“Every one of my novels has had at least a portion where I’ve thought, ‘if I do this badly, it’s going to be terribly embarrassing and I’m going to have to hang my head in shame forever, but if I pull it off, it’ll probably be pretty cool!'”
Novelist Matt Ruff joins the show to talk about how his fantastic novel Lovecraft Country began as a TV pitch 10 years ago, and is now on its way to becoming an HBO series. We get into cultural appropriation issues (Matt’s white and LC‘s about a black family dealing with racism and the supernatural in 1950s Chicago), the pros and cons of genre-hopping, the differences between mid-century racism in the North and the South, growing up over the course of his first three novels and learning to be happy with his voice, becoming friends with one of his favorite authors (past and future pod-guest John Crowley), his ambivalence toward HP Lovecraft and Philip K. Dick and his affinity for their imitators, why he loved the descriptions of late Heinlein novels but was disappointed by the books themselves (when he was 12!), bucking his family’s religious traditions, missing his opportunity to babysit Thomas Pynchon’s kid, and more! Give it a listen! And go buy Lovecraft Country!
“I intended for Lovecraft Country to be a TV series, so I thought, ‘What if I do the literary equivalent of a season that you binge-watch?’ That’s why the novel is structured very much like an 8-episode TV season.”
About our Guest
Matt Ruff is the author of the novels Fool on The Hill (1988), Sewer, Gas & Electric: The Public Works Trilogy (1997), Set This House in Order: A Romance of Souls (2003), Bad Monkeys (2007), The Mirage (2012), and Lovecraft Country (2016), which was recently greenlit as an HBO series.
Credits: This episode’s music is Nothing’s Gonna Bring Me Down by David Baerwald, used with permission from the artist. The conversation was recorded at Mr. Ruff’s home on a pair of Blue enCORE 200 Microphones feeding into a Zoom H5 digital recorder. I recorded the intro and outro on a Heil PR-40 Dynamic Studio Recording Microphone feeding into a Cloudlifter CL-1 and a Mackie Onyx Blackjack 2×2 USB Recording Interface. All processing and editing done in Adobe Audition CC. Photo of Mr. Ruff by me. It’s on my instagram.
“I wanted to be a writer since I knew that I couldn’t be a detective.”
We close out the summer of 2015 with a great summer novel, Orient (Harper) by Christopher Bollen! We talk about his new book, the difference between a “smart murder mystery” and a “literary thriller,” the perils of Male First Novel Syndrome (as evinced in Lightning People: A Novel), the challenges of writing about Long Island, how his years at Interview magazine honed his ear for dialogue, his fascination with rootlessness, why it’s too easy to parody the contemporary art scene, and more! Give it a listen!
“Remember how you could totally judge a stranger by what they were reading? Now we’ve totally lost that cue, thanks to e-books.”
We also talk about Christopher’s impending 40th birthday, his reverse mid-life crisis, “kids today,” the people he now realizes he should’ve been nervous about interviewing when he was young, the allure of detective stories, why childhood bookish shut-ins have great skin when they get older, how I once nearly blew up a shopping mall back in my high school years, and whether the actual inhabitants of Orient were peeved about his new novel.
“You don’t interview Fran Lebowitz; it’s more like you’re her audience.”
We talk about some books and movies in this episode. Here’s a list of ’em (Note: if I ever go to a Patreon crowdfunding model for the show, this is the first thing that goes subscriber-only):
- Orient: A Novel – Christopher Bollen
- Lightning People: A Novel – Christopher Bollen
- The Flamethrowers – Rachel Kushner
- The Secret Parts of Fortune: Three Decades of Intense Investigations and Edgy Enthusiasms – Ron Rosenbaum
- The Great Gatsby – F. Scott Fitzgerald
- Tender Is the Night – F. Scott Fitzgerald
- Plum Island – Nelson DeMille
- Less Than Zero – Bret Easton Ellls
- Browsings: A Year of Reading, Collecting, and Living with Books – Michael Dirda
- The Beach – Alex Garland
- Women in Love – DH Lawrence
About our Guest
Christopher Bollen is a writer who lives in New York City. He regularly writes about art, literature, and culture. His first novel, Lightning People, was published in 2011. His second novel, Orient, was published by Harper in May 2015. He is currently the Editor at Large at Interview Magazine.
