Posts by Edward Champion

Edward Champion is the Managing Editor of Reluctant Habits.

Audio Drama: “Canny Valley”

Last week, we released “Canny Valley” This is the fifth chapter of our massive epic, “Paths Not Taken,” which takes place from 1994 through 2023 in two parallel universes. This seven part story is part of the second season of The Gray Area. You can follow the overarching story through this episode guide.

This is the most ambitious story we have ever told. It takes place in two parallel universes and follows numerous characters between 1994 and 2023. “Camny Valley” is the fifth chapter of an exciting seven part epic that involves parallel universes, lost love, identity, forgiveness, compassion, fate, fortune tellers, mysterious Englishmen, strange interdimensional creatures named Chester, a wildly exuberant alien fond of hot dogs and Tony Danza, and life choices.

You can listen to the first chapter here, the second chapter here, the third chapter here, and the fourth chapter here.

Here are a number of useful links: (The Gray Area website) (the iTunes feed) (the Libsyn RSS feed) (the Podchaser feed)

For listeners who don’t want to wait two weeks for the next chapter, we also have all seven parts (as well as a great deal of behind-the-scenes material) available for Season 2 subscribers at grayareapod.podbean.com.

Here’s the synopsis for Chapter Four:

In this “screwball cyberpunk” episode, it’s 2023. Labor camps, a sinister government, and significant civil unrest rollick the world outside. But within the secret chambers of the multibillion tech company Apotheosis, an optimistic entrepreneur named Jill Swanson, who names her engineers after 1930s comedy film directors, sits on a secret that may just save the world. (Running time: 72 minutes)

Written, produced, and directed by Edward Champion

CAST:

Jan Swillson: Ingeborg Reidmeier
Lane Veldt: Adriano La Rocca
Brianna: Samantha Cooper
Jenna: Devony DiMattia
Rochford: Rachel Baird
The Executive: Rachel Matusewicz
Mutt: David McCall
Jeff: Matthew Rini
Preston: Richard Rose
Sturges: Len Nash
La Cava: Luvelle Pierre
Hawks: David Perez-Ribada
News Anchor: Carol Jacobanis:
Amelia: Monica Ammerman
Protester #1: Nicholas Boesel
Protester #2: Khaz Benyahmeen
The Preacher: Peter Andrews
and Zack Glassman as The Receptionist

Creature Voices: Samantha Cooper and Rachel Baird

Sound design, editing, engineering, and mastering by a bald man in Brooklyn who has a ridiculously enormous crush on D’Arcy Carden for her magnificent smarts and great talent.

The “Paths Not Taken” songs were written and performed by Edward Champion

Incidental music licensed through Neosounds and MusicFox.

Image licensed through Getty.

Thank you for listening!

If you’d like to support this independent audio production and learn more about how we made it, for only $20, you can become a Season 2 Subscriber! You’ll get instant access to all episodes as we finish them — months before release. Plus, you’ll get access to exclusive interviews and more than 400 minutes of behind-the-scenes commentary! Here are some behind-the-scenes photos and videos pertaining to this episode that we made during the more than two years of production we put into the second season.

Behind-the-Scenes:

View this post on Instagram

Today, I recorded 27 pages with the delightful and wonderfully talented @ingeborgie. I also recorded with her on Tuesday and will be recording with her again next week! Our challenge is to get all her lines recorded before she is unavailable next month! And we're definitely going to do it, thanks to some nimble logistics from both of us. You may remember Ingeborg from "Buddies for Hire," which won a Parsec Award. Well, her character is coming back in a very prominent way. And that's all I'm going to say. But I need to reiterate why Ingeborg is so awesome and why I love working with her (and why I will do so again once I get around to Season 3!). I can give her a note and she will always find some incredibly subtle way of not only implementing it into the framework we've established, but nailing it without me having to layer it further with another note. Indeed I got so caught up in paying close attention and nurturing Ingeborg's performance today that, when I was performing the other lines, I became a little exuberant and knocked over a music stand. I really can't wait to finish this story. Ingeborg revealed aspects of this character that I did not see and inspired me to do some very modest rewrites of a few lines on the spot! Thank you Ingeborg! You are wonderful, a pure joy to work with, and I am blessed to have you on this production! #acting #audiodrama #directing #performance #notes #voiceover #recording

A post shared by Edward Champion (@grayareapod) on

View this post on Instagram

Rough demo of Season 2 song.

A post shared by Edward Champion (@grayareapod) on

View this post on Instagram

It's 90 degrees and today is a two session day! But I got off to an incredible start with @caroljacobanis, a veteran actor with a TRULY impressive list of voiceover credits (including POKEMON!) and a voice that I feel obliged to compare to a cheerful deity. I was truly honored that Carol strongly connected to the material and, like so many of the cast members, seemed to come out of nowhere. Her character is modeled partially on Fenella Fielding, the brassy Village announcer in Patrick Mcgoohan's THE PRISONER. And she was tons of fun to work with. I was so stunned by how great she was that I had to remember to keep my director's hat on and do fine tweaks to make sure we retained little satirical subtleties and callbacks to other stories. But honestly I didn't have to do much, other than to remind Carol that not one of my characters is one note and make suggestions to go wild and big at times. Thank you so much, Carol. You are a serious powerhouse! #audiodrama #acting #recording #voiceover #character #theprisoner #fenellafielding #village

