Could I Please Steal Your Movie, and Other News


On the Shelf

Satyajit Ray.


  • As is by now well known, Hollywood—real, old-timey, cigar-chomping, tush-squeezing, cocktails-in-the-back-of-the-limousine Hollywood—was and is a loathsome place. Imagine an elaborate machine designed to suck the marrow out of an art form and turn it into money—you got it, buddy! And if you were a talented, eagle-eyed filmmaker from the subcontinent, well, forget about it, they’d eat your soul. Or try to, anyway. In 1967, Satyajit Ray, who’d directed the Apu trilogy in India, visited Hollywood in hopes of realizing his latest film, The Alien, which Columbia Pictures had agreed to bankroll. Roy expected a degree of autonomy; instead he confronted “the hum of machinery in my ears” as he was chauffeured around Los Angeles and asked to sign away the rights to his own screenplay. The movie was never made—but later, after Ray’s screenplay had been circulating in California for decades, traces of it showed up in films like E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Abhrajyoti Chakraborty writes, “Where Ray wrote his own screenplays, preferred to operate the camera as often as possible, composed his own music, designed publicity posters and fonts, the studios of the West Coast were known for the scale of their operations and compartmentalized efficiency, so that by the time a film went to the floors its appeal for different audiences would have been sorted out, and everyone in the cast and crew—from the director to the actors to the set workers and sound technicians, all protected by their respective unions—everyone worked in fixed roles to advance that appeal. What has worked once will work again, the Hollywood credo went; prior success was desirable because it could be endlessly replicated. Hollywood, like every longstanding establishment, had a house-style guide.”
  • You’d think the culture wars were over, given that the Christian right united behind a presidential candidate who bragged about sexually assaulting women. You are wrong, though. We live in a time when enterprising Jesus-smooching types are still trying to launch Christian magazines for teen girls. Witness Brio, whose cover lines include “Do You Love Stuff More Than God?” and “Is It OK to Pray for a Boyfriend?” Liam Stack writes: “While Teen Vogue recently published a guide to gifts you can buy a friend after an abortion, Brio has featured reader testimonials on how to avoid the temptations of premarital sex (‘I began struggling to keep my thoughts godly when Satan tried to draw me out of my purity,’ wrote Leah, age sixteen, in 2009.) Sorcha Brophy, a sociologist at the University of Pittsburgh who grew up reading Brio, said the magazine aims to ‘normalize being a Christian teen’ by telling readers it can be cool to go to church and shun drugs and partying. But she said its emphasis on moral uprightness can also create a lot of pressure. As an example, Ms. Brophy pointed to a feature she encountered during her research: a pop culture quiz that deducted points from a reader’s score for correctly answered questions about mainstream music videos and celebrity gossip.”

  • Grace Paley kept so busy as an activist that it’s a wonder she found any time to write at all. On the occasion of a new collection of Paley’s stories, nonfiction, and poems, Alexandra Schwartz looks at how the protester landed on the page: “Paley was often asked about the connection between her politics and her fiction. Sometimes she said that her subject matter turned out to be inherently political … Paley initially suspected that her work would be considered ‘trivial, stupid, boring, domestic, and not interesting,’ but she couldn’t help it: ‘Everyday life, kitchen life, children life had been handed to me.’ Another answer had to do with justice, the quality that Paley saw at the root of her literary and political endeavors. In a 1985 Fresh Air interview, she told Terry Gross, ‘When you write, you illuminate what’s hidden, and that’s a political act.’ The remarkable fact is that her fiction, peopled by the politically minded, doesn’t do the things that politically infused writing typically does. It doesn’t preach; it doesn’t demonize or lionize; it doesn’t nobly set out to illustrate a set of beliefs or ideals. Indeed, it often undercuts them with sly self-awareness.”
  • The subject of a beguiling 1966 Alice Neel portrait has finally been identified: she is Ujjaini Khanderia, the daughter of the Indian social-realist novelist Bhabani Bhattacharya, and she has almost no memory of sitting for Neel’s masterpiece. Saudamini Jain talked to her about the experience: “ ‘I was terribly homesick and wanted to go back to India the same day that I landed in New York,’ she said. ‘I was not good company given my depressed and sad state of mind.’ [Millen] Brand took her sightseeing, and they stopped by at his friend Alice Neel’s studio apartment. Khanderia says she agreed to sit for the portrait. ‘Since I was lonely and homesick, I thought this was a good opportunity to be left alone without having to act friendly’ … ‘I just thought she was a local artist,’ she said. ‘I thought she was just practicing something.’ She remembers Neel to be friendly and unassuming, engrossed in painting more than talking. She sat for Neel for about seven hours and was pleased by the finished portrait, ‘But my thoughts were elsewhere—I was more concerned about how I would survive in Ann Arbor where I knew nobody and had no help.’ ”
  • Adam Shatz on the best movie about an Algerian abattoir you’ll see this year: “Hassen Ferhani, a young filmmaker, spent two months inside a slaughterhouse. The result is an oddly beautiful film, Dans ma tête un rond-point (‘A Roundabout in My Head’) … In one blackly comic scene, a group of workers struggle to pull a very stubborn cow by a rope just as the Algerian football team scores a goal at the World Cup. But the killing mostly takes place offstage, leaving Ferhani to explore the experiences of the abattoir workers, for whom the slaughterhouse is not only a place of employment, but where they live. The men he interviewed are migrant labourers from rural Algeria. They send meagre remittances to their families, whom they see only a few times a year. Some dream of return to the bled (the countryside); others of escape to Europe.”