S1: This ad free podcast is part of your slate plus membership. The following podcast contains explicit language.
S2: I’m Stephen Metcalf, and this is the Slate culture kept fest. The doughnut inside the Doughnut Hole edition. It’s Wednesday, December 4th, 2019. On today’s show, the hit movie Knives Out combines an old timey whodunit with some newfangled politics. It’s the latest from writer-director Ryan Johnson. He of Looper and the last Jedi theme. And then the new HBO adaptation of the legendary comics graphic novel, Whatever You Want to call it.
S3: Watchmen is also quite forward thinking in its politics, having turned the venerable IP into a very contemporary racial allegory. We’ll be joined for that segment by Slate alumnus and Times columnist Jamelle Bouie. And finally, a titan of letters has died. We discussed the life and legacy of the great I mean, truly great. Clive James with The New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik. Joining me today is Julia Turner, who is deputy managing editor at the L.A. Times. Hey, Julia.
S4: Hello. Hello.
S5: And of course, Dana Stevens is the film critic for Slate. Hey, Dana.
S5: Knives Out is a cracking murder mystery from writer director Ryan Johnson. It has all the venerable elements of an Agatha Christie, a BBC whodunit or a game of Clue. There’s a manor house, the deviously infighting family, a contested will and an idiot savant detective with a funny accent. But it is mix them into a very courant allegory about race and class in the Trump era.
S1: An agent, crime novelist Harlan Thuan, believes that his name Wonderly do I have it right?
S7: Humby thrombin. OK, an agent crime. Now I want to go back to that. Romley I kept thinking of sight.
S5: Hambly And it got all mixed up at my mind anyway. As an agent. Crime novelist Harlen with some last name played by Christopher Plummer, gathers his children to the family estate for his eighty fifth birthday, only to be discovered dead the next morning, possibly by suicide. But famed detective Ben, while Blore played with a hammy deliciousness by Daniel Craig, believes he may have been murdered. The all star cast includes Yes, it’s true, Jamie Lee Curtis, Don Johnson, Chris Evans, Michael Shannon, Toni Collette. And I think I’m missing at least a couple, but the story centers itself narratively and morally on Marta Harlins, nurse, the daughter of an undocumented immigrant. And as we come to see Harlins, one true ally and friend in the world, she’s played beautifully by Anna de Armas. Let’s listen to a clip.
S8: Mr. Blank, I know who you are. I read your profile in The New Yorker, I found it delightful. I just buried my 85 year old father who committed suicide.
S9: Why are you here? Here at the behest of a client who I cannot say. But let me assure you this my presence will be on a mantle. You will find me a respectful, quiet, passive observer of the truth.
S5: All right. Well, Dana, you’re the film critic. Let me start with you. What do you make of this movie?
S10: I found it absolutely delightful. I’ve been thinking about it ever since, and it’s worn very well on me. I think my favorite thing about knives out, just in terms of the landscape of movies right now, particularly this blockbuster time of year, is that it feels original. I mean, even though even though it’s clearly a send up of a very familiar genre, the Agatha Christie’s style, who done it with the people gathered in a country house. It’s not based on a particular piece of IP, no book, no previous movie, you know, previous existing characters. And it just is extremely well-written, which we can get into. You know, there’s sort of a stylized dialogue form that Ryan Johnson specializes in in a way that the Johnsonville that this most reminds me of is his debut feature, Brick. I don’t know if either of you saw Brick, which is this kind of high school neo noir starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt. And everybody in that movie speaks in this kind of very stylized noir, something. It’s sort of a throwback to 40s movies, except they’re all high schoolers in Southern California in the present day. And this movie has a similar sort of out-of time quality where there’s that there’s almost a language that’s been invented for it. Bye bye. Johnson is the writer director and I just thoroughly, thoroughly got into it. Also, we will we will try not to spoil it in this segment, but the twists are genuinely unexpected. And the way he structures the movie so that you continue to be surprised at moments that you don’t expect to be surprised. You know, beats that aren’t the normal beats of this kind of murder mystery is just very pleasing to watch it unroll.
S5: Julia, what about you?
S6: Yeah. My main feeling coming out of this movie was not really sensible, but I will share it. And it was basically, why aren’t all movies this movie?
S4: I think it’s just so fun. And I realize that, you know, I was like thinking about how the who done it. It’s kind of an out of fashion genre.
S11: Like so much IP has been resuscitated and so many types of things get made in the music. What we did all watch and talk about murder on the Orient Express like a couple years ago, which had a similar like ham fisted performance by a big star. But like everybody knows the plot of murder on the Orient Express. Like the fundamental thing about whodunit, I mean everybody but lots of people do. And so the notion of doing a classic whodunit where the answer isn’t actually known and can’t be known from having read some old musty book somewhere, it’s just so fun. And you can’t quite see the twists coming in part because the whole thing is cast with just huge equally wattage stars in all of the roles.
S12: And so it is not possible to tell in the kind of law and order sense of like, oh well I recognize that face.
S13: So that person is probably the murder like you. Anybody could be the murderer because they all are equally twinkly and enjoying being in this unusual for moviemaking in twenty nineteen caper. I loved it. Steve, what about you.
S5: Oh I adored this movie. I mean so a couple things. One is first of all it’s just it’s a callback, self-conscious callback, Easter egg callback to the movie Sleuth, which is a mostly forgotten but was a big phenomenon back in the 1970s as to why all movies aren’t like this. It’s just too risky to take material that isn’t rooted come pre rooted or pre-established in the audience’s mind with familiar i.p. And throw it out there and then see if it succeeds or fails. I mean they’ve just decided as as purely as a risk model, especially now that you’re competing with streaming, you can’t really do it. It’s wonderful that this director, thanks to a Star Wars work has the built up shitpile to do it, because exactly as Danas you were pointing out, it’s just when was the last time you walked into a movie knowing none of the characters, knowing you know nothing about the universe. And it’s a contouring act that has to take place over two hours from absolutely no expectations or pre-knowledge to a cast of characters, a world, a plot, a setup, and then to flow through the plot to a satisfying conclusion in two hours. It’s a it’s virtually a lost art form. The number of times we’ve seen a movie that successfully executes on that model used to be what every movie was 20, 30, 40 years ago. The number of times we talk about such movies really vanishingly small at this point. I saw the movie in Great Barrington in a very full movie theater on a Sunday because the snowstorms were coming. I knew I wasn’t going to be able to see it on Monday or. Tuesday was packed with the blue hair crude. These old ladies of Great Berrington, all of whom worship at the altar of Agatha Christie, I have not been in such a titillated audience and probably 20 or 30 years is a wonderful way to see a movie, not just on a large screen, but with a full house of strangers. For me, the humor landed in this movie. It is precise, very funny. There is a wonderful joke. I’m sure you guys caught where someone is bragging about having seen Hamilton at the pub.. That’s just a thought to me. That joke lands perfectly. I loved the performances. Everyone is just perfectly somewhere poised between, you know, ordinary naturalistic acting and overbaked ham, I guess. I loved the direction of the production designer with the aura of it. I think its politics are very shrewd. It’s not just a racial allegory. Very finally and horribly, the family keeps mistaking the country of origin of the nurse who’s clearly the heroine of the piece. One person says Equador once as Uruguay, one says Brazil. But they all say it confidently. You know, as if they’re patting themselves on the back for knowing that she’s from one of these countries.
