You Can’t Be a Good Literary Critic Unless You…

…have moved furniture.

…whistle a happy (or sad!) tune.

…understand what it is to be poor.

…understand what it is to be rich.

…love some kind of animal. In my world, dogs more than cats, but there’s no hard and fast rule.

…have a vice. Several, in fact.

…admit you’re wrong, know you will probably be wrong, accept that you’re wrong.

…have a loving relationship with a human other than yourself. Actually, make sure you love and (especially!) respect yourself, first, because otherwise you’re hardly in a position to love and respect anyone else, are you.

…cast off any lingering or slow-building bitterness. It shows, and it sucks.

…accept your words and judgment come with responsibility but that responsibility doesn’t mean being timid or pulling your punches.

…have a passport.

…read widely. Sure, you can review within a narrow range of books, but those narrow range of books need context, from highbrow to gleeful trash to everything in between.

…write something other than book reviews or criticism. Otherwise you’ll get stale and bored.

…still have your inner six-year-old.

…accept that lists like this are a crock of bullshit.

…laugh at stupid jokes and cry when shit upsets you. Otherwise known as, if you have emotions, feel ‘em.

…understand your being a literary critic has a (very short) time window. And that the very idea of making a living at this will cause heaps of laughter, mostly within your own head.

…take a fucking risk every now and then.

…live. Because let’s face it, being a good literary critic involves the same thing as being a good, well, anything. And if you don’t live, what the hell is the point?

Review: Super (2010)

If you are sending up a very specific genre – in this case, the vulgar vigilante superhero movie that tends to be based on material written by Mark Millar – are you creating successful satire if you’re upholding the same anti-human values? Judging by the mirthless comedy Super, it appears that writer-director James Gunn never bothered to ask himself this pivotal question. Gunn is a man who, by including a joke about double negatives in his films, may very well be more astute than the digital Neanderthal Zack Snyder. (It’s worth noting that Gunn wrote the script for Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead remake.) He certainly seems to be channeling Snyder’s 300 in several flashback sequences filmed in muted color and near black.

But with Super, Gunn shoots blanks.* A cinematic comedy that includes violence is one thing, but Gunn has seen fit to include two rapes (and another indirect one in a car) in this film. Rape is a tricky topic for comedy, but, as The Atlantic‘s Sady Doyle has recently pointed out, rape is showing up in comic book movies with increased frequency. In order to make rape work, you either have to be a bona-fide iconoclast like Alejandro Jodorowsky, who featured a brazenly ironic moment in The Holy Mountain where a tourist takes a picture of his wife as she’s being raped by a fascist soldier, or a blithe mischief maker like Pedro Almodovoar in Kika. In Gunn’s hands, rape isn’t funny and it doesn’t contribute much to the story. At least Gunn can be commended for keeping the rape gender balance right. Rainn Wilson’s character Frank is raped. And so is Frank’s wife Sarah (Liv Tyler).

Frank (last name D’Arbo, not Castle) is a short-order cook living a short order life. Shortly before a noisy animated titles sequence that forces its “fun” on us (no animated rapes included), we’re informed that Frank has experienced two great moments in life: his marriage to his wife and a time in which he pointed out to a cop the direction in which a criminal sprinted. Frank has seen fit to memorialize these moments through crayon drawings. When his wife reports that the hands are too big, he applies white-out to make them smaller.

This is a fairly promising beginning. But Super never finds a fresh or lively angle, either as a bona-fide vigilante flick or a parody of one. Kevin Bacon plays Jacques, a nebulous drug pusher (owner of the nightclub Bare Assets) who gets Sarah (later revealed to have been involved in something resembling a Narcotics Anonymous program) hooked on the hard stuff. When the cops tell Frank that there’s little that they can do (Jacques doesn’t have a record? The cops aren’t staking out his club when he runs a flagrant operation?), Frank takes the business of getting his wife back into his own hands. He attempts to confront Jacques in front of his club and is beaten by his goons (which include the gravelly character actor Michael Rooker, whose main purpose in this film is to have his head beaten against the floor near the end).

Since Frank is a quietly pious man, he sees a television show called The Holy Avenger and experiences a Christian vision that involves getting his head carved open with very bad CGI and his brain sprayed with what appears to be the holy answer to special sauce. (Later in the film, Gunn has vomit shift around in a toilet and form a face. These conceptual deficiencies, whereby something scatological is rearranged into some fixed perfunctory image, truly reveal Gunn to be a fauxteur.)

From here, Frank starts reading comic books, beginning with The Holy Avenger. He is determined to become a superhero, even if he knows little. He meets Libby (Ellen Page), a 22-year-old exuberant working at a comic book store. He stitches his own costume – a red uniform containing the obvious joke of zippers dangling on the front – and becomes The Crimson Bolt. He wears a fake beard to a college library and asks where the hard crime is. Then he heads to Euclid Street and tries confronting these criminals. He is unsuccessful. He returns to the store, asks Libby about superheroes without weapons. He then begins to beat the heads of anyone he deems criminal with a large wrench. This includes people who key cars, who tempt children into cars, and people who cut in lines.

As Frank says in a flashback, “Happy people are kind of arrogant.” So, for that matter, is James Gunn. The story here is so sloppy that, after a detective following up on the Crimson Bolt’s activities is shot, the film never returns. The police also do not arrive as dynamite, gunshots, and various other nihilistic sounds go off near the end. (Gunn might have had a funny joke here about ineffectual police, thus justifying the need for vigilantes. But given how these plot threads dangle like long white shoelaces in search of anglets on the blackest boots, it becomes very evident that Gunn’s merely a colossal incompetent.)

However, the movie does have one redeeming factor. Ellen Page, whom I originally (and wrongly) pegged as some thespic XX answer to Michael Cera’s limited hipster archetype, offers surprising range for such a throwaway character. When she enlists herself as the Crimson Bolt’s sidekick, Boltie, and demonstrates gleeful excitement after a man has been maimed, the moment is executed with baleful fright – the only bona-fide feeling this movie successfully delivers. And that emotional truth exists because Page is smart enough to comprehend that, because Gunn’s material here isn’t especially funny, she has no alternative but to play her character as real as possible. “It’s called internal bleeding, fucker, and then you die,” she shrieks after a car has plowed a man against the wall. Yet moments later, she’s contrite. Later she’s desperate. Later she’s oblivious. These flighty flits between emotional states give Page’s character a resonant psychology that this blasé film doesn’t deserve.

Page’s strong performance also has the unintended consequence of revealing Rainn Wilson to be a spent force who has played Dwight Schrute for too long. (If Wilson was looking to escape being typecast, why did he sign on for a somewhat misanthropic character who, like Schrute, is into weapons and fundamentalist values?) Page even manages to perform better physical comedy than Wilson during one moment where Libby is attempting to prove her gymnastic worth before Frank. This is a shame, because Wilson does have a deep voice that might have pulled off some jocular response to Kevin Conroy’s Batman.

If comic book movies (or their satires) are to stand any chance of evolving, then the time has come to reject anything involving Zack Snyder or the dimwitted writers he’s happened to hire. We must demand better movies, whether comic book or not, for women. Let the corpulent Comic-Con slugs choke on their own Cheetos-soaked vomit.

* It seems fitting to ridicule James Gunn’s name, seeing as how he has done the same to Rainn Wilson’s character. But perhaps I’m just sour because I will never get my 95 minutes back.

Review: Source Code (2011)

If you grew up watching time travel trash like 1994’s Timecop, 1989’s Millennium, or 1991’s Freejack, or you forgave the execrable television series Sliders because you hoped that the show’s incompetent writers could serve up some half-interesting angle on the parallel universe, then chances are you will enjoy Duncan Jones’s little thriller, Source Code. I am pleased to report that there is something more here than VHS nostalgia. The movie doesn’t have the ambition of Shane Carruth’s Primer or Richard Kelly’s Donnie Darko, but it does share in part the anarchistic exuberance seen in Nacho Vigalondo’s Timecrimes – especially when Source Code‘s protagonist starts hitting people.

The story involves Captain Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal), an ostensible soldier who flew helicopters in Afghanistan but who has no hard memories of his last mission. His spirit is beamed into a man on a Chicago commuter train during the last eight minutes of his life. At the end of each existential installment, he is blown to bits by a bomb. Before this, I had thought a shaky theatrical act getting assailed by rotten fruit was the height of humiliation. (And it seems that Jones has anticipated my worldview. One of the train passengers is a television comedian.) Shortly after Stevens is “killed,” he is then pressed for details by a woman (Vera Farmiga) who doesn’t seem to comprehend that being repeatedly subsumed in an explosive fire is likely to cause a touch of disorientation, to say nothing of PTSD.

This is all part of an experiment called Source Code. Later in the film, we are given some adorably dodgy science about the brain’s electromagnetic field, curiously similar to Johnjoe McFadden’s theories. Just before death, the brain has the ability to take an eight minute memory of its final moments. And this is why Stevens can wander about a train. Who knew that the mind was a 7-11 security camera? The vital question of whether Source Code can be used to recall some of humanity’s most inebriated evenings is never pursued.

Stevens’s purpose is to find out who the bomber is so that a much larger explosion, purportedly prepared by the same individuals and threatening to take out the Windy City for good, can be stopped so that Uncle Sam doesn’t have another pretext to strip away more civil liberties. Every entry into this eight minute universe involves Stevens (or, rather, the man he’s leaped into) dodging a woman spilling a cup of coffee, responding to his fetching coworker Christina (Michelle Monaghan) while she’s telling him, “I took your advice. It was good advice. Thank you,” handng his train ticket to the inspector punching holes, and listening to a boorish bourgie man across the aisle complaining about the train being late. Given these limitations, the filmmakers are successful in constructing a universe that generates interest through slight alterations. What happens if you get off the train? Or if you disarm the bomb? Or if you just start hitting people? Or if you frighten a poor woman on her way to work?

If this sounds as if I’m damning the movie with faint praise, I’m not. I enjoyed the flick quite a bit. But in light of a recent publicity fiasco, I feel that some modest corrections are in order. Director Duncan Jones has repeatedly mentioned in interviews that JG Ballard is one of his favorite writers. And it has reached the point where some of my friends – the kind of smart people who have “JG Ballard” set up as a Google News alert – have expressed interest in the movie. These Ballard soundbytes suggest that Jones is either somewhat literate or wishes to cultivate a potential audience who reads. But Ben Ripley’s screenplay has no great philosophical ambition, much less any suggestion that he (or Jones) is even vaguely familiar with Ballard. The movie actually owes more to the supremely underrated television series, Quantum Leap. (Jones, to his credit, has honored his inspirational influence by including Scott Bakula’s voice in a cameo.) Nor can the movie, despite its Linux-friendly name, be said to be very tech-friendly – especially when you start considering the preposterously effortless manner in which the phones inside the movie can access military information.

This is mass entertainment, folks. But it’s old school mass entertainment. Source Code is the type of small concept-driven movie that was fashionable fifteen years ago and that very much needs to be part of the regular crop of releases again. Like a dependable pulp novel kept on the nightstand as dutifully as a gun under the bed, Source Code comes stocked with some unexpected ammunition. Who is the eccentric and handicapped scientist played by the great Jeffrey Wright? Why is our hero trapped in a room that is getting very cold? Why is he not allowed to leave? Why is he asked to recall the Queen of Spades as if he’s a shark counting cards at a Vegas blackjack table?

In our present epoch of hollow CGI spectacle, we’ve taken the art of basic narrative questions very much for granted. So a movie like Source Code, which would probably merit ho-hum reviews if it had been released in the mid-1990s, becomes a rare lily to be plucked from the top of a dunghill. I hope that the film is commercially successful so that the business of telling real stories becomes a higher priority among the amental Hollywood thugs who believe that three reboots of the same comic book franchise over ten years is the way to win audiences.

Review: Circo (2010)

When it came to the circus, even the great Federico Fellini could not resist the personal myth. Fellini’s 1970 quasi-documentary, The Clowns, opened with the young director (portrayed by a child actor) watching workers hoisting a circus tent outside his bedroom window, with each series of grunts producing another incremental rise of the top in the magical night. Ambrose Bierce may have defined circus as the “place where horses, ponies, and elephants are permitted to see men, women, and children acting the fool.” But name another venue where professional fools – especially those who act before more human animals – cause a cinematic genius to reimagine the beginnings of his own allure. The modern circus has endured quite well after Philip Astley. Assuming that you haven’t handed over all four of your ventricles to the great capitalist sham, it remains difficult for any vaguely mischievous soul to countervail the circus’s great charms.

Aaron Schock has largely resisted Fellini’s understandable tendency to reinvent with his striking and quite magical documentary, Circo. The movie depicts a vibrant second-string circus in Mexico – one that has been in some form of existence since the 19th century, but which lacks the resources in the 21st to play the big cities. Nevertheless, you will find motorcycles rolling in the “globe of death” and performers giving it their all as a recording of Alan Silvestri’s Back to the Future theme plays over dim makeshift speakers.

We are told that you never need a house in the circus. And the maxim appears to be largely true. Home is where the heart is. While the family here appears close-knit, despite evidence late in the film revealing interpersonal fissures, those who stay in the circus work very hard, sacrifice vital aspects of their lives for their art, and face increased taxes and costs so that audiences can have a good time. There are some performances where hardly anybody shows at all. But the family still shrink wraps tasty snacks and they give it their all. After all, the show must go on.

