Neal Stephenson (BSS #245)

Neal Stephenson is most recently the author of Anathem. It is not known whether or not he “likes cake a lot.”

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Condition of Mr. Segundo: He likes cake a lot.

Author: Neal Stephenson

Subjects Discussed: Seven as the ideal number of guests for dinner, William Gibson, the shift from the near future to the past, Cryptonomicon and the Baroque Cycle, science fiction about the alternative present, the various manners in which one interprets information as forms of discipline, Kurt Godel’s life at the Institute for Advanced Study, Platonism, Edmund Husserl, the Kantian influence in Anathem, units of measurement, Gene Wolfe, the use of “runcible,” using very old words to avoid the high tech feel, “aut” and auto-da-fe, devising quasi-Latin lingo, Riddley Walker, learning new words as an essential part of the experience of literature, considering the general reader, devising a script that went through the entire text to determine how many words were invented, concocting an intuitive vernacular, cognitive philosophy concerning the fly, the bat, and the worm inspired by Husserl, reader accessibility, My Dinner with Andre, the danger of getting caught up in an invented world, the snowscape journey as a side quest, finding humor in unexpected places, Ras as the anti-Enoch Root, Robert Heinlein’s YA novels, Ras’s perception of music, music and mathematics, literal and figurative meanings, Max Tegmark’s The Mathematical Universe, creating a metaverse and happy accidents, being “family-based” and types of relationships within the Avout, Laura Miller’s suggestion that Anathem is “a campus novel,” use of the first-person, narrative constraints, criticism about women as nurturers, female characters, and the risk of writing books about ideas.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: Going back to the idea of the general reader, or the common reader — whatever we want to call the audience here — the philosophical proposition involving the fly, the bat, and the worm expressing basic cognitive abilities, and how cognitive abilities come together so that humans are a higher form of animal than other animals, this was a very clear way of expressing this particular concept of individual senses. And I’m wondering if this was something that you concocted. Or that you took from Kant. Because I actually tried to find a philosophical precedent for this as well.

Stephenson: It’s more from [Edmund] Husserl. So Husserl was an amazing guy who could just sit in his office and look at a copper ashtray, and then write at great length about all of the processes that went on in his mind when he was perceiving that ashtray, and recognizing it from one moment to the next as being the same object. And so he’s got a number of lengthy books about this, which, as you can imagine, are pretty hard to read. So the content of the dialogue, or the parable you mention — the fly, the bat, and the worm — really comes from him. But it’s me trying to write a somewhat more accessible version of similar ideas.

Correspondent: So you really wanted to be accessible in some sense, it seems to me.

Stephenson: In some sense, yeah.

Correspondent: Well, what sense exactly?

Stephenson: (laughs) Well…

Correspondent: If the reader doesn’t matter and, at the same time, there’s this accessibility here, it seems…what’s the real story? (laughs)

Stephenson: Oh no. The reader matters. The criterion is very simple. It’s got to be a good yarn. If it’s not a good yarn, then the whole enterprise fails. So I think that to have a good yarn, you’ve got to have characters that people are interested in. And they’ve got to get into situations that make for a good story. It’s okay to stop the action and have them sit down and have an interesting conversation. You know, for some reason, I always go back to the movie, My Dinner with Andre, which is a long movie consisting of two guys just sitting there talking with each other. But it’s a completely engaging and fascinating movie. That’s kind of an existence proof that you can build a good yarn that consists largely of people just having conversations. And so that was kind of my guiding — that was my guideline, I guess you could say, for trying to work that material in.

Categories: Fiction

Kiyoshi Kurosawa (BSS #244)

Filmmaker Kiyoshi Kurosawa is most recently the co-writer and director of Tokyo Sonata, a film that played the New York Film Festival and that will be released by Regent Releasing in the United States on March 17, 2009. For more information on this extraordinary film, please see our review.

We also wish to express our many thanks to translator Linda Hoaglund, who assisted us during the course of this interview.

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Condition of Mr. Segundo: Voiceless, per the requirements of a sonata.

