S1: This ad free podcast is part of your Slate Plus membership. I’m Stephen Metcalf, and this is the Slate Culture Gabfest, Silicon Valley Pricks Edition. It’s Wednesday, March 9th, 2022. And what does that mean? It means my beloved Kate turns 16. Happy birthday baby! On today’s show, the Dropout is a limited on Hulu. It stars Amanda Seyfried as Elizabeth Holmes, the supposedly Steve Jobs like visionary behind the company Thanos, which turned out to be a soup to nuts fraud and then Pedro Almodóvar returns with the feature film Parallel Mothers, about two women whose fates become entwined during their stay in a maternity ward. We do it either way. I suspect that you can consider it part of our Oscar roundup. Penelope Cruz has a Best Actress nom, deservedly so out of this movie. And finally, we will discuss the surprisingly elaborate semiotics of pickup trucks with Slate’s own Dan Kois. Joining me today is Julia Turner, Deputy Managing Editor at The L.A. Times. Hey, Julia, hello. Hello. Hey, hey. And of course, Dana Stevens, the film critic for Slate and author of the new nonfiction book Cameraman about Buster Keaton Dana
S2: Hello Stephen, I speak to you from a hotel room in Austin, Texas, where I came to to show a Buster Keaton movie and sign books.
S1: Lots of fun, have you? You haven’t done the event yet, though?
S2: I know it’s tonight. I’m just recording here in the hotel room in advance of the event, but I wanted to mention because I’m on the road now doing something like a book tour. To my surprise, I didn’t think I was going to have a book tour, but various institutions have invited me. And so I just wanted to mention to listeners who live in any of these towns that at some point in the coming months, you have a chance to come, probably watch a movie and definitely meet me and have me sign your book. And these are some of the cities Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Washington, D.C., and Williamsburg, Virginia. Those are the cities on the list so far.
S1: Oh, that was really cool. Well, break a leg. Shall we make a show?
S2: Yes. Let’s do it.
S1: OK, well, the Dropout is an eight part limited series now streaming on Hulu created by Elizabeth Meriwether. She’s a veteran of ABC’s sitcoms. This one stars Amanda Seyfried as Elizabeth Holmes, the painfully young entrepreneur who had an idea that with proper technology, you would not need to draw blood with the proper tech. In other words, you could diagnose across a spectrum of detectable diseases with a single drop from a pinprick. The problem she did not have and never developed the proper technology. What followed was nonetheless a barrage of credulous press tons of seed capital. Just the whole Silicon Valley hype machine coalesced around her and her idea, and it led to a spectacular collapse. This series also stars Naveen Andrews as Holmes’s lover and business partner, and William Macy and Stephen Fry many others. It’s a wonderful ensemble cast, and let me set it up a little bit in the clip. You’re about to hear Elizabeth and her team are about to test the first prototype for their new blood testing machine before they fired up, though she inspires everybody with a pep talk.
S2: What would you attempt to do if you knew you could not fail and wrestle an alligator? Today, together, we are taking the first step. Toward making health care accessible to everyone in this country. That’s why we work so hard, because this machine and all of us are going to change the world.
S1: Yeah, we are.
S3: It’s really just that demo guy, so, you know, we’ve been testing some blood for sepsis because that seems to be the most reliable test we have so far. OK. And you just take the win. He’s so modest. He’s.
S1: Our Dana, let me start with you. You know, this is a classic Silicon Valley morality tale, how how well delivered did you find it?
S2: You know, I’m super impressed with this show. I didn’t really think that I needed to hear another Elizabeth Holmes tale. I think we have already talked about her once on the show, at least even if we haven’t. I know that I watched the documentary treatment of her. I think there were two different documentary treatments of the story, if I remember correctly. And in general, there has been, as we’ve talked about on the show, this wave of dramatizations of scams and grifters and things like that. And so I sort of felt like, OK, this is going to be well-trodden territory, but this show really does an excellent job at something that’s very hard, which is taking a recent event in the press that everybody knows about dramatizing it in a way that makes you actually care about the characters and not see them as, you know, kind of blown up versions of somebody from a reported story. And also in the process of telling this individual fascinating and horrifying story about, you know, tech scams in Silicon Valley. I think that it breeds in a lot of critique of American capitalism in a way that does not hammer you over the head. And so I was really impressed overall with the with every single performance. Amanda Seyfried obviously kind of owns the whole show and is in every single scene as an extremely demanding role to play a very unsympathetic person in a way that you nonetheless feel for her and in some way understand what drives her, even though you know her ethics are so, so horrifying. But it isn’t just her. I mean, every single role. This is one of those things where they must have done a great pitch to to cast all of these people. But you know, Laurie Metcalf, Stephen Fry, Naveen Andrews, all of these people in secondary roles as well just are absolutely killing it.
S1: Mm yeah. Julia Dana. Right, right. This is not whatever else is true about it. It’s not a cardboard two dimensional portrait of a you know of now what’s becoming quickly a kind of folk demon for all our capitalist excesses. It goes very deep with her and it goes wild to the culture of enablers that surrounded her. What did you what do you make of it?
S3: I was really impressed, too. I think I had a similar response to Dana of feeling like my baseline level of interest in the, you know, quote unquote summer of scammers and the various scam stories that have followed. And it’s just like not my deepest psychological fascination. And I should I should disclose here that the podcast upon which this was based, the Dropout, was produced by a friend of mine, and she’s an EP on this show, although I don’t know how involved she actually wasn’t it? But I think the Amanda Seyfried performance is really amazing, and I think it’s supported by. Writing that allows her to inhabit this crazy character and make her seem three dimensional, I mean, what she did was so outlandish. She’s born with this core drive, this core ambition. There are these portraits of her in the first episode of her as a teenager, saying she wants to be a billionaire and being kind of abrasive and being kind of combative and having that. Outsized ambition, the way in which it curdles and the way in which she, you know, has to battle to try to get what she’s trying to get done done and the terrible moral choices she makes along the way are actually like. Not the terrible moral choices, but the fear, the ambition to be underestimated and dismissed as a young woman having to think about presentation like, you know, there’s like an alternative, you know, millennial female empowerment drama here that that that with this like underlying complete lack of moral compass and curdled psychology. That’s what’s so unsettling about it because you find yourself sort of relating to moments within her story and then you’re like, she goes home and she’s like a world historical fraud. And I go, like, just it’s a really, really interesting psychological portrait.
