Posts

Robert Winter

robert winter head shot

By Ray Sawhill

Robert Winter is not out for a lazy country drive. He’s changing lanes as often as staying in them. He outguns one driver, noses in front of another, rams to a stop, then blasts off again. All the while, this hyperanimated, goateed figure – he has Frank Zappa looks, minus the built-in satire – is babbling excitedly, free-associating, cracking jokes, telling indiscreet stories.

This is a distinguished music professor? A former head of the University of California at Los Angeles music department? A classical music scholar?

Well, certainly not your traditional example. Winter is part of a new generation of scholars who are reinventing music studies. Adoring the tradition of Western music while despising the hierarchical thinking that makes a monument of it, he’s a fire-breathing reformer with scathing opinions about what he calls the “music-appreciation racket.” His head’s as full of Middle Eastern music and Tupac Shakur as it is of Schubert. When he teaches a survey class, “The Art of Listening,” he brings local performers — from rappers to string quartets — into the classroom with him. It’s one of the university’s most popular courses; students not only fill the 565 seats in the hall but also jam the aisles.

At the same time, he’s among the first masters of multimedia. His CD-ROM programs – on Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, Mozart’s “Dissonant” Quartet, Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, and, most recently, Antonín Dvorák’s From the New World symphony – are knockouts good enough to justify the purchase of a CD-ROM setup. These are some of the most satisfying discs Winter’s publisher, The Voyager Company, has produced.

Recently, Winter decided to make a run at digital mogulhood. He reduced his duties at UCLA and informed Voyager’s Bob Stein that he was splitting to form his own company with Jay Heifetz, the marketing/distribution executive and son of the legendary violinist Jascha. The new company will be called Calliope Media — “We swore we wouldn’t be part of a company with the words ‘digital,’ ‘technology,’ or ‘interactive’ in its name” — after both the Greek muse of epic poetry and the steam-driven, wheezy musical instrument. Their vision for Calliope? “We want to be the premier arts and humanities company in the digital world,” says Winter. “No less. I’ve too often heard Voyager spoken of as appealing to a niche market. We hope to persuade people that the arts and humanities aren’t desserts but main courses.”

Winter and Heifetz anticipate that their first titles will become available in late 1995. Among them: one by Winter on ragtime, and another by Richard Lanham, author of The Electronic Word, on the roots and evolution of multimedia and interactivity, tentatively titled From the Greeks to the Geeks.

beethoven screen bigger

What makes Winter’s CD-ROMs stand out is the way his mind and the technology synchronize. Winter isn’t out to dazzle or show off the technology. (Elegantly designed in black and white, the programs score notably low on the whiz-bang scale; they aren’t out just to make you exclaim, “Cool!”) He uses the technology to convey a new vision of music.

He does so with a teacher’s knowledge of what you need to know and when you need to know it, and a performer’s knack for dramatizing his points. (When’s the last time you met a scholar who cites as influences the Marx Brothers, Truffaut, and Spielberg?) You don’t set his CD-ROMs aside when you’ve exhausted the gimmicks; you keep coming back to them. There always seems to be more intellectual matter — more substance — to uncover.

Winter wants you to see music from a variety of angles – political, social, and historical as well as purely musical. For him, classical music isn’t a matter for lofty connoisseurship; it’s a springboard for exploration and for making connections. “I want to start a discussion,” is what he says when asked what drives him – then later: “I want to transform people.”

Command central for Winter’s campaign is his production studio — the 400-square-foot garage of the small Santa Monica house he shares with his wife, Julia Winter, their daughter, Kelly, and Cairn terrier, Teddy. The studio is crammed with books, CDs, monitors, three different music keyboards, Mac equipment, and a CD-ROM mastering machine. “Of course they’re scared,” he says gleefully of print publishing houses and movie studios. “In multimedia, there’s nothing Paramount or Random House can do with their millions that I can’t do with my US$50,000 worth of equipment.” When people call to ask about how to get started in multimedia, he advises: “Guerrilla teams and no overhead.”

This afternoon, he’s putting finishing touches on the Dvorák piece and thinking about future projects. After the ragtime disc, he wants to do a general musical reference, a disc on Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, and beyond that, The Birth of Rock ‘n’ Roll that will begin with Robert Johnson and work up to 1954. He envisions 16 songs, dozens of other examples, interviews, printed primary sources, video clips. “The thing I can do that people who write about rock generally can’t is talk about the music. When you hear Chuck Berry do ‘Maybellene,’ there is a certain kind of rhythmic impulse in the way in which the subdominant functions and the melodic apex is reached. That may sound very technical, but it’s not. It’s rooted in performance.”

Winter is exhilarated by digital technology. In the new medium, he finds, he doesn’t have to fight the tedious old cultural-literacy battles. They’re irrelevant, and the results are implicit in the technology, so he’s free to go on and realize his own ideas. Winter calls the computer “the ultimate postmodern machine – intrinsically playful and unstable.” Even so, he’s less of a Utopian than many of the digital futurists and propagandists: “The good guys may not win. I saw what the so-called ‘promise of FM’ turned into – and look at FM radio today. All I’m saying is that in the digital world, talent and brains may have a slightly better chance of rising to the top.”

The son of Florida Republicans — “but really, really lovely people” — Winter grew up with no particular interest in music, and gave no evidence of special musical talents beyond a good ear. He lettered in three sports in high school and briefly considered a career as a professional baseball player before going to Brown University to study science.

“My father was an engineer, and it never occurred to me that boys did anything other than follow in their fathers’ footsteps.” He struggled joylessly his first year, earning Cs. Then, at a mixer one night, a classmate played part of a Mozart concerto. Within the week he switched majors to music; a year later, he says, he was playing a concerto himself in front of the school orchestra. Eventually he earned a master’s of Fine Arts in piano and a doctorate in the history and theory of music.

His next epiphany occurred more recently, in front of a computer screen. Bob Stein of Voyager had met Winter years before in one of Winter’s courses and told him he was a natural multimedia personality. “I had no idea what he meant,” recalls Winter. In 1989, Stein showed up at Winter’s house with a CD-ROM drive, hooked it up to a Macintosh, and demonstrated how the rig could provide onscreen buttons that could take him in less than a second to the exact micro-instant on a CD where he wanted to be.

“I knew then and there that this was my medium,” Winter recalls. Within a couple of months, he and Stein had roughed out a sketch of his Beethoven’s Ninth disc for Voyager and designed the interface. At the high-powered TED conference in 1990, Winter gave a demo of the program before an audience that included Microsoft’s Bill Gates. The crowd reacted ecstatically. “We’ve finally seen what CD-ROM was made for,” said Gates, who has since licensed the Winter programs to produce PC versions.

The Dvorák program is Winter’s richest yet. He takes you into the music’s structure, including a measure-by-measure analysis of the complete score. And he leads you out into the larger world of the era, using the music to “provide a window on cultural history.” Like his other programs, the Dvorák disc is part engaging (if rudimentary) videogame, part major work of scholarship. You click around among historical chapters, a breakdown of the piece’s structure, a glossary that’s really a collection of short essays about music, dozens of demonstrations and examples, and more than 800 pages of original documents – press accounts, reviews, letters. Sitting at your computer, your head buzzing with information, ideas, and music, you feel you’re in a room with records, books, scores, and an exciting teacher — all right there with you — and every bit of it is available to you at the click of a mouse.

The complex Dvorák is an ideal subject for Winter’s multiple-perspectives treatment. Dvorák was a larger-than-life, beer-guzzling fount of creativity who shocked proper New York during his 1890s visit by asserting that America’s greatest musical resources were its African and Native American traditions. It says something about this moment in cultural history that the most valuable work available on a figure as protean as Dvorák should be not a book but rather a computer program.

The press has received Winter’s discs enthusiastically. The Los Angeles Herald Examiner wrote, “It takes us directly up to Beethoven’s worktable, and lays bare the whole creative process.” The New York Times says, “A master teacher is the guide … an ideal musical companion.” MacUser included all three of Winter’s discs then available on its 1993 list of the top 50 CD-ROMs.

Winter calculates that he and the team at Voyager, including then-editor-in-chief Jane Wheeler and programmer Steve Riggins, along with independent designer/programmer Peter Bogdanoff, put 2,500 hours into creating the Dvorák disc. They included an impressive amount of scholarly sleuthing. One standard academic source that Winter consulted stated that a famous Dvorák protégé, Harry T. Burleigh – the black musician who brought gospel into the concert hall – had never been recorded. This claim intrigued Winter, who knew that Burleigh hadn’t died until 1948. Following up on some rumors, he finally located a recording in the possession of a music collector in Connecticut. “How did you ever find me?” the man asked. Winter included the complete recording on the disc.

If Winter’s an immaculately pedigreed academic, he’s also a renegade intellectual in the tradition of Norman O. Brown, Glenn Gould, Paul Goodman, and Pauline Kael – original yet accessible thinkers with a taste for intellectual roughhousing. The only other comparable figure working today may be Camille Paglia, but unlike Paglia, with her kamikaze dives for traditional media celebrity, Winter uses the alternative life of the Internet, bulletin boards on CompuServe, and computer conventions. He addresses crowds at computer shows and carries on monster e-mail correspondences. He’s probably the first major intellectual to have given up traditional print publishing for digital; his CD-ROMs aren’t hobbies, they’re his major works.

dvorak contents

Winter’s live presentations consist of nothing but a guy, his piano, and his mind, but your brain cells light up as bright as they do at any rock concert. He was once coaxed into giving a night school course by UCLA’s extension program. The first week he had 20 students; within a couple of years, the course was attracting hundreds. Eventually these talks were taped and broadcast nationally by American Public Radio. Winter doesn’t bring an outline or note card with him; his preparation consists of a look at the syllabus to see what needs covering. Then he wings it.

In his classroom at UCLA, he’s a flamboyant, ebullient figure in a burgundy silk shirt – “To the hard rock world I’m probably a meek little professorial type; to the musicology world, I’m Mick Jagger,” he says. He paces as he talks, lunging to the piano to illustrate points, or to the Macintosh to play portions of his CD-ROMs. (When he heads to campus he carries bulging canvas sacks containing, among other things, a portable CD-ROM drive and a PowerBook.) He’s charismatic but accessible, making connections not just intellectual but personal. Trying to convey the political content of Beethoven’s Napoleon-besotted Eroica symphony in a class, he realizes he has to make an even more basic point: music can be political. He asks one student whether she thinks Nirvana has any political import. She nods shyly but hopefully. Score! During breaks, the kids mill about, looking dizzied but happy.

A hookup to some invisible energy grid seems to pump an extra megawatt or two into Winter. “He’s always addressing an audience,” laughs one LA music scene old-timer. Winter explains, “I’m a borderline manic-depressive.” But he seems to live almost entirely on the up side of the hyphen and to have no trouble focusing the energy. He roars through breakneck 18- and 19-hour days, pausing occasionally for brief naps that “take all the garbage out.”

His wife, Julia, recalls a party when a stranger asked her if she had “any stuff.” It took her a second to realize he was asking her for drugs. “You know,” the guy urged, “whatever it is your husband’s on.”

Copyright © 1993-2004 The Condé Nast Publications Inc. All rights reserved. Copyright © 1994-2003 Wired Digital, Inc. All rights reserved.

“Straw Dogs,” directed by Rod Lurie

By Ray Sawhill

I was a little wary about watching Rod Lurie’s remake of “Straw Dogs.” Sam Peckinpah’s 1971 thriller is a genuine landmark — one of the most notorious, controversial films in movie history, and for plenty of good reasons, most of them having to do with Peckinpah’s unique gifts, viewpoint and sensibility. (It was one of those hard-to-sort-your-feelings-out-about ’70s movies, like “A Clockwork Orange” and “Dirty Harry,” that really divided audiences and got people arguing. When’s the last time a new movie gave you a decent excuse for a substantial argument?) Lurie’s a talented director, but what could a remake of “Straw Dogs” possibly have to offer? It’s not as though the material or the plot were the major sources of the original film’s fascination. For better or worse, it’s “a Peckinpah film” before it’s anything else. Plus I had my usual anxieties about whether the remake might spoil my memories of the original.

But over the weekend curiosity finally got the better of me and I slipped the DVD in the player. Quick verdict: not bad at all. While it has nothing of the distressing and arousing qualities of the original, the new version functions pretty well as a thriller in its own right. That basic, minimal mousetrap of a plot turns out — to my surprise — to be just enough to sustain tension through 110 minutes, even with the locale moved from Peckinpah’s creepy-English-countryside to a small town in the American deep south. Lurie, his team and his cast all turn in a lot of professional, committed work, and it’s a pleasure that the film works consistently on a recognizably human scale. Plus, a big relief: The remake in no way disturbed my memories of the original. I watched the film very directly, with plenty of curiosity about where things would go and how they’d pan out.

What’s peculiar about the new movie — and what makes me want to say a bit more about it than just “Thumbs mostly up!” — is the impulse behind it. It turns out that Rod Lurie made the new film in order to refute the evo-bio / Robert Ardrey vision that Peckinpah expressed in the original. You can feel this impulse as you watch the new movie, and on the commentary track Lurie confirms it at some length. Lurie supplies a good commentary track generally. He’s open and smart, and he’s amusingly rueful and funny about knowing in advance how pissed-off many Peckinpah fans will inevitably be by his movie. (I’m a huge Peckinpah fan, but I’m not the purist that some of my friends are.) While suitably impressed by Peckinpah’s talent and style, Lurie is appalled by Peckinpah’s we’re-beasts-underneath-it-all vision — he can’t resist calling it “fascist.” He says that in taking on the job of the remake he wanted to make a more human and more balanced, even somewhat feminist “Straw Dogs.” And that is indeed the movie he has made.