A post shared by Edward Champion (@grayareapod) on

View this post on Instagram

Today, the magnificent @ingeborgie (joined by the always terrific @glassmanegerie) returned to the studio as a version of Jill Swanson, the villain from "Buddies for Hire." Of this new character iteration, I can say nothing other than note the truly strange emotional poignancy of today's scenes. I learned much about the interplay between these two characters that I did not know and I have Zack and Ingeborg, both incredibly kind and committed collaborators who I am grateful to have as part of this project, to thank for this. Especially since this is such an enormous script I'm recording! They are true troupers! Thank you, Zack and Ingeborg! #acting #audiodrama #emotions #recording #fun #unexpected

A post shared by Edward Champion (@grayareapod) on

View this post on Instagram

This morning, I was incredibly honored and delighted to work with @dramamatt, who beat out many dozen actors to land a character in a story set in the near future. I was struck immediately by how funny and distinct Matt was in conveying this character's very subtle and layered neurosis. And it was very difficult to stifle my laughter while recording. At one point, I gave Matt his big moment by saying, "Okay, on this line, you are the most confident coward in the world." Sure enough, Matt rose to the challenge quite well! This was yet another one of those fun sessions in which I so enjoyed it that I was a bit sad when we ran out of lines. But I was very happy to include Matt on this epic story and his invaluable contributions have really added to a vivacious and hilarious dynamic that is unlike anything else I have recorded! Thank you Matt! #audiodrama #recording #acting #character #neurosis #magic #dynamic #fun

A post shared by Edward Champion (@grayareapod) on

View this post on Instagram

Today, the glorious @larocca_cola returned to The Gray Area to record new dialogue. You may remember him as Venall from "Brand Awareness." But is he the same character? Well, you'll have to wait until the show gets released. But let's just say that there are big payoffs for anyone keeping close tabs and that interconnectedness is a prominent part of this entire series! I will say that Adrian was once again a joy to work with. He actually inspired me to articulate minute details of this character's philosophy that came entirely from his own subtle and instinctive interpretation of the script. Qualities I didn't know were there! The more we recorded, the better Adrian got. And so I gently pushed him (but not, most importantly, at the expense of his energy!) to be more real and, in one case, unexpectedly poignant about the mercenary self-delusion his character possesses. This role is a bit of a departure from what we established in the first season, but Adrian was very much up to the challenge and I knew he had it in him. And for this, I am tremendously grateful to Adrian for fitting me into his crazy schedule. Thank you Adrian! #acting #recording #audiodrama #character #real #subtle #fun

A post shared by Edward Champion (@grayareapod) on

View this post on Instagram

This morning, I had the great pleasure of recording with the incredibly kind and very talented @maviddccall, who was tremendously funny in this role. I met David in my Improv 401 class and he was one of the shining stars, a true inspiration to me with his zest and performance and also the way that he looked out for everybody. Thankfully, he was nice enough to sign on for my madness and he more than delivered, cracking me up so much that I really had to confine my convulsions within my chest so that none of my laughter would escape onto tape! I really wanted to make sure that his great gusto came through. So at one point, I said, "Okay, this is your TMZ moment!" And he offered numerous variations on this broad note that were all incredibly funny. David is truly one of the most generous actors I've ever worked with. And I am deeply grateful to him for taking the time out to record material for this epic tale! Thank you David! You are awesome! #acting #audiodrama #recording #character #fun #improv #comedy

A post shared by Edward Champion (@grayareapod) on

View this post on Instagram

Today I got to record with the very tall and very funny Len Nash. He was an immense pleasure to work with! Strangely enough, he's the second actor from Tennessee in these scenes. But the talented thespians from Tennessee really seem to GET this story for some reason. Len is one of those actors who has what I like to call a 75% instinct, meaning that he's pretty much there with his inventive interpretation and it's your job as a director to coax out the remaining 25%, suggesting ideas and fine tuning a line with a light note. He absolutely got the subtle surrogate family nuance I sneaked into this scene. And he truly cracked me up as we injected more layers with this character. I definitely want to work with him again! Thank you so much Len for being so fun and easygoing! This is the last week (Week 21!) of recording Phase I of Season 2 and a wonderful way to start the week! #acting #audiodrama #character #Tennessee #recording #instinct

A post shared by Edward Champion (@grayareapod) on

View this post on Instagram

WE JUST COMPLETED PHASE I OF RECORDING! HOLY FRIJOLE! This morning, I recorded with veteran character actor Richard Rose, a very talented and super nice guy! And get this. He is ALSO from Tennessee. That makes three of the six key actors in this tale from Tennessee. Anyway, Richard was excellent. Great fun to work with. He has a beautifully sonorous old time radio voice (and some background in old school radio). And we played this up by imbuing this comic character with a misplaced dignity that had the two of us laughing and that works beautifully with the ensemble nature of the piece. Honestly, returning to formalist roots while experimenting with new forms was the perfect way to close these sessions. And I am deeply grateful to Richard for being a good sport and riffing hilariously from some of my goofy notes. Thank you Richard! And now I'm going on vacation, thoroughly confused that my weird life of recording with dozens of incredibly cool actors is (for now anyway — until Phase II begins later in the year!) over. Let the editing begin! But first, vacation! Supreme gratitude to the brilliant and incredibly accomplished cast. This year has been a blast, one of the best creative periods I have ever had in my life, and I can't wait to finish and release these stories! #audiodrama #acting #character #comedy #performance #gratitude #Tennessee #recording #vacation