S1: I think Seyfried’s ability, I mean, say for you, this is one of the best performances I probably have ever seen. It’s up there. Let me put it that way, certainly on television. I mean, she radiates this kind of crazy intensity. She never seems to blink. She’s just is widening those eyes and toying with her own voice, as the character did, right? Sort of trying to send it to a lower register to sound more authoritative and serious, becoming slowly beginning as a ball of ambition that so seething she makes you uncomfortable, but developing into what seems like a full blown psychotic put it in this incredibly human way. It both goes well far back into her background. I think there is some clue that though she was already built a certain way, there was a somewhat sort of life instigating event, which is, you know, not unlike Ayn Rand in a completely different set of circumstances whose father was totally emasculated by the Bolsheviks in the sense that his entire livelihood as a successful member of the bourgeoisie was stolen from him overnight. They were forced to go live in a communal apartment. I’m not in the business of humanizing Ayn Rand, but there is a human element to the psychotically pro-free market human being, she came. It’s powerfully wounding to see your father emasculated by, you know, politics or the workplace or whatever. Her father, Elizabeth Holmes, his father worked for Enron, claimed to not know that it was a fraudulent house of Cards and saw his career at least temporarily destroyed when it all collapsed. The show makes a big deal of this. It seems to indicate that that her sense of her father’s compromised autonomy and he has to go hat in hand to William Macy, a neighbor who’s got a lot of money but dubiously. I agree that the critique of capitalism spreads out in every direction which rescue this from any possible charge of misogyny, you know, i.e. giving in to allowing this one female young woman to take the burden of all of the sins of of Silicon Valley. What I thought also continues to humanize her throughout the whole thing is that she’s in a situation. I think all of us has been in. We have a big paper do a term paper. Do we kind of verb beginning to sense? We have no prayer of finishing on time. And it’s just the sort of morphing Damocles hanging over you. And then you get past the deadline and you’re like, I’m going to email the professor in an hour and then three days goes by and she’s just virtually every episode. She’s handed a deadline that, you know, she’s not going to be able. It’s vaporware, she’s not going to be able to meet the deadline. She just doesn’t have it. And it’s not sympathy Dana. It’s not right. It’s not that it’s not exactly sympathy, but she’s been so successfully humanized along the way that you feel for her nonetheless. It’s just it’s just an amazing performance and an amazing mini-series.
S2: Yeah, I feel like we should shout out the creator because it really is one of those series where it feels like there’s a unifying vision behind it. Right? I think actually the Pam and Tommy show that we talked about a couple of weeks ago had a similar sense of, you know, really excellent casting in every part, but also just a common vision of who these people were and why their story was important now. And and the creator of this, to my surprise, was the creator of New Girl, a show that, you know, also has a very unified vision and tone, but an extremely different one. So Elizabeth Meriwether, who’s the showrunner and, you know, co-writer on many of these episodes, was the person who created New Girl and had to be very is very cool that the new new girl she’s looking at is such a very different one from, you know that when we know there are like
S3: two no more different characters in American pop culture than Zoe Dutton as Jess and and Amanda Seyfried, Elizabeth Holmes,
S2: I break for birds. I rock a lot of polka dots.
S3: I have such glitter in the last twenty four hours. That’s range. And it’s it’s just interesting in terms of gender roles. And I’m curious how you felt about this Dana like. We’ve talked on the show. I certainly I have about my resistance to the idea that like if only women were in charge, everything would be better. Like to me, the reason that there should be equality rather than sex is patriarchy is not that women are better at things, it’s just that the qualities that are distributed among men are also distributed among women and women deserve a chance to be heroes and then villains as well. Like, it’s just more, more, more talent in the talent pool. They got to get into the mix, right? But the question of how her gender intersects with her desperation, her sense of trapped ness and her villainy is really sophisticated. I think, like I was sort of ready to resist it. You know, and the ways in which gender makes things difficult to her is not presented as like a pat off the hook. Excuse, but also they’re sort of presented as like the difficult lab conditions in which this monstrous specimen like guru in really twisted directions. I was curious what you thought of the gender stuff in here?
S2: Yeah, I agree. I mean it like the things I was saying before about the show being, in a way, a critique of capitalism and techno capitalism specifically. It’s, you know, it’s not. There’s not a moment where suddenly the dialogue is just framing those ideas and telling you that right. I mean, it’s woven into the whole story and in an effective way. And I think gender kind of works the same way. I mean, among other things, she leverages her gender, right? So it’s not just a portrait of her being oppressed by the system of Silicon Valley burrows, but of her knowing that the VC people that she’s seeking investment money from know that Silicon Valley is is a nest of rose. And so she is able to leverage the fact that she is an attractive young woman who’s the CEO of a company to make them feel like they’re, you know, somehow inhabiting a more progressive space if they invest in her scam. And that is a pretty complex way to look at how gender operates outside of a simple binary of I’m a woman and I’m oppressed.
S1: This is really an accomplished show. I think we’re all kind of more or less pounding the table on it. The Dropout it’s streaming now on Hulu. I think three or four. I think the fourth episode will have dropped by the time you hear this, check it out. And if you see it, get in touch with us. Tell us what you thought of it. All right. Moving on. All right, before we go any further, typically right around now, we discuss business Dana. What do you have?