Guest: Kiyoshi Kurosawa (director of Tokyo Sonata)

Subjects Discussed: Delving into the issue of whether or not contemporary Tokyo is now a city without a voice, collaborating with screenwriter Max Mannix, Ozu’s trains, crossing the axis, the noisy train behind the family house, characters pretending to be employed, the artistic blood within the family line, pretending as a coping mechanism, pretending to pretend to pretend, whether or not the idea of being adult involves accepting a false allegation, weapons of mass destruction, the relationship between authority and active behavior from subordinates, framing characters so that the audience doesn’t see a phone call, blocking actors so that they walk in very precise lines, the Tokyo organization men, showing more ancillary characters, the human infrastructure of Tokyo, using a pen as a microphone, symbolism, cleaning fluid and specialization, and the dramatic presentation of conformity.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: You have this train running behind the Sasaki home. And this suggested to me, along with the fact that you cut this film frequently crossing the axis in the editing — crossing the 180 line — it almost suggests an Ozu parody. Or the kind of movie that Ozu would have made if he were to live in our particular times. And I wanted to ask you how this visual style originated, as well as the subway line.

Kurosawa: (through translator) Yes, Ozu was the name I was most dreading hearing, if only because I’m such a huge maniacal fan of him. I really tried to shut him out of my brain. But I guess subconsciously a little bit of his influence remained.

Correspondent: Back to this notion. Ozu was not a part of developing this script? The subway line, I didn’t get an answer for the train behind the house. And I’m very curious about that. Because it very much reminded me of Ozu’s trains.

Kurosawa: (through translator) Actually, that train and the proximity to the house of the Sasakis was not in the script at all. It wasn’t intentional. As I wandered around Tokyo looking for the right home for the Sasaki family, there happened to be a train track next to that particular house.

Categories: Film

Charlie Kaufman (BSS #243)

Charlie Kaufman recently appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #243. Kaufman is most recently the writer-director of Synecdoche, New York, now playing in limited theaters.

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Condition of Mr. Segundo: Lost in the endless ebb and flow of emotional and cerebral ideas.

Guest: Charlie Kaufman

Subjects Discussed: Mr. Kaufman confronting more energy than he is accustomed to, whether or not Mr. Kaufman is an idea man, Mr. Kaufman’s slow conceptual process, exploring the possibilities of an idea peer review process for Mr. Kaufman, whether an idea can be emotional, what Mr. Kaufman has to do to impress our interviewer and the audience, how Mr. Kaufman changes, the issues that arise from Mr. Kaufman’s experiences, coming closer to a complete resolution of the world, shots of clocks in Synecdoche, New York, misunderstandings from Hollywood journalists, initial assemblies, how time seems to speed up as Mr. Kaufman gets older, walking by a clock that was a piece of graffiti on the wall, Caden and his colors, how Mr. Kaufman talks with the costume designer, whether or not clothes are comfortable on Philip Seymour Hoffman, Beckett’s Act Without Words, Mr. Kaufman trying to get closer to who he is, trying to avoid copying presentations of relationships from movies, Death of a Salesman, The Trial, literary influences, Equus, Proust, near literalisms, writing the Harold Pinter scene when revising the screenplay, and verifying real world headlines through the act of writing.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: It’s safe to say that you are an idea man. So I must ask you: to what degree do you worry about an idea? Does your mind brim with more ideas — even correct ideas — than you can possibly use? Are you thinking of ideas right now? Is there a slight sense of panic with any idea? What is your idea of ideas?

Kaufman: Well, this whole question is based on the premise that I am an idea man, which I’m not sure that I agree with.

Correspondent: Oh.

Kaufman: So I’m trying to break down what you asked me. And I don’t know. How am I an idea man? To turn this around. On you, Ed.

Correspondent: Well, I would argue that this film is laced with endless ideas meshing against each other.

Kaufman: Yes, it has a lot of ideas. But the ideas came over a two-year period, as I wrote the script. It’s not that I was furiously — like you or your girlfriend — furiously writing 700 pages in two days so that you could read it two days later. I mean, it’s slow. And sometimes it doesn’t happen at all for long periods of time.

Correspondent: So it’s the impression, I suppose, of being an idea man based on the final output here.

Kaufman: It’s not like it happens in real time. It’s not like there’s a two-hour movie and I wrote it in two hours.