S14: I love that joke, too. And now we never know. Right. I mean, I think the viewers, if it doesn’t, we don’t know.
S5: No, we don’t know. We do know that her mother is an undocumented immigrant. That plays a very large part in the story. This is a very, very shrewd, very clever, very beautifully delivered movie. I have one tiny reservation, and believe me, it is tiny relative to the lovely product on hand. And that’s that for me, the whodunit clunks a little bit. I actually don’t find the whodunit part of it all that compelling. I never felt like my neck was snapping back and forth with the twists and turns the way I remember it doing when you saw Sleuth or one of the old Agatha Christie. That is a tiny complaint against the virtues of this movie. It’s a real throwback and it just executes beautifully.
S15: Well, we can get into the the nature of the twists and turns, I think, in our spoiler segment, because Rand Johnson. I mean, what I’ll just say here is that Ryan Johnson has spoken and written interestingly about the tension between the Agatha Christie style whodunit and then the Hitchcock model of the suspense movie and Hitchcock’s sort of loathing of the whodunit as a as a stupid mechanism for playing with audience interest. And he has combined the two forms in a really interesting way here by revealing pieces of the manner of death very early in the film.
S12: So the mysteries come elsewhere. But one thing I will also say, I mean, it is true that original films have are still being made. Like we we make this lament about original IP frequently. And, you know, it’s not like Gone with the Wind. It wasn’t based on an original property or Wizard of Oz. Obviously, people have been adapting things for a long time.
S13: But I do think in general, when Hollywood veers from IP right now, it’s frequently in horror. Like low-budget horror has become a really exciting, inventive space. And we end up talking about movies like Midsummer because it’s a Zandra in which you can get big audiences to the theatre and talented young directors can do something interesting on Hollywood’s version of a dime. And or you get like serious awards, movies, you get like that. The moon lights up the world, which are wonderful and great.
S12: The thing that’s felt so striking about this movie is that it is original but fundamentally designed to be a creampuff entertainment. Like it is really all about just giving you a good time in your seat at the movie theater, whether in Great Barrington or anywhere else.
S16: And then because it is in fact doing something novel and smart by setting a whodunit in the present day and by looking at the kind of class and political tensions and gender tensions and all the rest of modern life, it’s sort of a guilt free creampuff because you’re like, oh, well, I was smart and about Trump. I mean, it’s I’m not undermined. I don’t mean to undermine the fact that it is sort of making interesting points about class and race and wealth and inequality and all the things that it is. But it those are sort of by the by rather than the thrust of the thing. And that’s what felt so novel to me, like to have so much craft and sort of Hollywood risk put towards just, nope, we’re going to make something and it’s gonna be good and you’re gonna come see it and it’s gonna be fun. Like it’s just like, oh, this is to do this all the time.
S14: Yeah, it has a tremendous confidence. I think that was what I was trying to get at by saying that the originality was what was was what got me is just that whatever weird thing it’s trying to do, this movie has a very masterful hand and confidence about trying to go about doing it.
S17: Yes. Like even the Benwell Blanc accent. So you hear a little bit in that clip we played of Daniel Craig’s just like very weird Tennesse by way of Britain or whatever the hell accent it is that he has. And you, as you first hear it in the film you like, is this going to work like.
S17: And then just a few characters make knowing jokes about it to the point where you feel like the movie is in on whatever it is that Daniel Craig is doing with that accent, and you’re like, okay about it. That’s how he talks. Great.
S14: Exactly. I mean, there’s these elements that you guys have reference that are very current, that are social satire. There’s a young character whose it is basically a right wing Internet troll. There’s somebody who runs a goup style cosmetics lifestyle car company. So there’s all this social satire poked in there. But there’s also just pure silliness like the invention of this Benwell blonde character who seems to be out of time and could easily be from the cool porro era or from Warner Brothers cartoon. In fact, he’s called Foghorn Leghorn at one point by one of the characters. And I think part of that energy, that confidence comes from the fact that this movie is a true ensemble piece. There’s no one real star, there’s no one real protagonist and the cast themselves. It’s like if there was an Oscar for ensemble cast, which there isn’t it? It would go to a movie like this or it should go to a movie. There is a SAG award for a SAG award. That’s true. And there are various critics groups that give ensemble awards as well. So maybe this will get recognized for that. But to me, an ensemble cast award is not about individual stars all doing a good job. It’s about everyone feeling like a company of performing company, which is how these actors seem together. And I think some of that may have to do with the production process, apparently. This movie was put together very fast in between, you know, other commitments, probably Star Wars commitments that Ryan Johnson had. And. And they found the location, this beautiful Massachusetts Victorian style mansion that that it’s all filmed in. And they just called everybody and got them there as quickly as they possibly could. And they didn’t have trailers and they all just hung out at that big house all day in between takes. And I’ve seen several interviews with the cast and crew where they just said that this was a unique experience of the actors really getting to know each other and getting to rehearse and play off each other. And I think that energy really comes through in the feeling that the ensemble gives off.
S5: One thing I’d say about the movie is politics that I thought was the original and and somewhat thought out was it’s really an argument for 100 percent inheritance tax. I mean, this is a this is the whole drama of the movie centers around a legacy of who’s going to inherit what. It’s more than just a allegory about how we ought to treat immigrant white America ought to treat immigrants better. It’s really about who deserves what and why and and who earns what and why. And it’s a truth about those. Its politics are are not they’re woven beautifully into into a completely entertaining, but they’re deep in their own kind of sly way. I thought.
