Culture Gabfest “Put Your Pants Back On” Edition
Stephen Metcalf: This Ad Free podcast is part of your Slate Plus membership. I’m Stephen Metcalf and this is new slate culture Gabfest. Put Your Pants Back On Edition. It’s Wednesday, May 25th, 2022.
Stephen Metcalf: On today’s Show, Men is the latest feature film from writer director Alex Garland. He of Ex Machina and Annihilation. It stars Jessie Buckley as a widow, retreating to a large, empty country estate in rural England. Folk horror ensues. This is a curious document I cannot wait to discuss. And then the Canadian comedy troupe Kids in the Hall returns with the new season of sketches. It’s on Amazon Prime. We discuss that in a career that stretches back to the 1980s. And finally, finally, finally, finally, Jody Rosen has produced his book on the history and mystery of the Bicycle to Wheels Goodwill. We’ll discuss it with him. But joining me first today is Julia Turner, the deputy managing editor of The L.A. Times. Hey, Julia.
Julia Turner: Hello.
Stephen Metcalf: Hello. And of course, Dana Stevens is the film critic for Slate.com. Hey, Dana. Hey.
Speaker 3: Greetings.
Stephen Metcalf: All right. Digging in, then. Harper is a young widow. She’s leased an old country estate in rural England for. Feels like the weekend. Maybe the week. In no small part to continue processing the grisly suicide of her husband, who we meet in tormented flashbacks. He not only took his own life, he tried to take hers with him in a way, by blaming her preemptively for what he was about to do. Harper only wants to be alone with her pain, but she discovers that the house, the grounds and indeed the possibly the entire area are haunted by. Well, that is the very dark twist at the heart of this movie. It involves her co-star, Rory Kinnear. Okay. In the clip you’re about to hear, the main character, Harper, calls the English equivalent, the U.K. equivalent of 911, because a man is trying to break into the house where she’s staying. We don’t get a lot of dialogue here, but you’ll hear at least at the very least, the chilling sound design of the film. Let’s listen.
Speaker 4: Explain what’s happening. Please.
Speaker 5: It’s not that I, I’m saying I’m.
Speaker 4: Willing even thinking in the.
Speaker 5: He’s trying to get it that way.
Stephen Metcalf: Oh, Dana, I mean, I watched this movie. I mean, there’s so much to just unpack here. But one thing I’ll say is just at the primal level, I’m afraid. Cat, I was alone in a movie theater, in a multiplex in the middle of nowhere with my hands over my face for most of it. I mean, it is a dread, dread filled exercise. What did you make of it?
Speaker 3: I mean, I think I have a tougher skin for horror movies than you or Julia do, which is to say it’s all that tough. Exactly. You know, I get very easily creeped out by things, but this movie for me after the first hour or so was over, which I agree is is sets a really dread filled mood and had me excited for the rest of the movie I think completely falls apart and becomes not only not scary, but not smart, not not following through on its ideas.
Speaker 3: The last half hour, which I guess we won’t talk about until our spoiler filled bonus segment was, to me, a complete disaster. And to me, it was a real it was a real disappointment because I sort of find that this director, Alex Garland, who started off as as a screenwriter and novelist and has now directed three movies, including this one, all of which I think we’ve talked about on the show. His movies have been Ex Machina, Annihilation, and and now men have to be given diminishing returns each time. I mean, x mark. And it felt like here’s the debut of an exciting new director who’s full of interesting ideas about technology and femininity and gender. And I’m not quite sure I totally get where he’s going with this movie. But, you know, fascinating watch.
Speaker 3: Then Annihilation came along and I felt like the stakes were up, too. Right. In terms of what you expect from the second time around from a director. He took on a more ambitious project, interestingly, with this idea of this team of women who go into this strange, shimmering, I don’t know, futuristic space with different rules of organic reproduction apply. And and that movie also to me fell apart at the end and never really carried through on all the great ideas that it floated. And that same dynamic where an interesting mood is established and it’s sort of beautiful world is created, and then it all just kind of goes Blob at the end was just really, really notable, and this movie in The Blob was very loud and unappealing.
Stephen Metcalf: Okay, Julia, will we this is a mini spoiler, but I think anyone who’s read any reviews and it seems to be even in the trailer would know this. So this movie is basically a two hander that’s also an ensemble piece with this twist. Rory Kinnear, the actor, plays the ensemble. He effectively has every male presence in, in and around this country house. He plays a cop, he plays a stalker. He plays a young, seemingly very messed up kid, violent, messed up kid. He plays a vicar. He just sort of he is the men of the title of the movie in some sense. Was that like teasingly weird and vaguely nauseating or overly didactic and somewhat distracting?
Julia Turner: I mean, I would just say that I stand with Dana’s blowup at the end analysis of this film, and it’s a disappointing Bob because the conceits here are very interesting. And I as as the scariest of the scaredy cats on this show. I really didn’t like seeing this film. I was alone in the theater as well. And I like at one point kind of like stood up and stood in the back of the theater just to distance myself from the viewing experience, because I did not want to get sucked into the world. So it was effective as a like mood setter at the beginning. My main feeling about this was actually like the Beatles documentary where you hear, you know, obviously you get to watch Paul McCartney invent Get Back, but you also hear them like noodle, all these other things that like could have been hit songs but aren’t. And of course you don’t have the earworm.
Julia Turner: But the notion of this director. Essentially arguing that the fact of being a woman in the world is to be the damsel in a horror movie, because every man you encounter is actually like the same base instinct and obsessive desire and inability to see you as anything other than the mother and the fucking.
Julia Turner: That’s like an interesting, provocative idea. I actually felt like maybe it was part of why I was finding the movie so unnerving. It’s like, you know, the concept is just being a woman. That’s the horror movie, right? And that’s so interesting and really provocative and a provocative movie to make right now. And the performance and the sort of sameness and different ness of all of these characters that were I can hear plays really marvelously with each of which is sort of an avatar of like a different kind of gross masculinity.
Julia Turner: But I think actually it’s also where the movie starts to lose its edge and where the Jessie Buckley character Harper at the center of it. And again, she’s like one of my favorite actresses working today. She does she does a good job with this performance, even though it’s quite thinly written and often seems to consist largely of like a man saying something appalling to her and her going hot. And like she just says what all the time in the movie, but it like kind of works as character development. But anyway, her like, she doesn’t seem to register that it’s the same fucking guy. And so then you start to think she’s like a little dim or like she like it’s obviously the same guy from the beginning. And so there’s something about the way that, that. That she processes that turn that creates a little bit of unreality in her situation. I don’t know. I blame Perino like this could have been so good and it was not.
Stephen Metcalf: Yeah, I’m sort of with you on that. Julia, you raise this interesting question is, is, is like to what extent are we seeing a slightly forced, artsy, overly self-consciously cinematic touch by the director in making any or all of the men? And to what extent are we inside her subjectivity in the action of the movie, in some chronological sense, begins with her husband, played by the actor. Papa Seydoux. Is is is depicted as like just an incredibly emotionally needy weakling. I mean, he does a among the weakest, most manipulative things a human being can do, which is threatened to kill himself because he’s not getting what he needs from his wife, who now wants to leave him. And and he, in the midst of that conflict, hits her. And so there’s a primal act of domestic violence that initiates, in some sense, the entire action of the movie. I mean, it’s the moment she definitively kicks him out. He very soon kills himself.
Julia Turner: Well, and it’s interesting, too, the movie kind of leaves that ambivalent. She’s not sure whether he jumped or fell or what whatever happened.