S2: Steve, our first item of business is this week’s episode of the show. A quick reminder that listeners can still get a deal on the audiobook edition of my new book Cameraman Buster Keaton, The Dawn of Cinema and the Invention of the 20th Century. If you go on Audible and get this book or another place that sells audio books, you’re going to pay full price. But if you get it on slate at Slate.com slash Dana, you can get it for just 13 999, which is $10 off the list price. So if you’re interested in that, go to Slate.com slash Dana. Our second item of business is to tell you about today’s Slate Plus segment, which comes as it has been a lot lately, I think from a listener question a listener named Jen writes in. I can’t believe we’re doing this one. This is so embarrassing. She’s wondering if any of us have a celebrity pass with our partners. In other words, is there a celebrity that we are allowed to cheat on our spouses with if the occasion arises? I’m not sure if any of us actually have such arrangements with our partners, but we thought it would be fun to talk about celebrity crushes in general and how attraction to certain celebrities might affect our taste in movies. So if you’re a Slate Plus member, you can look forward to hearing that embarrassing conversation later in the show. If you’re not a Slate Plus member, you can sign up today at Slate.com. Slash culture plus. OK, Steve, what’s next?
S1: Janice, played by Almodóvar muse, Penelope Cruz, is a successful photographer in Madrid. She’s approaching 40. She’s single. She becomes pregnant and decides to have the baby in her maternity ward. She rooms with a much younger woman, also single. Also pregnant, Anna is a teenager who lives with her mother. The two women bond. They vow to remain close, but this is the Almodóvar first. Pardon me, but what follows is an agonized, tragic comedy of loss and recuperation, as only writer director Pedro Almodóvar could deliver it. The film stars in addition to Cruz, Molina, Smit as Ana and Israel Isla Halliday as Arturo, the father of your niece’s infant daughter. We’re going to listen to a clip. The movie’s in Spanish. We have a new protocol for this. I think it works, which is just to go ahead and play a foreign language film. Just a little bit of it. Just to give you the taste. The score in this movie is is remarkable. That’s just something of the tone and feel of it. So here’s a short clip in this scene, the two main characters, Yannis and Ana, just finish up a serious conversation. You’ll hear their voices. And also this this wonderful score.
S2: Dana by Alberto Iglesias, right?
S1: Yes, you must know his work. I mean, I had I looked up who did it because I didn’t. And he’s extraordinary.
S2: Yeah, I mean, he’s worked with Almodóvar forever, the score that comes to mind for me, which is when I still put on to write to sometime because it’s just like beautiful classical music as his score to to volver the Almodóvar movie from a decade or so ago. But this is another of those gorgeous symphonic, you know, I don’t know what you want to call it, but it has an old Hollywood almost Bernard Herrmann esque kind of quality. Great music. Hmm.
S1: All right. Let’s listen
S2: to Muthana.
S4: Dwight Garner. Usurper five ideas.
S1: Julia, let’s mix it up. Let’s start with you. I don’t know about you, but for me, it’s like the Marvel Universe. I’ll go back into an Almodóvar movie with that same avidity, no matter who’s in it, what it’s what’s it about? I cannot wait to return. I have that fanboy attitude towards it. I’m not sure it allows me to be critical of these movies, but we’ll get to that. What do you make of this one?
S3: The word that comes to mind to me for Almodóvar movies is sumptuous, like you just want to be in the world of them, no matter what is happening. And in fact, what happens in them is often quite different. Tonally, sometimes it’s light and sometimes it’s melodramatic, and sometimes it’s somber. You know, he he does so many different things, and yet his signatures are so recognizable, among them casting a succession of fabulous women, some familiar and some nod and reveling in the complications of womanhood in the modern and modern world. And then secondarily, just designing a set of interiors that are so awesome looking that you just want to be inside them like there’s never a home in a Almodóvar movie that you’re not like. Can I live there? Can I live there? I also like to live. Not one nice wallpaper. Where’d they get that little hutch thingy on the wall? Like, you know, I want to like shop his movies, which just, I’m just confessing it because I know that’s not the most like, culturally sophisticated response, but they’re so great looking. You know, it’s such a visual feast. And then within the feast, he’s telling really different stories. This one? I’m so curious to talk about with you, and I wish we could talk more about the ending because it it zooms out to encompass the scope of Spanish history and atrocities committed under Franco and connects the very particular melodrama of single motherhood, which concerns the first hour plus of the movie and kind of connects it with ideas about state atrocity, family memory and kind of the impossibility of forgetting wrongs. You know you, you watch these performances. With a feeling of mounting dread as the plot unfolds, and yet it’s a generous movie in which the finer instincts of humanity prevail. So it’s like dread with a it’s not a happy ending, a positive ending. I don’t know. It’s a it’s a it’s a I was glad I took the journey. I’m curious what you made of it Dana.
S2: I mean, it was on my 10 best list for last year. It’s one of the best Almodóvar I’ve seen in years, and I was already a fan of his. So I mean, I’m pretty much 100 percent behind. It does try to do things that he’s never done before. And, you know, I suppose those things could be seen as somewhat strange connections in that he’s weaving together as a very domestic, intimate, you know, melodrama, basically a melodrama about these, these two mothers who have a baby at the same time and how their lives intertwine with this much bigger historical story, which is not a thing that Almodóvar does that much. I mean, he’s obviously a deeply Spanish filmmaker and is constantly thinking about, you know, his his country and his place in the world. But I don’t think that he has written that. I remember written Spanish history and specifically the Spanish Civil War into a movie as directly as he does in this movie. Because there’s this plot thread, as I think Steve mentioned about Penelope Cruz character having an ancestor who died in the Spanish Civil War, and she’s trying to investigate the circumstances. And that story kind of disappears from the plot for long stretches of time, and we’re hearing instead about these two women and their babies and the men in their lives. But when it comes back up to me, it was always so moving and it felt so it felt as if it had been bubbling under the surface the whole time in a way. And I really want to see this again with someone from Spain because I feel like this is a movie that if you are Spanish and know some of that history and just some of the cultural history of the country that you would see all kinds of resonances that we maybe don’t see as American viewers, but even not seeing all of those resonances. I was completely entranced. I mean, I wept many times during this movie. The ending, I think, is extraordinary. And I would say that even people who aren’t huge Almodóvar heads to this movie because I think it’s it’s kind of an unusual one in his filmography.
