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08/13/14 4:00am

In See You Next Tuesday, shot at various points along the G line and opening at Cinema Village on August 22, Mona (Eleanore Pienta) is a supermarket checkout girl in the last days of a ticking-time-bomb pregnancy. The film begins by sketching the childish codependence of Mona and her recovering-addict mother (Dana Eskelson), and their estrangement from Mona’s younger sister (Molly Plunk), with short dyed hair and a live-in African-American novelist girlfriend (described as a “real person” by an indolently drunk hipster at her bartending day job). But as Mona’s tentative employment and housing situations, and increasingly evident pathology, begin to exert a cyclonic pull on her family’s extended social circles, unresolved issues rise to the surface as bodily excretions and atavism (sometimes cover-your-mouth funny). Though the film is compassionate and ultimately redemptive, it exerts a rubbernecking fascination; Ben Sachs, of the Chicago Reader, aptly described it as being about the kind of people you’d try desperately to avoid making eye contact with on public transit. The film is the feature debut of writer-director Drew Tobia, 28, who currently lives in the Bushwick-Ridgewood borderlands. We exchanged questions and answers over email earlier this month.

The film stages the kind of interactions—screaming fights; loud, wet, public breakdowns—that your average citydweller is used to speedwalking away from. So I’m curious about the impetus for the story and the characters. Where did these people come from, how did you decide to spend the length of a film with them? I’ve read that you and Eleanore Pienta came up with Mona based on one of her characters in a photographic self-portrait, but her whole life and milieu…
I always liked harsh and abrasive characters and subject matter, but I think some of the things I was writing before were a little too sarcastic or ironic. I wanted to do something that was personal and sincere while still keeping the dark humor I’m drawn to, but I was having a hard time figuring a way in. Eleanore has been a good friend for a decade, and that’s the work she does. I saw those pictures and I went through the thought process like you might passing by somebody that looks interesting, thinking, like, you must have a mother, you must have people in your life who love you, you must have people in your life who hate you, you’re not just a colorful extra in the movie of my life, you’re the star of your own. And then, especially thinking of Eleanore in the role, it started to become easy making this person somebody I wanted to spend a feature length with, while touching on things that were and are important to me, like who are the people that mean something to you, how does the past affect your present, living on top of so many different people in a quickly changing city…

The film depicts a range of racial and class identities within contemporary Brooklyn. (Even in the Clinton Hill exteriors, from the Pioneer on Lafayette and Grand, to locavore deli Victory Garden.) It’s both fascinating, and darkly comic, to watch Mona’s antisocial behavior (and its implications of a pathologically damaged upbringing, and the lack of a social safety net) spread like contagion to ever more chi-chi tiers of Brooklyn society…
That was a very conscious thought, and there was more of it in earlier drafts of the script, but I wanted that attitude to pervade the film instead of being obvious. I wanted to have a diverse cast that showed off the kinds of people I see in Brooklyn but rarely see in films about Brooklyn, partially because I think people are afraid they’ll offend somebody, so they just ignore it. Going back to your earlier question about avoiding people that are weird or different, you can’t avoid Mona when she’s in your path, because she won’t let you! The party scene [in which Mona and Jordan disrupt a middle-aged brownstoner gathering] was so much fun to do, because we shot a lot of the social niceties and introductions after we’d shot them getting kicked out, so that stuff was played with a falseness and a politeness that this movie isn’t about.

It’s notable that you’re a male writer-director making a film populated almost entirely with women going through very diffuse, equally intense personal crises…
A lot of the time I get questions about the female-centric cast like it’s a weird thing, and I’m aware that for the most part, a cast populated by men is the norm and a cast populated by women is treated like specialty fare. The dynamics just worked better with women, and there were some actors I really wanted to work with and I was writing with them in mind, but I never set out to make a movie about what it means to be a woman, I just wrote about what it means to be a human. Everybody’s been Mona, at one point or another in their lives. Except not necessarily pregnant. With a baby, anyway.