Correspondent: Okay, well then let’s turn that…

Kaufman: I mean, I think you thought that before.

Correspondent: Oh certainly!

Kaufman: But it’s not true.

Correspondent: Let’s talk about it.

Kaufman: Let’s turn it around.

Correspondent: Okay. What is the actual ratio of you coming up with an idea? Is it one idea every 2.2 days? What’s the deal?

Kaufman: I would say that…(to himself) you figure two years….maybe it’s an idea a week.

Correspondent: And you have to determine whether…

Kaufman: And this is terribly disappointing for you.

Correspondent: Oh no! It’s actually quite interesting! I’m wondering. Do you have a certain….? Over the course of a week, do you determine whether that idea is correct in association with another idea? Is there kind of an idea peer review process that you run across in your mind? I mean, what’s the situation here?

Kaufman: There is no correct for ideas. Ideas are ideas. And if they’re interesting to me, they’re interesting to me. You know, I don’t know what an idea is actually. I think I think more in terms of emotions than ideas, although there are conceptual things that I utilize. Conceptual things that are devices or that are interesting to me. But the meat of the work for me is the emotional aspect of it. And I don’t know if you would consider those ideas or…

Correspondent: I think an emotional idea is nevertheless an idea.

Kaufman: Okay, then I…

Correspondent: You’re assuming that an idea is based entirely on cerebral terms. And I don’t think that’s necessarily the case.

Kaufman: Well, it may just be more the way that you’re presenting it. It feels….when you talk about ideas, and how many ideas you come up with, blah blah blah.

Correspondent: We’re presenting it in statistical data, yeah. (laughs)

Kaufman: It feels very cerebral.

Correspondent: Okay.

Kaufman: And scientific. And so yes, I have emotional ideas.

Categories: Film

Pale Young Gentlemen (BSS #242)

Pale Young Gentlemen is a band from Madison, Wisconsin that is currently touring across the United States, and has just released its second album, Black Forest (tra la la).

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Condition of Mr. Segundo: Contending with unexpected discrimination during the economic crisis.

Guest: Michael Reisenauer (of Pale Young Gentlemen)

Subjects Discussed: The benefits of “Pale Young Gentlemen” as a collective noun, musical arrangement and incorporating all members of the band into a song, input on specific sounds, divine acts of percussive serendipity, the troubling connections between the lyrics of “Our History” and the relationship between the Reisenauer brothers, observing strangers who are hit by cars, Beau Sorenson’s involvement, taking time off work to write music, balancing multiple forms of employment, the band acquiring a full string quartet, the cabaret-based music of the first album vs. the string-based approach of the second, the pros and cons of taking music seriously, mixing an album in two weeks, playing with seven members vs. touring with five, Ray Davies, being specific about falsettos and slurring vocals, word mashups, vocal sweetening, Billy Joel’s AutoTuning at the Super Bowl, Bret Randall, Jackie, touring and recognition, the ratio between writing music and performing, selling CDs, relying on word-of-mouth and the Internet, and having Matthew Reisenauer handle the business end of things.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Reisenauer: We’ll actually write through entire songs and entire arrangements, and then cast them away and then start over.

Correspondent: Really?

Reisenauer: That happened a lot with this album. As the songs started fitting together, certain things didn’t work at all anymore, didn’t work for the mood of the entire album anymore. So we had to change the arrangement so it fit better. Drums are one of the things that I have absolutely no knowledge about.

Correspondent: So you defer to Matt.

Reisenauer: I can’t play them. So he’ll play things. And he’ll do things. “Don’t do that anymore.” “That’s bad.” “That’s great.” Or “do that again.” You know, that kind of stuff.

Correspondent: I’m curious. Do you have any input on specific sounds? Or is that all Matthew? I note, for example, there’s that sound during “The Crook of My Good Arm,” where you have something that sounds between a cowbell and a gas station bell.

Reisenauer: Yeah, I can tell you what that is. I was having trouble with that song, and so I decided I’d just demo it in my apartment on an eight-track. So I just had the guitar line. And I was just messing around. And I was headed at a table. And at the table was a Pottery Barn-like fruit bowl. And so I just took the end of a handle on some scissors and banged on the inside of it.