Credits: This episode’s music is Nothing’s Gonna Bring Me Down by David Baerwald, which seems to have become our unofficial theme song (I’ll ask DB if it’s okay to make it official). The conversation was recorded at Mr. Bollen’s apartment on a pair of Blue enCORE 200 microphones feeding into a Zoom H5 digital recorder. I recorded the intro and outro on a Blue Yeti USB Microphone. Processing was done in Audacity and Logic Pro. Bio photo of Mr. Bollen by Danko Steiner; not-as-good photo by me.
I’m in true batshit-crazy work mode, thanks to a couple of salespeople who don’t know the meaning of the word “deadline,” but that won’t stop me from posting a nice batch on Unrequired Reading for you!
A few months ago, I listened to a Bill Simmons podcast in which he and guest Chris Connelly discussed the “movie of the decade.” Simmons’ criteria were
- Excellence when it came out
but they were somewhat compromised by the fact that Simmons’ job consists of sitting at home, watching TV, and writing columns. He does good work, but someone who has the TV on 16 hours a day is going to have some odd ideas about the second and third of those criteria.
Anyway, both men had some odd choices â€” O Brother, Where Art Thou? was the Coen Brothers’ best movie, Chris? The Dark Knight is rewatchable, Bill? And you’re considering The Departed, even though it’s a remake? â€” but it sparked an interesting conversation. Connelly initially drew a blank when asked about movies of the decade, pointing out that movies during this period â€œreally bifurcated.â€
He said, â€œYou had movies you admired, and movies that were popcorn movies. It was not a good decade for the twining of the two. The economics of movies meant that they had to be thrill rides. And all the critical metrics of how you assess these movies flew right out the window. . . . Guys who could make the high/low movie, they just didn’t do it this decade, because the economics were baited.â€
My initial thought when he said this was, â€œWell, Spielberg wasnâ€™t making as many movies this decade, so that must account for the shortfall.â€ Because if anyone can negotiate storytelling with studio expectations, itâ€™s Steven Spielberg. Then I opened up his IMDB page and realized that he actually directed more movies this decade than last. They just werenâ€™t good.
Saving Private Ryan (1998)
Schindler’s List (1993)
Jurassic Park (1993)
War of the Worlds (2005)
The Terminal (2004)
Catch Me If You Can (2002)
Minority Report (2002)
Artificial Intelligence: AI (2001)
(Some people like Minority Report, but that just means they didn’t actually watch the movie. See, the whole minority report turned out to be a Macguffin, and the only thing that would’ve made the story compelling would be if the cops were busting people days and days before they committed a crime, not mere moments before. I understand how the latter is better for the sake of thriller-tude, but the issue of “psychic profiling” becomes a lot more ambiguous if the criminals-to-be have no idea they’re going to be committing a crime. I know some people like AI, but that just means that they’ve failed a Turing Test and are actually automatons of some kind.)
Simmons began the conversation by offering up Almost Famous (2000) then revised his pick and went with The Dark Knight (2009). He recanted that position in a recent podcast, presumably after realizing that, despite its technical virtuosity and a great performance by Heath Ledger (although I’m convinced that if Ledger hadnâ€™t ODâ€™d, it would have just been another big superhero movie, not the Titanic of this decade), it has ridiculous plot-holes, the third act goes on about 2 days too long, and the wrong villain dies.
Still, their conversation got me thinking about the topic, and how it differs from my Favorite Movies of the Decade list (below: have patience!). Since I see relatively few movies, I feel pretty unqualified to offer up candidates for “movie of the decade.” I mean, Borat (2006) was a monstrous success in comedy, and pretty re-watchable. The first Saw (2004) also made huge box office was pretty influential on the horror genre. (I never watched it; I’m not a horror fan.) I find 300 (2006) pretty darn entertaining, and I’ll stick with it for a little while if I notice it while channel-surfing. It too was a massive and unexpected hit. I never saw Gladiator (2000), so I have no idea how “movie of the decade” it is, outside of the fact that it inspired a bunch of sword-and-sandals flicks. Similarly, the Lord of the Rings cycle (2001, 2002, 2003) was a massive success that inspired a wave of cookie-cutter “let’s build a movie franchise out of a series of fantasy novels” releases. My wife and I have a tradition of watching the trilogy annually around New Year’s Eve/Day. She always gets mad when I tell her that the moral of the story is that evil is too clumsy to win.
But the whole theme of my decade-trospective posts is Man Out Of Time, so I have to go to 1999 to find my “movie of the decade”: Three Kings.
I’ve seen Three Kings three times: in the theater, the night before the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and two weeks ago, in preparation for this post. Because if this decade’s going to be defined as The Bush Years, then one of the best warnings we had for What Went Wrong is David O. Russell‘s caper movie about Gulf War I.
The plot of Three Kings is pretty simple: after the ceasefire at the end of the first Gulf War, three Army reservists discover a map for a cache of gold that Iraq plundered from Kuwait. A special forces major â€” played by George Clooney, first seen having sex with Judy Greer (yay!) â€” finds out their secret, and the four head off to steal some gold.
Of course, it all goes awry. The guys find the gold, but also discover that the Iraqi army is too busy brutally suppressing internal revolt to bother protecting the treasure. The major changes the mission mid-stream to save the dissenters, leading the men into disaster. One winds up dead, another gets captured and tortured, the humanitarian mission almost leads to the death of all the Iraqis it’s supposed to save, and media embeds are manipulated to spin the war and the caper. Oh, and the dissidents’ only hope is to flee into the arms of Iran.
All this movie needs is roadside bombs and some beheadings by extra-national jihadis, and we’d have a blueprint for why Gulf War II was never going to work! But don’t take my word for it; here’s Clooney’s Major Gates and his commanding officer near the movie’s start:
Major Gates: I don’t even know what we did here. Just tell me what we did here, Ron!
CO: What do you want? To occupy Iraq and go through Vietnam all over again? Is that what you want? Is that your brilliant idea?
Later in the movie, Gates is trying to convince a rebel fighter to give him a fleet of cars in order to rescue a soldier. The fighter says he has no money for food, prompting Gates to launch into pep rally mode:
Major Gates: Listen to me! We will rise up together! Rise up! Look at us! Many races, many nations, working together. We’re united. George Bush — George Bush wants you! Stand up for yourself!
Rebel: George Bush?
Gates: Yes! Wants you! Wants you! Wants everyone to rise up! George Bush wants you! He wants you! You have to fight for freedom on your own, and America will follow! God bless America and God bless a free Iraq! [cheers of throngs] Now what do you say, my friend?
Rebel: Can not give car.
Gates: Okay. I guess we’ll buy ’em.
Interestingly, the only character who’s “right” is the one who just wants to take the gold and leave the locals to their ugly fate. He’s the one (played by Mark Wahlberg) that gets tortured by an Iraqi soldier who’s been trained by the U.S. and who â€” in another wonderfully prescient moment â€” begins his interrogation by asking, “What is the problem with Michael Jackson?”
I don’t want to make this out as simply a propaganda flick, nor an anti-war diatribe. While Three Kings ridicules the idea of liberating Kuwait and shows the revolt as something the U.S. should have supported and that would have been impossible to support, the movie is made memorable by the fantastic performances of Clooney (my favorite flick of his), Wahlberg (in the role the inspired Adam Samberg’s awful impression of him), Ice Cube (and his ring of Jesus fire), and Spike Jonze, who steals every scene he’s in. Oh, and Nora Dunn does a fantastic job as the media-embed who’s clearly patterned after Christiana Amanpour. If you’ve never seen Three Kings, or you didn’t catch it during the decade that it presaged, do yourself a favor and watch it. Just like Major Gates, you can ask what we did over there.
(Oh, and here’s a short video by NYTimes critic A.O. Scott about Three Kings, which should give you some idea of how visually striking it is.)
So that’s my convoluted take on the Movie of the Decade. In fact, 1999 was a very important year for movies. Here’s a couple of the big ones from that year and the lessons they had for us:
- American Beauty – Middle-aged guys want to have sex with hot high school girls! Surprise!
- Election – Ditto. Oh, and Hillary Must Be Stopped.
- American Pie – Everyone wants to have sex with hot high school girls! Surprise!
- Cruel Intentions – Ditto.