When the movie plays to an audience, does it get laughs where and when you expected it would?
Audiences WIDELY differ in how they watch the film. I’ve gone to screenings where there is laughter throughout and it’s a great feeling, and I’ve gone to screenings where it’s completely silent and I think, oh god I failed, and then people after will come up to me and say “I loved it so much and I thought it was so funny” and I’m like “well why the fuck didn’t you laugh then you nearly gave me a heart attack.” I was talking about this with some friends recently, that if somebody doesn’t laugh in the beginning and make it ok to laugh, then people get nervous and don’t want to laugh out loud or think they shouldn’t be laughing so they don’t.

08/13/14 4:00am

The Trip to Italy
Directed by Michael Winterbottom

The Trip to Italy reprises the premise of 2010’s The Trip, with comedians Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon—again playing versions of themselves stranded on slightly less elevated career plateaus, having attained slightly less self-awareness—again sent by a British on a culinary tour by a British newspaper, the Observer. (The film, edited to feature length from a six-part BBC series, is very specific in its references to the UK media industry, as well as in its shop talk, fostering a certain amount of confusion over which parts of Coogan and Brydon’s respective c.v.s—and personalities—are actually counterfeited for the project.)

A certain sense of junket-justification does makes its way into The Trip to Italy, not just in the in-character jokes about padded word counts and expense accounts, but also in the structure of the comedic improvisations, in which Brydon’s eager-to-please segues into impersonations of Welsh and professional forbears (and a terrible Al Pacino) rouse Coogan to irritability and competitiveness. Again, plates (pasta and seafood), and landscape (terraced hills and rocky coasts) are backdrop to poetry readings (from the English Romantics, generally in put-on accents) and professional-rivalry bickering; again, director Michael Winterbottom breaks up the dining centerpieces with plug-and-play kitchen cutaways. What goads the film beyond complacency, ultimately, are the punctuations of genuine comedic inspiration—both via the new imitations, particularly some unironic Alanis Morissette singalongs, and in Coogan and Brydon’s loving antagonism—and the surprisingly prickly take on midlife reversals of previous certainties.

Opens August 15

07/16/14 4:00am

The Kill Team
Directed by Daniel Krauss

The infantry platoon who in early 2010 began murdering Afghan civilians in staged encounters in order to relieve the tension of counterinsurgency drudgery have been the subject of a number of works of investigative journalism, notably a Rolling Stone article by Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty screenwriter Mark Boal. Here, director Daniel Krauss finds a through-line in Specialist Adam Winfield, a dedicated infantryman and son of an ex-Marine, whose attempts at whistleblowing fell on deaf ears before he was ultimately enlisted in participating. The film follows Winfield and his family—guilt-stricken dad, righteously protective mom—as he prepares for a murder trial in military court; the film opens on him in handcuffs. Aided by unambiguously exculpatory Facebook chats between the serviceman and his family, and making pointed use of a military family’s old snapshots, Krauss has in the polite, serious Winfield a powerful parable of idealism shattered by the realities of occupation and the hot red mist of war (sound familiar?). These are ultimately evoked less by the hashish-clouded bloodlust and trophy photos of the “Kill Team” circa 2010, however, than by the post-hoc, soundbite-sized reflections on the warrior mentality, obviously polished in sessions with defense team and court-appointed psychologists, which participants like Specialist Jeremy Morlock offer up to Krauss in interviews.

The Kill Team’s subject is the culture of combat, and this limits its wider accusatory force. (It’s maybe noteworthy that Krauss emphasizes the almost spiritual view of warfare as an altered state more than did Kathryn Bigelow collaborator Boal.) In personifying the horrors of war through 3rd Platoon squad leader and life-sentenced ringleader Calvin Gibbs (with skull tattoos commemorating his confirmed kills, and credible threats of fragging), Krauss perhaps follows the military prosecutors in creating a cult of personality at the expense of following a more systemic inquiry up the chain of command. (As Winfield’s father does point out to Krauss, no officers ultimately faced charges.) In fact, as reported elsewhere, the routine investigations into the unit’s kills, which saw higher-ranking officers accepting explanations of “legitimate combat engagements” through willful or wishful ignorance, parallels the current administration’s practice of retroactively classifying all adult male victims of drone strikes as enemy combatants.