Still: how bizarre! I can understand the impulse from a “I’m choosing deliberately not to compete with Peckinpah on his own terms” point of view, and — who knows? — maybe Lurie really is the decent, humane, centrist-liberal he sees himself as. And why shouldn’t he express his own personality? Even so, given the cut-throat nature of the material, it’s a somewhat weird choice. Would you choose to remake, say, “Birth of a Nation” — using the original plot of it — to convey the exact opposite of the argument that D.W. Griffith made?

But my job as a viewer is to grant the artist his / her premises and see how things play out. I enjoyed the movie in a very simple, direct way … but I confess that I also couldn’t resist letting my brain tumble into some film-buff intricacies. Let me share a few of them.

Lurie’s humanist p-o-v forces him to deliver some of the film’s biggest moments with completely different shadings than Peckinpah did. In one of them, the Amy character stands in a window with her top off so that some workmen outside can see her naked breasts. In the Peckinpah movie, Susan George’s Amy is feeling annoyed with her over-intellectual, wimpy husband, so we understand that she’s offering herself up to (and taunting) the men outdoors — she’s baring her breasts in a gesture of overheated, childish hawtness and self-assertion, basically. She’s giving herself a dirty ego-blast. In the new movie, Kate Bosworth’s breasts aren’t shown (though we know she’s topless), and she isn’t taunting the workers outside; no, what she’s doing by presenting herself naked in that window is expressing feistiness and defiance. “Fuck you, I’m my own person,” is what she’s saying.

At the climax of the plot’s second act comes another infamous scene. In this one, the Amy character is raped by some brutal local studs. In the original, Susan George’s Amy is ripe, bruised and spoiled — she has spent much of the movie asking to be roughed up, and now she’s getting what’s been coming to her, and then some. In the new film, Kate Bosworth’s Amy hasn’t been asking for any kind of disrespectful treatment, and she most certainly doesn’t melt midway through the rape. (She also has about zero body fat on her. She’s one tightly-wound girl.) I’m not alone in finding the rape in the Peckinpah to be one of movie history’s sexiest scenes; I’m pretty certain no one will be tempted to find the new movie’s rape scene even slightly arousing. This may well be a good thing, morally speaking. It makes for far less galvanizing viewing, though.

Still, these choices all play out surprisingly plausibly — they result in a milder movie, yes, but Lurie and Bosworth (and, in the rape scene, Alexander Skarsgard) find ways to put the scenes over in their own terms. As far as dramaturgy goes, though, his approach leaves Lurie with one huge question demanding explanation. It’s this: If the story isn’t about how we’re all basically primal beasts inside, then what’s the source of the story’s violence? The plot in the original exists in order to torment Dustin Hoffman’s brain-heavy David into connecting with his instincts and his inner masculine nature and finally taking violent action. Lurie doesn’t want to deliver, let alone, endorse that message. So what on earth can he come up with as kindling for the movie’s climactic mayhem?

His somewhat banal answer: “the American south.” The local boys who bring on the apocalypse aren’t menacing gargoyles inhabiting a heightened, scary, mythical landscape, as they are in the Peckinpah. Instead, they’re basically decent lads — they’re viewed with some sympathy — whose moral development, we’re given to understand, has been crippled by limited education, narrow horizons and unappealing opportunities. Lurie even redefines the meaning of “straw dogs.” In the original, we’re told that the term comes from Lao Tzu: it evokes violence, impersonality, cruelty — the immense, uncaring universe itself. Here, a character tells us that “straw dogs” is local slang for townies who stick around after they’re done with school, and who go to seed while living off their high school memories. In the original, the violence that finds release erupts from the heart of life in all of its unfathomable, brutal mystery. What drives the violence in the new movie is … well, basically, small-town high school football gone awry.

Even the contrast between David and Amy has been diminished. In the original, David is a professor and Amy is his petulant, easily-bored child-bride — a former student. He’s her senior and her intellectual superior, but she has the elemental power of sex on her side. The new version’s David isn’t an intellectual — he’s a bright guy, but a screenwriter, not an egghead — and the new Amy isn’t a brat simmering in her own erotic juices. Instead she’s an actress in charge of her life and career. David and Amy have even worked on the same TV show together. In the original, they clearly represent mind vs. body. Here, they’re not just mates, they’re colleagues and equals.

This approach may have the virtue of being ultra-reasonable but it does leave you asking a few inappropriate questions. Onesuch: Why the hell don’t these competent, mutually-respectful partners have the sense to beat it out of town when things there start to get unpleasant? And the climax probably won’t inspire anyone to roar with horrified approval. There’s plenty of well-staged action to enjoy, but when the new David picks up his weapons and gets down to the gruesome work of defending his home, he takes action not because he’s finally connecting with his own bestiality and manhood but because, well, even the most decent guy needs to stand up for his principles sometimes, y’know? What the new version’s Amy is experiencing during the mayhem seemed to me more than a little unclear. The high-powered nitro that fueled Peckinpah’s vision has nearly all been bled from the drama, in other words. Question du jour: Is there something about the good-liberal point of view that inevitably neuters drama?

Still, though I can’t imagine anyone making a case for the new version as a particularly memorable film — there’s nothing nightmarish, drunken, upsetting, insane or hypnotic about it — I found it reasonably gripping. It’s a well-made thriller, if a little bland, mild and worthy. But what’s wrong with professionalism done with some conviction? Let’s be grateful for good-enough.

Watching the new version did illuminate the original in one way for me: it got me reflecting that part of the voluptuous, unsettling power of the Peckinpah original comes from the fact that it’s really a horror movie in the guise of a thriller. At its heart it’s a monster movie … only in Peckinpah’s shrewd, demonic telling, the monster is something we all carry within ourselves.

©Ray Sawhill. First published on Uncouthreflections.com in 2013.

Pauline Kael in 1989

By Polly Frost and Ray Sawhill

Pauline Kael’s writing has been riling people since she published her first movie review in the early 1950s. The way she made sexual awareness and boldness contribute to a kind of heightened intelligence upset people — and may still. As a critic and a journalist, she combines a knack for what “works” in a theatrical sense with an analytical mind and a performer’s spirit. Her first collection, “I Lost It At the Movies” (1965), was one of the landmarks of ’60s nonfiction. Since then she’s had an enormous influence on how popular culture is thought and written about (and she sometimes takes the rap for the sins of her imitators).

Kael’s work is exciting in the way Norman Mailer’s or Tom Wolfe’s or Ryszard Kapuscinski’s is. You come away buzzing; you take it personally in ways you’re not used to taking nonfiction. (“Why doesn’t she like Tarkovsky’s or Sirk’s films as much as I do?”) Her reviews are so persuasive that when you don’t agree with her you can go around for days arguing with her in your head.

Kael was born in 1919, the fifth and youngest child of immigrants from Warsaw who ran a farm in Petaluma, California, north of San Francisco. The family moved to the city when Pauline was eight. At the University of California at Berkeley she majored in philosophy. Before being able to earn a living as a writer she worked as a seamstress, a cook, and a ghostwriter of travel books, among other jobs, supporting herself and her daughter, Gina, while turning out film criticism and broadcasting reviews on Berkeley’s Pacifica radio station. From 1955 to 1960 she managed the Berkeley Cinema Guild and Studio, the first twin cinema in the country. After “I Lost It at the Movies” she began publishing in mass-circulation magazines. Since 1968 she has written for The New Yorker, except for a break in 1979, when she spent five months working for Paramount in Hollywood. Her latest volume, “Hooked,” has just been published and includes review of films by Jonathan Demme, Pedro Almodóvar, John Waters, and Philip Kaufman.

Kael has given her house in the Berkshires a sensuality you don’t expect from a writer. You walk into it and think “visual artist” or “musician,” not “writer.” It’s a big, old, turreted place she bought years ago, when it was sagging and rotting. She and her daughter repaired it and opened it up, baring the woodwork. Art hangs on nearly all the walls — much of it by her daughter, most of the rest by friends. Kael has an instinctive feel for the placement of things; every object in the house seems to be something she responded to immediately. She often has music playing — a broad range, from Branford Marsalis to the countertenor Russell Oberlin. The day we stopped by, it was Aretha Franklin, her six-year-old grandson Will’s current favorite. After a visit from her daughter and grandson we sat by the fireplace while snow piled up outside.

pauline with dog

RAY SAWHILL: Which of the other arts has it been most important to you to follow?

PAULINE KAEL: When I began writing about films I was almost equally interested in jazz, which I followed through much of my life. I used to be able tell you who played what instrument on just about every jazz record that ever came out.

I was very lucky to grow up in San Francisco, because although I had no money things were cheap. You could go to the Broadway plays that came out there; you could see almost anything for fifty cents. And there were kids’ rates for concerts. So I had a terrific introduction to theater and music.

I was terribly interested in fiction. And in theater. And opera. And in painting. (Laughs) I’ve had to narrow my interests, because you can’t raise a child or be involved in taking care of a house and do everything you want to do in your life. Certain things have gone by the boards simply because of the time and energy it took to live and to write.

POLLY FROST: Did you play jazz at some point?

PK: Oh, I stopped doing that fairly early. I was a young teenager when I played in a girls’ jazz band. I played classical music mostly. I used to go hear Papa Hertz — Alfred Hertz — conduct every week. But my tastes ran very heavily to jazz.

PF: I can see you coming to writing from a jazz background — the use of words in a different way and the rhythms. Did jazz influence the way you write at all?

PK: If so, indirectly. I do tend to riff. I’ve got a lot of parentheses in there. (Laughs)

RS: The spontaneity too.

PK: Well, I want that. I want what I do to move along by hidden themes. I rarely try to think anything out ahead of time. I want it, paragraph by paragraph through the whole structure, to surprise me. But I want the fun of writing. I don’t want to take the juice out of that.

RS: Your writing has a conversational tone, and yet it has a freedom that people don’t have in conversation. How consciously have you pursued that?

PK: Very consciously. People often think I’m saying things inadvertently, and it amuses the hell out of me. They think that I don’t know what I’m saying. Mainly I’ve been trying for speed and clarity, trying to write the way I talk.

When I started writing for magazines in the ’50s, I was dissatisfied with the studied, academic tone of my first pieces. I hated fancy writing, and I tried to write as simply as possible. I was conscious of the fact that I was writing about a popular art form. I don’t think I would have written in the same way if I had been writing about classical music. How can you deal with movies truthfully, in terms of your responses, if you don’t use contractions, if you don’t use “you” instead of “one”? I mean, I’m not a goddamned Englishman. I don’t say, “One likes this movie very much.” (Laughs) I was trying for the freedom of an American talking about the movies, but it took me awhile. What broke me loose from academic writing was that I wrote a lot of advertising copy anonymously — and unsigned notes for theaters I managed. Writing in an unsigned form frees you of the inhibitions of academic writing. I was just trying to reach the public as directly as possible. And I found I was doing it more naturally. It’s mainly a kind of courage you need to in order to write the way you think instead of writing the way you’ve been taught.

RS: Were there critics who excited you?

PK: A lot of writers and artists excited me. There were movie critics that I liked a lot — James Agee more than anyone else, I guess. But I never thought of Agee as a role model; I simply liked reading him. I disagreed with him a lot, but I loved the passion of his language. He got exercised about movies in the more personal writing he did for The Nation, where he expressed real rage if he didn’t like something. It seemed to me the way we actually react to movies. We don’t react in cultivated terms; we come out and say, “I hated that piece of …”

RS: Did you read people like Shaw or Lionel Trilling or R.P. Blackmur with pleasure?

PK: Oh, sure, I read them all. I read Blackmur with a great deal of pleasure. I probably identified with him more than with any other critic. I can’t explain that to you now, but Blackmur, when I first read him, just struck some chord with me, and I read all the authors he talked about.

I was living with a young poet named Robert Horan at that time. And we were reading Blackmur together and being excited about him. For several years Horan and I discovered books of poetry and jazz musicians and other artists together. We read Dylan Thomas’ first teenage book of poetry together, Horan reading the poems aloud to me. And it was sort of “Eureka! This is the new work we’ve been waiting for!” We experienced a lot of things together like that. We would spend our Saturdays going to art shows together. And we had a very, very close relationship in the arts. We would argue viciously when we disagreed about something. It was tremendous fun. We were both young and a little bit crazy, in the sense that practical things didn’t matter the way matters of the mind did — matters of mind and emotion.

You make discoveries in the arts with other people. Robert Duncan was a very good friend of mine, and we explored a lot of things together. We had our biggest talkfests in the late ’30s. Later, when we were on different sides of the country, we would write letters to each other. We would read the same books and exchange impressions and ideas. And then we would get together somewhere and talk for forty-eight hours straight. (Laughs)

RS: You once told me that you’d read everything Henry James published.

PK: My James kick came a little bit later. When I went to the hospital to give birth to my daughter in the late ’40s I was just reading “Notes of a Son and Brother,” which was the last volume to complete whatever was available in James.