Correspondent: Really?

Reisenauer: We used that on the record too. We brought that bowl into the studio.

Correspondent: It was that bowl.

Reisenauer: With the back of the scissors.

Correspondent: Did you try any other bowls out?

Reisenauer: No! It was the perfect sound right away.

Correspondent: It was one bowl and it worked out.

Reisenauer: Yeah, we didn’t mess with it at all.

Correspondent: Are there any other percussive scenarios like that? Where you banged on something and it turned out to be just that particular one? A divine act of serendipity?

Reisenauer: (laughs) Nothing like that on the album. We tried other various things. Matt had an idea for a song using a wrench. A ratchet wrench going KWHLEKT. Like that. That kind of stuff. But it didn’t end up fitting well for the album.

Categories: People

Megan Hustad (BSS #241)

Megan Hustad is most recently the author of How to Be Useful

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Condition of Mr. Segundo: Contemplating the usefulness of political candidates.

Author: Megan Hustad

Subjects Discussed: Establishing the terminology of usefulness, the prisoner’s dilemma, usefulness and cooperation, restaurant managers, the publishing industry as a starting point, “suc lit,” coming from a cash-poor middle-class background, the office as the default work environment for the middle-class, the virtues of being yourself, modifying behavior, Steven Greenhouse’s The Big Squeeze, the point in which you can be yourself on a job, career suicide, Dale Carnegie and highbrow critics, John Cawelti’s Apostles of the Self-Made Man, class issues, Dianetics, readers who have found How to Be Useful quite helpful, Mark Ames’s Going Postal, Donald Trump, cruelty in the workplace, dignity and usefulness, the end of job security, usefulness and the social contract, Helen Gurley Brown, Mad Men, Who Moved My Cheese?, Napoleon Hill, Neutron Jack Welch, Werner Erhard, taking success too far, the 1970s as the low point of success lit, the infamous Fairchild memo from 2005, stealing office supplies, the cost efficiencies of filter mechanisms, young people who are too conscientious about company property, the art of self-deprecation, Steve Forbes’s sad efforts to flip a pancake in 1996, and faux humble beginnings.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Hustad: The book is, in part, a survey of the genre of success literature. And I spent a year of my life holed up in the New York Public Library reading all these books. How to Win Friends and Influence People, Think and Grow Rich!, the list goes on. And what they all say, at heart, is that you’re not going to be successful — in life, in your relationships, in your career, what have you — if you’re not fulfilling someone else’s needs. If you’re not being of use to someone else. And that usefulness is at the heart of success. And whatever needs you have will be fulfilled through being of service.

Correspondent: But isn’t that a bit of a Machiavellian scenario? I mean, I’m not looking at this conversation as, “Oh, Megan’s being very useful to me!” I’m actually just curious about your book.

Hustad: Well, they would say that that’s an artificial distinction. You can be sincere and yet know that you will benefit from this sort of interaction. You can be sincerely interested with the knowledge that some good will come out of it.

Correspondent: So you can be subconsciously useful perhaps? I mean, how do you factor something like the prisoner’s dilemma into this situation?

Hustad: (laughs)

Correspondent: Certainly that’s the ultimate in useful diabolic results here.

Hustad: You’re going to have to tell me exactly, and perhaps remind your audience, what is the prisoner’s dilemma.

Correspondent: Well, the prisoner’s dilemma. You have two prisoners in a cell. If you rat on your partner, you will be let go for seven years or whatever the terms of the argument are. And so what ends up happening is that — if you have a little box here, a little four square box — if one rats on the other, it depends on how the circumstances play out. It’s like a big thing in game theory. It just comes to mind when thinking about usefulness.

Hustad: How? How so? (laughs)

Correspondent: Well, how so? Because the results are so terrible no matter how they end up!

Hustad: But we’re talking about good things here. We’re talking about people doing good for one another. Not evil!

Correspondent: Okay, but in the framing of this very influential theorem, which game theory is modeled upon, this is the ultimate way to perceive usefulness. Okay, I’ll get off of that.

Categories: Ideas, People

Marilynne Robinson (BSS #240)

Marilynne Robinson is most recently the author of Home.

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Condition of Mr. Segundo: Avoiding the relationship potential of malfunctioning XLR cables.

Author: Marilynne Robinson

Subjects Discussed: Revisiting the Gilead universe, Lawrence Durrell, Robinson’s aversion to sequels, the parable of the prodigal son, the role of letters and text within Gilead and Home, text as a lively and disturbing realm, affirming identity by chronicling detail, seizing the day, Bob Marley, the depiction of the home in Housekeeping in relation to the vertical landscape, “home” as a value-charged word, listening to vernacular hymns, characters who listen to the radio, music as the great common ground, music and memory, banishing certain words, whacking sentences down, characters and educational background, the advantages of not speaking, circular food in the Boughton household, the virtues of toast, family meals and communion, the frequency of dialogue in Robinson’s novels, the predestination colloquy in Gilead and Home, James Wood’s review, the advantage and limitations of third-person perspective, interpretation vs. living the events, the shifting definition of sin during the 20th century, Iowa and anti-miscegenation laws, the Chrysler DeSoto vs. Hernando De Soto, the Kennedys, secular figures within novels, Jonathan Edwards, hypocrisy and religion, the origins of character names, the role of judgment within family, Das Kapital and Jack’s Marxism, the history of The Nation, the writer-reader relationship, using a BlackBerry, and parody and the contemporary novel.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: I wanted to ask you about the tale of the prodigal son, which of course comes from Luke 15:11. The onus of guilt in that parable, however, falls largely on the son. Specifically, the quote is “Father I have sinned against heaven, and before thee / And am no more worthy to be called they son; make me as one of thy hired servants.” But Jack, he calls his father “Sir.” Not “Dad.” Although there’s a slight discrepancy near the end. He works on the DeSoto of his own accord. He’s often summoned to play on the piano and the like, and also work in the garden. But he’s sometimes an unapologetic sinner. And other times, he drowns his sorrows in alcohol. So the interesting question here about the prodigal son is: The framework of the Scriptures is clearly there in this book, but I’m curious as to when you decided to launch away from that. Likewise, was this actually a starting point? Or was it an intuitive process of trying to obvert what we know about that particular story from Luke?

Robinson: Well, I have a slightly different interpretation of that story than the one that’s generally circulated.

Correspondent: I think so. (laughs)

Robinson: You notice that the prodigal son says, “I am no longer worthy to be called thy son.” But from the father’s point of view, this is never an issue. He doesn’t ask for the son to satisfy any standards of his. He doesn’t ask for confession. He doesn’t ask for some plea for forgiveness. He sees his son coming from a distance and wants to meet him before he knows anything about him, except that he’s his son coming home. And I think that the point of the parable really is grace rather than forgiveness. The fact that the father is always the father. Despite and without conditions. And this is true in Boughton’s case. As far as he concerned, Jack is his son. And that’s the beginning and the end of it. Jack is not able to accept his father’s embrace.

Correspondent: It’s basically approaching a parable or a well-known story from a kind of cockeyed manner. Really, it comes down to this notion of the text as Scripture. I think certainly in Gilead, that was the case. And in this case, you have them throwing away letters. You have, of course, the love letters that are thrown down the drain. The letters that Jack sends out, which come back RETURN TO SENDER. And of course, they’re schlepping off a number of magazines to Ames, who lives down the block. So this is very interesting to me. Whereas the first book dealt explicitly with this idea of text as this panacea for loneliness, this book deals with disseminating the text out to other people, or getting rid of text. Which is why I ask the question as to how this relates to Scripture. Is text really something for us to cling onto in this? Whether it be a book or whether it be the Bible? Whether it be religious or literary or what not, there are matters of interpretation in life that go well beyond text and well beyond the idea of fulfilling this need to cure loneliness.

Robinson: Well, I think of text — by the analogy to Scripture that you’re making — I think of it is as something that is lively and disturbing. Disruptive. I mean, for example, say that Ames’s best hopes are met and his son receives the voice of his father when his son is an adult, that would completely jar the sense of memory, the sense of proximity to another human person, and all kinds of things that we think we understand. The letters that come to Jack and the letters that don’t come to him — they’re central. They’re alive, even though they are profoundly problematic. And I think of, in a way, text and Scripture as active in that way. As a sort of eccentric presence in human experience.

Categories: Fiction

Jerzy Skolimowski (BSS #239)

Jerzy Skolimowski is a filmmaker, and is most recently the director of Four Nights with Anna, which is currently playing at the New York Film Festival.

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Condition of Mr. Segundo: Waiting for the fifth night.

Guest: Jerzy Skolimowski

Subjects Discussed: Moonlighting (1982), starting from a home to get the lay of the land, the importance of place, how location dictates character motivations, Bruce Hodsdon’s observations about Skolimowski’s objective-subjective dialectic, the importance of story, Leon’s movement in Four Nights with Anna, using sparse dialogue, sticking with the script vs. accidental improvisation, how one of Anna’s reactions originated from an unexpected problem with noisy boots, inserting moments of sympathy for Leon and cleaning Leon’s image, the film’s flashbacks/flash forwards, dead cows floating in the river, decorating Anna’s room, artificial waterfalls, explaining the seventeen-year gap between Ferdyduke and Four Nights with Anna, Skolimowski’s problems with Ferdyduke, the pursuit for artistic satisfaction, Skolimowski’s career as a painter, acting as “easy money,” observing KGB agents and White Nights, collaborating with Polanski on the Knife in the Water script, Skolimowski’s early efforts at poetry, dialogue getting in the way of the visuals, the relationship between political tension in Poland and Skolimowski’s art, and the problems of thinking about money when pursuing art.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Skolimowski: For me, the most important thing is the story. I’m telling the story. And I’m not speculating on what it means more than it is. It’s a story. And of course, one can always find some additional interpretation and some theoretical sightseeing into it.

Correspondent: But I’m wondering if you’re perhaps being a little disingenuous here with your answer. After all, there is this chronicle with the ring. Which, of course, made me think logically of the old Jewish tale of putting the ring on the corpse and the like. And here you have it in reverse. And here Leon actually uses this as a kind of code with which to act and use his severance pay on purchasing a new particular ring. And so I’m wondering, when you think about a situation involving a ring, I mean, clearly that is a symbol. So it’s not entirely just basic storytelling, I would think.

Skolimowski: But to me, it is a basic story. And I don’t treat it as a symbol at all. Because logically this ring belongs into the story. He buys this ring for a specific purpose. He executes that purpose. And again, if that means something more, fine. It’s the benefit of it.

Correspondent: This is where audiences come in. You essentially exculpate yourself from responsibility for symbolism and critical analysis and things like this.

Skolimowski: I rather do. Because I think, once again, I have to say the story is the most important. Everything else is just, you know, how would I describe it? It’s….

Correspondent: The additional icing on the cake, I suppose.

Skolimowski: Exactly! Those are the words.

Correspondent: Okay. Fair enough. Well, let’s talk about Leon’s movement. I was really fascinated by it. Because he constantly circles around people. He’s clumsy. He slips in the mud. And again, I was rather taken with a larger allegorical meaning of what this particular movement might mean. Because it’s definitely misfit-like movement from him. And I’m wondering how this came about and how this emerged.

Skolimowski: When I was writing this story, I thought that the character should have a specific complex. That he should be extremely withdrawn and shy. And to manifest it, the best way — as you probably noticed, there’s very little dialogue in the movie. So he is practically not saying anything. He’s got maybe three dozen words through the whole film. But physically, he has to present that character which I wanted to create. So I thought that his walk should be kind of specific. And therefore when I choose the actor, I put some heavy stuff into his boots. I put some lead so each of his boots were like five kilograms heavy. Therefore, he had to walk like this natural.

Correspondent: That explains it. Did he slip because of this? Or was that planned? I’m sure.

Skolimowski: No, the slips were done for purpose. Because I need some light moments. You know, it’s a very gloomy story, and I didn’t want to have the audience be sad all the time. So I purposely planted those moments where one can laugh or at least smile, and have a little bit of relaxation from that tragedy. Because this is a tragic story. Tragic love.

(For related information about the film, here’s our review of Four Nights with Anna.)

Categories: Film