Hazlitt Magazine

Watch Me Bathe

How can something as trivial as one’s hygiene rituals have such an impact on how happy or successful others perceive you to be?

Perfect Information Game

Chess devoured my life, until I was sweating in a suit at the Bangkok Chess Tournament feeling myself slip into the void. 

'When We Change Our Bodies, Do We Really Change?': An Interview with Mona Awad

The author of 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl on self image, how music and dance inform her writing, and emotional honesty. 

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‘There’s Either a Gun or a Wedding’: An Interview with Whit Stillman

The director of Love & Friendship on Jane Austen, his failed career as a writer, and true crime television.

“My daughter has proved to be cunning and manipulative—I couldn’t be more proud.” This loving adulation is spoken by Lady Susan (Kate Beckinsale) near the end of Whit Stillman’s fifth film, Love & Friendship, which chronicles the conniving successes of a widowed woman set on finding the perfect match for herself and her daughter. An adaptation of one of Jane Austen’s lesser known works, the novella Lady Susan, here Stillman has found his ideal match in the 18th century novelist: both revel in the gentle mockery of bourgeois social norms through the comedy of manners.Since Stillman’s beloved debut, Metropolitan, he has relished stories of upper class “struggles:” in the 1990  film, a group of debutantes find their hermetically sealed society disrupted by a new arrival; in Barcelona (1994), an uptight Midwest boy’s ways are disrupted by his free-loving cousin. It was The Last Days of Disco (1998) that cemented his comic, mannered approach to storytelling, as two editors in New York (played by Beckinsale and Chloe Sevigny) chase love in the club. After a 13-year hiatus, Stillman returned to his formalist form with Damsels in Distress (2013), in which a group of women try to rescue their fellow female college classmates from the tyranny of boorish bro culture (the film is loosely based on Stillman’s own time at Harvard).While Love & Friendship is set in another era, it mirrors the themes of his other films: rules, politesse and a certain gentleness that abhors vulgarity.Kiva Reardon: What was the first Jane Austen novel you read?Whit Stillman: It was Northanger Abbey. I was in this funk in the middle of my sophomore year after having been dumped cruelly by a woman who had led me on; I was disheartened and distressed. I was moping in my room and I found Northanger Abbey—and I hated it. I don’t know how I got to the end and I told everyone how bad she was, how overrated. Then four or five years later, though my sister’s pressing, I read Sense and Sensibility, and liked it. And then I read Pride and Prejudice and then read the rest and loved them. After Last Days of Disco I was in Paris, and I saw Northanger Abbey in a very good English language bookstore and I thought: “I should try this again.” I liked it. When I first read it, I didn’t know what a Gothic Novel was, so I didn’t know what a parody of a Gothic Novel was. In the edition [I had bought] they had published Lady Susan. When I read that I thought: “A-ha, this is like Jane Austen doing Oscar Wilde.”I’ve read elsewhere that your favourite Jane Austen is Mansfield Park, but Patricia Rozema beat you to adapting that.Yes, that was a problem. I wouldn’t say it was my favourite, though. The three that most resonate to me are Persuasion, Mansfield Park and Pride and Prejudice.You’ve also said that Fitzgerald, Austen and Salinger are the three novelists that influence your films the most. How do those author’s themes or works manifest in your work?They loved each other—Salinger loved Fitzgerald and Austen, and Fitzgerald loved Austen. There’s a chain of people liking their predecessors. It’s hard to say though. Metropolitan is pretty expressly Fitzgerald-esque. Last Days of Disco they have debates about Salinger—And also Lady and the Tramp.Yes. Walt Disney is one of our most important creators. Disney films are so widely seen. You can open up an intellectual debate about Disney films and people know what you’re talking about. And I discovered in Love & Friendship you can also talk about the Bible—the “20 commandments” and things like that.You’ve also written a book—not a novelization—of Love & Friendship. Why?Career suicide. Should you be writing The Cosmopolitan episodes that Amazon wants? Or should you be writing your weird novel based on your film based on Jane Austen’s novella?But you had originally wanted to be an author. Though you have said you felt it was too individualistic.I thought it was too rigorous, lonely and hard. Too isolating to just be a novelist. Also, I was having such trouble with the short stories I was writing. I’d have to create this fictional character to narrate it; I could only write first person. It was a little depressing. I was living in the East Side of Manhattan [in the 1970s] in this funky apartment, and walking to [work] at Doubleday there was a skyscraper being built. I walked by it every day and one storey after another was going up—and it was getting taller and taller. I had a short story I was trying to finish. They did, like, 20 storeys of the building before I could finish my short story. It was so depressing. They have 20 storeys and I just have one. The biggest amount of money I made in those years was a kill fee from Harper’s for a short story they commissioned then killed.Jane Austen is one of the most widely adapted novelists. How did you approach your adaptation?I was really attracted to the great humour and charm of the matter in Lady Susan. I subscribe to the ideology of the famous writing program at University of Southern California. Alexander Payne quotes his teacher there—because he had the benefit of going to film school, I didn’t—as asking his class: “What do you owe the original work?” They had to shout back: “Nothing!” It’s something that really perplexes me when I hear film reviewers say their editors insist they read the novel before seeing the film it was adapted from. That “good research” and “reporting as journalists” constitutes reading the book first. I feel that’s the worst thing you can possibly do. It’s totally unnatural. If you must compare the book to the movie, read the book after. Let the person make their movie. Some of the adaptations I like best are of books I don’t like. I’m not a huge Edith Wharton fan, but I loved [Martin Scorsese’s] Age of Innocence. I can’t stand The World According to Garp as a novel but I like the movie.Or The Godfather. I mean, if you’ve tried to read Mario Puzo…I’d like to read Gone with the Wind. I think that might stand up a bit better. Fitzgerald worked on the screenplay and liked the novel. His adaptation was taking [Margaret Mitchell’s] dialogue and putting it into the script. If people want to get a flavour of Fitzgerald in Hollywood, the only work that apparently shows traces of him is a film called Three Comrades. It’s about romantic young people in Germany in the 1930s. It’s very good.I want to talk marriage plots. Austen’s novels very much focused on this, largely because they were about women, and at that time marriage was their only option. And yet even now when women have so many more options, the convention continues to resonate. Why?Movies are divided into two groups: there’s either a gun or a wedding. It’s either violence or romance. My next film I’ll bring them together! No. But you know, maybe this is what makes those true crime documentaries on TV so compelling. They bring violence and romance together. Have you seen Snapped?No.Snapped is the best. It’s generally women murdering their husbands or boyfriends. It’s really good. It gets romance and violence together. But, anyway, in Jane Austen’s time, yes, it was a marriage, in my other films it’s about a tentative romantic conclusion.This is a “costume” drama—This is a real period piece, there are so many institutions created to cater to your needs—so many costume houses, or people who can design the clothing.But there’s a Douglas Sirkian melodrama element to it as well, where Susan’s clothing reflects her character’s arc. She starts in all black, then in London she’s in vampy red silk.Our costume designer, Eimer Ni Mhaoldomhnaigh, was great about that. We thought a lot about Susan’s mourning—her being all in black and veiled. Eimer had a very good chart about how to get her away from mourning—purple, red. Then Chloe would have these very bright, colourful dresses.Why the title change?That was very important to me. There’s a weird obsession among some Jane Austen people about that. I mean, they can’t imagine that I don’t know that this is what she originally titled her manuscript and misspelled “friendship.” But right away I hated “Lady Susan”—it wasn’t commercial. It turned guys off the material. Also, I have a Spanish distributor friend and he was excoriating English and American films that have English person titles; how uncommercial it is in foreign countries, what problems it causes. I’m a responsible filmmaker, so I changed the title. And, you know, Susan was the title for Northanger Abbey.This is an aside, but my middle name is “Jane” after Jane Austen.So your mother loves Jane Austen?Yes.Do you like Jane Austen less than your mother?I have a different relationship to her work, because it came to me through her. When I read the books I think about her passion for them as much as I think about Jane Austen.This is a great idea—I’ll make my novel a Mother’s Day promotion.
Watch Me Bathe

How can something as trivial as one’s hygiene rituals have such an impact on how happy or successful others perceive you to be?

Water offers a screen in its still reflection, a vessel to consume the trees and the rocks and the birds and the black mold that grows around us on the bathroom tiles. Humans are transfixed by water’s stillness, and by its turbulence, as a sublime solace. We find comfort in the rare liquid as a stabilizer: as our bodies enter it, we are fetal, we are washed, we are fine. Yet, fear is enacted by the waves of a hurricane, outlines of lemon sharks swimming behind them.Sitting with one’s body submerged, chin at water level, is a waiting game. The swimmers in the slow lane use it as a means to escape death; algae microbes use it as a way to eat and stay alive. I use it in the same way I use Saturday morning sleep-ins, Snapchat procrastination, or alcohol: as a way to enter that liminal grey space where I can live in the present and quiet the exasperating voice in my head.*A knock.“He’s calling from his dad’s house.”I am sitting in the bathtub I was raised in, my face a small island. Mulder and Scully discuss a sewer monster from their perch on the toilet seat. I have spent many pruned hours here.“Are you okay?” she asks.“Yes.” My automatic answer.“Did you hear me? He’s calling you from his dad’s home phone. It says—”“Don’t answer it.”I have filled this tub with tears.*Water flows freely in many of Canada’s homes, the soft plunking from the tap by now an ambient sound. As a result, we bathe a lot. Daily. Punctuated by more specific instinctual instances, brought forth by feelings of tightness, dryness, or tinglings.What is our obsession with cleanliness? What does bathing offer us? We feel clean, fresh, unsweaty. We smell less offensive, which impresses our bosses and lovers, and we look like we have money. Historically, good everyday hygiene has been associated with the prevention of disease, a fact now markedly rejected by health scientists, who say overuse of anti-bacterial products is giving birth to superbacteria and over-cleaning wreaks havoc on our microbiota. Much to the chagrin of major beauty and hygiene product conglomerates, our bodies are excellent at self-cleaning.In centuries past, bathing was considered an indulgence, as heated water and soap were difficult to come by. During the time of the Black Death, dirt was worn as a badge, a protective layer against the outside pestilence.*Red wine, and watching two rock climbers fuck, harnessed, on the side of a cliff. This is the porn that she has found to show me this time, a habitual game we play to find the world’s strangest.“I would totally do this,” she says, laughing, swishing water around with her body and raising her glass a bit so as not to spill the scarlet liquid into the tub. She succeeds nonetheless.“Imagine they fell,” I remark, kneeled beside her on the bath mat. “Imagine they fell while he was still inside her.”*I shower so infrequently now that I have forgotten the instinct. I was once enslaved by the daily regimen of standing under running water for 10 minutes a day, a loved indicator of wellness, happiness. Most lists of depression symptoms include a mention of “poor hygiene,” an assessment I expect involves doctor’s notes that say “greasy hair and yellowed teeth.” I have both, as do millions, likely those of us for whom access to manicures and regular haircuts is an extravagance.When we fail to acknowledge our instincts, we become tense. My instincts told me that bathing less would free me. In spending less time with water and soap and elixirs and lotions, I spend less time thinking of my undesirability. Prodding myself in the mirror disgracefully occurs less often. Bad thoughts still exist, but this small power helps me feel like I’m making a difference.At the very least, in the impending water war, I will be one of the resourceful ones.Our baths feel more like the definition of a whore’s bath to me.I now partake in a twice-weekly bath-tub ritual in which I stew in my filth, and consider my time. I may be mentally ill, but I’m finally stable. This way of bathing was my my first action against my former, unhappy self, the miserable self who did what was expected of me. Bathing less was my first rebellion.How can something as trivial as How can something as trivial as one's hygiene rituals have such an impact on how happy or successful others perceive you to be?I was not always like this.Years ago, when I still showered daily, B and I rented an apartment that had water-related flaws. The pipes would often spew nothing—not a drop—at inopportune times. Our home quickly became a place of great stress, swathed in piles of dirty plates and sweaty laundry. We complained incessantly about our violated basic right as humans—the right to be beneath water. When it flowed at unpopular times late at night or in the early afternoons, spilling on the floor became our terror; one small mess would cause water to leak down through the potlights in our neighbour’s kitchen, below. My anxiety manifested mostly as a refusal to bathe until the very last moment it was required. When the problem was fixed, however, I did not return to my daily habit.I no longer felt obligated to rid myself of my “dirty” skin through maniacal upkeep.*My pussy, surrounding his mouth and nose, encourages a sort-of drowning. As I push his head down under the water, I worry for a second that he will find his death here. He is 12 years older than me. Our love has been asserted, but he has said he will never have children. Never bathe children.He once taught me the meaning of “whore’s bath.”“You’ve never heard of this? It’s when a prostitute doesn’t shower. She douses herself in perfume instead.”He comes up for breath, swinging wildly, dick in hand, coming.“Fuck you!!!!”“This is what you wanted, you asshole!” I yell.Our baths feel more like the definition of a whore’s bath to me.*My current routine relies heavily on products like facial wipes and dry shampoo. In the mornings, I wash my face and hands, pits, vagina and repeat.On non-bathing days, I hope my hair stays dry—a constant fear for the oppressed curly-haired female. I find a power in rejecting the constant blowdry upkeep, in tucking my hair up on top of my head, peach fuzz swaying around my temples.It must be said: I do not perturb people in my presence with my smell. My new stench is powdery and soft and vaguely floral, with an inevitable musky undertone. Like any great perfumer knows, the best scents begin with a base of the unpleasant.
‘When We Change Our Bodies, Do We Really Change?’: An Interview with Mona Awad

The author of 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl on self image, how music and dance inform her writing, and emotional honesty. 