PF: Do you tend to binge on writers?

PK: I tend, when I get interested in a writer, to read everything, though there are writers that I like a lot, like Dickens, that I still haven’t gotten through. But most writers — you know, if I started Firbank I would read everything by Firbank. When I started Dorothy Richardson’s “Pilgrimage” I read from beginning to end, volume after volume. I love getting immersed in a sensibility.

RS: Is that true of all the arts, or does it mainly hold for reading?

PK: It mainly holds for reading. You learn funny things about it. For instance, you’re reading everything by Virginia Woolf, and you adore “The Waves” and “Mrs. Dalloway” and this one and that one, but that damn “The Years” … Something is wrong; it’s dreary. But usually you read a book by someone, and you get really involved, and you just keep going, book after book. And then you feel you’ve got that writer; you know him — there he is.

But I wouldn’t want you think that at the time I was reading, say, Melville or James I wasn’t also being a foolish woman — or a foolish girl, really. I mean, I was crazy about Jack Teagarden’s singing. (Laughs) He’s somebody you probably have never heard of — a trombonist. Just a particular style of singing. Every once in a while I’ll catch him on the radio when they’re playing old music, and I’ll think, Oh, that’s how to do it. You don’t need a voice; you just sing. And I was always wild about Harry Ritz’s dancing; I thought it was in a class of its own.

PF: I’ve heard that during your freshman year at Berkeley you went out dancing every night.

PK: I love dancing.

PF: What was the dancing-and-music scene like then?

PK: Well, it was all in San Francisco and Oakland — Turk Murphy, Bunk Johnson … a lot of terrific jazz in the Bay Area. And somehow or other I went out every night.

PF: How’d you get your studying in philosophy done?

PK: I’m a fast take. (Laughs) The professors in the Berkeley Philosophy Department wanted me to go on and teach phenomenology, but I got a little tired of it around that point. The idea was for me to take a Ph.D. in philosophy and a law degree at the same time, but I decided I’d had it and kicked up my heels some more instead.

PF: What kind of dancing did you do?

PK: Oh, to Dixieland and Chicago-style jazz in the ’40s, and before that to a lot of Glenn Miller and Guy Lombardo at the San Francisco hotels, because that was the big-band era — this was ’36 to ’40, my college years. All the big pop bands were playing at hotels then. And every night you could go dancing at some shebang. Sometimes it would be to Woody Herman, and that would be great.

RS: How many hours of sleep could you get by on at that point?

PK: Four or five. If you wanted pleasure enough, you’d cut down on sleep, because that’s the only thing you can cut down on. (Laughs)

RS: Was this partly being off on your own?

PK: No. I was also a serious student, and I was working as a teaching assistant and reader at Berkeley. I was correcting papers for seven courses a semester and going half blind. But I was spending an awful lot of time in conversation and dancing, too. And going to a lot of movies.

PF: At what age did you feel the urge to write?

PK: Well, writing criticism came relatively late, much later than for most of my friends. It was the orgy of all the talk with Robert Horan at college that somehow finally got me out of the notion I had of going to law school. I suddenly couldn’t face law school and all that dry material when I was getting so excited by everything else. I wrote some pieces with Horan — essays. They were quite funny, but nobody published them. Maybe they were over-witty, because the two of us would build on each other’s jokes, and they just got wilder and wilder.

I got interested in playwriting after college and wrote plays fairly intensively for a number of years but was very discouraged at the difficulty of getting them on. Stanford was going to put one on; they had it in rehearsal. But the students decided they wanted to do something of Giraudoux’s instead — they wanted clowns and jugglers. So I didn’t get anywhere. But I actually think I was not too bad. (Laughs)

RS: What sorts of plays were they — comedies?

PK: No, they weren’t comedies, I’m afraid. Damn, they should have been. There was probably too much soul-wrestling. Maybe that’s one of the reasons I’m not more impressed by Ingmar Bergman. I did my own share of soul-wrestling, and it’s not too tough to do.

When I started doing movie pieces, all this interest in the arts clicked together, as if I’d found my medium. And maybe because I didn’t take it too seriously it was easier for me to find my voice and my tone; I wasn’t inhibited the way I was in other art forms. Writing about movies, you could be playful, you could be colloquial, you could be American. Whereas writing plays, you were struggling to express yourself, and it was altogether more painful and less entertaining for other people.

PF: What about your radio work?

PK: Well, that was in the ’50s, after I’d published a few movie pieces. Weldon Kees, who was a well-known poet and man around the arts at the time — and a good friend — had a struggling radio show on a commercial station in the Bay Area, and he asked me on as a guest. Later the Pacifica radio people asked if I’d like to record some pieces I’d written. And the they asked me if I’d like to review regularly. It was hell in some ways because I didn’t have any money and they didn’t pay at all. They didn’t even pay my way into the movies.

So I was doing a weekly show for no money. I had a small child, and it was very rough. I had a loyal following in the Bay Area, with people buying my tapes and talking about them, but I didn’t get any work on the East Coast out of it.

PF: Was it a shock to move from San Francisco, with all of its sensual pleasures, to New York?

PK: Well, I was in New York briefly during the early ’40s. A lot of people that I met in that period took me to amazing things. Gian-Carlo Menotti took me to the Met for the first time, and it was Ezio Pinza in “Don Giovanni.” I saw Marlon Brando in “Truckline Cafe.” I had some great experiences. And I had some absurd experiences.: Samuel Barber took me to Radio City Music Hall for the first time, and we saw “Mrs. Miniver”! (Laughs) It was ghastly, and we sat there staring at each other in horror.

PF: You lived in New York for a couple of years?

PK: I lived in New York for about three years, and then I went back to the West Coast until 1965, when I published “I Lost It At the Movies” and came East to write for Life and other magazines. And in ’65 it took a lot of writing to pay the rent. That year I was on a plane, going to give a lecture, and a husband and wife were sitting across the aisle from me. She was reading me in Mademoiselle and he was reading me in Holiday, and then they swapped magazines. It was very cheering, but it was also sort of scary, because I was writing in half a dozen magazines in the same month.

RS: How have your work habits changed over the years?

PK: Well, I don’t work all night anymore. During my early years at The New Yorker, when I was writing long pieces every week, I would often stay up all night to finish something for the deadline day. And I would see very beautiful dawns. But also you get a sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach as you stagger toward your bed. (Laughs) Then the phone starts ringing three hours later. And people who phone you in the morning just laugh when you say, “I just got to bed.” They think you’re some lazy bum.

Mainly I get to work earlier in the day now. It used to be that, writing weekly, I was rushing to movies. And sometimes I didn’t find the movie I wanted to write about till the night before the copy was due, so I just splattered it out. In many ways that’s the truest reaction you’ll ever get. But even so, I can’t do that anymore. I can’t use the words that come to me most readily, because those phrases have become stale. So now if friends use a good term in describing a movie, I say, “Can I use that?” Because I think, Gee, it’s different from what I would say — that’s great.

RS: Do you have any regrets about your career or about your writing over the years? Do you wish you had started earlier or had gone about things differently?

PK: Oh, well, I did start fairly early; I just didn’t have a livelihood to sustain it. I published my first pieces before I managed theaters. But I had to manage theaters to make a living, and do programming for colleges and a lot of other jobs. By the time I got hired at The New Yorker I was almost 50. And so, yes, I regret all the years and energy that went into crummy jobs and trying to sustain life. On the other hand I probably gained a certain amount of experience and breadth from them. But there’s no question in my own mind that I could have done more as a writer had I gotten an earlier start, when I had all that crazy energy.

RS: Do movies stand in a different relation to the culture as a whole now?

PK: Yes, I think they do. In the ’60s and ’70s movies played an adversarial role in the culture. And a lot of middle-aged and elderly people were very offended when they went to the movies. The language was freer than they liked. There was an easygoing, comic attitude toward American patriotism, a more easygoing attitude toward sex relations. The older people stayed away from a lot of movies, and when they did go they often claimed they didn’t understand them, because movies moved faster and were more elliptical. So movies became sort of the enemy. Now they are definitely not the enemy. I wish they were.

PF: When I was in college my friends and I would go to movie marathons — we’d go to see five Kurosawa films. Kids don’t seem to do that now.

PK: Now they see things on VCRs, but they’re probably not having orgies of Kurosawa. (Laughs) There are people who use VCRs well. But it isn’t the same thing as sharing that excitement with an audience. There’s no way of discussing a film when it’s not affecting the whole culture at the same time. That was always part of the excitement of movies. You went to a restaurant and you’d hear everybody in the next booth talking about the same movie you’d seen two days before, which you’d been arguing about. And with VCRs movies don’t stay in your mind the same way. You need the big screen.

PF: How has your reviewing changed over the years?

PK: I felt an excitement about writing about movies, particularly in the late ’60s and the first half of the ’70s — the period when Altman made one terrific movie after another, when Coppola and Scorsese and De Palma were doing sensational work, when Bertolucci was coming through. The movies fed my senses then. I had the feeling that all I was trying to do was keep up with what was going on in movies.

The director I left out just now was, of course, Godard. It was Godard who got me hired at The New Yorker, indirectly. William Shawn, who had seen some of the Godard films and realized that something new was going on in them, read me in The New Republic, where I expressed my excitement about them, and wanted me in The New Yorker.

RS: Imagine that! William Shawn was interested in Godard films!

PK: It’s wonderful, isn’t it? Shawn had a vast interest in what was going on in the arts. And when he saw something going on he reacted with great intensity.

Godard represented the big turning point in ’60s movies. While college students were talking about Bergman the new voice was Godard. I felt tremendous excitement at almost every Godard film right up through “Weekend.”

There are still movies that come along where you feel something’s going on with the individual artist. Blier’s “Get Out Your Handkerchiefs” was exciting to write about. So was “The Unbearable Lightness of Being.” But when Coppola and Altman and Scorsese were breaking through, they spoke to what was going on in the country. And so the act of writing criticism wasn’t just talking about whether the movie was any good. You were talking about what the movie meant, how you felt about it, what it stood for.

In general I’m looking for something that shows some talent, some freshness. You can see what I mean by analogy to literature. Suppose you were one of the first people who read “Middlemarch” — you’d want to tell people about it. That’s how I felt about “McCabe & Mrs. Miller” and “Nashville” and “Godfather II.” I wanted to say, “Look what’s going on here!” That doesn’t happen much right now in movies. There’s something rather paralyzing in the culture.

PF: You’ve spoken in the past about a particular kind of excitement that you can get from a good American film.

PK: Well, I respond to American films when they’re good in a way that’s much more direct than the way I respond to foreign films. It makes sense that we want films that represent American culture, especially since it has a kind of crazy energy. There’s a particular kind of humor and a speed that we get in a good American film. You get it in, say, “The Lady Eve,” the Preston Sturges comedy. I’ve never seen a European comedy that gave me the kind of buzz that “The Lady Eve” did when I first saw it.

American movies are pop for us in a way that foreign films rarely are. That’s the fun of Almodóvar; he has that pop element in his work, because he’s so influenced by American movies.

PF: I know you enjoy Almodóvar’s films. Did you enjoy the work of Charles Ludlam?

PK: I loved Charles Ludlam. I once took Claude Jutra, the French Canadian director, down to the Ridiculous Theatrical Company. And Claude said, “This is theater.” And he had tears streaming out of his eyes, he laughed so hard. I loved Charles Ludlam’s shows, and I thought there was a real craft and polish and crazy elegance in what he was doing. And, of course, it’s like Almodóvar. Almodóvar has the resources of movies, but he basically has that feeling for a company, too. It’s a wonderful kind of theater because you can do mad, excessive things and the audience digs it because they’ve grown up on the same cultural references you have.

RS: You always seem to be able to enjoy the campier side of show business and art.

PK: It’s a basic element in any theatrical art. It’s so vital to theater, that campiness. Maybe being able to make fun of what you’re doing is so much a part of the sophistication of theater and movies. It’s what’s fun in something like “Tequila Sunrise.” There’s just enough …

RS: Overripeness?

PK: Overripeness, sure. People want to regard that as decadence. As if any mention of Charles Ludlam were a tribute to trivia. A lot of people don’t really get it. Or they think you’re making some bow to the gay readership. And it’s not that. It’s subversive — in the sense of making fun of dull, proper values. And it’s much wider than the gay readership.

Part of the fun for many of us — you see it now if you look at old movies of the ’30s — is that extravagance of gesture, doing things to excess. Every emotion is made bright. And it helps us satirize ourselves, helps put our own emotions in perspective, because they are so overdramatized. I think that growing up at the movies you get a sense of perspective on yourself through the campiness of what you enjoy.

I don’t think I could have a close friend who didn’t respond to the craziness of certain kinds of theatrical art, who didn’t enjoy that kind of ripeness. I’ve generally become friends with people because we laughed at the same things. And we’re laughing at ourselves, at our responsiveness to this phenomenon.

It’s a way, also, of not taking the arts too seriously. It’s one of the things that I’ve tried to write about and that readers get most indignant about, because they feel you’re not being a cultivated, serious person if you talk about your pleasure at silliness, at lushness. But if I see a “Jean de Florette,” I die with boredom. I can’t sit there and watch Gérard Dépardieu playing a hunchback and not have people realize how ridiculous it is to have a tall hunchback. That’s the kind of thing Charles Ludlam played to supreme extravagance. When I was a child I loved John Barrymore because of his buffoonery. He was always making fun of himself.