Stephen Metcalf: It came from a deeply suicidal impulse. But it’s left. It’s left vague and so are you. Sort of I couldn’t decide. Am I seeing am I like am I seeing an allegory or a kind of strained metaphor on the part of the director or am I seeing inside her consciousness? But it’s being made concrete in a way that we’re not supposed to take as her subjectivity. Exactly. It just was it was it was like both overthought and under baked at the same time, which was, I think, the trap his his stuff gets into very often.
Stephen Metcalf: And then I think there’s another issue. I’d be very curious to hear the panel discuss it. Dana, you know, I kept thinking, oh, this is like Jordan Peele and get out only using gender. Well, the obvious difference being Jordan Peele grew up as a black man in America. And so his parable about racism bites all the way down to the bone and beyond. This is a movie written and directed by a man. I’m not sure. I’m not sure how I felt about that. As a feminist gesture, it seemed like it seemed like it was committing the very sin it was attempting to taxonomies.
Julia Turner: I think this movie’s actually about men like it. It pretends to be about the experience of women. Who are subject to the whims and grossness of men. But it’s actually about the like tragedy of being a man and being like trapped in all of these shitty forms that you can’t get out of. And so it’s fundamentally not that interested in her and her experience. I felt brilliant.
Julia Turner: And there’s also, I think, in the way that the movie deploys sort of folklore and myth, the suggestion that like men are essentially fucked and it’s ever been thus and there’s no way around it. And I think there’s something I think the movie becomes much less scary in its final chunk, which we will discuss in the plus segment, in part because what it does in the final chunk is make men ridiculous in the face of women’s power. And. And I actually think that’s kind of sexist like it to both men and women.
Julia Turner: Like I left with like a very bad taste in my mouth because yeah, I did find myself feeling as I watch this. Like I wish I had seen this movie made by a woman the film had actually reminded me of and this is maybe going to send up a flare in Dana’s direction is promising young woman, which is another film that takes like the condition of womanhood as sort of the occasion for like a thriller or suspense or horror. And and I know does that in ways that that Dana really did not like or respect. But I’m curious to hear if this movie twanging any of the same chords for you, Dana.
Speaker 3: I mean, in the sense that, you know, they both take on gender politics in such a clumsy way that, as you point out, they almost seem to be making the opposite point. They seem to be making points that are gender essentialist in ways that I don’t think were intended by the filmmaker. I mean, the gender politics of promising young woman are just, to me, just straight up deplorable. Like, if you really follow the logic of that movie to the end, what that movie bites often doesn’t do well is even more extreme than in the case of this movie. But I completely think that this movie goes off the rails at the end and forgets what it’s even about and becomes. This sort of would be gross out fest that wants to leave you, I don’t know, just wants to shock the audience into having some sort of feelings about gender that the movie itself doesn’t seem to have thought through.
Speaker 3: I even saw one critic in Vanity Fair, Richard Lawson, saying that he felt like almost unintentionally, this movie played into the hands of and almost made the argument for sort of gender critical types, you know, the sort of transphobic discourse of the J.K. Rowling crowd. I’m not exactly I wish we had Richard on the show to elaborate on exactly how he sees that happening at the end. I don’t think that the movie thinks anything through clearly enough to be trying to do that or anything else.
Speaker 3: But, Julia, I agree with you that what it’s trying to say about men with a capital M, the title of the movie and women with a capital W through these particular not very well-drawn characters, winds up seeming to inscribe gender stereotypes and gender violence more than it does trying to overturn them. And it makes no room for people who might occupy a different place on the gender spectrum, then bad Rory Kinnear and endangered Jessie Buckley.
Julia Turner: It just is so overbroad, like the problems with men and women are so much more subtle than the ones in this movie. And I get it’s a horror movie and it’s not supposed to be subtle, but it’s such a potent topic and it’s such a clumsy effort and it just it feel really feels like a dry run.
Speaker 3: It’s a lot of filmmaking talent put to put to waste in a way, you know, because I do think that Alex Garland is a great visual stylist. And, you know, Steve was saying the the sound design in the movie is really cool. It creates an incredible mood. And that first hour of that folkloric, you know, period where she’s retreating to this English mansion and creepy things are starting to happen, is sort of like the beginning of a really good horror movie.
Stephen Metcalf: One thing I’ll quickly say is that I just look, I totally agree with both of you. There’s kind of a gender horseshoe politics here where left and right are coming together. Right. The supposedly radical critique gets so radical, it becomes essentialist about gender identities in a way that reactionaries love to take advantage of. It’s an idea that they love to deploy. And and I think maybe that doesn’t work. Okay. The movie’s men, as of now, it’s only out in theaters if you can believe there’s still acres of material here to explore and spoil. So that’s going to go in the plus segment. So tune in to that. All right. Moving on. All right. Well, before we go any further, this is where we insert a set of business alerts. This is our little bulletin board. Dana, you’re you’re made out of caulk.
Speaker 3: I’m full of pushpins.
Stephen Metcalf: You’re full of pushpins. What’s dangling from you today?
Speaker 3: I appreciate your commitment to that metaphor, Steve. Our only item of business this week is to tell you about today’s Slate Plus segment. This week, we’re going to have a spoiler heavy slate plus segment because one of our conversations this week in the regular show is about the movie Men, the new Alex Garland horror movie thriller. And that movie is very, very twist dependent. There’s some things that you just can’t really analyze without spoiling the crazy twist ending, which I’m not even certain that I totally understood. I really want to hash that out with Julia and Steve.
Speaker 3: So if you’re a Slate Plus member, you’ll hear that at the end of our conversation. If you’re not a Slate Plus member, you can always sign up at Slate.com, slash culture plus. When you sign up, you get ad free podcasts, you get bonus content, like the segment I just described and lots of other slate podcasts have those, too. And of course, you get unlimited access to all of the writing on Slate.com. When you’re Slate Plus member, you will never hit a paywall, and you will also be supporting our work and the work of our many brilliant colleagues. These memberships matter a lot to us at Slate, so please, if you like listening to us, sign up today at Slate.com slash culture. Plus once again that Slate.com slash culture plus to become a member.
Stephen Metcalf: Okay. Well, the comedy troupe Kids in the Hall started out as a ragtag bunch of punk upstarts doing their outre stick out on Queen Street West in Toronto. This was back in the eighties, and in a way, even after stints on writing for SNL, appearing on HBO and now Amazon Prime. Even with breakout members like Dave Foley finding degrees of big league stardom, that’s exactly what they still are. Five irreverent Gen-Xers whose mission was and is to in the wake of Python and SNL and SCTV to comedy in newer and even less expected directions.
Stephen Metcalf: The new show is a nakedly, literally and figuratively honest confession about what it’s like to try to make comedy fresh as you approach the age of 60. Why don’t we listen to a clip? Okay. In this sketch, there’s been some kind of an apocalyptic event, and most of humanity has been wiped out nonetheless. A radio deejay played by Dave Foley continues to broadcast his show, even though he only owns one record to play. All right. Let’s listen to a clip.
Speaker 5: You got to keep. Good morning. That was Melanie and brand new kid. And this is your friendly neighborhood deejay.
Speaker 6: Mike Motor Mouth Mulcahy.
Speaker 5: On kr0c.
Stephen Metcalf: The crocodile.
Speaker 5: Rolling out the rock to whoever is left in whatever’s left of the greater metropolitan area. The weather today is mostly lethal.
Stephen Metcalf: So stay indoors.
Speaker 6: And by indoors we mean underground in a secure bunker or an abandoned mine.
Speaker 5: Well enough chitter chatter. Let’s get at or.
Stephen Metcalf: This is.
Speaker 6: Motor mouthed in the morning.
Speaker 5: Ready or not here I rob when. You guys.
Stephen Metcalf: Are.