Sick days are not an option. Money needs to be produced. When we see one of the trucks containing llamas and tigers break down, we know immediately how unforgiving the economy and the operational expenses will be on the family. It is something we can never truly understand through the film medium, except for those who try to leave the circus and can’t always adopt to the nine-to-five jobs and come back. But coming back is not without its difficulties. The circus life is one where, if you don’t convince a girl to get in the truck when you’re about to leave a stop, romance is a concatenation of ephemeral encounters.

“Without children,” says one man, “there is no circus.” And sure enough, the vehicles carrying the booming announcers roll through the streets of distant domiciles. It draws the enthusiasm of kids who run along the side and beg for tickets and try to schmooze the man at the wheel for a few more.

It’s difficult to walk away from this film without being deeply affected by the iridescent streaks that the circus manages to paint upon the most colorless crannies of Mexico. It remains a mystery how much of this is clever cinematography and how much of this is a bona-fide collision. But I don’t think it matters much. Beyond this rich visual charm, Circo movingly puts human faces upon the families who work long days for a few hours of grand entertainment.

For the Ponce family running the Gran Circo Mexico, being a kid means learning gymanstic tricks at every spare moment, and scarfing down tortillas and beans after a hard day of wrangling animals and performing chores and enduring the educational instructions of an uncle sitting on the steps of a trailer. As one family member says, “You have kids to give them everything. And they work too much.” But what kid wouldn’t want to tame a tiger? What kid wouldn’t want to put on a mask and entertain a crowd? There is also Naydelin, one very adorable five-year-old girl who, when leaving the circus for school, still finds delight in learning grammar – even though we know that she’s giving up the rarest on-the-job training imaginable. She feels genuinely apologetic for the young girls who will never know such a world.

Circo comes about as close as a film can get to knowing such a world. The film’s great sense of wonder comes in knowing that nothing here needed to be reinvented. This could not have been easy for the filmmakers and it’s certainly not easy for the audience. Because the people in this film chose the circus life and, against all odds, remained determined to walk on water. And if you can’t get behind that, it’s very possible that you’re not really living.

The Bat Segundo Show: Michael Crummey

Michael Crummey recently appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #387. He is most recently the author of Galore.

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Wondering if you can rent a motel room in the whale of a belly.

Author: Michael Crummey

Subjects Discussed: Childbearing in poor families, grisly deaths and irresponsible life decisions, infant mortality in the early 20th century, the relationship between historical investigation and magical realism, Crummey’s intense dislike of the term “magical realism,” dominant spectres and other ghosts, how the stench of death encourages the reader to get acquainted with new characters, the complexities in basing novels on historical events, aligning Galore‘s narrative to the Great War, not mentioning dates, the advance of religion before medicine in 19th century Newfoundland, the dissolute nature of Father Phelan, the netherworld beneath the real world, the truck system and fishing unions, whether Yoknapatawpha-like organization is required in building a world, avoiding Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude and learning to love it, alcoholic opera singers, balancing multiple characters into a narrative coherence, being saved by having family characteristics, being influenced by Marquez, another book as a road map, the unavoidable serendipity of reading, “happening” onto books with which to inspire a novel, Moby Dick, riffing on other people’s work, being suspicious of magical realism, magical realism as a cheat, not being able to talk about Newfoundland folklore, the importance of mechanical laws in the telling of the story, what readers are willing to accept, the song “Jack Was Every Inch a Sailor” as an unexpected inspirational force, magical realism as an interpretive notion similar to the Bible, and having faith in characters and fakery.


Correspondent: In terms of character balancing, if you’re running into the jungle and wildly whacking around with a machete, there needs to be something systematic. Particularly if you hope to arrange it in any sort of coherence.

Crummey: (laughs) Right. Well, I definitely had particular themes the book was following that, in a way, matched the trajectories for each of these characters for each of the generations. I was playing with the whole notion. Newfoundland is a tiny place. About a half million people. I mean, it’s big geographically. But it’s a tiny community. Half a million people today. A hundred years ago, I think it was less than half of that. And a hundred years before that, it was miniscule. Maybe twenty, thirty thousand people. So everybody’s related. And the gene lines between those generations. I mean, there are researchers from all over the world in Newfoundland studying because they can map how these genes crossed generations. Because there’s been so little contamination. For lack of a better word. So I wanted to play with that in the book. So when I started off with Judah, for example, I knew that the book was going to end with a direct descendant of Judah — and, of course, some of Judah’s characteristics; the smell, the white skin, and all that sort of stuff was passed on. And I knew that I wanted the book to end with someone who was in some way saved by being the direct descendant and having those characteristics. So all the way along, of course, I have this map to follow where these particular characteristics had to be passed down and then to do something interesting with those characteristics, all the way along, before I got to this end point.

Correspondent: Does this explain in part some of the copious cock imagery throughout the book? I mean, lots of blades and penises.

Crummey: Right.

Correspondent: Lots of propagation I found.

Crummey: Yeah. Well, I mean, partly that was homage to [Gabriel Garcia] Marquez as well.

Correspondent: Yes.

Crummey: Because every penis in Marquez is monstrous.

Correspondent: Yes. No pun intended.

Crummey: It’s huge. And that was just something else again I stole from Marquez. (laughs) But the whole sense of propagation — I mean, this was a place that was incredibly difficult to survive in. And my sense of it is that only people with an incredible life force in them would have made it.

Correspondent: This explains in part the considerable virility of many of these characters.

Crummey: That’s right. And it is rather astonishing when you go to the old graveyards in Newfoundland. The graves seem primarily to be divided into two categories. There are people who died before they were fifteen, often of some disease or drowning or whatever. And then there are people who died when they were ninety-eight. So the people who were strong enough to survive past the fifteenth year seemed to go on forever. So there is a sense of unbelievable stubborn virility in these communities. And often, sometimes there’s not much life-affirming about it even. I wanted to get that sense across and, in some sense, it just seems like a stupid animal stubbornness that keeps these people going.

Correspondent: Well, based off your research, what’s the dip like in terms of the middle aged? In terms of death.

Crummey: Well, I mean, to be fair, I would say that most people didn’t live much past fifty-five. Right? And that fifty was considered to be old. And in every community, there’s this group of people who live to ancient years. But for most people, I think they were broken by the life they were supposed to live. By the time they were fifty, they were probably crippled by the work that they were forced to do and by the fact that women, in particular, probably started having children in their teens and would continue to have them until it killed them almost.

Correspondent: I’m curious. You’ve brought up Marquez a couple of times. And I’m wondering at what point during the writing did you shake off the inevitable yoke of influence?

Crummey: Right. Well, I mean, I was a little concerned when I first started talking about this book with people about even bringing Marquez up.

Correspondent: You brought him up here. Just for the record.

Crummey: I’m much more comfortable with it now over time. Because it’s ridiculous. There’s Marquez and then there’s me. But I think the thing that gave me the courage to try the book was the fact that I felt like Newfoundland and Newfoundland culture was every bit as rich and bizarre and otherworldly and maddening as the world that Marquez was writing about. And I trusted that to create its own uniqueness as I wrote the book. So it made me unafraid to steal what I needed from Marquez and to see that almost as a road map for a way to tell the story. Because I knew that the stories and the places I was writing about were so unique onto themselves that they could create their own. If I let them be, they could create their own world. And I feel like I did that. A lot of people when they read this book, I think, think of Marquez. But I haven’t — at least I haven’t heard anyone yet — heard anyone say it’s just a Marquez knockoff. Because the place itself is so completely different. It stands on its own feet as a culture.

Correspondent: It was more of a narrative canvas. A map on the wall with which to go ahead and put your pushpins in.

Marquez: Sure.

The Bat Segundo Show #387: Michael Crummey (Download MP3)

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Review: Rubber (2010)

Quentin Dupieux’s latest film, Rubber – not to be confused with a effervescent sex education film – is not for the uptight analytical type who needs to know the precise motivations of a sentient tire (credited here as Robert) emerging from dead detritus in the desert, rolling over spiders and scorpions in the early minutes of his revitalized life, developing telekinetic powers that involve vibrating its body piles violently and causing distant objects to explode, and then using these same powers to go on a murderous rampage. But don’t let these eccentricities fool you. Rubber is a quite pleasant and deceptively pointless picture that did have me wondering why Dupieux – an electro musician turned filmmaker – did not attempt to get Goodyear to bankroll the whole of his meager budget. (Perhaps Dupieux has issues with product placement. I did notice Mountain Gust enjoyed by one character.)

When Robert (actual name for the tire or name for the character?) isn’t enjoying these homicidal activities, the tire watches television, stares at nude women taking showers, plops over sideways every so often for a nap, and rolls into a swimming pool. Discounting Robert’s need to kill people, such behavioral range suggests that Dupieux has closely observed the average American male. Lacking the orifice to enjoy a cerveza in the desert, Robert instead uses his considerable energies to cause human heads to explode. Rather curiously, Robert doesn’t require an air refill at the gas station, presumably because there is enough hot air contained within the film’s story to sustain him.

If the film’s premise recalls the sack awakened by a long pole in Samuel Beckett’s Acts Without Words II, then the presence of spectators within the film, all observing the tire narrative from afar and gradually starved by the folks putting on the show, suggests an homage to Augusto Boal. I don’t believe the Theatre of the Oppressed was especially keen on turning its audience into a bunch of starving animals wolfing down a turkey – a suitably carnivorous image we see midway through the film. After all, if we’re going to be equitable about the artistic experience, shouldn’t we have starving audiences in addition to starving artists?

Forget the theory. Forget the influence. Dupieux would rather have his audience believe that much of this is fun and absurdist bullshit. And it is. Before the tire comes alive, we are introduced to chairs placed meticulously in the road, which are then plowed down by a car. The car’s trunk is then opened, and a sheriff named Lt. Chad (Stephen Spinella) gets out, is handed a glass of water by the driver, and then addresses the camera. Lt. Chad informs us that there is “no reason” that the couple is mad about each other in Love Story. Why doesn’t anybody in The Excellent Chainsaw Massacre [sic] wash their hands or go to the bathroom? “No reason.” Why does Adrien Brody in The Pianist have to live like a bum when he has such remarkable piano skills? “No reason,” says Lt. Chad, conveniently ignoring the Nazis.

“Life itself is filled with no reason,” continues Lt. Chad. And we are informed that the film we are about to see an homage to “no reason.” In other words, this glorious fuck you gives Dupieux liberty to let loose countless what the fuck moments in the next 80 minutes. But we soon see that Lt. Chad is addressing a number of spectators, that binoculars are being disseminated to them so that they can track the tire. Never mind that they never really seem to have a great view or that the range of the binoculars extends for several miles, beyond any and all obstructions. Is Lt. Chad’s prologue directed at us or them? Does a participatory reference point even matter for a film like this? Later in the film, Lt. Chad, locked into one stubborn spectator’s need for the story to continue, dismantles the tire on his own car and announces to everybody, “That’s our suspect!”

To call Rubber postmodern is something of a mistake. You can’t take a film like this seriously. In fact, it’s more fun and more rewarding if you don’t. For my own part, my entertainment value greatly increased as I watched one self-important tool, who had offered a feeble intellectual defense of Sucker Punch just before the movie, fail to appreciate the glorious batshit madness before him.

Yet Rubber works beyond mere free association or curious cult offering. There are scenes in which the spectators remark upon the fact that they can be arrested for piracy, in which they quibble with the T&A moment, and in which they question the logic of the scene (and even question whether they should be offering commentary in the first place). There’s even a moment in which our guide Lt. Chad asks his fellow actors to shoot him with bullets to prove how artificial the environment is.

The film has a healthy contempt for what moviemaking has devolved into in recent years: namely, a process so mechanical and soulless that the latest forgettable $200 million 3D CGI extravaganza may as well be as a spare tire dropped into a pyre. Sure enough, Rubber‘s final moments features an army of derivative tires storming Hollywood. Who knew that it required a bloodthirsty tire to get us to reconsider our relationship to movies?

Review: Potiche (2010)

Catherine Deneuve — now 67 — is one of the few actresses in the world who will still stop a man in his tracks in her seventies and eighties. Yet François Ozon, having worked with Deneuve before in the comic murder mystery 8 Women, has rightly comprehended, much like Jacques Demy, the effervescent appeal beneath the sexy sheen.

Potiche, based on a play by Pierre Barillet and Jean-Pierre Grédy, is certainly a pleasant enough vehicle for Deneuve and her costar Gerard Depardieu. The older and middle-class critics at the screening I attended laughed at the right moments, perhaps not entirely aware that Ozon has been kind enough to toss a few goofy Molotovs over the years. For those who enjoy the more provocative side of Ozon, Potiche signals a retreat from the eye-popping fare that established this intriguing director’s career.

Whether the condition is permanent is anyone’s guess. But the gleeful assaults on bourgeois marriage, seen in such films as 5×2 and the glorious Sitcom, that imbued Ozon’s work with such mischievous zest have been replaced by a comparatively stale story involving Suzanne Pujol (Deneuve) as the titular “trophy wife” to Robert Pujol (Fabrice Luchini), an umbrella manufacturer (a nod to Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg) who enjoys balling his secretary Nadège (Karin Viard) on the fly (when, of course, an altogether different fly is unzipped). Robert is a man who cannot remember his wife’s birthday. Which begs the question of why Suzanne has stuck around for so long. (There’s an answer late in the film, but, alas, it’s something of a contrivance.)

