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Film review: The Man Who Wasn't There

Film critic John Powers reviews The Man Who Wasn't There, the new film by Joel and Ethan Coen.

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Other segments from the episode on November 2, 2001

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, November 2, 2001: Interview with Elia Kazan; Interview with Budd Schulberg; Interview with Eva Marie Saint; Interview with F.X. Toole; Review of film “The Man Who Wasn’t…

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DATE November 2, 2001 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Filler: By policy of WHYY, this information is restricted and has
been omitted from this transcript

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Interview: F.X. Toole discusses his life and writings
BARBARA BOGAEV, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Barbara Bogaev in for Terry Gross.

F.X. Toole learned to box when he was in his late 40s. It was too late to
make it as a boxer, but he stayed in that world as a cut man. In between
rounds, the cut man stops his boxer's bleeding so that he can get back into
the ring. At the age of 70, Toole wrote a collection of short stories called
"Rope Burns." It's now out in paperback. The review in the LA Times
described it as a book of chillingly authentic short stories about fighters
and fighting written from as far inside as you can get. Although Toole had a
trunk full of novels, stories and plays, this was his first published book.
He didn't want his boxing friends to know that he was writing stories set in
their world, so he used the pen name F.X. Toole, but the good reviews blew
his cover. His real name is Jerry Boyd.

Terry spoke with F.X. Toole last year. He started with a reading from the
first story in "Rope Burns" about a cut man.

Mr. F.X. TOOLE (Author): (Reading) I stop blood. I stop it between rounds
for fighters so they can stay in the fight. Blood ruins some boys. It was
that way with Sonny Liston, God rest his soul. Bad as he was, he'd see his
own blood and fall apart. I'm not the one who decides when to stop the fight
and I don't stitch up cuts once the fight's over. And it's not my job to
hospitalize a boy for brain damage. My job is to stop blood so the fighter
can see enough to keep on fighting. I do that, maybe I save a boy's title. I
do that one thing and I'm worth every cent they pay me. I stop the blood and
save the fight, the boy loves me more than he loves his daddy.

But you can't always stop it. Fight guys know this. If the cut's too deep or
wide or maybe you've got a severed vein down in there, the blood keeps coming.
Sometimes it takes two or three rounds to stop the blood; maybe more. The
boy's heart is pumping so hard or he cuts more. Once you get the coagulant in
there, sometimes it takes another shot from the opponent right on the cut,
itself, to drive the blood far enough from the area so the stuff you're using
can start to work.

What I'm saying is there are all kinds of combinations you come up against
down in the different layers of meat. When a good cut man stays ahead of the
combinations, he can stop most cuts, but not every one.

TERRY GROSS reporting:

And that's F.X. Toole reading from his new collection of short stories "Rope
Burns."

Let's talk a little bit more about what you do as a cut man. What are some of
the medicines that you have to stop bleeding?

Mr. TOOLE: Well, there's several--there's a lot of stuff that's illegal, but
most of the time you're using--and I say most of the time. I'm
generalizing--but you use adrenaline 1:1000. It's a topical and it's a basal
constrictor, not the kind you inject. Then there's Thrombin, which is a
coagulant rather than a basal constrictor. There's stuff called Atervine(ph).
Much of this stuff is used in--during surgery.

GROSS: What's your training like to do this? Do you study medicine at all or
do you just study another cutter?

Mr. TOOLE: You study with other guys. You pick their brains. You have to
remember that what you're working on is a restricted area and the tissue's not
very deep, OK. It's not as if you're trying to work on someone who's
suffering a stab wound in the liver. It's shallow tissue. Sometimes it looks
like--during the fight sometimes you think you're looking down into a volcano,
but it's--you know, that's obviously not the case, so you're working on the
face; primarily the forehead, the scalp, maybe. And so you learn how to stop
that blood. You don't learn how to deal with stab wounds.

GROSS: Tell me more about what goes on in the corner during the period
between rounds if the fighter is tired and he's bleeding. Who's paying
attention to him? What's everybody doing? Who's competing for his time
there?

Mr. TOOLE: Well, there's--what you do is you get him--you get him breathing
deeply from the diaphragm, number one. And you water him down. You put ice
packs on him and you get him breathing, breathing, breathing. Now if he's
cut, you've got to do all of that and get the blood stopped at the same time,
but the fighter is completely focused on you. And he trusts you. He's put
his life in your hands, which is one of the reasons I'm so careful about what
I do with these kids. And so he's focused on you and he's learned through
the whole training process to listen to you. While the crowd is roaring, he
will hear your voice above them all, if you shout instructions up to him.