Mona Awad likes sparkling rosé, too. I am always a little taken aback when people don’t like it; it’s pink AND fizzy. So, like, the drink of royalty, as far as I’m concerned. I am put at ease when she orders first and I get to turn to the waitress and say, “I’ll have what she’s having.”“I’ve been trying to drink this just as a celebration,” she says. Her novel, 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl, is finally done. “This book took six years to write.” I agree to join her, although the only thing I’m celebrating is having been able to leave work a couple of hours early to do this interview. But Mona really does have a lot to celebrate: 13 Ways is being received very warmly, and she’s already started working on her next project. We’ve settled into a little corner of the Ritz Bar, next to one of the fireplaces, the exact spot you would pick to post up for hours eating all those (hopefully free) nuts your server keeps bringing.Lauren Mitchell: You’re happy to be back in Toronto for a little visit?Mona Awad: Totally, it’s been so nice. A lot of the book was inspired by the city.I found the opening story incredibly relatable as someone who has struggled with weight my whole life. I wonder, do people now come to you and want to speak very candidly and openly about stuff like that?Yeah, and it’s actually really great and I’m glad, I really love that. I was hoping, you know, that people who struggle with this relate to it, that it rings true. That was one of the most important things for me, in writing it. You know, it’s something I’ve struggled with my whole life which is part of the reason I wanted to write it and explore how body image just affects so many aspects of our lives, like, all of our relationships. So, the book kind of allowed me to do that, and people come to me and they tell me that yeah, I can relate to that moment in the dressing room or I can relate to being a teenager and being bored in the afternoon and kind of becoming aware of your body and feeling like an outsider. I’m really thrilled.On Cavern of Secrets, the podcast I host for Hazlitt, I mentioned my struggle with weight and starting to work out again and trying to do it not for this ideal. My relationship with exercise is doing it till I’m skinny and then I stop, and it’s been my constant life circle. It was crazy to me how many people emailed me or tweeted at me. It opened up this huge dialogue which I think is so important.Yeah, absolutely, and that’s something the book does too. The transformation does not yield a fairy tale happy ending at all in this book, actually. The protagonist, Lizzie, still has to contend with all that shit. I mean, it asks the question: when we change our bodies, do we REALLY change? Or is there something else to address, something far deeper? Is it just window dressing for something else, you know, a deeper kind of identity struggle? So, she’s definitely going through that, and I think that that’s an important part of the book. It’s kind of questioning, when we go through that kind of transformation, do we leave that person behind, can we really leave that person behind or is who we were still informing who we are and the way we see the world and the way we see ourselves when we look in the mirror and the way we interact with people? You know, she’s still kind of haunted by her ghosts, her demons.I think that’s interesting, too, because I feel like the weight loss narrative is very much, change your life, change yourself. I think changing that narrative is really important. For you, growing up, you also struggled with weight issues and that’s still something you deal with now as an adult?Oh definitely. I mean, I honestly think anyone with a body who has to look in a mirror in existing culture deals with it to some extent, but I have definitely dealt with it. I’ve yo-yo-ed, I’ve gone up and down pretty drastically, so yeah, it’s definitely something that still kind of informs the way I look at myself and the way that I behave and I think that’s true for a lot of people. I think another question the book is asking as well is, how much energy does that cost? What is the cost of that? Like all of that life, being used up, thinking about that kind of stuff. I mean, some of it is productive, some of it is great, some of it feels, you know, health, physical wellbeing and you know, emotional wellbeing, and that’s great, but there’s another more negative aspect of that kind of preoccupation that I think the book is taking up.I mean, there’s a capitalistic cost to everyone feeling okay about themselves.Absolutely. Absolutely. In the book there’s a recurring narrative where my character goes into a dressing room and she’s struggling with all of these clothes. Why does she keep going back? Why does she keep going back to try on these fucking clothes when they don’t work? There is something messed up in that, that I think is a cultural problem. I think it’s a problem that perhaps culture wants us to have and that this character is very much a victim of. I don’t know to what extent, and the book asks this question, to what extent can we get outside of it? To what extent can we ever get outside of that?I don’t know. It’s so ingrained now, and I think it’s interesting, when you read back on history, and it’s like, oh well, this body shape was popular at this time and now it’s like this, and people always want to compare it, like it was ever important? You know what I mean? ‘Back when Marilyn Monroe was around, we appreciated a curvy body,’ and it’s like, it’s just different body standards that not everyone can live up to.Exactly. It’s still these really punishing aesthetics, like even now, this whole notion on America’s Next Top Model, I don’t know if you ever watch that show—Oh, buddy! I’ve watched it!The fiercely real woman? Like, give me a break! That woman is still an impossible ideal, she’s perfect! You know, I don’t understand how that’s supposed to fix stuff for us or make us feel better. It’s just punishing, ultimately.I found that even in the body positive community, even there, some people don’t want to use the word fat. They want to use “curvy” or whatever, but not everyone who is fat has that body type.It was a decision from the very beginning of the book to put that word, ‘fat,’ on the cover, and I felt very strongly about it, in part because it is so charged, it is so provocative, it can be seen as an insult. It is very hard to imagine yourself, or see yourself that way, or to be seen that way, but I wanted to put it on there to complicate it, to subvert it, to challenge it, to explore all the ways in which it can manifest in your life, regardless of body, regardless of your flesh, you know? You can see yourself that way, I think, briefly, no matter what. And so, that was really important to me, even though I think it’s a taboo word still. I really do.Oh, for sure. And I think that because it’s such a taboo word, when fat activists, or people in that movement, take the word fat and use it in a positive light, people get burned up about that. It’s so ingrained, even in the medical community. I have friends who are like, 'I feel terrible, I feel so sick,' but they won’t go to the doctor, because the first thing they’ll tell you to do is lose weight. So, there’s that ingrained bias against seeing it as something not only beautiful or acceptable, but as healthy.That’s true. We have a long way to go. We really do. I mean, I would like to think all of these, like you’re saying, all of these kinds of movements, you would think there’s been some sort of cultural adjustment causing people to look at themselves differently, in ways that are more positive, and I can’t deny that maybe that is happening on some level, but when I overhear some conversations, like when I’m sitting at a bar and I overhear women, or when I’m in the dressing room trying something on and I overhear women talking about their bodies, I don’t know how much has changed. I think that’s another reason why I wrote the book.I think as a society we have a lot of unlearning to do on that sort of thing. Even myself, as someone who consciously tries to not look at myself in a negative way, even when I’m not feeling good. But it’s hard.It is hard, it’s like, can we step outside of that culture, and you’re right, there’s a capitalist element to it, and can we step outside of that? Long enough to feel good in our own skin? Or is something going to come fuck that up, whether it’s a person talking, because they’re in it, and then you have to listen to them being in it and then you feel suddenly not good any more, or is it just going into a store and having a bad experience? There are so many ways that that little grasp on feeling good about yourself gets taken away, so quickly, just by being alive and being in the world and being around people and existing and so, I mean, I think that’s a problem, you know?I have friends who are super into fitness and very obsessed with that kind of stuff, and I've had conversations with them when I've had to be like, I can’t talk at length about this with you because it makes me feel very judged, because no matter what I do, I don’t fit the certain body ideal that some people strive for. So I think that’s another thing, any time we talk about weight, or health related to weight, or fitness or whatever, I think we have to be empathetic to the person you’re talking to, because it’s so internalized, it’s hard to empathize with people.And that’s one of the reasons I wrote the book. A lot of it was drawn from moments when I was overweight, having to hear people do exactly that. You know, where they just don’t have the sensitivity or empathy, they’re just not conscious of it, then you're subject to this, I don’t know, you’re just like, why can’t you see?? Frankly, it was just like that, it was like, why can’t you see that that’s not something I would be comfortable hearing? And that weird disconnect between people, I was really interested in that in this book and that’s definitely one of the reasons why I wrote it.It’s interesting to me that you come from this super academic world, but the book doesn’t read as overly academic. I mean, it’s clearly not a fun beach read or whatever, but they’re teenagers, it’s very much like the way you think when you’re a teenage girl, and so I wonder, is that style of writing frowned upon in academia? Were you going out on a limb when you were writing that?I think I was. With the book, the whole time, I was trying for real emotional honesty. I was trying to make it very voice heavy, really interior, I really wanted to inhabit this woman’s skin, and I wanted it to feel very visceral. Every story is in the present tense, for that reason. I wanted people to feel it. I tried to really stay inside this woman’s head and I think that might be why it reads that way. I took inspiration more from musicians that I really like, I wanted it to feel immediate.Even though I didn’t grow up in the GTA, I grew up in a very small town, outside of Waterloo, and all we ever did when we were teenagers was hang out at the fucking Tim Hortons or the McDonald’s parking lot, I mean, we were doing the same shit. I was immediately dropped into that. It felt familiar even though I’d never read it before. So often that happens to me with music, more than it happens to me with books, even books that I feel nostalgia for.I think that’s true. I guess I was trying to do that in some way because it’s about the body, you know? You want to feel close, you want it to feel really close.Do you have other creative pursuits other than writing?Dance.Oh, really? I’m obsessed with people who are good at dancing.Oh, I’m not good [laughs] but I love it, and I persist, and I think that’s important.Me too!And I think it’s good to persist at something you’re bad at, and like, still gain pleasure from it somehow.What kind of dance do you do?I did flamenco for a little while, I’ve done gothic burlesque, and I’ve done belly dancing, and I did ballet and tap and jazz as a child.That’s so sweet!I’m really into all of the dance, I love it.It’s quite joyous.It’s much more immediate then writing, you know, the release of it. In writing, it’s hard to trust yourself, it’s hard to make decisions about what’s good. I often second guess myself and I think there is something very free about dancing, there is something very brave-making about it, that I can then take to writing. I don’t know if that makes sense.Writing is the opposite of being physical.Yeah, you’ve got to sit there, and you get shoulder tendonitis and all sorts of weird shit. It kills your body.A lot of writers that I know, the only creative thing they do is write. I know some writers who are like, well, I’m not a very creative person, I’m just a writer, and that is an insane thing to me, to say.No, I know it’s true. And I love music too, I love it. I don’t think I could ever write a song, I want music to stay magical. If I don’t understand the mechanics of it, then that’s probably a good thing in some way. Perhaps it would deepen my appreciation of it on some level but I like it staying a mystery. Do you play music?No, I did vocal training for years when I was a kid, so I was in a lot of choirs, but I stopped. I have a nice singing voice, but I wish I could open my mouth and some kind of Adele-type situation would be happening, but it’s not the case.That’s okay. You know, I know what you mean, there is something so immediate about the human voice, my god.Yeah, that sort of natural ability, like when people open their mouths or when they start dancing and you’re like, woah, that looks like the most natural thing in the whole world! Like, I can barely walk in a straight line [laughs].Same. I lived in Scotland for a year when I was doing my masters and it was so weird because, maybe it was a weirdly discombobulating city, but it felt like everyone was constantly doing this when they were walking [makes wavy back and forth motion with hands] and like, what is going on, now I’m not walking in a straight line either. We can’t do this, we’re never gonna survive Scotland! And yet somehow we did! [laughs]Is part of your creative process being a bit nudged?Yeah, it’s good that I have to do it, but I think doing Fat Girl, and forcing myself to finish and stay committed to it over the course of six years, taught me a lot. Now I can get up and I’m not so afraid, I used to be so afraid to face my writing, I was so afraid of it, now I’m less afraid. I think I understand that, you just have to sit there. And you’ve just gotta wait.That’s so fascinating. I find too sometimes that if I do something with my comedy or whatever, to go back to it, and to get at it head on and to analyze your own work, that’s the scariest thing.Yeah, it’s true, it’s really, really true. To face it, just to face it, is very terrifying.Sometimes it’s just like, Ugh, I’m so embarrassed for myself [laughs].[Laughs] I know! And it’s like, this book was a hard issue, it was a hard issue for me, and so confronting it and forcing myself to confront it, I can now confront my work better. I can deal with days when they’re not so good, I can trust, or I can hope that the next day will be better.Oh man. That’s goals, that’s goals for me.That’s the good thing about finishing the project. The next thing will have its challenges but I think I feel more equipped to deal with those dark periods you have no matter what. When you’re creative, it’s part of it.I think an important part of creative growth is knowing yourself in a different way than you did before you started, just because you’re digging deep, more so than if you were just analyzing your life or whatever. Because, the stuff that comes out of creative work is surprisingThat’s the best part, when you surprise yourself. That’s why you do it, right? When I did stick to writing the book those moments when I did get surprised, or when it was joyous, or I was really into a moment, those were such great gifts. But I wouldn’t have gotten those if I hadn’t gone through all those times where I was afraid.
Featuring Cheryl Strayed
The business of making your book a film (5:36), when adaptations aren’t (14:40), and why we need stories (24:45).
Schlocknado