A post shared by Edward Champion (@grayareapod) on

View this post on Instagram

This morning, two incredibly talented "Loopholes" cast members — @samanthafcooper and @rachelbaird18 — returned to record an action-packed scene in another Season 2 story! I have been introducing more multiple actor recording sessions this season — in large part because, aside from being a lot of fun, having actors in the same room really brings out unpredictable chemistry, which also makes ad libbing quite fun. Sam and Rachel are both a great joy to work with and I knew that they would both connect with each other very well! Sure enough, they did, which was important for their two characters. And because these two have such gloriously distinctive voices, I had them do some creature work for a beast that you will come to know in the second season. I would give each of them a situation, point to one of them, then point to the other and have the other mimic the first sound, and then reset the idea, doing the same thing in reverse. I am immensely grateful to these two incredible women for their energy and commitment on a very zany tale that I also happen to be editing right now! Thank you, Sam and Rachel! #acting #audiodrama #character #creature #improv #fun #chemistry #recording

A post shared by Edward Champion (@grayareapod) on

View this post on Instagram

It was one of the noisiest days ever! Recalcitrant neighbors blasting music, endless cars, men on the street who pretended it was the weekend and chattered long and loud. But persistence pays off! We kept moving the mic around the apartment and @ingeborgie and I recorded all the lines! Ingeborg totally crushed it. And we worked to give her character some subtle quirks (one involving John Hughes!). Ingeborg cracks me up. This was so much fun that I wish I had more dialogue just to find a way to keep working with her this season. But all good things must come to an end. Thank you so much, Ingeborg, for bringing this character to life! More dimension than I even imagined! I have great plans in place for Season 3! And I can't wait to finish this wild and thrilling story!#audiodrama #acting #character #recording #noise #persistence #creative #fun #happt

A post shared by Edward Champion (@grayareapod) on

View this post on Instagram

Today I recorded again with the magnificent @larocca_cola. He previously appeared in "Buddies for Hire" and, much like @ingeborgie, his role may or may not be related to the previous character! That is all I will say at this time. Adrian is such a fun and easygoing fellow that, once we got into the groove of the character, he killed it. Lots of great energy, spontaneous tics he brought that I weaved into the whole! He absolutely detected one very careful nuance to the scene that I deliberately planted. And he knew just what questions to ask, which inspired me to invent a paradoxical ideology for the character on the spot that was also there, but that I somehow missed in the script until we started recording. (This is why actors are so amazing. You often don't realize how layered your story is until you record!) I liked working with Adrian so much last season that I deliberately wrote the character playing to Adrian's untapped strengths. His instincts are incredibly savvy when it comes to what is sincere and insincere. And he inspired me so much that, at one point, I sang "If I Only Had a Heart" in Jack Haley style after a tic. This is going to be a very exciting story! Thank you again, Adrian! I am so honored and delighted to work with you! #acting #audiodrama #character #thewizardofoz #tics #human #behavior #recording #fun #performance

A post shared by Edward Champion (@grayareapod) on

View this post on Instagram

A super fun evening recording session with the marvelous @lehcarraquel! Rachel is super committed and wonderfully energetic, a thrill to work with! A crazy storm started kicking in as Rachel got more into it! And I think the elements may have understood the drama we were layering! I cannot say anything about her role, but this clip should give you a nice taste. Let's just say that Shakespeare and James Bond were key guides to fleshing out this juicy character. And I think I may have unwittingly introduced her to the amazing and awesome Caroline Munro! Thank you Rachel! #acting #character #audiodrama #actor #theatre #shakespeare #jamesbond #carolinemunro #kubelik #theapartment #recording #voiceover #sound #storm #drama

A post shared by Edward Champion (@grayareapod) on

View this post on Instagram

The last role I cast for Season 2 (indeed, the only one I still had open!) went to the main man behind @lit_karaoke, whose energy and enthusiasm I had to get into this epic production. He told me that he was an actor as well and I said, "Well, okay. If you're serious…" I then had to track K down in person after my text and email to him fell upon deaf ears! But once he knew I was serious, man, was he REALLY into this part! K was not only cool enough to make time for me, but found a rational hook for this small character that surprised even me! And I think the scene in question is going to be more surprising than I intended, which is always a good thing! Thanks so much, K, for being a part of this production! Honored to have you! #acting #audiodrama #karaoke #character #recording #voiceover

A post shared by Edward Champion (@grayareapod) on

View this post on Instagram

Well, @julchapin and I did it! Our previous session was kiboshed due to construction, but we finished recording her character and had a blast! Part of the fun here was making sure that Julie — who, like me, is a very funny overthinker sometimes — to go with her emotional instinct. That matters the most when you're conjuring up a character! And sure enough, Julie pulled a terrific performance, especially when I asked her to go softer and quiet. The full scene — and @katrinaclairvoyant, you KNOW the one we're talking about (this is the one with your favorite line!) — is now a fascinating blend of conflicted human emotion, a real attempt, to the best of my ability, to excavate much of what we hide from each other. And Julie's subtle presence here really helped nail the tone. I can't wait to edit this! Thank you so much, Julie! You were marvelous! #audiodrama #acting #performance #real #emotions #voiceover #yay

A post shared by Edward Champion (@grayareapod) on

I wrote and recorded a scene, but the episode was running long!