But now he's cut and now he's tired. You get him breathing. You get him
breathing. You get him breathing. You cool him down and you'll be surprised
how someone in good condition--and I'm speaking cardiovascular now--will
revive in just that time. Now if he's terribly hurt, you know, I've called
fights off, but that's the last resort. You don't want to do that because,
again, his future is in your hands, but you don't want to make a decision to
make his future his past, either.

GROSS: As the cut man, it's your job to stop the blood when a boxer's
bleeding--when your boxer's bleeding. And I'm wondering how the whole idea
of bleeding has changed in the HIV era?

Mr. TOOLE: Well, you know, when HIV really hit and AIDS was rampant and it
first hit--you know, got the publicity it did--What?--10 years or so ago, we
were--first of all, we were instructed to wear gloves--rubber gloves. The
fighters at that time and since have had to take AIDS tests, so it--at that
time it was a much bigger problem than it is today. Now I don't even think
they hand out rubber gloves anymore because there are--you know, the AIDS test
comes along and it's yesterday. You follow? And so they know whether or not
these guys are infected. There was a heck of a heavyweight here not too long
ago whose test proved positive for AIDS. And here was a big monster of a guy.
The odds are he got it using steroids because he was a tall, thin kid at one
time and two years later he's a monster heavyweight.

GROSS: How would you get AIDS by using steroids?

Mr. TOOLE: The needle.

GROSS: Oh, oh. I see. Got it. Got it.

Mr. TOOLE: So these guys might be in the gym and say, `Here. You use the
needle. I'll use the needle. You use the needle.'

GROSS: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.

Mr. TOOLE: People often are quite foolish in terms of what they do.

GROSS: Hmm. You know the expression `punch drunk,' where somebody seems to
have lost some of their senses, some of their capacity to think and speak
because they've been knocked around too much.

Mr. TOOLE: Sure.

GROSS: Do you see boxers who actually have that condition?

Mr. TOOLE: Sure. Yes. I work with one right now who talks like this. He
talks through his nose and he walks with a limp and you have to say, `What?
What did you say? What?' Now why did that happen? It happened because he
was a great, young fighter who never got into shape. He tells a great story.
He says he prayed before every fight. He said, `God, please let me get
through this fight and I promise next fight I'll be in shape.' And he said,
`And I never got in shape.' So he fought too long. He got hit too much.
One of the reasons he's talking that way is because his nose is broken. It
goes off at an angle, but, indeed, there's an example. And you know what?
He has no regrets whatsoever. He'll joke about the whole show.

GROSS: In your book you write `boxing is an unnatural act. Everything in
boxing is backwards to life. Instead of running from pain, which is the
natural thing in life, in boxing you step to it.' You've boxed as well as
worked as a cut man. What's it like to try to get over those natural
instincts and replace them with boxing instincts?

Mr. TOOLE: Well, I boxed. You have to understand. My boxing began when I
was 48, and I sparred in the gym. I worked out in the gym. I did what we
call `worked.' And I didn't do it as long as I would have, but--and you also,
if you can imagine--I wear glasses so when I was sparring I was throwing
punches at shadows, so I probably took more shots than I would have.

The--what happens to you is you become focused on the idea of landing your
shots to the other guy; of doing damage to your opponent. And so you take
shots and you have to understand that you're in what's called--you know,
Hemingway called `hot blood.' And so the shots don't hurt you as much while
you're excited because adrenalin is part of the formula. It's later on that
fighters, you know, for a day or so afterwards will be holding their ribs, or
you know, you'll see fighters wearing dark glasses for a couple days; that
sort of thing.

GROSS: I imagine it was a little harder for you to take blows or heal from
wounds in your late 40s.

Mr. TOOLE: Oh, sure. And I had teeth cracked. I had my nose broken before,
but I had it broken again. And I would have kept on boxing. I had to quit
because I developed a jaw problem and I was told that I had to wear braces.
So you can't box and wear braces, so that's a regret that I have, but,
nonetheless, a necessary thing for me to have done. Along the way I found
that I was able to do this stuff. I was able to focus. I was able to
remember the mechanics; first of all, do the mechanics--the mechanics for
your mind.

Now how do you hit this other guy? In a street fight you can rush up and
grab someone by their shirt, by their throat, by the neck, by the head, trip
him, knock him down, kick him and all of that good stuff, but in the ring
it's very hard to hit an opponent who's not going to stand there and fight
you back. If he just moves, you're probably not going to be able to do much
more than tap him on the shoulder. So, you know, I learned how to do all of
this stuff, how to cut off the ring, how to throw punches correctly, how to
protect myself. And so, you know, it became a way of life for me to the
degree that I actually quit writing. I said, `Why am I ruining my life
writing when I can do this other thing?' I can be--I can participate in it
everyday instead of being an outsider; instead of being, you know, someone
howling in the woods for all those years. And so writing became unimportant
to me and I said, `Forget it. I'm not gonna hurt like that anymore.' And so
I know about hurt outside of the ring as well as inside of the ring.

