Report from The Gary Shteyngart Roast

There were nearly one hundred and fifty souls at the Harvey Theater two nights before Thanksgiving. Outside, it was just a few degrees south of fifty degrees Fahrenheit. Inside, the writer Gary Shteyngart waited to be roasted with the heat of a thousand suns and the pain of a million overwrought metaphors.

Shteyngart was introduced by John Wesley Harding (aka Wesley Stace) with a slideshow of great Russian writers as “Thus Spoke Zarathustra” played over the speakers. Harding, who may or may not have been pretending to be British, had big gray eyes bulging with murderous suggestion in the dark. Presumably, this was one pivotal characteristic which had secured his role as host. He was keen on nouns which connoted human tragedy.

“And what has this incredible legacy of suffering,” boomed Harding into the mike, “what has this incredibly legacy of suicides, what has this incredible legacy of gulags, repression, this legacy of bubonic plagues, of famines, of forced labor camps calling for a revolution? What has this legacy given birth to, ladies and gentlemen?”

This was followed by a slide of Shteyngart, with a bottle of champagne and a pig. Yet there was neither Dom Perignon nor a prize porcine specimen circulated on stage. The audience learned later that animals were forbidden. It was believed that some clever person at the Brooklyn Academy of Music had induced this prohibition because someone would have to pay these wild beasts a performance fee. Whatever the reason, this callous ban had prevented Shteyngart’s beloved dachshund, immortalized through an endless concatenation of photographic pride on Twitter, from making his stage debut.

The four panelists emerged from their hidden positions: Kurt Andersen settling into a seat on stage right, followed by Sloane Crosley in a purple top, Edmund White in dapper suit and cane (the only figure among the quartet who came with a prepared list of barbs, which including a funny blurb for Mein Kampf that he let loose later in the evening), and New Yorker fiction editor Deborah Treisman in red boots so striking in hue that one wondered if she had spent half the day kicking in the teeth of MFA aspirants who hoped to enter her estimable pages.

Then there was Gary Shteyngart, clad in an evening jacket a few sizes too big and purportedly donned for the second time in his life. This ostensible target of wit and no-holds-barred barbs seated himself in a tiny wooden chair designed for a small child. He remarked almost immediately on his ass. This was an understandable fixation, given the chair’s regrettable physical dimensions. Mr. Shteyngart was to mention his backside two additional times over the next hour.

The evening wasn’t really a roast. The format was more Q&A, with Harding asking questions of the panelists, often unfolding an inquiry into a biographical multiple choice option which permitted an audience member to stand on stage with a winning raffle ticket that had been painfully extracted from the staple in the top right corner of the program. The queries felt more like vaguely invasive biography rather than outright ridicule. The barbs, if they can be called that, were mostly kind. Much of the time was devoted to apparent outtakes from Shteyngart’s two book trailers for Super Sad True Love Story, although it was noted early on that the artifact-laden footage had been shot on an iPhone.

This was a pro-Shteyngart crowd. When the collected spectators were asked if there had been anybody there who had never read a word of Shteyngart, a few handfuls of people raised their hands. Gary Shteyngart proved to be a brand name. One does not have to read his books to comprehend his imposing and often cardiac arrest-inspiring influence in the literary community.

The evening was mostly pleasant, especially when Shteyngart was presented with material to react to (such as his physical recreation of the non-Jewish walk from The Russian Debutante’s Handbook, that fabled first book that Shteyngart referred to as The Russian Debutante’s Handjob). Shteyngart appeared to be grateful for the company, both on stage and off, and talked largely in his natural métier rather than the clueless immigrant character who had charmed half the world on YouTube.

This was also the first public event in which Shteyngart’s prolific blurbs were given an official tally, although the number was as suspiciously pat as a late career Tony Scott film title. Presumably, the paying crowd had earned the right to learn that Shteyngart had blurbed 123 books. Shteyngart had not remembered the first book he blurbed, but he believed that his maiden blurb involved California in some way. The massive screen behind the stage mimicked Shteyngart’s blurb prolificity by running a rolling set of credits with the blurbs and the titles, although this reporter noticed several key blurbs missing (such as Benjamin Anastas’s Too Good to Be True). It remains unknown if the people who put this show together had obtained the vital details from Jacob Silverman’s invaluable Tumblr or an independent investigation. This reporter is too occupied to summon his inner Seymour Hersh. He is, in fact, trying to thaw a turkey at the last minute while writing this report.

Of the four ostensible roasters, Kurt Andersen was notably the weakest, peeling off easily observed details about Shteyngart’s height, his immigrant experience, and early pictures of Shteyngart on the Web without bothering to build a story around this. Crosley was surprisingly laconic through much of the night, but she did call Shteyngart a hack with the relish of a dear friend. The clear star of the four was Edmund White, whose sharp and ribald wit led him to take more risks and elicit more laughs. When the conversation shifted to teaching, White said, “I teach at Princeton, where the students are too smart to actually go into writing. They all go into finance.” In describing the details of Shteyngart’s forthcoming autobiography, White said Shteyngart had called himself “the leading Eastern European pimp with a stable full of Russian whores built for all tastes.”