The third wave of B-movies—straight-to-streaming films made cheaper, faster, dirtier than ever—exist to pad streaming and on-demand services’ libraries. 

What would you do if a loved one told you in a fit of terror that a stray cat literally spoke to them—opened its mouth and uttered words? Would you rush them to a hospital? If you are Susan, the oblivious mother played by Kristine DeBell in A Talking Cat?!?, a 2013 straight-to-streaming kids flick, your panic-stricken teenager’s pleas wouldn’t register because you’re busy making kissy faces at the supposedly supernatural animal. The scene runs three minutes, with all the lags and pauses of a dress rehearsal. Watching the movie, dominated by montages and mindbogglingly long establishing shots, feels as if you’re constantly being put on hold. Yet, you can’t turn away.Why? Because the laser pointer and treats for the animal actor weren’t edited out. Because the voice of Duffy the cat was literally phoned in by one-time Oscar nominee Eric Roberts in 15 minutes, presumably while still in bed. Because when the camera shakes nobody bothers with a second take. Because the family movie’s set is super porn-y and because there’s thick homoerotic tension between father and son, son and girlfriend’s brother, which makes slightly more sense once you understand that the director, Mary Crawford, is the pseudonym of former porn director David Decoteau.Between 2011 and 2014, the Canadian-American filmmaker averaged a new movie every seven weeks. Why A Talking Cat!?! emerged as the most popular in his 30-year-old, 123-movie catalogue is as puzzling as the cat’s magic powers. It’s spawned a Tumblr, a 3,000-word A.V. Club essay, and an 87-episode podcast (one for each minute of the movie) called A Talking Cast?!?. When I spoke to Decoteau in January 2015, a midwestern community theatre group wanted to make it into a musical.“I've been doing this a long time and I've directed over 103 movies,” said Decoteau, “so it's nice that everyone can see them now.” Why he stopped counting at 103 directorial credits is anyone’s guess, but the reason they’re finally getting noticed is obvious.I discovered A Talking Cat!?! on Netflix. By pressing play I’d not only watched the most mesmerizing movie of the decade, but signalled to Netflix that I wanted more of it. Dozens of Decoteau’s works emerged, many of them made in the same salacious mansion, with the same stiff actors, the same props (a reading light that scans both barcodes and erases memories), the same stock footage from Vancouver Island and California. Each movie was as artless as the next. The only difference is some are family romps with talking animals and some are homoerotic horrors with beefy shirtless men (some are both).Going down that rabbit hole unlocked a giant easter egg that is the third wave of B-movies—straight-to-streaming schlocks made cheaper, faster, dirtier than ever. They exist to pad streaming and on-demand services’ libraries in order to impress upon the viewers the appearance of plentiful new releases. Under this model, Ed Wood is no longer a novelty joke but a pioneer.*Decoteau’s first film job, at 18, was on a Roger Corman set in the 1980s. Corman, a contemporary of Wood’s, though substantially better, had already established himself as the world’s most prolific maker of creature features. Swamp Women. The Beast with a Million Eyes. These ’50s schlocks were churned out for captive audiences in drive-ins and double-features that billed themselves as value-saving. You weren’t expected to sit through them. In fact, theatre owners were hoping you’d be restlessly in need of a trip to the concession.The model for B-movies hasn’t changed much from the Great Depression era that birthed them. Sell a high-concept story on its title and poster, cast a known (but not necessarily respected) actor, commit to a tight production schedule and bargain costs. But by the time Decoteau was learning from Corman, budgets were even tighter because VHS had blown up the competition. “The more movies there are, the more competitive you need to be, meaning you have to become a little faster and a little less expensive,” said Decoteau, who always fancied himself more of a distributor who just took up filmmaking in order to have something to distribute under his company Rapid Heart Pictures.In the 12 years between Stanley Kubrick's final two films, Decoteau made 29, including some for producer Charles Band, who helped usher in the VHS revolution. Decoteau did pause to make one passion project, Leather Jacket Love Story, a queer romantic comedy that earned a poster blurb from Variety but little else. Till this day his only accolade, according to IMDB, is inclusion in the gay porn Hall of Fame.*If Decoteau and contemporaries were running on treadmills during the video and DVD era, then today—amid digital cameras, desktop editing and on-demand video—they’re sprinting in order to stay competitive. Decoteau would only schedule our interviews during his daily but brief exercise breaks, because virtually every other conscious hour of his life is spent planning, producing or pitching the next micro-budget movie. “I don't celebrate holidays,” he said, breathing heavily. “I just like to keep working.” (It was Christmas break.)“The technology now has gotten so cheap and the means of distribution so accessible to the average person, that everybody is making a film,” explained Dave Alexander, editor of horror culture magazine Rue Morgue. “They don’t even spend money on advertising. They just make them and get them out there. The business model seems to be: make it so cheaply that you can pre-sell it for a profit.”For a glimpse inside the factory, I called Andrew Helm, the screenwriter of A Talking Cat!?! and other Decoteau and B-movie pictures. If Decoteau calls him in March, then they’re shooting in April. “He says, ‘Here are the factors: it’s being shot at the mansion and one other location, six people and a cat, or whatever the pet du jour is, and maybe this one actor for a day, like an Eric Roberts,” said Helm. “You look at it as a challenge and hopefully still find some good moments that are funny or touching or heartwarming amidst the insanity of trying to do this with limited everything.”There’s a lot to respect about this blue-collar ethic, but the decline in quality at this level is impossible to ignore. “That’s what these guys have to do to make these things profitable in such a crowded marketplace,” said Alexander, who can’t even keep up with the press releases in his inbox anymore.Competing requires both resourcefulness and trickery. Studios like The Asylum constantly churn out “mockmusters” (Transmorphers anyone?) on the coattails of a major Hollywood release. Decoteau told me one strategy is making his flicks not just faster and cheaper, but campier, more outrageous and ridiculous, hoping to essentially create the ultimate viral video. Also, whether by intent or serendipity, he’s exploited Netflix’s alpha-stacked queue with numerically named titles, hence the 13-part horror series 13:13.Now, go ahead, click on 13:13: Bermuda Triangle and be simultaneously hypnotized and maddened by scene after scene of a man in tighty-whities wandering through the mansion calling out “Hello? Hello? Hell-oooo?” into a void. Then he’s struck by lightning and the next hapless victim enters. Watch. Repeat. Power-rinse the set.Do the studios even expect us to watch this? Not always. In a cheeky blog asking people to merely “queue up” their movies, not even watch them, The Asylum admitted: “This isn’t about trying to get you to watch our movie. This is about gaming the system.” By doing this and nothing more, together they can beat the algorithms that rule Netflix.*For bad-movie lovers, it’s hard to say whether it’s a golden era or a dark age. “It’s such a disposable medium now that if you don’t like it within a few minutes, you can just get rid of it,” lamented Stuart Wellington, co-host of the Flophousepodcast that honours crap cinema. “I do kind of miss the experience of going to the video store, renting videos and being trapped with your entertainment.”Whereas before a cult turd like Troll 2 and The Room—the latter often billed as “the Citizen Kane of bad movies”—seemed accidental, this new wave of schlocks and schlockmeisters are comfortable with and even proud of being ridiculed. “It’s the phenomenon now where films acknowledge that they’re bad because it’s easier than actually being good,” said Alexander. It’s the very definition of cynicism.“For a bad movie to be genuinely enjoyable, it has to have a certain level of earnestness,” said Wellington. That’s why he and fellow “floppers” have avoided the camped-up Asylum pictures like Sharknado or other knock-off studios’ shark pictures like Sky Sharks and Shark Exorcist. It should come as no surprise that Corman jump-started the shark-rush with Dinoshark and Sharktopus, nor that Decoteau’s added 90210 Shark Attack to the shark canon.A Talking Cat!?!, however, is “firmly in the good bad-movie camp,” said Wellington. And I agree. It’s so genuinely artless that it’s redeemable. Decoteau, his cast and crew are neither trying to make a good movie nor a bad one. They’re merely just trying to get this out one out the pipeline, but in doing so created a title far more memorable than some hundred-million-dollar movies.Tragically, cruelly, A Talking Cat!?! and the 13:13 series weren’t relicensed by Netflix. As these things go, the movies must come and go to keep the libraries fresh. But there are three other Decoteau flicks still available, including A Talking Pony!?!.Featured under its bland secondary title, A Pony Tale, its earnest animal star lacks the unintentional charm of Robertson’s apathetic performance (utterly perfect for a cat) but it’s unmistakably the same story-world. The eternally long, shaky establishing shots and tinny keyboard score ring with familiarity. Dialogue often feels like it’s being wrung out of actors and Kristine DeBell, the unapologetically self-involved mother, returns as the parent of a teenager coping with the panic of hearing animal voices. Only this time the girl decides not to tell her mom. It’s a marked improvement in believability and plot mechanics. Too bad. 
Little Teeth Returns Part 2 by Rory Frances and J Bearhat for Hazlitt
Little Teeth Returns Pt. 2

How are you this charming when you’re a mess?

Perfect Information Game

Chess devoured my life, until I was sweating in a suit at the Bangkok Chess Tournament feeling myself slip into the void. 