PF: So it’s safe to say that you don’t go to the movies for self-improvement?

PK: Self-improvement and art don’t really belong together. If art opens your eyes and opens your senses that’s something else. I do think that a great movie makes you experience things more intensely. But that intense thing often comes to you via extravagance.

RS: Since the Bertolucci-Blier years, the “Last Tango,” “Get Out Your Handkerchief” years —

PK: I wouldn’t put those in the same class. I think “Last Tango” really is extraordinary and stands by itself, even in terms of Bertolucci’s work. In the same way that Godard and Altman each burned up the screen for a period, with a whole series of movies, I think Bertolucci did it faster. “Before the Revolution,” “The Conformist,” “Last Tango” — nothing he’s done since has had that kind of lush excitement, or the total involvement, or the freedom. “The Last Emperor” has a kind of simple flow to it, but the passion seems to be missing.

PF: It must be hard to sustain the kind of energy that went into those early films.

PK: Well, filmmaking is peculiarly a burning-out medium. I think it takes so much out of you because you can express so much of yourself. There are very few directors who haven’t burned out.

Peckinpah kept going longer than most. Of course, he didn’t live very long, really, but there was a crazy excitement burning in that man. He was the least theoretical of them all, and I think that accounts for it. He often thought that he was saying things in movies that weren’t what he was expressing at all. What came through were his feelings, not the meanings he intended to put there. He became rather spiteful in many ways, but he was an amazingly gifted man. It was a great pity that because of the violence in some of his movies he became a figure that the American press loved to jeer at. And he played along with that, in a way. But, you know, you can become perverse if you’re treated stupidly enough for a long time and hampered in doing what you want to do. It doesn’t take much to get hold of a pencil. But people who really want to work in movies, and who are as passionately addicted to it as Peckinpah, are in a terrible position. They’re at the mercy of a lot of people who basically hate them.

PF: You knew Peckinpah. How good was he at making enemies?

PK: He would spot the weakness in people and really twist the knife. On the other hand he was generous, wonderful. He was a very civilized man in many ways and an utter monster in other ways. And those things are not unusual in a movie director.

RS: A moviegoer interested in movies for their erotic possibilities can find himself looking in odd directions these days, like Diane Keaton’s performance in “The Good Mother.”

PK: Well, Diane Keaton is one of the rare actresses who’ve had one role after another that was sexual. Debra Winger has brought sexual elements into her performances in some movies, too. And Jessica Lange. I think those three are the best young actresses on the American screen. They’re the ones whose work I go to see with the most excitement. Keaton astonishes me, because in movie after movie she does daring sexual, revealing things. And then she’ll do something that’s unbelievably inventive, like her performance in “Crimes of the Heart.” And in “The Good Mother” she goes totally out on a limb. She’s probably the finest young American actress we’ve got. But then Debra Winger or Jessica Lange will come along and do something, and I’ll say she’s the finest. (Laughs)

But Michelle Pfeiffer really is extraordinary, too. She’s so crystalline in her beauty, she’s such a vision, that people may not recognize what a talented actress she is. I loved her in “Natica Jackson,” that little film she did on television from a John O’Hara story.

PF: What did you learn during your stay in Hollywood in 1979?

PK: I learned how many good scripts there were that weren’t going to be made or were going to be made in such a distorted form that no one would ever know how good they’d been. For myself I learned how much fun it was not to have deadlines and to spend time with young writers. And I learned how scared people were of me. People treated me as if I were a high priestess!

But I began to miss writing. I got the sense that my mind was going to sleep. Because you would talk to a writer about his script, or a director about his plans, and you would have to say the same thing the next day because they get so obsessed and nervous and tense that nothing fully sinks in. And you just keep repeating yourself.

Of course, when I talk about the good scripts going begging it has to be understood that my idea of a wonderful script doesn’t necessarily mean a script that would please the public. I can’t pretend that the pictures I like are hits. A great many of them are not. Some of the pictures I’ve loved the most in the last decade have been only marginal successes or box-office disasters — “Shoot the Moon,” “Melvin and Howard,” “Citizens Band,” “Pennies From Heaven” … These pictures failed. Yet there’s some glory for the executives in having done them.

PF: You once wrote that lousy movies left you with an appetite for facts and information, and real people and real events.

PK: Yes. Every once in a while there’s a film like “Thy Kingdom Come,” and there’s a purity in the excitement you feel, because you’re seeing the complexities of people’s emotions — the people who get caught up in the fundamentalist movements. What you rarely get from a documentary is the aesthetic kick or the pop kick that you also go to movies for. Unless it’s a very great documentary, like, say, Kon Ichikawa’s “Tokyo Olympiad,” it may not have much in the way of aesthetic dimensions. Or, if it does, as in “The Thin Blue Line, possibly you resent them — at least I did. It’s a beautifully made film, but the beautifully made element in it works against the subject. You feel the director is aestheticizing a factual situation instead of approaching it more simply. There’s something morally offensive in that approach, I think.

PF: Are you a news watcher?

PK: Yes, I’m a news freak. I catch the 6:30 news on one network and the 7 o’clock on another. I watch CNN hearings. I love watching news. Or else I’m obsessed with it — I don’t know which.

RS: I have trouble getting through the way the news is presented. Do you fight that?

PK: Oh, sure, it’s a parody, the way they all say the most obvious things, when what you see in a few seconds of footage contradicts what they’re telling you. It’s quite incredible to hear the vacuous lines that come out of the news readers’ mouths.

PF: Is that part of the fascination for you?

PK: Yeah, because you’re watching these people crippling and strangling the news, and when they do have a great event and can’t miss with it — when it’s an earthquake or something of that sort — each network will concentrate on the same pathetic figures. They manage to pull your emotional strings so blatantly that you want to smack them one. Except for “Wiseguy,” which I really enjoy, and “L.A. Law” sometimes, I can’t watch series television. But I can watch the news endlessly, because there’s always enough new happening to keep me fixated, and there’s always this rage at the way it’s presented.

RS: Can movies be made now with the kind of honesty of De Palma’s “Blow Out”?

PK: Well, the box-office failure of “Blow Out” was, I think, a tragedy for De Palma and for John Travolta — it’s just about the best work each of them has ever done. But it probably served as a warning to some of the people who might have wanted to do something politically sophisticated. It’s as if people get penalized for sophistication. I think that’s true of Altman — he got ornery. Like Peckinpah, Altman became difficult to deal with, but at the same time the man is a genius, and he came through with a string of the greatest films ever made in this country, so you’d think people would put up with his orneriness. The studio executives don’t mind somebody ornery if he’s a mediocrity, because they understand the terms in which he’s functioning.

PF: I find “The Untouchables” depressing, because it’s as if De Palma acceded to the Reagan era’s nostalgia for heroes, whereas “Blow Out” was a personally felt expression of what’s going on in this country.

PK: I think De Palma’s script for “Blow Out” is infinitely superior to the David Mamet script for “The Untouchables.” The script for “The Untouchables” is square. But, on the other hand, that squareness did make it possible for De Palma to reach a big audience, and he did direct it marvelously. De Palma’s a ranking American director who had never been given his due. Just in human terms you have to be glad when somebody good comes to the fore. People don’t sell out or give in to the system or anything like that quite as simply as we thought when we were kids.

PF: Are there movies you really can’t justify enjoying or writing about?

PK: Damn it, if I enjoy it, it seems to me I’d better be able to write about it. It would be dishonest to enjoy something and not admit it. If you laugh all the way through a comedy and then write a pan, something is wrong with you. You have to be able to believe in yourself enough to be truthful about how you react.

PF: Should everyone trust their instincts?

PK: I can’t speak for everybody on that; I think a lot of people have lousy instincts. (Laughs) But to be a critic it sure helps to be able to trust your instincts. What else have you got? If you don’t trust your instincts maybe you’re in the wrong profession.

RS: Couldn’t somebody argue that the other thing you have is your taste?

PK: But tastes become instinctive. Your instincts aren’t something apart from your knowledge and your education and your tastes. Your instincts are everything you know acting together immediately, viscerally.

PF: Is it possible that a critic could not have great taste and still show us something about the medium?

PK: Yes, there are critics whose judgments are way off but whose perceptions of a movie are quite stunning. I’ll read a review and think the person is blind to what the narrative is doing, but he’ll describe certain details and I’ll think, Gee, I took that in and yet I didn’t fully register what it meant. In many ways, the perceptions and the observations are more important than the judgments. We read critics for the perceptions, for what they tell us that we didn’t fully grasp when we saw the work. The judgments we can usually make for ourselves.

©1989 by Polly Frost and Ray Sawhill. First appeared in Interview magazine.

Neil Jordan

neil jordan01

By Ray Sawhill

Cerebral and visceral at the same time, the Irish writer and film director Neil Jordan’s movies suggest the work of a graduate seminarian who gorges on mystery stories and pop music. After making a mark in his 20s with his fiction — which so far includes “Night in Tunisia” (1976), “The Past” (1980), and “The Dream of a Beast” (1983) — Jordan turned to writing for television and then sent a film script to the director John Boorman.

He became a filmmaker in 1982, when Boorman persuaded Britain’s Channel Four to finance “Angel,” which was released in America (and is available on videocassette) as “Danny Boy.” A drama about a sax player in an Irish dance band who sets out to avenge the deaths of a friend and a deaf-mute girl, the film was pointedly apolitical, and it scandalized Ireland. Jordan made his next film in London. “The Company of Wolves” (1984) is a story-within-a-story, Chinese-box film that suggests a combination of the Brothers Grimm, Bettelheim, and Borges. It was a commercial success in England and a cult favorite in the States, and is remarkable for focusing sympathetically on the sexual dreams and fears of a pubescent girl. (The film’s co-screenwriter, Angela Carter, called it “a menstrual movie.”)

“Mona Lisa,” (1986), the film Jordan is most widely known for, is a lurid melodrama about a thug who falls in love with the call girl he’s assigned to chaperone. Witty and ingrown, but with a rampaging spirit, “Mona Lisa” may be the only successful example of a film many directors have tried to make — the film noir as conscious poetry — and it turned Bob Hoskins, for whom the lead role was designed, into a star.

Jordan moved into the world of big budgets and international casts with his next movie, “High Spirits” (1988), a farce about American tourists visiting an Irish castle, but the film was taken away from him by his producers during editing, and the mangled version bombed badly.

Jordan is thirty-nine years old. He grew up in Dublin, and between films returns to a home on the Dublin shore. I met him at a French restaurant in Manhattan; he was drowsy when he arrived, and contentedly unkempt in jeans and a T-shirt. He was in town to do some looping for his new movie, “We’re No Angels,” a variation on a 1954 film that starred Humphrey Bogart and Peter Ustinov (and which was itself based on a 1951 play by Albert Husson); Jordan made his version in Canada from a script by David Mamet, with Robert De Niro and Sean Penn in the leading roles. He’s a soft-spoken lunchtime companion, but there are hints of truculence and intensity in his dark eyes, and in the way he emphasizes his remarks with “Do you know what I mean?” and “Do you understand?”

neil jordan02

RAY SAWHILL: There’s a line in “Angel” where the hero asks the girl what Protestants know about sin and she answers something like “Nothing at all.” Are you a practicing Catholic?

NEIL JORDAN: No, not at all. I’m a bad Catholic.

RS: Aren’t most Catholics “bad Catholics”?

NJ: I’m a really bad Catholic. It’s not a subject that fascinates me, but it’s an issue that obsesses Ireland. The Irish Catholic church is a very mean an autocratic institution, far more repressive and puritanical than what you find anywhere else, I think. But it’s set in a peasant culture, so there’s a certain kind of irreverence and earthiness that’s part of people’s lives and which counteracts the church.

RS: I picture you as having been a serious student.

NJ: I was a very intellectual kid, a very big reader. My father taught at a teacher-training college and my mother was a painter. Her father was a painter. He was a professor of fine arts at the College of Art in Dublin. I was born in Sligo on the west coast, but we moved to the city. It was a middle-class upbringing and quite a literate one. I went to college and studied Plato and Aristotle with great relish, although the only languages apart from English that I have any acquaintance with are GAelic and Latin.

RS: Was there any American-style popular culture around when you were growing up?

NJ: I was fascinated by music and movies. There was no television — most families couldn’t afford TV. I used to be allowed to go once every two weeks to the cinema. There was an assumption on the part of Irish society in general that cosmopolitan influences were tainted with some kind of evil — a little like Iran at the moment. The devil spoke through Carole Lombard and Buddy Holly.

RS: Did that make it more enticing?

NJ: Totally, yeah. My father was a very intellectual man. I argued with him a lot when I was a kid — ferocious stand-up fights all the time. Religion, politics, sex. He was very enlightened and kind. But he came from a small-town background. And the great problems in rural Ireland are alcoholism and madness, which go hand in hand. There were strains of that in probably everybody’s family. Coming from a small farm, he had had to educate himself, teach himself to read, go to university. He was somebody who created a different life for himself. And to do that, I suppose, one has to teach oneself a certain rigidity. So I used to fight against that a lot.

RS: Were you an only child?