GROSS: You're talking about the hurt of rejection?

Mr. TOOLE: Absolutely. That would destroy me. It would just put me flat on
my face, so I...

GROSS: That hurts more than the broken nose?

Mr. TOOLE: Oh, absolutely; no comparison. I'd take a broken nose any old
day. To sit there, you know, with that brown envelope in your lap and your
head in your hands and you say to yourself, `How--who am I kidding? I'm no
good. If I was any good, somebody would have bought this. I'm just kidding
myself. I've wasted my life. I've thrown it away. What I--I thought it was
the muse who kissed me, who tapped me on the shoulder, and it was a whore that
did. And I've been drained of all my resources. Here I am a complete fool.
Why am I doing this? I've just kidded myself.' And I'd go through that and
then, suddenly--not, suddenly, but slowly I'd get back to my feet. Suddenly,
another story would play before my eyes. And I'd be back at it again.

BOGAEV: F.X. Toole speaking last year with Terry Gross. His collection of
short stories, "Rope Burns," is just out in paperback.

We'll hear more after the break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

BOGAEV: We're back with Terry Gross' interview with F.X. Toole. His
collection of short stories about life in the boxing ring, "Rope Burns," is
now out in paperback.

GROSS: Now I know as a young man you studied acting with Sanford Meisner, the
famous acting teacher at the Neighborhood Playhouse in New York.

Mr. TOOLE: Yes.

GROSS: You had written plays that weren't produced, but you wrote them. Any
connection between boxing and theater?

Mr. TOOLE: Oh, there's--yeah, there's a lot of performance in boxing. In
fact, when I see fight movies--and they try to train fighters to be--perform
like fighters, it usually doesn't work. Oftentimes, they don't take enough
time because it takes a long time to learn how to do this stuff. And so I
would say that they probably should take fighters and train them to be actors.
It would probably shorten the process. But, indeed, there's a lot of show biz
in the game and the audience is there to be entertained. You entertain
differently than, say, in the theater and, yet, the drama is there. It's real
drama. It's going on right before their eyes.

GROSS: Of course, in boxing it's not stage blood. It's real blood.

Mr. TOOLE: It's the real deal.

GROSS: And you like that.

Mr. TOOLE: Sure.

GROSS: Why do you prefer real blood to stage blood?

Mr. TOOLE: Well, because it's real. You know, I was a bullfighter and I was
gored three times. And so for me to see blood pumping out is not that big a
deal. I've--you know, I had one--you know, I was gored in the bladder. I was
gored in my left leg a couple of times. One of the times there were three
trajectories that were as long as your hand. And at the time I weighed
probably 140 pounds. I'm 6' tall, so you can imagine how thin my leg was.
It's part of the territory. It's the price of doing business. It's being
there at the time when the greatest challenge is met. And then it's also
being there when that challenge is met in a positive or a negative way. And
so, again, it's real drama. It's not playing. It's not, `Well, I can go home
after the theater or go to a local bar and have a few pops and forget about
it.' This is stuff that you take for the rest of your life--with you for the
rest of your life. And that's what I see life as, a series of experiences
that should be lived and not nullified, not anesthetized with drugs, etc.

GROSS: What about street fighting? Were you ever into that? I mean, it's
not in an arena, but there's certainly a lot of theatrics in a lot of street
fighting, and a lot of posturing, as well.

Mr. TOOLE: Well, I've been in a few street fights. When I was 49 or
so--something like that, I was in a street fight, and I had part of my right
ear bitten off, as a matter of fact, but my opponent was about to go blind and
the only thing that saved him was his girlfriend pulling me off of him, so
street fights are nasty and ugly. And the goal is to do maximum damage in a
minimum amount of time, so you know how you get your adversary down and you
want to make sure he cannot get up. And if he does get up, he's never gonna
want to come looking for you again.

And in boxing, winner or loser, they go across the ring and they embrace and
say, `Good fight.' And the loser says, `Well, he was the better man today.'
If he has talent and ability in one thing and another, that may well be the
case, so he'll come back and fight another day. Street fights you don't
ordinarily fight the second or third or fourth or 20th time afterwards.

GROSS: Who was the first person who read one of your stories and said, `I'm
going to publish this'?