Stephen Metcalf: Julia, let me start with you. I didn’t have a I have to admit, a deep history with the kids in the hall. I was for fun making their better acquaintance for this segment. What was your history and would you would you make of the reboot?
Julia Turner: I did encounter this as an anointed product, as a teen and like liked it but wasn’t a comedy nerd. Didn’t think of myself as like particularly in love with any of this. And yet this is the first remake that I’ve had, like the fall nostalgia. Like, I was like, Oh, this is what people must feel like. The the, the super nineties surf rock theme song comes on. Possibly the best thing about kids in the hall was the music actually all along. Sacrilege, possibly. But and I had this feeling of, like, they made this for me. Like, this meant so much to me in my youth. And now they’re back and. And we’re all aging and death is near for everyone.
Julia Turner: And how does one reckon with one’s, like, evolution as a human on this planet, if you’re lucky enough to continue to rack up decades as they go. And I was like, I don’t even care about this show as a teenager. So I feel like I had a very personal reckoning with the power of nostalgia that possibly didn’t have that much to do with the show itself. But part of what was appealing about the show. You know, and part of what it leans into is its fundamental Canadian ness. A fundamental like. Like an alpha attitude towards its fundamental beta, which is maybe what proud Canadian ism is.
Julia Turner: Oh, man. The amount of mail we can get about that. Come at me. But the the you know, it’s interesting to talk about this in the same show as talking about men, which has leans very hard into scuzzy, outmoded and not particularly nuanced versions of manhood. And like part of what I think was radical and interesting and exciting about kids in the hall in the nineties was the the modes of manhood that were on display, the ways in which it was teased and mocked. You know, the the playing with gay characters in ways that were perhaps not so common at the time.
Julia Turner: And yeah, I think I think the show. How does the confidence in its own goofiness? That is part of what it has always been about. And maybe that sounds like a baseline for any sketch comedy show. Like what? Sketch comedy show is not goofy and confident in its goofiness, but. I don’t know that other shows are like sharper or pointed or more satirical or more nasty or more canny or more like trying to be relevant in some way. And this show is just like truly out to lunch in a in a manner that feels freeing and felt cultivated and and fun.
Stephen Metcalf: Yeah, I agree.
Stephen Metcalf: Dana, what do you think?
Speaker 3: Yeah, I did not like you. Unlike Julie, I have a real relation to the show. At the time, I was very aware that it was it was there and that it was an important influence on other comedians. I think I probably knew about it mainly as the previous thing Dave Foley had done before. Newsradio, which I did watch and did love, love that I feel that same sort of generational nostalgia and affection for this kind of humor. And going back and watching some of the old segments from the, you know, original run of kids in the hall made me realize that it was more progressive. I don’t mean necessarily politically progressive, but at times that but cutting edge in comedy than than it had seemed at the time. You know, I think that probably it seemed at the time like a nicer and less edgy show than some other comedians of the nineties, because it is a pretty apolitical format and, you know, is usually more about sort of pursuing group silliness and taking, you know, funny social situations as far as they can go.
Speaker 3: But for example, the character Buddy Cole, who’s this recurring character on the Old Kids in the Hall and I believe makes some appearances on the new one as well. I haven’t seen all the new episodes yet. He’s played by Scott Thompson, who is an out gay comedian, not a very common thing to be in the late eighties. And and he’s this really interesting character who runs a bar called buddies is usually seen in the bar, has a very flamboyant, you know, sort of stereotypically gay style, not not unlike Stefon, the the Bill Hader character on Saturday Night Live. I mean, a very different type of stuff that he talks about. But similarly, kind of employing these these gay stereotypes in a way that is not hateful. But the fact that Thompson himself was an out gay man, you know, gives a different feel to that. Anyway, those Buddy Hall segments that at the time probably would have gone over my head or maybe I would have thought, you know, this is stereotyping or something now seem really radical in their in their willingness to just place that character front and center. And, you know, Buddy Cole has all kinds of offensive ideas that he sits and muses about straight to camera.
Speaker 6: Now that I own a gay bar, I can’t stay in the closet anymore.
Speaker 5: I’m a high profile as.
Speaker 6: A city councilor.
Speaker 3: So that was one thing that struck me.
Speaker 3: And I mean, in terms of everything old seeming new again, I mean, I would have to say that the present day comedy sketch show that this most reminds me of, though their sensibilities are somewhat different, is I think you should leave, which we’ve talked about on the show before, which similarly is a group of people, mainly men with similarly weird senses of humor, just setting up strange premises and then taking them as far as they could go. And I think you should leave also operates with a kind of minimalism that that kids in the Hall shares. I mean, I’m thinking of the head crusher guy. Are you familiar with this character from the kids in the hall days? Right. Who just sort of likes to stand around outside office parks and express his hatred for all humanity by pretending that he’s crushing the head of everyone he sees between his pinched fingers. And it is such a childish joke. It’s like something that a kid on the school bus would make in seventh grade. Right? Just crushing everybody they see with their fingers.
Speaker 5: A lot of trees down. And I mean, I’m only cutting out heads.
Speaker 3: But before they were mimes or an Internet to put mimes on the head, crusher guy was was, as I remember, sort of a meme in his day, just a silly little character, sketch character that you could kind of recreate in your own everyday life. So, I don’t know. I guess I don’t. I vibe with the kids in the hall. Despite, unlike Julia, not having a super strong sense of nostalgia for the original.
Stephen Metcalf: I watched the documentary that accompanies this about Kids in the Hall. I thought it was really fun and really enlightening. And Mike Myers is is is sort of the A-list, you know, SNL and feature film alumni bring in who’s Canadian to say, you know, like these guys were geniuses. I saw them, you know, says Myers. Back on Queen Street, the only thing in the world I wanted to be was a member of Kids in the Hall. He, like, would cameo with them, but they didn’t let him in. But whether he’s too young or just didn’t fit or whatever, and I’m like, Mike Myers made me laugh, right? Like that was the generation of SNL that started to resurge and was finally reminiscent of would have made the original show great.
Stephen Metcalf: And Myers was a genius and he had that weird like, like what planet are some of these characters coming from? But kids in the hall never made me laugh, right? And even watching the doc, I was like, I’m not laughing any of these supposedly classic sets, but I just something about the energy. I mean, I admire everything about it, right? I admire that they poached. Lorne Michaels comes in, you know, the fucking devil himself from Faust and Poaches two of them. You know, their essences as a five to him, he poaches two to be writers on SNL.
Stephen Metcalf: In the mid-eighties, SNL sucked in the mid-eighties. It was a fucking viper pit to work at. From everything I’ve heard, thankfully, they didn’t fit in. They didn’t get totally lost. They were like, This fucking sucks. And they made their way back up to Canada. They’ve had this now what is it, 30 closed, 35 year, whatever it is, relationship with Lorne Michaels who is their did a handshake, you know who really believed in them. He doesn’t come off as a villain but they have a wonderful their bitterness Dexter, his alpha ness is a very, very delicious part of the documentary nese spoofed in the new show.
Stephen Metcalf: And here’s here’s another piece of whiplash. I loved the new one. The the new one finally made me laugh. Hard is just the proof is only in the pudding when it comes to comedy, the sketch where they’re like Chippendales style dancers and these young attractive women, conventionally attractive women are finding them, finding them sexy for being in their late like sad fucking sacks of human decrepitude in their late fifties 60 seconds.
Speaker 4: Oh, oh, oh.
Stephen Metcalf: It’s so funny. It’s just. It’s just it’s just fucking funny.