Bob Woodward Demands an Apology

On any given day, Bob Woodward demands a minimum of thirty-two apologies from various people he encounters. Most of the people whom Bob Woodward demands apologies from are women who ask him legitimate questions. But he has already answered these questions. And asking Bob Woodward a question is disrespectful. Do you not recognize the Genius of Bob Woodward? At least Bob Woodward is not grabbing the legs of his enemies like Otto in A Fish Called Wanda, looking down on their bodies from open windows with imperious vengeance and unhinged narcissism. Bob Woodward is too old for such shenanigans. But in his younger days, he may have done this.

This is the way that Bob Woodward rolls. He is a 77-year-old man of the old school. Show Bob Woodward some respect! Just yesterday, Bob Woodward demanded an apology from the barista who got his order wrong. He had ordered a skim milk latte, but the barista had accidentally given him a whole milk latte. Bob Woodward was not pleased. You don’t mess up Bob Woodward’s order. He’s a Journalistic Treasure! Don’t you remember Watergate and Bob Woodward’s invaluable journalistic contributions? Bob Woodward is a hero! Don’t you recognize this? Goddammit, he deserves the correct latte he ordered.

So when the barista politely asks Bob Woodward if he can accept a correctly constructed skim milk latte as recompense for the screwup, Bob Woodward says no. Because the barista should have made the latte right the first time. “Contact my people,” says Bob Woodward, “They’ll send you a free book.”

Bob Woodward sends a free book to anyone he demands an apology from. It seems only fair. He is sitting on a very large pile of his books. On days when Bob Woodward is depressed, he will walk into his study and stare at the vertiginous towers of his volumes stacked neatly in his den and smile and say, “Why yes! This is why I am Bob Woodward!”

It was Saturday morning. The paper boy, who is working two other jobs, hurled a copy of The Washington Post onto Bob Woodward’s porch. But the paper did not land on the pressure-treated redwood slats at the right angle. The paper did not land right next to the tall lantana plant that had spent the summer soaking up the sun. Bob Woodward was very upset by this. We might all be upset with such calumnies, even when there are very small stakes involved. It’s a difficult time to be alive. So Bob Woodward called around to people he knew at the paper and demanded an apology. “Mr. Woodward,” said the kid on the phone. “With all due respect, this is an easily cleared up misunderstanding.” “No,” said Bob Woodward. “This is a matter of pride. I’m Bob Woodward! Don’t you understand this?” And so Bob Woodward reamed into the kid on the phone and made sure that both the paper boy and the kid on the phone were fired. Never mind that these were rough economic times. But that was the regrettable price of crossing Bob Woodward. You don’t question Bob Woodward. Bob Woodward is always right. Bob Woodward has created a life that demands supplication and genuflection and obedience. Bob Woodward doesn’t understand why these kids never got the “Respect your elders!” memo.

Bob Woodward wasn’t feeling very well when Shira Stein and Karen Ho pressed him on a thorny ethical issue — namely, why he held onto the Trump tapes for so long, tapes in which Trump revealed that he knew the true threat of the coronavirus as early as February. If the tapes had been released sooner, was it possible that more American lives would be saved? Would it also be possible that lives in other countries might have been saved if Bob Woodward had not stayed quiet? Bob Woodward insisted to the two uppity women (were they really journalists or did they play journalists on TV?) that he needed to figure out whether Trump was referring to the United States when he said these things multiple times. He needed until at least May. Why the delay in corroboration? Well, Bob Woodward was still catching up on Schitt’s Creek. It was one of the few television series known to penetrate Bob Woodward’s serious hickory mien, a look modeled after Andrew Jackson that he regularly evinced to his wife and to his professional peers and that caused all people in Bob Woodward’s immediate circle to revere him and to fawn over him without criticism. Besides, like anyone, Bob Woodward needed to unwind sometimes. As Bob Woodward caught up on Schitt’s Creek between February and May, you could sometimes see Bob Woodward cracking a smile if you caught him on a good day.

And so Bob Woodward did what he always did. He demanded that Stein and Ho serve up apologies — ideally with a suggestive dance over Zoom. He didn’t really answer their questions.

But this time, much to Bob Woodward’s surprise, the two journalists did not back down. Much to Bob Woodward’s surprise, those who followed the dispute on social media took the side of the two younger journalists.

When Bob Woodward learned that his privilege didn’t inure him to criticism and that people thought he was being a dick, he began calling around for people who would offer apologies to him for invented offenses. For all perceived transgressors, he offered them a free copy of his book. Because a free copy of Rage was apparently the price you paid for abandoning your ethical core and backing down from justifiable criticism of Bob Woodward’s shaky journalistic methods.

It’s possible that Bob Woodward is a confidence man, much in the way that Janet Malcolm had famously described. After the Zoom meeting, Bob Woodward waited all day for the apologies to roll in. The apologies never arrived. Bob Woodward had reached an end point. He was too old to learn. He was too old to change. He was too caught up in the hot fire of his hubris to play it cool.

Bob Woodward had only one option left. He is now demanding an apology from himself. But he can’t seem to summon it. And he still doesn’t know why.