It could be because this is 1977, a year when France is a paradise for labor strikes. Sure enough, the umbrella factory run by Pujol finds itself facing the kind of progressive resistance that seems to elude 2011 America. Leading the strike is Maurice Babin (Depardieu), who happened to have a fling with Suzanne back in the day. He may be a man of the people, but he knows how to respect a lady — a sentiment that the film is careful to heed by featuring needless flashbacks with younger actors. (I felt sorry for the the largely mute thespians playing younger versions of Depardieu and Deneuve in these scenes. With classic French cinema to be compared against, how can they compete?)

You’d think that all this political intrigue would permit Ozon to expand his cheerfully irreverent approach. One promising joke of copulating rabbits suggests that the Ozon we know is here. But he’s hamstrung by the somewhat passe and toothless material he has to work with. What’s odd about Potiche is that the Suzanne/Maurice affair — that vital subplot that’s pretty much the linchpin of good farce — doesn’t have nearly the same narrative traction as the Babin family taking over the factory while dad is occupied. Suzanne’s daughter Joelle (Judith Godrèche) faces a dwindling marriage and an augmented belly, but despite these conflict, she’s quite the reactionary little minx — especially when asked to vote during the board meetings. (Is this a joke relating to France being behind the women’s suffrage curve? Remember that France didn’t give ladies the municipal elections until 1945.) But I was especially fond of Jérémie Renier’s subtly mannered performance as Paul, Suzanne’s son. His artistic background is applied to the factory with humorous effect. And perhaps that’s because Ozon delights in decorating the Pujol house with green drapes with a sofa to match.

Potiche doesn’t quite have the retro pizzazz of an American movie like Down With Love, much less Ozon’s fashion-conscious world in Time to Leave. Watching this latest movie, it’s difficult to fathom that, only a few years before, Ozon made a movie about a baby with a working set of wings.

One sign of an interesting filmmaker is how well he can stay himself when asked to work in the mainstream mode. In Potiche, there’s one moment when a man shoves whole potato chips in his mouth. This may very well mimic what the audience is being asked to enjoy here. Or perhaps it’s a strong indicator that Ozon is better off commenting upon conventional narratives through the unconventional. Why stick with trophies when you can raise hell and get away with it?

The Bat Segundo Show: Deb Olin Unferth

Deb Olin Unferth appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #386. She is most recently the author of Revolution.

PROGRAM NOTE: Just before the tape rolled, Our Correspondent, who met with Deb Olin Unferth at a Vegan restaurant, had casually mentioned (in an entirely different context) that he was a meat eater. Our Correspondent’s revelation was rejoined by a scowl from a man sitting directly behind Ms. Unferth. The scowl was so minatory that Our Correspondent, not an especially homicidal individual, wondered if he had killed a few random New Yorkers on the way to the restaurant. And then he realized that he had unthinkingly revealed his carnivorous habits in a Vegan restaurant. Had the story stopped there, it would not be worth reporting. But as it turned out, the Vegan’s fury made its way into our program. At about the 35:30 mark in this program, Ms. Unferth noted that a strange man was photographing both she and Our Correspondent through the window, just outside the restaurant. And this wasn’t just a one-time snapshot, but multiple angles. For all we know, there are photographs of us on some “meat is murder” website. Our Correspondent fully accepts the blame for his gustatory effrontery. Our Correspondent respectfully requests that Ms. Unferth, who is a very nice person and not a meat eater, not be implicated in any Angry Vegan movement that arises from this conversation.

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Wondering if he accidentally signed up for a revolution sometime in the late 1980s.

Author: Deb Olin Unferth

Subjects Discussed: The nonfiction volume Revolution containing echoes of the fictional Vacation, the Bowles-like distinction between tourist and traveler, Unferth’s early efforts to write about her Nicaraguan experiences as a murder mystery, Minor Robberies as a warmup for the memorialized document, the key qualities that Unferth sought in a revolution in 1987, the influence of Marxism, taping people for interviews, capturing history, lasting urgencies vs. ephemeral urgencies, how urgencies are captured into text, the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front, the El Salvador peace accords of 1992, revolutionizing your way into legitimacy, remembering what you did at eighteen, confusion and youth, sufficiently recapturing certain feelings in book form, being harassed by men, violence from men as a deliberate omission, making choices about what to reveal in a book, whether two bad boat tales are balanced by one good tail, having confidence in adages, alliteration, Gertrude Stein’s The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, comedy and disturbing situations that are poignant, the pleasant sound of “so say sailors,” whether it’s possible to run away and have it mean something, the fear of being left, being rejected as a writer, early success with McSweeney’s, the inspiration that comes from fleeing, multiple acts of creation, Unferth’s storytelling efforts as a child, unanticipated reverberations in life that aren’t remembered, taking dialogue verbatim from old notebooks, La Prensa and censored newspapers, competing mnemonic notions of what you lived, contending with Angry Vegans taking photographs of Our Correspondent and Deb Olin Unferth, tracking down an ex-fiance, the need for corroboration, the private investigator’s role in assembling the memoir, legal reasons as a convenient excuse, “if I could write the book,” the first question Unferth would say to her ex-fiance, and chronicling the unique voice.


Correspondent: As the interviewer, I feel compelled to ask why you felt taping the people was the best way for understanding them. You describe this bundle of tapes. And later you were stopped because of these particular tapes. And thankfully they weren’t actually played. But it is rather curious that recording these stories seemed to be the best way for you to try and understand them. Why do you think that was?

Unferth: That’s a good question. I think it was that we felt that maybe the tapes — we would be able to go back and listen to the tapes later. That the tapes would be useful in some way at a later date. That we felt that we could understand the people we were interviewing better and have opportunities to meet them if we had a tape recorder and were saying, “You know, we’re asking questions.” I don’t know. I could ask you the same question. Why do you feel it’s important to interview people?

Correspondent: Well, that’s a good question. Well, to my mind, in some vague way, I perhaps would like to — and this almost sounds hubristic, even though I don’t mean it to sound like that. I would like to think that I’m recording a history of some kind. That let’s say, in ten years, you Deb produce your masterpiece. And we can go back ten years before and see, well, what were you thinking before these germinations? The three books leading up to what ended up being an even bigger book. Well, there’s the trajectory right there. It’s also why I like to talk with people multiple times. I’ve talked with TC Boyle now four times. And even then, I find that he’s a little bit different each time. So maybe history was perhaps the draw for you at a very young age?

Unferth: Yeah. But if I think about you, and what you do, it seems like you’re also recording the echoes of contemporary culture.

Correspondent: Yes.

Unferth: So you are getting — because you’ve interviewed quite a few people. So you’re getting a wide swath of contemporary letters and what are people thinking about in contemporary letters at this time.

Correspondent: Yes.

Unferth: And so I would say that it’s a similar thing to what we were trying to do. To establish the tone and the concerns of liberation theologians and people who were involved in these revolutions at the time.

Correspondent: We have to capture the present moment in an effort to see it differently five years from now. Or ten years from now. Or twenty years from now.

Unferth: That’s true. Yeah.

Correspondent: Does text for you serve the same function? Or a similar function? Or is it a little bit different? By coming at it from memory, from research, from your notebooks at the time, I presume. You allude to those in the book. What is the effort of this cycle for you? What is the ultimate purpose? That’s a very general question. But since we’re talking about this.

Unferth: The ultimate purpose of writing Revolution?

Correspondent: Yes! Exactly!

Unferth: Well, I mean, it felt like an urgent thing to do. It felt like I really really wanted to write it. Which is also how it felt with Vacation and Minor Robberies. And I haven’t felt that way about many other things in my life. So I would say that’s the primary thing. It’s a personal urgency. And just a desire to untangle the questions that were being asked for myself. But then if I look at it with a broader — like what place does this book have? I really wanted it to contribute to the conversation about memoirs. Was one thing. I wanted to be thinking about what a memoir is. And I wanted to expand that a little bit. I wanted to do something a little different from most memoirists. Because I feel like memoir is such an interesting form. And then I wanted to write a coming-of-age story that isn’t quite as simple as “something is learned and then someone grows as a result of it.” I mean, I think that there are so many different ways to approach coming-of-age stories. And so in this one, it’s almost like someone becomes slowly disillusioned. And that’s how the coming of age is accomplished in some way. So I think that was part of it. And then also I think my continued fascination with those countries — especially Nicaragua. Nicaragua to me just seems like such a fascinating place. And El Salvador. Both just fascinating places. And they were these people who did these incredibly courageous things and developed whole philosophies and risked their lives and all these things. And now we’ve just forgotten about it.

Correspondent: Sure.

Unferth: And I find that to be so heartbreaking. I haven’t forgotten. So I want to talk about it.

Correspondent: Well, to go back to what you were saying at the beginning of that answer about this sense of urgency. It is very interesting to me that you have chosen perhaps the least urgent of all mediums. The book, which takes a long time to write. Which then has to go through editing. Which then has to sit in drydock for two years before it’s published. And then here you are two years later talking about something. And we’re not talking about the urgent moment. This is the difficulty, I suppose, of some of these conversations. Because you’re probably working on something else right now. And yet, that spirit of urgency is what was the guiding principle of this particular project. Why try urgency in such a slow burn medium?

Unferth: Because my moments of urgency last a long time.

Correspondent: Aha! So it’s lasting urgency you seek.

Unferth: Yeah. It’s not that my urgencies aren’t something that sweep in on me and last for a moment and then flee. They just sit inside me for a long time.

Correspondent: So, for you, some of your very taut paragraphs, your one-sentence paragraphs, they’re almost an attempt to capture a lasting urgency. And then the ephemeral urgencies don’t actually make it into your book. Would that be safe to say?

Unferth: What do you mean by my ephemeral urgencies?

Correspondent: Well, would you say that all of your urgencies are lasting? Or is some of it ephemeral?

Unferth: No. Some are. I guess in many ways we’re all sort of a bundle of urgencies, right? We’re all trying to do all sorts of things to stay calm. To try and stay calm. And some of those things are satisfied very easily. Just by eating something if I’m hungry. And others feel deep and existential and possibly without solution.

Correspondent: Yeah.

Unferth: So there are many different levels of urgencies, I suppose.

Correspondent: When your urgencies are captured into text, is it less urgent? Or does it still last?

Unferth: Maybe it feels less urgent once it’s done and out there. Like this particular topic. Now that it’s written and it’s done and the book is out, I don’t feel as urgent about that topic anymore.

(Image: Meghan Kenny)

The Bat Segundo Show #386: Deb Olin Unferth (Download MP3)

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New Directors/New Films: Pariah (2011)

[This is the fifth in a series of dispatches relating to the New Directors/New Films series, running between March 23, 2011 and April 3, 2011 at MOMA and the Film Society of Lincoln Center.]

Last September, in response to Floyd Mayweather’s homophobic rant against Manny Pacquiao, Stanley Crouch wrote an essay suggesting that African Americans “exemplify the modern age in their contradictions as thoroughly as any other ethnic group.” Yes, black voters showed up in California to vote against same sex marriage. But Crouch observed that, thanks to Amiri Baraka, homophobia had been part of black nationalism as early as the 1963 March on Washington. (In a 2009 interview with 3AM Magazine, Baraka claimed that his words emerged from anger that “was part of the mindset” created by numerous political assassinations, but he didn’t apologize for his homophobia.)

Since black homophobia is often too easily portrayed as a symptom of race rather than a symptom of class, it’s a relief that writer-director Dee Rees has arrived to investigate the matter. Her debut narrative feature, Pariah — an extension of her 2007 short — finds its best footing when illustrating how middle-class aspirations and the desire for stability are often responsible for this lingering atavism. Late in the film, when Audrey (Kim Wayans) reacts to her 17-year-old daughter Alike (Adepero Odeuye) after she defiantly shouts, “I’m a lesbian, I’m a dyke,” the moment’s true horror comes from understanding how Audrey’s materialist desires for a Fort Greene brownstone (rather than a place in Queens, an early life of struggle hinted at throughout Rees’s film) and her efforts to stick with the “right people” at church have permitted a few dormant prejudices to explode within this apparent domestic bliss. (And by making Alike’s father a cop, played by the excellent Charles Parnell, Rees neatly aligns Audrey’s Christian virtues with Alike’s father’s concession to an authoritarian vocation. It isn’t a surprise when we learn that this isn’t a happy marriage.)

Crouch suggested that “consenting adults will win out over all the blather,” but, in his otherwise thoughtful essay, he didn’t answer the equally important question of how children, still struggling to find identity, might cut through this noise. In Pariah, Alike isn’t a terribly rebellious teenager. She sneaks into nightclubs in drag with her friend Laura (Pernell Walker), but spends most of her time inside shyly occupying red velvet couches and struggling with her sexuality. Does she shove a dildo down her pants and pretend to be a man? Does Alike have the “right people” to go to? Even in seemingly civilized Fort Greene, Rees has the courage to suggest that plentiful community resources aren’t always allocated to answering the right questions.