Last month, I realized I needed to give up on being a writer so I could become a full-time chess player.That will sound ridiculous if you aren't a serious chess enthusiast yourself. The writing life is often (falsely) regarded as glamorous, whereas chess is bewildering to outsiders. But chess holds intellectual riches that I believe—truly—are more captivating than life in any other form.For me, the power of chess is two-fold.First, like any sport, high-level chess play possesses its own particular elegance. Much as I wish I could explain this, I don't think it's possible to do so in anything but the sketchiest of terms. It would be like explaining cigarettes to a robot. Unlike the beauty of other sports, the elegance of chess completely evades the perception of the uninitiated. Basketball, I'm sure, has beautiful moments I wouldn't appreciate, but watching a game, I can still sense that LeBron is doing some really cool shit. Not so with chess. So you'll just have to believe me when I say that beautifully played chess feels received—plucked from the fabric of the universe, rather than created by human hands.Second—and this is, for me, the true seduction—chess is what they call a perfect information game. At every moment, you are informed of everything taking place. There's no bluffing. No guessing. No suspicion.If that notion doesn't immediately excite you, take a second to consider all the imperfect information games you play all the time. I don't mean games like poker. I mean dating, for example. Have you ever, a month into a relationship, unearthed some hidden facet of your new partner that makes you think, Holy shit, get away from me? Slowly discovering things about people is wonderful, in theory, but we often find that the mysterious reaches of the human soul contain bear traps and poison darts. Imagine if you could instantly behold the entirety of a person before you, and say, "Hi, let's go to the beer location," with perfect confidence? And they, looking back at your own infinitude, comprehending you instantly and entirely, would say, "Sure, why not?"[[{"fid":"6695101","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":"","field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":""},"type":"media","attributes":{"height":"640","width":"640","class":"media-element file-media-original"}}]]Also, here's a question: do you think your friends truly love you? All of them? Do you ever wonder what they've guiltily said about you in hushed, beery confessions late at night? Do you think that a moment of your bad mood contaminating their evening persuaded them that your basic existence is troublesome? Do you think that when you told them of one of your less rigorous opinions, it convinced them that you're much dumber than they ever would have suspected? Don't you want to know?Much of the human world presents vast swathes of ignorance briefly penetrated by tiny hopeful suspicions. Chess, on the other hand, is a perfect information game. Say it with me: perfect information game. To me, it sounds like a prayer. The only mystery is how artfully you can process the clear sober facts that are easily ascertained in one sweep of the eyes.This is why, last month, I entered the Bangkok Open Chess Tournament.*Chess devoured my life so entirely because my life, recently, was very empty. Like many white people, I was becoming bored in Asia.I moved out to Bangkok so I could become A Real Writer—so I could pursue my craft free from the stresses of my expensive life in Toronto. What I discovered, as the weeks passed, is that without the stress the craft doesn't happen. I am, after all, a dancing bear at heart. I just want to sway people. But being in Bangkok meant being on a Skytrain shoulder to shoulder with hundreds of people who couldn't read my stupid little thoughts even if they wanted to.Slowly my deadlines dwindled; in January I was writing six pieces at once, but in March I was barely writing one. I stopped pitching. There was a big empty in my head. Days crawled, somehow both large with boring white minutes, but also small as they disappeared without a trace. Barely understanding Thai, I floated in a sea of incomprehensible murmurs; occasionally I overheard one of the maybe 100 words in my vocabulary. "Oh," I thought, "someone is discussing pork." Seeing a centipede was the most remarkable event of one of my Saturdays.Then, during some reporting I did in Nepal, I met a couple of chess hustlers—strong players who make their salary on small wager games with suckers—who were glad of my rupees.I was rusty. I hadn't played a serious game since I was a teen, when chess was a major topic. I played on my hippy alternative school's chess team, called The Pawnishers. I think we did it just so we could call ourselves that. We were Toronto's best chess team that wasn't actually very good at chess. We wore black and white chess-themed warpaint to every game, except one we played against Upper Canada College, the city's snottiest private school for boys. To that game we wore fairly convincing drag. Our team captain, Jacob, absentmindedly fondled his huge prosthetic tits after sliding his bishop through his opponent’s defences. He had a little catchphrase that became the whole team's mantra: "it's mostly fine." He said it when his game was going terribly, when his opponent was approaching absolute triumph: "it's mostly fine." To this day, in my most hapless moments, when I'm helplessly watching one of my trivial enterprises fall apart, I think, "it's mostly fine."Socializing in chess isn't about smartly signaling that you've got the right opinions about recent topics. It's about examining small areas of the game's infinite tapestry—finding each other in a language that transcends the vagaries of cultural taste.Though my team's conduct at the board was sometimes dubious, my love of the game was serious. But the obsession was ended by my brother. He thought chess was a silly game. I demonstrated its importance by beating him five times straight. He began studying it devotedly and got better than me rapidly—my brother is a bit of a genius. Soon he wasn't even entertained by victimizing me with his intellect. It became hard to take chess, or myself, seriously.But, far from my home, in Nepal, with Tenjing, my opponent, that old love was coming right back. While I was destroyed in a pitiable fashion in the first few games, by our last match, some long-dormant parts of my brain were waking up. We had a good long struggle until, finally, Tenjing beat me in a striking fashion very suddenly, with a subtle tactic I had not foreseen.Later that night in my hotel room, I lay awake, thinking about the game's final position. A week later I was back in Bangkok playing chess online all night. I did almost nothing else. Wanting to share my obsession, I made my way to the city's only chess club.The club meets on the upper floor of a pub on the far end of Soi Cowboy, one of Bangkok's high-efficiency sex markets. Up and down the neon-coated avenue, the working women preen with numbers pinned to their chests. The idea is you go up to the madam and say, for example, "79." On slow nights the sales tactics are aggressive. That night, one hard-working employee took my hand and asked me where I was going. When I didn't offer a distinct answer, she took hold of my crotch. I gently removed her from my person, saying something like, "Excuse me, ma'am, I have to go to chess club."You might have a stereotyped conception of what a chess club looks like. You might imagine that club players tend towards the bespectacled, the dramatically ectomorphic, and the pimpled. There are, in fact, some pretty hot chess masters—one rising young player, Robin van Kampen, is notably sexy—but chess doesn't, I think, tend to attract the attractive. After all, chess is a sport that rewards seclusion. Top players study thousands of previously played games, taking inspiration from little scraps of tactical invention discovered by earlier players, while ruthlessly deconstructing their pitfalls. The great player has a sprawling inner library of the game's possibilities. If you're very pretty, there are more easily obtainable joys.I found the unloveliness lovely. I grew up a sexless nerd who hung out with a tight crew of fictional characters. Heaven was fries in solitude. Chess club took me back to that sweaty part of myself. I have since evolved some tentative social skills that allow me to hang out with pretty artist types, but I've long felt that my mannerisms are simply a thin scrim suspended over an essential resentful bookishness. Among these awkward friends, I felt a sense of belonging in a way I sometimes don't at house parties with charismatic people I find vaguely threatening. Socializing in chess isn't about smartly signaling that you've got the right opinions about recent topics. It's about examining small areas of the game's infinite tapestry—finding each other in a language that transcends the vagaries of cultural taste.Lydie Sarazin-Lavassor, on their honeymoon in Nice, had to put up with Duchamp leaving her every day for the local chess club.The Bangkok chess club was composed of Thais of all ages, a clutch of barely stubbled Bangladeshi adolescents, and a paunchy German expat with a very shiny forehead. My first games at the club were against a Thai guy, Jim, who was mildly intoxicated after one drink, which impelled him to brag loudly of being very drunk. He was, in other words, 18. He spoke, without apparent self-consciousness or innuendo, about wanting to "grind" in the "holes" of my pieces' position on the board. "I want that hole," he said, pointing to a gap in my pawns where his knight might nestle with his playing hand—the other was coated in sauce from the sticky ribs he ate throughout the game. He was a very quick player—beating me handily in short games—but in longer games, his excitability led to sloppy, exploitable mistakes.“You should enter the tournament,” he said, during our last game. “When you’re not playing like a dickhead, you’re not bad. You could learn something by being crushed by a grandmaster.” He was referring to the fact that the upcoming tournament, the Bangkok Open, was, as the name indicated, an open tournament, where any lonely journalist could play alongside real competition—experienced veterans or very young chess assassins practically suckled on the game’s classic offensive maneuvers. Previously, playing in the tournament had seemed like a faint fantasy, but Jim’s retainered smile was strangely convincing. Shortly after his backhanded compliment, I checkmated him with a flashy piece sacrifice—a sequence in which I allowed the capture of one of my rooks, but undid his position by dancing through the resulting chaos. “I guess you’re right,” I said, as I cornered his king, “I guess I’m not as bad as I thought. How much are the entry fees?”Mike, a stronger player, told me to call him "teacher Mike." He was one of those wiry little men who seems like he'd be handy in a hypothetical knife fight. This impression was corroborated by the knife holster he wore on his calf. He was vicious on the board; he smiled as he captured my pieces with the joy of a child advancing on a butterscotch. We played until the bar closed. "You have some potential," he said, "some of your moves are very good." He gave me an unexpectedly earnest hug, his nose landing somewhere between my pecs. I filled out the tournament forms as soon as I got home.*This chess story might sound familiar if you know the biography of Marcel Duchamp. Everybody knows about Duchamp exploding realist portraiture with The Nude Descending a Staircase then infuriating the art world by demanding reverent appreciation of a urinal. What's maybe less well known is that, at the age of 36, he quit art for chess.Well, that's not entirely true. He secretly crafted one sculpture in his dotage. But it was basically all chess. It led to a divorce. Lydie Sarazin-Lavassor, on their honeymoon in Nice, had to put up with Duchamp leaving her every day for the local chess club. Before their marriage dissolved—it lasted six months—she glued his chess set's every piece to its board. This apparently did not deter him.[[{"fid":"6695106","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":"","field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":""},"type":"media","attributes":{"height":"640","width":"640","class":"media-element file-media-original"}}]]Duchamp saw in chess what was unattainable in visual art. "I am still a victim of chess," he said, later on in life. "It has all the beauty of art—and much more. It cannot be commercialized. Chess is much purer than art in its social position."After decades of total devotion to chess and unbridled love of the game, you might suspect a man of Duchamp's intellect to become a pretty good player. But he went to his grave mediocre in pursuit of his truest passion. He never even approached top-level play. He was maybe—maybe—notable at a regional level. He gave up being one of the great shit-stirrers of the artistic tradition in order to become a mild curiosity in the history of chess.*It's not Duchamp's fault that he was never that good. He was just too late. All the great chess players got their start way before the first whisper of pubescence.Unless you started playing when you were under ten, you'll never be a top player, or even very good. Your brain is old and rigid now. Chess is a deeply unnatural skill—it requires the full command of a bunch of neurons that the adult mind has already donated to the ability to navigate a grocery store lineup without screaming.So I knew my quest to pursue a life of chess was basically doomed from the start. Also, I have a brain defect that makes chess especially difficult. Good chess play relies on visualization—picturing how the game will proceed once a few pieces are swapped around. Expert players are capable of playing blindfolded, following the game entirely through interior illustration. Top-level elite players, in an impressive example of cognitive specialization, often play multiple blindfolded games at once, painting many strategic mental pictures in parallel. But I am a sufferer of what's called aphantasia, the total lack of mental imagery. There are only words in my head; there are no pictures whatsoever. When I close my eyes and try to visualize a beach, I am trying to divide murky darkness into water and sand. My memories are film treatments. My former loves are concepts.Nevertheless, I persisted. I tried to believe in a lie of pop psychology that I know to be a lie—that hard work is more important than talent. I neglected all else. Someone very nice I met on Tinder stopped messaging me back after my own responses became distracted and unenthusiastic. This was a wise decision on her part. Chess invaded my dreams—strangely, despite my inability to visualize in waking life, my dream life is vivid. I imagined knights soaring through the sky, occasionally descending through the air to crush me.On the day of the tournament, the sky was empty of clouds. I awoke from a half-sleep feeling as human as a gum wrapper. The tournament was held in a giant ballroom at a fancy-ish hotel. I got there three hours early. I wandered around lavish mezzanines, unaccompanied except by my sweaty palms. As the players filed in, Teacher Mike greeted me in the lobby, wearing a beautifully tailored ugly paisley shirt. "I'll be watching you," he said.[[{"fid":"6695111","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":"","field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":""},"type":"media","attributes":{"height":"640","width":"640","class":"media-element file-media-original"}}]]I was slipping into the kind of full panic in which my physical co-ordinates were somewhat mysterious to my conscious mind, and time became unaccountable. Somehow, as if placed there by a fastidious tornado, I was sitting at one table among many, alongside a placard bearing my name, with a slot accommodating a small tabletop Canadian flag, upon which I wiped my forehead.My opponent was a friendly Scot named Surinder. We chatted amiably before the game began. He told me of his life. I barely listened—the noise inside my head threatened to drown him out completely. The air was hard, slippery candy in my lungs. I wore a charcoal suit in which I was cooking, lobster-like.As the games began, the room was abruptly drowned by total silence, broken only by the quiet clacks of the clocks that delimit professional play. Before me, on the board, a position was taking shape.I started to feel true dread. I felt like I was gazing into The Void.My own personal conception of existential dread is, like my inability to visualize, idiosyncratic. Many people, I think, are troubled by their own insignificance, preferring not to think about being a tiny part of a vanishing species in what couldn’t even be called a corner of the universe. Not me—I’m fine with that. Moreover, I’m not perturbed by the fact that I’ll be remembered by very few of the 108 billion people who have ever lived. Yes: I’m a standard-model dude in an endless something or other. It's mostly fine. Endlessness is easily understood, easily labeled with a three-syllable word, placed in the dictionary beside equally simple concepts like "enchilada." Infinity itself escapes experience, but the notion is a short phrase—it just doesn't stop. That's all infinity does, or rather doesn't do. It doesn't scare me.What does scare me—what provokes real horror in me—is excess reality. I see mental horror—The Void—in the tumbling numbers of securities trading, or the heaps of barely decipherable ancient papyrus dug up in the near Middle East, or the global weather patterns which have evaded, to this date, capture by any mathematical model. I am troubled by the world's great throngs of data—by thickets of facts I might comprehend individually, but that together make a chaos capable of receding before me as long as I live—the miles of definition leading nowhere.That's what I felt, staring at the board in front of me. I felt like I couldn't put my pieces anywhere, because I felt like I could put them everywhere, for all eternity. I basically blacked out.I lost the game in fifteen moves, in fifteen minutes—an astonishingly brief amount of time, considering that tournament games usually last around four hours. My incompetence surprised even myself. I played worse than I ever had. I gave Surinder two of my pieces then gave up. He seemed apologetic. I couldn't stop laughing a crazy, red-faced laugh. A tournament official threatened to eject me if I didn't quiet down. I had the adrenaline of someone flayed. I left the hotel quickly.I was scheduled to play six more games that week. I e-mailed the tournament directors, announcing my resignation.My firm belief is that it's important to discover your own tremendous lack of potential. You should know whether one of your dreams, if you reach for it, will burn your stupid hand. Given the choice of any profession whatsoever, I would choose chess genius. I have not been given that choice.
‘If You Make the Same Film Twice You’ll Make it Forever’: An Interview with Ben Wheatley