NJ: No, there were five of us. I’m the second-oldest. My mother wanted all her kids to paint. I used to paint a lot when I was a kid. Then around the age of twelve I just stopped, and now I can’t draw a line. Well, I can draw doodles and cartoons, but both of my sisters are professional painters in Dublin — whatever small art market is there. There’s really no tradition of visual arts in Ireland because there is never any money to support it. It’s ass simple as that. There’s no architecture of any significance, except by the Anglo-Irish; the native Irish never had a chance to build anything. The mode of expression that costs nothing is literature, storytelling.

I started writing when I was about fourteen. Stories, poetry, plays. Approximations of the people I was reading at the time — Graham Greene, Dostoyevski, Yeats, Joyce. One has an urge to write at certain times. It doesn’t matter what you write about so long as you write. I went to university specifically to do that. I studied literature and history. I worked in an ensemble theater in Dublin — a group of writers, directors, actors. When I got my degree I began to try to live off that.

RS: What were the plays you wrote like?

NJ: They were performed, never published. I was mainly the writer in the group. I love writing for actors. Jim Sheridan, who’s just made a film called “My Left Foot” — it’s wonderful, and Daniel Day-Lewis is wonderful in it — was a part of the group. He’s a wonderful theater director, one of the best directors of actors I’ve ever come across. He and myself and a group of Irish actors and one or two other Irish writers were part of this same fringe theater group in Dublin. We used to write plays about social issues that affected people in Dublin at the time. We used to write children’s plays, street theater, musicals.

RS: Did you manage to make a living off it?

NJ: I never made a living off of anything, really. Which is why at one stage I turned to playing music. I was in my early twenties, married, with one child, living in Dublin, unemployed. Writing fiction, writing for the theater, absolutely broke. They needed a guitarist in this band, and I thought, Rock ‘n’ roll musicians make some money. So I said O.K. I just did it for money. But it was from that experience that my first movie [“Angel”] came.

We were traveling around Ireland, playing in large dance halls. There were groups called show bands, playing an amalgam of country and rock music. But for some reason they had brass sections. They came from a combination of these old swing bands that were knocked out by Bill Haley — they were still trying to make a living. It was a strange compromise between rock ‘n’ roll and what you would think of as a dance band of the ’40s.

In the north there was fighting going on; in the south there was not.The only people who were immune were the musicians. They would travel freely. So we’d travel to Belfast and Derry, driving back at three or four at night, which can be very frightening if you’re driving through areas where there’s been trouble.

RS: Did you have any frightening encounters?

NJ: Only when I did the movie. I got a lot of threats. I had to move out of my house. The movie is based on an incident involving a group called the Miami Show Band. One night they were traveling back from the north of Ireland, and they were stopped by me dressed as soldiers, taken out, and machine-gunned. It was a sectarian killing.

RS: What happened when you made the movie?

NJ: I began to get a few people visiting my house at night.

RS: Throwing rocks against your windows?

NJ: No, no. One night two guys walked into the house, into my child’s bedroom, looked around, and walked out again. It was a demonstration that “We know what you’re up to.”

RS: You must have wondered whether the film was worth doing.

NJ: Well, I was in the middle of it by then. And things like that happen all the time in Ireland, but rarely do they lead to anything serious. I rang up the Special Branch, the group of people who are meant to look after us. Years later, I crashed my car one night, and for some reason no police came to the scene. Eventually, after an hour or two — there were traffic jams everywhere — they came. I asked my lawyer, “Why on earth did it take them so long to come?” He said it was because the guys who came first were actually Special Branch and didn’t want to interfere. I wonder whether they were just keeping in touch, just following along.

RS: How old were you when you wrote your first book?

NJ: Twenty-four. I was unemployed. I was with the theater group. I was living in not a bad house, really. In Dublin you can always get by. But I was collecting the dole. I published stories, and I felt very proud and lucky and very surprised that what I’d written was well-received. The first book I wrote won the Guardian fiction prize. I became quite a literary young lion.

I come from a very literary culture. My friends were writers like Brian Friel and Seamus Heaney. They’re people that want the flame to be carried forward, the tradition to be carried on. So when I began to make films, among the literary community in Ireland it was considered a horrendous thing to do, an utter betrayal of one’s calling and one’s destiny — that sort of stuff. It was if Maria Ewing had begun to sing with Boy George. Film is not part of the culture.

RS: Your fiction is quite literary. Yet in your movies, in a popular art form —

NJ: Well, that’s the reason I moved into movies. I see movies as a great escape from the awful burdens of literature. If you ever try to sit down and write a novel, you’re at the typewriter for two years. You can go nuts.

RS: When you turned from your typewriter and your blank sheets of paper to writing for movies and television, what was it like?

NJ: Well, first of all, everything has been a release from sitting alone writing. (Laughs) Except marriage — that was not a release. Basically everything that I’ve done in a more public milieu has been to get myself away from writing fiction — an alternative and an escape from it. It just happens that movies have been the most engrossing and the most fulfilling. Even when I played music, it was just so wonderful to be among a mass of people.

RS: But when you wrote for TV you were unhappy with what was done with what you wrote.

NJ: Just like most writers, yeah. Then I sent John Boorman a script about two young Irish gypsy kids —

RS: There are gypsies in Ireland?

NJ: Yeah, they’re called tinkers. The kids in the film get involved in an arranged marriage and in smuggling. It was a bit like “They Live By Night,” that Nicholas Ray movie about two sweet young kids who meet in this horrible world. John liked it a lot, and he got in touch with me and asked me to write another script with him — “Broken Dreams,” which has never been made. It was a futuristic script — a delightful, wonderful story about the end of the world. It was from a French novel set in the west of Ireland about a group of magicians, by the guy who wrote “Diva” — Daniel Odier. And the ultimatee trick was to make things actually vanish. They couldn’t bring them back. It was kind of a crazed premise. John has wanted to do it for a long, long time. It’s i that midrange between being too expensive to be quirky and too quirky to be cheap. We sat for three months in a room and wrote it, and he went off to try to get it financed and couldn’t. Then he made “Excalibur,” and he asked me to do some work on the last draft of that script.

RS: You were on the set of “Excalibur,” making a documentary.

NJ: Yeah, it’s been shown on television. I was credited as “consultant.” John asked me to be around during the shooting. I said, “O.K., but I’ll have nothing to do — I’ll feel awkward. So why don’t you let me make a documentary about you making the film? And if you want to swap ideas and talk, I’ll at least have a function; I won’t be like an idiot, getting in the way.” Basically we talked about the scenes, what’s happening here, what’s happening there.

RS: I picture the two of you sitting around talking about Freud and Jung, fairy tales and dreams.

NJ: (Laughs) That might be a bit idealistic. But John allowed me to see that films could be accessible to personal vision.

RS: You seem to share some ideas about dreams and myths.

NJ: Oh, yeah. Since I was about fifteen I’ve been obsessed with all that — with the idea of nonrationality. I’m very impatient with explanations of human behavior that begin and end with the rational. And the kinds of stories I love are ones where rational human beings are confronted with things they can’t explain.

RS: Ireland seems to have no film tradition.

NJ: None whatsoever. But for me filmmaking was a wonderful release. Because in Ireland, everything has been written about to a large extent. Particularly after Joyce. I lived in the city he’d written about. Some of the greatest literature of the twentieth century took place in this city I grew up in. It’s impossible not to feel swamped by that. You grow up in this culture, this landscape, in which every little detail has been written about. Every little brick, every corner, every place you go has a literary association, be it through Joyce or Patrick Kavanagh or Flann O’Brien or whomever. One’s palate becomes sort of jaded. One’s imagination becomes paralyzed.

RS: How was “Angel” received in Ireland?

NJ: Oh, I was thrown out of the country. Literally. It caused such outrage — it offended every possible segment. It offended extreme nationalists in the south, who thought I hadn’t taken a political stance. It offended loyalists. It particularly offended members of the film community of Ireland, because I was a novelist and I’d made a movie myself. It offended literary people. The only people it didn’t offend were in Anderson’s Town, in the ghettos of Belfast; they rather liked it. (Laughs)

RS: Were you conscious of becoming part of an explosion of British filmmaking?

NJ: I was very conscious of being in an environment that allowed people like myself to make films. I was aware of Channel Four — they did “Angel.” Without them I would never have directed a film. I was aware of an environment that was hungry for filmmaking. As a cultural capital ten years before, London had the greatest theater in the world. For some reason that changed, and for a certain period it was directed toward the cinema. Peter Greenaway was making films, and Stephen Frears …

RS: Are the British directors who came from TV commercials, like Ridley Scott and Tony Scott and Adrian Lyne, part of this bunch?

NJ: I think the great filmmaker in Britain whom everybody has ignored is Ken Loach. He can’t make a movie anymore. When he made “Kes” and his other movies, he didn’t just throw a great wash of gray paint over your entire being; he managed to photograph real people in all their dimensions. But Ridley and Tony Scott and Adrian Lyne make Hollywood studio pictures without any questions. They make them on Hollywood’s own terms. Whereas Stephen Frears and David Leland and myself and others would make American films, but we’d probably make them with some questions.

The only other director I’ve met at all regularly is Stephen Frears. He’s the only one I’ve talked to more than a few times, except for David Leland, who wrote with me on “Mona Lisa.” British society for some reason is not terribly communicative. England is a rather constricted place. It can drive you crazy as an Irish person. What you have to realize about the British is that they’re not very happy with themselves and never have been. They have no way, even in their socially conscious films, to find redemptive images. Because there’s something in the British psyche that doesn’t actually like life. A movie like “Do the Right Thing” in many ways takes a social perspective similar to that of the British movies that were made in the past eight years. But none of them would be able to carry the political and social intent with the same amount of liveliness, of fun.

RS: You married very young.

NJ: Yeah, and had two kids. In the Irish way. I was about twenty-one when we had the first one. With “Company of Wolves” I wanted to make something that would illuminate what my daughters were going into. In my fiction I’ve always liked to write from inside women’s parts, for some reason. You have to imagine yourself into an experience that’s totally the opposite of your own. There’s great freedom in that, a strange release. Angela Carter’s story was the basis for the film, but I wanted to create the visual approximation of a girl’s mind at that age — with the narrative confusion and the association from one image to another. Which is why the film probably has a confused structure. Or, not confused, but not quite circular. There’s a film I saw a long time ago called “The Saragossa Manuscript,” a wonderful movie, made by a Polish director. It was one of Luis Bunuel’s favorite films. That film does have that circularity. There’s an authorial organization to the entire thing. I resisted doing that in this case; I wanted some aspect of the accidental.

RS: “The Company of Wolves” is so strange because it’s a very thought-out film that addresses the unconscious.

NJ: It’s a cheeky film. It was after Spielberg had come out with his films, and “Star Wars” had been released, and Ridley Scott was working in London. I was working with these guys who had worked on all these big movies. So Anton Furst and the cinematographer and I were making a film that belonged to the realm of these large special-effects movies, but with bits of twine, and dolls, and twelve trees that we had to shift around the studio to give the impression of a forest. That’s all we could afford to build.

RS: How did you daughters react to “Company of Wolves”?

NJ: They love it. Kids love that movie, particularly young girls. My youngest daughter is nine, and she holds screenings of it.

RS: Which of your films is your daughters’ favorite?

NJ: Oh, the worst of the bunch, I suppose. The one I made last — “High Spirits.”

RS: Do you see the girls a lot?

NJ: I do. If I’m doing postproduction on a film, the only way I can see them is to bring them into the theater: “What do you think of this, kids?” “Do you like that?”

RS: Your films have a familiarity with going backstage.

NJ: Oh, I love that world, don’t you? I think some of the best films are about people who have to perform: “Sawdust and Tinsel” and “The Magic Flute.” I love “La Strada.” I want to do a film in Ireland that’s about backstage performance. The thing I’d love most to make would be a backstage musical set in outer space.

RS: Are you putting me on? Your eyes are twinkling.

NJ: No, I’m serious. It’s an interesting problem, how one would make a musical that would still have some kind of resonance today. I wrote a story a long time ago for my daughter which was about hoofers in space who traveled around entertaining troops in these intergalactic wars. It was basically a backstage musical that went from asteroid to asteroid. But now I want to do a film in Ireland that’s a simple little film about a musician — about a marriage that went wrong. I’m just writing it. The woman had a child and left before the child was even one, left it to be brought up by its father. She comes back and the son doesn’t know that she’s his mother. It’s set in a theater in Dublin. It would be a very simple film with three or four actors — a bit of an antidote the big film I’ve just made.

RS: There’s something of a backstage musical in all your films.

NJ: Especially “Angel.” You know the way when you begin to make a film with someone for the first time you show each other films? Chris Menges, the cinematographer, would show me a lot of realist movies and I would show him musicals. I wanted a tension between both things.

RS: It’s very sophisticated for a first film.

NJ: Not in terms of the narrative. What I had to learn was narrative, which was an odd thing for a writer. The visual aspect, the composition, came easier to me. I had written the script with the images in mind: the girl by the tree, the guy in the pink suit on the beach.

RS: Where are you based now?

NJ: I’ve been in Canada for nine months shooting “We’re No Angels.” It’s very pretty up there — too pretty in many ways. What happens in Vancouver is that when the sun comes out it’s too healthy. There’s no diffusion in the sky. You get this horrible blue. It’s very beautiful, but photographically it’s ugly. So we kept waiting for clouds, and sometimes the clouds wouldn’t come.

