The Bat Segundo Show: Nick Broomfield

Nick Broomfield appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #413. He is most recently the co-director of Sarah Palin: You Betcha.

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Wondering if he has gone rogue or rouge.

Guest: Nick Broomfield

Subjects Discussed: Being attracted to conservative politicians with big hair, Christopher Hitchens’s sexual fantasies about Margaret Thatcher, Frederick Wiseman and Errol Morris, contending with publicists and press agents, Joe McGinniss’s The Rogue, Levi Johnston and Tank Jones, filming Daryl Gates accepting an interview fee on camera, the ethics of paying interview subjects, Broomfield’s amateurist aesthetic, the faux professionalism of film crews, Broomfield filming himself on the phone, Broomfield’s tendency to gravitate towards ad hominem, whether the possibility of Sarah Palin becoming President is a serious question, John Bitney, Steve Schmidt, campaign management of Palin, Broomfield doing less documentaries, the Kickstarter campaign for Sarah Palin: You Betcha, flipping between documentaries and narratives, wearing red flannel in Wasilla, JC McCavitt, the influence of Palin and the evangelical right in Wasilla, whether or not Wasilla reflects America, whether Broomfield is motivated by vengeance or retaliation, the chewing gum photo montage, balancing the visual details and the facts, collaborating with Joan Churchill, why Broomfield put himself in front of the camera after Lily Tomlin, claims of Lily Tomlin’s insecurity, the difficulty of filming Tomlin, why the construction of a documentary creates a more inclusive one, the dangers of moral labels, why people should trust Nick Broomfield, moral paralysis, subjective truth borne from a personal quest, embarrassing public questioning, Broomfield’s view of restraint as a weakness, hedge funds, getting investors to sign on for a Broomfield movie, working with non-actors, and the ever-shifting Broomfield paradigm.


Correspondent: Going back to Margaret Thatcher [Tracking Down Maggie], it seems to me that you have an especial interest in conservative politicians with very interesting hair-dos. What’s up with this particular commonality? I sense also a formalistic commonality as well with the chase for Maggie and the chase for Sarah here. What of this?

Broomfield: Well, in fact, I never thought of the similarity of the hair-dos. But now that you’ve pointed it out, it’s quite extraordinary.

Correspondent: Are you a man who likes big hair? You’re a Clintonian man?

Broomfield: I’m actually not a particularly big hair man. But when I was doing the Margaret Thatcher film, one of the people I interviewed was Christopher Hitchens.

Correspondent: Yes.

Broomfield: Who had a lot of almost sexual fantasies about Margaret Thatcher, which I hasten to add I never shared. But I noticed that a lot of people also have the same feelings about Sarah Palin.

Correspondent: Yes.

Broomfield: And, again, I’ve never succumbed to those kinds of thoughts with her. But I think that both women captured the imagination of a large part of the population. Probably also because they were women and they had a determination and a charm that was unexpected and was refreshing in its own way.

Correspondent: Yeah. Not attracted to Sarah sexually. But I also think to Fetishes and also to Heidi Fleiss; Hollywood Madam.

Broomfield: Right.

Correspondent: It seems that there is also some sexual quality sometimes to some of your subjects. Especially women. Why do you think this is?

Broomfield: Well, I mean, I think as any full-blooded male once interested — I would apply it more to films like, yeah, Fetishes, Heidi Fleiss. I did a film, Chicken Ranch, in a legalized brothel in Nevada. Even someone like Aileen Wuornos was very interesting along those lines. Sexual lines. It’s funny. Just last week, I saw Fred Wiseman in Toronto. He’s just made a film. The Crazy Horse. A strip club. And before that, he did the ballet film. And I said, “Fred, do I get the sense of some kind of Fräulein in your work.” And he said, “I’d like to see what you’re doing when you’re 81 years old.”

Correspondent: Errol Morris’s Tabloid as well. While we’re on the subject.

Broomfield: Oh really?

Correspondent: Yeah, there you go.

Broomfield: What’s he just done?

Correspondent: He did Tabloid on the sex scandal. 1970s. So there we go.

Broomfield: There we go.

Correspondent: All you documentary filmmakers are turning into dirty old men.

Broomfield: Exactly. Exactly. Just give me a few more years and I’ll be completely there.

Correspondent: To get on a serious subject, since you had experienced difficulties in both Tracking Down Maggie and Heidi Fleiss: Hollywood Madam when dealing with press agents and publicists, you had to know going into this one that you were probably not going to get a sitdown interview with Sarah Palin.

Broomfield: Well, I think that I always had the belief that I would get one probably. And it was only after we’d been there for about ten weeks — just before Christmas — that I really realized with that final phone call with Chuck Heath, the father, that I wasn’t going to get one. I don’t know that one would necessarily learn something devastatingly original with a sitdown interview with her. Because she’s done many interviews and nothing very revealing has come out. Generally, she’s revealing by omission. Which is: she doesn’t know something or she mispronounces a word or she is factually inaccurate or she gets things all confused. So she’s very revealing. Generally about lack of knowledge. She’s very unrevealing generally about herself and her upbringing and even her beliefs. I think she’s very guarded. For somebody who studied media at university, she is completely distrusting of the media and has more control probably over what she says and does than anybody. I mean, the only interview she does is with FOX Television, who she’s employed by. And obviously Facebook and Twitter. But I did think that as we were resident in Wasilla that maybe we would get a down moment with her that would at least be revealing of her — thank you (to barista) — of her family and her friends and the way she saw life around her or as part of the evangelical community. Which is really what Wasilla is.

Correspondent: Well, this is interesting because Joe McGinniss also has a book called The Rogue. And he managed to get more childhood friends to talk — anonymously in that book — and you had to go all the way to way to Alexandria to find someone who would talk with you. I’m curious…

Broomfield: Well, my sources were not talking anonymously. They were talking on camera. And I can back up all my various claims in the film. Whereas I think one of the problems in quoting undisclosed sources is that you cannot back up your claims. And you obviously can’t do that in a film.

Correspondent: I was curious. While we’re on the subject of interviews, Heidi Fleiss: Hollywood Madam has the famous moment where you’re showing Daryl Gates accept the cash.

Broomfield: Right.

Correspondent: In this, you have one moment where you’re talking to Levi Johnston’s manager, Tank Jones, and you’re negotiating trying to interview him for $500. And I’m curious about this. Is this kind of thing ethical? I mean, why would it be ethical? And I’m wondering, when you do in fact pay someone for an interview, do you feel an obligation to feature that on screen? Has this always been the case for you? Have you paid other people?

Broomfield: What I think was interesting is that people like Levi Johnston basically live off — I introduce that segment in the film, saying that there’s an industry that’s grown up around Sarah Palin and people live from that industry. So that was an illustration of Levi Johnston basically — I mean, I think they were asking $20,000. So I think my derisory offer of $500 was more of a joke than anything else. But I think it’s very relevant to point out that there is a great deal of money in tabloid journalism and that people are paid to make contributions. I mean, I didn’t pay anyone in this film. But there have been other films, which you quite rightly pointed out. Like, for example, the Heidi Fleiss film, everybody expected to be paid.

Correspondent: Everybody in Heidi Fleiss pretty much got paid? Ms. Sellers and the like?

Broomfield: They all expected to be paid. I don’t know if they all got paid. But yes. And I think I make a big point of that in the film. I comment on how much money various people wanted. Like DarylGates. I think he wanted $2,000. $1,500 to take part.

Correspondent: But when you introduce money into the equation, doesn’t this affect what you’re going to be getting from your documentary subjects?

Broomfield: Well, I’m making a film about what is. And we live in a world that’s very commercial and a world that has to do with money. And as a documentary filmmaker, you’re reporting on that world. So if everyone wants money in that world, you report on that fact. And of course, that makes a difference. Yes.

Correspondent: What about this amateurist aesthetic that is often in your films? I think of the tape running out in Biggie and Tupac.

Broomfield: Right.

Correspondent: And in this [Sarah Palin: You Betcha], your efforts to try and cross an iced lake or to try and negotiate ice in numerous ways. Or the hat trick in, of course, The Leader[, His Driver and the Driver’s Wife]. And all that.

Broomfield: Right.

Correspondent: There’s a certain…

Broomfield: You’ve certainly done your homework here.

Correspondent: Well, I’m curious about why this exists. Are these deliberate moves on your part to either win over your subjects or win over the audience with a more amateurist approach that’s calculated? Or are these just mess ups on your part?

Broomfield: Well, I would argue that there’s sort of a faux professional approach with a lot of film crews. You know, when they climb back in the car and drive on to the next location, I’m sure they’re a whole lot of fun. And they crack a whole lot of jokes that are not in the film. But when they get the cameras out, they get the clipboards out, and they became these serious professionals. Which I think is a load of bullshit. I think it’s much better to reveal what it’s really like to be doing that film or what you really think or what the humor is, you know? Rather than having this — you know. I remember when I was working for television. I was working with a presenter. And the presenter was actually a very funny guy. And I remember we were making a film in a monastery. And he would get into all these arguments with the monks about whether God existed or how many angels he could get on a pin and all those classic debates. And he would always lose the arguments. Because the monks and the abbot and so on, that’s all they did. And they studied all the books. And they were really up on their theology and logic. And when I showed the film to the TV company, they were horrified. Because they said a professional reporter does not lose his way. Does not stumble over words. Doesn’t turn to the camera and say, “I’m stuck.” But of course, they do. And I think by including those kinds of things, you make a much more accurate portrait than if you leave them out. I think there’s a sort of faux professionalism that we’re surrounded by that is completely inaccurate.

Correspondent: But doesn’t your persona, your schtick, sometimes get in the way of the very subjects that you’re photographing. I mean, every time you make a telephone call in your movies, you’re always in a car.

Broomfield: Right.

Correspondent: And I’m wondering why you feel the need to film that as well. It’s almost as if you’re counting on the subject to say no.

Broomfield: Well, what…wha…I mean, I don’t really understand the point. I don’t know whether you’re saying that the phone calls are irrelevant or the fact that I’m in a car is irrelevant.

Correspondent: I’m trying to point out that you’re really trying to show yourself more than anything else.

The Bat Segundo Show #413: Nick Broomfield (Download MP3)

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The Bat Segundo Show: Sheila McClear

Sheila McClear appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #412. She is most recently the author of The Last of the Live Nude Girls.

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Embracing the diminishing returns of Old New York.

Author: Sheila McClear

Subjects Discussed: Peter Pan Donuts as a point of meaning in one’s life, Hunter S. Thompson and breakfast, Old New York, staying in New York by any means necessary, having unique issues with your parents, having problems with authority, the swift manner in which money disappears in New York, contending with siblings who tap parents for money, personal responsibility vs. economic victimhood, shyness and job interviews, latent rebellion, zoning out during a peep show strip, whether those who work in the nude can be turned on sexually, the many levels of compartmentalization as a stripper, zoning out in relation to performance and being uncomfortable, transactional relationships and comparisons between stripping and psychiatry, writing as a partition between shyness and performance, being charmed by wolves, how long it takes to a Midwesterner to become a true-blue New Yorker, worldliness, not talking with anybody for two weeks, writing about co-workers and allaying concerns, scribbling on the job and maintaining a notebook, memory as a great liar, expanding anecdotes into stories, how patterns inform the narrative, rebelling and dropping out, freedom and reality, being a reg, healthy addictions and obsessions, the advantages of having a focus, McClear’s reluctance to use the words “object” and “objectify,” difficulties with didacticism, the power dynamic between a stripper and a client, dealing with the inevitability of being objectified, losing one’s virginity later in life, working the same peep show stint as a top draw, Fashion Week, the importance of clothes and theatricality in the peep show, the advantages of wearing a schoolgirl skirt, how piercings trick people, guys who read your energy, not being able to hide behind your clothes, dressing like your archetype, subconscious authenticity, making more money when ovulating, the uselessness of wigs, split-second decisions, racism in the peep show industry, racial profiling and men’s sexual preferences, troubling generalizations, race and hiring practices in strip clubs, hygiene at strip clubs, the dangers of mops, sterilizing dollar bills, the necessity of internships to get a foothold in the New York media industry, Ivy League pedigrees, unemployment claims towards Gawker, improving labor conditions for sex workers, exploitation, stage fees, the difficulties of worker organization, what might have happened to McClear without the peep show industry, and the just safe enough nature of peep shows.


McClear: I have problems with all authorities in general. It makes sense.

Correspondent: It makes sense. Your parents were both lawyers. When you were out here trying to survive, did you ever tap them for money? Because that was a question that was never answered in the book.

McClear: My mom gave me two grand when I moved. And every once in a while, she’d send like a hundred dollars in the mail. I never asked them for money. Occasionally, they would send it. No, I would say, other than the two grand — which, God, that disappeared so quickly.

Correspondent: It does in New York. Yeah.

McClear: I already had money too and…well, not a lot. But no. No. I didn’t. It was that and occasional things in the mail. Also my sister was tapping them for a decent amount of money.

Correspondent: Oh, I see. You wanted to be the more respectable sister? (laughs)

McClear: I felt it was unfair to pile on.

Correspondent: Yeah.

McClear: Then there was also the point of, well, at least then I…you know?

Correspondent: Yeah. Yeah. Of other attempts at employment, you write, “It wasn’t as if I didn’t try and do something else.” And I’m curious. To what extent could you be said to be personally responsible for finding work in a peep show? I mean, you were determined to stay in New York by any means necessary. You wanted to prove something to yourself. So obviously you made the decision. So how responsible are you for something like this? Or do you view yourself as a bit of an economic victim?

McClear: Oh, not at all. No one forced me to work there. And it wasn’t my first choice at all. But as I got more and more and more — I mean, everyone has a hard time finding work.

Correspondent: Sure.

McClear; And I probably — I don’t know. I was probably doing something wrong in my job search.