Talking with the director of High-Rise about the challenges of adapting J.G. Ballard, the benefits of setting a film in the Seventies, and how genre can give and take away.

Ben Wheatley has enjoyed a career like few other directors. He’s managed to make a film a year for more than half a decade now, and each has almost nothing in common with the last: there’s the rural hitman comedy of his debut feature Down Terrace, the occult ultraviolent thrills of Kill List, the road-trip serial-killer romance of Sightseers, the unclassifiable psychedelia of A Field in England. He swings from slapstick to kitchen-sink drama to buckets of blood and gore. The guy is unpredictable. The only thing one can reliably expect from a Ben Wheatley movie is that it will be decidedly—if elusively—Wheatleyesque.It was perhaps not so surprising when Wheatley announced he’d be adapting J.G. Ballard—a novelist every bit as shockingly madcap as he’d proven himself on film. So here arrives High-Rise, Wheatley’s antic, erratic, totally ludicrous take on Ballard’s slim ’70s masterpiece. The real surprise is that England’s most riotous director managed to snag marquee stars in leading roles: Elisabeth Moss, Jeremy Irons, Sienna Miller, Luke Evans, and Tom Hiddleston, who together lead the rowdiest ensemble of the year. High-Rise the novel isn’t an especially story-driven work—it’s a portrait of a luxury condo’s steep descent into anarchy, with few pitstops or diversions along the way. It’s therefore up to Wheatley—alongside his partner and longtime collaborator, Amy Jump, who edited the film and wrote the script—to keep things chugging along with chaotic glee.We shouldered our way through the throng of Hiddleston superfans during a press day at last September’s Toronto International Film Festival to sit down with Wheatley for a wide-ranging talk about the book and the film.*Hazlitt: It’s difficult to adapt a book whose attraction isn’t story or character so much as its prose. What was the approach?Ben Wheatley: Well, Amy adapted it on her own—she went away with it and came back with it. It’s difficult to talk for her, but in the conversations we had about it we discussed that the book itself doesn’t have much dialogue in it. There’s some reported speech, a little bit, and so it was about trying to find those stories within the book and bring them to the surface. There are so many characters in this book and so many of them could come forward and be as important as anybody else. So Amy kind of looked at that and took a modern perspective: there are women who don’t get much of a voice. Children as well. And it was about trying to breathe life into those characters.The women do have a central role in the novel, in that they emerge victorious.Yes, and here it’s obviously the same narrative: the women rise to the surface and take over. But in the book it’s much more of a surprise. It’s almost like there’s a series of trials, in which each of the versions of control get their go—you’ve got Wilder, who is like a manly man on his own, a rebel character. Then you’ve got Royal, who is at the top of the high-rise and brings class and authority; he tries to take over with a kind of abuse, and that doesn’t work either. Then you’ve got Laing, who has a pragmatic, English approach. That doesn’t really work either. It’s the women in the end who win by surprise. They have taken the most of the abuse and we wanted to see more of them. Amy was talking about coming from a writing perspective.But the other problem of adaptation is not about prose but about the literalness of film. As soon as you point the camera in a room there are no more secrets in that room. You’ve seen everything. How you ration that information is the equivalent of the prose. It’s like an upside-down world for a writer. You know, when I looked at Ballard’s Concrete Island, I thought, as a film, as soon as he gets out of the car you know everything, whereas in the book it’s only a sentence at a time that you discover the world. The reality of the prose is that the character is myopic and can’t see anything unless the writer allows him to see it. That’s absolutely the opposite of cinema.A film of Concrete Island would seem particularly literal because of that single limiting environment: you’d see it all straight away and there would be no mystery, no discovery.Yeah, well also there’s a lot of assumption, isn’t there? You assume it’s a small space, but then this building comes on, and then you assume something else, and then it transpires there’s a whole town there. It’s slowly rationed out. In a film you’d have to do some pretty fancy footwork to preserve those beats.High-Rise presents a similar a problem too: the book is free to delve into psychological spaces but the film has to remain with the physical.A lot of the humor in High-Rise is in character descriptions. You’re introduced to these characters and they’re defined by what they do and that’s funny. That’s not something that translates into film. Unless you go the route of, like, a Chandler-style first-person. But then you’ve screwed it at that point. I was trying to keep the humor of Ballard alive in it and not turn it into something austere. There’s a layer of comedy in Ballard, and it would be a mistake, I think, to make it super cold. It’s isn’t. It’s warm in many respects.I think it’s misconstrued as cold.It’s an easy read of Ballard. It’s a Wikipedia read.One of the interesting things about the comedy of High-Rise is that it’s derived in part from the period: he was imagining a more outlandish version of the present for the near future. Of course now what he imagined seems mundane to us.Yeah. It’s a metaphor, though: it could be a country, it could be a planet, it could be a man. That’s why Ballard is so smart—you can read it on all those levels. You can almost read it as a haunted house mystery thing where you’ve got each character doing their things in the plot. You’ve got all those elements.Why did you make it a period film instead of a contemporary film? It could easily be contemporary…I think that the period helped us in many ways. There are lots of issues now to do with broadcast and the constant monitoring and reporting of ourselves online. Ballard would have written a really brilliant book about that, if he were alive. And that would have been something different. In fact he predicted it in some of his own stuff. But that bends the shape of the material. They’re filming themselves a lot, with Super 8 and videotape. That’s quite surprising. That kind of self-obsession used to have a bad name, but now we’ve rolled over and that’s alright. Similarly, there was a point in history when a 1984 world was seen as bad. Now it helps me find my phone, so it’s okay. That’s a definite sea change in society. So the ’70s, on a really basic level, insulates you from that technology. You can’t be saved at any moment because of your mobile.Not that they’d have used the mobiles to escape.Yeah, of course the weird thing about that tower is that they did have phones available to them, they just didn’t use them. It wasn’t that they couldn’t escape; it was that they decided not to.More of a Bunuel thing.Right, it’s like The Exterminating Angel. Although … wait, they are locked inside in Exterminating Angel, aren’t they? They can’t escape?They think they can’t.Oh right. Yeah. Anyway, we also felt that by setting it in the past, we could smuggle in ideas that people would be more resistant to if you said it straight out loud. I think that’s why people make period films. It’s a way of reframing contemporary issues—but slightly sweetened, so you don’t have to think, “Oh fuck, I’m being told about society again.” This way you can’t say: “It’s not really me.”I think there was a sense around the time of your third film, Sightseers, that each new project you made was an attempt to show the range of what you could do. The cynical view would be that it was careerist.You don’t think about that when you do it. It might look like you do, but that’s more of a critical view. A lot of times, too, you don’t have a choice in what you make—those are the scripts you have, those are the projects people want to finance. But I did make a conscious decision not to make the same film again and again. In this industry if you make the same film twice you’ll make it forever. Genre gives and genre takes away. I was hungry to try different stuff and sought that out.How does this fit in?Well, A Field in England and High-Rise are more slippery customers. What’s the elevator pitch? Where do they sit in terms of genre? Try as you might there isn’t a space where it fits. I don’t know what that means in the grand scheme of things. But the next film I’ve made is very genre, so you know …Is it easier to pitch when the material is by a well-known author?It’s not really a pitch—it’s more of a business proposition, because you’re looking for financing. This isn’t Hollywood. I don’t go into a meeting and say, here’s my idea: lamps blowing in the wind, or whatever. Usually we’re much further up the road than that. We’ve got a script and we can go to financiers and ask if they want to be involved or not.Right now we’re in a bustling room with celebrities, and outside the door are shrieking teenagers desperate to see Tom Hiddleston. How’s all of that been for you?It’s actually not much different. There is this fan buzz, which is different. But the way the festival works is exactly the same and it’s pretty much exactly the same on set. People said that working with big actors would be different. It wasn’t. It was exactly the same. You’ve still got a job to do, at the end of the day. There’s no time for anything else but what we’ve got to do.I think Kill List should have gaggles of fans screaming their heads off down the block too.Oh it did. But for very different reasons.
Kathleen

He’d been so embarrassed they’d had to stop. It had been a few days before he felt ready for sex again.