But I live in Dublin — I go away to work and come back to Dublin. It’s a nice early-Victorian house in Bray, a seaside town. The weaves actually hit my third-story window. I get flooded every now and then. Have you read “Portrait of the Artist”? You know the Christmas-dinner scene, where Dante talks about Parnell? That took place in the house next door. That family lived there. Most of my life is spent alone. I have a girlfriend, Beverly D’Angelo, who was in “High Spirits.” I’d say she’s my fiancee. When I’m in Dublin, she comes to Dublin; when she’s in L.A., I go to L.A.

RS: Did you have a good time working together on “High Spirits”?

NJ: We had a very good time. She’s very fiery. But it’s such a noisy film as it exists now. I was on a plane with Beverly, and it was on, and I thought, Oh God, this is the noisiest film ever made. It’s terrible to see a movie you’ve made that you’re not that happy with. It makes you not want to make films again.

RS: When I saw “High Spirits,” I thought, Gee, Neil Jordan seems to want to do something delicate, and the producers seem to want “National Lampoon.”

NJ: That’s a fair impression. The entire thing was a bit of a mess. “High Spirits” was meant to be a coherent farce, not an incoherent farce. I pictured it as a farce — like “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” — that concluded in an erotic series of encounters. Where on one night everyone goes through an experience that changes them radically. The experience is the falling in love with ghosts. I wanted to set up this complicated series of characters and throw all these balls up in the air, and the question was: How are you going to resolve it all? And then I would resolve it through a series of deaths and rebirths. It’s a classic form. Every films I’ve ever done, I write out a two-page description of it first. The shape of it is there. I wanted to do “High Spirits” quite simply. I knew I needed American actors and all that. For whatever reasons — probably because it needed quite an expensive budget — I involved myself with American producers.

What happens with independent productions, even ones with big budgets like mine, is very simple, really: You bring a script to a bunch of people, and they say, “O.K., we an get yo the money for this, but we will need a star name.” They go to a festival or market like Cannes, and they sell it to different territories. Bit by bit you find yourself backed into a corner — first of all with regard to the casting, maybe later on with regard to the script. That’s the kind of thing that happened to me on this film. To get the resources to make it on the scale I needed to make it on, and to deliver the effects and build the set, I had to get into that world. That was my very first time.

RS: Wasn’t “Company of Wolves” an expensive film?

NJ: Inexpensive. It cost about $3 million. “High Spirits” cost $17 million. I wrote the script; I got my designer, Anton Furst — the guy who designed “Batman” and “Company of Wolves” — and all his crew working on the sets while I was still negotiating with the producers. All the guys I work with were desperate to make this film because so few films were being made in Britain at the time. So to keep the project alive I began to back myself into a corner, thinking I could solve all these problems during the shooting. Most of which I actually did. But then we had a lot of arguments over the cut at the end. Bit by bit I lost control.

RS: Which are the arguments you lost?

NJ: The argument about the structure of the entire piece. The structure of the film was about the castle itself — the hotel — and the inhabitants of that hotel, with the American characters being visitors, flitting around the main story. And all the Irish actors — their parts were decimated.

As I shot it, the tale of all these shouting and screaming Americans was auxiliary. The entire balance of the film was upset. In the end it seemed like a stupid story and structure for a film. The only thing I like is that there is a beauty in the visual organization of the piece.

It was heartbreaking. It almost killed me. I’d not done anything before that I’d not finished. With this, I filmed everything I wanted, but what was released was unfinished.

It makes me very violent, I must say. It makes me very angry, very vindictive. I would gladly have done serious damage to people’s joints.

In the end, either you have power or you’re working with people who have enough moral integrity or intelligence to share your vision. I was working with idiots — I don’t mean the actors; the actors gave everything.

Making films is a very tiring thing to do. There have been moments when I’ve just wanted to resign from them. It’s too much trouble. It’s not that too much responsibility is placed on the director. In an odd way, it’s not enough. If as a director you were responsible from beginning to end for every decision, you wouldn’t have these endless discussions and meetings, so you could actually do it rather quickly. But as it is, you’re responsible yet you’re answerable. And that takes a tremendous amount of time. It can be very exhausting. All the decisions I make are out of my instincts. I can’t do it otherwise. But sometimes you have argue, and sometimes you have to be diplomatic and kind of sly. You have to do things and not reveal why you’re doing them at the time.

RS: Can you give me an example?

NJ: If you’re told by a producer that this set can stay up for only a week and you know you need it for two weeks, you say, O.K., we leave it up for a week. You’ve already argued about it for two weeks anyway. And when you come to shoot it you deliberately leave the major scene till Friday, and you won’t get it finished on Friday, so it has to stay up on Monday for the next week.

RS: Does this come easily to you?

NJ: Well, it’s stuff one learns very quickly when one’s back is against the wall. It’s stuff like that that’s very tiring. But the truth is, there’s nothing more pleasurable than making films. you’re dealing with color, you’re dealing with light, you’re dealing with actors, you’re photographing things that move through time. It’s a wonderful medium. And you’re not doing something that’s a potpourri of these various arts; you’re making something that’s quite different. It’s a pleasure that’s difficult to relinquish.

RS: Did your theater work teach you how to talk to actors?

NJ: Well, up until this most recent film everything I did was from my own script. So I was in the happy position of being able to rewrite the dialogue very rapidly, or to restructure the scene if something wonderful happened when we were shooting. And as I cast a the film I could change the parts. I would rewrite to get their personalities into the script. I used to try to get the actors to reinvent the whole story themselves as they doing the film.

RS: What was it like working with American actors?

NJ: American actors seem to want to invent their parts themselves. I find them fascinating. They work with much more commitment to the actual idea than British actors do. To a certain extent, British actors are slumming when they’re in movies, except for the good ones, like Hoskins and Caine — people who are no so much of the theater.

RS: Caine can be an astounding actor, like in “Educating Rita.”

NJ: Or “Hannah and Her Sisters.”

RS: But sometimes he just seems to be checking in at a cocktail party. You got such a malevolent performance from him in “Mona Lisa.” I wouldn’t have thought of Michael Caine if I were looking for malevolence.

NJ: A lot of the stuff he did in England when he was younger was straight out of his background — South London working-class boy who wants to make good by whatever means possible.I just tried to tap into that aspect of him. he loved it. It’s interesting — he will take the easiest of possible options for the first take. If he’s allowed, he’ll come in and do it and go home. But the more you probe and demand, the more excited Michael gets. And the happier he gets, really.

RS: Do you rehearse with the actors?

NJ: Except with Bobby [De Niro] and Sean [Penn] — we rehearsed for a day — I’ve never rehearsed with the actors. I’ve had discussions; I don’t find it productive. He walks in the door, he looks around, the bar explodes. What can you rehearse about that? I would like to work out the characters sometimes in more detail.

RS: If you could wave a magic wand and change the way films are made, what would you change?

NJ: First of all, I would ask that they be budgeted correctly. In other words, when the script is passed and accepted, and they want the script to have certain elements, they should put enough money into the film to realize the script correctly and coherently. This very rarely happens. Usually they want everything in it, the big bits and the small bits, but they limit you: you’ve only so much time and money, you can have only two hundred extras here or twenty cars there.

And I would also ask for a certain period to reshoot stuff. It’s the only medium in the world where you never get a second chance. In practice people do it all the time, because things go wrong, but they don’t budget for it. So it causes a lot of argument and friction.

RS: What’s the David Mamet script for “We’re No Angels” like?

NJ: Over the years I’d been sent many scripts, and I’d always turned them down. But if I’d ever written my ideal script, this would have been it. It was extraordinary. Amazing. This is David’s most sentimental, sweetest script to date. It has two guys escaping from prison who are not-quite-made-it crooks, innocents, who are mistaken for priests. There’s a prostitute with a heart of gold who goes through a religious conversion. I think it’s his best script. I did the film because the script is so good.

RS: De Niro and Penn are said to be very demanding actors.

NJ: They’re quite demanding, but quite wonderful. It was a new encounter for me, because I had never been confronted with as many questions. Their demands on the specific reality of the parts they played were painstaking. It was very good for me, because it forced me to ask a lot of questions. I have never been concerned with the realistic nature of performances. I never thought about it really, probably because I’d written the parts. On the other films, it was more like: This script will never be made if I don’t make it. It was different here. I was a director for the first time. It’s a very interesting thing to be a director.

David’s script was spare, and my entire attack on the movie was to make it lush and large and circuslike and emotional. The script is an anti-religious parable about redemption. Which was wonderful, because what people hope for from religion — which it never gives them — is the whole center of the characters. Sean makes a wonderful speech which expresses the whole thing – why people want to believe and why the systems that are meant to give them belief never match them. But if they do want to believe, what’s wrong with that?

RS: When Cathy Tyson shoots Michael Caine in “Mona Lisa,” you —

NJ: I gave her a kind of saintly aspect, yeah. One longs for the serenity of that world. In the new movie I have a deaf-and-dumb kid. If you’re talking about wounded innocents … The images that move me most are redemptive ones. My sense of that probably comes out of Italian paintings. My mother used to surround me with them as a kid. There’s a wonderful painting by Velazquez in the National Gallery in London which is called “The Immaculate Conception.” Mary is sitting on a globe among the planets with a halo of stars around her head. And she has a little bruised and wounded face, like a kid about fifteen who you’d want to have sex with. I’m sure Velazquez did. Have a look at it and you’ll see the same face you see in “Angel,” the little girl before the tree. I tend to look at pictures like that to find images that will resonate and some starting point for a visual structure.

RS: Was Penn awed by working with De Niro? What kind of rapport did they have?

NJ: Everyone was slightly awed by working with De Niro, because he’s such a complete actor. He has done less bad work than anybody else I can think of. I’m sure that to actors in general he is quite an awesome figure. As to whether Sean was awed by Bobby, I don’t think so. Or maybe he was privately, but maybe he was saved by the part. They both involved themselves very deeply in their parts, and they played two opposite kinds of people: one innocent and full of wonder, the other fast-talking and tough. Bob was the fast-talking guy and Sean the innocent.

RS: I understand that De Niro is not the most verbal of people.

NJ: No but one of the most intelligent he is. It’s kind of an instinctive intelligence one is working with. I hate it when people can articulate things too clearly, because then it’s said and there’s no other way of saying it.

RS: Yet you are very articulate.

NJ: But I don’t articulate when I’m working. I almost deliberately try not to. Because if you can describe it, there’s no point in doing it. Really!

They’re both very demanding actors, but the demands they make are very productive ones. Because of the level of reality both guys bring to their performances, it’s best to surround them with reality. If they’re reacting to something, it’s far better to have the thing they’re reacting to there behind the camera rather than just to imagine it. There’s a level of falsity that doesn’t exist in that style of acting, which I had not come across before.

RS: Bob Hoskins seems to be that kind of actor too.

NJ: He is, yeah. I think acting in a film has a lot to do with the realism the medium demands. But I love when it can go into levels of mime, burlesque, melodrama. I found Hoskins was that kind of guy. He could become a song-and-dance man in a minute. And he could awaken in himself these huge, almost Dickensian kinds of emotions – a think which you don’t specifically connect with movies. The great thing about working with him was that I had anticipated somebody who would be terrifying about the interior logic of his part, but he wasn’t that way at all. He was able to take imaginative leaps and make quite an irrational journey through it.

RS: How much of a student of movies and thrillers have you been?

NJ: When I was a kid, I was not allowed to go to the cinema all that often. I remember wanting to see “The Battle of the Sexes,” which I thought was a war movie. My parents wouldn’t let me, and they would never tell me why When I saw “La Strada” the first time, that’s when I was taken over by film; that’s when I lost faith in the written word. I saw it when I was about eighteen. Then I saw Kurosawa movies and Bunuel films … Something about the idea of photography knocked me dead. The idea of photographing Giulietta Massina playing the trumpet, the idea of that both belonging to stories and actually happening, began to make me think, Why write a fiction that says, “He woke up and he remembered the sweet taste of her perfume” or something? Why write something as false as that when something like photography exists?

In many ways, all the fiction I wrote was refusing to be a novel. I could never describe a character’s inner life. I could only describe the physical realities of their fictional existence. I could never allow myself to take that liberty. I despised it. I regarded the novel as defunct, basically. I used to read too much Robbe-Grillet. That was it, really. I could not describe anything other than what could be seen or smelled or heard.

RS: Do you still hang out with your old theater friends?

NJ: I do. But Dublin’s a very small city. It’s an ideal place to return to. It’s not too good a place to live all the time.

RS: How do you find time for your literary writing?

NJ: I don’t. I’m meant to deliver a novel by Christmas. I’m trying to start it at the moment. I’m trying to find a way of writing again. I think the solution is to be more vulgar than I have been in the past, to actually begin to talk about the characters’ inner lives — to allow myself to make those statements. I was too strict with myself before.

RS: Do you have hobbies?

NJ: I ski. I go skiing with my kids, to Switzerland. I took it up because Christmas in Ireland is quite a horrendous time. Everyone drinks so much that you’re literally wrecked afterward, or at least I am, because I like to drink. So I said, All right, I’ll take my kids away to Switzerland. And they enjoyed it.

I rarely stay at home. I go out all the time. I go around the pubs — that’s what I like to do with my time. But I hang out with my kids. I spend as much of my spare time with them as I can.