I Read the Charlie Kaufman Novel

I read the Charlie Kaufman novel after I had seen the latest Charlie Kaufman movie. I loved the Charlie Kaufman movie, feeling that I had understood it more than most people. By “most people,” I am referring to analytical types who were too keen on getting caught up in the film’s many references, which was, of course, Charlie Kaufman’s great trap. His greatest analytical victim was Richard Brody. Richard Brody is often an analytical victim when he writes his reviews for the New Yorker and everybody who follows film criticism knows this.

I did not feel that I was an analytical victim. I felt that I had understood the Charlie Kaufman movie because I had decided to feel it rather than understand it, to simply accept it for what it was, which was basically this: the entire film is the projection of a failed man and his ambitions, his life passing before his eyes. It is also a critique of privilege and patriarchy. Of course, there are other interpretations. But that is how it spoke to me. I could be right. I could be wrong. The fact that the Charlie Kaufman movie could be so many things says to me that it is a masterpiece. And I am not terribly concerned whether I am right or wrong about it. The point is that the Charlie Kaufman movie contained enough fascinating ambiguities to sustain my passion and interest.

I then started having many conversations with friends about what the film meant. I probably spent about seven hours of my life talking with friends about the Charlie Kaufman movie. And if you make a movie that someone ends up talking with other people about for seven hours, whether they love it or hate it, then you have very likely succeeded in making meaningful art.

Before seeing the Charlie Kaufman movie, I had no intention of reading the Charlie Kaufman novel. I have long been suspicious of filmmakers and screenwriters, especially clever ones like Charlie Kaufman, who decide to become novelists after the age of fifty. And that was most certainly what Charlie Kaufman had done. The man is now sixty-one years old, well over that high watermark of fifty. Now I had liked or loved all of Charlie Kaufman’s movies. I had seen them all. I even made a case for the sketches that Charlie Kaufman wrote for The Dana Carvey Show, although my argument was reliant upon a memory I had of watching The Dana Carvey Show when it originally aired and not based on any recent revisiting of the material. Some twenty-four years have passed since The Dana Carvey Show aired on national television. I did, in fact, revisit the material after I had cavalierly praised it during the seven hours of time I had devoted to discussing the Charlie Kaufman movie and I am not sure if I would defend The Dana Carvey Show as much as I did before revisiting The Dana Carvey Show. But every artist — including a clever artist like Charlie Kaufman — has to start somewhere. I am certain that my friends understood that this was the case and, after they had seen the material and reacted with some dubiety, I mentioned the twenty-four year gap and all was forgiven.

Back in the days when I was inexplicably invited to interview prominent people for my old podcast, I had the good fortune of interviewing Charlie Kaufman twelve years before 2020 had become The Year of Charlie Kaufman — a year that I am styling that way because it’s more hopeful than calling it The Year of the Pandemic or The Year of Living in a Hellscape or The Year In Which I Could Be Evicted From My Apartment Because Everybody is Unemployed and Nobody Can Pay Rent or The Year In Which We Started Taking Racism and Police Brutality More Seriously or The Year In Which We Waited to See Who Would Be in the White House Next Year and God It’s So Fucking Agonizing to Wait Please Put Us Out of Our Misery Already and because, unlike many artists, Charlie Kaufman had a new movie and a new book out that year. When I interviewed Charlie Kaufman twelve years before The Year of Charlie Kaufman, I got the sense that he didn’t like me very much.

I don’t think he likes critics or interviewers or journalists very much. He seems to have an antagonistic relationship with all of them. He often references them in his work. In the Charlie Kaufman movie, he had a character recite a Pauline Kael review of a Cassavettes movie verbatim. At one point during my interview with Charlie Kaufman, I had called Charlie Kaufman “an idea man.” He said that he wasn’t sure that he agreed with this. Perhaps he took umbrage because this seemed to be a generalization of what made a Charlie Kaufman movie a Charlie Kaufman movie. I meant no offense by the question. I only wanted to get a sense of what Charlie Kaufman’s brain was like and how he came up with ideas. He then proceeded to suggest that I didn’t know the premise of my question — that is, the premise that Charlie Kaufman was an idea man. He heckled me. So I decided to heckle him back, suggesting that he came up with a fresh idea every 2.2 days. I knew at the time that this probably annoyed Charlie Kaufman. Because you can’t really tell an artist that there’s a specific mathematical metric to the manner in which he comes up with ideas. I am also not sure why I felt compelled to annoy a man whose work I had admired like that. I was more egotistical and annoying back then and, for many years, I have had self-destructive tendencies. On the other hand, Charlie Kaufman seems to be annoyed by everything, especially analytical people telling him how he goes about making his art. Great artists are often annoyed and sometimes grumble, often for legitimate reasons. I suspect Charlie Kaufman had a legitimate reason to grumble at me. Even so, I viewed the “idea” thrust of our conversation as a way to see if Charlie Kaufman would be interested in having a bit of metafictional fun, much as many of his own movies were metafictional. I figured that the “metafictional fun” might be a different kind of interview than the usual ones, that it might take him out of the doldrums of sitting in the same room all day for twenty minute increments to talk to ostensible film journalists, answering the same questions and possibly entertaining the thought of blowing his brains out. Goodness me, if I had to spend weeks of my life doing that, I’d probably be as annoyed as Charlie Kaufman was with me and many other people. Maybe even more annoyed. So I don’t take Charlie Kaufman’s annoyance with me twelve years ago personally.