Correspondent: You really think that? I mean, how many resumes did you send? How many job interviews did you go on?

McClear: I don’t know. I think I was so shy back then that I probably came off as bad in an interview. You know, a little awkward. But I was totally — I had this sort of latent thing where I never had rebelled. And I had never been a slacker. I never did drugs really. I never had acted out or been promiscuous. And like there was sort of that going on. And that sort of felt like the first excuse. Especially now that I was by myself and didn’t know anyone to reprimand me or find out what I was doing. It was sort of the first excuse that I found to act out in what was sort of a safe and controlled environment. I took it. And there are other things leading to that decision. Like needing a job and stuff. But I was looking for a way to act out obviously. It had to happen sometime.

Correspondent: Sure.

McClear: Like when people go through their drug phase or their sleeping around phase or their slacker phase. I never did any of it. And I was 25.

Correspondent: You were feeling left out?

McClear: I was feeling left out! And totally uncool. (laughs)

Correspondent: Uncool? I mean, why? I mean, by what metric, if you are so anti-authority, did you feel uncool or not hep or not with it? I mean, who gives a fuck about that?

McClear: I guess I did give a fuck. (laughs)

Correspondent: Many times in the book, you describe zoning out and shutting your brain off during a peep show strip. Of a photography modeling job that steered into an entirely unusual direction…

McClear: (laughs)

Correspondent: …you write, “I had already floated away inside my head, detaching my mind from my body. Nearly three hours had passed before we were done.” But I have to point out even before you arrived in New York, when you performed with the Terranauts in Michigan, you write, “The rush of performing canceled out the noise in my head.” So it seems to me you’re describing here this need to act out. But I should point out that there has been, at least in my reading, this tendency to want to check your brain in or zone out or just not focus. To what degree was it there before you worked in the peep show? And do you think that working at the peep show exacerbated this tendency?

McClear: Yeah. I think it was there. Because my personality type is more of an observer. A little bit of a depressive. And sort of an introverted person. And a tendency to overthink things. Which is probably like…

Correspondent: (laughs) This is going the other way!

McClear: Well, it’s probably describing most writers. So it’s always a vacation if you can find a way — whether it’s meditation or exercise or playing in a band or whatever — to put your mind at ease. But then, of course, being in the peep show was just so — doing the show was much too personal. It was uncomfortable to be present. So I would always check out. And then it did exacerbate that tendency. Just like I described. Of turning a light switch on and off until the breaks. Because you’re like unsure of like “Am I on or off?” Or you can’t toggle between them as much anymore. Which is why I flipped out that one time and went to Bellevue.

Correspondent: Yeah.

McClear: And then I think it just ends up in you withdrawing more. Or just being less present. I actually had a friend who was a nude massage therapist at the time. And she was like, “Um, are you able to be turned on sexually anymore? Because I’m not.”

Correspondent: (laughs)

McClear: And I was like, “Oh. Me neither.” And she was like, “Yeah, I think it’s my job.” “Yeah, probably mine too.”

Correspondent: You couldn’t compartmentalize in any way? That Chelsea [Sheila’s peep show identity] was one type of sex and Sheila was another?

McClear: I could have. But I felt, and I did to an extent, that compartmentalizing too much would almost be like losing some core part of your personality. And I worked with a lot of girls who compartmentalized to the point where they were not the person they used to be before they worked in the business. So I didn’t want to be like that.

The Bat Segundo Show #412: Sheila McClear(Download MP3)

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Occupy Wall Street: Nine Conversations and a Protest Song

On Tuesday afternoon, I discovered this report from NPR Ombudsman Edward Schumacher-Matos. NPR hadn’t aired a single story in relation to the Occupy Wall Street protests, which I had reported about on Sunday in relation to the pepper spraying incident. I decided to walk across the Brooklyn Bridge and attend the protests myself. What follows are nine conversations I had with various individuals at the protests.

Douglas: “I’m here because I’m American. I was born here in New York. I was born here in Manhattan.”

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Jeff and Miike came from Colorado.

Miike: “We came on Sunday specifically for this. And we decided we wanted to come down for the week also.”
Jeff: “We had already planned a trip to New York. And then they were talking about it on the radio station that I listen to in Denver. And they were saying there’s a total media blackout on this whole thing. And so I said I’m going to go down there. I called them up and said I’m going to go down there.”

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Dorjee: “I hope it brings it down completely and we get a completely new system of human respect with viable resources and fair trade, instead of I lend you. You, you need a thousand dollars. Okay, I’ll give you a thousand dollars if you pay me back $1,000 plus $200.”

Me to Dorjee: “Be careful with that fist. Because you’re trying to be peaceful, right?”

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Marvin was holding a sign that read JESUS IS NOT FOR CORPORATE GREED. What will the protest actually do?

Marvin: “It will make people more aware that we live in a capitalist system where more people are living in poverty than ever. And the most ironic part of it is that it’s a capitalist system, but we live off the Communists. We have to borrow money from Communists to even exist.”

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Mary was a tourist who had stopped by Liberty Square on the last day of her vacation.

Mary: “I’m surprised it hasn’t happened earlier. Now it has. I started following it on Twitter. And then I thought I’d come down and see what was happening.”

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Ed and Robin came to the protests all the way from West Virginia.

Robin: “The corporations have done a great job in dividing people, separating people into issues. People are coming together here and realizing that we have much more in common with each other than we do with the people who are trying to sell us on what a good way of life is here.”

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Ed and Robin were also kind enough to perform their song “Let ‘Em Eat Cake” for me. Here is Uncle Eddie & Robin’s website.

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Roman carried a sign calling for President Paris Hilton and had some unusual ideas about making sex appeal a more predominant characteristic than others.

Roman: “I’m an aspiring, you know, Paris Hilton. I want to just be able to live and party. I live with my parents right now but we don’t have much money. And I think that if Paris Hilton becomes President, you know, she can help everybody just party.”

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Brian worked very close to Liberty Square. He was checking out the protests on his lunch break.

Brian: “This is funny anyway. [indicating sign] I mean, who hasn’t tried to go to school looking for a job when they first get out of school. I mean, that’s what we all do. It’s hard to find a job. But, like anything, you continue to look and try until you find one and do what most of us have done.”

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[EDITORIAL NOTE: Please note that an earlier version of this story misidentified “Steven Levy” as “Wired senior writer Steven Levy.” Reluctant Habits expresses its apologies to Wired‘s Steven Levy and greatly regrets the error.]

As I was circling Liberty Square and talking with many people about what it meant to protest, I observed an older man berating a young man going by the name of Matt. It was the only contentious banter I had observed in what was otherwise a peaceful gathering — complete with donated food, plentiful signs laid along the ground, activists singing protest songs on banjos and guitars, and even a library established in close proximity to the main dais.

I was curious about what had caused this older man to lose his gasket. Because while I had talked with people who did not approve of the protest (including some cops who declined to go on the record, but all NYPD officers I observed were calm and professional), the older man was the only one prepared to go ballistic. This being a public space, I naturally began recording audio and approached the shrieking man, hoping that I might use this moment to generate a civil discussion. But the man, who identified himself as “Steven Levy” (not to be confused with the Wired senior writer) wasn’t especially interested in explaining to me why he was upset at Matt.

“He and I were just talking with another woman,” explained Matt after the exchange. “And I think they’re more on the liberal interventionist side of the economic policies — at least in terms of their opinions. And I was like saying, ‘Look, I’m personally against Keynesianism. Because I think Keynes is all about government spending. And I don’t believe government is a good allocator of spending.'”

This position apparently infuriated Levy. When I approached Levy and Matt, Matt was explaining to Levy that the two of them were on the same side. Levy responded, “You don’t read well.”

I decided to intervene. I merely wanted to know what Matt was misrepresenting. The results can be listened to below:

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The Call of the Wild (Modern Library #88)

(This is the thirteenth entry in the The Modern Library Reading Challenge, an ambitious project to read the entire Modern Library from #100 to #1. Previous entry: Loving)

In June 1902, Cosmopolitan published “Diable — A Dog” (the original title “Bâtard” had been softened by squeamish editors) by an emerging young writer named Jack London. This gripping tale involves a dog (“illegitimate” like London: his father a timberwolf, his mother a husky) battling his vicious master Leclère as the two wander the Yukon — seemingly with the sole purpose of rending each other at any opportunity. London describes how “hate bound them together as love could never bind,” not unlike Edward Albee’s George and Martha or Eminem and Kimberly Scott. And like the most extreme bonds of blinding enmity, for Diable and Leclère, this leads to a fatal end.

In December of that year and in a lonely place, London began work on a 4,000 word short story — a companion piece to “Bâtard” involving a civilized dog named Buck, who is also a mongrel, and his adventures in the Alaskan wilderness. Two months later, London had a novel. But he he would make a catastrophic business decision: $2,000 in cash from Macmillan for all rights with a further $750 to the Saturday Evening Post. Given the millions of copies that Call would go on to sell, and given London’s constant financial woes, this transaction may very well be American literature’s answer to the Dutch snapping up Manhattan from the Lenape for a mere 60 guilders.

Despite this bad business, Call would cement London’s literary reputation. And I am pleased to report that, a little less than three decades after I first read it, Call holds up remarkably well on a second and third read — so much so that I was compelled to read White Fang, a London biography, numerous critical responses, and countless other texts directly and indirectly related to Call before a kind friend cut me off from this London monomania in the manner of a respectful bartender telling an exuberant customer to go home and sleep it off. Additional friends encouraged me to read sections of White Fang aloud to an especially finicky cat and were surprised when I found that I could not stop. I could go on reading London for days. The man is that good.

My obsession likely emerged from the startling rediscovery that London’s prose remains alive in a way one would not expect from a novel published in 1903, especially since London found his inspiration to write from a somewhat incongruous source: Ouida‘s Signa. Soon after Buck is kidnapped from the “big house in the sun-kissed Santa Clara Valley,” where he lives with Judge Miller and his family, London masterfully establishes the way that the setting is changing by throwing the reader off with subtle syntactic shifts:

Several times during the night he sprang to his feet when the shed door rattled open, expecting to see the Judge, or the boys at least. But each time the joyful bark that trembled in Buck’s throat was twisted into a savage growl.

We believe that Buck springing to his feet will spawn an escape or that the door rattling open will precipitate some further action, but London establishes an uncertain feeling between understated fear and expectation. And he neatly foreshadows Buck’s inevitable transformation with the “joyful bark” twisting “into a savage growl.” This style might be identified as highly refined Alger, but it also allows us to become invested in Buck’s inner life in a manner that feels tough rather than sappy, transcendental rather than fixed. And we become so involved with Buck’s struggles that we forget we are reading an animal tale.

But Call has more going on than a soft Southland mutt growing into a legendary Ghost Dog who “sings a song of the younger world.” London, who spent much of his formative years laboring hard as a “work beast,” is also writing about the honor and integrity that emerge from doing a job well even in the worst of all possible worlds. This wild world of hard labor, in which one must eat faster and push one’s muzzle harder to grab that bit of protein needed to keep pulling the sleds and one must ward off belligerent “co-workers” like Spitz (if you think you’ve got annoying cubemates, wait until you meet this dog), still has its virtues:

Best of all, perhaps, he loved to lie near the fire, hind legs crouched under him, fore legs stretched out in front, head raised, and eyes blinking drearily at the flames. Sometimes he thought of Judge Miller’s big house in the sun-kissed Santa Clara Valley, and of the cement swimming tank, and Ysabel, the Mexican hairless, and Toots, the Japanese pug; but oftener he remembered the man in the red sweater, the death of Curly, the great fight with Spitz and the good things he had eaten or would like to eat. He was not homesick. The Sunland was very dim and distant, and such memories had no power over him. Far more potent were the memories of his heredity that gave things he had never seen before a seeming familiarity; the instincts (which were but the memories of his ancestors become habits) which had lapsed in later days, and still later, in him, quickened and became alive again.

Work, which comes by necessity in the wild, overcomes the distressing prospect of being crippled by memory. It unites disparate souls, even those who are lashing at each other, and even causes experienced men to protest the clueless chekakos. Midway through the novel, three greenhorns show up with canned goods, “blankets for a hotel,” and beat their dogs into submission without lightening the load. Later in the novel, Buck makes his escape from this unthinking and irresponsible trio into John Thornton’s care.

While it’s true that unfastening a lock can require pluck, some critics have made too much hey now over certain autobiographical connections between Jack and Buck. It is true that London was writing The Call of the Wild as his first marriage was disintegrating. Buck does describes his love for John Thornton with lilting romance (“But love that was feverish and burning, that was adoration, that was madness, it had taken John Thornton to arouse”*), but London wrote these words before he had Charmian Kittredge, the woman who could match London’s libido and physical activity (she even boxed with him) and who would become his second wife. (And since I’m dishing out gossip, I should probably point out that London, licentious even as his belly bulged from drink, still cheated on her.)

If work can save you, it doesn’t necessarily eliminate class struggle, which London would explore more fully in his needlessly overlooked novel, Martin Eden. London’s daughter, Joan, would write that Call was “the story of all strong people who use the cunning of their minds and the strength of their bodies to adapt themselves to a difficult environment and win through to live,” but this strikes me as a little pat. It is certainly interesting that The Call of the Wild and The Sea-Wolf both rely on bourgeois protagonists being plucked from their safe environments in order to learn invaluable lessons in individualism and morality. Perhaps you can learn such lessons within middle-class comforts. But London’s romantic view makes a compelling case that it is better for instincts to quicken and become alive when you are thrown outside your comfort zone. In other words, every MFA student and passive-aggressive vacillator needs to read Jack London pronto.