S1: Yeah, I loved I couldn’t have loved it more. I mean, as I say, you know, for me, it’s Star Wars. I just want to go back Julia sort of like you. It sounds like into that world of either Madrid or Barcelona. But I think this one is especially good. Let me give a couple of reasons why it’s poignancy hit very directly to me. The first is, funnily enough, the accident horrible accident of history that it that it comes out as the Ukraine crisis is unfolding. You know, I think one thing we may forget a little bit about Almodóvar, but it’s omnipresent is that his entire career unfolded in the flowering that happened after the death of Franco. I mean, imagine, first of all, what it’s like to grow up in this entirely intact anachronistic country, along with Portugal staid fascist long after the deaths of Mussolini and Hitler in the 1970s. Firstly, but then secondly, to grow up a gay man within that and then have it those, you know, terrifying restrictions suddenly released. What emerged was this sort of. Extraordinary humanist, really, I mean, the celebrator and everything he does of freedom, and there’s a sense in which all of these movies are political, there’s a wonderful quote from Almodóvar Vis a you, one of the characters in this movie, the mother of Anna, the young teenage unwed mother who says, Oh, I’m a political Almodóvar. I said, Oh, that means something very specific. When you say you’re apolitical in Spain, that means you’re of the right. And so there’s a way in which the sort of humanist left is is is animating a joy at being able to be part of something like a humanist left in a creative class that’s unleashed in all of his movies. But it is made self-consciously political in this one. I think in ways that are fascinating and that tie in with Ukraine is that in some senses what they’re fighting for, they’re fighting to belong specifically to the broader culture of Europe, which Spain joined belatedly. As to the specifics of this movie, as always, you know, a ravishing performance from Penelope Cruz and a lot of the a very specific emotional weight of the movie falls to her because she’s both trying to commit the heroic act of collective memory that involves reckoning with a specific crime attached to the Spanish Civil War and the Franco forces specifically the fascists. And she’s trying to pick through an intensely confused personal situation, which will sort of establish private memory going forward for the next generation, depending on how it gets worked out, and that those two braid together is beautifully Julia as they do. I mean, right? It’s just it’s just, you know, 71 year old filmmaker in his late phase, having refined all of his techniques and his sensibility to produce something, you know, truly, truly moving and extraordinary.
S2: Steve, if I could jump in rather than Julia, that just made me think of something that a professor of mine said long ago upon watching an Almodóvar movie. I think it was the flower of my secret. I didn’t see it with him, but he was a professor that I admired tremendously. And he was French, not a professor of French, but a French guy. And and after he saw the flower of my secret, which might have been the first Almodóvar movie he’d ever seen, he said. Said you dial. Basically, he thought it was like stunned all on screen. The novelist Stendhal, whose specialty, of course, was to, was to read together the two exact things that you were talking about, you know, kind of the forces of history that bear down on the life and the individual personal expression, you know, of that person’s beliefs. Right. So this is to me as a movie about that. I mean, it’s sort of a movie about how the personal is the political, you know, when you see that in the lives of these two women and how they interact with historical forces. This is all sounding very vague. I know because I don’t want to reveal the big twist that drive this plot, but it is a true melodrama in the way that scandal all used to do them right where you’re following the, you know, the heart swells of some individual character and the romantic story of their lives. But at the same time, it’s placed in this setting in which much larger things impact them. And you even see that, for example, in the importance of food in this movie, you know, because there’s all this. There’s this wonderful scene where Penelope Cruz teaches the younger mom played by Milena Schmidt, how to cook an omelet. You know, a tortilla espanola, right? That big kind of potato and egg omelet, which is actually very tricky to make. Well. And Penelope Cruz does this demonstration of it all the while, there’s this giant leg of human that just sits out on the counter in her beautiful, perfect teal and orange kitchen at all times. And it just seems like that kind of cultural expression of Spain is just as important to Almodóvar in this movie as the historical and political one.
S3: Yeah, I mean, I think the one the the thing that I’m still puzzling through is is the central metaphor, how it is that the melodrama at the heart of Penelope Cruz is experience for most of the movie connects to the the big historical zoom out at the end, and I think there’s a way in which some of the choices she makes are supposed to be a metaphor for the history of Spain and and the repression of historical memory around atrocities under Franco. And like, I guess the thing I’d love to talk about at a bar for half an hour is like. Is Penelope Cruz just too pleasant and lovely to be the right vehicle for that fear in questioning, like there are some moments where you wonder what choices she’s going to make and you’re filled with dread that she might make bad ones, but that they’re kind of scant and fleeting because how could anything go so terribly wrong in that sumptuous kitchen?
S1: Powell take the flip side of that, though, because, you know, maybe you sense that she’ll make the choice as you indicate, but that the cost to her will be agonizing. And I think, you know, it doesn’t. I don’t. I don’t think that her winsome sacrifices the feeling here. I thought it enhanced. You don’t want. This potentially awful thing to befall this kind of extraordinary person. But anyway, I love a show of ours where we pound the table twice for something. Enthusiasm in this dark time is just so much better than gaveling and dismay. All right, it’s parallel mothers. As of now, you have to go see it in a movie theater, but that’s the perfect place for it. And I think, as I said before, Penelope Cruz justly nominated for Best Actress. Check it out. We loved it. All right. Moving on. OK, for our final segment, we’re joined by Dan Kois ogy friend of the program. Org FOP. Dan, welcome back.
S5: Thanks. I’m happy to be here.
S1: I note, Dan, that you are the author of How to Be a Family. A co-author of The World Only Spins Forward in an Oral History of Angels in America. But then there’s a third entry here that I find puzzling and maybe even a little dismaying. You have a novel forthcoming from vintage contemporaries in 2023. Is that is that a misprint?
S5: That is a misprint. I have a novel called Vintage Contemporary. It’s forthcoming from Harper and 2023, but that’s even better.
S1: Okay. Well, there is a that’s up for first. This is the fantastic title. It’s a callback to this old what was his name? Morgan N-Trek in that series that he published with McInerney and Bret Easton Ellis?