S18: Yeah. I mean, Jamie Lee Curtis, who’s so minor now, just sort of like lovable as a screen presence, I think with her steely strength. And Twinkle is essentially playing Trump. You know, she’s like a real estate person who sees her career as self-made. But you don’t got to fake loan from her wealthy dad. And that’s how she built, quote unquote, built her business. Right?
S5: Well, I mean, it’s just that the movie is very, very clear about this. It’s there is a pathology among white America about self making and needing to believe yourself made in the face of the evidence that you’re not. The irony being that it’s only Marta, the immigrant who’s coming here pretty much with nothing, who can make any claim to self making the movies very smart about those. I thought, anyway, it’s a cool movie. It’s knives out. Check it out. I hope you all see it and tell us what you thought. And we’re not quite done because this is a tough movie to talk about without spoiling. It’s a whodunit. It’s the very worst kind of movie to spoil. But so we’ll save that for the plus segment before we go any further. Dana, I’m sure that we’ve got some business. What? What’s up?
S14: Our business day is two things to tell you that in Slate. Plus, we will be talking about the spoilery parts of knives out, something that we often do with plus when we’re talking about as twisty and mystery as knives out.
S19: So anything that we put into our discussion that is to spoil horrific to include in the main show you’ll be able to hear in Slate. Plus, the only other piece of business is to tell you that our annual call in show is coming up. This is our equivalent of the conundrum show that The Political Gabfest does. Our version is not just that you give us conundrums to wrestle with on the air, that you actually ask us anything you want in the world. It’s a wide open call in show with questions from listeners about any cultural topic or outside of culture, a topic that you’d be interested to hear us discuss. And we choose from all of those contributions and just record and goosey pre-holiday show where we talk about life. If you want to ask us a question for that show, you can call in at 9 7 3 8 2 6 0 3 1 8 again for our annual calling episode 9 7 3 8 2 6 0 3 1 8. Ask us a question. All right, Steve, what’s next?
S3: Watchmen was a nineteen eighties era comic book that, while absolutely legendary in itself, has never quite made the transition comfortably to the screen that critics appear to agree has changed with the new HBO series of the same name as adapted and expanded by Damon Lindelof. Best known, I think, is the creator and showrunner of Lost. This Watchmen takes place within the universe of the original. Serial, but 30 or so years in the future and in a counterfactual, Tulsa, Tulsa, Oklahoma, I should say it’s a wonderfully disoriented plunked down in the middle ethic with which this has been made. One should not feel ashamed for being disoriented amidst it. So many counterfactual. You know, deep universe features and as I understand it, in this counterfactual told Tulsa, Oklahoma, Robert Redford is president. I believe men, definitely white supremacists to form a terrorist cell group. The 7th Cavalry with which to fight the police. Why don’t we listen to a clip and then we’ll start piecing it together. Also, let me let me add that Julia will not be joining us for the discussion about Watchmen. It’s a product of HBO where her husband works, so she will recuse herself.
S20: Carcass on the highway last night. Soon, accumulated black belt will be hosed away in the streets of Tulsa will turn into extinct gutters overflowing with liberal tears. Soon, all the whores race traitors will shout, Save us and we will whisper.
S21: We are the 7th Cavalry. We are no one. We are everyone. We are invisible. And we will never compromise. Do not stand between us and the war machine. Or there will be more dead cops. There are so many deserving of retribution and there is so little time. And that timeline is near.
S22: Part Oh, my tilling.
S3: Well, we’re joined by Jamelle Bouie, of course, the columnist for The New York Times. Jamal, welcome back to the show. Thank you for having me. You wrote a column, a wonderful column about the show in which you let me quote from it, you say the original Watchmen took place in the context of Ronald Reagan’s America with its greed, militarism and Cold War tensions. In this instance, the showrunner, David Lindow, often his collaborators are working in today’s context of racial violence and resurgent white nationalism. This is an incredible television show. Two men will lead us through its virtues.
S23: Sure. I have to admit, when I saw the first episode, I don’t know what I was expecting. I remember learning that there would be a watchman adaptation, you know, last year or whenever it was announced. And my first thought being, I’m not sure how this is going to work out because the initiative alluded to this. The trouble of the comic in the series is that its power isn’t so much as a story in itself, but also a sort of a commentary both on the genre and then on the context, that real life context in which the genre actually emerges into Watchmen. The original 12ish mini series is groundbreaking as this kind of deconstruction of superhero tale that isn’t just trying to, you know, do the look what the world was superheroes like in the real world, but also trying to actually directly comment on the road through the medium of superheroes and both adaptations and attempted prequels and sequels over the last 50 years or so haven’t really been able to capture that.
S24: Zack Snyder film from 2009, which is a straightforward attempt to adapt the original source material, I think falls flat because it’s very literal, kind of misses all of the subtext and commentary. There was a before Watchmen prequel series which attempts to provide some background, some context or whatever for the original I think some of the characters in the series and that likewise falls them to that I think common nerd geek trap of wanting so much explanation of what came before but really missing the point of the series. So coming into this HBO Watchmen, I was just skeptical that they would be able to capture this very difficult thing, this thing that really is context dependent. Mike, I always tell people who know why read the original series so they should actually spend time reading comic books from the era before the Street Watchmen, then also read like some headlines from the era too. But this show manages to do that little office called the show a remix of the original series. And I think that word is quite right in that it is kind of taking the bones of that series, not just in terms of plot or story, but in what it’s trying to do with thematically and applying that to contemporary concerns. And I don’t know, I think it’s I think it’s brilliant. I mean, I don’t think I would have ever expected to watch a show, a superhero show with that kind of is dealing directly with legacies of racial violence that’s trying to untangle the tangled web of law and order and racism and all of these things. So I have found it really remarkable thus far.