* — This seems as good a time as any to bring up the relationship between The Call of the Wild and London’s companion novel, White Fang, which depicts the transformation in reverse (wild wolf turning into civilized dog, complete with another judge taking care of White Fang near the end, suggesting a symmetry with London’s earlier volume). While I enjoyed White Fang quite a lot, I consider it to be the inferior volume, rehashing many story elements of Call (wolves getting into a squabble over a rabbit, rising to sled leader, and so forth) and not quite possessing the poetry and the tautness and the keen insight and the gripping gusto that’s there in Call. The passage I quote here about Buck’s love for John Thornton doesn’t feel nearly as schmaltzy as its heavy-handed counterpart in White Fang: “Human kindness was like a sun shining upon him, and he flourished like a flower planted in good soil.”

Next Up: Arnold Bennett’s The Old Wives’ Tale!

Occupy Wall Street: Was the NYPD Authorized to Pepper Spray Peaceful Observers?

On Saturday, the New York Police Department arrested approximately 80 people — many participating as part of Occupy Wall Street, a peaceful protest against Wall Street and the economy.

But one incident suggests very strongly that the NYPD exceeded its authority and failed to follow appropriate procedure. In videos that have been making the rounds in the past 24 hours, three bystanders — all occupying the street and captured inside orange netting erected by the police — shout “What are you doing?” and “Oh my God!” in response to unseen arrests in the distance. The women, who offer no resistance or violent behavior, are seen and heard shrieking in pain as police officers pepper spray them without any apparent warning. On the main video, the young woman on the right clutches her hand over her mouth in shock, looking around and doing nothing, just standing there. She is clearly unaware that she is about to be maced. (The Daily Kos’s MinistryOfTruth talked with one of the women. She confessed in the report that she had no idea what prompted the attack.)

Two police officers clad in white shirts approach the women. One of them is equipped with pepper spray. He has been busy off-screen. He points fiercely at the three penned women, barking, “You guys are all going to be going” — presumably in response to the legitimate question “What are you doing?” The young woman on the right, still stunned, stretches out her hand. And he responds by spraying her in the face with pepper spray. He moves his arm to the right and sprays the others.

As the three women scream in pain and flail their arms, the netted orange perimeter is broadened. But not a single police officer steps inside to aid the women, much less arrest them. Other people scream for someone to bring water to the three women.

Here is the original video:

Here is the original video slowed down:

Here is the incident from another angle:

The NYPD would not confirm with The Gothamist whether or not it used pepper spray in any of the arrests. Yet the videos clearly indicate that it did. According to CBS News, the NYPD called every arrest justified. But an equally important question is this: Why did these officers consider the use of OC justifiable against these peaceful observers?

These three videos contain enough information about the macing incident to reconstruct a substantial portion of it. Reluctant Habits has also obtained a 2005 edition of the New York Police Department Patrol Guide, which outlines the specific use of pepper spray in Section 212-95. By the 2005 standards and based on the available evidence, it is clear that the NYPD did not follow appropriate measures.

In most cases, pepper spray is used to effect the arrest of a resisting subject. And the Patrol Guide specifies five uses for OC pepper spray:

  • Protect self, or another from unlawful use of force (e.g., assault)
  • Effect an arrest, or establish physical control of a subject resisting arrest
  • Establish physical control of a subject attempting to flee from arrest or custody
  • Establish physical control of an emotionally disturbed person (EDP)
  • Control a dangerous animal, by deterring an attack, to prevent injury to persons
    or animals present.

We see in the above videos that the women were not assaulting the police officers (unless stretching out one’s hand to get one’s bearings is considered “assault”). There was no need to establish physical control. They were not fleeing from arrest. (Indeed, how could they when they were trapped in orange police netting?) They were not emotionally disturbed persons. They were not dangerous animals who were going to injure anybody.

In looking at the Patrol Guide, we learn that the police are obligated to arrest the person who is pepper sprayed and charge them with a crime. Yet we see that the police do not make any moves towards the three women. They are left to scream, kneeled in the streets and in pain. They are not criminals. But they are clearly examples of what befalls “bad” citizens.

The Patrol Guide specifically orders the uniformed officer not to use pepper spray on “subjects who passively resist (e.g., going limp, offering no active physical resistance).” But the white shirted policeman has clearly ignored this procedure. In the same note, the uniformed officer is instructed to “avoid using O.C. spray in small contained areas such as automobiles and closets.” It is hard to determine with all the pandemonium going on in the video, but the orange netting erected by the police may very well fall into the scope of “small contained area.”

Patrol Guide procedures also request Emergency Medical Services “once the situation is under control.” But we see these women screaming and no apparent EMS members in the frame. Did the NYPD fulfill this option? Probably not. Because the women were left in the contaminated area to scream. They were not relocated to fresh air, contrary to another Patrol Guide mandate: “Remove the subject from the contaminated area and expose to fresh air while awaiting the arrival of EMS, or transportation to hospital/stationhouse if tactically feasible.”

Given the distance of the officers from the victims, it’s likely that none of the officers asked the women if they were wearing contact lenses. Nor were the women placed in a sitting position to promote free breathing. They were left to fall to the ground and suffer. The Patrol Guide also specifies that officers should provide a source of water and flush the contaminated skin of those who are pepper-spayed. Even if we give the NYPD the benefit of the doubt, and accept that the situation was an anarchic one and that it was hard to enforce these guidelines, one would think that this flushing proviso would be followed to the letter — if not as an enforced code, then at least as a basic quality of humanism that requires no explanation. But for a good twenty seconds, the women are left to scream and to experience pain, with one woman stretching her arms in an effort to find some relief for her anguish. The women who are not sprayed appear to want to help her, but, trapped inside the orange netting, they cannot offer water.

The NYPD’s conduct does not fall into the five general categories of pepper spray use. It fails to adhere to the NYPD’s own guidelines. And since the NYPD cannot own up to its inhumane behavior, despite repeat inquiries, it suggests very highly that the police are not especially committed to Fidelis ad Mortem — especially that vital faith in innocent bystanders whose only crime was to ask what was happening to fellow human beings.

Here is P.G. 212-95 reproduced in its entirety:

P.G. 212-95 Use Of Pepper Spray Devices

Date Effective: 01-01-00


To inform uniformed members of the service of circumstances under which pepper spray
may be intentionally discharged and to record instances where pepper spray has been
discharged, intentionally or accidentally.


Use of Oleoresin Capsicum (O.C.) pepper spray constitutes physical force under the New
York State Penal Law. Use of pepper spray is proper when used in accordance with
Article 35 of the Penal Law and Department procedures. O.C. pepper spray may be used
when a member reasonably believes it is necessary to effect an arrest of a resisting
suspect, for self-defense or defense of another from unlawful force, or to take a
resisting emotionally disturbed person into custody. In many cases, pepper spray will
reduce or eliminate the need for substantial physical force to effect an arrest or
gain custody. It will often reduce the potential for injuries to members and suspects
that may result from physical restraint and it should be regarded as a possible
alternative to such force and restraint, where practical. Pepper spray shall not be
used in situations that do not require the use of physical force. O.C. pepper spray
may be used in arrest or custodial restraint situations where physical presence and/or
verbal commands have not been, or would not be, effective in overcoming physical


When necessary to use pepper spray device:


1. Hold pepper spray in an upright position, aim and discharge pepper spray into a
subject’s eyes for maximum effectiveness, using two (2) one second bursts, at a
minimum distance of three (3) feet, and only in situations when the uniformed member
of the service reasonably believes that it is necessary to:

a. Protect self, or another from unlawful use of force (e.g., assault)

b. Effect an arrest, or establish physical control of a subject resisting arrest

c. Establish physical control of a subject attempting to flee from arrest or custody

d. Establish physical control of an emotionally disturbed person (EDP)

e. Control a dangerous animal, by deterring an attack, to prevent injury to persons
or animals present.

2. Effect arrest of criminal suspect against who pepper spray was used and charge with
crime which initiated use of the pepper spray.

a. Add resisting arrest charge, when appropriate

b. P.G. 210-13, “Release Of Prisoners – General Procedure” will be complied with if
it is determined that arrested person did not commit the crime or that no crime was

c. P.G. 216-05, “Mentally Ill Or Emotionally Disturbed Persons,” will be complied
with, when appropriate.

NOTE: Do not use pepper spray on subjects who passively resist (e.g., going limp,
offering no active physical resistance). If possible, avoid using pepper spray on
persons who appear to be in frail health, young children, women believed to be
pregnant, or persons with known respiratory conditions. Avoid discharging pepper
spray indiscriminately over a large area for disorder control. (Members who are
specifically trained in the use of pepper spray for disorder control may use pepper
spray in accordance with their training, and within Department guidelines, and as
authorized by supervisors.). In addition, avoid using O.C. spray in small contained
areas such as automobiles and closets.

3. Request response of Emergency Medical Service (EMS) once the situation is under

a. Advise person sprayed that EMS is responding.

4. Remove the subject from the contaminated area and expose to fresh air while
awaiting the arrival of EMS, or transportation to hospital/stationhouse if tactically

a. Determine whether the person sprayed is wearing contact lenses. (It is strongly
recommended that contact lenses be removed as soon as possible after exposure to O.C.

5. Position subject on his/her side or in a sitting position to promote free

a. The subject should never be maintained or transported in a face down position.

b. Do not sit, stand, or kneel on subject’s chest or back.

6. Provide assistance to subject as follows:

a. When consistent with member’s safety, and provided a source of water is readily
available, the uniformed member should flush the contaminated skin area of a subject
with profuse amounts of water.

b. Repeat flushing at short intervals, if necessary, until symptoms of distress

c. Continue flushing the contaminated skin of the subject in custody, at the
stationhouse as needed.

d. Commence the flushing of a subject’s contaminated skin upon arrival at the
stationhouse, if this has not already been done.

NOTE: Do not rub or touch skin of contaminated person, as the initial effect of
pepper spray does not dissipate for 15 – 20 minutes. Also, do not use salves, creams,
ointments, commercial eye washes or bandages. The desk officer will ensure that all
prisoners who have been sprayed with pepper spray receive appropriate first aid, if
needed, upon arrival at the stationhouse. Desk officers are also responsible for
ensuring that prisoners who have been sprayed with pepper spray are properly observed
throughout the arrest process, and that they receive prompt medical attention if they
need or request it. A Command Log entry will be made stating whether the prisoner has
had his/her skin flushed with water, been examined by EMS, or been transported to the

7. Transport prisoner immediately to the emergency room of the nearest hospital if
he/she is demonstrating difficulty breathing, or exhibiting signs of severe stress,
hyperventilation etc.

a. Windows of transport vehicle should be kept open

b. Members who come in contact with persons who have been exposed to pepper spray
must thoroughly wash their hands afterward and avoid having any contaminated clothing
make contact with their face

c. Advise hospital staff that pepper spray has been used on prisoner.

OF PRISONER (PD 244-150) in arrest situations.

9. Complete the AIDED REPORT WORKSHEET (PD 304-152b) in non-arrest situations, e.g.
EDP, and:

a. Check box “O.C. Spray Used”

b. Enter rank, name, and tax registry number, of each MOS who discharged spray in
the “Details” caption

c. List the time, doctor’s name, and diagnosis under “Details” caption, when


10. Provide a quarterly printout of all arrest and aided incidents where pepper spray
was discharged to the commanding officer, Firearms and Tactics Section.


11. Analyze situations where O.C. spray was employed to evaluate its effectiveness.
a. As appropriate, modify existing training/tactics relative to the use of pepper


The only pepper spray authorized for use is the type issued to all uniformed members
through the Firearms and Tactics Section.

In order to maintain the effectiveness of the spray, it is recommended that the device
be shaken at the start of each tour. Carrying the pepper spray device during normal
patrol duty should be sufficient to keep the solution thoroughly mixed.

Pepper spray will not automatically stop all subjects, and even when it does
incapacitate, the effects are temporary. Members should therefore be ready to use
other appropriate force options and tactics.

When performing duty in uniform, the pepper spray shall be carried in its holster
attached to the non-shooting side of the gun belt. When performing enforcement duty
in civilian clothes the pepper spray must be carried, in the holster attached either
to a belt or in another appropriate manner. Undercover members may opt not to carry
the pepper spray. Members of the service may carry the pepper spray device during off
duty hours.

UPDATE: The Village Voice talks with Chelsea Elliott, one of the protesters: “We lay on the ground like little worms. One of the other girls was a medic, and was able to pour milk in her eyes. The cops left. They moved the net. All I know from what happened afterward, I watched on YouTube. For like 15 minutes, I couldn’t see; I couldn’t breathe at first. It was so out of the ordinary and unprovoked. Our medical group poured milk into my eyes for like 10 minutes, and apple cider vinegar on my face.”

UPDATE 2: The NYPD officer who pepper sprayed the protesters has been identified as Anthony Bologna. A Downtown Express profile of Bologna reveals that he became a police officer late in life and there is this telling quote: “You read in the papers about cops doing things that you can’t believe because you think everybody’s like you. But a department this large can’t really be completely free of it. If you don’t find anything wrong, you’re in real trouble because you’re not looking.” I am also investigating this article from 2001, which suggests the possibility that Anthony Bolgona attacked another protester at a Mayday NYC protest in 2001.

UPDATE 3: Jeanne Mansfield, “Why I Was Maced at the Wall Street Protests.”

UPDATE 4: The Guardian reports that Anthony Bologna may have committed civil rights abuses during the 2004 demonstrations at the Republican National Convention.

Another Review of Moneyball

This is the second of two Moneyball reviews we’ve published. The first, featuring two fictitious sportscasters, can be read here.

I came to Moneyball not having read Michael Lewis’s book. There wasn’t really a good reason. Because I do read source material for a film whenever possible. Why? Because I like to play comparison games in my head. And because if the film doesn’t match up to the book, then I can figure out why. Or if it does measure up (and then some), I can analyze the differences.