The fact that Charlie Kaufman was annoyed with me twelve years ago did not deter me from reading his book, nor did it have any influence upon my reaction. Again, my reluctance to read the Charlie Kaufman book had more to do with the temerity of the late-life artist jumping horses midstream. Perhaps this isn’t fair to Charlie Kaufman, but it reminded me of a man in a midlife crisis deciding to buy a sports car to prove to himself that he still had virility. While Charlie Kaufman was a clever screenwriter and filmmaker, it did not necessarily follow that he would be a novelist of the same skill. And, no, now that I’m going over the reasons, my immediate assumptions about Charlie Kaufman the Novelist weren’t entirely fair to Charlie Kaufman. Who the hell was I to make a snap judgment about one of the best screenwriters in the movie business? Maybe Charlie Kaufman wasn’t just a great novelist, but perhaps a great Scrabble player. Maybe he played the accordion when nobody was around and he was one of the top five accordion players in the world. I’ve only spent thirty minutes with Charlie Kaufman. That’s not enough time to know the man. The fact of the matter is that it was truly unfair for me to assume that Charlie Kaufman was little more than one of the best screenwriters in the movie business. Although I’m sure Charlie Kaufman would understand why I came to the conclusion that I did — that is, if he even cares. I suspect he doesn’t.

Despite all this, I read the Charlie Kaufman novel and I very much enjoyed it and I can strongly recommend it. If you enjoyed this essay, you will probably enjoy the Charlie Kaufman novel.

This has been a review.

The Maskless Run Amuck in Fort Lauderdale

They’ve thrown temper tantrums in stores. They’ve congregated in indoor rallies while donning red MAGA caps. Even when people among them die — such as the late Herman Cain weeks after Tulsa — they insist that the COVID protection is all a conspiracy — even after every scientific authority has insisted that the mask is the best way to protect yourself and others against the virus. They believe that any edict urging them to wear a facemask during a pandemic is an assault on their basic freedom.

So it was only a matter of time before they would start hitting the big box stores, adopting the ancient flashmob format — the finest social gathering format that 2005 had to offer.

A video of maskless demonstrators running amuck in a Fort Lauderdale Target went viral in the last two days. They walked into the store on September 15, 2020 wearing masks. Then they blasted the music. Twisted Sister’s “We’re Not Going to Take It.” A man ripped off his facemask and shouted, “Alright! We’re tired of shopping with masks on. And now we’re taking the masks off. You guys, we’re done with it!”

“Fucking idiots,” replied one of the people videotaping the incident.

The protesters ran like crazed proselytizers through the red decor of Target, urging all and sundry to “take their masks off.”

“That’s the only way it’s going to work! Is if we all unite!” shouted one woman.

They were allowed to do this for at least five minutes. One Target employee aloofly tried to intervene, not knowing what to do and mumbling something about having a nice day. But one of the agitators cried back, “Hey, you have a nice day, man!”

The Huffington Post‘s Jenna Amatulli was one of the first on the story. One of the protesters told her, “Don’t force me to wear a mask. Because it’s my right not to wear one!”

This was clearly the beginning of a makeshift movement. Cristina Gomez was one of the protesters. In a video that Gomez posted to Facebook (mirrored above), a man standing on the bed of a truck in a parking lot, shouted, “How is it that when their mask is working that I have to wear one too? And here’s the bottom line, okay? We’ve been using the medical exceptions. We’ve been using the religious exceptions. And that’s all fine and good. But no more exceptions! No more any of this!”

Gomez then pans her camera to a group of kids and shouts, “Can we get the kids? The cool kids? These are the cool kids. These are the future real men. Grown future grown men [sic] that are not wearing a mask.” Preying upon the innocence and vulnerability of kids is very much a part of this operation.

In the video, a young man by the name of John Gustavo, who claims on his Facebook page to be an “honest journalist,” then proceeds to interview this rowdy bunch — much in the manner of a Daily Caller reporter embedded within a Trump rally. What’s important is that these protesters look as if they could be taken seriously. And if that means using a flashmob format that appears to have emerged from an action plan or looking important enough to attract illusory “media attention,” this too is part of the deal.

At no point in any of the footage that I have reviewed do these protesters consider their maskless activity to be dangerous or infectious. And as I was to learn in a phone call on late Wednesday afternoon that I had with a Fort Lauderdale assistant police chief, the concern for public health clearly wasn’t shared by the authorities.

I wanted to know what Target planned to do about this. Because this incident seemed to me a baleful escalation of all the other maskless rallies. I was able to get in touch with Target’s Danielle Schumann by telephone. She pledged that she would provide me with a specific statement on how Target planned to respond to the incident. (As of Wednesday evening, despite a followup phone call to Schumann giving Target an opportunity to respond, I was not in receipt of any such statement. Nor has the company’s Twitter feed produced any statement condemning the maskless flashmob.)

[UPDATE: Schumann did send along Target’s statement not long after I filed this piece. Here it is below:

We shared earlier this summer that Target requires guests to wear masks whenever they’re shopping in our stores. Our priority remains the health and safety of our team and guests and we communicate our mask requirement through signs in our stores, overhead announcements and reminders from team members at the front of our stores. 

We’re aware of the group of guests who came into the store last night and we asked them to leave after they removed their masks and became disruptive and rude to other shoppers.]