S5: And in fact, Morgan enter Kin was in charge of Grove Atlantic in the late 80s. Vintage Contemporaries was launched by Gary Fiske Ajan and was made famous when its for the first book in the series was Bright Lights, Big City, and they sort of spun
S1: off from there. I mean, we haven’t even started our segment, and I’ve been hilariously wrong three or four times. This is this is quite the auspicious start here anyway. You’re actually here to talk about something other than, you know, your talents and my idiocy. You write in your latest piece for Slate. I’m not saying you’re a murderer if you own a gigantic truck, a.k.a. a pickup truck, which is what the piece is about. I’m saying you’re a manslaughter. I loved in you return to Slade from a six month book leave and just painted a gigantic slate pitch target on your forehead. Go tell me about this piece!
S5: I was loaded for Bear after six months off on book leave. Yeah, I. I had found myself frustrated frequently by the the the argument around road fatalities and the way that it constantly, it seems to me, is framed as a function of Oh, drivers are more distracted or drivers are more aggressive because of the pandemic or pedestrians are looking at their phones. When it seems to me that there’s an obvious thing to point at and how much more dangerous the roads seem for everyone, for bikers, for pedestrians and for other drivers, which is enormous pickup trucks. And it all came to a head the other day when a journalist named A.J. Latrice posted a couple of photos of himself at an auto show. You know, these auto shows and big convention centers where the the car companies introduce their latest models? And he was standing in front of a new GMC Sierra and the author AJ Le Trace’s over six feet tall and the the top of the grille of the Sierra is exactly at a level with his neck, which is to say it’s it’s almost five and a half feet tall. And the new lines of pickup trucks over the last 10 to 15 years have gotten progressively taller and substantially heavier. And no surprise, they’ve gotten incredibly more dangerous for everyone they come into contact with, whether they’re pedestrians they hit, who then get hit on the head and face and pulled under the truck as opposed to hit on the body or other cars that they hit, which then get crushed into tiny pieces. And so I wanted to write a piece that tried to lay bare the real calculus that you ought to be thinking about. If you are buying one of these gigantic pickup trucks, which is that you are willfully purchasing something that makes you a lot more likely to kill another human being.
S3: Well, Dan, I was reading this piece with dread as someone who does not want a pickup truck but does like to be a little higher on the road than in a Honda Accord. And then I saw that there was a sense, you know, two thirds of the way down where you let the drivers of light SUV’s off the hook because actually those are getting smaller and lower to the road. So since you’ve solved my son’s grade because
S5: they are getting smaller and lower to the road, they’re also more likely to be crushed by a pickup truck. They it is worth noting they are still 28 percent more likely than another kind of car to kill someone when they hit them.
S3: All right. You did put that card into, but I guess, you know, there there is like a bar, I don’t know if it’s the tragedy of the Commons or what the right philosophical metaphor is for it, but like if everyone else’s car is bigger, you kind of want your car to be bigger, to be a little bit higher off the road so you can see over the other big, huge cars. And you know, maybe you can be
S5: safer when you run into those other big, huge cars, right? Yeah. And it’s I mean, what it is is it’s tragedy of the market. It seems like,
S2: Dan, I’m curious whether as somebody who drives a lot in your daily life, this is something that comes up on the road. I mean, this seems to have been inspired, as you said, by this, this photo that this journalist posted at a trade show. And and that is in fact, an enraging photo that just equates sort of size and bulk with, you know, desirability in a car. But is this something that you also see experientially just driving around your neighborhood in your city?
S5: Oh, yeah. Well, I live in a suburb outside D.C. and it’s a pretty affluent suburb, and the people who live here are not engaged in farming or contracting. Sometimes they like to have a big tow capacity because they are carrying around their giant boats. But in general, what I see in my community are a bunch of gigantic pickup trucks and monster SUVs are being driven around to drop kids off at school, sometimes being driven around by teenagers to get themselves to school or to be like driven to Starbucks to pick up a latte. And you know, each time I see one of them often driven carelessly or with the kind of confidence that you can get when you know that you are essentially bulletproof, it makes me a little bit terrified for me and for my kids walking around and for my neighbors who are, you know, subject to the violence that these things can instill. And that’s one of the things that I tried to get at in the piece that as in my community, the the vast majority of people who own these kinds of trucks in the United States are not using them because they are farmers hauling around bales of hay. They are buying them because they want to feel safer or they want to feel bigger on the road or because they just like being intimidating. So, you know, according to a research firm, about 30 percent of truck owners owners of these giant trucks actually go off road more than once a year, and about 35 percent of truck owners never, ever put anything in their truck beds. Never actually fill those truck beds with the stuff you theoretically need to haul, which is why you bought a gigantic pickup truck in the first place.
S1: I mean, here I have to jump in. I saw I live in a rural community that’s filled with pickup trucks, and over the years I’ve noticed a couple of patterns that I think are worth sharing. The first is that, you know, in my community who has absolutely the smallest pickup trucks, it’s the farmers. Yeah, and the landscapers. And but typically and because farming has so much trouble reproducing itself generationally, both for financial reasons and the, you know, tends to run at a loss, you know, and a break even basis. If you’re lucky, kids are moving away, you know, it just doesn’t. It doesn’t really pay. So farmers tend to be older here. They know what they need out of a truck. It has pure utility. It’s and I would go further and say it’s because their masculinity is still bound up in and expressed through work the actual work they do. So it’s not an especially insecure masculinity, whereas the bigger they get, the less they do, the less you know, the less they’re actually used in a in a in a specifically work oriented or any, you know, any kind of utilitarian way. And then it just becomes you start to trend in the direction of a pure act of aggression. It is an incredibly efficient signalr of of hostility, hostility to people like me and Priuses who are latecomers to this community. So impinging on my consciousness all the time and into my lane and on and on and on. Are these just fantastically useful, silly big trucks? You know, one theme Dan in this show is, I’m sure you remember, has been the end of men inaugurated by the Great Atlantic essay by Hanna Rosin, Slate alumna and she. She really nailed it. But what I kept thinking as we talked to her about it and read that that sort of in its way in retrospect, terrifically prescient piece was manner not going to go quietly. The dissociation of especially white masculinity rs hat masculinity in the United States, becoming dissociated from specifically traditionally macho forms of work. You know, coal mining to a degree farming. I would argue that one’s pretty gentle, but. On and on and on was going to result in this symbolic over masculine innovation and other realms, and now we see it is just the single most pathetic thing we’ve ever talked about this constant negative externalizing of of in utility really to the point where doing something for your community on the part of an individual. Has become psychologically impossible because somehow that somehow that completes the emasculation, so wearing a mask in order to prevent endangering others, no matter how you assess your own risk, you increase the risk of others. I agree it’s a market failure, a tragedy of the market. This needs to be regulated. It started with Reagan. They wanted to bring back the U.S. auto industry, and they wanted to flatter the the gas companies by returning gigantic cars to the American landscape. But nobody wanted these old nostalgic boats with the big things anymore. So the key was redefining what counted as a truck. And lo and behold, we got SUVs in these boat like trucks I share completely. I mean, let’s call it what it is. It’s it’s a kind of rage at these things. They’re they’re awful for all of us.