Opens July 25 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center

12/24/13 10:12am

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The best time to go to the movies in New York City—to do anything in New York City—is right around Christmas, when the city is emptied out and seems, more than at any other time, to be basically a dream. So many people in New York are from somewhere else. Think about Nick Carraway, preparing to leave the city, and his reverie of journeys back West at Christmas, beautiful prep-school kids gathering on train platforms and then dropping off one by one, “unutterably aware of our identity with this country for one strange hour, before we melted indistinguishably into it again.”

Remember the Night, which plays at Film Forum for a week beginning Christmas as part of its Barbara Stanwyck retrospective, is a movie about the time of year when the American hometown calls its own back with “a twitch upon the thread.” Scored to the strains of “Back Home Again in Indiana,” the film is a deeply moving return journey into the heart of the country.

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Remember the Night opens with a gauzy, slightly unreal close-up on a wrist which sparkles cold with jewels. When Lee Leander (Stanwyck) walks out of SE Meyer and Company into the bustle of Fifth Avenue, the bracelet still on her wrist, it does indeed begin a chain of events which leads inexorably to an odd coupling with her goody-two-shoes prosecuting attorney; but though the film, written by Preston Sturges, comes out of the urbane, often urban cycle of screwball comedy, this thief is a third-time offender, not a penthouse kook like a Carole Lombard or Katharine Hepburn character. Her prosecutor, Jack Sargent (Fred MacMurray), has the kind of nonthreatening corn-fed good looks that make him ideal for locking up ladies in the docket, but after Lee’s attorney stemwinds a load of bunkum that the jury seems to buy (Sturges loved hucksters, he was a huckster himself), Sargent gets a continuance until the holiday spirit has passed.

Sargent, who lives the unexamined life of a movie bachelor in prewar Manhattan, complete with mumblemouthed black servant in white coat (it’s embarrassing, but it could be worse, and it’s over quickly), is jarred by his conscience when he realizes that Lee will be locked up over Christmas. So he bails her out. Then he discovers that this fallen woman, like him, is sprung from an Indiana home. So he offers her a ride. (Stanwyck’s priceless delivery of “You’re a hoosier!,” a wonderful guileless exclamation of solidarity from one expat meeting another in the big city, is surely the basis of a similar line, with the same geography but a very different implication, in the screwball-inflected The Hudsucker Proxy.)

Following this is some mismatched road-trip hijinx (pay close attention to Stanwyck’s explanation of what a “bubble dancer” does), with detours into hick slapstick and small-town small-mindedness. Asked earlier in the film if her mother is still alive, Lee stops short—she doesn’t know. Stanwyck, of course, did know—when she was a very little girl in Brooklyn, her mother was pushed by a drunk off a moving streetcar, and died from her injuries—and so when her movie-mother hoves out from within a forbiddingly darkened and cold-looking farmhouse, full of ancient recriminations and venal piety, it’s both a shockingly calm depiction of blood-deep red-state evil, and, arguably, an effective stand-in for Stanwyck’s origins as an orphan of Classon Avenue.

MacMurray, for his part, literally grew up in a town called Beaver Dam, Wisconsin. When the odd couple arrive at the Sargent homestead, the smell of baking cookies in the air, it takes about half a scene for Stanwyck’s mouth, initially half-open in incredulity, to close into a small smile, wistful and eager to please. Over the course of a hayseed Christmas—tree strung with popcorn, “Swanee River” played very badly on the piano, very many cozy hand-knitted presents, Church rummage sale, barn dance with exaggerated Great War costumes—Jack’s doting mother (Beulah Bondi!) and spinster aunt seem to cure their broken-winged houseguest through sheer force of sincerity. Meanwhile MacMurray shows us a self-assured character just beginning to comprehend the immensity of his good fortune.