Schumann was very nice, but did not answer numerous questions that I put forth to her about how Target would contend with unruly shoppers without masks in the future or even how they had coordinated with the police. She did confirm with me that Target had a nationwide ban in place that went into effect on August 1, 2020. But that was all that I was able to get out of her.

I made calls to the City of Fort Lauderdale to determine if they planned to shift their policy after this incident. My calls were not returned.

Interim Assistant Chief Frank Sousa of the Fort Lauderdale Police Department was nice enough to get in touch with me. Given the tendency of protesters of any stripe to push their shenanigans further, I had many questions about how the police was enforcing Executive Order 20-21 from the Broward County Administrator, which specifically prohibited people from entering establishments without a mask.

Sousa told me that the police had arrived at the Target, but the protesters had disappeared. They had only spoken with the store’s loss prevention officer. There was some talk of a guy in a T-shirt.

“There was no further action taken,” wrote Sousa to me in an email. “I do not know if you are aware but the individuals in the video originally complied with the E.O. issued by the County by entering the store with their mask on.”

I wrote back: “Are you basically saying that if someone were to go into a store with a mask on, that the executive order would not be enforceable?”

There was some back-and-forth. The emails got longer. Finally, Sousa telephoned me. I tried to lighten the tension from our feisty email exchange by joking about how we had both lucked out by being on the right coast, given the orange skies on the Pacific. He laughed.

Sousa informed me that, despite the executive order, walking around without a mask was not a crime. The only consequences were a civil fine.

Well, how do you expect people to comply with the executive order?

“We educate.”

How?

Sousa declined to say, but he suggested to me that there wasn’t rampant non-compliance in Broward County.

“They’re there to make a statement,” said Sousa of the Target group. “It’s the First Amendment.”

But doesn’t putting other people’s health at risk belie free speech?

“It’s not the police’s position to be the opinion police.”

I suggested that there were some situations that transcended mere opinions. I asked Sousa repeatedly if he would consider shifting this policy. I asked him if he considered walking into a store without a mask and endangering other people’s health to be riskier than, say, protesting outdoors without a mask.

He said he didn’t have an opinion.

Sousa suggested that there had been some enforcement of people not wearing masks indoors. Citations as well as fines. But he told me that he couldn’t offer me a precise answer because he didn’t have the stats in front of him. Which was a completely reasonable answer. But ultimately he believed that the Target incident was a free speech issue.

“They have their First Amendment rights. There is a county order.”

I liked Sousa. He seemed like the kind of man I could probably have a beer with, but only if he left his gun and his billy club at the station. Still, there was a growing tension to our exchange, one that I was able to gauge through the increased number of surly “Sirs” he barked at me over the phone as I carried on with my questions. I respectfully pressed Sousa on hypothetical changes to this policy, especially if the infection rate or the number of cases went up in the Fort Lauderdale area. But he declined to answer.

The takeaway here is that, if you are in the Florida area and choose to lead a maskless rebellion within the expansive confines of an indoor shopping mall, you will probably not be arrested by the police. The Fort Lauderdale Police, for one, certainly isn’t going to press you with additional charges. Especially if you have the foresight to leave the premises before the police arrive.

If you happen to be one of those people who sees masks as an affront to your freedom rather than an essential tool that will help flatten the curve, then, hey, sky’s the limit! Nobody will stand in your way. Not Target. Not the police. And certainly not the mayors and the governors who refuse to evoke protective regulations that can decrease COVID cases and save lives.

SEPTEMBER 16, 2020 8:30 PM UPDATE: I just received a statement from Target. I’ve added it to the story.

Bob Woodward’s Rage: Not a Barnbuster, But Still Vital

RAGE
by Bob Woodward
Simon and Schuster, 480 pages

It goes without saying that, contrary to Trump’s maddeningly megalomaniacal claim that his signature is now worth $10,000 on eBay, most of the universe would sleep easier if this walking disaster would swiftly disappear. And because this state of affairs is the norm, backed up by polls showing that the current President can barely squeak past 40% in the polls against Biden, it does make reading the latest Trump tell-all an act of masochism.

Most of us know that Trump has mangled the pandemic and permanently uprooted millions of Americans now facing grief, eviction, and unemployment. Most of us intuitively understand that nearly 200,000 Americans are dead because of Trump’s arrogance, cruelty, and ineptitude. Why then would one want to read another book exposing this pernicious sociopath?

Well, when it’s Bob Woodward, you do. Rage, Woodward’s followup to Fury, is different from his previous Trump volume because, this time around, he actually talked with Agent Orange, landing eighteen interviews with the monster between December 2019 and July 21, 2020 — the last on the very day his manuscript was due. It is different because we’ve been in the prepublication position of listening to the tapes. Trump clearly knew how deadly the virus was and he lied to the American public about it. Just as he lied about calling McCain and military veterans “losers” and “suckers” — as recently as last night in a town hall appearance on ABC. This disparity between the private and the public represents the very reason why we need journalists to dig up the details.

The book arrived last night. I stayed up until 5 AM reading it. The volume is by no means a barnbuster and will probably not change too many minds, but it does offer an even-handed narrative that serves as a necessary reminder of just what we’ve come to accept from the executive branch and why this simply cannot be the norm of American politics.