S5: Well, and the lack of concern for others that you talk about is manifest not only in the trucks marketing and and design. You know, the designers of these trucks talk specifically about how the grills are meant to be intimidating, to make people feel afraid that the truck is going to come after them, but also in the way that they’re currently regulated right now in the United States, unlike in many other countries. Safety ratings and statistics for cars are based solely on how safe people inside the car are in the event of a collision and have nothing to do with how safe people outside the car are in the event of a collision. So when you talk about trucks like this, which people buy for their quote unquote safety, what they’re referring to is their own safety, when in fact they’re markedly over 100 percent more likely to kill someone else if you collide with them.
S2: Yeah, I mean, well, well over 100 percent you have and fifty nine percent more likely than other cars to kill another driver. If you’re in a crash, which is really stunning that the auto industry is just going forward with those kind of stats and continuing to to make these big cars. But maybe that brings me to a slightly bigger than this peace question. I wanted to ask you about just writing a polemic like this. I mean, I don’t know if this pieces has gotten monster traffic. It should get monster traffic because, well, it’s about monster traffic, I guess. But, but but it’s a great piece. But is it a particular mode? I mean, it’s not just that, it’s it’s a polemic, it’s a second person polemic. And I really admired that about it. It’s just it’s really bracingly written because you were talking directly using the framing of you at this hypothetical truck owner. And in particular, this really hit home for me in the paragraph where you talk about front overs. I wasn’t familiar with that word before, but it’s, you know, when somebody who is parked in a driveway or a parking lot accidentally rolls over someone in front of them. And as you write, most of the victims of front over deaths are babies between 12 and 23 months. Eighty percent of those deaths involve one of these big cars. And then the really sad statistic here is that in 70 percent of those front overs, it’s it’s the child of the person behind the wheel, which makes sense, right? It’s their driveway. Anyway, I’m going off into numbers here, but I just wanted to to ask you what, how it felt to be addressing this hypothetical man slaughtering truck owner. And you know why you chose that form to cast your polemic in
S5: was very emotionally gratifying because it was the it was the thing that I wish I could say to every truck that roars down my street at, you know, 48 miles an hour that that scares me all the time. So in that way, it’s very satisfying to write a piece this way when you take a thing that has been bothering you forever and a kind of person who has been bothering you forever and you feel like you can address them directly. Now, does the piece actually address those people directly when it’s published in Slate magazine that, you know, has some overlap, presumably with the audience that buys these kinds of trucks, but also, you know, has a an often quite liberal audience of the type that is is the choir to whom I am preaching. I don’t know. I I know that I definitely got the largest number of angry randos sending me Facebook messages, telling me that I’m a piece of shit since I wrote about Joker, which struck me as like a notable correlation. I do think that the pleasure of writing a piece like this is in its emotional fulfillment. I don’t know whether it changes minds. I certainly knew that the kinds of pieces I was reading before weren’t changes in changing anyone’s minds, the kinds of pieces that were very, you know, sympathetic or or measured or, you know, gracious in a way that this is not gracious. And so that is why I wrote the piece this way. It seems to me that the market is part of this question. Car makers are going to keep making cars bigger and bigger and bigger because that is what people want. So the only way to turn that around short of regulation, as Steve says, which seems unlikely to come anytime soon, is to change what it means to own one of these big cars. And that means shutting and and embarrassing the people who own them. And so I don’t know if that can happen long term, but it seems to me like arguments like this in the real world are the thing that can maybe make that happen.
S1: Hear, hear. All right. Well, we unfortunately are out of time. But Dan, thank you so much for coming back to the show. And let me reiterate, you’ve got a novel written an extraordinary life achievement in of itself, but it’s called vintage contemporaries. It’s going to be out in 2023. I cannot wait for a galley. Very excited for it. Thanks for coming on. Thanks, guys. Right, well, now is the moment in a podcast when we endorse Dana,
S2: what do you got? Steve, for the second week in a row, it’s my daughter who inspired my endorsement. This was actually inspired by me trying to help her with her homework for her world history class. She’s taking AP World History as a sophomore in high school, and I really hope her teachers are not listening. It’s not the teacher’s fault, but the curriculum for this class is just kind of a mess, like they’re basically covering all of world history over several thousand years and cramming it in this very fact based way and whatever is just not a great example of history. Pedagogy again, probably not the teacher’s fault, but the educational systems. And so I was looking for resources online where you can understand world history in relation to other parts of the world and that, you know, history is not just told in these strange, siloed ways. And so I happened upon this site called Time Maps dot com, which I’m still exploring. I’m not quite sure of all the things that I can do. Also, some of the things that it can do are locked behind a paywall, and some aren’t. But if you go to time Match.com, among the things you can do are look at a map of the world over a space of three thousand years and click on different places. So say you wanted to see what was happening in India in 2000 B.C. you would have a way of going to that place on the map, sliding to that place on the timeline and getting a sort of little historical summary of what’s going on politically and culturally in that place. And the same way all over the world. And again, I think some of this more desirable content may be locked behind a paywall. So I don’t want to send people to a place where they have to become a subscriber. But you can get quite a lot of world history just from going to the free part of the time map WSJ.com website and whether or not you’re helping a kid learn world history, it’s just interesting to explore.