The first time it happened, she thought it was funny. She let out a little laugh along with the customary stifled gasp, the clenching and then loosening of her fingers and toes against the sheets.Her boyfriend was away for the weekend. She’d been thinking about him during the slow morning alone, and her mind had wandered to the two of them together in that little cottage in Prince Edward County. Initially it was the stuff of her customary fantasies: the feeling of his chest against her back in the kitchen, some deep fingering next to the toast, or The New York Times’ Sunday crossword if she wanted to feel erudite. She let her hand slip below the sheets and tried to conjure a more specific image: a bit of light BDSM, inspired by a dirty, arty book she’d been reading (not the tacky famous one, a cooler one that did basically the same thing). He’d gotten really into it, tying her up more roughly than she’d expected. The hair pulling hurt but felt good, as the damaged female narrator in the book had described. “That feels so good,” she’d said in a breathy voice she immediately regretted using. “Call me Sir,” he’d said. The fantasy progressed quickly from there. She could almost feel his hands holding her down, hear his breath in her ear, the voice saying “Call me Sir… Sir Jeremy.”She climaxed abruptly, simultaneously recalling the face he’d made when she looked up from her restraints and asked carefully, “Sir Jeremy? Like… a knight?” He’d been so embarrassed they’d had to stop. It had been a few days before he felt ready for sex again.When Jeremy returned late Sunday night, Kathleen considered telling him about her masturbatory snafu. Before she could, he mentioned getting caught freestyle rapping in his car at a stoplight on the way home. She pulled off his shirt and they made love against the midcentury credenza they’d spent months looking for on Kijiji. Jeremy was pleased by her spontaneity. Kathleen had never come so hard in her life.Later that week, on bi-weekly date night, he told her about an email-based kerfuffle at work. A classic “Reply All” mishap. His job was not in danger, but he had been skittish around his coworkers all day. He felt like a dog caught mid-piss on the rug, he said, his tail between his legs during lunch. When she found out he’d accidentally emailed an image of himself on vacation with the caption “Who’s the boss” to the entire company listserv, she went into the bathroom of the craft brewery they were in and got herself off more than once.After that the images came to her unbidden and constantly: Jeremy asking a woman if she was pregnant (she was not); Jeremy unable to squeeze between two chairs at a restaurant even after asking the person behind him to move; Jeremy trying and failing to use his Metrocard during rush hour, sweating as a line forms behind him, taunted by the flashing impatience of “PLEASE SWIPE YOUR CARD AGAIN.”Kathleen didn’t know why this was happening and she didn’t care. She’d sit in her open concept co-working pod and imagine sweet, dumb Jeremy in a cafe, bringing a cup of tea to his lips and missing his mouth, lukewarm earl grey dripping onto his T-shirt. He’d look around to see if anyone noticed, convinced he’d gotten away with it before panning over to the barista, smirking, her shaved head and interesting piercing communicating a preexisting disdain made valid by the spill.Weeks passed and Kathleen did not tire of reliving these incidents in her mind. To the contrary, she’d started inventing hypothetically embarrassing scenarios and imagining Jeremy in those too. She returned often to a memory of him mispronouncing the word “tapas” at a restaurant, though she could not say for sure whether the event had actually transpired.One day, at the grocery store, she tripped him. Or she thought she might have tripped him. He tripped, certainly, and her foot was within plausible tripping range. He fell into a seasonal Ferrero Rocher display, scattering shards of plastic and little brown and gold bundles across the aisle. He broke four gift boxes. A nearby child made a joke about the situation to his parents, and instead of scolding the child, they laughed. Kathleen watched Jeremy clumsily collect the things he’d dropped (papayas, gluten-free granola, a box of heavy-flow tampons), and gather the broken candy boxes. He paid for them in cash, Kathleen beside him, leaning ever so slightly too hard against the cart. When he bent down to pick up their bags, he winced.In the Prius on the way home, Kathleen resolved to get her little problem under control. There would be no more asking him to recount the time—times!—he’d called his various teachers “Mom,” no asking him what he liked about System of a Down just to hear his ludicrous answer. She couldn’t carry on feverishly hoping his bag and leather jacket would rub together just so in the elevator, creating a farting sound he’d deny then unintentionally recreate. Kathleen was going to head home that night and have calm, normal sex that was not built around an understanding that Jeremy was the kind of guy who said “to the tune of” when describing sets of numbers. Someone was going to get hurt. It had to end.As they headed towards their apartment, Jeremy and Kathleen ran into Emily, the sweet woman who lived next door and worked at Whole Foods. “What’s new, you two?” she asked. Jeremy smiled. “Fine thanks.”Kathleen moved out the next day, while Jeremy was at work.
‘A Story Hollywood Can’t Stop Telling About Itself’: An Interview with Karina Longworth

The host of the film podcast You Must Remember This on Howard Hughes, A Star is Born, and capitalism.

Can sound—and just sound—be cinematic? I would have told you no, had you asked me before I listened to Karina Longworth’s podcast You Must Remember This. That’s probably because the cinematic has always been wedded to the image in my mind, and the film camera has always been the mechanism for rendering our warped and complex interior worlds. It’s no minor historical footnote that cinema emerged in tandem with the disarming arrival of psychoanalysis; all those achey desires, all that longing, all those disappointments projected onto the screen like a secret hidden in plain view. But what Longworth has been able to create by way of her podcast is a divulging of the secrets of Hollywood’s first century without, for all that, using a single image.Longworth is the singular life-force behind You Must Remember This, the dynamic, dramatic, and impeccably researched podcast that she began in 2014. From Buster Keaton, to Barbara Streisand, to Theda Bara (who? Exactly), to a twelve-part series on Charles Manson’s Hollywood and those swept into his peculiarly alluring orbit, the old-world feel of the program might make you wish you could drink bourbon with its host and listen to her various starlet impressions. (It will also render your degree in cinema studies close to obsolete, but in a way that absolves you of feeling badly about it.)Over email, prior to our virtual tête-à-tête, I had asked Longworth to assign me a movie to watch. What film, I wanted to know, best captures the spirit of your podcast? What movie from Hollywood's first century do you think is most prescient for our contemporary moment? I felt Longworth bristle at the word “prescient” in her response but her reply was definitive: “I think the movie that underlines the whole podcast is A Star is Born—both the 1937 and 1954 versions, but the latter is my favorite.”  And so, it was a cold, bright morning on the internet when I G-chatted with the film historian and Hollywood expert. Our conversation went a little something like this: Julia Cooper: I watched the 1954 version of A Star is Born, which I had never seen. I loved it, for the most part. For instance, when Esther gets made up like an Oompa Loompa—that is classic comedy. I was wondering if you could tell me why it is this film that captures the spirit of your podcast?Karina Longworth:  I've always been fascinated with the idea of the “a star is born” story as it manifests itself in those movies and many other Hollywood films about Hollywood, as the myth about itself that Hollywood loves to tell. The idea that there is only so much room in this galaxy of stars, and that for a new person to make it into the top echelon, someone else has to die. It's the Hollywood version of Greek tragedy, and because it's Hollywood, it's a little bit shallow, a little bit silly, but it's also undeniably about the most basic human stuff: the need for recognition and love, self-destruction and survival.I like this idea that it's a story Hollywood can't stop telling about itself. I just find this story repeating on screen and off, and in a sense, the podcast, which is about the mythology surrounding the film industry as much as it's about the films or the people themselves, is also perpetuating this structuring myth.You think the podcast perpetuates the myth too? That's funny—I think of it as deconstructing it more than anything...Yes, while trying to take apart various Hollywood myths, I still consciously use the tropes of Hollywood movies to tell stories, particularly the rise and fall.Ah, I see. Yes—I like that you keep some of the drama and intrigue alive in the storytelling. That's what sets the podcast apart, in my mind. I think not having interviews contributes to that in a lot of ways: was it a conscious choice to not do an interview-style podcast?I have done some interviews on the show. Usually I'll include an interview when I feel like there's a person who can tell a part of the story better than I can. But in general the idea was to try to create a format in which to share heavily researched analysis of Hollywood history that was accessible to regular people, and I figured one way to do that would be to make a podcast that felt cinematic. When I started the show, the only film podcasts I knew of were talk show or debate style shows, and I wanted to see if I could make something a little more personal and a little more dramaticI want to ask you more about how the show gets made, but first, I have another question about A Star is Born. Was it common in that era to use voice-overs and still photographs, like what happens in a few of the film’s sequences? Was it to save money on filming? I found it wacky.That is not how the film was originally. The original cut of the film, approved by director George Cukor and released by Warner Brothers, was about three hours long and it was released roadshow style with a big extravaganza at Radio City Music hall. It had been very expensive to make. I think the production budget was $4 million, which was a lot for the time—and in its first week in release, the studio didn't feel like it was making money fast enough. So without the director's input or knowledge, the studio pulled the movie from release, almost randomly cut out about 40 minutes, and then put the movie back into theater.  Amazing! The film is still 2.5 hours! I would have trimmed some of the dance sequences.The cut material was lost for almost 30 years. In the early 1980s, a guy named Ronald Haver, who ran the film department at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, led an effort to restore the film and find the missing footage. They weren't able to find everything that was cut, but they were able to find a complete version of the original soundtrack. So they were able to reconstruct the missing scenes using still photographs.The "efficiencies" that capitalism demands seems to undergird so many of the stories you tell.It's frustrating to me that this is not more widely known—I feel like if people were still watching movies on DVD, it would say something about the reconstruction on the box, maybe. But I know a lot of people watch the movie and get to that part of the film and are like, "What is going on?"As it stands now, it seems like a poor reflection on Cukor.I don't think so, I still think the movie as a whole is incredibly effective. But I saw it for the first time in art school, where I saw a lot of stuff that took formal left turns, and I also knew the backstory so I was primed to accept it.I've been wondering how long it takes you to research and write an episode, it seems like an incredible amount of work.It is! It depends on the episode. For the series I'm working on now on the blacklist, I started doing general research last fall. I stumbled on a bunch of relevant files at the Writers Guild of America, where I was looking for some documents related to a book that I'm writing. So the first reading I did for this series happened in September, and I wasn't ready to produce an episode until January. Then each individual episode builds off the initial research, but then usually also requires a week or two of new reading too. Once I've done all the reading, the writing goes quick—I can usually write an episode in 1-2 days.That is sort of stunning to me. Like, in a 'bravo!' sort of way.Oh, thanks. It's starting to really wear on me, I need to figure out how to outsource more of the research, I think.That's my next question. Do you work alone, or have you grown a team? And also, more broadly, I suppose, what do you see as the future of the podcast?Right now I have a research and production assistant who works part-time, doing a lot of administrative and social media stuff and some reading. And through Panoply, the network that distributes the show and sells ads, I have a producer/editor who takes the audio I record and puts the show together, adding music, film clips, etc. That's a big change from how the show began. I edited every episode myself until last September. It was so time consuming that I just couldn't do anything else, so when I sold a book last summer I had to start figuring out ways to pass some of the work onto someone else.The question about the future of the show is sort of too big to answer. I can't really see the future beyond the series I'm working on at the moment because it's so consuming, but I am trying to figure out a way to take some more of the work off of my plate so that I can finish the book I'm supposed to be writing and start thinking about other projects. I'm very lucky that the show is popular, but that also puts more pressure on me to make more episodes and continue making them even when I feel burned out, and that's a problem that I need to solve.Burnout is real. May I ask what the new book is about?The official synopsis is that it's an examination of the American film industry during the classical Hollywood era—basically the late silent era through the fall of the studio system in the 1950s— through the lens of Howard Hughes and the famous women in his life. It's sort of "really" about what it was like to be a woman in Hollywood between 1925 and 1957.Is Hughes the smoke screen for the story you really want to tell?I don't know that I would say "smoke screen." His time and work in Hollywood structures the book and provides an in to talk about both superstars like Ava Gardner and Katharine Hepburn as well as people who are lesser-known today but more interesting to me, like Billie Dove and Jean Peters.So he is the structuring principle that allows you to talk about lots of different superstars who it might not otherwise make sense to talk about all at once? I guess the veiled question in that is: why not just write a book about women?Yes, but the book is about him, too. I'm still really early into the writing process so I don't totally have my pitch down, but Hughes's function in Hollywood is an important part of the story, and not just because it ties together the various women. That's all I can really say at this point! 
House Hunting with Martha Gellhorn

The legendary war correspondent found domesticity and adventure are not easily balanced.

