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The Audience Is the Jury: An Interview with Rick Alverson

November 19, 2015 | by

Gregg Turkington in a still from Entertainment. Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

Rick Alverson’s new film Entertainment follows a comedian (Gregg Turkington) on the verge of mental collapse. On tour in California, his routine is simplistic, crude, and lame, the venues are bleak and half-empty. Alone in hotel rooms, he stares blankly at telenovelas. Every night, he leaves a voice mail for his daughter, who never calls back. Alverson intertwines pain and humor, his camera lingering for painful lengths on Turkington’s pale features. The actor turns his popular persona, Neil Hamburger, on its head: an act intended to be ironically vile and loathsome threatens to become legitimately vile and loathsome, and Entertainment evolves into a disquieting portrait of modern-day disillusionment, manifesting in emotional disconnect, misogynist rants, and isolation. 

This experiment in discomfort is a continuation for Alverson, whose previous film, The Comedy (2012), starring Tim Heidecker, focused on a group of affluent, aging New York hipsters suffocating in their own riches and irony, a reversal of the mainstream feel-good blueprint that confused and angered many critics and viewers. I spoke to Alverson in Manhattan earlier this month about his thoughts on Entertainment, portrayals of masculinity in the media, and Teletubbies.

This film is very particularly constructed.

When we watch movies, we paste together these narrative threads that are completely inconsequential. I think that’s due to a restlessness in us. The first thing the mind goes to is the credibility of the narrative, and the content. A large part of what I ended up doing in the edit was thinking about what happens after that, with the viewer’s intellect. It became more and more exciting, because I’m an audience as much as anybody. We’re taught to be unaware, or think that these events are disposable or superfluous, but we’re really vulnerable when we watch media. Especially in dark rooms. Read More »

Night Shift: An Interview with Leslie Stein

November 4, 2015 | by


“Life is nonlinear and that takes a lot of courage to cope with,” writes Leslie Stein in her new book, Bright-Eyed at Midnight. Stein coped, in part, by sitting down at a blank page each night for a year to draw comics. Fueled by insomnia and prompted by characters she encountered while tending bar or traveling the city or by bittersweet childhood memories (her insomnia stretches back to juvenile night terrors), she produced twelve months’ worth of microstories that build a larger narrative through accumulation. In addition to diaristic recollections of everyday events, she meditates on collaged aphorisms and observations snipped from Jules Renard’s Journal, offers up doodled portraits of teen crushes, and returns again and again to the moment just before dawn, when she is alone, awake, and contemplating her art and her existential questions.

In Bright-Eyed, Stein has foregone traditional comics panels, leaving her dreamlike watercolor scenes surrounded by white space. Dialogue between the book’s impish figures is handwritten in colored pencil and linked to its speakers not by conventional word balloons but by small, unobtrusive squiggles. Some nights seem to get the best of her: a handful of pages are dense, wildly rendered paintings with anxiously scratched self-portraits and recriminations peering out from between brush marks. The Globe and Mail described these as “Kandinsky illustrating Virginia Woolf.”

Seasonal headers are the only organizing devices in the book, which has been edited down to 224 drawings. According to Stein, her publisher wanted page numbers, but she resisted, not wanting to interrupt Bright-Eyed at Midnight’s magical quality. “How does this book even exist?” she told me. “It’s unique—it’s a comic book and an art book, it’s a diary. You could open it to any page to begin.”

Stein and I met at a bar in Brooklyn early one evening in late August to discuss her nightlife. It was hot, so we sat under a tree to talk.

When you decided to draw every day for a year, were you making the work for yourself instead of readers?

I didn’t actually anticipate having any readers. I started drawing the series on New Year’s Eve—it sounds so gimmicky, but it really wasn’t on purpose. I had had a difficult year. I was either bartending or alone all night. I wanted something new and different to play with, to get color in my life. New Year’s is symbolic. I wanted to think about what a new year meant in my own life rather than people’s expectations of it. I didn’t want to go out to a party. I did a bunch of terrible drawings that evening and then went out drinking anyway, because I felt discouraged. When I got back to my apartment, I did a scratchy comic about my night and threw it up on Tumblr. The next day I woke up and there it was. I took it down, because posting it was kind of an accident, but then started the next in the series right away. Since I was playing around with materials, the style changed often but turned into something concrete. By the end of the year, I was laying down my lines in a specific way before coloring, and the spatial relationships between images and the design of the characters had solidified. Read More »