We leave more vulgar minds to speculate on the vital question of Shteyngart’s underworld connections. One thing was certain: wild horses couldn’t keep the appreciative crowd away from BAM on Tuesday night. Perhaps in five more years, the second Shteyngart roast will permit room for a dachshund.

BAMcinématek: Hal Ashby

I don’t know if Hal Ashby is in serious danger of being forgotten. But judging by the scant attendance at two recent press screenings for an ongoing retrospective at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (now playing through May 24th), I suspect that the cineastes are tired of talking him up. And that’s really a goddam shame. I certainly don’t know anybody under 40 who speaks of Hal Ashby with the same gusto devoted to such active 1970s directors as Brian De Palma, Martin Scorsese, Stanley Kubrick, or even William Friedkin and Walter Hill. (They’re certainly not going to bring up Joan Micklin Silver or Gillian Armstrong. But I’ll save comments on this regrettable gender disparity for another essay.) But like Alan J. Pakula, the recently departed Sidney Lumet, and Bob Rafelson, Hal Ashby often gets taken for granted.

Ashby began his career as an editor, winning an Oscar for his work on In the Heat of the Night in 1967. Three years later, Norman Jewison told Hal Ashby that he was a director. Jewison produced Ashby’s first feature, The Landlord — an iconoclastic, hard-to-find, zany, and one-of-a-kind satire written by Bill Gunn in which a Southern gentleman (Beau Bridges) becomes the landlord of a tenement building (in the now gentrified Park Slope) and has an affair with one of his tenants. (Her boyfriend is involved with the black power movement.)

The Landlord is filled with scenes (starting at around the 0:50 mark in the above clip) where the wild premise, which deals with race, white guilt, and false notions of entitlement, is topped by something out of left field. In this case, the kid not only blackmails Bridges’s milquetoast landlord for two dollars, but, after securing the two bucks, he offers the landlord a cigarette and lights up one for himself. Yet Ashby stages the scene so innocuously — complete with the kid ordering, “Home, landlord!” — that it deflates any potential discomfort and allows the audience to confront and enjoy the behavior.

Ashby’s third film, The Last Detail, continues in this vein. The film follows two US Navy sailors played by Jack Nicholson and Otis Young, escorting the young sailor Randy Meadows (Randy Quaid) to a naval prison. Meadows has received a harsh eight-year sentence for the minor crime of stealing $40. So the two sailors decide to show Meadows a good time. Ashby decided to direct Robert Towne’s razor-sharp and beautifully profane script in chronological order, traveling the same route as the sailors. This not only allowed the inexperienced Quaid and Young to get their sea legs over the course of the production, but it encouraged the magnetic naturalism that we see in the moment above. Watch the way Ashby neatly aligns the sailors by height or the way Nicholson slaps himself on the side of the head, foreshadowing the great explosive moment.

To some degree, you could call Hal Ashby a faithful chronicler of very recent history. Bound for Glory, his faithful biopic of Woody Guthrie, is his only real period piece, but it’s also the first movie to use the Steadicam. But Ashby was very concerned with recent events. Consider the way in which 1975’s Shampoo reckons with 1968’s sexual politics or the manner in which 1978’s Coming Home approaches the same year from the vantage point of the Vietnam War, taking the interesting step of casting Jane Fonda (who protested the war) as a very believable military wife who sees her world change when she meets a disabled Vet played by Jon Voight. It’s possible that The Social Network‘s recent success had much to do with similar revisitations of recent history. But is there any director working today capturing the last ten years the way that Ashby did?

Ashby worked so close with his actors that he often had them work on the scripts. Warren Beatty co-wrote Shampoo. No doubt his womanizing added some authenticity to the hairdresser juggling numerous paramours. 1982’s Lookin’ to Get Out, in which Ashby fought the studios for final cut, was co-written by Jon Voight. The original version of this film, as cut by Hal Ashby and as discovered in 2009, is playing as part of the retrospective. While there’s a gripping showdown in a casino club room, and some thespic chemistry between Voight and Burt Young (including one great early moment where Voight plays the scene spooning soup from a can as his character confesses losing a great deal of money), the film suffers from an implausible storyline and too many incoherent moments.

Did Hal Ashby lose his artistic chops in the Reagan era? I don’t think so. The above confrontation between Jeff Bridges and Andy Garcia in 1986’s 8 Millions Way to Die (this underrated film has become so maligned over the years that I was truly shocked to see it in the BAM lineup) demonstrated that Ashby could take something as innocuous as snow cones and turn it into a quirky tension builder. It’s the little tics that build this scene: Garcia moving to straighten his tie, Garcia’s lieutenant hovering in the back, and Bridges curling his fingers just after taking a bite. But when Garcia explodes at Bridges, the moment is especially startling because of how tightly framed the three men are, along with the overlapping chatter. I also love the way Garcia dispenses with his snow cone (similar to the way he kills the cigarette at the beginning of the scene; this is a character who always needs to have something in his hands to destroy). Oliver Stone’s dialogue in this scene is a bit silly (“My fault. I’m sorry. I didn’t get laid today.”), but can one imagine such blocking and gestures in movies today? Every time I see this juicy scene, I want to tear every goddam kid away from making CGI movies on his computer and force them to work with the nuts and bolts of human nuance.