Oddly, I didn’t do so when I saw The Social Network, which Moneyball is clearly trying to ape: from the Sorkin dialogue that managed to survive a zillion rewrites and doctoring to the shots of 21st century retro computing (2001 in Moneyball, 2004ish in TSN) to the meetings where old people need to be convinced of something new and foreign (in TSN‘s case, when the fictional Zuckerberg is being deposed by lawyers or telling the Harvard people why he doesn’t give a fuck about them but does about Facebook; in Moneyball, when beatific Brad Pitt as Billy Beane drops his masks and tells a room full of Fathers Know Best scouts they don’t know what they are doing.) Maybe Moneyball needed full-blown Sorkin, but I don’t think his script could have saved the movie, which was pretty much unsaveable from the get-go.

Here’s why: it opens with footage (real? doctored? who cares?) of the Oakland Athletics’s 2001 wild card playoffs, a strike against my childhood self who cried out for her 1994 Expos, their bound-for-playoff run aborted by the strike that killed the game and ushered in three rounds of post-season. There’s Jason Giambi before we knew he took steroids. There’s Roger Clemens before we knew he took steroids, perjured himself, and generally revealed himself to be a colossal douchebag of the highest order. And I’m distracted, thinking of the Mitchell Report, Itamar Moses’s amazing play about the late 1980s A’s, Canseco introducing McGwire to the magical elixir of what these drugs can do. And oh yeah, the A’s lose, Schott won’t give Beane any money, and everybody’s fucked until the Fat Kid Math Whiz comes along to save the day and make Beane look good with his Sabermetric-based statistical analysis of underappreciated players.

Moneyball did pick up. I admit, when the movie turned to the streak, the grinding gears caused me to get caught up in the manufactured excitement. I mean, truth sometimes does trump fiction, and Hatteberg’s homer really was something else. But we’re only a couple of clicks away from finding out that Jonah Hill’s character is pure fiction (the truth, in the form of Paul DePodesta, Beane’s real-life assistant GM, got edited out because it wasn’t convenient, so DePodesta refused to have his name included), Beane was only following in predecessor Sandy Alderson’s footsteps, and going the quant route only works for the scrappers if the big guns haven’t figured it out. Also, I was kind of hoping for a cameo by some Theo Epstein stand-in, aka the man who ended up with Beane’s promised GM job at the Boston Red Sox. In fact, why hasn’t Ben Mezrich written about him yet?

Anyway, Beane is still with Oakland, though possibly not for long, as this New York Times Magazine piece reveals. He still hasn’t won a playoff. And that’s great, but is this a movie? It’s not that the lack of a Hollywood ending galls. Because it doesn’t. It’s that the lack of a Hollywood ending reinforces the fact that there wasn’t much of a Hollywood beginning or a middle. In other words, I want my damn 1994 Expos. Now there’s a team that might have changed the game further, and their shot wasn’t just ruined then, it was taken away forever.

Review: Moneyball

This is the first of two Moneyball reviews we’ve published. The second, which gets into the baseball nitty-gritty, can be read here.

— Now up to bat. Kenneth Turan, suckered in by the story, believing that the Mickey Mantle epigraph celebrates profuuuuuuuuuuuuuundity but really is more of a marketing gimmick that fools you into believing that It is Important.

— Well, Jack, I’m not sure you’re being fair towards Turan. Every time he gets on the plate, his eyes just widen at middlebrow pitches.

— But, Phil, did you see the way Turan immediately fell for the hook about this being “a famously troubled production.” And that crack about Pitt “who must have had a sense of how good a role this was for him.” Did he just cut and paste the press notes?

— I wouldn’t know, Jack. The movie started late and Sony was confiscating everybody’s cell phones as if they were criminal thugs.

— Sounds like you’re a bit bitter.

— Well, yeah. But I had also seen a rather amazing film that day called Le Havre. And, well, Moneyball paled by comparison. Have you seen it, Jack?

— No, Phil. I don’t do subtitles.

— Your loss, Jack.

— You know, now that you mention it, I’m not sure how much Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Oscar win for Capote has to do with his role in the movie.

— “Letter-perfect,” Turan wrote before the last pitch.

— Looks like the copyediting umpire is throwing signals.

— I still don’t think Turan stands for anything.

— You’re right about that. Four balls, two strikes. Looks like they’re going to walk Turan. And there he is! Throwing the bat, doing his little strut.

— Is he actually trying to job?

— I guess so. He’s got a jolly little roll in his belly. It looks like he’s been eating hot meals, Phil.

— Middlebrow critics often do. Now heading for the plate: Manohla Dargis, whipping out that Tennyson in the lede.

— You know, that’s a very impressive move.

— Baseball is poetry!

— But a hungry heart? And why the hyperlink? Didn’t the New York Times figger its readers would recognize “Ulysses” by the two words alone?

— They probably think sports fans are dumb or something.

— “Liquid physical grace and bright eyes of a predator.” That’s some serious description, but is it poetry?

— You can’t talk about Brad Pitt without considering how he looks soooooooooooooo much like Redford.

— You mean they’re grooming him to take over when Redford croaks?

— Could be.

— Who’s on Sundance?

— What’s at Telluride?

— I don’t know is at Toronto.

— That’s right. You know, like Turan, she’s really paying attention to the titles that are flashing on the screen.

— You mean the numbers?

— I mean the numbers. Did you really think this movie was exuberant?

— Well, after a while, I got bored.

— Why’s that?

— It seems condescending to reduce the complexities of baseball down to two distinct visions.

— Strike for Dargis.

— Yeah, she’s not hitting well this season.

— Cut her some slack. There’s the New York Film Festival too.

— Sure. But two distinct visions. Here’s a movie that suggests it’s either all about hard statistics or all about the love of the game. And, really, was the Michael Lewis book that cut and dry?

— No. Strike!

— Well with Turan on first and the home team down a few runs…

— Can I just stay that I love the way Manohla goes to the trouble of saying that Billy has a great face. After that whole business of “liquid physical grace.”

— Do you think she wants to fuck Brad Pitt?

— Hey, who doesn’t? But does Brad Pitt’s handsomeness have anything to do with the movie?

— Not really.

— Can they really put it up there with The Social Network?

— Same producer. Sorkin wrote some of it.

— You see, that’s just it. The script seems to be a bastard hybrid of Steven Zallian’s heartfelt stuff.

— Brad Pitt’s kid? That song she sings?

— That silly song she sings. And Sorkin’s robust moralizing. It just doesn’t feel right. It should have been either one or the other.

— Oh, come on, have some sympathy for the Hollywood machine.

— It’s difficult. I can’t. These movies can be so much smarter.

— Dargis swings. And…….misses.

— First out for the home team.

— And to think that Sony handpicked the right critics for this. Do you think this stands a chance of winning Best Picture?

— One word. Crash.

— And who doesn’t like baseball?

— There’s that book from Chad Harbach.

— You’re not one of those readers, are you?

— No. Not really.

— Good. We’re supposed to keep the skepticism at a minimum.

— Why is that?

— Well, it’s good form! Because they might not invite us to additional screenings.

— One more thing about Manohla. I loved the way she tried to read significance in the American flags, trying to find a symbol.

— They are a symbol. We do that for every game.

— No, a September 11th symbol. Isn’t that a bit reaching?

— Well, what do you expect from Manohla? Now batting: Richard Corliss!

— He’s swinging wild.

— Well, he’s dealing with a funny pitcher.

— Not funny. Statistically proven to gain the approval of critics too calcified to rock the boat.

— I love how Corliss praised “the star’s administrative strategies.”

— It’s a paean to Big Business!

— “A solid, bustling social comedy at the 130-IQ level?” Were you laughing much?

— No. I mean, I liked Jonah Hill.

— He’s funny.

— Jonah Hill is funny. But in this he’s actually quite good in a dramatic role.

— So does the presence of Jonah Hill turn this into a “bustling social comedy?”

— Not really.

— You gotta give Corliss this. Love the way he commends Bennett Miller for including scenes of Billy driving at night.

— Cutaways.

— Smashing things up.

— A lot of movies have that.

— Working out in the team gym.

— Come on, when you’ve got Pitt’s muscles?

— But do you think he’s overpraising the movie for these shots? I mean, there was a time when all movies had these shots.

— Maybe that’s why he’s so excited.

— 130-IQ level? What does he mean by that?

— It means this film is just short of genius.

— Is Bull Durham or Major League at the 130-IQ level?

— They don’t have number crunching.

— But you’re still rooting for the success of the team? I mean, by Corliss’s standards…

The Bad News Bears is at the 130-IQ level.

— The original or the Linklater remake?

— Let’s not talk about the remake.

— “The central pairing, though, has championship stuff.”

— How so?

— Because it gives Corliss an excuse to make another Social Network comparison.

— Beane and Brand are the Winklevoss twins?

— Hey, if you stare really hard, Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill are kinda identical.

— Do you think “a walk is as good as a hit” is debatable?

— I don’t know. We just announce it.

— He’s out!

— What’s Corliss’s batting average these days?

— Don’t ask.

— Do we have a team?

— We do. And they’ll do anything the manager says.

NYFF: Le Havre

[This is the sixth in a series of dispatches relating to the 2011 New York Film Festival. All of Reluctant Habits’s NYFF posts can be located here.]

The one modest issue I’ve had with Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s more recent films (specifically, the ones he didn’t make with his former partner Marc Caro) is his revisionist aesthetic. Amélie is a well-crafted and moving portrayal of the world’s joys, but it comes at the expense of Jeunet’s team of eager geeks digitally erasing the Métro graffiti and anything remotely insalubrious. Micmacs is a great-looking celebration of misfits, but Jeunet required additional digital cleanup of Paris to meet the film’s ideological promise. Consider Elastic Girl, who performed much of her contortions without trickery, but required computers for her more physics-defying acts. You could argue that Jeunet was making a formalist argument that idealistic hopes come at a cost. If you want to maintain your sunny view of the human race, you’re going to have stop looking at the ugliness, perhaps erasing it from your life. Whether Jeunet will step up this moral argument for truly devastating effect in a future film is anyone’s guess.

But Aki Kaurismäki’s very charming Le Havre approaches this idea in the reverse, tinkering with the idea that our fantasies are more rooted in our heart, existing before we can sculpt them into visual submission. The film uses 20th century aesthetics and values to get at the 21st century French problem of immigration. It is populated by several graying humanists (many working-class), whose collective efforts to help a boy named Idrissa (Blondin Miguel) make it to London before the immigration authorities deport him, cause them to put aside their grievances with a shoeshiner for the greater good. Is this not a fantasy? Kaurismäki certainly suggests that it may be. His style, unlike Jeunet’s, feels more like an analog reconstruction from the guts of reality and other films, rather than one whitewashed by digital effects. When a couple talks out their past problems for a “trendy charity concert,” Kaurismäki raises a Sirkian spotlight as they reunite. The lush orchestral cue that follows sounds like something that might have accompanied Rock Hudson’s gentle gardener looking with longing towards Jane Wyman. Yet somehow this moment doesn’t feel kitschy, because Kaurismäki is careful to measure out his stylistic influences (Bresson, Melville, and more) without stifling the evolving life of his characters.

If humor is the true wisdom which unravels how we interact with each other, then it’s contained amply in Kaurismäki’s protagonist Marcel Marx (André Wilms), a one-time Bohemian who gave up his artistic ambitions to become a shoeshiner. Our early moments with Marcel -– accompanied by his fellow scrubber Chang (Quoc Dung Nguyen) –- see his gaze hitting the ground seeking fresh feet, acerbically remarking on an unexpected death, and contending with the cries of shoe store managers who tell him to get lost when he sets up shop outside, hoping to bag some foot traffic. It becomes clear that Marcel dearly loves his wife Arletty (Kati Outinen), who is suffering from some unknown ailment. Most of his hard-won money is confiscated not long after he walks through the front door. You might almost say that the Marx house is also a fantasy. Even accounting for French social programs, what struggling shoeshiner could afford this marvelous place? The house contains plentiful 20th century appliances, smooth hunter green walls, a welcoming picket fence, and a friendly dog.

But if this is a homespun fantasy, the fantasy also includes the tradeoffs of life. Arletty has to stay in the hospital, begging the doctor not to fess the affliction to her husband (the doctor asks if this means he’s a politician), and Marcel devotes his attentions to helping Idrissa. This becomes a purely altruistic concern: Marcel mines from his hard-earned savings and even visits one of Idrissa’s relatives in Calais. Yet the hysteria surrounding the missing boy is almost phantasmagorical (a newspaper headline shouts that the immigrants may be part of al-Qaeda), leading one to wonder where the reality ends and the fantasy begins. We see the boy always wearing a sweater featuring red diamonds, mimicking the recently adopted Red Crystal adopted by the Red Cross, and we begin to wonder the extent to which this story represents wish fulfillment. Caring for others is certainly part of being a humanist, a duty that any good soul cannot escape. Why then does Kaurismäki portray so many unseen Frenchmen (a prefect, a man who rats out Marcel by phone) so committed to doing the opposite? Are there darker wishes competing with the more noble ones? Undoubtedly.

Many of the colorful side characters suggest that it’s not so much the distinction between reality and fantasy that matters so much as paying attention to others. This is a film where we get to overhear two burly regulars at the cafe discuss the proper way to make scallops. There’s Inspector Monet – a beak-nosed man with a minatory moustache and the kind of sideburns and hat that don’t belong on a man with such a fleshy head – talking about the downside of being a cop, namely that people are likely to hate you for doing your job even when they need you. (I can’t possibly give away what Monet eventually does, but Kaurismäki is a sharp enough director to play against my distinctions.)

Initiative may also be the secret ingredient. There’s one great moment where Marcel shows up at a refugee center and boldly announces that he is the only albino in the clan. He claims to be a journalist and a lawyer, and further remarks that he has recorded the entire conversation.

Yet if Le Havre suggests that pretense may cause one to overlook the scummier qualities of other human beings, it manages to transcend these sprightly concerns and the cinematic homages because of its happy ending, which imputes that the occasional need for a blinkered fantasy carries possible dangers. But Kaurismäki isn’t condescending about this dilemma. In not pursuing the vivacious caricatures favored by Jeunet, Kaurismäki may have discovered greater wisdom in sticking with the more subtle, the more noble, the more human: the very real reasons why good souls stay alive.

NYFF: You Are Not I (1981)

[This is the fifth in a series of dispatches relating to the 2011 New York Film Festival. All of Reluctant Habits’s NYFF posts can be located here.]

In a 1965 interview with Ira Cohen, Bowles revealed that his short story “You Are Not I” came from a dream state: “a second between waking and sleeping, or sleeping and waking.” Sara Driver’s You Are Not I is a spellbinding example of how a scrappy filmmaker can transform words into something that is different from the source yet equally distinct. Unlike Julia Loktev’s weak attempt to play coy (and ultimately hollow and obvious) with Tom Bissell, Driver fully engages with the dream and makes it her own. A commonplace Jesus portrait hanging above a chair isn’t so much a kitsch signifier as it is a marker of one possible faith that might fill in the traumatic gaps. The “She’s dead” uttered within Bowles’s story becomes a hypnotic mantra. The indelible imagery of stones being dropped into the open mouths of the dead transmutes into a surreal effort to express grief.

There are several pleasant and unexpected ties to a Lower East Side culture from decades before. Jim Jarmusch serves as co-writer and cinematographer. Luc Sante, wearing watch cap and glasses, acts as a man who drives the car. Phil Kline offers a synth-sculpted soundtrack. There’s Tom DiCillo on assistant camera. And given the film’s commitment to slow trancelike walking (understandable, given the main character’s recent escape from a mental hospital and her confrontation with the dead), one gets the sense that the young Driver (and Jarmusch) was feeding on a steady diet of German Expressionism. I was quite fond of the especially still manner in which Fletcher sits in a chair, speculating on what others might be saying about her, and the long and lumbering manner in which the actors walk across the room. Because of these qualities, the film, in Driver’s hands, feels more like something from Jane Bowles rather than Paul. When the young woman enters the house (one of those boxy, square-screened hulks in New Jersey), she claims that the layout has been switched around and that this construction must have been committed at great expense. That we have not seen the “original” house is quite helpful. Because we’re then left second-guessing whether what we are seeing is real. I must confess that I found myself suspicious of the cigarette smoke pervading the living room near film’s end for arty effect.

Equally interesting is the way that this 48 minute black-and-white film was rescued from the dead. Driver had unknowingly shipped a print of her film to Bowles in Tangier. The negative was destroyed, courtesy of a leak in a New Jersey warehouse. And as Driver’s remaining digital copy was eaten away by the ravages of degradable tape, with the signal reduced to nothing, Driver had concluded that the film was dead. Until librarian Francis Poole traveled to Tangier to collect Bowles’s papers for the University of Delaware, not knowing that the film he carried in his hands was indeed an adaptation of Bowles’s story. Poole got in touch with Driver. And the film is now thankfully enjoying a second life at the New York Film Festival. (A more elaborate version of this story can be heard on the press conference audio below, which includes both Driver and Poole discussing the film.)

NYFF 2011: You Are Not I Press Conference (Download MP3)

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NYFF: The Loneliest Planet

[This is the fourth in a series of dispatches relating to the 2011 New York Film Festival. All of Reluctant Habits’s NYFF posts can be located here.]

Narratives which involve affluent English-speaking types venturing into foreign terrain in order to find themseleves are only as good as Paul Bowles’s inevitable yardstick. The Sheltering Sky is, despite my qualms, arguably the definitive novel on the subject. One senses that writer-director Julia Loktev, in naming her film The Loneliest Planet, is aware of this inevitable comparative point. It is worth observing that her cinematographer Inti Briones is fond of pointing the camera down — that is, when he has actual light to work with. Loktev has also given her couple two pairs of green pants — the better to camouflage their spindly legs into the surrounding territory.

Loktev does have the benefit of a Tom Bissell story (“Expensive Trips Nowhere,” contained in God Lives in St. Petersburg) as her source material. But in seeking her own spin, Loktev demonstrates a diffidence when it comes to character motivation. This is somewhat troubling, given the way finances and togetherness (or the lack thereof) are vital parts of Bissell’s story. The film is, however, concerned superficially with the Georgian terrain. And that’s just as it should be for a film trying to mine deep into, well, whatever happens to exist before the camera, which serves as the primary creative motivation here.

Other reviewers — including one from Variety — have called these characters “hipsters.” But I suspect these writers, looking for any noun in the air in their desperate efforts to summarize a lightweight, largely unconsidered, and fairly unrevealing film, haven’t experienced the tangible terrors that I have. Nica (Hani Furstenberg) may be quite thin and Alex (Gael Garcia Bernal) may be bearded (Alex even promises to shave the beard off later: this is not a pledge you get very often in Williamsburg). But these two aren’t any more or less obnoxious than most Americans. Nor are they especially vegan or passive. As someone who has a great deal of hostility for a certain type of extreme layabout, I can report that I did not want to kill Nica or Alex at any point during this movie. On the other hand, I didn’t especially care about what happened to them.

But Dato (Bidzina Gujabidze), the guide who proves to have more than Georgia on his mind, did interest me — even as Loktev was more concerned with capturing her characters as specks traversing vast vistas (complete with the music cues turning on and off with the cuts to these long takes). He seems to put up with more than he should, including having to sing “Meow meow meow” in response to an especially superficial song.

I should probably point out that the film’s early moments (along with many other night scenes involving a flashlight) demonstrate a partial commitment to the hidden and the cluelessly jaunty: a flapping blanket hiding domestic tranquility, the happy couple hanging off a bus’s rail like monkeys, Nica licking Alex’s cheek as they take a snapshot against a mountain. But that’s about as close as the film gets to Bowles’s tourist vs. traveler distinction.* The film isn’t especially interested in explanations, but it is ballsy enough to elide subtitles. Which means that the audience is as much of a tourist as this couple. This serves as a great advantage when three locals show up and point a rifle at Alex’s head, especially since his first impulse is to hide behind Nica (only to try rescinding this gaffe by squeezing in front of Nica and standing before the rifle). You’d think that such a lousy move would cause strife. Or at least some wilderness equivalent to sleeping in the couch. But it’s never mentioned again.

This incident, along with several minor moments that follow (mostly involving this trio trudging through terrain, all as lonely as their backpacks), suggests that this union has trouble in paradise. When Nica offers Dato a kiss on the cheek, shortly after he has confessed that he has not been with a woman in five years, Dato takes swift advantage, his tongue speaking a gestural language associated with that country presently banning street prayer and his finger clambering inside a joyful jackpot. Be careful what you wish for.

Like the man with the gun, this near adulterous episode isn’t brought up again. And I suspect this has something to do with Loktev’s misunderstanding of Bissell’s story. During the press conference (audio of which can be listened to below), it was revealed that an early version of the script was only 45 pages and that Loktov loathed writing. To add insult to injury, none of the assembled trio on stage –- Loktev, Furstenberg, and the somewhat smug Richard Peña -– were especially interested in mentioning Bissell’s name. Furstenburg referred to the film as “Julia’s story.”

I was forced to ask Loktev a question (which you can hear around the 17 minute mark). Notice how Peña undermines the issue by not mentioning Bissell’s name.

Correspondent: There was mention earlier of a 45 minute script. And you mentioned earlier, Julia, that you detest writing. I’m wondering why you didn’t reach out to any other writer — like, say, Tom Bissell? Did you make any efforts to work with him?

Peña: The question is whether or not, since you say you don’t like writing, whether you ever thought about working with a writer, perhaps the author of the short story or someone else.

Loktev: No. I mean, for me, it was a matter of taking what I was interested in from the short story and writing from there. I said a little bit in jest that I don’t like writing in the sense that I don’t aspire to be a novelist. But, for me, the script — actually, I think it was about 30 pages. But, you know, the lines were all in there. The funny thing is that the lines were all in the script more or less. They just weren’t indented. This is the thing that people kind of — I find it very strange. People always say, “You don’t have a script that was the same with Day Night Day Night.” And I’m like, “It’s only because the lines are in the middle of the paragraph. And they’re not indented like they are in the normal scripts.” And when so much of the film takes place in silence, some of those things are very precisely described in what I write. Like I will describe the movement of a hand. And it’s that precisely outlined, you know. I didn’t want more dialogue than that.

In considering this transformation from “Tom Bissell” to “the author of the short story” to “taking what I was interested in,” I was led by chance into a pleasant email volley with Tom Bissell. Bissell assured me that Loktev was very up front about modifying much of the story. He reported that his interactions with Loktev were friendly and professional, very much in the “go ahead and run with it” mode. But the question that’s still nagging at me is whether or not Loktev’s film transforms the material sufficiently enough to warrant the praise. Because what I saw on Monday morning was a fairly ho-hum narrative devoid of the human context that’s there in Bissell’s story. And if I have to play favorites, then I’d rather go with the artist who knows what he’s writing rather than the one who’s about as committed to the human condition as, well, a ditzy hipster who doesn’t have the guts to put herself on the line.

* “[A]nother important difference between tourist and traveler is that the former accepts his own civilization without question; not so the traveler, who compares it with the others, and rejects those elements he finds not to his liking.” — The Sheltering Sky

NYFF 2011: The Loneliest Planet Press Conference (Download MP3)

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NYFF: Mud and Soldiers (1939)

[This is the third in a series of dispatches relating to the 2011 New York Film Festival. All of Reluctant Habits’s NYFF posts can be located here.]

After a shell from a grenade launcher lands squarely on the roof of an enemy-held farmhouse, two close-ups show soldiers grinning in satisfaction. In general, however, the emotions of the soldiers are repressed. They seem struck dumb by the incomprehensible grandeur of the war and the machinelike organization of which they are a part. — Peter B. High, The Imperial Screen

This is the statement of a reaching critic. There were many critics reaching (the honest ones were yawning) during a Friday afternoon screening of Mud and Soldiers — a 1939 film depicting the Second Sino-Japanese War that is playing the New York Film Festival as part of a Nikkatsu celebration. I saw many trying to cogitate in the vestibule, waiting to “form” their opinions shortly after others opened their mouths. Many were exhausted. They had just gone through vicarious war.

So let me be the first to fire a forthright salvo: Mud and Soldiers, despite Mr. High’s interpretation, isn’t as good as Paths of Glory or All Quiet on the Western Front or The Hurt Locker or Saving Private Whitey. It does indeed feature soldiers doing their duty, not reacting much to all the billowing smoke that they have caused through rampant bursts of artillery. One curious quality about Mud and Soldiers is the way that it avoids explicit bloodshed. A soldier gets shot in the thigh, but we do not see the actual act. As someone who lusts for this type of cinematic act, I was a little disappointed. Soldiers fire upon enemies, but we see very few of them. Presumably, because this was made in 1939, there was a shortage on extras and squibs. There was surely no shortage on propaganda. The film does, after all, rely on newsreel footage.

There is a banal and repetitive quality to the soldiers’s banter. And this pabulum stretches into the soldiers’s actions. Director Tomotaka Tasaka is certainly committed to showing how mind-numbingly dull war can be. And yet this 21st century viewer longed for something more. Why exactly?

Well, it could have something to do with the fact that approximately 72% of this film involves marching. There is marching through mud. There is marching through dirt. There is marching across bridges and battlefields. There are overhead shots in which we see legs marching. There are shots of soldiers marching from very far away. There are some moments in which we see ten men march and other moments in which we see a hundred men march, leaving one to await the possibility of a thousand men marching. (Sadly, this does not occur. But so desperate were my fantasies that I held out my hopes.) There are shots as long as one minute that feature men marching. Three are shots as quick as five seconds that might be identified as a marching cutaway.

The film even contains compelling dialogue in which two soldiers discuss their marching progress:

— I fell in the creek again.
— How far will we march?
— I don’t know. Until we get there.

While there’s a good argument somewhere about how much soldiers march in war, and art’s duty to reflect this reality, marching alone does not necessarily make for a compelling narrative — especially when the sound effects guy is using the same CLOMP CLOMP CLOMP for all filmed marching and director Tomotaka Tasaka hasn’t thought to actually synch up his men’s feet to the CLOMPing.

Now I am a fairly devoted long distance walker (I walked the eight miles back to Brooklyn after seeing this movie, although I should report that I decided upon this in advance of the screening), but Mud and Soldiers bored the hell out of me. In fact, Mud and Soldiers is probably one of the most tedious war movies I have had the misfortune to sit through. It is difficult to fathom a defense of this film, but I am informed that the film — based on Hino Ashihei’s bestseller — made a great impact on the Japanese public, as films devoted to marching and a mechanical lack of emotion made under a state governed by belligerent admirals are known to do. I am also informed that Tasaka was a victim of the Hiroshima bombing and continued to direct many features over the next two decades. I certainly hope that these post-Hiroshima films do not contain nearly as much marching.

NYFF: Intimidation (1960)

[This is the second in a series of dispatches relating to the 2011 New York Film Festival. All of Reluctant Habits’s NYFF posts can be located here.]

Many film buffs rightly point to Akira Kurosawa’s High and Low (based on Ed McBain’s King’s Ransom -– an 87th Precinct police procedure novel) as proof positive that 20th century Japanese cinema had the nuts and bolts to make the mystery genre its own. If High and Low can be likened to Double Indemnity, then Koreyoshi Kurahara’s Intimidation -– a brisk and highly enjoyable 65 minute film about botched blackmail playing as part of a Nikkatsu celebration at the New York Film Festival -– suggests a scrappy film noir bankrolled by RKO.