One night, Alike returns home later than curfew and Audrey yells at her. Rather than trying to understand her daughter, who is also a blossoming creative writing student getting good grades, Audrey would rather blame Laura, “that young lady you run out with,” for Alike’s apparent confusion. But surely the mixed signals at home (dad calls her “Allike,” mom calls her “Lee”), buttressed by Alike’s parents trying to squeeze their daughter into their cannibalized notions of success, are the main problem.

Audrey sets Alike up with Bina (Aasha Davis), a girl from church who appears to be a model teenager. Someone who dresses nice, who isn’t likely to corrupt Alike with that Reema Major trash, and who quickly subsumes Laura’s role as regular friend. What Audrey and Alike don’t realize is that the world isn’t nearly as neat as they realize.

Rees is greatly helped by her cast. Oduye, Davis, and Walker all play their teenage roles as if they’re just close enough to self-sufficiency to grow beyond many of these invisible shackles. And this makes it especially painful when some unanticipated development sets their slow progress back.

Unfortunately, the film sometimes tries far too hard to be natural. The handheld camera work, striving for a docudrama approach, sometimes intrudes too much on an organic moment. One scene in a store, in which the question “How does pussy taste?” is presented in front of a few old timers, contains streetcred that is just too forced to be believed. However, one of the film’s best moments is a late night bonding session between father and daughter, where Elika comes very close to telling her dad how she feels. The dialogue itself is okay, but Charles Parnell, who is probably best known for his voiceover work on The Venture Bros., is a very generous actor and sells the scene so that it resonates.

Rees deserves credit for exploring social issues that few American filmmakers are willing to touch. Once she figures out the right balance between realism and drama, she’ll be a very formidable filmmaker. I certainly hope that she isn’t seduced by the less nuanced Hollywood machine.

New Directors/New Films: Curling (2010)

[This is the fourth in a series of dispatches relating to the New Directors/New Films series, running between March 23, 2011 and April 3, 2011 at MOMA and the Film Society of Lincoln Center.]

If Kingpin and The Big Lebowski (or, heck, even Dreamer – a silly movie starring Tim Matheson as a bowler from 1979 that nobody remembers) portrayed the bowling experience from the bowler’s vantage point (natch, given that this is the way most of us comprehend that lengthy lane with the nine pins we hope to topple down in half-drunken triumph), then Curling dares to see it from the middle-aged folks toiling in bowling alleys. This may be because writer-director Denis Côté was born in New Brunswick. In fact, what you may not realize is that five pin bowling, which is quite popular in much of Canada, isn’t nearly as much of a draw in Quebec, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia. And that is because in some of the French-speaking territories, petite quilles (or duckpin bowling, which is ten pin bowling with fat little bastards replacing the slim pins most of us know in the States; perhaps this is why the obesity epidemic is writ larger south of the 49th parallel) is more the order of the day.

I didn’t intend to write a silly essay about the many variants of bowling, although they certainly excite me. (In fact, my discovery of candlepin bowling upon moving to the East Coast made me both very surprised and very happy.) I am, after all, supposed to tell you about this movie, Curling. What I can say is that Denis Côté isn’t terribly interested in the bowling alley’s culinary offerings, which you’d figure that anyone who speaks French or who enjoys chilli cheese fries (does Côté?) would be keen on investigating. However, as the film’s title suggests, the film itself isn’t about bowling. It also involves a pastime that is insufficiently defined by Wikipedia as “a sport in which players slide stone across a sheet of ice towards a target area.” I don’t wish to come across as overly querulous, but this clinical sentence certainly doesn’t insinuate what makes curling a draw. Having not curled in any meaningful capacity outside of the boudoir, I can safely report that Curling‘s curling moments did fill me with the sense that I had missed something – even if most of the curlers were advanced in years and looked as if they had taken up curling to alleviate the gloomy boredom awaiting them outdoors. Since the Will Farrell comedy Dodgeball is held in high acclaim, I would not be surprised if some crass Hollywood crew appropriated this sport too. After all, like golf, curling did originate in Scotland.

For one unsmiling man with a mustache, Jean-Francois (played by Emmanuel Blidodeau), bowling isn’t so much a joy, as it is a low-paying part-time job in which he sometimes loses bets with his co-workers to clean the bathroom or dress up in preposterous costumes. Jean-Francois’s other gig involves cleaning a motel and, one morning when he discovers a bloody mess in Room 9, he is informed by the owner that his services are no longer required. Of course, it isn’t Jean-Francois’s fault, nor even the fault of the “big Accordion trucker” who stayed the night before who either killed somebody or died bleeding in the wilderness. The owner had planned on closing down the motel anyway. “I don’t have the energy,” says the owner. Well, who can blame the owner when the guests die like this?

Did I mention the fact that some tiger is running loose and that various people are being mauled down in the wintry wilderness? Did I also mention that Jean-Francois is a single dad home-schooling his daughter Julyvonne because it’s so dangerous outside? Jean-Francois takes care of Julyvonne because his partner is locked up in a mental institution. “If you touch a hair on her head,” she shrieks, “I’ll rip your fucking heart out.” Such is the promise of domestic tranquility in this family’s universe, but, in Côté’s defense, I should point out that I grew up in an environment in which such lines were shouted around the dinner table. In fact, the situation here is so bleak that Julyvonne begs her father to play Stacey Q’s “Two of Hearts” through a crappy stereo so that she can dance in a vague manner as Jean-Francois sits on the couch in a moribund manner.

And you thought some of your nights were pathetic. In seeing these scenes, I wondered if the film was set sometime around 1989. Later in the film, when there was talk of cell phones and video games, I felt a genuine sense of shock that this time capsule of a town in the middle of nowhere could be penetrated.

These cinematic results, depending upon your temperament, are either relentlessly bleak or mostly depressing with occasional bright and quietly hilarious spots. At times, Curling made me feel like I wanted to kill myself. And yet I can recommend this mumblecore opus from Quebec. Because the melancholy often functions in a peculiar comic mode. Any film featuring a man dressed up in a bowling pin costume, hassled by a ten year old kid who wants to wear the top portion and who then reveals rudimentary erudition that eludes Julyvonne, can’t be entirely humorless. And any film featuring a fetching employee who has a new hair dye color for every fresh screen appearance is probably suggesting that iridescence can be located in a bleak landscape if you know how to change your stripes. (In fact, chances are that maintaining a silly moustache may be part of the problem.) Then again, this is also a film in which Julyvonne, precluded from painting the town red, humbly requests that her dad paint the bathroom red. Jean-Francois insists that green would be a better shade. Julyvonne is later briefly abandoned because, in Jean-Francois’s view, this contributes to the possibility of him going insane like his partner.

What I enjoyed so much about Curling is that it doesn’t give up its mysteries. We never quite learn why the mother has gone insane. For all I know, it could be a rite of passage in this village. I mentioned earlier that a large cluster of the local population seems to be getting killed or mauled. It could be the tiger. It could be the truck driver. It could be what some folks call cabin fever. I don’t believe the Quebec community is this violent in real life, although I don’t have any fresh crime statistics at my side. Curling presents enough ambiguities to make you wonder whether its village represents some parallel universe occupying Côté’s inventive mind or some part of Québécoise equipoise that just isn’t talked about. It is the rare film that is both a downer and a winner.

The Bat Segundo Show: TC Boyle IV

TC Boyle appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #385. He is most recently the author of When the Killing’s Done. This is his fourth appearance on the program. He has previously appeared on The Bat Segundo #273, The Bat Segundo Show #70, and The Bat Segundo Show #10.

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Considering a savage swim to the Channel Islands.

Author: T. Coraghessan Boyle

Subjects Discussed: Whether one can look dapper while being under the weather, Boyle’s powerful immune system, connections between Wild Child‘s stories and When the Killing’s Done, fishing expeditions gone awry, early subconscious efforts to hone the narrative framework, the short story “Anacapa,” “Question 62,” who has the ethical result to control all creatures, details on the next novel San Miguel, the Channel Islands, the bleak winds of San Miguel, straightforward historical narrative vs. exuberant adventure, Boyle’s prodigious description of hair, folk singers and massive hair, writing about women, Ruth Dershowitz in East is East and Dana in Talk Talk, basing When the Killing’s Done on news accounts without meeting anybody involved, Dave LaJoy and megalomaniacs, readers who take hard sides in response to the book, whether the portrayal of an exuberant megalomaniac causes an unintended ideological tilt, sympathizing with an animal rights activist, not being able to look at the PETA slaughterhouse videos, Diane Johnson’s essay in the New York Review of Books, whether Boyle’s sense of the ridiculous overcomes moments of gravity, the role of literature within Killing, Madame Bovary “in the Jean Renoir original,” Island of the Blue Dolphins, Boyle’s pessimism, being thrust into the lap of the existentialists, Jeffrey Dahmer, the comforts of irrelevance, Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” spirituality, feeling the pulse of nature and being humbled by it, Boyle’s pilgrimages, blocking out terrible news, the role of art in a nihilistic viewpoint, the geography of Santa Cruz and Anacapa, Boyle’s mother-in-law, the degree of geographical exploration required for Drop City and When the Killing’s Done, the Judas pig, Tom Wolfe’s journalistic approach to novel writing, passages written by “Boyle the historian,” being in the clear when using real people for fiction, when fiction is more real than reality, riffing on history, Home Depot as “the loneliest place in the world,” not having material goods, and escaping to the mountain.


Correspondent: I wanted to remark upon a recent essay by Diane Johnson in The New York Review of Books. I’m sure you’ve probably seen it by now.

Boyle: Yes, I have.

Correspondent: She wrote something that I happen to agree with. “Because his sense of the ridiculous usually overcomes his moments of gravity, he rarely departs from a comic mode that precludes tears even in the most tragic circumstances.” I think that this is a fair point, especially in this book. But if your book is informed with this sense of the ridiculousness, I’m wondering if this is going to impede upon writing in more serious or greater turf.

Boyle: It might. Which is precisely why I’m doing a non-comic straightforward historical narrative right now. Just to see how that might be and what might happen. Don’t forget. I’m the guy who wrote Water Music as my first novel, which turned the historical novel on its head and subverted and pulled the rug out and nudged you constantly about the unreliability of fiction and of history too. Now I am trying to write something without any irony or any comedy. Straightforward drama. Straightforward realism. Just because I’ve never done it before. I’ve done it in short stories. But I’ve never done it at length. And I found this wonderful story, a historical story, which I’m telling as best I can. We shall see what the results are. In fact, if we’re very lucky, you and I will be sitting here in three years discussing that one. And we’ll find out. (laughs)

Correspondent: Well, maybe we will. But I want to see if we can get to When the Killing’s Done and this problem of adopting the comic exuberant tone. I think this book does really present some very important issues, which we were getting to earlier, about how does humanity play god in the animal kingdom. I mean, this is a very serious topic. And the comedy is almost a mask over something which is — well, if you think about it from either side — really depressing. So I’m wondering if, in not permitting us to share tears (as Diane Johnson believes), it almost trivializes the issue to some degree. Does it present a problem? Or is your strategy more laying a few comic exuberant bombs to blow up in the reader’s head in about a week or so?

Boyle: Wow. Neither of the above. I’ll go for Choice C. I don’t see this as necessarily a comic novel. Certainly there are many varieties of comedy, of course. And I’ve used every possible mode I can think of. This has its moments, of course. And I think it allows the reader to stand back at times and view the characters with some kind of ironic detachment perhaps. But I don’t see this as essentially a comic novel. I see this as a dramatic novel. And further — and we’ve talked about this in the past — I often find that using the comic mode can be more emotionally wrenching then writing a straightforward drama. Because it subverts your expectations. And in this one. Well, look at the ending to this book. It should punch you right in the heart. I hope it does.

Correspondent: But I don’t know. From my standpoint, it read very much like a comic novel. To me. Particularly every time LaJoy came up. I mean, this guy is such a hilarious…

Boyle: Because he’s exaggerated to a degree. And yet, and yet, he’s also real. And I wouldn’t want to say, as I said earlier, that he represents a large part of me. But certainly that part is there. And certainly, Ed, we are both of us pretty much perfect and beautifully emotionally adjusted. But a lot of people out there are not. There are a lot of people out thee who make LaJoy look calm.

* * *

Correspondent: Do you have anything that you feel optimistic or joyful about?

Boyle: No.

Correspondent: No? Nothing optimistic?

Boyle: No. Since I discovered death at a very young age, it has obsessed me. And the whole purpose of our endeavors obsesses me. And in a larger scale, of course, our human endeavors on the planet, which will of course be burned to a cinder in there and a half billion years anyway. So what does anything matter? Etcetera. As I probably have said to you before, you know, I went from a Roman Catholic boy with god and his heaven and Santa Claus at the age of eleven or twelve or whatever, realizing that it’s all completely phony and it’s just some myth that we’ve been fed to prevent us from committing suicide at a young age. And within three or four years of that, I was thrust into the lap of the existentialists. And I’ve never come back.

Correspondent: Then is work really the only way, the only reason to stay alive?

Boyle: All work is irrelevant. Everything is irrelevant. Our conversation is irrelevant. Literature is irrelevant. Films, love, everything is utterly irrelevant in the face of utter meaninglessness and death. That’s what we live with. Everybody lives with every minute of every day. On the other hand, if you’re not going to shoot yourself tonight, do what satisfies you. What satisfies me is making literature and then sitting here with you talking about it. And also I have honor. I really believe in the power of literature and I like to promote it. I’ve never cheated anybody or hurt anybody — you know, that sort of thing. And that’s simply because that’s my own code. It doesn’t make me any worse than Jeffrey Dahmer, for instance.