In 1963, Martha Gellhorn was looking for a house. She had just split from her second husband, T.S. Mathews. She had covered the Spanish Civil War and World War II, and witnessed the D-Day landings at Normandy by hiding in a hospital ship. Now she wanted to swim in the ocean, laze by the pool, and drink whiskey. She had recently declared Africa the capital of her soul. A real estate agent promised her a white bungalow overlooking Nyali beach near Mombasa, Kenya. There was, according to the agent, a guest house, a swimming pool, and a yard covered in bougainvillea.Gellhorn noticed nothing wrong until the car pulled off onto what appeared to be a dried creek bed and made a slow approach to the house. The yard was a desert littered with rusty cans and an abandoned bicycle. The pool was a concrete pit with a puddle of greenish water and dead lizards and crabs at the bottom. Every last surface inside the house was covered with filth.The house was a nightmare of Old Testament proportions. First, there were monkeys who stomped on the iron roof. Next, a bush baby infestation. Then came the rains, which brought every manner of flying, biting insect. One day, Gellhorn walked into her sitting room and discovered a black mamba. “Where are we?” Gellhorn’s Spanish housekeeper cried. But whether Gellhorn realized it or not, this was exactly what she wanted.In Caroline Moorehead’s Gellhorn: A Twentieth Century Life and Selected Letters of Martha Gellhorn, Gellhorn’s “dream of the perfect house” tells a story that Gellhorn’s war reporting couldn’t. Her houses were her desires and fears manifest in brick and mortar, as perhaps all of our houses are. Vulnerability is hard to find in Gellhorn’s deadpan journalism. Take her piece “The First Hospital Ship”: while she and a few soldiers swim, they hear shelling and mine explosions but “We decided it would be wisest to just go on swimming.”Gellhorn declared a war on domestic boredom, which she called “the kitchen of life,” or occasionally, “the kitchen of death.” Moorehead wrote that cooking made Gellhorn “frantic with irritation and impatience.” When she arrived in Spain to cover the civil war, it was only with a windbreaker and a knapsack of canned food. She traveled the world reporting, never settling for long. However, in her hunger for a place to call home, Gellhorn’s vulnerability is electric.It started with Finca Vigia, the house she rented with Hemingway in Cuba in 1939. Its tennis courts were cracked. The foliage was wildly overgrown, empty gin bottles were strewn in the yard, and a drain smell permeated the premises. Then in the early ‘60s, Gellhorn became entranced by the idea of building a house from scratch on five acres between Valencia and Alicante in Spain. She wanted to grow fruits and vegetables.During the Spanish Civil War, whenever there was shelling, she and Hemingway would open their windows so the glass wouldn’t smash and listen to Chopin on a gramophone. On first glance, it seems cavalier. But on second, perhaps the opposite is true; perhaps it was a desperate need for beauty and rhythmic order in a senseless and inhumane environment. Her houses were likely much the same: a comforting stopover between the chaos of wars and relationships that always somehow seemed to disappoint her.*After her initial glimpse of the Nyali house, Gellhorn went into Mombasa and returned with seven painters, four men with pickaxes, and several Indian carpenters. The house was well scrubbed and brightly decorated. One day the rains finally stopped and the bugs left. Grass grew in the yard. Martha bought a gramophone and drank whiskey on the terrace listening to Brahms, Beethoven, and Chopin. When no one was around, she lay naked by the pool. This house on the brink of being swallowed by the wild was a way to indulge her seemingly conflicting desires for action and comfort. But there is also desperation in all the painting, the planting, the banishing of wild beasts, and the creation of luxury.For people in need of large, loud, and dangerous diversions, meaninglessness lurks everywhere. “Yes,” Gellhorn wrote, “life is tough and toughness carries us through and on average I’m as tough as the next one: but the further thought is—why trouble?” Gellhorn was allergic to boredom but seemed to find it everywhere. Once she dismissed an interviewer saying, “This conversation is so boring I think I’m going to faint.” She drank and smoked all her life and declared, “All this health stuff, it bores me.” After her second marriage ended, she declared marriage boring as well. She would abruptly end friendships, should that friend have the misfortune of growing dull.“I only have to go to a different country, sky, language, scenery, to feel it is worth living,” she wrote. But implicit is the suggestion that sometimes life didn’t feel worth living. She needed brighter stimuli: the kind of house where death might be coiled in her sitting room, where monkeys paraded across the roof and glared at her while she wrote. She needed both the Chopin and the artillery fire. To tame the house was to tame the restlessness because it was demanding enough, dangerous enough to momentarily hold her in thrall and drown out that dark little voice that wondered, “why trouble?” When you are actually at risk of dying--during war or when confronted by deadly snakes--there is little time to wonder if life is worth living.Gellhorn’s houses never held her interest for long. She left the house in Nyali for the war in Vietnam. She gave up her plans for the five acres and vegetable farm in Spain due to a lack of well water, but perhaps she realized that it was better not to relive past glories. She didn’t last a year at Finca Vigia with Hemingway. World War II was impossible to resist. She left him in a state of despair, declaring that he was “stinko deadly lonely without her.” When her absence continued, he demanded, “Are you a war correspondent? Or wife in my bed?” He was asking her to choose, but Gellhorn wanted both. They divorced in 1945.*In the end, Gellhorn conceded, “I have never found what I was seeking and probably never will.” Domesticity and adventure are not easily balanced. She settled in a carefully but sparsely decorated flat in London. When she was 89, going blind and diagnosed with ovarian cancer that was spreading quickly to her liver, she put on a silk slip, turned on an audio book, climbed into bed, and swallowed a cyanide capsule.Before taking the capsule, she took care of household business. She organized her papers, gave away her jewelry, and called a friend to discuss Bosnia, and Clinton, and the fact that she would not be able to visit him that week. There were tulips in her room. Why bother canceling plans, dealing with papers and jewelry on the doorstep of oblivion? Perhaps because nonexistence is terrifying, because we cannot really comprehend that soon there will be no papers, or jewelry, or plans, or bodies to dress in silk. Going about these mundane rituals makes the enormity of nonexistence a little more palatable. With a cyanide capsule between your teeth, you might suddenly need a vase of tulips on your dressing table.
I’m the Dame Who Can Prove It: 50 Years of Valley of the Dolls

Enjoying a masterpiece of obviousness and dark satire of patriarchy. 

In 1966, Jacqueline Susann published Valley of the Dolls, a book that would go on to sell 30 million copies, spawn a cult following, and two films (the sequel infamously penned by Roger Ebert). Born in Philadelphia in 1918, Susann, a remarkable beauty, moved to New York to try to “make it.” She didn’t, at least not in show biz. She modeled, married, acted in bit parts, and had affairs before finally turned to writing, which became her true claim to fame. Her first book, Every Night, Josephine!, was published in 1963. Three years later, pulling from her own life experiences and then adding even more drama, Susann dropped Valley of the Dolls on the world, followed by The Love Machine (1969) and Once is Not Enough (1973). After her death from breast cancer in 1974, two more books were released posthumously: Dolores (1976) and Yargos (1979).To celebrate the 50 year anniversary of her best-known work, we’ve assembled a roundtable of Doll fans to discuss marriage plots, drugs, trash and how Valley of the Dolls still resonates today. Kiva Reardon: I’m interested in talking about so much in this book. But maybe the best place to start is when you first read it, since it’s turning 50 this year. I only just read it, after realizing I’d been stuck in a non-fiction bender for all of 2016. I wanted something “easy” to read (let’s totally talk about “trash”) and my friend loaned me a copy. I read it all in 48 hours. When did you first read it? Were you as entranced as I was? Why? Tell me everything.Amber Katz: I first read it when a college roommate of mine gave it to me, about 15 years ago. We were both planning on moving to New York after graduation and were obsessed with the idea of being as glamorous as the “dolls” in the book. After four years of Camus and Baudelaire (I majored in French lit) I was delighted to indulge in an easy read. I read it in a weekend and promptly devoured the movie, bought it on DVD, then made the entire aesthetic my hair/makeup inspiration for life. The campiness never gets old. By the way, the roommate and I both went on to work in the beauty industry.Manisha Aggarwal-Schifelitte: When I moved to New York after graduating university to do an internship, this was the first book I got with my new library card! I remember reading it on the subway into Manhattan feeling like a total cliché, but I was totally obsessed with it (that pink cover!). I studied the time period in school, and I was fascinated with the book, both because it was so campy (pretty white girls with boy problems and drug problems and lots of money!), but also because it was a historical artifact for the time. Rereading it for this roundtable, I had forgotten almost everything that happened, but I couldn’t put it down even for a second time!Sarah Nicole Prickett: The likeliest story is that I read the book because I spent too much money on a perfect first edition to then not read it. Helen Gurley Brown once said she wished she wrote it, so maybe that was the allure? I don’t remember New York City, or my own life, having anything to do with my enjoyment of this masterpiece of obviousness—it’s like, everyone likes to see beautiful (white?) women suffer, or at the very least stop getting away with things. It restores a sense of justice we might not believe in but have nonetheless inherited. Besides, I like pillheads. They’re gamblers, bigtime feminine gamblers. It’s so easy to mix the wrong colours and overdose and die without anyone, including yourself, knowing if you meant to. Happy Monday!AK: The allure of the city is practically its own character in the novel. The “establishing yourself in New York City/finding your tribe of like-minded friends/dealing with dating utter douchebags” thing is so iconic, we see it happening in more and more iterations. Sex And The City is essentially Valley of the Dolls through a '90s/early aughts lens and Girls is the Millennial version. Of course, there are many fantastic cities, but moving here feels like an important step to take careerwise for a multitude of industries/functions.KR: Super glad you brought up SATC and Girls, Amber. In so many ways there a strong continuation of exactly what Jacqueline Susann was looking at in 1966. Which in a way seems a bit crazy (non-gendered crazy), since that was such a cusp moment for feminism. And here were are, 50 years on, and a lot of the same issues are cropping up: body image, pressures to balance professional lives and personal lives, and “getting a man.” To me, it’s the latter that really positions the book as a dark satire of patriarchy—literally all the characters are destroyed by trying to marry a man. (The only other book I know that does that so well is Women as Lovers by Elfriede Jelinek, and she won the Nobel Prize.) I guess that while this “women in the city trying to have it all” trope is something we see a lot now, this quality of the book, it’s destructive quality, really makes it stand out.SNP: The only other book I know that does that so well is…. Sylvia Plath’s life? Maybe the stories of Tama Janowitz, i.e. Slaves of New York, ridiculous title, ridiculous sensibility, very much of the ’80s—that “mixture of luxury and poverty,” as Jeanne Moreau describes the casino in Baie des Anges (I was just rewatching it, hence the quite random reference, although Manhattan is kind of like a casino in a mall or something now). Since I’ve recently stolen a Bookforum login from my editor, thanks Lidija!, allow me to copy and paste from Sheila Heti’s piece on Valley… a few years ago:Reading the book feels more like hurtling down Niagara Falls—driven by a torrent of sex, drugs, and doom. The panic with which one turns the pages is like the mixture of curiosity and fear that accompanies reading the Oedipus myth. The protagonists can’t do anything to escape their terrible fates, and each choice binds them closer to their destinies, yet there are no other choices. Just as in the myth, where things cannot turn out well for humans, in Valley of the Dolls nothing can turn out well for women past thirty.  (EMPHASIS MINE.)MAS: Hurtling! What a good descriptor. That’s totally how I felt reading, like it starts fairly slow and then all of a sudden it’s like WAIT HOW DID THIS START HAPPENING!KR: Yes! It’s a trap! And, like the women, once you realize you’re heading down that path you’re too far gone. AK: I would agree with that. The way it’s presented in the book, it’s almost as if the more and more success these women achieve, the more they sort of “pay” for it in the form of psychological damage/doll dependency and also a supreme lack of luck in love. It’s kind of like course correction in sci-fi. These women all were able to make it in utterly exclusive, hugely glamorous industries in an era way before every influencer on earth fancied herself her own “Gillian Girl” but they all got so caught up in the pressures of it, clearly to their own detriment.MAS: And the destruction happens in public and in private (or it constantly threatens to appear in either sphere), which makes each woman’s situation seem so dire, like there’s nowhere to run or hide from the inevitable.[[{"fid":"6694906","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":"","field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":""},"type":"media","attributes":{"height":"273","width":"429","class":"media-element file-media-original"}}]]KR: Spoiler alert (or whatever): I literally cried when Jennifer killed herself rather than have her breasts removed. (This plot point, like a lot in the novel, was based on Susann’s own mastectomy.)But Manisha and SNP brought up another good, and salient point, which is the whiteness of the book. (And, similarly, that’s also in SATC and Girls, too.)SNP: Yeah, I always find that in groups of white women, as in the book and the movie and SATC and Girls and endless other phenotypical examples, the women are implausibly differentiated, in terms of their characters and attitudes and personalities and even fates, as if to make up for the fact that, from the outside, a lot of people can barely tell them apart. I also think that’s a feature of friendship, though, regardless of how alike you look or not. When you become friends with someone, you want to share everything, from secrets and clothes, and then after a while, the closer you become, the closer you feel to losing yourself, so you enact a fairly opposite reaction, which is to haggle over all points of difference, like identical twins doing everything possible to prove they’re in fact separate people. I just looked in my copy of the book for the best example and it’s a “violent argument” that ensues when Neely wants to wear purple taffeta to a dinner in Brooklyn and Anne thinks she should wear tan wool. Neely eventually gives in and wears the tan. To be fair, purple taffeta and tan wool do give very different effects…It’s too bad TLC’s “Unpretty” wasn’t around when Jennifer was alive. MAS: HUGE :(AK: Oh yeah, this book is white AF. I agree with SNP and I love the “identical twins” reference. I can’t defend the subsequent way-too-white female friend groups, but VotD’s scenario is a little more understandable, considering Jacqueline Susann drew on her own experience in acting in New York City in the ‘60s. I just think diversity isn’t something she considered at all. Lena Dunham, however, can’t use that excuse.KR: Then there’s the fact that the biggest betrayal of the book is “woman-on-woman”: Neely sleeps with what’s-his-face, Anne’s husband.MAS: LYON BURKE!!! What a name.KR: Yessss. Thank you, Manisha. Lyon becomes Anne’s everything, and even though she’s helped Neely along the way in her career and puts her through rehab, Neely sleeps with him, and of course Lyon sleeps with her too; they’re both garbage. (This also all happens in Hollywood, of course, because Hollywood is evil in this book. At least the East Coast has sleepy little Maine from whence Anne hailed.) Everyone is pretty much garbage in this book...but let’s talk about drugs. One of the biggest things that doesn’t work in the book-to-film adaptation is the drug sequences. In the book, the women pop pills to pass out. In the movie, there’s an attempt to try and mimic the mind state of uppers and downers, which is where the camp factor really comes into play, at least in a visual sense.AK: Real talk: I used to have a beige couch with red pillows because that's what Anne and Lyon had in LA in the movie. I love the Biggie/Tupacness of the whole thing. The real degradation of morals happens when everyone becomes big enough to move out to California. I always wonder if the oppressive sunshine had anything to do with everyone going full Marilyn on the pills once they're fully ensconced out west.[[{"fid":"6694911","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":"","field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":""},"type":"media","attributes":{"height":"190","width":"500","class":"media-element file-media-original"}}]]SNP: That’s so funny, AK. I’ve always wondered if the real reason Sylvia Plath killed herself was that she, a lifelong fan of beaches and tanning, was living in England, in one of the worst winters ever, without sun. To me a lack of sunshine is more oppressive, but the moral degradation of an endless summer, yes—absolutely. “A sunny place for shady people,” as W. Somerset Maugham (just looked it up) said of the French Riviera. That’s a longstanding view of Southern California held by the English and New Englanders alike, and—according to Mike Davis, the intellectual shock jock of SoCal—it’s why so many major apocalypses on film are set in L.A.Neely especially has the attitude of one of those ravers at the beginning of… is it Armageddon? Where they’re all on the roof waiting for the aliens with outstretched peace signs. She’s very much of the belief that nothing can kill her—no illness, no pills, not even an overdose, not even a trip to the psych ward—and, in fact, that everything she wants is good for her, necessary even.AK: I mean it in the more ironic, "Summertime Sadness" sense of the expression. Of course, I'm more upbeat in better weather as well, but I wonder if the pressure to seem happy in Hollywood became a role to play in and of itself, all playing out during the private role of a lifetime Anne (the non-actress of the trio) would like to thank the Academy for, i.e., that she and Lyon had a healthy relationship. That kind of fake-happy horseshit would probably lead to anyone's Rx abuse.KR: Does Lana Del Rey like this book? Serious question…(I’m now listening to “Summertime Sadness”, FYI.)AK: I would LOVE to know.KR: I’m googling so hard right now...seems like no one’s asked her but it’s obviously used as a reference point. I’m going to go out on a limb for Lana and say she’s read it and is a fan. Her fave is def Jennifer.   MAS: Neely calls Anne out on that later in the book, I think. She says that Anne thinks she’s better than everyone because of her upbringing and her even temper, whereas Anne and Jennifer aren’t afraid to say exactly what they think and what they want from life, even if it’s unattractive or selfish or destructive. And then at the end, Anne succumbs to the dolls as well, even if it’s not as dramatic as with the other women.KR: Ya, at least on the east coast there was a glimmer of hope of being able to return to “home”, Maine, which I (naively) thought Anne would do. But this book is some East of Eden shit: once you leave, you can’t return, and all that’s left is to move forward and west. Maybe we can round things off by talking about trash. This seems to play out in two ways in this book: one, being that stories about women are considered “lighter” and thus dismissed (SATC vs The Sopranos, for example) but also, ok, this is a “drugstore” book. So is this book trash? Is it terrible to call it that? Or, like, who the fuck cares because trash can be beautiful?MAS: It does appear in Nicole Cliffe’s Classic Trash seriesSNP: Of course it’s trash. It’s about all the naked gross things we most want to discard, or disown entirely, like ambition and jealousy and the institution of heterosexual marriage. I’m kidding. I mean, I’m married. But yes, the book is trash through and through. The obsession with packaging. The throwaway lines that pass for insight. The idea that, per Angelina Jolie’s tattoo, what nourishes us also destroys us. Don DeLillo agrees. In White Noise, I think, and in Underworld, his thesis is that we are what we waste: “What we excrete comes back to consume us.” All the characters eventually eat shit.The one who eats the least shit is maybe Anne, who is also the best-behaved in a number of conventional, or East Coast conventional ways—which leads me to what I first thought about the book, when I was younger and closer to (though more in denial of) my Christian upbringing. I thought the fates of the characters, which Sheila Heti mentioned in that great bit I pasted above, were less like fates and more like the wages of sin. I still think it’s sort of boring and conservative and black-and-white, underneath that neon sense of shock, in the way a lot of tabloid writing is.KR: I’m single and hate being single, but this book offers no comfort in the idea (or myth) of marriage either. I’m not against marriage but do think there’s a false promise of perfection and security that’s built into it. It’s not that it’s comforting to read something like Valley of the Dolls (because, obv, I want to end up happily with some nice feminist bro and not popping pills to tolerate a human man I share a house with). But I guess there’s something powerful in reading a book that doesn’t just say, “Don’t worry, it’s all going to work out.” Because that shit gets hollow real fast.  SNP: But it’s just as comforting to watch bad things happen to people we think are bad.KR: But is Anne “bad” or just boring? I feel like her sin is being boring?SNP: Mostly boring! Definitely the least bad, which is why she eats the least shit. Jennifer literally dies for the sin of vanity. Neely, who practices most of the sins, including coveting and “stealing” another woman’s husband, turns out to be one of those people for whom death almost seems too good. (Though isn’t Neely everyone’s favourite, because she has the most wits?)KR: Let’s end off by picking our favourites, which is incredibly bitchy and perfect for this rather bitchy book. Jennifer is my favourite. I’d argue she doesn’t die for the sin of vanity but because she’s trapped by vanity (another patriarchal critique): no one ever sees her for more than her body (particularly her breasts), not even her supposed white knight husband. Anne is too bland and Neely is a fucking bully and I actually hate her.AK: Jennifer is totally my favorite. She’s so tragic, vulnerable and LOHAN about the whole thing.MAS: Can I say Helen Lawson? I know she’s not in the core three, but I liked her the best. I felt like Anne, Neely, and Jennifer (especially Anne and Jennifer) blended together, like i couldn’t imagine their faces. Helen I could see, and I wanted so much more of her! I had forgotten that the book wasn’t actually about her.SNP: Seconding Helen Lawson. She’s like Bette Davis, a bit. Though I do like reading about Neely’s life best. As Davis says in All About Eve: “Heaven help me, I love a psychotic!”
A Quiet Force