Despite their differences in budget and running time (which could very well be directly proportional), both films carry striking similarities. They both involve upwardly mobile executives, on the cusp of influencing corporate direction through somewhat idiosyncratic cunning, who are forced to contend with a criminal scheme introduced by an apparent outsider. Yet in their own distinct ways, both High and Low and Intimidation have interesting points to make about reputation. Kurosawa offered a timid chauffeur staring at the big man’s shoes, suggesting that all inside the circle are at the behest of outside forces. For Kurahara, corruption and deceit are contained within the system, with the police entering into the narrative after all the pros have failed: not unlike the diffident manner that the United States has responded to avaricious bankers in recent years. Kurahara introduces a seemingly meek clerk named Nakaike (Akira Nishimura, who, with his sad look and timorous eyes, may be Japan’s answer to the great character actor Elisha Cook, Jr.) who has been under a bank manager’s (Takita, played by Nobuo Kaneko) spell for years thanks to a few ruthless setbacks. Nakaike long-hoped for something close to an equal footing, especially since he had a shot at being where Takita is now. But, of course, it isn’t just bitter memories. In one heartbreaking scene, Takita humiliates Nakaike over “security training” that has gone awry. That this self-serving moment comes after Kurahara has asked us to sympathize with Takita is something of a surprise. But the unanticipated ace up Nakaike’s sleeve is so viscerally rewarding that I cannot possibly reveal it!

Intimidation begins with a suitably mysterious image: a man with a gun, a fedora, and a cigarette in his mouth opening the service entrance door of a bank and asking for the sub-manager. Takita, the sub-manager in question, is too busy partying it up with the branch manager, geisha girls, and asking subordinates such as Nakaike to dance on command. He’s about to land a promotion. But Takita does get the message when he meets with the blackmailer, who has evidence that he authorized several illegal loans. Takita is asked to cough up three million yen the day after tomorrow. The blackmailer suggests that he rob his own bank. Because nobody would expect “the lighthouse to shine on itself” and this is the kind of move that you wouldn’t expect in a detective story (okay, not really; but give the filmmakers some credit for momentum!), Takita agrees to the deal.

What makes Intimidation engaging is the way that it uses class trappings to buttress the robbery. Why indeed would a sub-manager rob his own bank? We get the sense that it isn’t necessarily the blackmailer’s pressure, but the sub-manager’s quiet arrogance that gets him to rob the bank, wearing a sketchy disguise and donning a cigarette lighter in the form of a gun. But, of course, he screws up the robbery from the outset, cracking his sunglasses not long before putting on his feeble costume. Takita is so flagrant in his plans (getting the clerk on night duty drunk the night before) that we begin to wonder why nobody else can see his moves. (Hilariously, the branch manager even confesses, “I don’t understand much about this business.” In light of Reed Hastings’s recent disastrous moves with Netflix, I couldn’t help but ponder contemporary parallels days after seeing this movie.) But Intimidation also proves surprisingly smart in this capacity, knowing very well that there are climbers embedded within the bank and that those who are spurned hardly depart with ease.

While Intimidation appears to have been made somewhat on the cheap (the bank’s brick walls look quite fake), this flimsy décor somehow works to the film’s advantage, almost as if Takita’s position is just as tenuous. This may have something to do with the crackerjack story, the film’s fixation on camera dollies over zooms, and Kurahara’s understated direction, which is especially good on the acting front. After all, if we can’t believe in a bank manager’s integrity, we wouldn’t be so drawn into the story. Perhaps there are some common verisimilitudinous qualities about art and business that help sustain the illusion.

NYFF: Woman with Red Hair (1979)

[This is the first in a series of dispatches relating to the 2011 New York Film Festival. All of Reluctant Habits’s NYFF posts can be located here.]

In considering the trashy pink film Woman with Red Hair, I must first ruminate upon the film’s commitment to verisimilitude, as well as its intricate moral framework. A young woman casually loses her virginity during a gang rape, becomes pregnant, and uses this as leverage to snag one of the two strapping young attackers – an unnamed jerk who often wears a blue headband – as her husband. This magnificent pillar to manhood has an equally upstanding companion with Kozo (Renji Ishibasi), who enjoys smiling smugly for the camera when not sexually humiliating the titular woman with red hair (Junko Miyashita), whose ass is often deliberately positioned to undulate before the audience. It is a tribute to this film’s hypnotic hypocrisy that, as Kozo forces the woman with the red hair to take his cock into her mouth, an oppressive black rectangle appears on the right side of the frame, with Miyashita’s legs flailing behind it. Despite this film’s firm commitment to debasing women (one charming ditty that the two men croon contains the lyric “She’ll say no when she means yes”), in 1979, it lacks the authority to show pussy.

We are informed that the young married couple living downstairs are junkies, but our only indication of their drug use is through their screechy wails (compared later in the film to a pig), leaving one to wonder if they are in a permanent state of withdrawal or if they represent some more enlightened viewer having to contend with this plodding movie, selected as part of a Nikkatsu celebration for the 49th New York Film Festival. In the middle of wanton carnality, our ruddy-maned heroine casually asks, “Ever try heroin?” While the two strapping young creeps talk to their boss about their special driving skills and discuss whether or not they need licenses, a young woman stands outside in the rain, a testament to their chivalry. She enters the room not long after, only to be slapped repeatedly. The woman with red hair alludes to having two young children, yet like the track marks and heroin supply downstairs, they remain unseen. In another episode, a somewhat older woman remembers a “foam dance,” which involves lathering yourself up with soap and gyrating upon a inflatable mattress next to a tub. Just wait for your husband (or really, given this film’s outlook, any man) to arrive and he’ll start schtupping you.

My favorite part of Woman with Red Hair was when Kozo, letting his pummeled paramour fuck another man, walks out into the pouring rain and starts jerking off in an alley. Why? Well, you see, he’s so turned on by the prospect of another man banging the woman he’s with that he just can’t wait to shoot his load. Alas, Kozo is interrupted in his perfervid pumping by a man (presumably, the pink film’s idea of comic relief) who asks him for some spare yen so that he can fuel his alcoholism. And because his request is understandably denied under the circumstances, he somehow accompanies Kozo to another apartment, where Kozo drinks and fucks another woman and the alcoholic remains plastered beneath him.

Welcome to the wacky worldview of filmmaker Tatsumi Kumashiro, who also gave us 1988’s Love Bites Back (but do the “victims” deserve it?), 1986’s Women Who Do Not Divorce (does that mean the women who do divorce shouldn’t be bothered with?), and two films in 1973 with “wet” in the title. Woman with Red Hair was one of the more acclaimed films of the Roman Porno line commissioned by Nikkatsu. In 1971, the revered Japanese studio faced bankruptcy and had switched from action movies and blockbusters to softcore films in a desperate effort to remain financially viable. (To give you a sense of how drastic this decision was, imagine if Paramount or Warner Brothers decided to start making softcore movies instead of Hollywood blockbusters.)

But Woman with Red Hair, despite ample justification by Japanese film buffs, is hardly In the Realm of the Senses. Most of its long stretches are dreadfully banal. Conversation about getting a new gas heater and the price of eggs at the local supermarket sounds like blue-collar authenticity, until you realize that it doesn’t actually articulate anything about the characters or their culture. So you’re left to rue upon why so many people are interested in red penises (and why one man in this film is fond of muddying his member with red lipstick). When the closing credits rolled, I was stunned to learn that Woman with Red Hair was based on a novel by Japanese intellectual Kenji Nakagami. And while there’s a definite working-class thrust to the film (workers become violent and sexual when they are not permitted work), I didn’t feel that the film presented any sexual subversiveness on the level with Lina Wurtmuller or early Almodovar. Once you confront the atavistic imagery, you’re left with a fairly pedestrian and toothless flick that no amount of metaphorical rain can flush into a meaningful realm.

The Bat Segundo Show: Alexander Maksik

Alexander Maksik appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #411. He is most recently the author of You Deserve Nothing.

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Staring into unreliable news outlets for confirmation of existence.

Author: Alexander Maksik

Subjects Discussed: Writing an anti-Parisian novel in Paris, experiential qualities that find their way into fiction, being seduced by a cliche, reading Camus in the original, English prose that is deliberately written as if it is translated from another language, thinking and feeling in French and writing in English, broaching philosophy in the simplest possible manner, designing a perspective that don’t seem like a voice, depression, whether a character’s fall from grace interpreted as “devastating” can also be liberating, institutional trappings in teaching, whether a novel about depression can be a positive book, explicit revelations toned down over the course of many drafts, the finale as a revelatory meter, experiencing fear as a novelist, being edited by Alice Sebold, character change, nervousness and writing a novel within a vacuum, being fearless, existentialism and being judged by others, Sebold’s editorial emphasis on sound and language, the similarities between changing lives and leading cults, living with a directionless viewpoint, dead characters as models, introducing monstrous characters to sympathize with “less monstrous” actions in a protagonist, pushing readers into a mode of sympathy vs. challenging a reader’s assumptions, working without outlines and without moral points, time, location, and place as the best narrative confines, seeing a situation unfold from two perspectives, worrying about playing into moral ambiguity, sex and affection portrayed as directional, the teacher-student power dynamic, using minor characters to depict interpersonal tragedy, John Fowles’s The Magus, worrying about protagonists being perfect, and parallels between the voluntary senior seminars class and the voluntary reading experience.


Correspondent: I wanted to first of all start off by discussing the experiential requirements in writing an anti-Parisian novel in Paris. You told Largeheartedboy that you made it a point to avoid certain music while working on the novel. Now I’m going to have to ask you — do you also have to avoid certain people or certain locales when you’re writing this kind of novel? From an artistic position, isn’t avoiding some of these normal or privileged aspects of Parisian life just as bad as the other side? How do you fashion a perspective — or several perspectives, in this case — when you ignore certain aspects of Paris? Can’t you mine something from the totality of experience? Just to start out here.

Maksik: Yeah. I mean, I have to say that I lived in one of the most, if not the most, expensive neighborhoods in Paris. But I lived on the top floor of a building without an elevator, which allowed me to pay a lower rent.

Correspondent: Just like Will.

Maksik: Yes.

Correspondent: It makes me wonder about other experiential qualities. (laughs)

Maksik: Well, we can talk about that. We can talk about that. But when I first moved to Paris, I had this very clear sense of the kind of Paris I wanted to experience. And very quickly, it was boring to me. And I started to explore. Particularly the northern parts of the city. And I found those parts of the city to be far more interesting, and spent more and more time there, and started to read at a bar in the north of Paris. A bar called Cabaret Populaire. It was sort of there that I started to see the city as it really is. Because when I first moved to the city, it was all Hemingway and Boulevard Saint-Germain and all of that. And now I see the city in a far more different light.

Correspondent: What bored you specifically about the neighborhood you had to escape from?

Maksik: I mean, it is wonderful. Because it is a cliche. Because it is, at least physically, exactly as the postcards make it. The Luxembourg Gardens looks exactly as I imagined it would look. And the cafes remain — at least outwardly — Parisian. Like a Robert Doisneau photograph. And now it becomes — Paris is often criticized now as a museum city. Where there’s nothing behind those beautiful facades. I don’t think that that’s true. I just think that it requires a little investigation.

Correspondent: Well, you could have perhaps knocked on a few doors and asked to see the insides, introduce yourself…

Maksik: Yeah.

Correspondent: I mean, this whole idea of “I’m bored; I have to go somewhere else” intrigues me. Because a lot of novelists are determined to get at the wonder underneath the boredom or just find something that’s interesting.

Maksik: Right.

Correspondent: Why couldn’t you have found something that was interesting?

Maksik: Well, I did! I did. And, of course, it is simplistic to say that everything in the 6th [arrondissement] or the 5th or the 7th is one thing. I can’t make that argument. But because there’s so many tourists, because the city uses the center of Paris as an advertising campaign — you know, it’s very well preserved. It’s very clean. All of the gold is polished. All of the doors are kept in a certain fashion. And the outskirts of the city, in large part, are ignored by the city and by the government. Things are dirtier. The river is less elegant at the outskirts of the city.

Correspondent: It’s fascinating to have this conversation when we’re here in Midtown, which some might argue is the most boring aspect of Manhattan.

Maksik: Yeah, I would tend to agree.

Correspondent: Well, what of this? Do you think that hitting the outside of a city is really the only way to understand it? Both as a novelist and as a human being? Has this been the sort of pattern throughout your life?

Maksik: I mean, I don’t think. No. There’s never been a place in my life ever that has held so much appeal to me from afar. You know, I was never sort of caught up in New York, for example. It’s the city for many people. But I was never really seduced from afar by New York. So Paris is very particular to me.

Correspondent: What was it about it that seduced you?

Maksik: All of the cliches. All of the cliches. And I’ve said this before in other interviews. But Hemingway and Shakespeare & Company and Gertrude Stein and the whole deal. And I read A Moveable Feast many times. At a time when I was very impressionable. And I had these notions of wanting to be a writer. And I just thought — somehow it got in my mind that Paris would be the answer to all of my questions, all of my problems. This is where I would be my truest self. And that’s a recipe, I think.

Correspondent: Has this been the pattern throughout your life? Of essentially being seduced by a cliche and then pursuing the cliche and then finding out what’s around it? That this is really the only way for you to find this identity here?

Maksik: Yeah. I mean, I think I have this tendency to imagine that a place will solve the problems of my life. I will be another person in this place. Wherever it is.

Correspondent: A topographical panacea, basically.

Maksik: Yes. Absolutely. And I love to make plans. And I love to travel. And I think part of that love is this sense of reinvention. That I can be a different human being. That I can wipe the slate clean. And, of course, as I discovered in a very concrete way in Paris, you are who you are wherever you go.