S1: That sounds incredibly cool. Julia What do you have?
S3: I just want to recommend a good Instagram account. The account is called the Sussman. It describes itself as original hospitality industry means, and it’s basically just they post on Instagram. I don’t know, like five to 10 means a day from the perspective of like harried workers in the hospitality industry about how brutal it’s been to run restaurants during COVID. And I don’t know how to describe it other than as like a triumph of editorial acumen. Like, I don’t know anything, you know, I worked in a bakery as a teenager. I haven’t worked in a restaurant. I’ve worked in food service since the 90s. Like, I don’t know anything about front of house, back of house culture or any, you know, anything really other than like books I’ve read. And yet somehow the memes feel very inside, like they would be really pleasing to people who are in this culture and very revealing and edifying to someone outside this experience, but who’s interested in and empathetic toward what people in restaurants have gone through in the last couple of years. And it’s just really funny, makes me laugh every day like I’m sure many of our listeners have had the experience of following an Instagram account and then not wanting to click through. It’s 6000 stories or its many carousels of posts and finding them tiresome. And like, what can I say, editorial acumen. Like, every day it comes up in my feed, I click through them all. Most of them make me laugh. It’s kind of funny has this sardonic, modern mimmi tone, and I recommend it. That’s the assessment.
S1: That sounds very cool. OK, so I’m going to this is going to go kind of topical. There’s the Guardian. Long read edited by my friend David Wolfe is terrific. They have an especially on point one up right now. It’s about if you’re kind of wondering about the deeper motivations behind the Ukraine conflict and does do people really mean what they say exactly what their other motivations or ulterior motivations might be? Putin’s especially this is a tremendously good piece. And then it it it. But it comes at it from such a specific angle, which is the buying off of the of the British elite class London, especially by Russian and or Russian Ukrainian oligarchs. And it tells the story of one in particular, Dmitry Firtash, who kind of laundered his reputation and his money in London and got everyone to sort of sing and dance to his tune. But along the way to exposing that corruption, it also gives you some sense of specifically the dependency between the Russian gas industry and Ukraine is a territory and and how important it was for Putin to have essentially a surrogate thug in charge of the Ukraine, which he constantly over the last 20 years has tried to install and keep there against these revolutions on the part of people who do not want this. The Ukrainian people who overwhelmingly do not seem to want this alignment with Russia, the money in the blood money, the courses below, a lot of you know, kind of oddly. Inflated rhetoric about the crucifixion of, you know, the reunification of russian-speaking people under this, you know, new kind of empire that Putin is imagining. There’s a nuts and bolts and I think at the end of the day kind of economically and driven reason for this horrendous act of violence, I think it gets at that, too. Anyway, it’s by Oliver Bullough, whose specialty, an Englishman whose specialty is talking about how London, from a real estate point of view and various other political point of views, has sold itself off to the highest bidder, many of whom are Russian oligarchs. It’s a very, very, very good read. It’s in the Guardian long read Gas-Powered kingmaker how the UK welcomed Putin’s man in Ukraine. Check it out! Julia, thank you so much.
S3: Thank you.
S1: Dana, as always, a serious pleasure. That was really good.
S2: Yeah. Good show, Steve. We actually loved all three of the things we were talking about this week, which is it doesn’t happen every time.
S1: The best you’ll find links to some of the things we talked about at our show page that Slate.com’s Les Culturefest. Please email us at Culturefest at slate.com. Our intro music is by Nicholas Britell. Our production assistant is Nadira Goffe, and our producer is Cameron Dru’s for Julia Turner and Dana Stevens and Stephen Metcalf. Thank you so much for joining us. Please, let’s hang out soon.
S3: Hello, and welcome to this slate plus segment of the Slate Culture Gabfest, today we take a leftover question from our listener call-in show last year, a provocative one about celebrity crushes and passes. Let’s listen to the question.
S6: This is Jen calling from Brooklyn. I’m wondering if you have a celebrity pass or if you did have a celebrity passed with your partner. Who would it be? Either gender. Thanks.
S3: It’s the classic Celebrity Pass question. Dana. You’ve spoken on this show about your fondness for the floppy haired stylings of Jesse Eisenberg, and, you know, just to just to bring along historical memory to the fore. Do you and your partner have any sort of official Eisenberg related pacts or other parts of this sort in in any of your contractual underpinnings to your union?
S2: I want to stipulate that I was not present when we decided on this list.
S3: I think that this is just an ambush.
S2: Yeah, basically, I’m just being I’m being asked to out my most embarrassing pair social desires on the air with no preparation. No, there’s no official agreement in my household. But of course, there are running jokes, right? I mean, there are running jokes about the celebrities that, you know, it’s obvious that you’re your partner or spouse has a thing for the oldest one. I remember, I mean, like oldest in our relationship was back when Gabriel Byrne was doing in treatment, and it was more than I was obsessed with the show that I was obsessed with with Gabriel Byrne. But since he was, of course, in every scene as the shrink and in treatment I was, I was tagged as a Gabriel Byrne 32 years ago and I think I probably would have been allowed to pass. There’s something sort of sweet and indulgent about seeing, you know, your partner crushing out on some impossible celebrity. So I think Gabriel Byrne would probably be one of my passes, but I’m interested in how this works in a relationship like isn’t, does it, that it’s kind of a playful right? I mean, the idea that couples create these celebrity passes means that there’s a kind of a playful, fun element to imagining yourself being cheated on, which is an interesting kind of concept in itself. Who else would be on my list? I mean, you know, there’s people I’ve had a crush on in that space since I was a teenager like Keanu Reeves, who’s almost exactly my age. So when I was a teenager, he was a teenager, and I remember seeing him in River’s edge, which was, I think, one of his first big roles. A great movie, by the way, and and falling for him. And basically, there’s just been uninterrupted Keanu Reeves love ever since in all the iterations he’s gone through of, you know, action star and, you know, you know, cultural views of whatever he is now, this sort of zen celebrity figure, he’s really kind of lived up to it. I feel like I’m proud of my Keanu crush because it really paid off in the long term.