Reading about Stanwyck—Dan Callahan, The L’s theater critic, has written a terrific biography—you get the sense that she lived for her work, and maybe through it. She’s so city-kid streetwise when doing comedy and so vulnerable—unguarded to the point of masochism—in her moments of romantic surrender. Here, the third act, in which the accused admits her love for her prosecutor only to forswear it for the sake of his career—plays like a ritual of self-purification. The film, which begins with Lee trying to elude the police, and shows her running away from her childhood home for a second time, ends with her decision to stop running, and to face reality: prison, guilt, responsibility, life in New York City, and maybe also, thanks to her dreamy American interlude, just a little bit of hope to project forward into the future.

Happy New Year, everyone.

09/04/12 10:40am

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Paul Legault is the co-founder of the translation press Telephone Books and the author of three books of poetry: The Madeleine Poems (Omnidawn, 2010), The Other Poems (Fence, 2011), and The Emily Dickinson Reader, an “English-to-English translation” of her poems that McSweeney’s released last month—and which all summer has been passed around our office by giggling editors, like how teenagers used to share pornography. (Full disclosure: Legault dates a member of our staff.) The book launch is tomorrow evening at powerHouse.

You live in Brooklyn, right?
I live in Crown Heights, moved to Brooklyn three years ago after grad school, started working at the Academy of American Poets when I got here, launched a small Brooklyn press focused on radical translation called Telephone Books. And I like it here.

Why Emily Dickinson?
For any American poet, Emily Dickinson is sort of a monolith. There’s no way around/over/under—you have to go through it. To me, translating Dickinson seemed as inevitable as a contemporary musician covering Bob Dylan. Because her ideas are distinctly modern. And though the hymnal form’s a little dated, Dickinson understood how time works, i.e. #326:

Heaven is so 1861.

Or, as she writes in #379:

I wish I were simpler. I also wish I were more edible.

Why Dickinson? I guess she was asking for it.

In your opinion, was Emily Dickinson as funny as you make her?
It depends on your sense of humor. If you like extremely dry comedy—like a taxidermic clown left out in the sun—then something like #876:

My superpower is the ability to exist

—is a funny sentiment.

Dickinson’s jokes get serious pretty quickly. Like human existence: “God’s greatest joke.” I guess that joke’s actually kind of sad. Or that it’s a joke is. Sadness is sort of Emily Dickinson’s punchline.

How did you go about structuring the book—picking the order of the Emily Dickinson poems to “translate,” and the flow of your translations?
I did it chronologically: doled out the same way Time did it. One leads to the next. So the first poem is the first poem she ever wrote, and, more poignantly, the last is the last. I like that she had a life. And, I wanted the book to function like a depraved biography or self-help book—the way she outlines her life in #578:

How to spend a typical day in the life of Emily Dickinson:
1. Lie around.
2. Look out the window.
3. Compare things to Sue.
4. Die a little inside.

07/31/12 3:50pm

Now it can be revealed: this is what I look like.

  • Now it can be revealed: this is what I look like.

So today is, and this feels genuinely odd to type, my last day at The L Magazine, which I’m leaving to pursue a master’s degree at the University of Iceland (that is a true fact).

The L is the only real job I’ve ever had, and my timeline here is also, in many ways, the timeline of my life in the city; I’m tempted to make this into a memoir, but I sort of suspect that not enough time has elapsed yet to make my personal, urban-anthropological and institutional memories as interesting as, say, J. Hoberman’s. Still, settle in for a pretty long post: I may never have a better opportunity to try and remember all this stuff for myself. And now would be a weird time to start choosing my words carefully.