- The Straight Story – Some guys don’t want to have sex with hot high school girls; they just want to visit their dying brothers by driving their riding mowers hundreds of miles.
- The Matrix – black vinyl + martial arts + wirework + lots of guns + slo-mo rotating camera – Keanu talking = revolution in action movies
- Being John Malkovich – From the beginning, Charlie Kaufman was always trying to get us into someone else’s head.
- Office Space – Kill yourself now . . .
- The Sixth Sense – . . . but don’t keep going to work after you’re dead.
- Star Wars: The Phantom Menace – All the CGI in the world doesn’t make a good movie.
- The Blair Witch Project – None of the CGI in the world apparently can make a good movie.
- and . . . Fight Club – Testosterone-fueled guys with no sense of higher purpose are capable of bringing down the world financial system.
And now . . . my favorite movies of THIS decade, in no particular order, although the first two probably are #s 1 and 2:
Favorite Movies of the Decade
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) – It may be my favorite love story committed to film. If not, it’s at least the Annie Hall of the decade. Although I’d already met the woman I would marry by the time this one came out, I still carried the memory of a recent heartbreak. This collaboration between Michael Gondry and Charlie Kaufman captured so much about what we gain when we find love, and how we’ll do anything to escape the pain when we lose love. And it covers the terrain in between, when it all falls apart. It’s also quite funny and visually mind-blowing (as it were). Earlier this year, I thought about how it was the perfect sweet-spot in the arcs of Gondry and Kaufman, with the former going on to make the silly, adorable Be Kind Rewind, and the latter going on to make . . .
Synecdoche, New York (2008) – . . . the most frustratingly rewarding (or rewardingly frustrating) movie I’ve seen this decade. Unlike Cronenberg’s adaptation of Naked Lunch, it didn’t cause me to throw my hands in the air and surrender. Nor did I feel as though misinterpreting one symbol was enough to set me on a wrong path that devalued the rest of the movie. It’s an insane trek into the artistic process, for which Kaufman’s Adaptation (2002) was a mere dry run (and I loved it at the time). No, I don’t have any idea what to make of Samantha Morton’s house being perpetually on fire. (UPDATE: It looks like Roger Ebert considers it the best movie of the decade, too! But Crash? I know someone’s not gonna be happy about that . . .)
Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang (2005) – I heard about this one when Robert Downey Jr. went on Howard Stern’s show to promote it. It turned out that Stern hadn’t watched the screener DVD the studio sent over, so Downey spent the interview telling Stern about how much he would’ve enjoyed all these aspects of the movie. I filed it away, and picked it up on DVD, and thought, “Howard would’ve hated this movie.” That said, it’s right up my alley: a smartass meta-narrator, a sidekick (Val Kilmer, who’s really more of a boss) constantly taking the piss out of him, an adorable female lead (Michelle Monaghan, who we’re supposed to believe is around the same age as Downey), and a caper/crime plot that tries to pay tribute to Raymond Chandler’s LA.
Hero (2002) – My pal Sang described this as a Confucian Action Movie. It’s visually breathtaking, with fantastic wuxia action scenes, a Rashomon-ish story to tell, and some Hegelian questions about the responsibility of power and the head of state. It’s difficult to pick a favorite scene: I’m partial to the fight in the chess court in the rain, but the archers laying waste to the calligraphy school is unforgettable.
Kung-Fu Hustle (2004) – If entertainment were freebased into little crack-nuggets of entertainment, they would be this Stephen Chow movie. It’s a Tex Avery cartoon come to life, the best superhero movie of the decade, and a touching tribute to kung-fu movie legends, especially the indomitable Qiu Yuen, who became a grandmom the year this one came out. I make every houseguest of ours watch this. You’ve been warned.
Oldboy (2003) – Yeah, I feel bad that the VA Tech shooter was crazy about this movie, but he was crazy in general. It’s too simple to call it a study in the nature of revenge, but that’s the base of it. It’s a tense thriller, has one the greatest fight scenes of all time, and will leave you hollow and scorched by the end. Not in a good way.