I am the only gainfully employed person that I know where I come from. So I have to look out for a lot of people. It’s a very embarrassing position to be in. People want to borrow money off me, but once they do they hate me, because they can’t pay it back.

RS: How do you handle that?

NJ: I give them the money. I say, Here, don’t borrow it, take it.

RS: What do you read? What music do you listen to?

NJ: I mainly listen to classical music. When I was younger I used to listen to everything before 1500 and everything after 1890. I’ve never really gone through Mozart, so for the moment I’m trying to listen to as much of Mozart as I can. I reading a biography of Shaw — a bit dull. Have you read his plays? You can read them, but they’re hard to watch. I’m reading a volume of art criticism by John Ashbery. I’m a fan of his poetry — I’m intrigued; I want to find out where the meaning is. But I basically like movies. I go all the time, especially when I’m making a film. It relaxes me and makes me think of things. On a Saturday, I used to go see five movies if I was shooting a film. Recently I saw “The Abyss.” I saw “Casualties of War,” which is beautifully made and definitely a film of stature, but I don’t know if I enjoyed it.

RS: What do movies represent for you?

NJ: I connect movies with sex and isolation. I connect them with forbidden things — rich, strange things that don’t happen in real life. I mean sex, sexually charged images. I don’t mean dirty, nasty, prurient things. I mean a level of eroticism and sensuality. I connect it with intoxication, with what storytelling should be. When I was a kid, it was something that aroused emotions that were far, far bigger than the things one was surrounded by.

RS: There are a lot of indications of the irrational and the spiritual in your films.

NJ: It comes out of my background. The Irish psyche is impatient with reality. There’s a great quotation: “It refuses to subject itself to the tyranny of fact.” It’s true. it’s much happier with lies than it is with truth. It’s much happier with inventions than it is with reality. It’s actually much happier with failure than with material success. There’s a feeling that too much concentration on the mundane matters of business and everyday life stifles your … I guess your ability to have fun is what it comes to. (Laughs)

©1989 by Ray Sawhill. First appeared in Interview magazine.

Denis Dutton

Denis at UCSB

By Ray Sawhill

Denis Dutton, editor of the popular Web site Arts & Letters Daily, has the kind of damn-the-torpedoes, strapping intellectuality that figures like Camille Paglia, Robert Hughes and John Searle do. Over dinner with him, trying to keep up with his knowledge and ideas about wine, Glenn Gould, Kant and evolutionary psychology, you can feel like Boswell invigorated by the company of Dr. Johnson.

Dutton, 56, grew up in Los Angeles, got his Ph.D. from the University of California at Santa Barbara, spent time in India with the Peace Corps (he still twangs away at his sitar on occasion) and eventually accepted an appointment to the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, New Zealand. A gleeful contrarian, he edits the academic journal Philosophy and Literature, and in 1996 founded the Bad Writing Award. A thinker who prefers to measure his thoughts against what actually exists, he once took time out to live with the wood carvers of the Sepik River region of New Guinea to learn what art, craft and beauty mean to them.

Arts & Letters Daily has been one of the Web’s surprise hits, a text-heavy site that consists of little but one long scrolling page — technologically, it’s about as un-cutting-edge as can be. On it are found no animations or applets, just links to articles and essays published elsewhere, with teaser paragraphs describing the highlighted articles. The site caught on quickly as a kind of unofficial “best of the Web.” (Full disclosure: A few of my Salon pieces have been highlighted by ALD.) For readers interested in ideas and the arts, the site, which was purchased by the journal Lingua Franca in November 1999, is like a daily digest assembled by brainy, freewheeling grad students.

Now Dutton — the scholar as Internet impresario — has struck again, founding the online publishing house Cybereditions, dedicated to making available worthwhile scholarly books that had fallen out of print. Cybereditions offers them up as e-books, HTML downloads and print-on-demand paperbacks. I caught up with Dutton by phone, as he took a break between a meeting of the American Society for Aesthetics and an e-book conference in New York. As always, the conversation hit the ground running.

Denis Dutton sunset

Ray Sawhill: You just attended a conference of estheticians. How is the concept of beauty doing these days?

Denis Dutton: I think the idea of the social construction of beauty — this idea that beauty is simply whatever culture or society says it is — is on the run. Of course, beauty does arise in a cultural context. No one ever denies that. But there’s also a natural response people have to it.

RS: But wouldn’t it be fair to say that an enjoyment of haute cuisine and Bach generally comes only with an education?

DD: Sure. It’s clear on the one hand that an education enriches and informs a response to beauty, even makes it possible in esoteric cases. On the other hand, there’s no question that someone with no musical education whatsoever might wander into a concert hall and be overwhelmed by the Beethoven Pastoral Symphony. Any theory of esthetics that ignores these two sides of the appreciation of beauty is missing something important. I feel that as a young person in the Peace Corps I was too impressed by cultural differences and didn’t look closely enough at similarities. Evolutionary psychology is a terrific corrective to the idea that we’re all purely products of culture.

RS: When did you start Arts & Letters Daily?

DD: I designed it in July of 1998. It first went live on Sept. 28 of that year. The design of the page is based on an 18th century broadsheet.

RS: Why?

DD: The 18th century broadsheet tries to pack the maximum content on the minimum amount of paper. So I took that classically simple idea and turned it into a Web page.

RS: I imagined it had something to do with your enjoyment of clashing points of view.

DD: I do like the idea that there’s a range of views on the page, and all sorts of competing voices.

RS: How quickly did people discover the page?

DD: It took off very fast. These days, we’re often above 20,000 visitors per day. As with most Internet sites, weekends have smaller numbers, and Friday isn’t as big as Monday.

RS: What do you know about your readers?

DD: They’re the kinds of people who subscribe to the New York Review of Books, who read Salon and Slate and the New Republic — people interested in ideas. One of the things that pleases me about the Internet is that people have for a long time idealized the ’50s and 1960s as some kind of golden age of journalism. With three networks and every city having a monopoly morning daily — as if that were a golden age! For diverse points of view and open, robust criticism, things have never been better than they are today.

RS: What has been the most controversial piece you’ve linked to?

DD: A couple of times when we had some pieces that were excellent, sober, scholarly articles from the magazine Christianity Today, these seemed to get up some readers’ noses. People who wouldn’t think twice about something out of Commentary were objecting that we were publishing out of Christianity Today. They seemed to think we were somehow forcing religion down people’s throats.

RS: What have you learned from your readers?

DD: One thing that surprises me is that people are not necessarily looking for short pieces. Many of our most popular items have actually been quite long. This challenges the idea that everything on the Internet ought to be short and sharp. People are also looking for longer, meditative pieces that provide an occasion for thinking.

RS: There is an audience out there for high-end material. You don’t hear much about them.

DD: It’s all supposed to be shallow glitz.

RS: In the media biz it’s taken for granted that magazines have to work a niche market. Yet if your site has a theme, it’s variety.

DD: We’re very conscious of that. The site is intended to expand the reader’s sphere of interest. It’s a grave mistake in publishing, whether you’re talking about Internet or print publication, to try to play to a limited repertoire of established reader interests. A few years ago Bill Gates was boasting that we’ll soon have sensors which will turn on the music that we like or show on the walls the paintings we like when we walk into a room. How boring! The hell with our preexisting likes; let’s expand ourselves intellectually.

RS: I know people who love your site but scratch their chins, because they can’t figure out your point of view. They want to know your agenda.

DD: [laughs heartily] I heard recently about a British Marxist who finds that the site enrages him. But he can’t help but look at it every day. We’re reacting against cant and clichés wherever we find them. Whatever’s prevalent in the universities and among the chattering classes is sometimes something that needs exploding. And we’re willing to throw the dynamite. On the other hand, there are certainly many items on Arts & Letters Daily that present a fairly standard line that educated people take on many issues. A vegetarian gun-control advocate who opposes capital punishment is fine. But what pricks my interest more is the vegetarian anti-capital punishment cowboy who carries three shotguns displayed in the back window of the cab of his truck.

RS: Let’s talk about Cybereditions. Book publishing is such a nutty field. Why would a professor of philosophy want to get involved?

DD: My parents were in the book business, my brothers still run the Dutton bookstores in Los Angeles and I’ve been interested in editing books and journals all of my life.

RS: When did Cybereditions go up?

DD: It’s been selling books off its site since the middle of this year. We have about 30 titles in process right now, and we’re hoping to raise that number to over 100 in a couple of months. Books have been going out of print at the rate of 30-40,000 a year for the last 40 years. So Cybereditions takes high-quality, out-of-print books that the authors have the rights to and does a new edition where possible. Some of our books are unchanged from the original edition, but most are in some way updated.

RS: What are your bestsellers?

DD: Frederick Crews’ book “Skeptical Engagements” has been selling, Norman Holland’s book “Poems in Persons” has been selling. And Mark Turner’s “Death Is the Mother of Beauty” has been popular. We recently acquired Ihad Hassan’s “The Postmodern Turn,” and Brian Boyd’s first book on Nabokov’s “Ada.”

RS: As successful computer people are beginning to kick back a little, are they becoming more interested in the cultural applications of the technology and the money?

DD: A couple of years ago it was impossible to interest people in the computer world in anything that used the dreaded word “content.” If it wasn’t a switch that made something go faster or some kind of whizbang program, they weren’t interested. Cybereditions is an application of computer technologies to a very traditional business. Book publishing is and always was, as Jason Epstein has said, a cottage industry. It’s a matter of authors working with editors to produce books that are useful to readers. There’s no way to mass-produce good editorial work. And good books are no more going out of fashion than good stories or good food. We have found backing in Silicon Valley, though it’s very modest.

RS: Authors tell me that, now that publishing houses are aware of electronic publishing, they won’t let rights revert to authors anymore. The publishers are refusing to admit that books have gone out of print.

DD: That’s exactly right. This is going to enrich a lot of lawyers. Ask the publishers for the rights, and they’ll dawdle and claim a book is simply out of stock. At the same time, there are thousands of authors who, before all this, when they were told their books were out of print, simply took the rights back. So there’s a huge field that Cybereditions can work with even if the current publishing scene is not entirely friendly to a new entrant.

RS: What rate do you pay?

DD: We pay up to 40 percent of what we net, and with electronic downloads that can be done.

RS: Does Cybereditions have a physical location somewhere?

DD: The server’s in Santa Clara, Calif. The company doing the editing is in Christchurch, New Zealand. The technical people are there too. We’ll be using contract editors all over the world. Our authors will certainly come from everywhere. It is a New Zealand corporation, but with international investment. And the print-on-demand books will be done, mostly, in the U.S.

RS: How do you react to the new Gemstar e-book readers?

DD: The quality of the devices is excellent. But Gemstar is intent on controlling and licensing what the devices can actually be used for. Rather than using an open format, which allows you to use any file of your own, you can only read what you download either through their site, or what is licensed by them.

RS: A lot of commercial publishers are high on Gemstar’s approach.

DD: If this is the future of electronic publishing, I think you can count most readers out. Who would have bought a television set in 1955 if it turned out that the television-set manufacturer controlled what programs you could watch?

RS: What kinds of opportunities does electronic publishing offer someone interested in scholarly publishing?

DD: For one thing, it changes the concept of the book. Normally a book comes out in a final finished edition. Perhaps years later a second edition follows. But an electronic book can be continually revised, more like a computer program than a printed book. You can have an initial edition, then make some corrections — that’s edition 1.01. Some more and you have edition 1.02. Right up to a really new edition, and that’s version 2.0.

RS: Everything becomes software.

DD: We can continually update. Another thing: Traditionally, the book is published and sits out there alone and undefended while the critics pick it apart. With e-publishing, a scholar who’s worked for years on a book can now come out with a revised edition answering critics. We think that the idea that writers can now answer their critics is very important. That’s why we’ve registered the domain name booksthatbiteback.com.

RS: So much of what gets said about electronic publishing is about how the floodgates will finally be opened and the native genius of the people will finally be released.

DD: I sing the praises of the many contrary points of view that are available on the Web. The downside is that much of the material that’s available on the Web is unedited and self-indulgent. More than ever, the Web demands good editors who can knock writing into line and make it serve readers rather than the egos of writers.

RS: Internet utopians tend to use the term “gatekeeper” as a synonym for “devil.” As a publisher, what’s your view of the role of gatekeepers in the Internet world?

DD: The old libertarian paranoia about gatekeepers is passé. Gatekeeping is impossible on the Internet anyway. What we do need, as much today as ever in the past, are intelligent editors and publishers who can be relied on to select the best material.

RS: We need guidance.

DD: And guidance of that sort isn’t manipulation. It’s entirely rational, and an economic use of time.

RS: In a way that’s what the canon is — guidance.

DD: The classical canon is a great way to begin an open-ended reading list. It was never intended as a straitjacket, nor should it be.

RS: You’re an egghead who has created an intriguing business. What have you learned about the business world?

DD: Many of the people I’ve encountered, particularly in the computer industry in California, are some of the smartest and most imaginative people I’ve ever met. And one has to laugh a bit sadly at academics who look down their noses at people who happen to have done well in the computer industry.

RS: I’ve always been amazed by the way some academics seem to think that they’re smarter than everyone else.

DD: I once read that people with Ph.D.s in fact have slightly lower IQs than people with M.A.s. Apparently, a lot of really smart people feel, once they’ve got the M.A., enough of this, I’m out of here. And some people who go on to get the Ph.D. have a kind of stupid doggedness. As a Ph.D. myself, I suppose I might admit it takes one to know one! Even so, you also find some of the best minds in the world in academia.