Correspondent: Who’s dead.

Boyle: It’s just my point of existence.

(Image: Mark Coggins)

The Bat Segundo Show #385: TC Boyle IV (Download MP3)

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Review: Win Win (2011)

Can a woman seeking a $1,500/month guardian stipend truly afford to stay at a New Jersey motel for several weeks? (The Quality Inn in Toms River, New Jersey has kindly informed me that they rent rooms at $39.95/night. Discounting tax, that’s $279.65/week. At three weeks, that’s $838.95.) I suppose she could put it on her credit card, even though she’s just spent a considerable amount of her money in rehab and doesn’t appear to be gainfully employed. But can this same woman also afford to retain an attorney who makes at least three public appearances?

If a pack of cigarettes cost about eight bucks in Jersey, and you are a spendthrift like Mike Flaherty (played by Paul Giamatti), does it make any sense to buy a fresh pack, throw the other nineteen cancer sticks into a dumpster, and then smoke the remainder whenever you need to relieve stress? (For that matter, why are you spending your money on mid-grade scotch you keep in the office? And if your cigarette intake is that why aren’t you relieving stress that way?)

Such story problems emerge up with troubling frequency during Win Win, which isn’t just a subpar mainstream comedy, but a fallacious fantasy. The vastly overrated writer-director Thomas McCarthy (not to be confused with the very smart British novelist Tom McCarthy, who gave us Remainder and C) hasn’t bothered to ask or answer these basic questions. Perhaps it’s because McCarthy lives in a privileged bubble which prevents him from researching or investigating the very people he wishes to depict.

If we are to (rightly) condemn the Tea Party for perpetuating the view that some mythical age of prosperity occurred under Reagan, then we should also (rightly) condemn any huckster who wishes to perpetuate a roseate view of the middle-class instead of one that accurately presents its ongoing erosion (yet still manages to get us to walk away with some faith in humankind: Stewart O’Nan’s novels or Mike Leigh’s films come very much to mind). Because of these problems, Win Win is more feel-good propaganda than respectable entertainment. It’s the kind of movie that a clueless centrist, the type who doesn’t know how to live and who arrogantly claims comprehension of the hoi polloi without actually talking with them, will enjoy without question. I know this, because the film’s generic and gutless humor (1980s rock stars, games called Secret Apprentice, signs on ceilings that read “If you can read this, you’re pinned”) caused the middle-class types I was sitting with to laugh at the carefully engineered, preprogrammed moments.

The problem here may be that Win Win is actually two movies awkwardly sandwiched into one. Does it want to be a film about how Mike Flaherty survives in an increasingly unforgiving economy as a sole practitioner who takes up the causes of the elderly and as a part-time wrestling coach? Or a film about how a man who cannot relax finds a new cause to take up with Kyle (Alex Shaffer)? Kyle, a troubled boy, reveals himself to be a very capable wrestler who can shake the wrestling team from its losing streak. (Some hint of Kyle’s troubled past is seen late in the film, where Kyle’s violence shows signs of surfacing to the edge. Between this, and one joke that has Mike hitting Kyle in the face just before a wrestling match, there’s the possibility of a richer film buried beneath the crowd-pleasing claptrap. Alas, McCarthy would prefer to collect the check.) He’s landed into Mike’s life not long after Mike has taken the aforementioned $1,500 monthly guardian stipend from Kyle’s grandfather to help keep his family afloat.

Because the film’s story is so overstuffed, supporting characters who should matter aren’t given the chance to breathe. Amy Ryan, for instance, plays Jackie, Mike’s wife, revealed to be nothing less than a former Jersey girl (with a JBJ tattoo on her ankle: JBJ, of course, being shorthand for Jon Bon Jovi, a shorthand that also condescends to the audience) who now nurtures. The Flaherty family may be having financial difficulties, but why doesn’t the family chip into pick up the slack. Why doesn’t the film give Jackie a chance to get a part-time job? Or even offer us a dramatic moment in which Mike finally cops to Jackie about his inability to make ends meet? Surely, a woman who has observed her husband cheaping out (not fixing the creaky pipes in the office, not sending in the health insurance check on time, not hiring a tree surgeon to cut down the diseased tree) would notice. Even Mike’s office assistant, a woman confident enough to announce her hangovers and carefully tallying the expenses, would probably have some modest clue that the arithmetic doesn’t add up. Presumably, these women don’t confront Mike with these financial issues because they are aware of Mike’s health (he hyperventillates after too much stress). But if Mike has the time to work two jobs, and he’s spending nearly all of his spare time playing Wii tennis and bullshitting with his somewhat loutish friend Terry (Bobby Cannavale), surely he should take some personal responsibility or would at least be called (gently perhaps) on the way he evades what he needs to do. I mentioned a woman earlier who also cannot do the financial numbers. That woman is Kyle’s mother. So that’s three women McCarthy offers who are incapable of understanding basic personal finance. In a world in which The New York Times claims gang rapists to be the victims, I don’t think it’s hyperbolic to call Thomas McCarthy a sexist pig.

New Directors/New Films: At Ellen’s Age (2010)

[This is the third in a series of dispatches relating to the New Directors/New Films series, running between March 23, 2011 and April 3, 2011 at MOMA and the Film Society of Lincoln Center.]

Last August, JetBlue flight attendant Steven Slater decided to quit his job after a passenger refused to sit down. “I’ve been in the business 20 years,” he was alleged to have said. “And that’s it. I’m done.” He grabbed two Blue Moon beers, told the passengers to go fuck themselves, inflated the emergency slide, and walked away from the plane. A few hours later, he was arrested at his Queens home.

It’s doubtful that Pia Marais’s At Ellen’s Age – which played the Locarno Film Festival slightly before the JetBlue ballyhoo – was inspired by the Slater story. But there are a few interesting similarities. Ellen (Jeanne Balibar) is a flight attendant over forty who learns that her partner Florian (Georg Friedrich) has knocked up another woman. One day, with the camera tight on Ellen as she’s demonstrating emergency procedures and with only one boy craning his head around the edge of the seat to observe her, Ellen decides to exit the plane. Later, when the airline lets her go, Ellen’s boss explains that the lost profits and the security breach makes her continued employment with the airline untenable. Ellen, like Slater, defends her twenty years in the business. She then begins a journey of aimless wandering and inhabiting, not unlike Lost in Translation‘s Bob Harris (but without the wealth or the fame). She kicks around in random hotel rooms, hitting listless parties and often hiding in bed after everyone has left. She becomes an unexpected surprise for room service and for the next guest checking into the room. Through a series of odd run-ins, Ellen finds herself chasing a taxi that contains her luggage while inside a van containing animal rights activists. She ends up living with these activists, still wearing her flight attendant uniform as if it’s a skin that she can’t seem to shed.

The interesting juxtaposition of Ellen against animal rights activists suggests that Ellen herself might be a type of human animal. (And before she flees her job, it’s probably worth pointing out that she observes the surreal prospect of a cheetah walking down the runway and setting his haunches close to the plane’s wheels, causing a delay.) When the news outlets depicted the Slater tale, they invented a detail about Slater being in bed with his partner when the police arrested him. They were content to see Slater as a lurid animal to fit into their narrative cage. But the media isn’t terribly interested in Slater now and it never meaningfully examined why Slater did what millions of Americans wanted to do but couldn’t. When one aspect of our stability is threatened or removed, and we decide to roam the landscape that contains us, are we any more responsible in our actions than some grotty kid rightfully directing her energies towards capitalism’s many abuses, while failing to comprehend the exigencies of living with this shady social contract? There’s one moment in the film when Ellen finds herself protesting alongside her intrepid protesters. They strip their clothes off and spray something resembling blood on their bodies and wrap themselves in cellophane like meat. Is the protest here less about sticking up for animals and more about consumerism? Is not the chant MEAT IS MURDER a marketing cliché which might sit comfortably alongside JUST DO IT? Is not the decision to abandon one’s job as much of a capitalistic choice as sticking it out with the drudgery? These are interesting questions the film seems capable of, but that, frustratingly, aren’t buttressed by a cogent framework.

Yet Jeanne Balibar’s performance is to be commended here. As she gets further away from her ironically rooted career as a flight attendant, she almost lopes on-screen, like some animal released from captivity. She still resorts to the smile that she’s used for twenty years when taking in a young man named Karl (Stefan Stern) who thinks he can seduce her, but one gets the sense that this smile is hiding an additional layer of savagery. When Florian discovers just how thoroughly Ellen has rejected her former life, he is genuinely surprised. And so are we. But once the film has thrown Ellen so exquisitely into the wild, with Ellen even walking down a dark highway with liberated lab rats, At Ellen’s Age doesn’t quite have the philosophical heft to enter Levinas territory and raise vital questions about society’s responsibility for an impromptu Other like Ellen. That’s too bad. Because Balibar certainly has what it takes to go the distance.

New Directors/New Films: Happy, Happy (2010)

[This is the second in a series of dispatches relating to the New Directors/New Films series, running between March 23, 2011 and April 3, 2011 at MOMA and the Film Society of Lincoln Center.]

The best thing about Anne Sewitsky’s comedy, Happy, Happy, is Agnes Kittelsen, whose bright eyes bounce around with so much life that you figure she’s angling to become Norway’s answer to Amy Adams. Kittelsen plays Kaja, a thirtysomething teacher who lives in the middle of a snowy nowhere with Eirik (Joachim Rafaelsen), a laconic man who likes to leave for a week and go hunting (“go hunting,” we learn later, is a pretense and a euphemism), and Theodor (Oskar Hernaes Brandso), their son. When Theodor meets an Ethopian child his age, he initiates a game of “Slave” with him.

Based on that description, it probably seems that Kaja and Eirik are white supremacists. And based on the fact that a happy quartet of white men pops into the film every fifteen minutes to sing famous blues standards (This reminded me, for some reason, of Alan Price’s band in O Lucky Man! Let’s have more of these happy musical intrusions in cinema.), I cannot deny that I felt that the film was embracing some bizarre yet slight shadow of white privilege. My slight discomfort, however, was assuaged by the pic’s good-natured tone, which is more committed to trying out any number of comical quirks, however messy.

There are strong indications that Eirik is a closeted gay man. He hasn’t banged his wife in a year, which makes no sense, seeing as how she’s quite happy to offer him blowjobs and she’s very happy in general – even when snobby people speak down to her. Are Theodor’s casually racist reenactments the result of closeted emotions? It’s probably worth pointing out that Eirik and Theodor enjoy staring at Kaja, without saying anything, over breakfast. They continue this dreadful staring contest, against Kaja’s protests, until Kaja flees. With men this boorish around, who needs traditional family? It isn’t much of a surprise when Kaja takes an impromptu step to break this stability.

The Ethiopian child, Noa (Ram Shihab Ebedy), doesn’t talk much and, rather strangely, isn’t terribly aware of his own heritage. (It’s especially strange because Noa appears to be very fond of books. Nevertheless, the game of “Slave” does eventually encourage Noa to examine his own closeted heritage.) Noa is the adopted son of Sigve (Henrik Rafaelsen) and a fairly chilly attorney named Elisabeth (Maibritt Saerens), who have moved into the spare house across the way. Sigve and Elisabeth have vacated from the big city because Elisabeth had an affair. The two hope to rekindle their marriage. However, as I pointed out before, Kaja is fond of blowjobs. It doesn’t take a lot of know how to predict what happens next.

What does make Sewitsky’s film very interesting for a long stretch is how behavioral collision often forces perverse exuberance to emerge in this wintry wilderness. When the two couples play Norway’s answer to Cranium, during a drawing round, Eirik attempts to illustrate AIDS by drawing an incomprehensible backdrop of planes hitting buildings and two stick figures. “Two gay guys in New York,” he explains.

I enjoyed Happy, Happy quite a lot when it embraced these uncomfortable moments, which, oddly enough, emerged quite frequently when the four main characters were playing board games. When the two couples meet to play the Couples Game (a bit like The Newlywed Game, where couples demonstrate how well they know each other through questions), Sigve and Elisabeth seem to know each other very well, while Eirik and Kaja don’t. The latter couple can’t even answer the question, “What did you first love about your partner?” But Sewitsky is skillful enough to play against this expectation later in the film. Very often, Sewitsky suggests, it’s the couples who know each other too well who end up breaking their covenant.

Unfortunately, Sewitsky is less adept in portraying the aftermath. After affairs are consummated and the truth is revealed, she’s not quite sure what to do with her characters. Having crossed the threshold of what they must do to serve the narrative, these characters are left, quite literaly, to sing to the audience – however badly. Perhaps Sewitsky is asking us to remember that euphoric residue remains after a domestic cataclysm. As a cautious optimist, that’s certainly a message I can get behind. But I don’t believe this to be entirely fair to her characters.

New Directors/New Films: Margin Call (2011)

[This is the first in a series of dispatches relating to the New Directors/New Films series, running between March 23, 2011 and April 3, 2011 at MOMA and the Film Society of Lincoln Center.]