I started picking up The L in the lobby of my NYU dorm during its first year of existence. The L, for the benefit of our younger readers, was once more than 100 pages of predominantly Manhattan-based event listings, in tiny type, with mostly filler ads. What feature copy there was consisted of surprisingly well-written long-form reviews and political arguments (someone named Audrey Ference also had a column called “Zeitgeist Jamboree,” about bars and hipsters and newly retro 90s pop-culture references, which I quite liked); quirky items about New York City history filling sidebars in the back of the book; and brief but often typo-garbled features, generally composed in a self-referential, hectically clever first-person plural.

I interviewed for an internship in the fall of 2004, the morning after a closing night which, typical for the time, ran until 4 or 5 in the morning. (Jonny Diamond actually emailed me to cancel the interview, but I didn’t check my email, was vetted by then-assistant-to-the-publisher Shawn Calo, and started a few days later.) I didn’t really discuss an end date with anyone over the course of my first semester here, so when the new year rolled around I just sort of kept coming in.

As I’ve fallen up the masthead during and after my graduation, I’ve compiled repertory film listings, made collections calls for sales reps, ridden around NYU in a rusty van showing our designer/circulation manager the good places to leave stacks of new issues; written daily event picks, bits of features, album reviews, book reviews, front-of-book items, long political essays, and horoscopes.

(There were also, if you’ll permit a pause for vanity, bar reviews, beginning with a review of the even then venerable Library, on Avenue A, which, though it’s long disappeared from our online archives, I believe to be the first and still to date only L Mag bar review credited to a writer not yet of legal drinking age. I wrote: “What light there is comes mostly from candles in the booths that run along either side of the very narrow, deeply recessed room, painted Twin Peaks red. It’s all vaguely reminiscent of the womb, except that you have to pay for your own booze.”)

I’ve conceived features, written them, edited them, and seen them through production; been an event blogger with a daily post quota back when we started to take the internet seriously (it was assumed that, as a Young, I would take to blogging like a fish to water), and later with the latitude to vamp on national politics, local news, Lars von Trier’s penis envy and things that don’t count as pants; read submissions for Literary Upstart and argued about what to show at Summerscreen; written longer political pieces, front of book items, celebrity profiles. I’ve edited our columnists and reviewers, and stayed closer and closer to the end on closing nights.

And for the last five years, my one constant responsibility has been editing and writing for the film section, during which time it’s been my pleasure to try to become a serious contributor to New York City film culture, while having the pleasure or working with or brushing up against so many people I admire.

Though I’m excited to see more of the kind of writing and features we’ve begun to publish as we graduate from the “overextended well-read guys riffing from their desks” model, what I’ve always loved about working at The L is the opportunity to be a part of that first-person plural, first at the bar where ideas are generated in the space between my unhelpful jokes, and then later, as part of the collective mindset putting down our perspective—still funny and informed, still slightly frantic, still taking such pleasure in each other’s wit and wisdom—for publication and posterity.

Looking back over three- or five- or six-year-old issues of The L, I can’t remember anymore which unbylined feature copy is mine, and which is somebody else’s.

So. I’m especially grateful to a few colleagues: to Scott Stedman, for being dumb enough to start a free biweekly events guide in New York City in the 21st century and enthusiastic about my writing for the L from the beginning; to Mike Conklin, for having the Replacements, Ted Leo and Spoon on rotation on the office CD player in my first ecstatic weeks as an intern at a hip media outlet; to since-departed editor Jason Bogdaneris for deputizing me early in the life of the film section; and to Jonny Diamond, for more than either one of us is temperamentally inclined to articulate. And I’d like to thank pretty much everyone who’s ever lined up on the Dumbo cobblestones in the shape of an L for our holiday card. It’s been a pleasure being a part of the same pronoun as all of you.

