Thursday, April 27, 2006

Movie Review: United 93

My friend Amos got me into a press screening of United 93 last night. As I tell people this today, their first reaction is, invariably, “Why would you want to see that?” And my answer is, “I don’t know.” Because I didn’t want to see it. After I watched the trailer a few months ago, I remember shuddering in the movie theater and vocalizing my disbelief that anyone would make a film like that, much less spend $10 to watch it.

But when Amos asked me to go yesterday, I agreed. I was curious. The movie was free. Also, I hadn’t seen Amos in awhile, and he was the sort of person I could count on to discuss the movie intellectually, but also to take my hand and lead me out of the theater if it left me a blubbering mess by the end. And Amos is a skeptic. He wouldn’t let himself get pushed around by a movie. I felt stronger just sitting next to him.

The movie was hard. It was harrowing, and at times pretty unpleasant to watch. For the first 45 minutes, my heart was racing and I had trouble catching my breath. I think I was feeling actual fear—which is nothing like thrilling, stomach-looping movie fear—as I watched the events of 9/11 unfold in real time on the movie screen.

I can’t really say whether I liked or didn’t like the film. I can say the movie was done well. It didn’t feel exploitative or pornographic. Half the film takes place in the offices of the FAA, the Northeast Air Defense Sector and New York and Boston air traffic control centers. This was an aspect of the attack I’d never considered before, and if it can be said that I took something away from this movie, I guess it’s the experience of watching 9/11 from this perspective, which was new and different. But from how many perspectives does one need to view a tragedy? I’m not sure. I guess none, ideally.

A little bit about casting: most of the men who commanded the aforementioned offices played themselves in the movie to excellent effect, especially Ben Sliney, who was promoted to run FAA operations, and whose first day on the job was September 11. I still can't believe he's not a professional actor. The one slip-up was casting David Rasche as the passenger who volunteers to fly the plane if they are able to retake it from the terrorists. You may not know him by name, but you would definitely recognize Mr. Rasche as the stupid, irrascible, violent cop Sledge Hammer, from the 1980's sitcom of the same name. I kept wondering when he was going to haul out his gigantic silver handgun and start wasting the bad guys over a laugh track. Okay, not really, but he was the only actor I recognized and it was pretty distracting.

Finally--and this is going to sound awful--the reason I would maybe recommend United 93 is that it gave a visual interpretation of one of the most horrible deaths I can imagine, and in that way it was cathartic. I don’t know about you, but I spent plenty of time after 9/11 wondering what it was like to be in one of those planes as it went down, imagining what it would feel like, sound like, smell like. It was an open sore on my brain and I couldn’t stop picking it. At points, I was driven to distraction by these thoughts, as I'm sure every American has been. To be able to see it in all its cinema verite horror loosened the grip of those old nightmares.

So that's it. Weirdest movie to review ever.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

JSF: The Interview

Wherein the great light of truth shines from our author's soul, in less than 800 words (including the events listings)

The interview, when transcribed, was 15 single-spaced pages long. It took me something like 8 hours to slice and dice it down to 1100 words. Journalists are definitely not paid enough. Luckily, this was the assignment of a lifetime, so I didn't mind making Nike-stitching wages.

Also, I've already received my first ever piece of hate mail about the story. Actually, the spray of haterade is directed at JSF, but I'm mildly dampened with scorn, which makes me very proud indeed. I'll link to it here when the Weekly Dig posts it next week. (How long can I draw this out? Only time will tell.)

You can link to the interview here.

Or you can read the longer (better?) version below. (Any rabid JSF fans, feel free to request the original transcript. Your love of the Foer is nothing to be ashamed of).

* * *

For a man who has appeared twice on the annual 50 Most Loathsome New Yorkers list in the New York Press, author Jonathan Safran Foer is pretty damn likeable. When we meet in Brooklyn, he’s a little late and out of sorts—he’s just come from home where he lives with his wife, author Nicole Krauss, and their infant son, Sasha. As he settles into a slice of pecan pie and a cup of coffee, Foer seems serenely flummoxed by fatherhood and the duties that surround it (“Raising a kid takes as many people as you give it. If we had eight people, it would take eight people.”). We talk about his latest novel, “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close,” and how his life has changed since his son was born nine weeks ago.

I’m sure you’ve seen [in the New York Press] that you’re the 28th most loathsome New Yorker this year.

That was brought to my attention. It’s incredible. [Laughs] I think that’s great.

In 2003 you were number five, so obviously you haven’t been…I’ve been doing something wrong. Or else other people have stepped it up.

You’ve lived with this media backlash. I don’t know how much you keep up with it, if at all…

Not very much. But I do have a little brother who is generous enough to forward me particularly mean things. I’m truly only aware of it when someone brings it to my attention. Like this thing, this list, was practically a cause for celebration. I guess I feel grateful that anybody cares at all. Nobody cares about books anymore.