“The bank is something else than men. It happens that every man in a bank hates what the bank does, and yet the bank does it. The bank is something more than men, I tell you. It’s the monster. Men made it, but they can’t control it.” — The Grapes of Wrath

It’s easy for anyone with anything half-approaching a conscience to condemn the scummy vulpine gamblers who led us into the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. But Margin Call, which takes place during one very dark night in 2008, has a surprisingly nuanced portrait buried beneath its zesty dramatic intrigue. Yes, it takes a certain chutzpah to live a life (as one character does) where one claims want when the after-tax take of a $2 million annual salary is gobbled up by prostitutes and restaurants and cars and clothes. Yet the men and the women of Margin Call‘s unnamed firm (which bears striking similarities to Lehman Brothers) aren’t entirely without feeling. They’re just very good at compartmentalizing their emotions, which have been perfected after many years of greasing the wheels. That reality may very well be the true horror.

Our introduction to sales manager Sam Rogers (Kevin Spacey) is just after he’s received the news that his dog is sick. A few minutes later, he’s rallying the troops after a corporate bloodbath, saying, “80% of this floor was just sent home forever. But you were better.” He tells his salesmen that the downsized employees are “not to be thought of again.” How does he survive? One clue comes later in the film when Rogers is asked to take in some very bad news. He replies, “I don’t want to hear this. How do you think I’ve stuck around this place so long?”

But then it’s that failure to listen, that disinterest in what came before or what’s coming next, which is part of the problem. Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci) is one of the firm’s downsized casualties. He’s an analyst who we later learn helped design bridges that has saved thousands of commuter hours. And just as he’s working on some minatory projections showing serious volatility, the kind of financial Nagasaki with casualties exceeding the firm’s total value. But he isn’t even given the time to finish or explain his work. He’s escorted out of his office. And he’s informed by the icy HR people that he won’t have access to his computers again. He’s given a pamphlet (complete with the title LOOKING AHEAD and a preposterously sunny sailboat on the cover) that will provide “assistance with this transaction in your life.” And as he’s holding his banker’s box in the street, he discovers his cell phone is shut off. But just before heading from The Street to the streets, he does manage to get a flash drive with this data into the hands of the 28-year-old Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto), and that’s only because Peter has thought to accompany him to the elevator. Sullivan continues with Dale’s work and discovers the inevitable.

Sullivan is an analyst who, like many of his fellow employees, came to the firm for the money. He doesn’t seem as put out as his 23-year-old coworker, Seth Bregman (Penn Badgley), who can’t comprehend life without a job at the firm. (Bregman is later seen sobbing in the men’s room, an image that somehow feels worse than a stockbroker throwing himself out the window, because of the terror he must hide to show that he’s a team player.) But Sullivan does represent some missing link in the devolutionary masculine slide from ethical geek to thuggish lucre. Quinto here is terrific, playing the part with slight bites of the lower lip, rolled up shirtsleeves, and eyes that take in his increasing responsibilities with a reluctant professionalism that could, in the next decade or two, transform him into the ladder-climber wanting it all. Or maybe he’ll end up like Eric Dale: a risk management analyst let go for doing the right thing.

Margin Call features plentiful shots hinting at this blindsided mode of survival. One extraordinary moment occurs in an elevator as two executives argue over ratting each other out during the fallout, with a cleaning woman occupying the center of the frame, staring almost directly at the audience and seemingly not listening to this language. Another moment sees Sullivan and Bregman sitting in a gentleman’s club, the camera parked at a static shot quite far away, contemplating a stripper’s take home pay. Like many young men who are arrogant before their prime, they are so sure they know the numbers. And these fixed camera angles give us some sense of what they cannot see before them.

To some degree, Margin Call is working in the old school storytelling tradition that, in the wake of The Social Network, appears to be looking for a modest comeback. The film isn’t so much interested in the dry theoretical details, but it is concerned with the desperate emotions that force these people to scheme and capitulate. That ineluctable narrative decision may very well cause the picture to be declared by naive by its naysayers. But as someone who once silently observed the young and the hubristic (while also very young, which made the whole thing very odd) while working three months at Morgan Stanley, I can tell you that Margin Call is right on the money.

The graying Spacey – who is looking closer to his mentor Jack Lemmon as he gets older – forms something of a bridge between this film, Swimming with Sharks, and Glengarry Glen Ross. But his role is somewhat more understated. He’s been around the block so many times that he knows how to marshal his energy. And Spacey likewise cedes many of the scenes to Jeremy Irons, the firm’s head who shows up in a helicopter, asking the bright young analysts to explain the intricate data “as you would to a small child.” Margin Call‘s stress comes from the Nicorette chomping and rooftop smoking instead of the anxious indoor smoking, and overhead shots of New York replace Glengarry‘s cutaway shots of rattling Chicago subways.

The dialogue here isn’t just witty and wry. Care has also been taken to give Sam Rogers some grammatical gaffes. He describes “a very unique [sic] situation” when he’s asked to persuade his floor to perform the impossible and he often elides verbs such as “has” from his dialogue when speaking among the top executives. It’s almost as if Spacey came into the firm straight from high school. Or maybe he wants to appear stupid.

If the film has a liability, it may very well be Demi Moore playing the cold Sarah Robertson. Writer/director J.C. Chandor does make enlightened efforts to show that an anthracite heart isn’t limited to either of the two genders. (For example, the HR people at the beginning are all women and are all colder than the men they let go.) But the Moore character, aside from some predictable scheming, doesn’t really contribute much to the story.

Still, Margin Call is a very impressive debut from Chandor, who, if Hollywood gives him several films to flesh out his talents, may just be another Sidney Lumet in the making.

Review: Battle: Los Angeles (2011)

Perhaps the strangest aspect of the Battle: Los Angeles screening I attended was Danny DeVito’s presence. Danny DeVito – a supremely underrated actor and director – is just about the last name that comes to mind when I think of derivative science fiction – especially the kind of derivative science fiction that makes Roland Emmerich look like Aeschylus and Battlefield Earth look like Kitchen Sink realism. But there he was, walking out the doors just behind me and archly humming the theme song – his response to this remarkable cinematic travesty. Since Danny DeVito is a professional, and cannot speak ill of a terrible movie, I don’t wish to suggest that Danny DeVito didn’t enjoy the film. But I put forth to you that when a man of his talent reacts like this, this is probably not a sign that Battle: Los Angeles is the 2001 of our time.

What the hell was Danny DeVito doing at the screening? What the hell was I doing at the screening? I obviously can’t speak for Danny DeVito, but I suppose I was there for the cheese. Then again, the closer I get to forty, the less this answer feels legitimate. Even though I still enjoy laughing at terrible dialogue, which Battle: Los Angeles has in droves. “No promises in combat,” barks Staff Sergeant Michael Nantz (played by Aaron Eckhart as if Nantz were more of an easily ignored plastic chair rather than a flesh-and-blood character). “This is insane,” says another marine, who has not been given adequate dialogue to express what we already fucking know is insane. “I miss him….every…,” wails Eckhart later in the film. He may have been referring to Neil LaBute. “They ambushed us like they knew our frickin’ addresses,” says Tech Sergeant Elena Santos (played by the now officially typecast Michelle Rodriguez). Santos, by the by, is the only woman soldier here. And she’s not even an interesting soldier like Private Vasquez in James Cameron’s Aliens. (In fact, being a tech sergeant, she doesn’t even get to gun anybody down until the end.) If that gender disparity isn’t troublesome enough, consider that Nantz gets to say “fucking” while poor Santos only gets “frickin’.’ Where I come from, real women say “fuck.” Alas, this is a 21st century reality lost on writer Christopher Bertolini and director Jonathan Liebesman, who seem to have confused a relentlessly shaky camera for authenticity.

I pretty much lost it when Aaron Eckhart shouted, “Marines never quit,” in his gruff, here-for-the-paycheck bark. But, hey, I had to find my pleasure somewhere. The pleasure certainly wasn’t there in the explosions, which grew tedious, or the characters, which proved to be forgettable despite the X-Files-like captions, or the feeble explanation for the alien invasion, which involved using fuel for water, or the weak military system the alien race sets up, which involved a laughably stupid command center to generate power, or the dialogue, which only served to repeat obvious points.

Given such wretched qualities, cheese is a decidedly immature draw. I should know better at my age. But Danny DeVito is well over forty and he probably came for the cheese too. I was sitting too far away from Danny DeVito to hear if he was laughing. But when I started laughing, during a remarkably terrible and long Eckhart monologue attempting to rally the survivors, I noticed that others started laughing. Perhaps I gave a few audience members permission to laugh. Sony certainly did its best to pretend that this was a worthwhile film, being somewhat more aggressive with confiscating phones (who would pirate this piece of shit?) and even employing a warmup guy to get the audience to reply back “All right” before the screening. Since I had come to this screening as a reviewer, I felt that replying “All right” was inappropriate and not especially journalistic. Still, I can’t blame the studio for doing everything in its power to salvage a turd. On the other hand, a turd is still a turd. As turds go, Battle: Los Angeles is probably one of those turds well on its way to the sewer system by now. So it was probably an unwise decision for the filmmakers to include a plot point involving the Los Angeles sewer system, which only served to remind the audience that they were wading through shit.

Can I find one good thing to say about this failed hodgepodge of Predator, Independence Day, and Assault on Precinct 13? Well, I’ll certainly try. At one point, Nantz cuts away at an alien’s anatomy, trying to find the weak spot. My vast steadfast boredom dissipated for a few moments, and I wondered if the filmmakers would come up with something fairly creative. Maybe the aliens might have a unique digestive system. Perhaps a tentacle might emerge from the carcass and attack the humans. Perhaps the humans could morph into another form. But the only thing these hacks could come up with was a position to shoot at and weapons that were surgically attached to their bodies. And if you can’t be fucking bothered to come up with even some half-assed idea of an alien culture, then why go to the trouble of making the film in the first place?

If this movie had any real courage, it might have killed off its kid characters or shown one of the felled aliens genuinely suffering. Real war is more complicated than the simple-minded malarkey of blowing shit up. Is it too much to ask for even a small dose of All Quiet on the Western Front, Paths of Glory, or Platoon in a movie like this? These days, it is.

Jane Eyre (1990 : 2011 :: Reality : Film Adaptation)

I was a teen when I first read Jane Eyre from beginning to end. The decision to read this Charlotte Bronte classic wasn’t prompted by any authority, but sprang from personal shame. An English teacher had assigned Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men, pairing me up with two other students to write a collective essay in response to the book. I didn’t read the book. It wasn’t because I didn’t try. I just couldn’t read the book. And when I went to one of their comfortable middle-class homes to huddle around one of their computers, the jig was up. I was considered an impostor, with the calumnious sigil embedded invisible on my forehead for weeks.

These two other kids were right. I am still very much an impostor. I grew up in a home sullied by blows both violent and verbal, where shrieks from other family members careened around corners and mice scurried and scratched in the walls. The garage was nothing less than a shelter for junk that my parents lacked the effrontery to throw out, and I would have to climb over all manner of bric-a-brac to get the mail (which included a clandestine Playboy subscription addressed to my name, which I read for the pictures and the articles). Embarrassed friends would telephone me, hearing screaming and saying nothing and sometimes offering their homes as momentary refuge. This made it very difficult to read or concentrate or think or feel or write.

I didn’t have a computer; just an ancient electric typewriter with a highly unreliable ribbon and jittery keys. I had learned how to type 100 words per minute in eighth grade, but the contraption made my skills useless. I would type essays on this baleful beast late at night, when the chances of shouting and interruption were slimmer, often needing an hour to hone a paragraph to make sure that the ink didn’t smudge on the liberated bond and the characters hammered to the paper properly. Even one of these very patient hours, which could only come when I was holed up in my bedroom, still required the dutiful applique of white-out (mostly stolen, not purchased; there wasn’t much money). One of my English teachers – a man named Jim Jordan fond of leaving a tally on the blackboard with my name under the heading INANE COMMENTS (he did the same thing to a nice kid named Nick Hamilton; who knows how many aspiring jesters this man tormented over the years?) and who added a horizontal slice every time I overcame my shyness, announced my associative mind, and got the classroom to laugh — decided to condemn me further when I would turn in papers labored over into the early morning. As far as he was concerned, it wasn’t the content, but the pockmarked presentation, something I couldn’t help due to the poverty of my instruments, that offended this Murphy Brown watcher’s sensibilities.

Factor in all the ruthless ribbing, and this was a tough time for me. Misery at home, misery at school. But I tried my best to see the positive side of things. One needed to develop a thick hide to survive. I figured this neoliberal teacher just hated the poor kid with the wild and crazy hair and the trenchcoat and the hat and the Looney Tunes tees (found very cheap at Marshall’s and treated with some care, given that shopping for clothes was a rare occurrence) preventing him from charming a largely middle-class group as patriarchal pedagogue. It was a wonder, years later, that I ended up finding some dodgy living as a guy who wrote about books and that any page in literature spoke to me more than anything Jim Jordan, who hated genre and hated Stephen King and rebuffed my interest in HP Lovecraft and always let the class know all this, had to say over a semester.

I felt bad about not reading Robert Penn Warren. (Years later, I read the book in its entirety.) I also felt bad when I learned that the two students, whom I thought my friends, ridiculed me to another friend, figuring that I had to be a stupid son of a bitch for not reading Warren. (This third friend defended me, in part because he was also not quite in their class bracket and had some tangible understanding of what I was going through. Vice versa. We’re still friends to this very day. Old soldiers who fought many wars together.) And so I decided to prove to myself that I could read a big book that wasn’t science fiction or fantasy. I plucked a copy of Jane Eyre from a box in another classroom and I brought it home. (I would later do the same thing with George Orwell’s 1984 and Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities, both of which I was not required to read but did.)