S14: Jamal, I’m curious for me for for a comic book based property. I went into this knowing much more than I usually do because before Zack Snyder’s movie came out back in 2009. I mean, if if it if an adaptation comes out of a book that was truly kind of a seminal book in its field that everybody who goes to see the movie is likely to know about. I try to read the book. And so I did that with this. I read, you know, the entire series bundled together by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons reviewed the movie. So went into this HBO series thinking, wow, for once I’ve actually boned up on this comic book history. I’m going to know what’s going on. I’m now four episodes into this Watchmen and I have no idea what’s going on. I find, as you say, that the thematic material that is exploring really intriguing. Regina King is a great protagonist as the sister Knight is at the name of her her hero. That’s right. Yeah, that’s correct. And and there’s also a great Timberlake Nelson character. What’s said? He’s the mirror guy. He’s as he’s called by Jean Smart. But he’s actually he’s Looking-Glass Lookingglass. Right. So these these characters are fascinating. Also, there’s this strange world that Jeremy Iren seems to exist in separately from everyone else as this kind of intergalactic villain who has a trebuchet with which he’s trying to reach another dimension. There’s interesting craziness in every single episode, but four hours in. I have no idea how they’re all going to fit together. I don’t know what’s going to happen with each next episode because they each seem to focus on a different character. I mean, this is definitely a deep mythology kind of show, maybe in some ways related to what lost was right. Something that depends not necessarily on you knowing the background because I sort of did in this case and I still don’t get it. But on you having a lot of patience for something to emerge from this morass of, you know, of conflicting stories and characters and details. And so I’m wondering two things how would you advise people like me who find themselves intrigued, but at sea in this in this universe, and how might we orient ourselves in a useful way? And secondly, when you say that you think Lindelof grasps in some way that the thematic essence of the original Alan Moore, Dave Gibbons comic, what would you say that essence is if you had to say sort of what are the questions that they frame that he’s taking in a different direction? What are they and how is he taking them in a different direction?
S25: Yeah, I think I’ll answer that question first and then go to the how how to watch this series. So I wrote I wrote a column about the sixth episode of the show and I wrote that the graphic novel series you can think of as an extended answer to a set of questions about the superhero as an idea and an ideal. The questions are what kind of society produces mass costumed vigilantes? What kind of person puts on the mask to begin with? How do people, ordinary and extraordinary, react in the face of the incomprehensible from total annihilation to the other worldly?
S26: And I think if those are sort of like the credit, the central questions of or some of the central questions of more gibbons as watchmen than I think Lindelof Especially as you as you move forward in the series in this kind of gets to how to watch this begin to take all those questions on directly and then places it in a world where, you know, the opening scene of the series is a dramatization of the 1921 Tulsa massacre, where a mob of whites burned down the Greenwood neighborhood of Tulsa, which is a history which was a historic African-American area known as the Black Wall Street force prosperity. So the inciting and the ERBE that the opening incident of the show as this episode of dramatic racial violence in the series seems to be tying the reality of that kind of violence to the existence of costume heroes and mass shootings where the twist happens, sort of bringing the more and Gibbons framework and using it to analyze not militarism or sort of Cold War paranoia, but analyzing racial trauma. So here’s the problem. I do want to spoil anything like I normally am very indifferent to spoilers, but this is a case where I think the revelation is so important and really does kind of bring it brings the entire series into clear view once you see it. And so I would just say, if you’re watching this in your own Episode 4 and you’re kind of I don’t know what’s happening to treat it almost as a very long movie. Right. So the first three episodes, I think you can watch it like a self-contained prologue setting up the world’s moving up, key characters, so and so forth in this next chunk of episodes. The fourth, fifth and sixth hour, I think are the ones that really fully ground you and point you in the direction of the series it’s going in. The sixth episode in particular is kind of the the hinge point like you watch that you really can’t get what this show is trying to do.
S5: sumell is someone who, you know, hosts a culture podcast and therefore has to consume a lot of superhero material. The idea of being thrown into a universe, being somewhat disoriented within it, having it be filled with Akana and Deepak’s stories, you know, I’ve gotten used to it over the years, but I wouldn’t say it’s exactly my thing. There’s this show is doing it, but and it kind of categorically different way. It doesn’t feel driven by nerd affiliations, but really by a kind of transiency and an and moral precision in a way. And it’s obviously a document of the Trump era, the way, as you say, the old one was was of the Reagan era.
S27: And so even though I’m completely disoriented, this is all sort of an appeal to listeners of our show who haven’t seen it or have watched a little bit and find themselves a little lost in it. I love the fact that what keeps me hooked within its recondite weirdness is its obvious moral relevancy.
S3: And I I I just think that that’s an extraordinary thing, you know, kind of to pull off.
S28: I mean, honestly, the thing that kept me that hooked me from the beginning was this dramatization of the Tulsa massacre. It was genuinely upsetting to watch it. And I there’s a there’s a Watchmen podcast with Craig Mazin and Linda LAF where they kind of talk through the episodes in chunks. And Linda Letha mentions reading a book called The Burning, which is about the Tulsa Massacre. And I’ve read that book as well. And when I learned that he had read the book, it made a lot of sense to me. The way that scene was staged and shot at it very much is directly from that book. It’s more or less a dramatization of an anecdote in my book. I was sort of taken aback from by the dramatization how real and disturbing it felt. And that kind of got me hooked. To begin. If a show is going to start with this, then what is it going to do? Like it’s obviously driving towards something that is going to be interesting, maybe won’t be fulfilling, maybe you won’t fulfill its promise, but it will be something worth, I think, unspooling. And I think for me, trying to tease out at least up until the sixth episode, trying to tease out what the show was going for is the thing that was most compelling to me is true. So, you know, the fact that from the start, we know that in Tulsa the cops wear masks and they’re fighting like a white supremacist terrorist group that also wears masks and that the protagonist, Regina King’s character, is an African-American cop.
S25: I mean, it sort of raises questions are really what kind of equivalencies are redrawing or putting law enforcement on the side of anti-racist? It seems sort of weird. The white supremacist in the show seem to be kind of like low income poor whites and they’re resentful of a reparations.
S29: Is there something better happening in all kind of gets answered and explained? Trying to figure it out for me is.
S28: You know, that’s that that’s compelling for me as like a consumer of the comic book since consumer of comics in general.
S5: All right. Well, the show is Watchmen. It’s on HBO. You should check it out. We would love to hear what you think of it. Jamal, thank you so much for coming back on the show. It is always a great, great pleasure to have you on.
S28: Always happy to.
S5: Well, Clive James is, I think it’s fair to say it was a giant of of letters. And Adam Gopnik, the staff writer for The New Yorker, has written a beautiful eulogy to Clive, who died this past week. Adam, welcome back to the show.
S30: Oh, it’s wonderful to be back with you, Steve. How are you all? Well, good. I’m an easy jet because I like to sit here in my little study and write all day.