All Writers Have a Corpse in Their Closet: An Interview with Andrés Barba

November 3, 2015 | by

Andrés Barba. Photo © Andrés Barba

Andrés Barba’s August, October, now translated from the Spanish by Lisa Dillman, should bring him the wide Anglophone readership he’s long deserved. The novel follows the fourteen-year-old Tomás as he travels to the coast with his affluent family on their summer vacation. He’s at a point in his life when everything feels distant and strange: friendships, sex, the alluringly lawless behavior of the lower-class kids he meets. Tomás ends up becoming complicit in the sexual assault of a local girl, the central event from which the narrative unspools, and back in Madrid, assailed by guilt, he tries to plot a path toward atonement—one that shines at times with an uneasy air of self-interest. The reader becomes trapped in a story of immaturity and transgression that leaves no room for the usual reassuring tropes of coming-of-age novels. The prose moves on constant commas, swaying between arousal and revulsion, and in its subject matter August, October brings to mind the early work that earned Ian McEwan the nickname “Ian Macabre”: First Love, Last Rites; The Cement Garden.

Barba is the author of twelve books in Spanish. Besides literary fiction he has written essays, poems, books of photography, books for children, and translations of De Quincey and Melville. We discussed his obsession with aloneness, the difficulties of capturing Moby-Dick in Spanish, and why certain “pompous utterances” in literature are “only useful insomuch as Justin Bieber can get them tattooed across his ass.” Barba is fluent in English, but felt more natural discussing his craft in Spanish. Cecilia Ross kindly translated his answers. Read More »

Colossally Sordid: An Interview with Luc Sante

October 27, 2015 | by

Luc Sante. Photo © Laura Levine

With the publication of Low Life: Lures and Snares of Old New York, in 1991, Luc Sante established himself as one of New York City’s most imaginative elegists. The book was a shrewd chronicle of Lower Manhattan abjection from the mid-nineteenth through the early twentieth centuries—but also a call for a more expansive sense of historical memory, one with room not just for the banking magnate and the besooted proletarian behind him but for the guy behind him, too, with the chewed-off ear and the shiv. Sante followed Low Life in 1992 with Evidence, a collection of startling and often sublime crime-scene photographs taken by the NYPD in the 1910s, a project in which Sante afforded his poor tenant-dwellers more dignity than many of them could claim in their abbreviated lives. Since then he’s contributed regularly to The New York Review of Books; written the liner notes of the Anthology of American Folk Music and translated Félix Fénéon’s Novels in Three Lines; published an autobiography of sorts, The Factory of Facts; and released a collection of essays, Kill All Your Darlings. 

His new book, The Other Paris, magnifies the crime, grime, and scrappy, world-reverberating insubordination of Parisians down through history. Sante’s Other Paris is the one that belongs to le Peuple and always has—to the prostitutes, the ragpickers, the laundresses, the pickpockets, the North Africans, Roma, and Jews, the pop singers and tattooed gang members (the apaches, many of whom “had a dotted line around their necks, to guide the blade of the guillotine”), the insurgents on the barricades and the Illegalist bomb throwers, the ones who got their heads cut off and the ones who physically did the cutting. Perhaps most of all, the Other Paris belongs to the flaneurs, the original dandies in the underworld, in whose tradition Sante has followed as a first-rate observer and reassembler of Paris, making this book the most recent contribution to the venerable body of literature that has sought to capture Paris the way it really was and is, from the vantage of the street rather than the street view.

Flaneurie is a huge part of The Other Paris—you call the flaneur the “exemplar of this book.” Since flaneurs have been the truest historians of Paris, did you find the act of walking at all important to your research? For as much consideration as you give to the social consequences of the built environment, it seems like a dérive or two might go a long way toward finding the essence of Paris from “the accumulated mulch of the city itself,” to borrow a phrase from Low Life.