Julia Turner: That’s so interesting, Steve. I actually found this less funny. It did not make me laugh very often, but I enjoyed seeing these guys with the confidence of exactly what they have built in their career and seemingly confidence in the things they have not built in their careers, which, you know, have fairly modest scope. And just like embracing the idea of doing comedy together nearing age 60, like one of the first sketches in the first episode involves two of the characters stripping down naked to evade some cops who are hunting them for a robbery. And just like jumping around fully naked, full frontal, like, you know, which is just inviting us all to really study the their physiques nearing 60. And, you know, that sort of speaks to their overall attitude is like, just take us as we are.
Julia Turner: And one aspect I did not like about the remake because of that is that it has these little interstitials of like the kids in the kids in the hall, fans that are legendary comics who are more famous and celebrated films right now in the culture. And then the kids in the hall, guys are pretending to be characters who love the kids in the. And I think it was protesting too much or something. It’s like the whole point of these guys is they don’t need you to know how much they’re loved or how big their impact is. They just are themselves being themselves enjoying themselves. And that felt discordant to me. Those like. But Pete Davidson likes them, too. Don’t worry. Don’t worry. Even if it seems a little lo fi and a little Canadian like someone you’ve heard of like them, it had a different energy than the show itself.
Stephen Metcalf: Okay. Well, I mean, worth checking out. Certainly, if you a fan of the original visit, this one. But let us know. Let us know if your big kids in the hall fans what you make of the reboot but also where they fit in in the kind of genealogy of of comedy somewhere between CTV and and what’s come since.
Stephen Metcalf: All right. Moving on. Okay. Well, two wheels. Good. The history and Mystery of the Bicycle is the new book by Jody Rosen, and it is as definitive, deep, dandy and hard to categorize as the man himself at once a thorough history, a memoir, prose poem, and something of an exposé. We’ll talk about that. Definitely. The book shows us a machine and a man made of many parts. Jody Rosen. Hi buddy. And huge, I want to tell you. Huge. Congrats, Sisyphus with the rack only a third of the way up the hill. I am just really, really pleased that you brought this book, which I’ve been waiting to read forever to completion. It is a wonderful, wonderful achievement. It is a genuinely great book. Congrats.
Speaker 6: Thanks, Steve. I appreciate it. And I can’t wait to read yours. No pressure, but.
Stephen Metcalf: All right. Well, moving on very quickly from that moment, what are the first thing that really amazed me about the book is that the bicycle seems so elemental. Right. And yet it is so incredibly, very new. It was invented relatively like really, really recently. It just it turns out that inventing the bicycle is fundamentally different from inventing the wheel. Talk a little bit about that and also what brought you to the subject. You yourself are an avid biker. Let’s let’s get there, too.
Speaker 6: Okay, cool. Yeah. No, I mean, what you say about about the bicycle is kind of belated invention is is very true and is also one of the kind of. Yeah. The great curiosities of the bicycle, because the technology that is necessary to build a bicycle has been available since the middle, since the early middle ages. And yet it took centuries for somehow fate to get its act together and give us the bicycle. So when the bicycle in the first kind of proto bicycle arrives in in 1817, which is not a bicycle with pedals, it’s a it’s like a push bike. It’s a bike that’s propelled by essentially straddling the thing and running that that first bike, which was which arrived in in the city of Mannheim, in what was then the German Federation, the Duchy of Baden.
Speaker 6: It showed up at the same time, or actually 15 years after, like a decade and a half after the invention of the steam locomotive, by the time the bicycle is kind of perfected, there was a there was a long history of series of trials and errors to produce the bike that we know today, which has two equal sized wheels and, you know, a chain drive that pulls the rear wheel forward. And, you know, the classic bicycle form, which was at that time in the late 19th century called the safety bike. The safety bike arrives in 1885, and that’s the same year that Karl Benz is is has produces his first motorwagen. So, you know, we have like we have like a locomotive train is around before the bike. And by the time the bike gets perfected, the automotive age is is upon us is stirring.
Speaker 6: So it should have been it should have been around earlier. And for that reason, there’s a lot of kind of bogus, apocryphal creation myth that have circulated around the bike for decades. People kind of projecting the bike back into history and saying, oh, there must have been an ancient bike that, you know, the Egyptians were tooling around on in the shadow of the pyramids.
Speaker 3: Jody to pivot from the history of the bicycle to the mystery of the bicycle. And this is the subtitle of your book, The History and Mystery of the Bicycle, which I love. I wanted you to talk about how you you see this book as a nonfiction project because it is an unusual kind of project and is certainly not an exhaustive history of that piece of technology that you just described, the initial designer of. I mean, you do definitely kick off with some history, but then what in the subtitle is called The Mystery of the Bicycle, sort of a more reflective essayistic. And I don’t know. I would say a personal history of the bicycle is also woven into that. And that also leads to some kind of formal innovations in the book, like a chapter that consists almost entirely or I think maybe entirely of clippings from newspapers from the turn of the 20th century, you know, newspaper columnists who were scandalized by women on bikes. That’s one whole chapter. There’s another chapter that’s almost in sort of dialogue form between this this couple that you interview who met on a on a long distance bike ride.
Speaker 3: Can you talk a little bit about nonfiction and genre and sort of what genre you intended this book to be?
Speaker 6: The main thing I was trying to do when I when I finally sat down to write this thing after lots of lots of research and reporting was avoid the pitfalls of potted history. Like, I’m kind of a hack historian, but I’m like, I think I’m better at journalism or doing reportage. Plus, it was fun. I wanted to go out and get into the bicycle world and tell those stories.
Speaker 6: So I have, you know, a bunch of chapters that are really just grounded in in travelogue and reporting and. Then I just wanted to, you know, unleash my my deep thoughts, man, my musings about the meaning of the bicycle. Because that’s something that I actually think about a lot when I ride around on bikes. And I always have. Even before I was ever under contract for a bike book, I was, you know, out on my bike and thinking myself, you know, why is this why does this feel so good? This this is it, you know, how weird is it that I’m both the passenger on this bicycle and I’m the engine of the bicycle? So those those as it were, mysteries have kind of obsessed me for four years. And so I wanted I wanted to, you know, get into that stuff in the book.
Speaker 6: The one other thing I’ll say is that, you know, there’s a I kind of there’s a there’s a there’s a very sentimental, romantic aspect to writing about the bicycle in general. There’s now a kind of revisionist scholarly literature which is taking a more hard nosed, less hagiographic look at the bike, and I’m down with with that revisionist stuff.
Speaker 6: So I wanted to, for instance, debunk a lot of the sentimental myths that surround bikes and redress the the very American centric and Eurocentric imbalance in the literature, because the vast, vast majority of the bikes are in the world and and cyclists in the world are in the Global South. But if you read most books written about bikes, the only thing you know is that a bunch of white people ride around on them, you know, in nice bike lanes in cities of the west. And you know that you read a lot about Copenhagen and and Amsterdam, but you don’t read about, you know, Dhaka and Delhi and Shanghai, which is where there are just so many bicycles and such fascinating cycling cultures.
Julia Turner: I wanted to ask you, Jody, a little bit, and maybe that teases an answer to this question, but a little bit about the genesis of this project and what. You know, what strikes me in your description here is that the bike seems both over and under, overfamiliar and under considered. And what made you feel like there needed to be this consideration? Or how are you trying to broaden or expand or understanding with the book?
Speaker 6: It was really a personal impulse as opposed to some like, you know, mission I was on. I really just wanted to reckon with my with my own questions about this cause because like, I, I, I try, as Steve said in his intro, to be, you know, not so sentimental in this book and try and be, try and take a kind of skeptical look at the bicycle and write, you know, some some kind of grown up history as a about of the bike as opposed to, you know, a lot of the literature, which is like the bicycle is the redemptive little green machine that’s going to save the world. And it’s so cute and twee. That’s really like a strain in bicycle culture and in bicycle activist culture and in the and in a lot of the literature of the bicycle.
Speaker 6: But, you know, I love bikes like out of all proportion. Like, I’m like I’m crazy about about riding around on my bike and I love looking at bikes and I I’m, you know, mesmerized and mesmerized by by the bikes I see in the street. So it’s just something it’s just a topic that is obsessed me for many, many years. And I spent many years just kind of like zoning out, thinking about bikes. And I was like, Wait a sec, I write for a living. Why am I spending my time writing about things other than bicycles? And it seemed to me that there was a there was a place, a kind of like a hole in the in the bicycle library, a place for this kind of a book, which is kind of a nonfiction book that that crosses genres a little bit. And that that is, is both history and maybe something more like historical essay. So I gave it a shot.
Stephen Metcalf: I mean, it just you did a beautiful job, right? I mean, the essence of criticism is preserving your love in the face of your enlightened skepticism and bringing your enlightened skepticism to bear on your love. Right. And keeping those things in a kind of bicycle, like forward propulsive equilibrium, if you’ll allow me to be overstretched and poetic about it.
Stephen Metcalf: But the book really, I think, inspires that response. It’s almost it reminded me of so many different kinds of books. But I know you’re a fan of the certain kind of history writing, like Carla Ginsberg and like, you know, I would assume City of Quartz by Mike Davis, the in its way definitive book about L.A. It’s both it’s this amazing thing to come at something kind of you know sort of both with enormous synthetic and comprehensive powers and a highly idiosyncratic individual point of view.
Stephen Metcalf: I and I just I just. You get something so beautiful about the bicycle, right? Which is that it’s very much like learning to walk or talk in one sense, but it happens later. So it’s elemental. But we remember it. Almost everyone learns how to ride a bike, and almost everyone who’s learned how to ride a bike remembers this primal moment of with a parent being unable, presumably with the parent, not always, but but most often I would think with a parent being unable to do it, it seeming somewhat mysterious and impossible to master. And then all of a sudden, all of its various elements fuse the physics of the world, the machine and your self together, and you’re going forward on your own. And, and you vividly remember it, which you can’t for walking, talking, eating, breathing, all these other things.
Stephen Metcalf: And and yet there’s also that phrase. It’s like riding a bicycle, which you point to, which is it then becomes as elemental as those. It’s like the paradigmatic thing that you just know how to do and never forget. It just felt as though the book was written in the same spirit as riding a bicycle, both this unconscious and conscious thing, both euphoric, but also meticulous. Not. And I don’t know. I’ll stop.
Speaker 6: I mean, you know what you say about that, that kind of primal experience of learning to ride a bike and and that moment, that exhilarating moment of, you know, tasting liberation and autonomy that you experienced as a kid when suddenly you’re, like, washing off on two wheels. The adult who’s been pushing you along isn’t back there anymore. And suddenly you magically, you know, how to ride a bike like this. Skill is assimilated instantaneously and nothing’s going to shake it loose unless, God forbid, you have some, you know, horrible brain trauma, you know, that’s that is that’s the that’s the crazy thing about the way the way the brain works and how a skill like bicycle riding, you know, just kind of kind of gets locked in there.
Speaker 6: But, you know, that that that feeling of freedom through history has been extended into the political realm because the bicycle, you know, for for all my trying to be a debunker and, and not be sentimental about the bike and describe, for instance, the ways in which the bicycle has has been, you know, a a tool of empire and has extracted. An environmental toll in its own right. The bicycle really has been a tool of protest and resistance through through the decades. And I think that now we’re seeing like the reemergence of of the bicycle as a as a vehicle of protest.
Speaker 6: We saw it in the in the Black Lives Matter uprising of 2020. There’s a lot of people taking to the streets across the world in great numbers on bicycles. And we’re experiencing like in, you know, in pure like, you know, if you look at the stats, this is like the biggest bicycle boom and the most globalized bicycle boom of all 200 years into the life of this weird, you know, pokey 19th century machine.
Speaker 6: So that’s actually, I think, you know, another possibly even the biggest reason I wanted to write this thing is because, like, we’re in a bike moment and, you know what the the the future of cities arguably depend upon things like bikes are finding more space in for bikes in cities and, you know, getting cars the hell out of of cities. And to to some extent, although this can be overstated, you know, the future of the planet depends on us finding a more sustainable, saner, healthier, happier way to live. And the bicycle really can be a big a big part of that. So so yeah, that’s that’s that’s another reason I wrote wrote the book because because, you know, this is, you know, 2022 is a is is a is a real is a real bike moment.
Stephen Metcalf: Here, here. And may this book be a big part of that going forward. Jody, I can’t quit you. Can you stick around and endorse. We don’t do that much anymore. But but we’ll make time for you. Can you can you stick around here?
Speaker 6: I would love to. Thanks so much.
Stephen Metcalf: Okay. Well, the book is Two Wheels Good The History and Mystery of the Bicycle. It’s out today from Crown Books. Please pick it up. It is a tremendously worthwhile document. Jody Rosen is going to stick around and endorse. Thanks for sticking around, Jody.
Stephen Metcalf: All right. Well, now is the moment in our podcast where we endorse Jody. Thank you for sticking around. What do you got?
Speaker 6: Yeah, I kind of strong armed you, Steve, into letting me stick around because I have I feel so evangelical about this endorsement that I had to just like get it out in the world on some platform. So I’m co-opting your, your platform and this might feel like a log roll because nominally in some I’m a New York Times writer. Like that’s you know, I have a I have a regular freelance contract job for The New York Times Magazine. But this is not a blog role, because I’m endorsing the work of a writer who’s a New York Times critic. I never met this person, never spoken to this person, but I’m so in love with his work that I had to say something about this. Do you guys know who Jason Farago is, the art critic? Jason Farago I was.
Stephen Metcalf: Going to I was going to say that’s who you were going to say. I he is so effing good. I agree. Every single time he steps to the plate, I mean he he is just a tremendously good critic, art critic, art historian, public art historian. He’s he’s marvelous.
Speaker 6: Right. And and in particular, he has kind of pioneered this series in the Times. It’s called Close Read, which Julio be interested in this or maybe she has thoughts about this. This is just one of the.
Julia Turner: It’s so good. It’s so good. I’ve been reading them.
Speaker 6: Exactly. Most incredible uses of the Internet in journalism that I’ve ever seen to kind of do exegesis like take to explicate and do close reads, as it were, you know, close analysis of works of art. So in the case of Jason Farago pieces, he writes very beautifully in these very short little sentences. And you kind of scroll through and you get a couple sentences per scroll. And what you’re doing is looking at a work of art and the interface works such that you with each scroll you you might like zoom in on a particular detail of the painting as he’s talking about that or zoom out to take in the whole and these these pieces step through art history, the history of ideas, you know, history writ large and just perform like just the best kind of yeah. Close, close criticism, you know, like deep, deep criticism.
Speaker 6: So I want to recommend a couple of pieces in particular to people who just want to get started with Jason Farago. There’s a piece he did about a painting by Baltimore. He so whose it’s a I guess it was a maybe she was American even though she has a French sounding name. In any case, she was a she was a lesser known impressionist master. He did a close reading of of a Jasper Johns painting, which is just like like real, really like it’s a tear jerker of a piece. He he did a close read of a painting called Shah Jahan on a Terrace, which is an and in one of those wonderful Indian miniatures, I think it’s a 17th century painting. So yeah, just just Google around, get to the Times website and check out Jason Farago close read pieces. They’re all masterful.
Stephen Metcalf: Yeah, I endorsed one. The museum, the Auden poem, Musica Bazaar. It’s just an amazing, amazing feature. I agree.
Stephen Metcalf: Dana, what do you have?
Speaker 3: Okay, maybe this is this will be a Jodi pleaser of an endorsement because it has to do with the invention of a technology as your book on the bike does. And it is also about what I know is one of your favorite substances in the world. Coffee. So I’m going to endorse a ten year old article from Smithsonian magazine. But since it’s about the old days, I guess it doesn’t matter that it’s an old article. It’s about the invention of espresso, which happened actually right around the same time that I guess the bike was enjoying its its boom in the sort of the 1890s to the turn of the 20th century. And this article specifically focuses on these two characters, these two Italian inventors, Luigi Bezerra and Desiderio Pavone, which the article calls the Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs of Espresso.
Speaker 3: So this was sort of like the tech guy and, you know, the guy who knew how to promote the machine. And it just talks about the 1906 World’s Fair in Milan when they introduced the fastest coffee making machine that had ever existed. Of course, espresso comes from the Italian word for quickly. And and the espresso machine was a wonder at the time because it could very quickly produce this beverage that, you know, Europe had been addicted to at that point for a couple of centuries. And it’s it’s just a really fun sort of history of technology and and snapshot of that moment. There’s also some great illustrations of the The World’s Fair in 1906 in Milan and some patent drawings of the first espresso machine. Anyway, if you’re a coffee addict and you’re into history, I think you would have fun with this article. We’ll put a link on the show page. It’s called The Long History of the Espresso Machine.
Stephen Metcalf: Oh, man, keep the assembly line rolling here. We got we got bikes, coffee, close reading. This is like. I’m like I’m like a. Hopping on its back, getting its tummy scratched. Julia, what do you got?
Speaker 3: All right, well.
Julia Turner: I’m going to beat Jodi, even though we’re got to we’re going to close this this segment out. But Jodi tweeted like six weeks ago, I think that he was obsessed with the Boston restaurant hottie. And I’ve been wanting to talk to him about it for all the time since, because I, too, am obsessed with the Boston restaurant hottie. This is like an independent kind of Israeli inflected. Like breakfast, lunch and pastry place. That is delicious in all three of those categories and then has been kind of massively expanded within Boston. It turns out that some of it was acquired by the CEO or owner of Panera, and then when he sold Panera, he kept today. And so today there’s now like 12 or 13 in Boston and they’re expanding to D.C. and it’s I ate there nonstop last summer.
Julia Turner: And and I love Boston. I grew up in Boston. I don’t think of Boston as like a major hub of food innovation. Come at me, Boston people, whatever, you know, Dunkin Donuts excepted. But wow, if you’re in Boston, you got to go to Tatte and Jody. I just have to say, I see you. I see your tattoo fandom. I’m like, what delicious city.
Speaker 6: And if any listener out there knows how you pronounce if Tata, is that actually how you pronounce the name of this restaurant? Not sure, but unclear.
Julia Turner: That’s one of the things that’s so unlikely about it. Wonderful Israeli food chain from Boston. Tatte can’t be called Tatte. Doesn’t seem like a Tatte anyway. Very good, though.
Stephen Metcalf: All right, so, Jody, you’re probably with me on this. There’s a very special poignancy to being the second best or maybe even third best songwriter in a band. Of course, the archetypal case is George Harrison, who we got to all got a refresher on in the Beatles documentary. He can scarcely get the attention of Lennon and McCartney. He’s playing songs that go on to become classic songs for them, auditioning for them for Lennon and McCartney, the greatest songwriting duo who ever lived. And and they’re like, Yeah, now back to business. And then, I mean, Lennon and McCartney could barely keep their eyes off of one another to see how the other is reacting to the latest thing that they’re doing, whether it be jape or musical scrap or whatever. And Harrison’s just invisible. It’s just incredibly sad. It happens in band after band after band. There is a star, right? And the star comes in and he’s got he’s just got the presence, the charisma, the chops, the voice and the songs. The biggest currency write the songs.
Stephen Metcalf: And there was an example of this that I don’t think is especially well known. The basement of the bass player for the Replacements was Tommy Stinson. With added poignancy. He became a member of the band when he was in his very early teens and toward a lot of the country, if not parts of the world. When he was like 15 with guys, guys two, three or four years older than he was because he was the younger brother of the guitarist who was a major substance abuser, his older brother, Bob. And so he kind of lived he lived formative years on the road playing bass. But he’s actually I think he’s a really underrated front guy and singer and songwriter. He had a band that I adored called Bash and Pop after the replacement.
Stephen Metcalf: So what I’m endorsing is this. I found this deep cut YouTube video of while the replacements were still going the band. It feels like the band has exited the stage. It does not sound like the regular drummer on the drums, but basically Paul Westerberg just cedes the stage completely. I think indifferently. I even think he hands it to Tommy, little Tommy and Tommy, I guess with a guitar, gets up and plays a song that becomes years later, the kind of one of the sort of would be hits from the Passion Pop record.
Stephen Metcalf: It’s called Friday Night Is Killing Me. It’s an early version of this song. It doesn’t really sound like the one on the record. And just it’s like from 91, we’ll post the link to it. The utter poignancy, the heartbreaking. Like there was already this deep homesick quality to what the Replacements did, what Westerberg did, and it’s just tripled, quadrupled, you know, to have little Tommy Stinson, the perennial younger brother, the second best songwriter in the band. And he’s I think he’s just an amazing rock and roller. He’s got a great upper register, a rock and roll voice. His songwriting on that first passion pop record is kind of like the old Faces, The Faces classic records. It just has that jump and melody to it. It’s just primal stuff. It’s really good. Jody You won’t like it at all, but I’ll. I’ll send you the link if you can tell me why I’m wrong.
Speaker 6: I will. Definitely. I’m. I’m a huge replacement fan. What are you talking about, baby?
Stephen Metcalf: Oh, wow. Okay, a pleasant surprise. Jody, it was so cool to have you on the show. People must buy your book table pounded. It is so.
Julia Turner: Good. I just have to flag. That’s like the most even Jody moment ever. You invite Jody on, you praise this book lavishly, and then at the end, you shared him by me like you’re a music critic. Doesn’t think the replacements are good.
Speaker 5: Come on.
Stephen Metcalf: I want to take issue with this at a, I guess, adverb lavishly. I praise that proportional to judiciously.
Julia Turner: Okay.
Stephen Metcalf: Yes, thank.
Speaker 6: You. Yeah, actually, I think I think Steve praised it judiciously, too. That was there’s nothing lavish about it.
Stephen Metcalf: Joanie. Love you, man. Thanks for coming on the show. It’s always really fun.
Speaker 6: Thank you so much.
Stephen Metcalf: Dana Julia, really good show. Thanks so much.
Speaker 3: My pleasure.
Stephen Metcalf: You will find links to some of the things we talked about today at our show page at Slate.com. Culturefest. You can email us at Culturefest at Slate.com. Our introductory music is by the wonderful composer Nick Britell. A producer is Cameron Druse. Our production assistant is Nadira Goffe for Jody, Dana and Julia. I am Stephen Metcalf. Thank you so much for joining us and we will talk to you soon.
Julia Turner: Hello and welcome to this Slate Police segment of the Slate Culture Gabfest. Today we dig further into men and its wild and woolly final 20 or 25 minutes because the end is so bonkers that even though the movie was not none of our favorites, it does put forth such interesting and surprising things in its conclusion that we felt we needed to grapple with it for the sake of the slate culture filmgoer. And Dana, can you please describe what happens in the final chunk of this movie and what you made of it?
Speaker 3: I mean, you guys may have to help me get to the point where I’m going to start describing, because I don’t remember exactly what series of, you know, of of suspenseful chases by various Rory Kinnear incarnations lead to this moment, but essentially the the big reveal at the end of this movie is, as far as I can tell, that this maybe fantasized Rory Kinnear figure, who has been both Jessie Buckley’s landlord at her country rental, and also the naked stalker who’s been standing aside, and also this strange kind of village idiot kid who’s always hanging around and who else has he been? And the vicar who has a strange, creepy scene with her and a cop, right. Who gets called into to resolve the stalker issue.
Speaker 3: That character becomes this kind of monstrous Cronenberg Ian figure, and I can’t remember which one he starts off as, This is where you guys have to help me. I don’t know if he’s the cop in the first incarnation or what, but essentially all of those characters sequentially sort of give birth to each other in this in this long body horror scene where, you know, each character appears and then sort of puffs up in some grotesque way.
Speaker 3: And then echoing this this sculpture that she saw that the Jessie Buckley character earlier saw in the village church this kind of erotic medieval bar relief in the church. They kind of like open up these these faux vaginas somewhere in their bodies, sometimes in their stomach or their head or wherever. And then a fetal creature emerges. That turns out to be the next Rory Kinnear incarnation. And they sort of chase her sequentially through the country house until what happens to the very last one here? Somebody has to help me out. I’m so it turns right very big.
Julia Turner: It turns into.
Speaker 3: Her dead husband. That’s right. The very last one to emerge, which at the time I’m surprised I can’t remember it here in our conversation, because at the time I thought, oh, of course. And in fact, if anything, I thought, can we just get around to the part where it’s her dead husband? Because obviously he’s going to be the last one, right? Because the whole trauma narrative is always has to be about, oh, we must penetrate to the true origin of the trauma. And we’ve already been told and had it hammered of our head, that that is the origin of the trauma.
Speaker 3: So yes, finally it is the character not played by Rory Kinnear, but by Paapa Essiedu, who played her husband, who we only see in flashbacks, who who killed himself in a very grisly way by jumping out the window. We’ve already seen before how his wrecked body looked when she found him outside afterward. And those same injuries are reflected in each one of these, you know, foetal Rory Kinnear people. So they all have a hand that’s been sliced in half, which is also echoes an earlier chase scene where she slices the hand of the, I think, cop. At that point, he’s chasing her. They all have this one gross kind of foot that’s broken off anyway. They all have bodies that reflect the brokenness of the body of the husband who fell out the window.
Speaker 3: And then here is the moment where I flat out don’t understand what the director, Alex Garland, was going for. So Paapa Essiedu, the the the already dead husband finally emerges and then she sort of hangs with him, like they plunk down on the couch and have this brief conversation where she says something like, What is it that you want from me? Right? And doesn’t he just say, I want to be loved or I want your love or something like that.
Julia Turner: Or your love? Yeah. And all he wants is her love.
Speaker 3: And she’s holding a knife at that moment. So you’re thinking like, oh, and actually. Right. The axe which is which is the Chekhov’s gun, right. That was has been seen in the house since she first moved. And she’s finally gets the axe off the wall. And we think maybe there’s going to be some big showdown between them. And then after he says, I just want your love, am I wrong? Or does Alex Garland then cut to a title card that says Men? So you think it’s the end of the movie, but it’s not.
Speaker 3: There’s one little pop after that where it’s the next morning because this all happens in the dark of night. It’s the next morning we see Jessie Buckley in the sunshine, out in the yard wearing a bloodstained dress as she had on the night before. But we don’t know, you know, what has happened to the to the emerged foetal husband character and her friend that Steve mentioned earlier, who’s kind of the equivalent, really, of the Lil Rel Howery character in Get Out, Right. The friend who from afar is giving her advice on the phone as she’s having this weird country weekend. The friend has now driven up because she called her the night before when, you know, the Rory Kinnear invasion happened and the friend is pregnant, which is kind of a surprise, especially given that we just saw all of these men give birth to each other. And I guess there’s then a happy and. Where the two smiling friends reunite on the lawn.
Speaker 3: So I have a lot of questions here, even aside from the men giving birth to each other, which I think I know what Alex Garland was trying to metaphorically say, but I don’t necessarily think that it adds a lot to the movie. But literally, what was supposed to happen after the ghost of her husband says, I just wanted your love. Does she then kill him or does he disappear? Or how is it resolved that she’s just hanging the next morning with her buddy in the yard?
Julia Turner: I think there’s like the theoretical. What was he trying to say? Take. And then there’s also, like, a bunch of practical what the fuck was actually happening in the movie questions.
Julia Turner: And to speak to the theoretical first, my read on the final scene. When the men are birthing each crappy incarnation of themselves over and over again, is that essentially? And it’s like sort of misogynistic and sort of empowering. Essentially what the movie seems to be suggesting is that childbirth. Is horrifying is like gross and scary, right? And is like primal and insane. And if someone were to, like, come Berthe at you, like, you’d be like, holy shit. Right?
Julia Turner: Like, this is this is this is wild. This is grotesque. And it almost seem to argue and she becomes progressively less and less afraid, like we’ve been in this fever pitch. The man’s trying to get in the kids in the house. There’s a creepy mask, there’s a dead crow like. And then as she watches this, like, slow motion, you know, Russian doll birth scene. She just calms down. And it’s sort of like the way I read it was like.
Julia Turner: Oh, men have nothing on me. Women can do this. We take this in stride. We don’t get fucking freaked out when humans emerge from our orifices. Men are so weak and stupid and disgusting. I can just, like, hold this axe and accept the pathetic ness of my abusive, dead husband who may or may not have killed himself. I don’t even have to kill him to feel powerful over him like I am the one with the power and. That’s a fucked thing for this movie to say.
Julia Turner: Like, essentially the movie kind of endorses the view of the abusive husband that. That men’s desire for women. You know, stipulating that our normative evidence of that reading of the world. But like. That that last. It’s a disfiguring force that has fucked and will fuck men up for all eternity, and that women are the ultimate ones with the power in the equation. And that is so misogynistic and fucked up. Like you made me so mad, even as I was like calming down as the as the movie and sort of feeling the female power of like, Oh, she doesn’t need to be afraid because she’s the one with the axe. And it’s like, but she but women don’t have the access in the world in life. Like, they don’t actually. Anyway, sorry, that was my read of that.
Julia Turner: But Steve, I’m dying to know what you made of the finale.
Stephen Metcalf: I mean, I’m still kind of aghast and then, like, you know, into silence by it. I mean, I scarcely know to make of it. I mean, I I’ll give you a very like cold and clinical, which is that response, which is that there are a lot of craftspeople who are and Ian McEwan comes to mind in this regard who are just so gifted at sort of every level of writing. And I actually do love McEwan much more than than Alex Garland. But they remind me of each other in this way. As you get to the moment in their work, they draw you in beautifully and seductively with a kind of perfection of of delivery.
Stephen Metcalf: And then and then all of a sudden you’re like, Oh, that’s the first thing he thought of when he decided to write this book, right? Like Atonement being the perfect example, you get to the oh moment in Atonement and you’re like, He had that idea, and what he did was brilliant in the lead in. And he got me deep into this world and this is just suddenly he’s present to me more than the story he’s telling.
Stephen Metcalf: Whereas I think most great art maybe begins with that, but then becomes organ talk about giving birth, right, but then becomes an organic process along the way in which the internal logic of it begins to dictate what the characters are doing and not this design. Right? They just come off this way to, you know, designed. Whereas like a work of art is much more like a work of evolution, right? It’s like a product of no design in some weird sense, right? It’s about erasing the first thing that you put up on the blackboard, because its own internal truth is now telling the writer how to finish it. And there are certain artists who can’t let that moment happen and instead continue imposing their will on it in a way that makes their preoccupations way too didactic evident to the viewer. And that’s how I felt.
Stephen Metcalf: I was like, Okay, well, I guess there’s some sort of sort of pretend deep ideas here about womanhood as birthing and what would it be if men could do it? And and but what is that? What’s the analogy? Men’s pain follows in patrilineal descent. Like man’s curse is both not giving birth. Therefore, we’re trapped in a kind of alienated self that takes revenge on women for the generative power we don’t have and will never have. I mean, I think that there’s. A way in which this movie gets it. Misogyny, right. Which is which is the fear that really deep, neurotic fear.
Stephen Metcalf: I think a lot of men, though, I’d hate to universalize it feel. Given their vulnerability vis a vis the what they perceive to be the power of women over them. In some sense, I’m talking about heterosexual men now and and not all heterosexual men and on and on and on. But I just I understand the impulse that Garland is working with that. There’s that. There’s this. You know, like what? I see misogyny. I see men revenge themselves on the power the women, they perceive women as holding over them. And I think that that’s what the movie’s sort of about. And then at some deeper level, a kind of. Inability to honor. What it is to bring forth new life because it’s a power that the man. Biologically, traditionally doesn’t possess.
Stephen Metcalf: Right. I mean, I don’t believe in these gender essentialist terms. I’m trying to understand the mentality of men who in some deep and pervasive sense, he women. And so I saw that as being allegories or concretized or whatever you want to call it in the movie, in a way that was sort of interesting, but made me feel like I was having a conversation with Alex Garland and not something that was coming out of the out of the movie organically.
Stephen Metcalf: But then how does that give birth to like we haven’t even discussed the bizarre racial politics of the movie. So this husband, who polls the all time by two of the biggest all time bullshit weakling man moves he he uses his violence against the woman who’s made him feel his capacity for violence against a woman who’s made him feel emotionally vulnerable, righteously, ultimately among the handful of ultimately hateful things a man can do. And then he just does the non gendered hateful thing, which is threatening to take his own life as a purely manipulative gesture. I mean, it’s just it’s just horrible.
Stephen Metcalf: And he’s black, right? It’s a mixed race relationship is depicted as probably an immigrant because of his accent. Possibly an immigrant because of his accent. I mean, he’s socially vulnerable in these other ways. I mean, I’m not saying that’s not interesting. I’m not saying it doesn’t happen. I’m just saying that it’s gestured to but not explored. So you’re sort of left with this person who inflicts this grotesque set of traumas on the woman he supposedly loves, you know, haunting the entire film, even though he’s socially vulnerable to it, doesn’t feel sympathetic. It just feels unresolved.
Stephen Metcalf: And then why just does this sort of, you know, series of kind of almost in some in some respects a classic, you know, white Anglo-Saxon English types suddenly arrayed in a patrilineal, slash matrilineal descent, give birth to this this person. Right. Because then you’re making both the sort of universal claims about the male psyche and a set of highly specific social claims about subject positions within race, class and gender. It’s like a like what? Like I’m both like, okay, Alex Garland.
Stephen Metcalf: If you’re just going to sit in front of me and lecture me, can I at least ask you some questions? Do I think you’re one confused puppy here? I don’t know. Yeah.
Speaker 3: I mean, honestly, it struck it struck me that that the racial politics of that were very strange. You know, that the final product of this series of man birth from from bunch of white dudes was a black guy. But I almost, almost just had to dismiss it as pure sloppiness on Alex Garland part or something. It’s almost like, Oh, I got to have this gesture toward diversifying my cast. So I’ll make her, you know, you know, her dead husband, black. But that, as you say, brings up so many questions that the movie is absolutely interested in engaging it. And it’s just if that’s going to be his effort at, you know, representation in his cast, it’s it’s a pretty sad state of affairs.
Speaker 3: But I still remain I still want to know, let’s imagine a universe where just between these two characters, that scene had continued and we had seen the next thing that happened on the couch after the husband says, I want your love. Like, What did she do? Did he disappear? Is he still sitting there? Is he dead? Is he alive? Does she go make a cup of tea? I mean, something had to happen between that moment and this sunny morning when her friend arrives in her car. Are they going to go back in and find a mangled corpse in the in the living room?
Julia Turner: Yeah. I mean, just technically, I mean, you’re 100% spot on about the cavalier racial politics, but the movie makes very clear that this is not all in her head. Right. The friend drives up. She has still has the blood on her cheek. The car is still smashed into the little stone wall where one of the breweries was chasing her after he was birthed. So we are to believe that like real physical violence has been wrought upon this world.
Julia Turner: So I guess, you know, so one potential reading without those things or question without those things would have been like would there was this on her head? Is this like a psych horror thing? Like she’s so haunted by her grief that she’s, you know, transmogrified her dead husband into the white patriarchy because, you know, I’m, like, reaching, right? And then in her mind, she had to reckon with it. And she realized that, like, fundamentally, her creepy husband was just a man and his evil madness outweighs whatever sympathy she had for him or something. But no. So she was really haunted. So really her dead husband haunted her at this house and inhabited all these local men and was creepy in a specific way.
Julia Turner: But that didn’t seem to have to do with his childhood because the Roy Kinnear character, for all his chameleonic nature, does not. I do not believe we’re supposed to think it is the husband inhabiting the. Vardy because he’s so country and he talks about the primal wound of his dad saying that he would be a terrible military man when he was seven. And like, that’s apparently the origin of all of this, like. And then what? Right. What happened? Like, I don’t think she did kill him with the axe because there’s no more blood on the dress or her cheek. Like, if she did, it was an extremely tidy axing. Or was it just in realising that he only needed her love?
Speaker 3: He. But then she got away. But wouldn’t her response have been, I mean, honestly, I was waiting for if we’re going to do some like feminist polemics that we’ve been leading up to it all this time. I was looking forward to her speech. You know, I was looking forward to him saying, I just want your love and her saying, well, let me tell you something, buddy. And, you know, taking off on him for being such a manipulative dick, but instead we just tastefully cut to the word men and are supposed to draw conclusions from that. I think that was my least favorite moment of the whole movie, was that cut to that word?
Julia Turner: She didn’t get a speech. She didn’t even get to say what.
Speaker 5: Got up.
Julia Turner: Because she doesn’t say what anymore. She finally understands. I mean, I feel like that’s supposed to be the arc of the film. She’s no longer incredulous and surprised. She realizes that men are weak and desperate and laying low by the fact of their desperate need for the love of women. Again, heteronormative, blah, blah, blah. And. That just is excusing, like centuries of patriarchy and bullshit. And she’s supposed to find it comforting. Like, if, again, where.
Speaker 3: Did he go?
Julia Turner: You’re so right. You know, I’m not focused on that exact question, but like, literally, what happened to this lurching, broken.
Speaker 5: Body who was.
Julia Turner: Apparently really there because the walls really ruined it. Her cheek is really bloodstained and the windows really broke. And like.
Speaker 3: Yeah, I mean, this is one of those movies. It’s ambiguous at its own expense. Like in order to have this ambiguous ending, that could mean so many things. That kind of means nothing at all. I really wish that there was someone who thought men was an incredibly deep and accomplished and brilliant horror film that could just come in and at least tell us what they think are the answers to all of these questions?
Julia Turner: Well, I’m not sure if such a person has been found in my beliefs power of the Internet. But anyhow. Thank you guys both for digging in further. Thank you, Slate plus listeners for allowing us to say what collectively together to this film and its ideas or lack thereof. Thank you for supporting Slate for listening to our show. We’ll see you next week.