S1: Adam, I think diving right in it would be easy to know only one piece of the leviathan. That was Clive James. And what I loved about your piece right from the beginning is you tried to get at the totality of this man’s life and achievement. In a way, he was something different on each continent that he enacted part of this remarkable biography. You talk a little bit about that. What it was to be from Australia to make a new reputation for yourself in England, on television, in a different medium and then come to America.
S31: Absolutely. Yeah. As you say, Steve Marshall, the thing about him is that he came from Australia and was very Australian in God knows and speech. And certainly if there’s such a thing as an Australian temperament, he had it. There was a kind of an appetite for life and even a kind of contagious meanness. You’ll recall that when when Clive was actually just out of hospital here with an extreme life-threatening case of phlebitis, I brought him down to dinner where you and Dana got to spend time with him. And it was like being in my imagination of an Australian. He just had an unlimited appetite for cheer and conversation. None of that kind of English she hesitancy or inwardness or snobbishness, but he realised at a young age that he had to make his life in London. At that point in the late 1950s, all ambitious Australians did that. Robert Hughes, who was a college mate of his and a good friend throughout life, complicated, very complicated. Competitive friendships, made the trip at the same time or by boat. And Clive wrote a wonderful book called Falling Towards England, just about his trying to make his way in London and finally did both as a critic, but even more as an entertainer. And it was a side of his accomplishment that was largely hidden to Americans. I remember visiting him once in Cambridge and being sort of stunned because I thought of him as this matchless commentator on Mentally and and Tolstoy Larkin that he would be crowded like a patsy just by fans who had been following him on television, where he did very, for the most part, very non-hybrid kinds of stuff. He was famous for having introduced the Japanese game shows of a particularly comically brutal kind to British audiences. And he would be crowded by the music’s quite funny about it because people crowded around his table. You would mock grumble. Oh, yeah, a few minutes late haunch you meaning that he paid them off to come and show us Americans who he was. That’s what he was in, in Britain, a TV celebrity. But in in America, we knew him fundamentally. We knew him primarily as a writer, which was the best possible way to know him. He genuinely had a passion for reading of all kinds. You know, I haven’t cleared off my desk yet since writing that eulogy. And I’ve got a book of poems he wrote about Prue’s. The Book of Late Poems has collected television criticism. His famous book, Cultural Amnesia, which are short portraits of important European intellectuals of the 20th century and American ones. He had a just a matchless appetite for the for the life of literature and for the life of and for the life of the screen license images. And as I tried to say in that piece, it was the appetite was hugely appealing. But what made it remarkable was that he also had very authoritative judgment. He was excellent at appraisal. He was very rarely wrong about anything in the arts.
S1: It’s so true. Adam, in your piece gets at this beautifully. I mean, most of us are creatures of a sad sack, dialectical compromises, whatever our strength happens to be, implies a corresponding weakness. And and you search and search and search through the life and work of Clive James for that dialectically opposite weakness against all his strengths to be comfortable in front of the camera. Right. And and delicious in front of the camera to a wide audience to be capable of sitting in a room of your own and doing deep and wide ranging reading to be both adept as a scholar, but also completely lucid and not only lucid in your prose, but boundlessly entertaining, arguably as delightful as any prose writer in English of the last 50 years. How could such a creature exist?
S31: Well, I think Clive himself would say he was blessed in lots of ways. One way he was blessed. And, you know, I am hardly a Marxist socialist. Orian, but it was he was blessed by the time he came of age. You know, it was, as the Marks’s would say, no accident that Jonathan Miller died on the same day when actually a couple of days after Clavier, but the day that it was announced Jonathan Miller had a similar role. I prefer Clives prose to Miller’s, but they were very similar types. Renaissance Man is a terrible term because what really distinguished the men of the Renaissance was the intensity of their effort more than its range. But that sense of feeling that everything was possible and accessible. There was no contradiction between being a popular cabaret entertainer and one of Clives too often overlooked accomplishments. One dear to my heart is he was a terrific song lyricist with composer Pete ATKIN. So you could be a popular cabaret entertainer as Miller wasn’t matchless comedian and beyond the fringe, and then go on to have a serious career as a director of opera and indeed as a as a doctor. There were none as good to my mind as Clive. But there were a lot like Clive in his generation. Jonathan Miller, as I say, Alan Bennett, Michael Frayn. That model of crossing boundaries was not inaccessible to a writer in Britain.
S14: Of that of that time, Adam, one thing that you mention in your beautiful eulogy is that I wanted to touch on here is the amount of time that Clive James spent writing while he was sick, while he was, in fact, dying. And when you tell that story of us having gone out to that lovely dinner with him, I think that had to have been close to ten years ago. And as you say, he’d already just undergone a major medical crisis, which I don’t even remember when I think about that evening. That’s how little he stressed it or thought about it. Is that my memory of it, which immediately flooded back on hearing that he was gone, had nothing to do with him being ill and just out of the hospital. He was just way too vibrant. But yet one of the things that you say is that he had an unusually overabundant late harvest, you call it that. He had this burst of late work during this decade or more, that he knew that one of the chronic conditions he had would kill him. And I wonder if you could talk about that and especially how that stacks up with, you know, the way that late work often figures in an artist’s life.
S30: Yes, he was terribly ill that night. We had that memorable dinner. And I will add, because I’ll say it, that he was became a huge fan of Dana’s writing and conversation at that moment and always followed her afterwards.
S32: Oh, my God, it’s me. So happy. It’s just the simple truth. And that was a reflection of the essence of what you do, but also applies, as I say, endless appetite for for the new for discovering new people, new writers, new things.