When I wasn’t at the movies, I was walking. I walked all over the city, repeatedly—I kept journals of my walks, which are actually just lists of the sequences of streets. Even though the city isn’t as interesting as it once was—modern construction and commercial real-estate practices have wiped out so much of the old eccentricity—there are still hidden corners and ornery survivals, and of course the topography is such a determinant. New York City is more or less flat and what isn’t was mostly leveled long ago, so it’s missing that aspect of accommodation to hills and valleys and plateaux, not to mention the laying out of streets on a human scale long before urban planning scaled things to the demands of machines. Read More »

Women in Crime: An Interview with Sarah Weinman

October 19, 2015 | by

From the first-edition cover of Mischief.

Sarah Weinman’s two-volume Women Crime Writers challenges and redefines our notions of American crime fiction. Broken into two decades, the 1940s and the 1950s, her collection comprises eight novels—with Vera Caspary’s Laura, Helen Eustis’s The Horizontal Man, Dorothy B. Hughes’s In a Lonely Place, and Elisabeth Sanxay Holding’s The Blank Wall in the first volume, and Patricia Highsmith’s The Blunderer, Charlotte Armstrong’s Mischief, Margaret Millar’s Beast in View, and Dolores Hitchens’s Fools’ Gold in the second. Together, these books reveal an unjustly forgotten feminist tradition by writers who were, in their day, respected as the best in their field.

Diverging from the pulp action tradition embodied by Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler—and from the cozier school of British whodunits by Agatha Christie—these authors pioneered a new trend in mystery fiction: psychological suspense. The stereotypical mysteries of the day featured hard-boiled masculine heroes battling femme fatales. These works, by contrast, presented a variety of innovative plots and perceptive commentary on the gender and class issues of their time. The women in these novels—the titular, savvy careerist in Laura; the psychotic babysitter in Mischief; the struggling mother who covers up the murder of a blackmailer in The Blank Wall—consistently defy what were then conventional notions of womanhood. As the mother in The Blank Wall acknowledges, “[Her husband and children] would give her love, protection, even a sort of homage, but in return for that she must be what they wanted and needed her to be”; ultimately, hers is a quest not only to protect the family name but also to exercise personal agency.

Sometimes the hero (In a Lonely Place), the villain (The Blunderer and Beast in View), or a more ambiguous but still integral role (The Horizontal Man and Fools’ Gold), they’re all refreshingly realistic, relatable, and archetype-breaking female charactersRead More »

Bordellos of the Southland: An Interview with Liz Goldwyn

October 7, 2015 | by

In the foreword to Liz Goldwyn’s Sporting Guide, Los Angeles, 1897, the author waxes poetic on her discursive trawl through illicit Victoriana: “There are moments when the boundaries between dimensions blur. Time is elastic, and you can slip right through, finding the ground you stand upon dissolving, coming back into focus centuries ago … These are the stories of my hometown and the inhabitants I came to know through dusty archives, in hallucinations and dreams.” It seems appropriate that Goldwyn, a vintage collector and designer, editor for French Vogue, and the author and director of Pretty Things: The Last Generation of American Burlesque Queens, would emulate the profligate, fin de siècle style of Baudelaire, Huysmans, and Proust in a portrait of the late-nineteenth-century demimonde. But her selection of setting may come as a bit of a shock: after all, in the popular imagination, the city of Los Angeles was little more than a sleepy, frontier town before a ragtag group of East Coast filmmakers—including Goldwyn’s own grandfather, Polish businessman and movie mogul Samuel Goldwyn—arrived to establish the movie industry.

Goldwyn’s profile of Southland cribs, bordellos, and opium dens explodes that myth with a heady combination of picaresque fiction and Benjaminian psychogeography. Deploying the lost genre of the sporting guide—a then-popular directory of bordellos and cathouses published in most major cities and traded privately among the upper and haute bourgeois classes—Goldwyn assembles a cast of madams, prostitutes, orphans, and drug-dealers reminiscent of those in Zola’sLes Rougon-Macquartseries. Her Sporting Guide reveals a pre-Hollywood Los Angeles dreamscape, in which streetwalkers, politicians, and industrialists rubbed shoulders (among other things) with the uninhibited libidos of the Gilded Age.

On the eve of her trip to the East Coast for a series of readings, Goldwyn spoke to me about her fascination with Los Angeles, the marginal histories of courtesans and prostitutes, and the emotional pleasures of the archive. Read More »