The book’s first half is largely a summary of the political hellscape that we’ve come to accept, with some new context. We see former secretary of state Rex Tillerson and former secretary of defense Jim Mattis enter into a Faustaian bargain with Trump under what now seems to be a dowdy ideal of patriotism and loyalty, no matter how bungling and dangerous the Commander-in-Chief may be. “How can you work for that man?” asks Mattis’s mother. “Ma, last time I checked, I work for the Constitution,” replied Mattis. Tillerson asks for numerous reassurances (being able to pick his own staff, asking Trump to refrain from a public dispute) before uneasily accepting the job. Tillerson, like many former Trump staffers, would be swiftly betrayed and have his conditions vitiated.

Mattis would find himself in a madhouse, contending with an easily distracted maniac who refused to countenance the facts. Here’s a stunning Mattis quote from the Woodward book:

It is very difficult to have a discussion with the president. If an intel briefer was going to start a discussion with the president, they were only a couple sentences in and it would go off on what I kind of irreverently call those Seattle freeway off-ramps to nowhere. Shoot off onto another subject. So it was not where you could take him to 30,000 feet. You could try, but then something that had been said on Fox News or something was more salient to him. So you had to deal with it. He’d been voted in. And our job was not to take a political or partisan position. It was, how do you govern this country and try to keep this experiment alive for one more year?

We see Senator Lindsey Graham — a man who, only five years ago, denounced Trump as “a race-baiting, xenophobic religious bigot” on CNN — cozy up to Trump on the golf course, even willing to give Trump the benefit of the doubt when evidence of Russian collusion was stacked against him. “Listen,” said Graham to Trump, “if you actually did this, even though it was before you were president, you cannot serve.” Trump responded, “I’ve done a lot of bad things, but I didn’t do this.”

In other words, the new loyalty among those who worked with Trump meant accepting blanket statements at face value, never corroborating these against the facts and, above all, never fighting a pernicious leader who was committed to magical thinking when he wasn’t abdicating his duties altogether. This is one of the key takeaways from Woodward’s book, one that eluded Alexander Nazaryan at the Los Angeles Times.1

What Trump has effectively accomplished over the last four years is to create a political environment in which believing in tangible and objective facts is now partisan. Much as empathy and taking care of a suffering population has become partisan. For there is no other way to explain why so many of the people who endured Trump over the long haul altered their command of the facts.

One of the book’s more shocking revelations involves Dr. Robert R. Redfield, the director of the CDC. Here is the man who ostensibly exists to protect the national health. When he first learned of the virus, Redfield nimbly cracked the whip and gathered his team — on New Year’s Eve, no less — and produced a three-page memo, the first of many detailed daily reports. But as we see in the book, even Redfield could be corrupted.

In late February, Redfield had information that there was “a big problem in New York.” There were cases of people from Italy who had been infected with the virus. At this point, Redfield was well aware just how fast the virus could spread. But he fell in with the Trump line, telling the commonweal, “The American public needs to go on with their normal lives. Okay?”

If Woodward doesn’t quite answer the question of how ostensible scientists like Redfield could abdicate the very scientific method in favor of Trump loyalty and propaganda, Woodward’s conversations with Trump, which constitute the book’s second half, are of considerable importance in understanding how we have permitted such a beast to get away with anything. The episodes involving Kim Jung-un reveal not only how Trump could be easily manipulated with targeted flattery (Kim always referred to Trump as “Your Excellency” in “love letters” obtained by Woodward), but of how flexible Trump could be in humanizing clear human rights abusers. When Woodward asks how he could have cozy relationships with monstrous men, Trump replies, “It’s funny, the relationships I have, the tougher and meaner they are, the better I get along with them. You know? Explain that to me someday, okay?”

Moreover, there is a creepy womanizing approach that Trump applies to diplomacy, one that makes the victims of Trump’s abuse and harassment even more necessary to not brush under the carpet. Here is Trump describing meeting Kim:

“You meet a woman. In one second, you know whether or not it’s all going to happen. It doesn’t take you 10 minutes, and it doesn’t take you six weeks. It’s like, whoa. Okay. You know? It takes somewhat less than a second.

Woodward also offers definitive evidence of just what a blundering credit taker Trump has been, particularly in relation to the virus. Five people – Dr. Anthony Fauci, Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar, the aforementioned Redfield, and security advisers Robert C. O’Brien and Matthew Pottinger — urged Trump to initiate travel restrictions on China. On deep background, Woodward paints a picture of a man merely telling the room, “Are you guys okay with this?” rather than, contrary to his own myth-making, being the sole voice to demand a flight ban. (Moreover, it is Fauci himself who suggests that stranded Americans be given the opportunity to return home.)

Jared Kushner tells Woodward that one of Trump’s great skills is “figuring out how to trigger the other side by picking fights with them where he makes them take stupid positions.” This quality may also explain why guys like Redfield and Mattis eventually gave up the ghost and allowed Trump to beat them down into tacit acceptance of the counterfactual.

And maybe that’s the rage of the title that we’re meant to feel here. Righteous indignation that was once so easily summoned and used to take out the politically corrupt, but that has been deadened over the last four years — save perhaps for the valiant efforts of the Black Lives Matter movement, which may very well be our only remaining hope. Because Trump is the new normal. And we’re all so busy trying to survive a pandemic, climate change on the West Coast, and the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression.