David Denby (BSS #261)

David Denby is most recently the author of Snark.

Please also see our lengthy essay, in response to Adam Sternbergh’s review. This conversation represents an effort to get Denby to answer questions raised by both pieces.

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Condition of Mr. Segundo: Ordered against using a snarky tone.

Author: David Denby

Subjects Discussed: Whether or not Denby feels battered, unsuccessful attempts to pinpoint the definition of snark, the club of the clued-in, newspapers and narratives, Denby’s reservations about the Web and decentralization, snark’s relationship to voice, Sturgeon’s law, panic in mainstream journalism, satire and a corresponding set of virtues by implication, prototypical voice, the Sarah Palin prank, Spy, contempt for New York celebrities vs. contempt for money and power, investigative reporting and the Web, peer-to-peer journalism, Josh Marshall and the attorney scandal, Private Eye, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the need to take sacred cows to task, Pitchfork, “Ugandan discussions,” endearing jargon vs. in-the-know references, why Denby doesn’t find Gawker and Wonkette funny, fickle public memory and disappearing websites, Perez Hilton at 40, fighting slander, accounting for corrective impulses on the Web, privacy as a bourgeois triumph, whether or not Denby can truly have an informed opinion on Twitter if he’s never used it, quibbling with Denby’s uniform assessments of mediums, accounting for the visual innovations of Spy Magazine, the visual notion of snark, Kurt Andersen and Graydon Carter, circumstances in which being ruthless towards someone is okay, Mike Barnacle, nastiness and self-deprecation, Penn Jilette, snark practitioners as flip-floppers, Maureen Dowd, superfluous anger vs. righteous indignation, constructing a narrative in which you can locate yourself, Alcanter de Brahm’s irony symbol, Perez Hilton’s lack of anonymity, defending Tom Cruise, why photographers haven’t fought Perez Hilton, legal remedies, being dragged into the celebrity culture, and raising an army of thoughtful writers.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: Let’s talk about this idea of trash talk vs. snark. You indicate in this book that it’s okay to have a vituperative remark or a savage wit, if there is a corresponding set of virtues. And, in fact, you say “a corresponding set of virtues by implication.” Now “implication,” I think, is the important word here. Because to go back to the Sternbergh review, I would argue, to defend him briefly, that he is attempting to point out that Television Without Pity and the snark tone that he champions — I mean, is there not a corresponding set of virtues perhaps that is in the initial stages? In the prototypical stages perhaps? I mean, don’t people have to start from somewhere before they reach this level of thought that you are advocating in this particular book?

Denby: Well, we don’t know, do we? But I don’t see much of that in Television Without Pity. Mostly, it seems to me, whenever I look, it’s enormously long plot summaries with a lot of snarky adjectives. And it’s fun. Because it’s like friends who gather at a house to watch a TV show, and you compete with one another to see who can be funnier. But I would forgive them everything if they jumped up and down with joy when something original and difficult came out. Like in their movie stuff, I don’t notice them celebrating There Will Be Blood or The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. What gets their jets going is trash like Bride Wars. In other words, they’re invested in trash. And that’s why I say that these people are really thugs of the conglomerate in a way. In other words, they’re part of the commercial system. They’re not really interested in anything adversary. For all of their nasty tone, they’re part of the commercial system. They’re not adversarial at all. They don’t push the little guy — you know, the protest against the system or the artistic revolutionary. That’s not what they’re into. They’re into fandom. Now let me come back to Sternbergh.

Correspondent: But also to point out the initial thrust of this question. As a prototypical model, for some people, snark is the way to get to this more virtuous plane that you’re advocating here.

Denby: Well, I hope you’re right. And maybe they’ll just…

Correspondent: I can say this from experience. Because I was a little snarky when I started writing.

Denby: But people get older and they realize that I’m not pushing my weight. That this is too easy.

Correspondent: Yeah. Jessica Coen, who ended up going from Gawker to New York Magazine. She wrote an essay. I’m sure you’re familiar with this. You don’t quote it in the book. But I’m sure in the course of your research, you found it out. She pointed to the negative feelings that she had, and she wanted to go to this more thoughtful plane.

Denby: Right.

Correspondent: So I’m saying that perhaps, maybe, instead of essentially fanning the flames of discontent against this type, it’s perhaps steering them in the right direction. Which you do do in this book. Maybe this is just a growing stage before they blossom into some writer of virtue of some kind.

Denby: Well, that would be nice. Also, I think they’re naive if they think that they can make a whole professional career out of this. Because you cannot underestimate the ruthlessness of editors. In other words, this is something that Adam Sternbergh doesn’t know. That his kind of wise guy stuff pales very quickly. And when styles of humor change, editors get rid of you if you don’t keep up. So there can be something naive. It’s a way of gaining a professional foothold. But you’ve got to move beyond it pretty fast. But just to return to Sternbergh, as I remember, the main thrust of his critique was that snark is an appropriate response to a corrupt and dishonorable world. Well, I’m not going to argue with his characterization. I think it is a corrupt and dishonorable world. But the appropriate response to it is not snark. The appropriate response to it is criticism, analysis, and, best of all, satire. Which is what I praise over and over again. The kind of stuff that Stewart and Colbert do. Most of snark is weak. It’s mostly impotent. It’s more a confession of defeat than an appropriate response to anything. I mean, he’s way off on that.

Correspondent: Okay, well, to look at this question of prototypical voice from a different vantage point, you suggest that Philip Weiss’s infamous Spy article, in which he infiltrated Bohemian Grove “discovered only where power hung out and what its vulgar habits are.”

Denby: Yeah, who took a pee where?

Correspondent: Yeah. But if we are to discount this article as nothing more than an amusing prank, I point to the Quebec comedy duo who revealed Sarah Palin’s lack of qualifications with this wonderful prank. And while their particular tone may not have been thoughtful or political, it did lead to people rethinking Sarah Palin’s qualifications.

Denby: Absolutely.

Correspondent: Isn’t there something to be said about how people react to a particular prank or an act? Or how people run with the ball of, say, the Bohemian Grove scenario? And try to investigate it further? I mean, that’s what thought is.

Denby: Yeah, but that’s what Spy never did. I mean, it kept promising more than it delivered. The Sarah Palin prank was brilliant. And that she didn’t catch on for, what was it? Ten minutes? They had her going. It’s just astounding. But the trouble with Spy was that it never did investigative reporting. It did a kind of junior league infiltration of the powerful, rather than the hard work of going to the library and looking up records, and so on and so forth. That true investigative reporting requires before you can nail someone in dishonest behavior or corrupt behavior or collusive behavior. So it never actually delivered. And since it was written basically for people who wanted to join the money….

Random Stranger Shouting Into Mike (Presumably Disenfanchised): Wha…what?

Denby: (to Stranger) Thank you. That was good.

Stranger: You’re welcome.

(Photo credit: Casey Kelbaugh)

Categories: Ideas

Azar Nafisi (BSS #260)

Azar Nafisi is most recently the author of Things I’ve Been Silent About, as well as Reading Lolita in Tehran.

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Condition of Mr. Segundo: Reliving transcendent memories.

Author: Azar Nafisi

Subjects Discussed: Authenticity, W.G. Sebald, photographs and text, Iranian birth certificates, being true to the story when writing a memoir, accuracy and memoirs, the extraordinary nature of the ordinary, “A Memoir in Books,” constructs within constructs, Emily Dickinson, dreams that are tainted by reality, The Great Gatsby, Nafisi’s mother creating a dream out of a frozen past, unhappy marriages, presenting a cardboard version of yourself, frankness, books vs. reality, Dorothy Sayers, Henry James and World War I, asserting life in totalitarianism, Italian neorealists, great things that come from limitations, Samira Makhmalbaf’s The Apple, Czslew Milosz vs. Witold Gombrovich, Ferdowski, The Prince, and others as frameworks to understand 20th century Iran, human beings and the creative impulse, writing a book of literary criticism on Nabokov that resonates with the Islamic Republic, prying mothers and outrage, personal connections and subjective viewpoints in relation to books, collection vs. hording in relation to storytelling, feeling regret, the commercial shadow of Reading Lolita, avoiding the Iran categorization, subconscious Nabokovian themes, the memoir as betrayal, Muriel Spark, Speak, Memory, and self-consciousness.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: Fariba’s birth certificate is fake, you note later on in the book.

Nafisi: Yes.

Correspondent: And also the marriage of your parents was built, as you say, on a lie. So you have this scenario throughout your life in which you have the most authoritative text, being a birth certificate, being unreliable. So this brings me back to the question of the pictures and the text.

Nafisi: Definitely. I mean, authenticity itself is such a dubious word, isn’t it? Authentic to whom? And at what point in your life? Authenticity itself changes. But definitely. And especially in regards to my life in Iran and with my mother. The question of what appeared and what people claimed to be real. And what one discovered to be the truth. Those two were running parallel to one another. Seldom meeting, actually.

Correspondent: I guess the question though is: How can you, who specializes in books throughout your life — I mean, that’s your living!

Nafisi: (laughs)

Correspondent: So here you have this unreliable relationship with text that your life is predicated upon. How you can even trust text if there is this lack of authenticity?

Nafisi: Well, you have to trust the story. Because if you want the story to be good, quote unquote, you have to be true to the story. And it takes you places where sometimes you don’t want to go. It forces you to reveal things that you don’t want to reveal. But if you’re focused on the story, you realize that the story will take its revenge if you don’t give it what it needs. So that is why I think so many authors, or so many people keep saying — like Vita Sackville-West, in terms of her diaries. She says that, “I am writing because of truth. Because there’s so many pieces of the truth. And you reveal your truth.” It is not because you have hold of the truth, but because the process of storytelling reveals the truth both to you and hopefully to the readers.

Correspondent: Does it matter then if you don’t quite have the exact truth? I mean, there’s a lot of controversy — here in America, in particular — about what a memoir really should be and how accurate it needs to be.

Nafisi: Well, there’s two thins I need to say about that. One is when you deliberately fabricate something. And unfortunately, a lot of times, in terms of the recent events, it is to sell. I tried to very much — actually, the scandalous parts of my book are very much buried. This was a test for me. Can you write a memoir? Which is a family memoir. Which doesn’t come out with fireworks. And it can still attract people. Because what is extraordinary to me is what we call the ordinary. You know, nothing is ordinary. That was what I was trying to investigate. So if you deliberately fabricate, I think then that we are entering a different world.

But a memoir, because its a narrative and its a story, by nature, it’s a construct. I think we should admit that at the outset. That it is a construct. You try and remain true to facts. But what are facts? From whose point of view? And one thing that I discovered — which is very obvious now to me, but it wasn’t then — is how much you select. There were people in my life who were very central to my life. Like my brother, whom I love and we’ve had many, many experiences together. But he was not necessarily central to the story. So you cut-and-paste, according to the themes that your story demands. And so how can you say that a memoir is not a construct?

(Photo credit: wip_partnership)

Categories: Ideas

Chazz Palminteri & Robert Celestino (BSS #259)

Chazz Palminteri is the star of Yonkers Joe. Robert Celestino is the writer and director of Yonkers Joe. The film opens in theaters on January 9, 2009.

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Condition of Mr. Segundo: Fleeing the scene to avoid “coming together” with the imposing Mr. Palminteri.

Guests: Chazz Palminteri and Robert Celestino

Subjects Discussed: Robert Mitchum’s theory of the actor merging into the landscape, cinematic tempo, research for Yonkers Joe, eye contact, the script as the authoritative text, script embellishments from actors, overpreparation, performance in relation to camera placement, “artistic differences” with directors, the thespic advantages of wardrobe, playing an entire scene with a newspaper under your arm, the national revival of A Bronx Tour, the future of theater in an economic crisis, wasted talent, whether the casino heist genre now requires an unusual secondary plot, balancing intuitive insights about human behavior and cinematic reality, the inability for most people to observe mechanics in action, the distinctions between con men and mechanics, how Celestino was able to film in casinos, advancing the narrative while sacrificing believability, concocting the big score, the qualities of casino dice, the eleventh-hour casting of Christine Lahti, keeping symbols in the background, symmetrical semiotics, layering visual elements, and establishing the tell signs among the actors.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: Going back to the issue of preparation, perhaps you can talk about it in light of this particular movie. I’m curious if there is such a thing as overpreparation for you. For a performance like this, for a performance elsewhere. Where if you plan something too much, then you’re going to lose the spontaneity, you’re going to lose the naturalness of human behavior, and the like.

Palminteri: Right.

Correspondent: Has this been a scenario with you? Have you had to…?

Palminteri: That never happened to me. Because I don’t overplan things. I plan it. I know where I’m going. I have a road map. Okay, and then I’m able to change that roadmap if I have to. You have to. Because you meet with the director, and you meet with the other actors. And all of a sudden, you get on the set and it’s not like you thought what it was going to be. It changes. For some reason, an actor does something else and it doesn’t match what you felt what you should do. Alright, now we got to talk about this now. Is this going to work? Maybe it works better or maybe it works worse. So if you think that your way might still be better, that’s when you have to talk with the director, and say, “Well, I’m feeling this way.” And that’s why sometimes people leave movies. There are artistic differences. It doesn’t work. I usually try and make it work. I hope I can.

Correspondent: Are there such situations in which you’ve felt hamstrung by a particular director’s decision? Or do you simply work within those particular confines?

Palminteri: I’ve always been able to work with directors who respect my opinion. And no director wants an actor to be uncomfortable.

Correspondent: Sure.

Palminteri: “To be uncomfortable.” I mean, once you say those words to a director, “I’m just not feeling comfortable here,” then he’s willing to listen to anything you’ve got to say. I mean, one thing, I’m a director. You know, I’m directing movies. If an actor’s telling me he’s uncomfortable, I’ve got to make him comfortable. No matter what.

* * *

Celestino: I don’t know of too many filmmakers who get to shoot in casinos. Because casinos are not in the business of making movies. They’re in the business of making money. So we were very fortunate, as some of our investors were casino owners. So not only did we get to shoot in the casinos, but we got to shoot it during the day. And they would rope off a section to us. And they really opened up everything to us. There’s five people who work in a casino, who are allowed into the surveillance rooms. So we were allowed to go into the surveillance rooms just to look around. We didn’t actually shoot in there. We built that set. But we did match it identical to what we’d seen. And also, they’re not ever going to bring a suspected mechanic up into the surveillance room. So what they do have is an outer room, where they would show somebody something in case there was a question. Like they did in Yonkers Joe. But the surveillance room was actually in another room where Yonkers Joe got to take a peek at.

Correspondent: Some suspension here to move the plot. Again, this goes back to the other question about how much you stray from reality. In this case, certainly, you had to in service of the narrative. But perhaps when you were writing the script, were there questions that you were asking? “Well, okay, I need to move the narrative along. So there’s a tradeoff here.” I mean, what criteria was here? Okay, I have to advance the narrative. But there’s this tradeoff in believability. Was this an issue when you were writing the script?

Celestino: Well, that’s always a balancing act. Ironically, in this script and movie, it really didn’t come about that much. Pretty much, everything that happens in the movie pretty much can happen. You know, the thing at the end and all that. That all can really happen. In fact, when the security people — the surveillance people — were reading the script, they said that when this movie comes out, casinos will probably start putting blacklight gel in their dice. And that was where I had to reinvent a bit. Because loaded dice are very easy to see. That’s why they make the dice clear. So you can see the loads in them. But if you have something in them where you don’t have to look at the dice, like blacklight gel, then there’s no reason to even look.

Categories: Film

Norah Vincent (BSS #258)

Norah Vincent is most recently the author of Voluntary Madness.

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Condition of Mr. Segundo: Challenging pseudonymous authorities about his voluntary commitment.

Author: Norah Vincent

Subjects Discussed: The Lanterman-Petris-Short Act, homelessness and mental health care, the revolving door of mental institutions, Marvin Olasky and community responsibility, the bureaucratic process of mental health care, why Vincent didn’t break down the costs of staying in pseudonymous institutions, the unwillingness of Vincent’s health care provider to have Vincent pay for her stay in these institutions, experiential journalism vs. objective journalism, the trouble with corroborating stories within Vincent’s books, setting limits and journalistic ethics, quibbling with the term “diagnosis,” the distinction between psychotics and psychopathics, care for dangerous people, antipsychotic drugs, counseling vs. drugs, empirical solutions vs. medical expertise without arrogance, the moral question of whether or not doctors should inform psychopathics about the effects of drugs, the issue of consent in medicine and journalism, whether regular “reality checks” can help a psychotic improves her mental condition, and happiness vs. getting better.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: You quibble with the term “diagnosis.” You write, “There are no diagnoses in psychiatry. Only umbrella terms for observed patterns of complaint, groupings of symptoms given names, and oversimplified, and assigned what are probably erroneous causes because these erroneous causes can be medicated. And then both the drug and the supposed disease are made legitimate, and thus the profession as well as the patient legitimized, too, by those magical words going hand in hand to the insurance company ‘Diagnosis’ and ‘It’s not your fault.’” But if there are no diagnoses in psychiatry, well, where is the starting point? I mean, obviously, you have to start somewhere and identify a particular problem — even on a simplistic level — in order to help another person. So what of this?

Vincent: Well, yeah, that’s the difficulty, I guess. Right now, we don’t have a test that can tell you, “You’ve got bipolar disorder” or you’ve got any number of all these so-called illnesses. Which I don’t doubt are real entities. Clearly, when you see enough of these patients, you see the patterns that they’re describing. And people who are schizophrenic tend to be paranoid. All these various things that — it’s not that the groupings are illegitimate in that way or the observations are wrong. It’s just that it does leave an enormous gray area. And it means that you can diagnose somebody as having this thing without any really concrete way of knowing that they do, in fact, have it. And I do think that can lead to a lot of problems. Such as, for example, people again have written a lot about the way that diagnoses of depression have, I don’t know, tripled in the last ten or fifteen years. And I think you have to ask yourself how many of those people have something that’s a pathological depression. Or is it a situational depression? Not being able to distinguish between those two things is, I think, problematic.

Correspondent: We’re talking then largely about the specific difference between someone who is psychotic, who is merely someone who cannot properly distinguish between their reality and their imagination and their dreams, and is not necessarily violent, versus someone who is psychopathic. Who is going to be prone to violent behavior and the like. Certainly there has to be some degree in which we have to prevent people from harming themselves or harming other particular people. I agree with you that “psychotic” does, in fact, get a bad rap. But nevertheless, there is this larger term of people who are, in fact, going to be committing violent behavior. So I’m wondering. Why quibble with the notion, as you do in one of the interim moments in the book, about this impression between so-called psychotics in movies and everything? When, in fact, there are dangerous people out there.

Vincent: Oh yeah. And there’s no question that, right now, medication and, in some cases, putting these people into an environment where they can’t hurt people is all that we have. It’s the best that we have right now. I would hope that someday we would have medications, for example, that can specifically address what’s going wrong in the brain of a schizophrenic person. And that’s just something we don’t have right now. We don’t know. We don’t understand the mechanisms of schizophrenia. Or what appears to be. There again is the question. Well, you may appear to be schizophrenic. But without a test that can tell us, we don’t actually know whether you are or not. Or whether you’re manifesting symptoms that may be entirely something else. An allergy. I mean, think about if you were to go to the hospital and say, “I’m having terrible chest pains.” And you were assuming you were having a heart attack. And there was no way to know whether it was that or indigestion. There are a lot of symptoms that can be caused by various different things. And I think that’s the part that’s missing for us right now.

Categories: Ideas