Mr. TOOLE: It was Howard Junker, God bless him, at a literary magazine out
of San Francisco called Zyzzyva and--Z-Y-Z-Z-Y-V-A. And one day I got a phone
call and he introduced himself. And he said, `This is a terrific story. I
want to publish it.' And I said, `You're kidding?' And he said, `No, no. I
want to do it.' And we chatted a moment and I think for the first time in my
life I used the word flabbergasted because I--really, I've never used that
word before because I usually have plenty to say, right? But I just could not
believe it. I was--at that moment I was vindicated, if you will. At that
moment I was a successful writer.

GROSS: Had you sent him the story?

Mr. TOOLE: I had sent him the story through the mail, like I always have. I
never put any blurb about myself. I just submit the story. And I was always
very selfish about writing. If I was going to have any success in writing or
be published at all, I wanted it to be absolutely on the merit of the work, as
read by someone anonymous reading an anonymous writer. And that's what
happened, finally, after 40 years.

GROSS: You're somebody who, in a way, starts things or accomplishes things
late in life. Now you started boxing at the age of 48. You're about 70 now.
Is that right?

Mr. TOOLE: Seventy, yeah.

GROSS: Yeah. And your first book has just been published. This is
something you wanted your whole life. What's it like to get something that
you've always wanted, but get it at the age of 70 when, you know, you're not
looking ahead at your whole life any longer?

Mr. TOOLE: Well, it's sweet, indeed. It--I will also tell you that if this
had happened to me at 35, we probably wouldn't be having this conversation
because I was, let's say, something of a wild man. I would probably have
destroyed myself along the way because I--given--let's--I'm hoping to make
some money on this, but let's assume that I would have made some money. I
would have probably squandered it and squandered everything else along with
it because I would have wanted to push the envelope on principle, but also in
terms of understanding the world and, if nothing else, to have more things to
write about. So it's probably the best thing that could have happened to me.
individually. I look around and I see so many young people who get success
early on, fold in the stretch, if you will, and destroy themselves and
destroy a lot of people around them. And what a great tragedy that is
because I think many of them end up with success that they don't feel they've
earned. I've earned every bit of it. However much I get, I will have earned
it. And I don't say that as some kind of a nut puffing myself up. I'm just
saying I paid my dues. Here it is. Thank God it's here and I'm gonna
protect it and nurture it to the best of my ability.

GROSS: You saved all your earlier writing and do you like some of that stuff.

Mr. TOOLE: Some of it I do. I will tell you the first thing I really wrote
seriously was a bullfight novel after I had been blown out of the game and I
returned to California to Los Angeles. And I was working in the Good Humor
ice cream factory, the swing shift. I was climbing down in the stainless
steel vaults--vats with live steam--and go home at midnight, 1 in the morning.
My wife and baby were asleep. I was still charged up and someway or another I
had the idea that I wanted to write a bullfight novel. So I did. And I still
have it. It's wrapped up in the brown paper, you know, and the stamp that I
sent it to myself. I think the date is February something in 1958. I'm
terrified to open those pages to go back and read how terrible it must be. On
the other hand, there's some great material in there, OK? And if I live long
enough, maybe I can go back and use some of that.

GROSS: Well, F.X. Toole, Jerry Boyd, I want to thank you very much for
talking with us.

Mr. TOOLE: It's been a great delight to be with you.

BOGAEV: F.X. Toole's collection of short stories, "Rope Burns," is out in
paperback. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

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Review: New film "The Man Who Wasn't There"
BARBARA BOGAEV, host:

"The Man Who Wasn't There" is the new movie from Joel and Ethan Coen. Billy
Bob Thornton stars, along with Frances McDormand and two well-known TV actors,
Michael Badalucco from "The Practice," and James Gandolfini from "The
Sopranos." John Powers has a review.

JOHN POWERS:

No filmmakers alive would seem to be more in love with film noire than Joel
and Ethan Coen, who began their career with "Blood Simple," a Texas update of
"James Cain." Copy Dashiell Hammett in "Miller's Crossing" and did a goofy
riff on Raymond Chandler in "The Big Lebowski." But while the Coens obviously
adore film noire, they adore it like a husband who insists that his wife dress
exactly the way he likes. They make everything fit their own sensibility,
which is profoundly un-noirish; cool, clever, totally under control.

All those qualities are on display in "The Man Who Wasn't There," a drifty new
crime story set in a small California town in 1949. Billy Bob Thornton stars
as the story's taciturn narrator, Ed Crane. Ed works unhappily as the second
barber in a shop owned by his yakety brother-in-law, played by Michael
Badalucco.