S31: But he had just jumped out of a hospital bed 24 hours before when we had that dinner. He had been admitted to hospital with a terrible case of phlebitis where they had to rush him into a hospital bed where he thought he was in New York for a dinner party. And he struggled with that. He had every kind of reflex in the last 10 years of his life. He had leukaemia. He ended up he died actually as a cancer of the of the face. And yet he went back to writing. And, you know, usually that kind of deathbed repentance is not supposed to work in the arts. You know, the the moralistic tale we like to tell is if you waste your time doing a Japanese game show anthologies, you’re not going to be able to come back and write a translation of Dante or your own best poetry. But I did use the isolation and the reality that he could no longer to popular entertainment just to write. It’s a wonderfully salubrious thing for those of us who worry about frittering away our energies to know that he could refocus them that powerfully. It was actually quite funny in a way that he was completely aware of, because indeed when we all did it together, he thought of his doctors, thought he might have a year or two at most to go, and it ended up being ten years. And of course, because people became aware of it, all kinds of praise and kudos poured out to him, particularly as he was writing in a highly elegiac way, poems of repentance, poems, a beautiful poem called Japanese Maple that appeared in The New Yorker. It was all about not expecting to live another autumn to see another on it. Well, he did. And he went right on. And he was well aware, a certain kind of grumbling, resentment. Everybody had poured out their hearts in his praise and he wasn’t going anywhere. And he said at one point that he felt like a character. And you could imagine the restoration comedy. Right. Where, you know, mr. Well, writing has gathered all of the praise that he had been had been skipping. And now everybody wanted him to move on or they wanted to repeal all that praise. Right. Which they’d given to him on the condition that he would shortly die. But Clive went right on for those through those 10 years with that kind of sparkle in that and that sense of comedy.
S4: Adam, one of the things I loved about your remembrance of him was the.
S33: Particular line of his about Tolstoi that you cited, which just was such a dazzling representation of the kind of mind that he had and the kind of thinking he was capable of. And I loved your focus on both his ability to be that precise and perceptive and also his commitment to explaining complicated and thorny ideas to a broad audience and his work on TV. But if you have your piece handy, would you mind just reading that line? I think it would be great for our listeners to hear.
S30: Clive could pass from wonderfully contagiously observed writing about Star Trek or Mission Impossible, and then writes something like this about an adaptation of war and peace. Against dead ground is the territory you can’t judge the extent of. Until you approach it. Seen from a distance, unseen, almost uniquely among imagined countries, Tolstoy’s psychological landscape is without dead ground. The entire vista of human experience is lit up with an equal shadowless intensity so that separateness and clarity continue even to the horizon. This was in a weekly column in the London Observer in in 1974. Steve, if I could just come back selfs for a second to something that you asked about, that you said it was nagging at me about your how was it that Clive was able to get himself so fully expressed in so many ways without a dialectical opposite? There was, I think, a dialectical opposite to use your term in in-class work. And it came from the fact that he was an on self-censoring. You know, most of us are highly self-censoring. I think as writers, you know, we read what we write and we imagine the effect it will have on other people or we run it by our own prude or we run it by our own progressive pieties. It’s something Clive didn’t do that plays spun out his work with a marketable absence of fear and one say with great courage, but also unaware of its effect. And he stumbled sometimes. You know, I mentioned in the eulogy that he wrote that infamous eulogy to Princess Diana, which was published in The New Yorker on the week of her death, which many people in America were startled by, and many more in Britain mocked because it seemed so over the top in the scale of its grief. And in the description of his relationship, his friendship with Princess Diana, which was transparently quite one sided, he loved her and she used him. But that was part of his greatness. In fact, he didn’t have that kind of crippling or paralyzing internal censor. He worked it out and he was willing to look foolish in public from time to time in order never to stop writing, in order to be unimpeded in that way. And so if that’s the kind of the dialectical opposite, if you like, was exactly that, he wrote stuff that was sometimes foolish. But as I say in the piece, you know, someone who’s has to be romanced about the wrong things in order to be romantic about the right things. And he was.
S7: Adam Weir. So for listeners who are enticed by this conversation, where would you point them? What’s a good place to start?
S30: Clayburgh More than 40 books. So there’s a lot to read. I think sort of a good place to start is his big book, Cultural Amnesia, which was a best seller and is terrific. Both it’s an education and 20th century culture and Auckland education in its constant passing between high and low between Michael Mann and Alfred Polder. It’s a wonderful book in that way. His collected poems. If you have a tastes such thing, which I’ve just been reading my way through again, are terrific. His TV criticism is wonderful. Hard to find in America, but you can find it, I think on Amazon UK or whatever that is called Visions after midnight. The memoirs, oddly, have never had as much life in America as the authors had, partly because a mix, self myth and truth and that makes Americans uneasy. But if I had to pick one book out of all of Clive’s work, it would be the second volume of his memoirs Falling Towards England, which is an absolutely amazingly funny and smart story about a young man, an ambitious young man coming of age in a literary city, which, for what little it’s worth, was very much a template for me when I wrote my own story of a young man coming of age in a literary city at the stranger’s gate. All of those things, I think, will show off Clive’s extraordinary qualities. You know, he wrote once I was trying to sum Clive’s work up once. I actually used it as an epigraph for a book. Thirty five. More than that years. Thirty nine years ago. And that was the work of criticism is always slow. The funny thing to say from the man who wrote so quickly, because what we’re always trying to do is sort out. Categories and values when in fact, it’s simply a slow business of trying to eliminate categories high and low. TV against serious literature while still retaining values and that work of rejecting categories while respecting values was all the works of collected.
S5: It’s like Adam is always such a pleasure to have you on our podcast. Thank you so much for coming in.
S30: Joy to be with you all. Have me back.
S5: All right. Now is the moment in our podcast and windhorst. Dana. What do you have?
S19: My endorsement this week is going to have to do with our conversation with Adam Gopnik about Clive James. I was trying to bring in maybe one Clive James poem or one Clive James essay to to recommend. I know I’ve read one of his poems before on the podcast when we were in Melbourne, Australia, and I just couldn’t decide. I spent so long diving and finding beautiful things I wanted to bring in and they seemed too long to read or it required too much context. And so I’m just going to endorse Clive James dot com. He has a really, really good website, which actually goes very well with some of the things we were discussing with Adam. I think he’s a very modern poet, despite having reached octogenarian status and been an old writer for a long time. He is in some ways a very modern writer. He likes to write about YouTube and hasn’t poems about, you know, things that he read and found there. And his own website is just very well managed and has a large collection of his essays, poetry, books, videos of him talking. You sort of see all the sides of Clive James, the broadcaster, the essayist, the poet, the sort of public personality on the radio, et cetera. And it’s really fun to dive around. And I would be interested for people to take a look and get back to us with their favourite poems or essays that they find there. And I would I would tweet those out, but essentially I would just send people to Clive James BCom, make a cup of tea and spend the afternoon there.
S5: Here, here. Julia, what do you.