Love,

-Mark

07/31/12 9:58am

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The legendary French filmmaker, artist, leftist, cat fancier, second lifer and enigma Chris Marker, who died just a few days ago, also wrote one of the best, most eccentric readings of Hitchcock’s Vertigo. Reading it, I started to think about the movie—how all of its many eccentricities, absurdities, contrivances and plot holes each deepen its unfathomable mystery.

For this reason, Vertigo is a fun film to play around with: it’s already so strange, no eccentric interpretation can undermine the force of his drama. Quite the opposite, in fact, for its strangeness is the source of its profound and eerie resonance.

Inspired, I started to advance my own fanciful counter-reading of the film on twitter yesterday afternoon, and want to follow through with it here.

So, I’d like to propose a thought experiment: The next time you watch Vertigo, try watching it under the assumption that the real Madeleine Elster and her working-girl doppelganger Judy Barton have traded places before the start of the film, a fact never uncovered by the men on screen.

If you assume this, the plot still works, but the meaning and inflections change considerably. In that case, here is what Vertigo is a film about:

A wealthy San Francisco society woman named Madeleine believes her husband, Gavin Elster, plans to murder her. She finds an office girl, Judy Barton from Salina, Kansas, who bears an uncanny resemblance to her. She offers Judy an opportunity to trade places: the promises of wealth and ease are so compelling to Judy that she never considers why this Madeleine is so eager to swap identities.

Madeleine, dyeing her hair brown and living as Judy, sees all her worst fears confirmed when her husband Gavin, not having noticed the switch, approaches her and hires her to impersonate his wife Madeleine—to impersonate herself.

Poor Judy is killed, thrown from atop a bell tower by the man whose husband she had pretended to be.

Her hired job completed, and fearing for her life as the crime’s only real witness, the real Madeleine returns to life as Judy, but, hoping to expose her husband, she allows herself to be spotted by Scottie Ferguson, who had followed her when she was impersonating herself, with plans of helping him to expose her husband Gavin.

But moved by Scottie’s love of the woman he had followed—who was, after all, not just her but herself—she allows him to dress her in the vestiges of her wealthy self, despite the trauma of dressing once again in the guise of her murdered self, and the danger of resurfacing in the city of her husband.

When she dies, confronted by Scottie over her role in Gavin’s murder plot, she is wracked with guilt over her role in the murder of the innocent Judy—undertaken out of self-preservation, but still.

Kim Novak’s performance in Vertigo was advertised at the time as a dual role, which is achingly true but not actually literally correct: in Vertigo, as we commonly understand it, Kim Novak plays Judy Barton, though for the first portion of the movie Judy is pretending to be Madeleine Elster. (We in the audience, like Scottie, only see the “real” Madeleine once: when she plummets to her death at the film’s midpoint.)

In my version of Vertigo, though, Kim Novak also plays only one role, but it’s Madeleine—though when Scottie follows her in the first half of the film, Madeleine, having begun posing as Judy prior to the opening credits sequence, is now posing as Judy posing as Madeleine.

So. What kind of movie is this new version of Vertigo? Well, it is still a movie in which the Kim Novak character allows herself to be obliterated and made over in the image of Jimmy Stewart’s ideal—still reluctantly, but not just out of love and fear but also out of abandon to an ideal that was partly of her own creation. It is still a movie about love as nostalgic obsession (Marker’s key insight was that the film was about the “vertigo” of time rushing past), but the nostalgia is also Madeleine’s. It’s a film in which female identity is still contested, and one in which men with their love wield a power they’re helpless to control, but one in which the women enter into love and role-play with a more acute, cunning sense, whether happily or unhappily borne, of their identity as essentially a transaction.

Or maybe all of this is already there in Vertigo as we know it. My point, I guess, is that Vertigo‘s is ambiguous enough to encourage, and complex enough to productively refract, readings with no support from what’s onscreen or the stated intentions of its makers.

My version of Vertigo leaves one question unanswered, though: I can’t help wondering, in this version of Vertigo, if Madeleine’s plot is kept secret from us for the duration of the film because Hitchcock chose to preserve around the core of the film one last layer of perverse mystery—or if Madeleine’s plan was kept even from Hitchcock himself.

