 (the largest global anti-war rally in history) after the protest turned bad, discouraged by the loud and loutish voices who caused their swift surrender, it was a great relief to witness a new political unity.

But if the cost of this unity involves slicing the edges off the political spectrum, if it involves ignoring the obvious facts that Goldman Sachs created an orphan month to puff up its earnings and good people had their lives changed by subprime loans and the derivatives casino rewarded the rich at the expense of the poor, then there is something seriously wrong with our priorities. It involves embracing a myth that is just as dangerous as the fabricated Reagan prosperity narrative promulgated by the Tea Party crowd.

The people who attended this rally may very well be without this Wall Street greed. But the ones who have caused our national problems have been anything but civil. The Glenn Becks and the Keith Olbermanns who fulminate hysteria are not, it is important to be reminded, selling our grandchildren into slavery.

In his speech, Stewart talked about the “selfish jerk who zips up the shoulder and cuts in at the last minute. But that individual is rare and he is scorned, and he is not hired as an analyst.” Not at all. These selfish jerks are hired in droves on Wall Street. Reason won’t deter the very insane avarice and the unremitting selfishness of the economic elite. You can’t always bring a book and a calm demeanor to a knife fight.

In fact, few have remarked upon the selfish qualities contained within Stewart’s speech. The first sentence: “I can’t control what people think this was.” Near the end: “If you want to know why I’m here and what I want from you I can only assure you this: you have already given it to me. Your presence here was what I wanted.” You will not find the verbs “want” or “control” in Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. In Obama’s much longer and more nuanced “A More Perfect Union” speech, you will find our future President using the phrase “we want” (not “I want”) numerous times, but never “control.” King and Obama brought people together during these moments not because they dictated to their audiences what they wanted (and thus, as Stewart has done, dictated how they should respond), but because they invited their listeners to become part of their journey.

The difference is that Stewart can rescue himself from any criticisms because he can always play the “I’m a comedian” card. Yet it isn’t too much of a stretch to see that Stewart’s “I want” has now eclipsed Kennedy’s “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” Stewart suggested to his audience that “because we know instinctively as a people that if we are to get through this darkness and back into the light we have to work together,” but he has, rather brilliantly, sandwiched this facile notion of working together within the troubling crust of “I can’t control” and “I want.” And “I want” is a more dangerous beast than the fleeting optimism contained within “Yes we can.”

“I want” is the mantra of entitlement. “I can’t control” is the sentiment of someone whose view of the “opposition” is relegated to a quick glimpse of someone in a car, where judgments as superficial as Beck and Olbermann reduce a complex individual to a neat demographic label. The mom with two kids who can’t think about anything else. The Oprah lover. What about the people who don’t have the money for gas?

Stewart is on firmer ground when he suggests that racists and Stalinists are “titles that must be earned” and that labels should be granted to those “who have put forth the exhausting effort it takes to hate.” But what about more subtle disgraces? Systemic issues? By these standards, the cab driver who does not stop for a black man, the gay couple that is not permitted the same benefits as a married couple, or the ongoing wage gap between men and women should be given less amplification.

As John Scalzi recently noted in a list, you don’t have to worry about any of this. You can attend a rally and feel good about yourself. What you may not realize is that clowns much bigger than Stewart and Colbert — the ones who took your tax dollars during the bailouts and the ones who speculate on commodities and raise your daily prices — are laughing at you.