You’re probably not aware of this either, but you’re something of a literary sex symbol.

That, I’m totally not aware of. Why didn’t my brother forward me that?

All the women I know would throw their panties at you at readings, if that were an acceptable thing to do.

Let them know it is. I don’t know. I wouldn’t go for me if I were a woman [laughs]. I feel like there’s a strong mixture coming from the same people in response to the book, or in response to me. Like I come off as someone that people like and hate.

There was noise about you writing a September 11 book so soon. Were people not ready to see a best-selling book about that?

I don’t know. I understand that it’s incredibly sensitive. I understand that something feels wrong about somehow borrowing emotion from it, instead of earning it. And if somebody’s fear was that, going into reading my book, I wouldn’t blame them. It seems like a perfectly reasonable fear. I would hope my book made them feel okay but if it doesn’t, that’s also okay. That’s their opinion. But I think there’s something else going on. I guess everybody’s hollering about this movie [“Flight 93”]. I don’t get that at all because nobody says that about journalists. Journalists are people who actually are manipulating the news because they have to sell commercials, and they have ratings to worry about, and their careers themselves. That’s why news is so alarmist--it’s the best way to get people to tune in. But nobody questions if it’s too soon for a journalist. Literally, people can die because of mistakes journalists make, or we can go to war because of mistakes journalists make.

The end of your book, the flipbook [a series of photographs of a man falling from the World Trade Center in reverse, so that he appears to be ascending], was maybe the most controversial part…

I think people get very uncomfortable when reality intersects with fiction. When it’s all fiction it’s nice, it’s pretty, we’re observing it from a distance. No one gets hurt. But when it intersects with reality, suddenly…well, what if the family members are offended? What if you’re borrowing that person’s grief for your own gain?
The picture isn’t a real picture. I made it. But I think one could have used a real picture. I don’t think there’s any ethical issue with that. I, for whatever reason, didn’t want to. I guess I didn’t want a person coming up to me at a reading saying, “That was my so-and-so.” I don’t think that’s a good test though: Would every victim’s family be happy with what you made? That can’t be a test.

You’ve written about the Holocaust and Dresden and Hiroshima a little bit, and September 11 now. What are your plans for the future?

Nothing like that. I just won’t do it again. I know I’m somebody who is obsessed with dark, catastrophic things. I don’t want to be like that. And I don’t think my book is a response to that instinct, either. I really didn’t want to write about September 11. If someone had said, “You’re going to,” I would have said, “Please stop me if I start to.” It seemed too heavy, or maybe I thought it was too soon. But I just couldn’t avoid it. That having been said, there’s nothing I know about what I’m going to do in the future, but I know it’s not going to be like that. But who knows? What if something happened tomorrow?
My life has really changed in the last year or two. Once I got married, a lot of needs that I previously had, I just didn’t have anymore. My creative output cut way back. And having a kid, it cut back even more. It’s very satisfying in so many ways. I have diarrhea under my fingernails. It’s all I do.
[My son] gives me a whole new set of emotions to use. Before, I was still somebody who was a care-recipient in the world. And now I’m a care-giver. It’s totally different. It’s the first time I’ve experienced love as not a good thing, or not necessarily a good thing. I used to think that love was a positive value. Zero is you don’t care about somebody. Positive five is you like them, and positive ten is that you like them a lot, and positive twenty is that you love them. Now, really, it’s just twenty. There’s negative twenty or positive twenty. You’re always very far from zero. Also, how do you explain loving something that doesn’t love you? My kid doesn’t love me. It’s the greatest unrequited love story of all time, having a kid.
I should go soon. It’s bath time tonight.

That sounds fun.

It’s really the highlight. I think the thing I like most about him is his body. I don’t get to see it very often. It’s rare that I get to hold his whole naked body. And it’s the sweetest thing in the world.

Does he like baths?

I don’t know what he likes or doesn’t like. He’s hard to get a read on. [Laughs] I know he loves breast-feeding.

Can’t blame him for that.

It’s such an overwhelming experience. I would really recommend it.

It sounds terrifying, but I’m sure once you’re in the midst of it, it becomes…

It becomes more terrifying. It makes everything else that I’ve done seem so easy. It’s so unbelievably hard. But that’s part of what’s great about it. That’s exactly what’s great about it.

Friday, April 14, 2006

Everybody Okay?

Hey Iowans: Tornadoes rip through downtown Iowa City. Everybody's family okay? Homes, pets, places of business?

Riverside Dairy Queen is gone!

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Punk Bitch

Last minute notice: Maria Raha, author of Cindarella's Big Score: Women of the Punk and Indie Underground is being interviewed live on KPFK in L.A. tonight, at 7pm western and 10pm eastern. Maria is a great writer and good company at a strip club. Also, she's hot. Catch the interview live on

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Best Friday Ever?