07/25/12 11:19am

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Don Lee is the author of a collection of short stories and three novels, the most recent of which is The Collective. He’s in town to read at the Asian American Writers’ Workshop this Thursday evening.

For our readers who may not be familiar with your work, what’s the most accurate thing someone else has said about it?
Tim Rutten, a reporter from The Los Angeles Times, when he was interviewing me about my collection Yellow, said he was interested in my stories because the characters resembled Asian Americans he actually knew—everyday people—an approach he rarely saw represented in contemporary fiction at the time. This isn’t to say my characters are normal (whatever that means). Characters need flaws to fuel drama, after all. But they’re far from stereotypical.

What have you read/watched/listened to/looked at/ate recently that will permanently change our readers’ lives for the better?
Here’s what immediately comes to mind: The novel Stoner by John Williams. The film After the Wedding by Susanne Bier. The album Gentle Spirit by Jonathan Wilson. Korean fried chicken and Ines Rosales Sweet Olive Oil Tortas.

Whose ghostwritten celebrity tell-all (or novel) would you sprint to the store to buy (along with a copy of The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius so that the checkout clerk doesn’t look at you screwy)?
I’d get books by Kelly Slater, Tiger Woods, and Roger Federer. I’m a surfing fan and all-around sports nut.

Have you ever been a Starving Artist, and did it make you brilliant, or just hungry?
For four years after grad school, I taught an average of eight classes a year as an adjunct while working part-time at the journal Ploughshares. I made less than $17,000 total a year and didn’t have health benefits. I never went to a dentist during that time, and visited a clinic just once to get crutches when I broke my foot running. Poverty wasn’t inspirational.

What would you characterize as an ideal interaction with a reader?
To be showered with unadulterated praise. To witness fainting and swooning in my presence. No, actually, I think first and foremost a writer’s interaction with a reader needs to be based on what can be transmitted from the printed page to the reader’s imagination—operable at a complete remove. If that doesn’t connect, everything else is a moot point.

Have you ever written anything that you’d like to take back?
No, you have to take ownership over everything you’ve done. Could I have written things better or differently? Sure, of course. There are certain endings to short stories, for example, I’d like to revise. But I did the best I could at the time.

07/23/12 1:47pm

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The natural responses to the murder of at least a dozen moviegoers shot at a midnight screening of The Dark Knight Rises, in Colorado, are so evident—sympathetic grief, political disgust—that, if one is to write on the subject at all, one risks saying things that are either already said better by others closer to the subject, or are willfully and offensively marginal. But to the extent that the venue of the massacre is at all relevant to our understanding of it, I do feel a bit compelled to speak. (That someone went on a shooting spree in a movie theater seems to have made a number of movie critics, either willingly or reluctantly, into experts on grief counseling and gun laws. I suppose it’s impossible to talk about violence in our culture, a subject upon which recent events beg a movie critic’s response, without talking about these things, but I’m still wary of appearing presumptuous.) And in any case, it seems to me that the actions of one James Holmes, at Aurora, Colorado’s Century 16 last week, are wrapped up in the movies in ways that are inevitable, and genuinely problematic, though only up to a point.

In his comprehensive Cinema Scope review of the film and its surrounding culture, Michael Sicinski writes that “many of us can conceive of cinema only as the Will to Power.” He means, I think, to suggest that the ugly tone of the film’s pre-release hype, with comments-section vigilantes promising to firebomb houses and do assorted other violences to heretics of the Bat-Gospel, is not so easily severable from the obliterating spectacle of Nolan’s Batmovies (or other similar films).

In bringing the fanboy firebombing thing up in the current context, it’s not that I, or anyone else, needs or even wants (honest!) to “draw a connection” between the spuming violent fantasies of fans of a violent movie, and a violent fantasy that was actually realized (though people should generally think about what makes them different from the truly despicable, and try not to behave in a such a way as to complicate that difference). But the notion of “cinema… as the will to power” is intriguing.

