The Academy of American Poets promised youth. “All very hip, young, cool poets,” said the invite for a recent Thursday-night reading on the rooftop of the Arsenal Building in Central Park. And it wasn’t just that night’s reading. “The entire reading series,” the e-mail emphasized, “features hip, cool poets.”
On the evening of the hip, cool reading on the rooftop, the clouds hung low and threatened precipitation. The workers of Manhattan, newly released from their cubicles, surged up Fifth Avenue to Central Park, breathing in the cultivated scents of high-end retail that punctuated the doorway of each storefront.
“I’m sick of hearing about Barack Obama,” said someone walking behind me on Fifth Avenue, as I, newly released from my cubicle, inhaled the spicy, luxurious air that poured out the doorway of Henri Bendel. “You know?” she said to her companion. “I’m sick of the jokes.”
The skyscrapers all had trees growing from their atria or complex terraces of ferns sprouting beneath their glass panes. They looked like magazine ads for oil companies. Mr. Softee trucks lined 59th Street, which was also seething with joggers. Around the stoplights the young joggers clustered, running in place. They all wore T-shirts that read “The J. P. Morgan Corporate Challenge.” They jogged to and fro on some sort of athletic scavenger hunt; hip, young, cool corporate types on what appeared to be a fitness mission that promised team building but also possibly resulted in charitable contributions. (I looked it up later: “Forty companies celebrated fitness and camaraderie in one of the world’s greatest urban parks, while raising funds for the Central Park Conservancy.”)
Few contemporary cineastes have enjoyed so estimably varied a career as Fernando Trueba. A onetime book editor whose film oeuvre has garnered no fewer than twenty-eight Goyas, he won an Oscar for Belle Epoque (1993), his sexy tale of a young deserter from Spain’s Civil War landing up at the farm of an aging artist whose comely daughters—one craven, one queer, one a young Penélope Cruz—impart a barnful of lessons about women and love. Since the 2000 release of Calle 54, his warm, exacting documentary on Latin jazz, Trueba has also devoted much energy to the music he loves. His work as a music producer has perhaps been highlighted by his association with Bebo Valdés, the supreme Cuban pianist whose sound was key to the evolution of both Cuban dance music and American jazz a half-century ago and who has spent his ninth decade making impeccable records with his Spanish friend. Trueba’s latest project, a gorgeous animated feature built from Valdés’s music and moments, marks a culmination of his work not only with the ninety-two-year-old pianist but with another long-term collaborator, the celebrated Spanish designer and artist Javier Mariscal. I caught up with Trueba a few days after Chico and Rita opened the Miami International Film Festival to a rousing ovation.
Where did you get the idea to do an animated film about Cuban music in the forties and fifties?
One day I was in Mariscal’s studio in Barcelona, and I saw some drawings he’d done of Habana Vieja. That’s when the lightbulb came on: we should make a movie in these streets, in a Havana created by Mariscal. We agreed that it should be a story about musicians. And then I suggested that if we have a story of a pianist, we could have Bebo play. And I thought, well, what Bebo represents is the style of the forties and fifties, so let’s do a story set in that period. How beautiful—the Havana nightlife of that time, which I knew only from books, or the stories of friends like [Guillermo] Cabrera Infante, the great Cuban writer of Tres Triste Tigres. And it also seemed like a time that was great visually, for Mariscal this era was when modern design started. We started developing the idea, and Mariscal said he felt the work should be very dramatic, like a bolero. And so we had that reference for the story—not a cinematographic reference, or a literary reference, but a song reference. Not a song-style reference, but a song itself. We wanted to build the story like a song, like a bolero.
The tone of a bolero is melodrama, and a lot of those elements are in the story: lost love, longing, nostalgia for that breezy room over the Malecon where Chico and Rita first make love. But how did the music come into it as you were actually writing the script?
When I was writing, I was trying to imagine how Mariscal’s drawings would move, and I had Bebo’s music in mind all the time. We used music to tell the story, to build the characters, the tension. When I work on live-action films, I leave a lot of room for last-minute decisions. Not in terms of the screenplay—I like to have the best possible screenplay in hand—but in terms of directing. I don’t like to work with a close storyboard, like Hitchcock. I’ve done a lot of comedy, a lot of work with actors, and I often like to find the shot on the set, to improvise the line. But with animation, you have to think of every single shot. Absolutely everything is storyboard, and that’s a big difference. To have to imagine one hundred percent of the movie, before it’s actually done—it’s a really strange mental exercise. But it’s great, I love it.
For over the last year, Thomas Bean and Luke Polling have been working on a documentary about George Plimpton called, well, Plimpton!. Today they launched a Kickstarter project to help them cover the expensive costs of paying for archival footage. Watch the video above to see a short clip of the film, which combines Plimpton’s own narration with interviews from his family and friends such as Peter Matthiessen, Gay Talese, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., Mike Milbury, Elaine Kaufman, Robert Silvers, James Lipton, Jay McInerney, and Hugh Hefner.