S3: It is just much more loaded to ask a man to publicly flavor over famous women and their bodies, as opposed to a woman where it can be cute and endearing. So, Steve, walk the plank.
S2: It’s true. Get ready to get cancelled, Steve. You got ten more minutes in the spotlight.
S1: All right. Well, I think I, you know, I think I’m going to slowly tip toe backwards from this question and therefore the edge of the plank by saying no such list exists in my household through either one of us. I think that there are certain people we we both feel comfortable salivating over in the presence of the other because they’re so appealing. They’re there. It’s obviously their their looks, but their persona, their charisma. It kind of goes across genders. I mean, I was in a health food line in Brooklyn. At the height of in treatment, the cult of in treatment, two people behind Gabriel Byrne and I was just throbbing with transference, you know, I bet that was the crazy thing about that show is that is that one had a transference with the shrink character, a full on transference that you then needed to go get treatment for somewhere. I mean, he was just so powerfully the and embodying the the ideal therapist. So I think as long as it maybe maybe cuts across gender a little bit and, you know, has a kind of polymorph, this playful, you know, then it’s, you know, it’s so far out of the realm of possibility that it’s not really a question of, Oh, I’d be OK with that. Like, who wouldn’t you know or whatever? But to me, it’s a much more interesting abstract question, which is, you know, by kind of convention and for obvious, obvious commercial reasons. You know, we’ve sort of all agreed that perfectly ordinary people living ordinary lives are to be depicted on screen by fantastically, very often off the bell curve, beautiful people. And you know, it’s that’s why screen acting being a star, at least, is very difficult because you have to project a relatable, ordinary ordinariness without really to belittle your dead. At the same time, you have to inspire aspiration, you know? You know, and it’s an overwhelmingly visual, ravishingly visual medium. So to be able to balance those two things, I think is extremely difficult. But I’ll kind of roll it back to you, Julia, which is first of all, I want to hear if there’s any equivalent list or who might be on it for your household. But also just there’s this kind of meta critical question of, you know, as critics, you exist to put things that a little bit of an arm’s distance. You kind of quick quell your ID, your desires and make judgments that are somehow contaminated by them. But of course, you know, movies, especially Hollywood movies, really are designed to seduce and ravage you in ways that bypass that. In a way you’re not getting it. If you’re not, if you watch that movie and you’re not in love with Penelope Cruz, you know, then you sort of haven’t watched the movie in some sense. A similar thing with worst person in the world. I mean, is the whole movie is designed to have, I think, just kind of anybody of any sort of taste or or or or polarity of attraction or whatever fall in love with her. I mean, is this a an easier balance? I’m making it out to be. What do you think?
S3: No, I mean, I’m struck by what you said, Dana. I feel like this whole Celebrity Pass concept is like one way in which some couples address, you know, their commitment to ongoing monogamy, like, OK, we’re going to be faithful to each other. So we have like a a chit chat way that we talk about attraction or talk about flirtation or talk about an alternate live life where there’s, you know, other people that is not the particular character of my and my husband’s own monogamy. So I do not have a pass. You know, there are no passes. He did one time sit at a wedding with a revered character actress, and I like to tease him about the fact that I, you know, nabbed him away from her and that she is my nemesis. But apart from that, there’s no there’s no um, you know, no, no real good answer to this question. I do feel, though, like the point you make, Steve. I think Willa Paskin wrote a piece about this once after a male critic was savaged for a lusty review of something and forgetting whether it was A.O. Scott and or David Edelstein and Wonder Woman or somebody else. But anyway, everybody was excoriating a male critic for, you know, slightly too loudly lusting after a female onscreen. And Willa was like, We are. We are allowed to have responses to actors bodies. It doesn’t mean that it’s totally OK to write about them in any which way. But but the point you’re making that like the whole medium is built around us, you know, feeling attracted to compelled by these kind of larger than life, more beautiful than life, more compelling than life forms is part of the mix. And if we pretend it’s not, we’re we’re being dishonest about our response to these fields. So I think there’s definitely something there. I don’t know, though. I I’ve always been someone who like, fell for the four fictional characters more than like the pin ups like, you know, I mean, I feel like Gilbert Blythe when I was a kid was like, Oh man, you know what a compelling, compelling figure. I don’t know. I’ve never seen Gilbert Blythe. I guess I’ve seen some renderings of him with his newsboy cap that were less compelling than the Gilbert Blythe of my imagination. But you know, or Darcy or whatever like that, fictional characters can be crushable, which is less of the about the visual for. But more about the kind of. Flirtatious dynamic of a romantic comedy or romantic narrative, but that’s a lame answer. Sorry, sorry, listeners, just don’t. We don’t have a ton of juicy thirstier.
S2: Just I mean, I will say that I think that this probably comes up more in my friendship and collegial relationships than in my, you know, kind of love life. You know, the idea that you have common crushes with somebody else or, you know, you know, that your friend stands a certain person. And so you kind of save the great photos to send them, you know, I feel like what, Steve, what you were talking about, the way there’s these vectors of desire that circulate through how we interact with, you know, actors, actresses, big cultural figures, it comes up more is almost like a friendship meme, you know, or even among critics, you know, a way of sort of grouping, you know, types of of charismatic personalities that you respond to. But there’s no question between looks and also just whatever you want to call it, star quality charisma. You know that there’s an element of crushing woven into almost every identification we have with a figure we’re watching on screen.
S3: Yeah. Sorry, guys, you asked us like a direct sexy question and we just took it away, abstract and cerebral. If you’re a slate plus in this scenario, you’ve been listening to this show for a long time. You know us. You’re probably not surprised. You’re welcome. We’ll talk to you next week.