The Bat Segundo Show #411: Alexander Maksik (Download MP3)

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IKEA’s Billy Bookcase: The Real Story

On September 10, 2011, The Economist published a story suggesting that IKEA was changing its Billy bookcases because of decreased demand in books. The news spread like wildfire on Twitter, causing additional alarm as irresponsible reporters further fanned the flames without bothering to call anybody. But in a Tuesday afternoon telephone conversation with IKEA public relations manager Marty Marston, Reluctant Habits learned that the Economist‘s story is false and exaggerated.

“We are not removing the original Billy,” said Marston. “It’s interesting that everybody has jumped on this.”

The Billy bookcase with the 11 inch depth will still be stocked. Production will not be curtailed. An additional Billy bookcase, with a 15 inch depth, will be introduced in all countries — an effort to respond to how customers are presently living their lives.

“Billy has gone through transformation since it started in 1979,” elaborated Marston. “This is just one additional transformation. And we’ll probably see some other ones.”

Marston observed that Billy has been adapted numerous times to keep up with lifestyle developments. Ten to twelve years ago, there were new versions of the shelves introduced after customers required new methods of storing their CDs and DVDs. Much like those adaptations, the new 15 inch bookcases are being introduced to “give more flexibility” to consumers.

Are Scandinavian bigwigs aware of current developments in the book market?

“In speaking to people in Sweden,” said Marston, “they are certainly aware of ebooks. That was not part of their consideration when they considered the deeper option.”

As it turns out, not only had the 15 inch bookcase been in development for a period of eighteen months to two years. Ebooks didn’t factor at all into the decision.

“It really was to accommodate those people who wanted to use Billy as a display case.”

If Billy is being modified to store other items, is it still a bookcase? Does the firm truly reckon that “customers will increasingly use them for ornaments, tchotchkes and the odd coffee-table tome—anything, that is, except books that are actually read,” as The Economist claimed? Not at all.

“Its number one purpose is to hold books,” said Marston. “It is a bookcase and that’s how we describe it.”

Marston told me that ebooks were less of a concern to IKEA than other dazzling doodads taking up more of a market share. The biggest concern was how customers used furniture. And ebooks, while a modest factor, was hardly the whole enchilada. “We’re more focused in say a laptop or how they’re using an iPad,” said Marston. “How would that change the way a living room is configured? Or how people are taking their media?”

She suggested that the Swedish furniture giant was more interested in how people might use their flat screen TVs than ebooks.

“I hate to dispel those who think the bookcase is dead,” said Marston. “We do not see it that way. We really see books as decorative. Books will still continue to be something used to adorn. They’re rich and they’re textured.”

I considered telling Marston that a book was possibly more enticing after you cracked it open. But I stayed silent. Marston had, after all, been very helpful and was kind enough to answer all of my questions.

Perhaps the most alarming part of this story — aside from the silly idea that a Swedish furniture chain could unilaterally put a stop to the many woodworkers and designers who are still building robust bookcases despite this flimsy hysteria — is how quick so many alleged professionals jumped on the Economist‘s lead without bothering to check it out with IKEA. Indeed, cultural journalism has become so lazy in recent years that The Los Angeles Times, The Christian Science Monitor, The Wall Street Journal, The Week, Time, The Daily Mail, and The Consumerist all ran stories repeating this misinformation without bothering to investigate. Not less than a decade ago, such unpardonable amateurism would have earned at the very least a knuckle rap from the ombudsman.

Only The Village Voice‘s Rosie Gray thought to raise a skeptical flag. NPR, at least, thought to contact a spokesman for a short clarification.

The Billy bookcase is not going away. It is not being changed because of the book market. Now go drink your Lingonberry.

Loving (Modern Library #89)

(This is the twelfth entry in the The Modern Library Reading Challenge, an ambitious project to read the entire Modern Library from #100 to #1. Previous entry: Midnight’s Children)

Reading Henry Green’s Loving is a bit like going through a valise that a hardcore neat freak has spent many years packing for your once-in-a-decade vacation. You need to extract the chinos for that last summer blowout, but will your unseen friend berate you if you rustle the crisp blue oxford shirt from that fixed and implacable perch just above those promising pants? What Green has given us is a delicate book, difficult to unpack in a thousand words. It is so marvelous that you could spend a lifetime talking about it (certainly many have spent lifetimes teaching it). On the other hand, compared to Finnegans Wake (a Modern Library obligation so massive that I have started reading it early, devoting a Tumblr to my ongoing annotations), Loving may as well be a Parker novel.

We know from the outset what we’re in for. The book’s first four paragraphs alone introduce us to Eldon, Ellen, Miss Agatha Burch, Charley Raunce, and “Bert the yellow pantry boy” (a phrase almost suggesting a new band to argue about on Brooklyn Vegan) — all hired help within the sprawling confines of Kinalty Castle, a manse manifesting upstairs and downstairs shenanigans that is situated about a hundred miles from Dublin and carrying on during the early days of World War II (when Ireland was neutral). There is also an Edith and a Evelyn, perpetuating Green’s affinity for character names starting with the second vowel. And not long later, we meet another Bert who arrives at this estate. We learn that the IRA possesses two interpretive acronyms.

This perceptive flexibility within names is matched by a perceptive flexibility within sentences, many divested of commas: “Then one morning while they were at their dinner in the servants’ hall that telephone began to ring away in the pantry.” Green’s style suggests a fixed quality, but what kept me reading was the possibility of disorder and transgression. Miss Burch, the martinet-minded head housemaid, tells us, “Take someone out of their position in life and you find a different person altogether, yes.” And, yes, as peacocks and rings disappear and as couples are discovered in flagrante delicto, we learn that no amount of order, whether through style or action, can disrupt life’s inevitable antics. Different people are indeed revealed when they hew outside the hues with near farcical commitment. This is perhaps one of the reasons why Green has given Charley Raunce, the head footman pushing forty, eyes of differing color (“one dark one light which was arresting,” nearly matching the mysterious red and black notebooks containing shady business correspondence and creative accounting that Raunce is trying to make sense of). Raunce, a character who I liked a great deal, is sometimes good at tricking his employers (he refuses to go by the name “Arthur” upon taking Eldon’s post and offers additional demands to his masters, who are equally dismissive of Raunce and his peers out of earshot) and is sometimes a bit cruel (especially in relation to Miss Burch). But like any of us, his words and actions are understood, justified, and humanized by his love. He sends money to his mother and urges her to purchase an Anderson shelter. He is concerned about a sister who works in a gun factory. He confronts his love for Edith and the manner in which he proposes is strikingly diffident:

“You have it any way you want,” Raunce explained. “I thought just to mention her that’s all, Mrs. Charley Raunce,” he announced in educated accents. “There you are eh?” He seemed to be gathering confidence.

From passive explanation to “educated accents” to a nervous “There you are eh?” to prototypical confidence. Words, in some instances, are no match for living. Unsurprisingly, this was something that Green thought about a good deal. As he wrote in his memoir Pack My Bag:

Prose should be a long intimacy between strangers with no direct appeal to what both may have known. It should slowly appeal to feelings unexpressed, it should in the end draw tears out of the stone, and feelings are not bounded by the associations common to place names or to persons with whom the reader is unexpectedly familiar.

In a 1958 Paris Review interview, Terry Southern suggested that some people had referred to Green as a “writer’s writer’s writer.” And it may be this commitment to the unexpressed and to the unbound that has made Henry Green a tricky and needlessly neglected writer, despite his well-earned presence on the Modern Library list.

Weeks ago, I asked a savvy friend, who was rightly chiding me for my wine-infused malapropisms, over dinner if she had read Loving. She confessed that she had and that she had not understood it. And I must confess that it took me three attempts before I was in the right mood to finish Loving, with the final and fortuitous push occurring as I was housesitting in the Hudson Valley.

But my efforts were worth it. Because once you slow to Green’s pace and begin to understand that nearly every sentence contains some insight, Loving reveals itself in interesting ways. Just before proposing to Edith, Raunce says, “But it’s not the truth that matters. It’s what’s believed.” This paraphrase of Goebbels had me wondering if Raunce’s shyness had anything to do with invasion anxiety. When Mrs. Tennant loses her ring and, after considerable misunderstandings, confesses, “It’s not the money I’m worried about, the thing had memories for me that money couldn’t buy,” I had to ask why Mrs. Tennant couldn’t cleave to the memories inside her own head. Was the wild goose chase to find the ring (along with the wild peacock chasing seen elsewhere) merely an effort to fill a void?

And what are we to make of the unusually sensuous foot massages and naked frolicking beneath the eiderdown that Kate and Edith practice in the small room they share in the attic? This is especially interesting (and not the way you’re thinking), because Edith later discovers Mrs. Jack in bed with a man who is not her husband (“two humps of body, turf over graves under those pink bedclothes”) and, shortly after this startling discovery, Edith is drawn more to Raunce. Did Edith seek out a “normal” arrangement with Raunce because she was exposed to the naked truth of a dissolute marriage? (Does this also explain why Kate devotes herself to cleaning and grooming the dim and uncouth Paddy?) I spent some time poring over what scholars had to say about Loving over the years, and I was somewhat surprised that this development had not been remarked upon all that much. Was Green somewhat ahead of the curve on lesbian relationships? Or were Kate and Edith’s topless adventures yet another “loving” galvanized by innocent efforts to get through the day?

These intriguing uncertainties are mirrored by the limitless illusions contained within the castle. We encounter “a large map of the country elaborately painted over the mantlepiece,” part of a clock that Raunce needs to rewind. Outside the castle, we discover “the complete copy of a Greek temple.” And when Raunce becomes (love)sick, he contains his neck in a scarf, with Miss Burch quipping that “he makes out the glands are enlarged.” These descriptive facades permit us to understand that the castle is a trompe-l’oeil for human connection. No hard schematic will suffice. And yet look how much we think we know when presented with such precision!

Some of Green’s grandest groomsmen don’t quite understand this point. In How Fiction Works, James Wood appraises the moment when Raunce notices Edith’s dark eyes, which catch the light “like plums dipped in cold water.” He suggests that because this “metaphor is not explicitly tied into character,” it is a successful example of a metaphor that “has been newly painted before our eyes” or “the kind of [poetic] metaphor that this particular character or community would produce.” But this snap of the key doesn’t quite undo the lock. Wood doesn’t observe that Raunce has been laughed at by his fellow footmen for the hued duality in his eyes, and that this moment of beauty, cadged during a stray moment, connotes some common eccentricity that is both within the world and shared between Raunce and Edith.

John Updike was a big fan of Henry Green, especially impressed by how “the spaces between the words are warm, and the strangeness is mysteriously exact, the strangeness of the vial.” While it’s very easy for any impassioned style geek to lap up Green’s exactitude like an eight-year-old let loose in a candy store (and let me be clear on this: I certainly did), it is important to remember that Green’s fiction is, first and foremost, about the invitational qualities of inexplicable existence. Or as Raunce himself says, “It’s human nature you’ve got to keep count of.”

Next Up: Jack London’s Call of the Wild!

The Bat Segundo Show: Alex Shakar

Alex Shakar appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #410. He is most recently the author of Lumanarium.

Condition of Mr. Segundo: In search of a zendo to teach him a few cheap tricks.

Author: Alex Shakar

Subjects Discussed: Splitting novelists into scientists and mystics, how location and characters transmute over multiple drafts, novelists who are prescient about their health, spirituality, writing about the unknowable, learning how to sit and breathe properly from a zendo, the visual look of sentences and paragraphs, how experience translates into words, the icons at the head of each section in this book, design elements, 9/11 fiction, catastrophic post-ironic fiction, culture that makes meaning of historical events, the time needed to process a fictive response to a specific time, not naming specific New York landmarks, walking, Zeckendorf Towers vs. Zeckendorf’s theorem, Brounian vs. Brownian motion, finding significance in character names, Vartan and avatars, crafting a novel with meaning and mystery in equal proportions, “The Year of Wonders,” the question of whether fiction can still be dangerous when corporations co-opt irony and social satire, David Foster Wallace’s “E Unibus Pluram,” the gray areas within irony and sincerity, Richard Powers’s Plowing the Dark, conscious and subconscious literary influences, Middlemarch, Dostoevsky, humiliation in literature, devising a close third-person that is close to an unreliable first-person narrator, authenticity in narrative, the benefits of being horrified by surreal dreams, out-of-body experiences, the unusual sexual qualities of twin brothers, hostile T-shirts, President Bush and chimpanzees, adult characters who live with their parents, the boomerang generation, personal economic characteristics before the recession, thirtysomethings and Bildungsromans, 21st century fiction being identified as work trying to find the fresh and the human within the cold and the inhuman, novelists who don’t want to deal with cell phones, utopias and dystopias erected by novelists as a method of evading reality, faith in technology as a method of coping with the real, faith and atopia, and an approach to spirituality that is without belief.


Correspondent: I wanted to start off by discussing a recent essay you wrote for The Wall Street Journal in which you divided novelists into scientists and mystics. You suggested that the scientist is someone who prethinks the story and the mystic is someone who kind of goes along for the ride, flies by the seat of her pants — that the best novelist is somewhere in between. And I’m curious, since Luminarium took ten years for you to write and since you were dealing with multiple drafts, hundreds of pages — my question is how you could shift gears. Because I know, for example, the twin brother George was a later addition. So it’s almost like you’re going from Earth being the center of the universe to the sun being the center of the universe. How does this work for you?

Shakar: It just seems to be my process. Even for The Savage Girl, my last novel, it started off as a novel that took place in Austin, Texas, and it was about slackers hanging out and smoking cigarettes and then, over the drafts, everything changed. Including the protagonist. She wasn’t even in the first draft and then she came into subsequent drafts. The city changed to a fictional city built on a volcano. So there’s usually some core that stays the same and then everything changes around it. And in the case of Luminarium, George is, in a way, what I consider now to be pretty much the center of the book. He’s not the protagonist, but he’s what the whole story revolves around. I spent a long time. Draft after draft. And the book kept sucking. And I couldn’t really figure out why. It just felt like the the pieces just weren’t coming together. And I couldn’t get beneath the surface of the subject. And I had this idea for George earlier on. Or, at least, for a twin brother. It was in the back of my mind. And I kept saying, “Oh no. That’ll just complicate it even more. It’s such a complicated story. Why add another component to it?” But I was amazed, once I started going in that direction, how it actually allowed everything else to really snap together around it. It was like a new backbone and a new heart for the book. And so it was nice for me to see how it was evolving in that direction.