Spirited Away (2001) – This was my first exposure to the work of Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki. The plot is pretty simple; a young girl and her parents are moving to a new home, take a shortcut, and end up in the spirit world, where the girl has to rescue her parents. The centerpiece of this world is a bath-house, populated by all manner of unearthly creatures. The girl “wins” by growing up, but never in a Disneyfied way. I can’t do justice to how full this world is, and how full of wonder. I once described The Triplets of Belleville thus, “It’s like being in another person’s dream; unfortunately, that person is astonishingly dull.” This movie is like being in the dream of the most interesting man in the world. Not the guy from the Dos Equis ads.
The 40-Year-Old Virgin (2005) – I had to put one of the Apatow / McKay / Ferrell movies on this list. I was torn between this and Anchorman, especially because this one really suffers after the first hour. That said, the first hour is awesome. I’m a sucker for supporting performances, and the camaraderie on display at the electronics store among Steve Carrell, Romany Malco, Seth Rogen and Paul Rudd is dementedly entertaining and (to me) convincing. Its peak may be when the guys are sitting out back on the loading dock, smashing fluorescent light tubes while shooting the breeze. Oh, and Jane Lynch is hysterical in her few scenes. I think Anchorman‘s funnier overall, but this one wins for not having Will Ferrell in his underwear.
American Splendor (2003) – This meta-biopic of autobiographical cartoonist Harvey Pekar somehow convinced us that Hope Davis could stand in for Joyce Brabner, a miracle in itself. My wife & I watch this each year on Pekar’s birthday. It’s a great study in the story behind the storytelling, with a career-making performance by Paul Giamatti (I wasn’t as much of a Sideways fan as most everyone else).
Memento (2000) – My wife thinks it’s funny that I didn’t remember this was from this decade, but for some reason, I kept associating it with 1995’s Usual Suspects, and thought it was from around that era. Ingeniously structured in the shape of a V; the protagonist’s anterograde amnesia forces him to recreate the scene from scratch every few minutes, while the main strand of the movie keeps jumping backwards in time, disorienting the viewer but never cheating. All the pieces are there, making the conclusion inexorable and, um, unforgettable.
Shaun of the Dead (2004) – I’m not a horror movie fan, and I’ve got a weird hangup about zombies, but this is a wonderful flick. It’s not redeemed simply by its sense of humor, but by the sheer humanness of its characters. Shaun is a fantastically realized character, full of doubts, frustrations, laziness and love for his mum and mates. And he has to save his girlfriend (who just dumped him) from a zombie plague wreaking havoc on London. It’s funny, warm, scary, and has some scenes with Bill Nighy. How’s that for a slice of fried gold?
Zodiac (2007) – No movie has ever left me feeling so carefully manipulated, and I don’t mean that in a bad way. David Fincher keeps every scene so utterly under control, carries the viewer along so expertly, with individual shots and compositions perfectly set up to convey the frustrations and obsessions of the investigation into the Zodiac killings. I can’t turn away when I’m channel-surfing.
Wasabi (2001) – It used to be an ironclad rule that every movie could be made better by adding Jean Reno. Someone let me know if that held up for The Da Vinci Code, the Pink Panther remake(s!), and Couples Retreat. Meanwhile, I’ll stick with Wasabi, which carries the tagline, “Quite Possibly The Greatest French-Language, English-Subtitled, Japanese Action-Comedy Of All Time.”
The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001) – My favorite Coen Bros. movie of the decade. Everyone else was taken by No Country for Old Men, but this one wins for me. Only thing that would’ve made it better is if Billy Bob Thornton‘s character never managed to get out a word of dialogue, but owned the movie via voice-over.
Millions (2004) – Another one of my contrary picks. Everyone else loves Slumdog Millionaire, but my favorite Danny Boyle movie of the decade is this little gem. It sorta retells Boyle’s first movie, Shallow Grave, from a child’s perspective. Two young brothers find a suitcase filled with money. There are two catches:
- it’s in pounds, and the UK is moving over to Euros at the end of the month, so they need to spend it all before the changeover, and
- the people who stuffed the money in the suitcase want it back.
The protagonist, a young boy whose mother recently died and who obsesses over The Lives of the Saints, is a wonder. Go watch this.
Light Keeps Me Company (2000) – A documentary about the wonderful cinematographer, Sven Nykvist. He lit one of my favorite flicks, Another Woman, and this teasing out of his story by his son, as Sven decays from aphasia, is heartrending and wonderful.