For obvious reasons, I could relate very much to Jane’s early plight in the Red Room and at Lowood. Psychologically abusive family members, teachers who tormented me because I didn’t fit into their suburban idyllic fantasy, feeling stupid and plain – what here wasn’t there to relate to? I had no kind teacher equivalent to Miss Temple at the time, although I would later encounter a marvelous teacher named James Wagner, who not only encouraged me to write by looking upon every essay as an opportunity for fun and mischief, but who paid attention to the prose style contained in my DNA. When my sister took Mr. Wagner’s class a few years later, he said to her, “That’s what I like about you Champions. Short and snappy sentences.”

But once Jane hit Thornfield, I began to despise her and the book. I didn’t like this Rochester fellow who was trying to control her. He reminded me of too many paternal figures who wanted to correct me rather than accept me. And I didn’t like the way that Jane (or Janet, as Rochester called her; a modest corruption of her name that Jean Rhys was to investigate further in Wide Sargasso Sea) wasn’t honest about her feelings. I didn’t like the convenient fortune that Jane encountered later in the book, which seemed a terrible contrivance, and I didn’t like the way that Jane heard Rochester’s voice and how this conveniently urged her to return to Thornfield. Life just didn’t work like this. But I read it to the end and returned the book back to the box, grateful that my fury towards the book would not have to be voiced and shot down by an English teacher who didn’t like me. However, before an eccentric drama teacher (Mr. Cody), I dismissed Jane Eyre as “a Harlequin romance.” I was very surprised when Mr. Cody replied with approbation and enthusiasm.

Still, as much as I hated the book, I have to credit Jane Eyre for giving me a reading discipline I had never known before that time. It hadn’t occurred to me to look at the novel again until there came a time later, more than twice a lifetime later.

* * *

January 10, 2011. I publicly pledge to read the top 100 novels of the 20th century, as decided upon in 1998 (about eight years after I read Jane Eyre and about thirteen years before I made the promise) by the Modern Library of America. What I don’t quite comprehend at the time is that Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea -– a prequel to Jane Eyre -– is #94. (April 22, 2011 Interjection: Essay on Wide Sargasso Sea now here.) What I also don’t quite get is that there’s a new film adaptation of Jane Eyre set to be released on March 11, 2011.

A few weeks later, I make the connections. I receive an email from Russell Perreault (I’m on one of Random House’s mailing lists) about the movie tie-in edition. After my high school experiences, there’s no way in hell that I’m going to obtain a fresh copy of Jane Eyre on my own. Not from a bookstore or a library. Yet somehow I cannot resist. Through sheer folly and laziness, I send Perreault an email. Much to my surprise, Perreault humors me and a copy of Jane Eyre shows up in the mail days later. My fate is sealed. I can’t exactly ignore this polite gesture. I must reread the book. Who knows? Maybe my adult self will appreciate what my kid self did not.

I arrange to attend a press screening of the movie, with the idea that I’ll have the book reread before I hit the movie. (What I don’t count on is that all this industry triggers thoughts and feelings outlined in the first part of this essay.) I reread the book. I bang out the following Goodreads review:

It shouldn’t be thoughtless to condemn this terrible book, which I read for the second time in my life. The first time was in high school. I hated it then, but I read it to the end — unprovoked by any force in particular, aside from my own flowering self-discipline. I despise this book slightly less now. But I am now most anxious indeed to read Jean Rhys’s corrective prequel, which appears to be much shorter and has the temerity to condemn such terrible characters. Jane Eyre is almost smug in the end, after 600 pages of near helplessness (especially the unintentionally hilarious chapter of her asking around for food and a job: if she were truly smart, she would have contrived the damn escape over time; what does it say about this diabolical doormat that I longed for her to take up prostitution, hoping in vain that my memory of the book was wrong, but knowing the chirpy fate of this dimwitted damsel in distress, who requires an extra-strong dose of feminist enlightenment). Rochester and St. John are two male specimens whom I would not only outdrink, but out think and out act. When Rochester begs Janet to save him, an image of castrated Williamsburg hipsters beating him to a pulp entered my mind. Alas, such a deserved fate was not to be. Don’t get me started on the doddering St. John.

But of course, being very stubborn-minded, I read this damn book to the bitter end. My partner asked me to leave the room because I was talking back so violently to the book, making sounds resembling “Wah wah wah” or something like that when I had to endure pages upon pages of angst. A critic friend says that he never made it past the first half of this book and suggested that I read Wuthering Heights. He may be right, but I think I’m done with the Bronte Sisters for at least a year. I don’t care how groundbreaking this book was on the Gothic front. It’s just plain hokey. Convenient windfalls from dead relatives, hearing Rochester’s voice from afar. Contrived! So you can’t take responsibility for marrying the crazy woman in the attic? Cry me a river. Man up and deal. Don’t take out your problems on your poor servants, illegitimate children, a governess, and so forth. Hey, Rochester, didn’t you see the sign on the boat to Jamaica? YOU BROKE IT, YOU BOUGHT IT. The fact that you view humans as hairy beasts, sir, is part of the problem. Bronte’s understanding of people, even accounting for the centuries, leaves much to be desired too.

* * *

In high school, I understand that many people consider the book to be a masterpiece. And while I don’t share this viewpoint, I do find myself in high school obtaining a VHS copy of the 1943 film starring Orson Welles as Rochester and Joan Fontaine as Jane. I love every damn minute of it. Maybe it’s the melodrama. Maybe it’s the black-and-white. I am familiar then with Citizen Kane and Touch of Evil and the wine commercials and am only just starting to understand what a great cinematic genius Orson Welles was. (My friends only seem to know him from Transformers: The Movie.) There is clearly no better man who can channel Rochester’s oily charisma and convince us why Jane Eyre would fall victim to what would now be very serious sexual harassment in the workplace.

There is, in 1996, a lesser film adaptation with William Hurt in the role. And I learn that George C. Scott has also played him, although I still haven’t seen that version. In college years, I also discover that there’s a 1973 version with Michael Jayston in the part. (I know Jayston as the Valeyard in the 1986 Doctor Who serial, “Trial of a Timelord.”) I track some of these dramatic versions down (not an easy thing to do in the pre-Internet days of video stores and tape trading by mail), but I don’t tell anyone about this adaptation fixation until March 2011, when I write and publish this essay. Perhaps in my secret watching, I am trying my best to find ways of appreciating a book I don’t care for.

“My master’s colourless, olive face, square, massive brow, broad and jetty eyebrows, deep eyes, strong features, firm, grim mouth, — all energy, decision, will, — were not beautiful, according to rule; but they were more than beautiful to me; they were full of an interest, an influence that quite mastered me, — that took my feelings from my own power and fettered them in his. I had not intended to love him; the reader knows I had wrought hard to extirpate from my soul the germs of love there detected; and now, at the first renewed view of him, they spontaneously arrived, green and strong! He made me love him without looking at me.”

Why is Rochester the entry point? Is it because I’m a man? Is it because of this idea of loving someone without the object of your affection looking back at you? I don’t think so. I think it’s because I’m trying to understand why Jane would be so attracted. That’s one of the great narrative mysteries sticking at the back of my mind for years. Even if she doesn’t have much experience with men, and even if the times weren’t exactly friendly for women, it doesn’t make sense that someone brave enough to stand up to the abuses at Lowood would fall for some of Rocheter’s dull philosophy. Yet Rochester, plainly described in that above passage, is charming in these dramatic versions in a way that he isn’t charming in the book.

* * *

March 8, 2011. I’m in the Dolby 88 screening room. I know within a minute of first seeing Michael Fassbender in this movie that he doesn’t have what it takes to be Rochester. And it gets worse as the film goes on. He isn’t fierce enough. He doesn’t have the eyes that men like Orson Welles or Oliver Reed had; the eyes that somehow convince you to jump into an abyss before you know you’re falling. When Rochester sits in a chair, the chair has more screen presence. Poor Fassbender looks as if he’s been asked to do nothing but stare intensely at the camera. His arms and legs have pinioned by bad direction.

It doesn’t help that screenwriter Moira Buffini (responsible for Tamara Drewe) has restructured Jane Eyre so that a good portion of the St. John episode comes first (i.e., the movie begins with Jane’s escape from Thornfield, which in itself is a ballsy and interesting choice), followed by a surprising extension of the early business with the Reeds, with the Lowood stuff getting cheapened into what appears to be digital cardboard decor, which results in Rochester’s first appearance getting postponed and the narrative structure collapsing in on itself.

The “pedestal of infamy” mentioned in the book, which is a metaphor, is mentioned directly by an evil teacher in the movie. That’s how literal-minded the script is. The script also includes numerous moments where characters tell each other what they’re feeling, as if Buffini doesn’t understand that this is a visual medium. “How very French,” replies Fairfax after Adele sings a song. “You’re depressed,” says Rochester to Jane Eyre, who doesn’t look depressed. “Your eyes are full,” he also says when they’re not. “You’re blushing,” he says, when she’s not. This technique certainly worked for Lev Kuleshov, whereby Kuleshov cut a blank expression of a man with a bowl of soup (he’s hungry), a girl’s coffin (grief), and so forth – with audiences praising the blank man’s great acting. But that was almost 100 years ago and it relied on visual cues rather than oral ones. You’d think that such bad narrative dialogue would have the simple explanation of lines cribbed directly from the book. In other words, that essential exposition which works in text was simply plucked wholesale and put into the script. But that isn’t the case at all. Because none of these lines are in the book. Buffini (or some tampering studio executive) has added them. Because she (or someone) believes that the audience is a collection of morons.

There is no Miss Temple in this movie. Indeed, the movie cannot afford to offer us any nuances, anything that strays from the cliches. The red-maned Mia Wasikowska is too luminous to be so plain. The movie’s real “machine without feelings” here is cinematographer-turned-director Cary Fukunaga, who comprehends how to capture a world by lantern and candlelight, and even manages a moment of battledore and shuttlecock. But he doesn’t know that cobwebs and dust and flies often clutter up a dark and expansive mansion. Fukunaga isn’t much interested in creating visual atmosphere. He’s into fake scares through an aggressive sound mix, such as a bird flying up into the air. It doesn’t really enhance the story or the mystery or give us a reason to care.

* * *

I was an adult when I reread Jane Eyre from beginning to end, and when I realized that my feelings for the classic were just as needlessly prejudicial as the teacher’s enmity towards me. I gave it a try anyway, devoting many unknowing hours trying to reconstruct something that I had locked away in the attic of my mind. My own private Bertha was not insane and would not stay caged and would not set the place on fire. I resolved to approach Jane Eyre again in ten years, when the associations were less fresh and I was presumably more human. The next time around, I will judge it not through the prism of its dramatic iterations, but on the very novel itself. After all, wasn’t it Jane herself who said that repentance is said to be its own cure?

The Bat Segundo Show: Insulted by Authors

Bill Ryan recently appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #384. He is the proprietor of the website Insulted by Authors.

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Insulted by humorless people.

Guest: Bill Ryan

Subjects Discussed: Taking unexpected tumbles in life, why insults are the best way to pop the cherry of the author-reader relationship, being the son of a scientist, dodging dodgy publicists, being identified as “The Bill Plus Insult Guy,” picking away at the celebrity industrial complex that has been built up around the author, being frightened by Salman Rushdie, whether there is something inherently wrong in asking an author to insult the reader, difficulties with humorless authors, Nicole Krauss’s post-profanity titter, how the prelude to an author interaction sets up strange expectations, Rick Moody’s refusal to sign older books, book autograph prospectors, being afraid of preconceptions, taking the denial of an insult personally, when joie de vivre is mistaken as a threat, hero worship and naivete, the protective personality traits of authors, looking at the dilemma from the “why not an insult?” position, ideal readers vs. material readers, Banksy, being inclusive of quirky ideas within a marginalized medium, non-monetary value and books, and the dangers of being drawn too close to the apotheosis of fame.


Ryan: Salman Rushdie was in my top four of insults I’d love to get. The Mount Rushmore of insults or whatever. I was so frightened ahead of time for some reason, despite the fact that this is a guy who’s reading a children’s book in front of a crowd of people who showed up at an art gallery. To hear someone read a children’s book. I was nervous! Because it’s Salman Rushdie. And I approached him. And I have tweaked my approach, depending upon the author. Like with Salman Rushdie, I was very deferent. “Mr. Rushdie, I’m sorry to be the kind of person to ask you this. But if you have a moment, if that’s okay, could you add an insult to my personalization?” And I’m worried almost that the fact that I’m scared, intimidated by the very thing that I kinda want to break down, is maybe a problem with my scientific approach. (laughs) Do you know what I mean?

Correspondent: Well, maybe it’s an emotional approach. Because here you have Rushdie. You hope that he will defy your expectation, that he will insult you. And what does he do? He decides, “Why do you want to do that?” And it’s sort of a big letdown. It’s almost like maybe you were nervous about setting yourself up for this letdown. Is that safe to say?