RS: Are there assumptions academics make about businesspeople you’d like to shake them out of?

DD: The usual leftoid malarkey — that the business people are only interested in profit, really, while we academics worry about the good of the world, and whether our four-month vacations might be reduced to three and a half.

RS: I left academia in the late ’70s. Bring me up to date.

DD: There’s a very serious divide that’s developed in the academic community. The science departments have remained strong. And those departments such as psychology or economics that have tried to give an empirical base to their research and teachings have remained lively and productive.

The sad story is over in the English department. English as a discipline has been reduced to a laughingstock by its adoption of cultural studies as its central focus. In a sense you can see how it happened. The students don’t want to read long, hard, old books. And many faculty members find it unrewarding to teach classic literature to recalcitrant students. But to rescue the situation by turning to politicized readings of comic books, soap operas and the media has been a big mistake. Of course, there are still holdouts for real quality — Bard College is a notable example. But increasingly they’re an embattled minority.

RS: The radicalism of the cult-studies approach seems to go hand in hand with a complete caving-in to commercialism.

DD: Yes. There’s an odd way in the which the left, by trying to remain avant-garde, has gleefully adopted commercialism as the only reality — playing perfectly into the hands of the philistine right. Realistically, we have to understand that there’s always a considerable percentage of students who are not given to independent thought, and who rather enjoy being told how to talk about their favorite soap operas in deconstuctionist jargon. In any society there are people who are easily led.

RS: I’ve run into a syndrome among some younger people recently. At about the age of 30, they start to realize they were brainwashed instead of given an education. And only then do they start to wake up from it.

DD: So long as you have contrarian sources of news and information, hope is not lost for intellectual independence. And we’d love Arts & Letters Daily to be the meeting place for critical thinkers from all over the map.

RS: A novelist who has also taught at colleges told me that the people who are really interested in reading and writing are leaving English departments and going into creative-writing departments instead.

DD: So the abiding classical interest in great prose and how it gets made will persist. It will just be reborn in another department.

RS: You aren’t a pundit bemoaning the end of culture!

DD: All of these interests can go only temporarily into eclipse, because they’re permanent human concerns. I’m a democratic optimist — I live in the belief that the more information people have, the more they can be trusted to make the right choices.

  • Arts & Letters Daily.
  • I’m sad to report that Denis died near the end of 2010. Here’s the obit of Denis that the New York Times ran.
  • At Denis Dutton’s personal website you’ll find a rich selection of essays and links.
  • In 2008, Dutton pulled his thoughts about art, culture, and Darwinism together in “The Art Instinct.” Buy a copy of this influential and thought-provoking book.

©2000 by Ray Sawhill. First appeared in Salon magazine.

David Carson

david carson head shot

By Peter Plagens and Ray Sawhill

Now read this — or try to, anyway: words in oddly mixed capitals and lowercase with some letters blurred, overlaid on photographs or crammed into little tilting boxes. That’s just a magazine page, which at least stands still. Try TV: the same, except everything moves — in and out, up and down, over and under — to the sound of giant gears grinding and a voice-over hustling Hardee’s burgers or Glendale Federal’s friendlier checking accounts. (Hitting the MUTE button doesn’t stop the sell; the type keeps on coming.) You start to feel like a top gun with a MiG in his sights, doing a barrel roll at 900 mph.

If you can read any of it, you’re probably under 50. If you really like it, you’re most likely under 30 and recently weaned from your skateboard. And if you dig it enough to stand in line and pay $10 to hear the designer of all this give a lecture, you might be a starry-eyed student at New York’s Cooper Union or Michigan’s Cranbrook Academy of Art, and David Carson has been your graphics hero since you subscribed to the magazine Ray Gun. Like, you’re probably carrying a just-bought copy of Carson’s and Lewis Blackwell’s new book (with a foreword by Carson client David Byrne) “The End of Print: The Graphic Design of David Carson” (Chronicle).

Carson, a 40-year-old former professional surfer, stumbled into graphic design when he was 24 and teaching high school on the West Coast. He came across an advertisement for a two-week design course for high-school seniors and decided to catch that wave. Then his grandmother staked him to commercial art school in Oregon. He stayed all of six months. Carson pestered art directors at surfer magazines until one finally let him intern for free until somebody else was fired. Carson temporarily left Del Mar, Calif., to do short stints at Self and Musician. But he first hit his stride at Transworld Skateboarding. “They had 200 pages every month, in full color, and no budget restrictions,” Carson recalls. “I had an audience that wanted something experimental.”

Equipped with a conveniently inadequate design education (“There’s a conformity that comes out of some of the schools,” Carson says), he changed the public face of graphic design. The pre-Carson problem, as one designer puts it, was that “the modernist grid subverts the personality of the designer to the primacy of the corporate.” Carson shattered the nice, clean, readable grid, scattered headlines and text across overlapping photos, and raised illegibility to an art form. (Carson says that “overall people are reading less,” and he’s merely trying to “visually entice them to read.”) At Transworld Skateboarding and then Surfer, he worked improvisationally. “His work reflects his work habits — disarray,” says Joni Casimiro, his successor at Surfer, with admiration. Once, he accidentally cut his finger on an X-acto knife. He decided he liked the drops of blood that fell on the layout, and left them in the final design.

Transworld Skateboarding wasn’t the most mainstream publication, and neither were the two magazines Carson completely designed himself — Beach Culture and Ray Gun. But they appeared when such companies as Nike and Levi Strauss were looking for ways to make their ads appeal to the generation who squirrel into 7-Elevens on skateboards and say, “Make that two Big Gulps, dude.” They hired Carson and it worked, and on more than just the plaid-shirt crowd. Carson now counts MCI, Ray-Ban and Jaguar among his clients. He’s gone bicoastal, opening a New York office and taking an East Village apartment. LiFe IS gOOD.

In the hypercompetitive design world, however, Carson has his detractors. One is Rudy VanderLans, co-owner of Sacramento’s Emigre Graphics, the Home Depot of the postmodern graphics business, and the source of many of Carson’s favorite fonts. “He’s been the Billy Idol of graphic design,” VanderLans says. “A lot of suburban kids who were afraid of the Sex Pistols could suddenly like him … He’s a ferocious promoter and he has a gigantic ego.”

Which is exactly why Ray Gun publisher Marvin Scott Jarrett fired Carson last fall. Andrew Blauvelt, who chairs the graphic-design department at Cranbrook (the Harvard Law of the field), says, “I don’t find his ads interesting at all. The ads are kind of crude. They just have the hip factor.” There are even grumblings from young designers and illustrators who feel that Carson has taken all the credit for what is essentially a collaboration with them. Carson says, “I’ve never said I’m the one who’s done the whole thing.” And in his most recent talks, he scrupulously mentions other contributors.

But cannibalism — or at least collage-ism — is in the nature of graphic designers. They take this typeface, that photograph, this copy, that illustration, and cobble together a screen, a page, an article, a magazine or a book. They’d rather quibble about who deserves credit for changing recent design history. “If you look back at the dadaists and the futurists in the 1910s,” says ARTnews design director David Walters, “they were doing things that were more unreadable.”

The first postmodernist grid-loosenings occurred in Europe a few decades ago. Americans such as Los Angeles designer April Greiman went over in the ’70s and brought back a Euro-American hybrid (lots of diagonals, lowercase type and color bars poking into the page). Typographic designers like VanderLans and Barry Deck chipped in new fonts (Deck’s oscilliscopish Template Gothic is the hit of the ’90s). But what shook tradition most was the advent, in the mid-’80s, of the Macintosh computer, whose infinitely malleable screen began to replace the pencil and T-square for most designers.

“I’d call Carson a popularizer,” says designer and historian Steven Heller. Carson concurs — with an edge: “I’m experimenting in public. At the design grad schools, these are people sitting around in groups, putting their work on a wall, analyzing it and putting it back in a drawer. I think there’s little risk in that.” Carson himself may be tiring of playing typographic bumper cars. Speak, a new Carson-designed quarterly concerned with “design, culture and a smattering of rock and roll,” debuts in April. “You’re going to see things getting cleaner now,” says Carson. Which is just what you’d expect from someone who’s jumped from a skateboard to a Jaguar.

Peter Plagens, an artist who was also Newsweek’s art critic, wrote this piece; I came up with the idea and did the reporting. I’m including the piece on this website with Peter’s kind permission.

©1996 by Newsweek Inc. Reproduced by permission.

“Voyeur”

voyeur

Loose Talk

By Polly Frost and Ray Sawhill

Ray Sawhill: “Voyeur” is a video game with sex-thriller and “Dynasty”-like narrative elements. It’s played on your TV, meant to be enjoyed by grown-ups, and to turn them on.

Polly Frost: Computers, multimedia, pornography … Why do I have to share your enthusiasms?

RS: I don’t care if you share them. I only want to know how you react to them.

PF: I really went for Masa, the Japanese eco-terrorist. He’s one Pacific-Rim hunk! You seemed to like the scene where that major cocktease Chloe, in skimpy undies, interrupts Masa’s martial arts work-out and gets him to rub her shoulders. You interacted your way every single time to her cute little blonde-girl butt.

RS: Only because it reminded me of yours.

PF: Hah. And you liked the line Chloe says to her cousin’s uptight wife Lara, “The bra has to go.” Would you like to say that to your woman?

RS: Actually, I liked hearing a woman say it to a woman.

PF: How passive of you. “Voyeur” is about as effective a marital aid as getting a flat when you’re on vacation, and one of you has to read the instructions while the other one changes the tire.

RS: An erotic suspense story should have an I’m-on-a-waterslide excitement. In a movie it can be arousing that you can’t re-run a favorite scene — narrative does have its purposes. I never experienced linearity as the horrible thing some theorists make it out to be. Did you?

PF: I grew up on the LA freeways. I wouldn’t know what linearity is.

RS: Now that digital media give us the ability to bring up our favorite movie and video bits instantly, and run them past over and over, I wonder what new frustrations and yearnings we’ll discover. How did the partial point-of-view work for you?

PF: It was like a Christmas advent calendar. You’re in an apartment, looking through a video camera. Across the way is the mansion of a powerful, sinister family. You’re peering into their windows, at pieces of a story. Some are video segments with actual actors, some are audio clips, some are clues you zoom in and pick out. You have a limited amount of time to solve the mystery. Then you warn the character in danger, or you contact the police. When I heard the words “interactive multimedia” I was afraid I was going to have to do a lot more than that.

RS: “Voyeur” is halfway between a movie and a video game, and it isn’t a satisfying mesh.

PF: If you play a typical video game, you enter into it as a character, like Sonic the Hedgehog. He’s your id set free. “Voyeur” would be more fun if you could be Reed, who wants to be President and tries to bury his dirty secrets, or Chantal, the dominatrix who really runs his empire.

RS: It seems to have been made by entrepreneurs rather than entertainers.

PF: It didn’t lead to great sex; it led to weird dreams when we conked out instead.

RS: And different kinds of dreams than the ones movies stir up.

PF: Death or sex should be the catharsis of interaction. In “Voyeur” I never even got to see anyone killed. It might work if my prurient interests were being more expertly catered to.

RS: Inept game-players like us need more payoffs along the way. Maybe what’s supposed to be adult about “Voyeur” is the endlessly postponed pleasure.

PF: Interactive multimedia makes me feel like I’m in one of those restaurants where they tell you to create your own omelet. I say, show me what your chef can do. Then let me bitch about it. I don’t want to be the one who decides whether Anna Karenina jumps in front of that train! Is it the technology itself that turns you on?

RS: It’s like watching the birth of a new medium. Imagine being in on the first days of movies, when people were trying things out that had never been seen before.

PF: Film seems far richer than multimedia.

RS: I think that’s because only a few people have begun learning how to do more with multimedia than show off the technology. Lousy as “Voyeur” is, look at how complicated even it gets. When we cut in close to gather evidence we sometimes wind up looking at someone’s computer — we’re watching our TV, which is portraying an image seen through a video camera that shows us a message on a computer screen. For 25 years, worlds-within-worlds self-referentiality was an aspect of art that baby boomers were obsessed by. Who knows why? But for better or worse multimedia is the recently-hatched culmination of that obsession. And people are still mostly just fumbling around with it.

PF: It gave me a headache.

RS: Humanizing the computer world and learning how to interact with it are two of the great intellectual/aesthetic challenges of our day. Can I make some other fast points?

PF: Only if you number them. I love it when you make lists.

RS: 1) When you’re using it with interactive programs, your TV becomes a different device than the one that’s discussed by critics of TV like Neil Postman. It’s no idiot box. Imagine: all that theorizing disproved, just like that. 2) Videocam style is entirely different from the classic visual language of the movies, and may be obliterating it. 3) The home entertainment center — the stereo/TV/computer rig — is today’s cathedral, museum and theater. 3a) Don’t do that.

PF: Don’t do what?

RS: Don’t scratch your back yourself. Think interactive, baby. Tell me how you want it scratched.

PF: Down up down right there yes not there do it right aaaahhhh. This is exactly why I find “Voyeur” boring — if I’m going to boss someone around I want to do it in person.

©1992 by Polly Frost and Ray Sawhill. First appeared in The Modern Review.