A Week in Culture: John Swansburg, Editor, Part 2


The Culture Diaries

This is the second installment of Swansburg’s culture diary. Click here to read part 1.


I slip out of the office around noon and walk over to SoHo to check out an exhibition of photographs taken on the Paris Metro by Chris Marker. I am an enthusiastic straphanger—I’m known in the Slate offices as a staunch defender of the MTA—so I was looking forward to seeing Marker’s project, but the photos fail to move me. Marker has captured the drudgery of commuting and the diversity of Paris’s commuters, but the photos are almost uniformly glum; they fail to register the vitality a packed subway car can have. (I’ll never forget the time I saw a guy with Four Quartets and a critical text perched on his lap on a crowded C train. Come on, Marker, where’s the wonder?) A few of the shots juxtapose faces Marker has photographed on the subway with faces from masterpieces of painting. Some of the likenesses are impressive, but it feels like a silly trick; I don’t need to be shown that this woman looks kind of like Mona Lisa to care about her. The Marker exhibition leaves me wanting to see what Bill Cunningham would do with the assignment of spending a week riding New York’s rails.

I have dinner at the bustling John Dory Oyster Bar—yes, more oysters, I swear this week is not typical—with my friends from Port Washington, Long Island. Among other things, I’ve learned that citizens of Port Washington harbor ill will toward the neighboring hamlet of Plandome, which, despite its tiny size (population 1,272) and proximity to both the Port Washington and Manhasset stations, for some reason has its own Long Island Rail Road stop, unnecessarily adding two to three minutes to the Port Washingtonian’s commute each morning and evening. Weary passengers have been said to exhibit countenances akin to Munch’s The Scream upon pulling into the Plandome station.


I am a card-carrying fraidy cat, but a chunk of this Friday is dedicated to horror films. In the morning I spend some time reading Jason Zinoman’s upcoming book, Shock Value, on the rise of the horror genre. The story of how horror went from being the stuff of seedy exploitation houses to one of the biggest engines of the Hollywood money machine is fascinating, regardless of whether you have a stomach for blood spatter. Meanwhile, with the new entry in the Scream series nearly upon us, my colleague Forrest Wickman has concocted an equation that can predict the body count of a slasher movie based on several variables: the movie’s sequel number, the number of colons in the title, et cetera. It’s scarily accurate. Forrest posts it on Slate’s culture blog, and e-mails a bit later to say that Wes Craven himself has tweeted a link to it. Nice.

In the evening it’s back to Film Forum, this time to see Le Quattro Volte. Last week, my friend and former colleague Wesley Morris, a film critic for the Boston Globe, tweeted the following: “If you live in a city showing Le Quattro Volte, please go. It’s what God wants.” As you wish! Set in a small town in rural Calabria, the film tracks the lives of an elderly goatherd, a newborn goat, a tall tree, and a pile of coal, whose fates are loosely related. I realize that doesn’t necessarily sound like a recipe for great cinema—did I mention the movie has no dialogue?—but it’s every bit as good as Wesley promised, by turns funny and tragic, mundane and surprising, provincial and universal. Plus, that baby goat is extremely cute. Go see it.


My date with Charlie Sheen has arrived. I hop on the 3:07 P.M. train to New Haven. On the train, I read Zadie Smith’s essay in The New York Review of Books on The Clock, the astonishing, twenty-four-hour film by Christian Marclay. Smith’s essay does an impressive job of capturing both Marclay’s achievement and the experience of taking it in. The film is in London now. I really hope it comes back to New York so I can see the whole thing.

My friends pick me up at the train station in New Haven and we head to Modern Apizza. New Haven is home to a famous pizza rivalry, between Pepe’s and Sally’s, but there’s an ardent faction of locals who believe the finest pizza in town is actually made at Modern, which serves us up two exquisite pies. When we finish eating, we drive to Wallingford to see Charlie Sheen do his thing.

The show is every bit as dreadful as A. O. Scott warned it would be. In fact, it’s arguably worse, in that the crowd in Connecticut never turns on Sheen, as the ones in Detroit and New York did. (Sheen and I get off on the wrong foot when he complains about his reception last night at “Radio Shitty Music Hall.”) The format of the show is this: Sheen and an unnamed sycophant sit in wingback chairs on stage. Just to Sheen’s left, a man with an electric guitar is perched on a stool. The sycophant asks Sheen a series of questions on the order of “You’ve called yourself a warlock. Why do you like that word?” Sheen replies. (He likes the word warlock because it is made up of the words war and lock: “as in, I’m going to lock you out.”) The guitarist plays a short heavy-metal lick to punctuate Sheen’s response. It goes on like this for some time.

There’s no denying that Sheen has a certain way with the language, but the man who gave us “can’t is the cancer of happen” has lost his spark. He has nothing new to say; he’s already a captive of the catchphrases we first learned last month (all of which are emblazoned on thirty-five-dollar T-shirts, available at the bustling merch table). Each time he says winning, it sounds that much more hollow. I can’t help but wonder if what seemed like spontaneity in those initial rambling interviews was actually hardened shtick, developed over the course of years of self-righteous misbehavior.

One’s attention starts to wander. Around the midpoint in the show, my friends and I notice that a silver-haired gentleman who has spent all evening running up and down the aisles of the orchestra section trying to get Sheen’s attention has finally been corralled by the theater staff and is in the process of being ejected. Sheen notices this, too, and demands that the man be reinstated. Sheen brings the man he’s pardoned up on stage, hoping, perhaps, to burnish his credentials as a champion of the oppressed and the misunderstood. But the man has his own agenda. It turns out that he was eager to get Sheen’s attention because he is an accomplished harmonica player and has composed a blues song for the actor. Pulling a harmonica from his sport coat, he proceeds to belt it out. It’s honestly not half bad, and Sheen and the audience look on in genuine wonder. The man finishes his performance, thanks Sheen for sparing him and for letting him have his moment, does an awkward cartwheel of joy, and descends back into the drunken throng. It’s the only real display of talent all evening.


My friends and I decide to throw good money after bad and proceed directly from the Sheen debacle to Uncasville, Connecticut, home of the Mohegan Sun casino. The first hours of Day 7 open with the three of us playing a few shoes of blackjack, dealt by an amiable fellow named Ron who seems sincerely chagrined that the house keeps winning. The gaming floor is strangely full of gamblers in cowboy hats, as if it were some kind of Kenny Rogers night at Mohegan. We eventually glean that, in fact, it’s Kenny Chesney night—the singer played a show earlier in the evening at the casino’s concert space. We totally should have gone to see Kenny instead of Charlie.

We return to New Haven and get some rest. In the morning, I attempt to expiate some of last night’s sins by visiting the Knights of Columbus Museum—the fraternal organization was founded in New Haven—to check out its recently opened exhibition on the papacy of John Paul II. I’m able to make a quick survey of the papal regalia on display, as I am currently the only museum patron. A video, playing on loop, has some good footage of the mass the Pope gave at Aqueduct in 1995.

I walk over to New Haven’s Union Station, which is famous (in my mind) for having not one but two Dunkin’ Donuts stores. I’ve always assumed it must be the smallest structure in the world to house two of the same franchise. I catch the 12:56 P.M. back to Grand Central. I’ve brought along a copy The Jew of Malta to read on the train, but I’m too tired from the previous night’s misadventures for Marlowe. Instead, I fire up the second episode of The Killing, the new series on AMC about a murder investigation in Seattle, on my iPad. It’s very good—moody, ever so slightly Twin Peaksish. A guy gets on at Westport wearing a Minnesota Timberwolves hat.

John Swansburg is the culture editor of Slate.