“Event movies” do often achieve their status by “mobilizing”—to borrow a military term from Nic Rapold’s L Mag Dark Knight Rises review—the resources of large-scale filmmaking and corporate cultural currency. Thinking about art as will to power, I think about Don DeLillo, in Mao II, talking about terrorism and the novel, the way in which art and disruptive violence can similarly command the public imagination. And indeed, now that competition is so stiff, movies, really important movies, don’t just blow stuff up any more. The public spectacle hijacked by mass violence is itself a frequent trope of the ambitious action film, which seeks to hoist itself into the national conversation not just through brute force but with a bit of scary relevance for extra leverage.

Often, the public spectacle in question is a football game: in John Frankenheimer’s Black Sunday, or the Tom Clancy adaptation The Sum of All Fears. Another such scene was among those released months ago, to stoke anticipation for The Dark Knight Rises itself. (Indeed, much of the power and relevance of Nolan’s Bat-movies is in their own spectacle’s explicit if not particularly coherent allegorical parallels with contemporary terror.)

When movies do this—when movies demonstrate their own potency as spectacle by folding rival spectacles into their address to us—it’s a commentary on, but not necessarily a critique of, their ability to do what they depict, to compel our attention with global reach and aesthetic persuasion. Ripping from the headlines to help put across a fictional spectacle is also an inversion of how terrorism works, which is by harnessing large crowds, and larger broadcast audiences, to burrow into our narrative. Last week in Colorado, a man tried to do what terrorists do, what movies do, what terrorists in movies do, not least terrorists in Nolan’s Batman movies: to violently claim authorship of our public dreaming. (To incept us?) To turn the witnesses to spectacle into its props.

07/09/12 10:44am

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Polly Duff Bresnick, who lives in Bed Stuy, has written for The Brooklyn Rail, elimae, LIT, The Six Sentence Review, and other places. She is working on a visual mistranslation of The Odyssey, a section of which has been published as a chapbook by Publishing Genius. She will be appearing at the Franklin Park Reading Series tonight, Monday June 9, along with Mark Leyner and others.

For our readers who may not be familiar with your work, what’s the most accurate thing someone else has said about it?
A dear friend and fellow experimental translator used the word “radical” to describe my writing.

An infamously cranky and brilliant editor once said my writing was dancing around a fascination with “stickiness.”

A tall and talented writer said my writing was “languagey” after hearing me read once.

It’s hard to know which is most accurate, these are my favorite things people have said about my writing. Probably the sticky thing would win if I really thought about it.

What have you read/watched/listened to/looked at/ate recently that will permanently change our readers’ lives for the better?
Mary Roufle’s “The Taking of Moundville by Zoom” read aloud by the author herself was a little, life-altering sip when I encountered it recently. It’s meant to be heard in an elevator, but it’s available on the Internet.

Whose ghostwritten celebrity tell-all (or novel) would you sprint to the store to buy (along with a copy of The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius so that the checkout clerk doesn’t look at you screwy)?
Alec Baldwin’s. But he’ll write it himself. And, in this dreamworld I’m conjuring right now, it would be a manifesto about being a great human. A humanifesto.

Have you ever been a Starving Artist, and did it make you brilliant, or just hungry?
I was a starving college student. I was such a lazy grocery shopper that all I ever had in my fridge were veggie burgers, pickles, siracha, and goat cheese. The pickles always ran out before everything else. It did not make me brilliant. I owe my brilliance to something else.

What would you characterize as an ideal interaction with a reader?
Of course, I hope to connect, to communicate, to show a reader that he or she isn’t the only one who ever felt weird. Ideally I’d like to thrill a reader on top of that.

Have you ever written anything that you’d like to take back?
I wish I weren’t so vain, but, yes. My answer is: “Yes.”