Correspondent: I’m wondering. I’m presuming [the other brother] Sam was there in the earlier drafts.

Shakar: Yes.

Correspondent: And I’m wondering if he was possibly an overstuffed character, that the “big ideas” that George brought to this company were there within Sam in an earlier draft. Or did you have such items as the tweezers, which seemed to reflect the twin theme that was going on, and the Narcissus idea — did it just need to be more explicit? Is this one of the reasons why George came to fruition?

Shakar: Yeah. I think so. I think it helped me just manifest and physicalize and emotionalize a lot of the stuff that was going on in the story. It felt for a long time that I was looking for something. I kept trying to figure out — I mean, the main problem was what sends Fred on this journey. And it’s a hell of a journey that he goes on. So it really took something to set him off on it without just making him seem like a navel gazing type. I mean, that was the way he seemed in the earlier drafts to me. And so I experimented with giving Fred different illnesses. I gave him a heart condition. And then after a couple months, I started getting chest pains. I had to check myself into the hospital. So luckily that plot element didn’t pan out anyway. (laughs)

Correspondent: You were prescient about your own health. My goodness!

Shakar: Yeah, I don’t know. The chicken or the egg.

Correspondent: Yeah. Well, how do you determine what the right medical condition is? That’s an interesting question. I mean, clearly you don’t want to feel it. But perhaps it manifested in this unknown way. But how do you zero in on what seems to be right in this case?

Shakar: Yeah. Well, for Fred, it took externalizing it. It took giving him the brother. It was odd. Because the book is so much about selfhood and it’s so much about interiority that, at first, it seemed counterintuitive for me to give him the brother. But that actually helped manifest and externalize some of the stuff that was going on. So instead of talking to himself in his head all the time, he’s talking to George. And I think that really brings him down to earth in a way.

Correspondent: There are other Georges that are scattered throughout the book. I’m wondering if George the name was there before George the body, the comatose body in the hospital, was there.

Shakar: No. I don’t think so. I mean, I’m trying to remember if George Bush was…(laughs). Yeah, I think he was actually. That’s true. You’re right about that.

Correspondent: You told The New York Observer that you knew you wanted to write about spirituality, but that it took you a while to figure out that you didn’t understand it. Are the best fiction subjects those that are unknowable? At what point do you know in the writing that you really don’t know enough?

Shakar: Yeah. I wish I had figured that out sooner. But it took me about three or four years of work on the novel before I decided that I needed some hands-on experience. I had done a lot of reading before that point. And I was drawn to writing about mystics and contemplatives. And I saw that it was just something that wasn’t only for these people. It was something that seemed accessible for a human being. And so it was something that I wanted to go and try out. So I went to my neighborhood zendo. And I don’t know what I was expecting exactly. But I had a bunch of big questions on my mind. And the guy sat me down and, for an hour, just taught me how to breathe and how to sit. And these were things that I thought I knew how to do. So it was strange at first. But I stuck with it. I sat. I breathed. I counted to ten. So for the last five years, I’ve been doing it pretty regularly. Meditating. Going on retreats. I’ve found a lot of terrific things in it. And I think it helped me get a handle on the kinds of experiences that Fred was having. Or at least some of them. And it helped me feel like the material was my own a little bit more. And there’s a lot of elements of Zen which ended up coming into play in the book.

The Bat Segundo Show #410: Alex Shakar (Download MP3)

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BAMcinématek: Red Desert (1964)

Michelangelo Antonioni’s Red Desert, which begins a ten day run at BAMcinématek this afternoon, is surely one of the most beautiful ugly movies ever made. The colors are largely gray and murky, and the apparent progress of red radar masts transform communication into something which looks more closer to derricks. Water isn’t just dark and polluted; it is oily and smoky, very much living up to its Lethean role. Sickly yellow enters near the end with a resigned acceptance. Rooms, painted with bright red, are cold and subject to random destruction. State-of-the-art robot toys crash around dark rooms over and over and over. Spoiled children don’t feel any special desire to get out of bed. They even willfully fool their mothers into believing that they have a serious illness. Large areas are filled up with endless bric-a-brac, with one wondering how it all got there in the first place.

Given all this bleak imagery and given the seemingly slim story (Giuliana, a young mother married to an engineer, is suffering mental breakdown), why then would anyone want to see Red Desert? Why then would anyone be so drawn to Monica Vitti’s miserable face, which seems equally tortured by environment and filmmaker and often dons a very sad smile for protection? Largely because of Antonioni’s audacity and largely because everything here is not as it seems. This was his first film in color and he was determined to paint nearly every building around him. Pipes, walls, the insides of a vacant cottage? Chances are that it was painted. Chances are that the actors were positioned not to show off their talent, but for Antonioni to show off his brush strokes. And it all makes Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s modifications of Paris by CGI look outright lazy by comparison. It’s hard to imagine anyone going to such trouble today, and I wish that they would. Red Desert reminds us of those halcyon days when filmmakers strewed their streets with serious trash and rolled up their sleeves to accentuate abject locales.

The other reason to see Red Desert is largely as a test in mood. Because Red Desert may be a depressing film, if you can still find something cheery about the world afterward, you may very well be an optimist. But in your quest to find beauty within the abject, does your soul become abject? Like anything in life, it’s all a matter of perspective.

The above sequence is about as alienating as art house cinema gets. Giuliana wishes to escape her increasingly populated environment. But instead of offering help or providing some fun aside from eating eggs (augmenting your fertility: is this really what frivolity is all about in the Antonioni universe?) or wanton destruction (red wooden walls destroyed, along with a chair), her friends can only stare into the world around them. They are statuary dissipating into the fog. Should Giuliana be blamed for this? Is this merely the way that she looks at the world? She decides to act by nearly driving a car into the watery abyss (an attempt at suicide or a response to this miasma?). She says, “Forgive me. A mistake.” She claims not to have seen the ship. All she wanted was to drive home. But what is home? And is what we are seeing here a mistake?

A 1965 review published in Life suggested that Antonioni was “getting to the point where he has nothing new to say about nothingness.” But this assumes that experiencing Red Desert is merely accepting “nothingness” without considering that it may be something else or that mood or style can suggest other emotions. Antonioni is all about confronting our perceptions about the way people live with colors. Giuliana commits an act (or does she?) near the end of the film — just before saying “Why do I always need other people?” and just before she seems to transform into a piece of human furniture (while clutching a chair, match) and just before tracing her fingers on a map that doesn’t have the place she’s looking for (home?). Much as Jack Nicholson’s David Locke assumes a dead man’s identity in The Passenger to atone for the rebels he can’t seem to locate, Giuliana’s response to malaise is to do something instead of nothing. And it takes observing a dark and slightly bent figure from a window — perhaps some future version of her — to understand that nothingness is a state of mind. What’s especially interesting is that her act causes the room she is in, and all of its objects, to shift into a fleshy pink. So did she actually commit the act? Or did she merely think it? And is thinking a form of doing? Whatever it is (and Antonioni is considerate enough of his audience to leave this open-ended), it does allow Giuliana to return to the world, with great pockets of steam pushing beneath her, and walk away from what seems poisonous without fearing it or worrying about it.

In a year that has given us revolutionary upheaval, natural disasters, and economic uncertainty seemingly without letup, Red Desert is fresher than ever in what it has to say about living.

The Bat Segundo Show: Lauren Beukes

Lauren Beukes appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #409. She is most recently the author of Zoo City.

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Avoiding roaming urban animals.

Author: Lauren Beukes

Subjects Discussed: Jet lags and hangovers, cultural references, I Can Haz Cheeseburger, whether or not books should be of their time, American Psycho and Phil Collins, violence and cheeseball songs, hyper-specific description, William Gibson, the influence of writing for animation, the differences in writing journalism, comics, and screenplays, considering the right level of detail, action scenes vs. dialogue, Hanna, implausible action movie scenes, getting the geography of an apartment block, the ability to get journalistic answers from people when you say you’re a novelist, magic and fantasy rooted in practical limitations and innate talent, Red, a personal belief system as a peer review process, Johannesburg’s geography, Nechama Brodie’s The Joburg Book, conversations with traditional healers, worldbuilding and getting the reader to believe, major clues hidden within conversation, bad worldbuilding involving two guys sitting in a bar, writing as a road trip, having a planned ending in advance, alligators, reclusive music industry producers who are in decline, establishing Zinzi’s streetcred, arriving at the right balance between ambiguity and just enough information, unreliable narrators, Melinda Ferguson’s Smacked, cinematography and photography references within Zoo City and Moxyland, similes throughout Zoo City, Raymond Chandler, phantasmagorical noir, Oryx and Crake, the problems of reading fiction while writing fiction, South African criminal slang, steering away from transcribed speech, The Wire, relying on other writers for certain chapters of Zoo City, conducting interviews with fictional characters, the problems with theories contradicting fictional worlds, being the “head writer” of your own novel, The Third Man, Paul Bowles, visual references, and internalizing influence.


Correspondent: Lauren, how are you doing?

Beukes: I’m very, very, very jetlagged. Thank you for asking.

Correspondent: Yes, well, I’m hungover as well. So I think it’s an equal playing field. I wanted to first of all start with the issue of cultural references. This book has quite a number of recent ones. “I can haz murder weapon.” I don’t think I’ve even seen “I can haz cheeseburger” in a novel ever. Lady Gaga: well that’s comparatively recent. The 419 scams. I’m curious. When you deploy a relatively recent cultural reference, you’re dealing with a two year lag time in terms of the book coming out. What do you do to make sure that it’s right? Or that it’s actually something that will possibly be tangible in a matter of years? Or do you have this virtue here, in this case, of a sideways universe, as it were? So that, as a result, whether a reference is dated or not, this is not so much a distinction or a problem.

Beukes: I never really worried about references dating the book. I think books are of their time and I think they should be. You know, when I was doing my masters in creative writing at the University of Cape Town, my lecturer said, “You absolutely should not put any contemporary references. Because it dates the book horribly.” You know, The Great Gatsby has dated horribly. American Psycho has dated horribly. And they still work. Because the story is compelling enough and it’s actually a really interesting snapshot of the time. So, you know what, I don’t care. I like to think that it dates it. The book is set in 2011 and those are the cultural references.

Correspondent: Interesting that you mention American Psycho. Because near the end, there’s a Phil Collins reference. So it leads me to wonder if that was a possible influence on getting that sort of juxtaposition of violence and cheeseball songs.

Beukes: Yeah. I don’t know if it was conscious. But it might have been something that I internalized. Yeah.

Correspondent: A two stroke gash across the face of a menacing street urchin. The Maltese’s car polished and waxed to within an inch of its warranty. This is hyperspecific, very measurement unit-like description. Which I like by the way. Reminiscent to some degree of William Gibson. However, at the same time, I know that you have also written for animation. And I’m curious if some of that animation writing background has affected your ability to describe things in this very ultra-precise matter. What of this?

Beukes: I think there are two influences on my writing. I’ve basically got three day jobs. I’ve been a journalist. I’ve been a TV scriptwriter. I’ve been a novelist. And now I’m doing comics as well. And all those different fields have very, very specific things to their discipline. The animation, you have to describe things very, very precisely. The same with comics. You have to absolutely describe the scene. You have to describe the emotion that the character is going through. Which means I sometimes pull funny faces in character, trying to figure out, “Oh, what does this sneerer actually look like? And how are they sneering?”

Correspondent: Do you take photographs of yourself?

Beukes: No, I don’t. That would just be silly. But I should set up a webcam and kind of do a live streaming thing where people can log in and laugh at me.

Correspondent: So you need to know the precise expression of what’s going down. And then you have the option to describe it in detail or not, whether for animation or for prose.

Beukes: Absolutely. But I think journalism also has a lot to do with it. The details of journalism. And I think details make a story. I mean, I’m lucky to do a lot of — not news journalism, but narrative journalism and investigative features in finding those telling details. So I think my eye for detail probably comes from there. And then also the specifics of having to write for animation and having to track things very, very clearly and stage manage very clearly for the animators.

Correspondent: Well, I mean, how much of this is an organic process? And how much of it is considering the right level of detail to communicate the right information to the reader?

Beukes: I think it’s pretty organic. I don’t think about it too much. Dialogue comes very easy. Actions scenes are really hard — they don’t come naturally to me. I really have to work on them.

Correspondent: Why are action scenes tougher than dialogue?

Beukes: I don’t know. I think because I really like talking. You know, I’m a talker, not a fighter. I think dialogue is so much a part of who we are. And I really like using the subtext in dialogue. And of course, that’s very, very strong in animation. I think it’s also I’m not a really big action movie fan. And action has a lot to do with movement. I really enjoyed Hanna recently. I thought the way they did the action in there was just intense and amazing and surprising. And you really felt it. So many action scenes — you know, the truck falls off the bridge and there are multiple explosions. And they’re just empty. So it’s really trying to write meaningful action.

Correspondent: Is fighting similar to gestures and facial expressions for you? Do you have to like roll on the ground to get a sense of how things are working out here?

Beukes: Uh…

Correspondent: Do you have a sparring partner?

Beukes: (laughs) No, no. I wish. I did a little bit of kickboxing, but that was years ago.

Correspondent: Yeah.

Beukes: I do sometimes act certain stuff up, but not fight scenes. But I will really think about the choreography. And I’ll spend a lot of time thinking about it.

The Bat Segundo Show #409: Lauren Beukes (Download MP3)

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