I interviewed Jonathan Safran Foer last Friday. I guess this means I will have to develop a new literary crush as I can no longer make pervy jokes about what I would do if I met him. No, we didn’t make out, but I did get to say the word “panties.” We had a very nice chat over pecan pie and coffee (him) and Stella Artois (me. I was nervous.) in a café in Park Slope. He’s very cute and slender with poofy black hair. We talked about books and writing and his new son and you’ll be able to read all about it in the interview next week.

Something you won’t read about in the interview is how, in the café, we were sitting in the back, near the bathrooms. This was my choice. I thought it would be quieter back there, away from the main dining room, which was empty, but still—what if it filled up? I had one of those ancient plastic handheld tape recorders that tend to clearly pick up every ambient sound, while somehow totally distorting the voice of the interviewee. I tried to pick a quiet spot. But from the way the traffic moved into the restaurant and back towards us, you would have thought this was the only working toilet in Brooklyn. I mean it was ridiculous. At one point a tall, pony-tailed man in a windbreaker jittered up to one of the locked bathroom doors (there were two), cupped his hand at his ear and listened through the door for almost a full minute, then engaged one of the cleaning staff in an argument about who, if anyone, was in the bathroom. Sure enough, a couple minutes later some other cleaning guy came out of the bathroom with his mop bucket. Then another cleaning guy came over and went into the other bathroom. Then, for awhile, it seemed like it was all cleaning guys in and out of both bathrooms. What were they doing back there? Anyway, this was more or less pretty distracting since the bathrooms were about two feet away from our table. Distracting and gross. Oh well. Lesson learned. At one point JSF leaned over and whispered, “Have you been watching all this? It’s very random.” I do have to say: it was fun to share a moment of weirdness with him.

Strangely, he and I intersected on a bunch of things, including the journalist Robert Birnbaum (JSF’s favorite interviewer; my old boss) and books like Postville and Operation Shylock. I got to slip in, “So I did part of my thesis on Everything Is Illuminated and Operation Shylock…” Oh, snap. Maybe that made up a little for the toilet smell that must have been making it hard for him to eat his pie. Maybe not.

Really though, it was a top notch experience, talking with one of my favorite authors about books & stuff. Very wish fulfillment-y. To top it off JSF emailed me on Monday morning to tell me he had a good time. Swoon and cut. Perfect.

So who’s next? Maybe Gabe Hudson? Stephen Elliott’s bizarrely hot, but we’re both bottoms so I just don’t think it would work. If you have any suggestions for my replacement literary crush, please let me know. And check back for the interview link next week.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Semper Fi

Hey ho out there. I just spent a weekend in the Catskills where I discovered that I have become a city person. I got lost in the woods, had a wet, nerve-wracking rowboat experience, and went on a bike ride only to end up walking the last hill. Also, I will be honest here: the outside noises scared me. At home, when I hear an ambulance siren, I know it's an ambulance siren. I know, when I hear reggaeton blasting from a slow-moving car, that I am in Jersey City. Or possibly the Lower East Side. When I hear people talking or bums yelling or cars honking or trucks backing up, I know that those noises are exactly what they seem to be. Last weekend, when I heard a crunch or a scrabble in the woods, it could have been a leaf blowing around, or a grazing animal, or a serial killer coming to molest and decapitate me. All the sounds were furtive and mysterious. They could have been one thing or another. Was that a series of approaching shotgun blasts, or a construction site miles away? Is that a highway or a waterfall? The creak of a tree trunk or the unlatched door of a cannibal woodman's cabin?

Born-and-raised-in-New-Jersey Scott is hiking the Appalachian Trail right now. He’s 500 miles down and 1500 left to go. I can't help but wonder what keeps him sane alone on the trail at night. My guess is booze. Lots of booze.

Despite my paranoia and inability to navigate without street signs, I had a wonderful weekend and have decided to spend more time getting back to my outdoorsy, Midwestern roots this summer. This of course will mean a reinstatement of my Naked Navy Seals membership and the opening of a mid-Atlantic chapter.

Naked Navy Seals was a small but exclusive club that came about the summer after my sophomore year of college. I was living in Madison, but recovering from mono (read: unemployed), so I went home every weekend. A few friends at the university had one of those beautiful scuffed-up Victorians downtown that smell permanently of stale beer and bong water. There was no air conditioner, and it was a hot summer. I think it started with a game of Dare (we already knew each other’s ugly truths); something about a naked Irish jig. I believe there was a karaoke machine involved. Pretty soon we were going on “missions” as a “team.” It spiraled downward from there. We spent a lot of nude time outside that summer. We learned to love the feeling of bark against bare ass.

I think fondly on those humid, creepy nights and wonder where my brothers in naked arms have gone? And then I hum The Humors of Kilkenny and expose myself in public.

I'm Stumped