If you donate $100 or more to the film, you’ll receive a Paris Review subscription along with a DVD of the film and other goodies. We can’t wait to see the finished project!
Exuberantly marked across the globe, Bloomsday celebrates the single day on which James Joyce set Ulysses, his epic adaptation of The Odyssey, which also happens to be the day of his first successful rendezvous with his future wife, Nora Barnacle. Each chapter of the novel corresponds to an episode in the daily life of one of the book’s three protagonists as they move around Dublin in the summer of 1904: Stephen Dedalus, the frustrated artist as a young man; Leopold Bloom, the Jewish everyman; and Molly Bloom, his profoundly sensual but unfaithful wife.
Immodesty on such a scale is rarely justified, but Joyce was entitled to make his claims on posterity since we don’t just remember his ambitions, we read what they achieved. In his influential book The Intellectuals and the Masses, John Carey argued that while “one effect of Ulysses is to show that mass man matters, that he has an inner life as complex as an intellectual’s,” the novel’s density works to “rigorously exclude people like Bloom from its readership.” I feel uncomfortable with the implication that writing sympathetically about “mass man” means writing for him, perhaps because I can’t quite banish the sense that I might have more than a little of him in me. But to properly defend Ulysses against the charge that it is deeply and treacherously unreadable, you cannot avoid calling yourself to the stand. Martin Amis baldly posed the question, “Who curls up with it?” And writing on this blog last year, Peter Terzian elected to take Ulysses on a vacation, reasoning that the book affords “the kind of pleasure to be found in difficulty.” I agree and would also subscribe to his method of consulting guides to Ulysses on a preliminary read, before trying to do without them for a second attempt immediately after. But I wanted to push things further still, to see just how much pleasure could be derived from the second most difficult novel in the language: to engage in some omphalos-gazing extreme reading.
With George Jonesian morbidity, I’ve been devouring the Wimbledon coverage—in Grantland!—by our sometime special tennis correspondent Louisa Thomas. (Come back, Louisa! We’ll quit our honky-tonking and running around, if you’ll just come back and keep writing the way you do.) —Lorin Stein
I don’t usually laugh out loud when I read, but Iris Owens’s alternately hilarious and appalling After Claude was getting me strange looks on the A train. Incidentally, it’s one of the great NYC summer books, too. —Sadie Stein
I picked up the charming Weeds by Richard Mabey, who suggests that our definition of the word is far more subjective and cultural than we would like to think. The book is sprinkled with entertaining anecdotes, like this one about the eminent rosarian Humphrey Brook, who became slightly belligerent after a few pints of beer at a local pub: “On the way back we passed a suburban garden where the owner was picking modern shrub roses whose shades were a farrago of Day-Glo reds and oranges. Humphrey stopped unsteadily, stared at the scene much as one might at a junk dealer gluing Formica onto a Chippendale table, and screamed ‘Vegetable rats!’ at the hapless grower.” —Thessaly La Force
Chris Weitz’s new movie, A Better Life, opens this weekend in New York at Lincoln Center and the Sunshine. I’ve heard a lot about the film, and it’s not clear how long it will run—I’m not taking any chances. —L. S.
Dear Mr. Stein, A few of the pieces in your most recent issue—particularly Mr. Seidel’s and Ms. Barrodale’s—strike me as rather vulgar. I’d be interested to hear your opinion on why so many contemporary writers, when dealing with sexual content, veer toward explicitness instead of subtlety. I just don’t understand why the crass language is necessary; delicate hints and suggestions of such acts are usually more titillating anyway. Betty Lou
Dear Mr. Stein, A while ago I read Elizabeth Bachner’s article “Awkward, Disgusting Copulation: Writing on Sex,” and I found that she expressed so accurately what I seek out in literature: “There’s something deeply unfortunate about the fact that urination, procreation, defecation and orgasm all happen within such inconvenient proximity. Having a human body will kill each of us eventually, no matter what, so we might as well enjoy it. But it’s not for the squeamish. Western culture, in fact, has largely developed around the tension between revulsion and fascination, between being grossed out and turned on.” I can’t find any other explanation for why I can’t close my eyes when Vonnegut gets dirty, or Nabokov cruel. Do you know of any contemporary writers who write with similar … zeal? Cebe Remulto
As you both point out, writing about sex can be gross and unpleasant—unsexy, even. So why publish that kind of thing in The Paris Review?
Betty Lou, your question strikes me as very reasonable. I’d answer, first, that not all writing about sex is meant to titillate. There are other reasons to describe what people do in bed. Not all of these reasons are vulgar or crass. To my mind, a conventional sex scene, say in an airplane novel (“as she raised her hips and guided him into the hot wet center of her,” etc., etc.), is indeed crass. But is it crass—is it meretricious—to write honestly about the mess and complexity of the individual libido? Not to me. What’s vulgar is an airbrush. What’s really vulgar is a sex scene in borrowed language, where the characters are stripped of individuality and the situation has no moral depth. I hope we don’t publish anything like that.