Remembering Katherine Dunn.

In high school, I was flipping through one of the last ever issues of Jane magazine (shine on, you crazy cubic zirconias), in which senior editor Joshua Lyon had this to say about Katherine Dunn’s 1989 novel, Geek Love:  “If you don’t fall in love with the albino hunchback dwarf by the time she murders her daughter’s evil benefactor, then you’re a cold-hearted bitch.”11It seems almost necessary to begin a tribute to an author with an origin story of how one first came to discover their work, so I’ll make this as quick as I can. I was newly seventeen, trying to find to find books that were viewed as smart and literary and grownup but still spoke to what felt like, at the time, a very specific kind of alienation, experienced only by me and every other teenage girl on the planet. I had done your requisite Bell Jars and Catcher in the Ryes, spent weekends in high school at the used bookstore downtown, picking up works by authors with whom I was only familiar because I had read their other books in English class—Orwell and Fitzgerald and Huxley and other books so predictable that were favoured by kids who knew they liked to read, but had not yet developed any tastes of their own.22I’m getting to Dunn, I swear. The difference between writing an essay about an author and writing an essay about an author hours after learning of said author’s death is that I am compelled to start every line with “MY FEEEEEEELINGS.” Learning that Katherine Dunn passed away on May 11th at the age of 70 because of complications from lung cancer was bracing. Like recently departed outliers Prince and David Bowie, she seemed larger than life, immortal, but unlike them it wasn’t because she was a prolific, constant presence; she was the opposite, a quiet force associated with one major work published almost three decades ago who had a devoted readership antsily waiting for a follow up.33She had allegedly been working on another novel since Geek Love’s completion called The Cut Man that, according to Caitlin Roper’s excellent profile of Dunn published in Wired, she was still working on in 2014. The fans were restless but patient. Dunn could take as long as she needed, was the mood. She wasn’t going anywhere.Dunn had written several other novels and has had a steady writing career for the past few decades, but unless you are one of six people who have actually managed to track down and read Attic (1970) or Trunk (1971), or a sports aficionado who paid attention to her boxing reporting (which surely has a lot of overlap with literary nerds), your relationship with her centers around this specific book.I didn’t find a copy of Geek Love at a used bookstore until later, after I had already finished high school. Its neon orange and navy cover designed by Chip Kidd was a stark contrast to the somber shades of black in which my usual aspirationally serious Penguin Classics came decked. The synopsis can sound charmed and whimsical—it’s a story about family and being true to yourself, set against the fun and colourful backdrop of a travelling carnival, hurrah! Let down your guards and join the party!If you haven’t read the book yet (in which case, dude, get on that), it goes like this: Al Binewski and his wife Crystal Lil run a carnival together, and are shrewd businesspeople when it comes to the voyeuristic tendencies of the American public. They plan to open a freak show to rival all others, and so during Crystal Lil’s pregnancies she consumes poisons and chemicals. Most of the fetuses don’t make it to childbirth; those that do become the main attraction. There’s Arturo, with flippers for hands and feet; conjoined twins Electra and Iphigenia; the aforementioned hunchbacked albino dwarf Olympia (“Oly”) who narrates the story; and baby Fortunato, whose peculiarities take the longest to surface. As they become older, the children grow resentful, not of their parents who bore them into this life but at the rest of the world, those who regard the children’s disabilities with revulsion and hatred only to later empty their pockets for admission under the bright striped tents. Arty, the eldest, learns to harness the hypocrisy and shallow longings of the American public, fashioning himself into a kind of cult leader with masses of followers falling at his every whim. The results, like so much of the book, are stomach churning, uncanny, and engrossing. Once you pay the cover price, you can’t look away. “‘There are the those whose own vulgar normality is so apparent and stultifying that they strive to escape it,’” he says. “‘They affect flamboyant behaviour and claim originality according to the fashionable eccentricities of their time. They claim brains or talent or indifference to mores in desperate attempts to deny their own mediocrity.’”Of course, this passage could absolutely and one hundred percent describe me. Were I a character in Dunn’s world, I would be a nameless extra or one of Arty’s desperate followers, certainly not one of the special few around which the story orbited. The same could be said for most readers. The power of Geek Love is that those reading it, with their thrift store dresses and dyed hair, claiming originality according to the fashionable eccentricities of their time (ahem), can find a kinship in Oly’s guileless narration. Her abnormal upbringing, her unique challenges, her at times more-than-borderline-incestuous admiration for her brother were relayed so intimately, she became a stand-in for a kind of typical adolescent (and later, adult) alienation.Geek Love is by no means an obscure book; it was published by Random House and was a finalist for the National Book Award. (It lost to John Casey’s Spartina.) Yet it has a reputation for achieving a cult-like status, for the rabid ways in which fans approach it, engage with it, consume it. It’s become a cultural shorthand a very specific type of contemporary weirdo, a person who romanticizes eccentricity for better or for worse. There are a lot of other pop culture artifacts that could fit this description, but Geek Love is so singular because it’s, well, good. Modern day Tim Burton would cut off his limbs to produce something so magically unsettling.Dunn created something special with her novel, a story that feels endless in its increasingly disturbing plot points yet ends way too soon, that casts you, the reader, as antagonist while causing you to identify with the protagonists, that dazzles and shimmers and horrifies, that is widely influential yet incapable of being matched. Rest in peace, Katherine Dunn.