Ryan: It’s like: What did I do wrong? Okay. Exactly, yes! The scientific approach where I was waiting in line and I had everything lined up like a series of actions that I had just lined up in my mind. And I’m like, “Okay, I’m going to approach Mr. Rushdie. I’m going to set down my book. Very gently.” I’m going to say, “Mr. Rushdie, thank you very much. Blah blah blah. By the way, my name’s Bill. Insulted by Authors.” So I went back over after the fact. And for whatever reason, I got really really nervous and really excited. Just the fact that I’m disrupting whatever silly little convention that there is behind the whole signing of a book. I may be blowing it up way, way too big in my mind. But afterwards, my heart was pumping. And I was like, “Okay, what did I do wrong? What was it that Mr. Rushdie didn’t understand about….”

Correspondent: Just call him Salman. (laughs) Mr. Rushdie? He won’t appear on this program. So we can go ahead and be informal about him. If it’s any consolation.

Ryan: (laughs) So Salman. Yeah, I had to go over for the next twenty minutes. And I actually, literally, sat right outside the signing — or stood right outside the signing — and was breathing deep. And all these people.

Correspondent: Breathing deep?

Ryan: Yeah. I was breathing deep. I was actually…

Correspondent: Hope you weren’t hyperventilating.

Ryan: A little bit! A little bit, man. This is how much I put into this for whatever stupid reason. And all these people who had heard me talking to myself in line slowly filtered out around the corner. What did I do wrong? How can I perfect this asking for an insult? How can I make this more accessible to the Rushdies of the world? But also equally accessible to the AL Kennedys of the world.

Correspondent: Or the Amy Sedarises.

Ryan: Exactly. Exactly.

Correspondent: Well, on the other hand, what do you to deal with the reality that some authors — particularly the Old World, anti-online, anti-Tumblr, anti-Twitter types — they’re going to go ahead and say, “I’ll never stoop to that. Because I am an author.” Rushdie may be one of the last ones. Along with say, maybe, Richard Ford. I don’t think he would insult you.

Ryan: Probably not.

Correspondent: Philip Roth might, I think.

Ryan: I’d like to think that.

Correspondent: (laughs) I’d like to think that he would. Cynthia Ozick might, if you could get her.

Ryan: Yes!

Correspondent: But, on the other hand, you’re dealing with a lot of self-important authors who, let’s face the facts, are humorless. So where does the challenge kick in? Is it less about trying to bump your head against the wall? And more about seeing how they will react? I mean, it was actually rather astonishing to me to learn that Allegra Goodman would refuse to insult you and that post has not gone up, I noticed.

Ryan: Not yet. Not yet. I went through a transition between — I still don’t quite know what I’m trying to do with all this. Like I’m just trying to have fun. And I’m a book collector, in general. And I treat books as objects in addition to being books. Which is somewhat tragic, I’m sure. But also — whatever. I mean, everybody has something they’re trying to change about them. But I feel like everyone would be able to give me an insult if I somehow approached them in the right way or it was the right situation. Or something. There’s all these other outline — like little things that can mess with my amazing idea, incredible idea for insults.

Correspondent: You think you can develop the perfect pretext for any situation.

Ryan: (laughs) Exactly.

The Bat Segundo Show #384: Insulted by Authors (Download MP3)

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A Hasty Response to The Late American Novel

I remember reading Jeff Martin and C. Max Magee’s anthology, The Late American Novel, a few years ago when it was called Kevin Smokler’s anthology, Bookmark Now. Kevin Smokler has more followers than I do on Twitter and is paid by Chris Anderson to do something in relation to books and marketing. When I read Bookmark Now in 2005, I had a beef with Kevin Smokler. But now I do not, although Smokler doesn’t follow me on Twitter. And I don’t follow him. I do not have a beef with either Jeff Martin and C. Max Magee, but Max and I follow each other on Twitter. It may be that I am less angry now than I was in 2005, or that I like Max more in 2011 than Kevin in 2005. I feel compelled to point out that it is not 2005. I know this because I have less hair. The Late American Novel may have spoken to me six years ago, but I am not quite sure that it speaks to me in 2011. But then I have not yet opened its contents. I am about to. I will say that I do not see the Internet as a distraction or even an enhancement. It is a bit like a sex toy that I plug in from time to time. I am certain that I am not the only one that feels this way. If the Internet were to go away, I’d be perfectly happy. Because, aside from my extracurricular activities, I am surrounded by books and, if websites were to go away, you would find me in the streets disseminating pamphlets and circulars. You would find me giving speeches in obscure town halls. (Come to think of it, you may be finding me there even with the Internet. I comfortably wear the Internet as a surplice, but it is not the end all and the be all. It has yet to design the intellectual equivalent of exciting underwear.)

It remains unclear whether Jeff Martin and C. Max Magee will, in five years time, be paid by Chris Anderson (or some other dimwitted man who plagiarizes from Wikipedia and hosts conferences and edits overrated magazines and pays quirky and interesting voices a lot of money to transform into uncritical hacks in a few years) to do something in relation to books and marketing. But I don’t think they will. Jeff Martin and C. Max Magee are certainly more admirable and interesting in their 2011 pursuits than Kevin Smokler was with his 2005 pursuits. Looking at the list of contributors in The Late American Novel, there are only three names that make me want to throw the book against the wall and rage like a deranged animal for another random anthology so that I can peform the same eccentric test. And I have to say that, as anthologies go, this is a pretty decent batting average. I think there were more contributors who annoyed me in Bookmark Now.

I’m not sure I needed Thomas Allen’s “Notes on the Cover.” If you have to explain your book cover, it’s my feeling that you’re slumming it in some way. I also didn’t need Reif Larsen’s “The Crying of Page 45.” Larsen, who has littered this essay with annoying postmodernism (“Figure 3: The order of Chapters in Cortazar’s Rayeula“) didn’t get the memo that, thanks to the twee approach of McSweeney’s, pomo will be quite dormant for the foreseeable future. “I never arrived at page 45,” writes Larsen. And one longs to tell this precious writer that he’s not exactly making it easy to push beyond the third paragraph. One also wishes to tell Larsen that nostalgia is a terrible reason to read. One reads to get some sense of being alive. Or at least this reader does.

Which brings us to Marco Roth’s “The Outskirts of Progress,” with its second-person East Coast assumptions. First off, Marco, I may be skeptical, but I’m not pessimistic. Like you, I’m not a slave to technological progress. But unlike you, frequent railroad landscapes do not bore me. I also quibble with your suggestion that I am deracinated. I was just watered and taken for a walk. No knowledge is lost, if one looks hard for it. Please take more time formulating your thoughts.

The widely disseminated Davey Gates-Johnny Lethem exchange from PEN America (collected here as “A Kind of Vast Fiction”) is something one can get behind, especially in response to Gates’s idea about the “instantaneous opinion marketplace” and whether all future novels are, in some sense, historical. But then my own long-winded online presence would suggest that Gates and I are simpatico on this score. I also liked Deb Olin Unferth’s “The Book,” in which bullet points demonstrate the futility of attempting to announce the death of a medium. Elizabeth Crane humbly writes, “So I’m the last person to have any predictions about the fate of fiction in the future. Are there any original ideas anymore?” Hucksters and e-cult members: take note.

Leave it to Emily St. John Mandel to cut through the bullshit by opening her essay with this sentence: “There are certain divisions in the world that seem unnecessary to me.” Bookmark Now prided itself upon insisting quite rightly that books were still alive in a digital age. The Late American Novel insists quite rightly that we are all no longer on the same team. Yet I flit around for an essay hoping to acknowledge this fragmentation and I find Katherine Taylor offering the advice: “Don’t go back to Fresno.”

That’s a bit like referring to “flyover states.” It’s impolite.

Maybe going to Fresno might give some of us a more reasonable idea about where books are heading and what regular people are reading. The Late American Novel, while refreshingly cheerful, doesn’t quite acknowledge this. But then neither did Bookmark Now. Rudolph Delson is wrong to suggest that there isn’t pleasure in knowing about novels. That’s like saying there isn’t pleasure in knowing about people. We should know about everything. But perhaps The Late American Novel is a necessary kickstart.

The Bat Segundo Show: Aminatta Forna

Aminatta Forna appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #383. She is most recently the author of The Memory of Love.

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Trying to remember where his lost car keys are so he can learn to love again.

Author: Aminatta Forna

Subjects Discussed: Writing about Sierra Leone without naming the country, adopting a tone that is simultaneously universal and specific, combating the “news vision” of the Western mind set, the moon landing and the historical sense, “Kung Fu Fighting” in a different context, media mechanisms and attempts to memorialize, Albert Dada and roaming travelers, fugue controversy, narrative ideas emerging out of research, having to leave some research behind, entering other people’s lives, spending two weeks in an operating theater, carrying over the character of Adrian from Ancestor Stones, when “lesser” countries are asked to explain their existence, Adrian playing a role for the reader, the disparities between Kai and Adrian in The Memory of Love, kinship between cooking and surgery, challenging someone to a race on a beach and breaking an Achilles tendon, how similar character qualities can be a benefit and a risk, characters and a prefigured narrative, writing a perspective from the male vantage point, roadside stops and car moments used to foreshadow tragic events, getting arrested, the ethics of colluding with corruption, “writing like a scientist,” avoiding conscious thinking about metaphor, conflating fiction with fact, how a “unique” Sierra Leone story is ubiquitous in Sierra Leone, Argentina as an early influence for The Memory of Love, “pasting the facsimile of a smile on my face,” being a people person, why “not being evil” doesn’t necessarily make you good, PTSD as a normal characteristic, “write about what you know” versus “write about what you want to find out,” and the novel as a medium for relative normality.


Correspondent: I wanted to talk about Albert Dada, who is a figure in A History of Mental Illness, the invented book within the book. You have Adrian come across the case of this guy, who decided to abandon his gas station. And this, interestingly enough, is a psychiatrist. And then he goes ahead and starts traveling at 70 kilometers a day. Just becoming this crazy, wild, roaming traveler. I’m curious how that served as this cultural reference point. Because he’s not exactly as popular as, say, Neil Armstrong.

Forna: Oh, well it went the other way around actually. It went the other way around. I was told a story about a woman. A true story. By a human rights worker. A Sierra Leone human rights worker. And I was told a story about what this woman had suffered during the war. How she had fled to a refugee camp in a neighboring country and then come back. And what she found, this human rights worker told me. And I don’t want to give the story away. But it was so shocking. It absolutely left me speechless. And that story returned to me when I came to write The Memory of Love. And I wanted to create a patient for Adrian. You know, Adrian is there looking — he’s there to help himself as well. But anyway, what happened was that I tried to think of, to actually imagine, if that happened to you, what your mind would do. Or what it would do to your mind. How can we survive that? And I came up with something that I had already seen happen a little in Sierra Leone, which was that people often did step out of their lives. And women in particular often did just step out of their lives and go walking. Not in that fugue state. Not in a dissociative state. It was just a self-healing thing. They would say, “I’ve got to get away from here for a bit.” And they would just go traveling and they would come back. And nobody thought this was curious. It was just part of the culture. So I thought, “Well, here’s something she might do.” Because she has suffered this extreme trauma.

So I began to read about fugue. And then I realized that there was this whole controversy around it. I wrote a book about it. And it all seemed to fit. It fit with what Adrian was there to do, which was try to find something that might advance his career. As well as help the country, of course. But you know, he had other motivations. It fit with Agnes: the character, the patient he sees. So these are wonderful moments where you get this perfect storm in your research. But that’s the way I work. I do quite a lot of research and after the research comes the ideas usually. I go places. I know some writers work like this and others have a plot and then they fit everything to the plot. But I tend to go and see. And then the stories arise out of that.

Correspondent: But there must be a danger in getting bogged down in too much research. The idea perhaps that you attempt a narrative, but that it doesn’t necessarily flesh out. Is this an issue with you?

Forna: Yes. Both of them. (laughs) The “too much research” — it’s less of a problem because I used to be a journalist. So we got used to having to leave some of our research out. We knew that you can’t get it all in. Which is always the danger. The first failing of young journalists. Attempt to use everything they’ve discovered. I know that there will always be a place for it in a later book. And I was once asked this by a creative writing class that I was talking to. “Well, what do you do with the research that you don’t use?” And I said, “Well, it’s usually the next book.” Or it’s the one after it. So nothing’s ever lost. I don’t worry too much about that. And what was the other part of the question?

Correspondent: Oh. It was about the amount of research and also what happens if some finding doesn’t work its way into the narrative. Yes.

Forna: Well, of course, my books are character-led rather than plot-led. So I will always refine the plot to what they are likely to do. But research is important for all kinds of reasons to me. Because it sparks so much. I love it. The reason I am a writer, the reason I was a journalist, is because I love entering other people’s lives. So in that period before I actually sit down to inhabit the character that I’ve created and become that person, I spend quite a lot of time trying on parts of their life. So for Kai, I spent two weeks in an operating theater. For Adrian and Attila, the African psychiatrist that is rather ill-tempered who he works with, I also spent two weeks in a mental hospital in Sierra Leone. So I try on their lives to see if they’ll fit when I come to create the characters. Somebody called it “method writing.” And maybe sometimes I go too far. But I enjoy it a great deal. I enjoy all of that. And when I come to write it, I feel that I fully constructed this person. And now I can be them.

The Bat Segundo Show #383: Aminatta Forna (Download MP3)

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