Ed's unenthusiastically married to Doris, that's Frances McDormand, who he
suspects is carrying on with her boss, Big Dave, who's played by James
Gandolfini. In hopes of a new life, Ed decides to blackmail Big Dave for 10
grand and invest it in a dry cleaning operation run by a shifty toupeed
huckster. Naturally, his plans go awry, unleashing murder and suicide and
legal insanity. Ed finds his only solace in a teen-age girl, Birdy Abundas,
who he overhears practicing Beethoven on the piano. Played by Scarlett
Johansson, Birdy becomes a beacon of purity, a possible source of escape from
the small town hell that Ed at least partly created for himself. Here he
tells her about his plans for her music career.

(Soundbite of "The Man Who Wasn't There")

Mr. BILLY BOB THORNTON (As Ed Crane): There's this guy in San Francisco.
I've made inquiries. Everybody says he's the best. He trained people who've
gone on to big concert careers in symphony orchestras, the works. His name is
Jacques Carcanogues--I'm not sure I'm pronouncing it right. Anyway, he's a
Frenchman.

Ms. SCARLETT JOHANSSON (As Birdy Abundas): Oh, boy, a Frenchman, huh?

Mr. THORNTON: You've got talent, anybody can see that; and he's the best.
If he sees a student that he thinks has talent, he takes them on for next to
nothing, so you're a cinch to be accepted. I could cover the cost of the
lessons. Like I said, it's pretty modest.

Ms. JOHANSSON: Oh, jeez, Mr. Crane.

Mr. THORNTON: No, I have to do it. I can't stand by and watch any more
things go down the drain. You're young. You don't understand.

Ms. JOHANSSON: Well, jeez, Mr. Crane, I hadn't really thought about it. A
career and stuff.

Mr. THORNTON: Well, I know you haven't. Look, just go see him as a favor to
me. I talked to this guy. He loosened up a little bit when I told him how
talented you are. He's agreed to see you this Saturday. He said maybe you're
a diamond in the rough.

POWERS: At first, "The Man Who Wasn't There" seemed like a sly, beautifully
made pastiche shot in ravishing black and white by the great Roger Deakens.
The Coens really know their Hollywood classics. There are allusions to, among
other things, Hitchcock's "Shadow of the Doubt" and Billy Wilder's "Double
Indemnity." But they also know the rhythms of film noire, briskly setting up
the pallid Ed as a kind of ghost in his own life, an ordinary man carried
along to a destiny he doesn't want. And for one glorious stretch, before the
first murder and Ed's master plan for Birdy, the movie promises to be the
most resonant works the Coens have ever done.

Although the story's set more than 50 years ago, it captures a distinctively
contemporary kind of melancholy, an odd, slightly glib passivity that made me
think of the Japanese novelist Faruki Mordicami(ph). Like a Mordicami hero,
Ed is a born observer whose occasional bits of enterprise engender events far
vaster than any he could anticipate. Yet, just when you expect Ed's story to
get really excited and the emotions to deepen, the story gets Coenized. It
loses its way in jokes and mere cleverness. The melancholy is devoured by the
appearance of a comically vainglorious lawyer played by Tony Shalhoub, who
uses Heisenberg's uncertainty principle as a legal defense. And then there's
a car crash, which is filmed with such preening self-satisfaction that it
crushes what we've been feeling for the characters.

This is, of course, one of the Coens' great problems. Just when you want them
to carry you into the heart of their story, they start giving you free samples
of their brilliance. Absolute control freaks, they're so busy shaping every
single image and sound that they lose touch with their deepest emotions and
themes. This happens in film after film. But why? I've begun to wonder if
the problem isn't that they're a team. They talk through everything so
completely that no messy feelings can ever emerge, and messiness is the stuff
of film noire. Or could the problem be that they're brothers caught in some
peculiar form of arrested adolescent giddying? Then again, maybe they're just
shallow entertainers leery of real emotions, which isn't to say that this new
film is as bloodless as, say, "The Hudsucker Proxy."

For Billy Bob Thornton, who here looks a bit like an exhumed Humphrey Bogart,
plays Ed with a spectral gravity that keeps hinting at depths the movie itself
never plumbs. Thornton is the very incarnation of an ordinary man's feeling
of entrapment, and watching his odd blend of boredom, disdain, desire and
sadness, you find yourself feeling things that the the Coens glibness keeps
distracting you from. What breathes life into "The Man Who Wasn't There" is
the actor who so emphatically is.

BOGAEV: John Powers is executive editor of LA Weekly.

(Credits)

BOGAEV: For Terry Gross, I'm Barbara Bogaev.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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