Napoleon Dynamite (2004) – I saw this with two friends who did not get the joke. I tried not to laugh too hard, because I was staying at their place that week, and thought it’d be rude. Later, I watched it with my girlfriend, and we fell out laughing. I was glad to find that this wasn’t just an instance where I was being weird.
In Bruges (2008) – I’d managed never to see a Colin Farrell movie before this. I only knew him from his Page Six escapades, so I was pleasantly surprised about how good a comic actor he is. This one’s a small scale crime movie, fitting in behind Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang, but the story’s so sharply constructed around the performances of Ferrell and Brendan Gleeson (and a ferociously mean Ralph Fiennes) that I’ll go back to it repeatedly.
In The Loop (2009) – A verbal tour-de-farce (as it were) about the buildup to war. It plays off of UK/U.S. relations and expectations, features one of the most foul-mouthed characters of all time (Peter Capaldi, whom I’d last seen in Local Hero, shot 25 years earlier, looking all innocent), and needs multiple viewings, since you’re likely to be laughing too hard at one line to catch the next.
The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) – I hated this movie when I first saw it. I had that reaction with Rushmore, too, but now love it, so I think I just have an instinctual wariness about Wes Anderson‘s brand of preciosity. Now I understand and accept that he creates elegant little jewel-boxes and I adore this flick, about a mutant version of J.D. Salinger’s Glass siblings revisited by their long-lost, ne’er-do-well dad.
Kill Bill, Inglourious Basterds, Anchorman, The Incredibles, 300, Borat, Role Models, Adaptation, Ghost World, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, The Darjeeling Limited, Be Kind Rewind, Superbad, Man on Wire, Bad(der) Santa, the whole Lord of the Rings trilogy, and Pootie Tang (just kidding).
What I’m reading: Plutarch’s Lives (Numa Pompilius, Solon, Poplicola and about half of Themistocles), Push Man and Other Stories, by Yoshihiro Tatsumi, Clyde Fans, Bk. 1, by Seth. Oh, and that new ish of Fantastic Man.
What I’m listening to: Not a lot. I watched The Wire on my Pod during both flights last week, and my two days back in the office were so hectic that I didn’t put any music on.
What I’m drinking: I had 2 beers in Vegas, and 1 G&T since returning.
What Rufus is up to: Not being happy with the sudden near-90 temps that we got this weekend. And giving free rides to the ticks of NJ.
Where I’m going: Nowhere this week, but I’ll probably take a day off and do all sorts of errands.
What I’m happy about: I went to a minor-league baseball game on my last night in Vegas, and had a fun time (pix and story to follow). And I’ll get to meet both Tatsumi and Seth (I hope) during my Toronto visit in two weeks.
What I’m worried about: Global pandemic.
What I’m pondering: How you tell if the raider is cheating.
I was listening to The B.S. Report â€” the podcast by Bill Simmons, a.k.a. Sports Guy â€” in my car yesterday. Simmons was talking with “Cousin Sal” about the weekend’s football games, when the talk turned to the recent spate of Oscar-worthy movies they’d seen.
On over-the-air sports radio, which I haven’t listened to in several years, I would get pretty incensed when Mike & the Mad Dog would spend 20 minutes talking about last night’s episode of The Sopranos, John Wayne flicks, or why the remake of Sabrina was much better than the original.
(I’m not making up that last one. It led to the immortal line by Chris “Mad Dog” Russo, “I don’t see why people were so ga-ga over Audrey Hepburn,” confirming my suspicion that a too-excessive interest in sports is clearly a symptom of repressed homosexuality.)
With Simmons and his cousin, on the other hand, I was interested in their opinions and their looser takes on the movies. Also, both of them have worked as comedy writers for Jimmy Kimmel’s show, so I figured they may have funny stories about some of the flicks.
And that’s when it struck me: I’ve been watching Danny Boyle’s movies for 12 years now, through the ups (Shallow Grave, Trainspotting) and downs (A Life Less Ordinary, The Beach) and a lesser-seen gem (Millions). At no point did I ever think he was headed for some sort of mainstream approval.
And now he’s made a movie that a couple of sports-betting maniacs from Boston consider the best flick of the year. This world is full of wonders.