S11: I would like to endorse an exhibit by the photographer, Tom Keefer. That’s at the Skirball Center here in Los Angeles through March 8th. It’s called a Sueno Americano, The American Dream. The photographer worked as a janitor at a water processing center in Arizona and retrieved a bunch of belongings that migrants had with them when they were seized at the border and and then went through the customs process. And he takes these discarded items, lays them out in a very tidy, orderly fashion against very flat, orderly backgrounds and Makita. Easter, a writer for The L.A. Times, has a story up about this exhibition and it includes a number of photographs. And they’re just incredibly striking, heartbreaking. The aesthetic is almost. As she observes, it almost looks like pop art, like they’re very orderly. But then when you begin to examine the details, then there’s one sort of long row of discarded toothbrushes in red, white and blue. That is just a wrenching thing to look at and contemplate. And so I would recommend the article then Makita, Easter on our Web site. And if you were in Los Angeles that you’d go to the Skirball Center for a march and check out these photographs by Tom SCHIEFFER.
S5: Excellent. OK. So I was at a restaurant the other night and the person I was with seemed to know what she was doing. And she ordered a I’m going to mispronounce it, so I’ll spell it b o u r g u e i l won a borghi one. And not only a boy, but a son son Niccola. The pourquoi wine. And in lieu of 100 percent tariff now being threatened against French wines by that person who is president. I’d love our listeners to talk to me about this. Apparently what it is is amazing amount of character bang for the buck. It was a I thought a brilliant wine. It’s a LIWA COB frock with a ton of just depth, an earthiness and and richness without being, you know, whatever. Jammie or pop, pop, pop, pop. Just throwing out stupid wine words. But I just thought it was. I thought it was a lovely wine. Like. And I’d love to know more about them. And if we have a listener who’s who’s into that kind of thing. Shoot me an e-mail and tell me why you love them. And then I was. We’ve been snowbound for a couple of days here in New York. My daughter had a kind of brawling double sleepover with two of her 13 year old friends. And we begin making a playlist of songs with candy in the title spanning the generations. It turns out you discover a lot of really fun songs. There’s an amazing song by The Byrds that I’d never heard of, don’t remember having heard called Candy. And then it reminded me of a classic. Dana, I’m wondering if you remember the song Candy by it’s a duet, a wonderful 1990 duet between Iggy Pop and Kate Pierson of the B-52s.
S14: No, I don’t know it that OK.
S5: It’s so it deserves to be so. It’s such a it’s like Iggy, you know, trying to get a nest egg or something. It’s just such it’s pop rock. And Kate Pierson on it is just for Kate Pierson, you know, wonderful best. And it’s just one of those songs that I guess at the time I probably turned it up when it came on the radio and then forgot ever existed. But it’s really great and I hope we go out on on it. All right, guys, thanks so much. Thanks, Julia.
S2: Thank you. Thanks, Dana.
S34: As always, 19. The big city. You are so fine.
S2: You know, you’ll find links to some of the things we talked about today at our show page, that Slate.com slash culture fest. Then you can e-mail us that. And I will say it almost every time we love the e-mails that we’re getting. I just got one a few hours ago about visiting the legendary pie stand. We’d love feedback from our listeners. Go ahead and e-mail us at Culture Fest at Slate.com. We also have a Twitter feed. It’s at Slate called Fest. You can interact with some of us and not others there.
S35: Our producer is Catch Up COVA. Our production assistant is Rachel Allen for Julia Turner and Dana Stevens. I’m Stephen Metcalf. Thank you so much for joining us. We will see you say.
S6: Hello and welcome to this Slat Police segment of the Slate Culture Gabfest today we revisit contrives out and discuss its ending and all the things we could not spoil in our main segment.
S17: If somehow the podcast is just playing in the background while you wash the dishes or something and you have a thought of going to see this movie and you’re thinking, oh, maybe I’ll just listen to this down. The movie’s so good. Don’t listen to this. Usually that’s not what I yell on this podcast. But if you have seen its day tuned because we are about to discuss the ending. So, Steve, you expressed some disappointment in our main segment about the lack of head snapping twists and turns. Say a little more about what struck you as not substantially surprising or what made you quibble with the structure of this?
S5: Well, I think our all of our tastes and expectations are compromised by what we saw when we were impressionable becoming of age. You know, essentially between the use of 8 and 18 and the who done it was kind of, you know, in its golden period then. And so, of course, what I’m remembering is seeing a movie like Sleuth. And there is a incredible, you know, twist, though, changea where someone who you think is someone is actually someone else. And I kept expecting something along a completely unfairly kept expecting the the old, old, old implausibly still alive matriarch.
S27: I kept expecting that to be Christopher Plummer still alive. This is mother. And then he says, I did. I walk. I’m the one who hired Benwell BLOCK. I did this whole thing in order to show you would a bunch of, you know, vultures you all really are or something along those lines.
S14: In fact, I see a desire for that, because Christopher Plummer is such a wonderful presence in the movie and he’s the only good person besides Onna and her family. So you just wish that he wasn’t.
S5: MARTA Yeah, an icon as the actress you always say again. Yeah, that’s true. I mean, so I’m not even 100 percent sure I have the actual twist, right. But I think that at the center of it is the idea that, you know, she Marta believes as his nurse and companion that she’s accidentally she was in the course of accidentally killing him. We actually find this out fairly early on in the movie because she mixed up his painkiller with his whatever other kind of medicine and gave him a massive dose, accidentally gave him a massive dose of that dose of morphine.
S36: And he, in order to spare her from the attention of the law, decides to slit his own throat before the overdose can kill him. And but then it turns out and this is the twist kind of at the end. In fact, the grandson who knows, I mean, every every member of the family realizes they’re about to be disinherited. So that’s why they’re all equivalently suspects in the clue, like murder mystery. But it turns out the grandson who’s sort of thought of at the beginning of the worst of the reprobates and then turns out maybe not to be, but then turns out in the final twist to actually be had switched, the two vials had put the twitch, the labels of the two vials. So, in fact, the toxicology report, that is sort of the, you know, major clue here that is being passed around. But no one’s actually looked at. In fact, doesn’t say that Martin injected him full of morphine, but that she didn’t he didn’t die of this. He didn’t have an overdose of morphine. Hence, he is kind of sort of in some way really the killer. Right. Do I have that basically, right? Yeah. Yes. So I thought that that was pretty good. That was pretty good. But by the standards of your classic, they all killed him on the Orient Express or, you know, what is it in Sleuth? Do you remember Dana in Sleuth? I don’t think I’ve seen it. Well, I don’t want to give it away then. Sleuth is a wonderful museum piece and worth seeing. But you’re just like Sleuth was one of those sleuth of all. And it’s one that Ryan Johnson was putting up. Sorry, I’m filibustering. This is the one that Ryan Johnson really pointed to us as the one that he was all marching to in a way. And Sleuth is the one where the twist is like at the time. Now would be now me. People may see it coming from a million miles away, but the twist was like, I cannot fucking believe what I just saw. And I just didn’t have that moment. And that was an unfair exhibition. I loved everything else about this movie, but that that that just was to me just I don’t know, I just felt like we kind of whizzed through all of these twists and turns, whereas the fun thing was just kind of hanging out and hearing all these people, you know, snipe at one another.
S6: I mean, I love that, too. I mean, I think like that reminds me of two reading experiences I had where expectations can really set it up so much.
S18: One was a perfect reading experience where somebody told me once, and I am going to spoil and actually Agatha Christie book care. But sorry, dudes, it’s been like decades. Someone once told me about an Agatha Christie book in which the protagonist is the murder. I was like, oh, my gosh, that’s so interesting. How would they ever pull that off? Cool. And then I was like visiting some family friend or something and I picked up a book and I started to read it.
S17: I was like, I wonder if this is the one, huh? And kept going and kept going. It was just a perfect reading experience where I was tipped off enough to the idea of who it might be that I was like gathering the clues along the way. But I was never quite certain. So it was wonderful that my worst Agatha Christie reading experience was witness for the prosecution, which is a collection of short stories, but I didn’t realize it. And so I just kept reading these like differing vignettes with different characters and just being like, how on earth is she gonna stitch this together?
S7: Like, what are these people even gonna meet? Oh, my God. When she pulls this off, it’s gonna be buffa and came together because it was just a collection of short stories.
S16: Possibly my like MDT of Short Stories has its roots in my reading a witness for the prosecution.
S6: But anyhow, I do.
S17: I think that the many interviews that Johnson has given on the subject of the difference between a suspense movie and a whodunit are are kind of part of what’s going on with the structure here, which is that he’s trying to have it both ways a bit and not, you know, run us around for too long about who, in fact is the killer. But the answer he gives us at the beginning is sort of so heartbreaking because this person who seems good and pure and well-meaning has like made this horrible fatal mistake and is having to live with it. And Qaseem, you know, one of the releases of the movie as it unfolds is that you get to bathe in the relief that, in fact, she’s not the murderous.
S16: In fact, you know, after all and that is it is a pleasing coil to unwind.
S10: I mean, I think the coup of revealing what happened on the night of Harlan Zombie’s death as early in the movie as Johnson does, is really the movie’s greatest strength, because that allows him to hang a completely different plot structure on it than you would on your classic whodunit, where, you know, everybody sort of goes through the mill of suspicion. And at the end, the great detective gathers them all in one room and announces the truth. I mean, in the same way that this movie is trying to unseat and unsettle a lot of fixed ideas. Right. Whether about politics or class. I think it’s unsettling some fixed ideas about genre as well, because the main question of the movie becomes a moral question. As soon as you find out what happened that night and you find out the truth. You just don’t find out the whole truth is right.
S14: There’s more additional information that will be augmented to the story that we see the flashback to the night of Brumby’s death. But everything we see is actually true. It’s not distorted by someone’s false memory or anything. And so the rest of the movie becomes kind of a moral tale rather than than just a whodunit. The question becomes essentially, is this going to be a Darwinian class world in which, you know, the strongest survive, or is it going to be a world that has some moral balance right. Where being good will pay off in some way. And and that just seems like such a satisfying in such a modern way to deal with the hoary form of the who done it.
S17: Well, in one of the most interesting things about the end. So one of the motifs with Marty’s character is that she cannot lie. She vomits if she tells. Right. Forgot to mention that in the main segment a gram, which is just like again, speaking of sheer silliness as a plot mechanism, like, come on, that’s so amazing and goofy and slapstick.
S6: Right. But the crucial as the crucial final twists are revealed.
S12: You know, over over the movie that in the course of trying to get away with what she believes is her own misdeed, she learns to lie like she becomes less moral. Right. She. She’s trying to conceal something. She weighs protection of her mom.
S13: And, you know, over truth, duty and honesty, sympathetically, understandably. But she’s she’s learning to lie is part of her arc in the movie. And she figures out how to, like, delay the puking or like secret the puke away in a in a big gulp cup or whatever else. And the final scene requires her to to pretend that she’s gotten good news from the hospital about a character who the ransom character had attempted to kill and then explode with puke five minutes later, only after she’s ensnared this guy and secured her fortune. Right.
S16: Like she ends up lying to secure her own richness and ability to protect her mom. Fundamentally, she’s still good. But just that little twist of the of kind of her own corruption and the fact that now her family will live in this big old house and who knows what will happen there. It strikes me as another delightful textural wrinkle about the end.
S14: Well, we weren’t able to discuss the very final shot in our main segment because that would have given away the too many of the twists along the way. But don’t you guys agree that one of the great coups. I mean, just cinematically to me, one of the great coups. This movie is the shot that sort of accidentally or seemingly accidentally manages to block the action so that all of the mayor, members of the thrombin family are OUTFRONT, right, saying goodbye to the detectives as they drive away, having discovered the truth. Taking Chris Evans with them. And then slowly, the entire family turns around as one to see Marta, the nurse up on the deck, the upper deck of the house, sipping her coffee from her coffee mug, which we saw early on, I believe, in the very first shot of the movie that says something like My house, my rules. They suddenly realize the class reversal that’s been in power, reversal that’s been affected over the course of the movie. And it’s just such a satisfying and funny final shot.
S33: Yeah, that final shot is great. And I just I don’t know, there may maybe it’s just a fairytale ending for the pure and good of heart and.
S15: But there is a final exchange where Ben says he knows what he thinks she should do with the money and whether she should help the family. But he has a feeling he knows what she will do. And the question of like, how will having that wealth and power bend her own moral compass? And what what would the, quote unquote, right thing to do be there is just a delicious tension in that final scene.
S4: All right. That was our spoiler discussion of knives out. Please e-mail us at Kultur Fest at Slate.com or send us a tweet to Atalay called Fest to let us know your thoughts. Thank you so much for being Slate Plus members and for listening today. We’ll see you next week.