DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, professor of television studies at Rowan University in New Jersey, sitting in for Terry Gross.
Today we remember activist, scholar and writer Todd Gitlin, who was part of the tumultuous student protest movement of the 1960s and who continued his commitment to social change through teaching and writing. He died Saturday at the age of 79.
Todd Gitlin was elected president of SDS, the Students for a Democratic Society in 1963, when he was only 20 years old. He helped organize the first national demonstration against the Vietnam War. He ran through tear gas to escape police billy clubs during the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago and in People's Park in Berkeley in 1969. His 1987 book "The Sixties: Years Of Hope, Days Of Rage" was part memoir, part history and a sometimes critical examination of those activist years. He was particularly critical of the violent protest tactics of the Weather Underground.
During his decades-long career as an academic at UC Berkeley, NYU and Columbia, he was prolific, publishing many well-respected books. He wrote about journalism and social movements, identity politics and a very influential book about the cultural and political context of primetime television. Last year, he organized a politically diverse group of writers and activists to oppose efforts by the Republican Party and Donald Trump to undermine voting rights and free and fair elections.
Terry interviewed Todd Gitlin in 1987 when he published his book "The Sixties." He told her that there were cliches about the 1960s he wanted to dispel.
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TODD GITLIN: One is that everything that happened was wonderful. Another is that everything that happened was catastrophic and ruined America.
TERRY GROSS: (Laughter).
GITLIN: A third is that everyone was larger than life and strode through in an incendiary way, burning everything down. I call it the Big Bang Theory of history - the notion that everything happened at once. You know, hey, it's John Lennon and Bobby Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey and Lyndon Johnson and the war in Vietnam and Martin Luther King, brought to you by Ed Sullivan or something like that. The '60s took 10 years to happen.
GROSS: Is there a memory that crystallizes for you some of the commitment and excitement that you felt in the 1960s?
GITLIN: Many - I tried to organize the book around such moments. I'll just give you one that comes to mind.
GROSS: Yeah, fine.
GITLIN: I don't know that it's more representative. I wrote about the Chicago street demonstrations in '68 at the Democratic Convention. And I - on the great day, when clouds of tear gas were spewing through the streets - Bloody Wednesday, I think it was known as later - I found myself running through clouds of tear gas and stopping to mop my eyes and looking up at the water fountain and seeing that the person standing next to me was Jules Feiffer. And we decided to run together. And we ran down Michigan Avenue a while longer. And then he took me by the arm and said, let's go in here, and ushered me into the Haymarket bar in the Hilton Hotel, which was the center of the demonstrations 'cause all the delegates were staying there.
And we sat down in this bar. I think I probably hadn't changed my shirt in a couple of days, and it was very hot. And here were the waitresses in low-cut dresses and bringing us daiquiris. We sat down with William Styron and Studs Terkel. And outside, people are streaming by in clouds of tear gas, and I'm sitting there drinking daiquiris. And the television is on. And Paul Newman, who was a McCarthy delegate from Connecticut, was talking about the war. And it was the height of surrealism and sleeplessness and a little drunkenness. People are still streaming by outside, and inside is this Gay Nineties decor. And we're all talking about how awful everything is.
And I knew that Feiffer was a McCarthy delegate from New York. And I turned to him. He was my hero. I had read him in high school in the '50s. And I said, more or less, do something. And he said that he was scared. And I thought to myself, my God, Jules Feiffer is scared, you know. Then things are really serious. Meantime, the gas is still streaming by, and I'm feeling very much out of place. And there comes a moment when I decide I simply have to be out there.
And I get up after my two daiquiris and stumble out through the lobby, which is full of stink-bomb fumes - deposited, as it turned out, by some of my friends - and ran back out into the tear gas. I mean, I suppose that story symbolizes both - you could call it - the commitment and the insanity and the sense that I had that however crazy was what was going on in the streets, it was where I had to be - at least to have played a part in that.
GROSS: I want to get back to Chicago in a few minutes. Let me ask you first - you became the president of SDS when you were 22 years old.
GROSS: Oh, 20 years old.
GITLIN: Twenty and a half.
GROSS: Even younger - looking back, do you ever think to yourself about how young you really were when you were the head of SDS?
GITLIN: Sure. I've thought (laughter) often. Yes, I have. What did I know?
GROSS: Did you feel young at the time? Did you assume that you had a better kind of grasp of the world than, looking back, you think you really did?
GITLIN: Sure. Although I think, actually, I wasn't quite so dumb. And maybe I got dumber later, from time to time. But I had already maybe 2 1/2 years of political, three years of political experience at that time. And it was Harvard in the early '60s. And there were people around - our professors - who were plugged into the Kennedy administration. And I had been around Washington for a couple of summers. And I had met lots of officials. And I read a lot. And so I think I knew a thing or two. I also was aware that it was - I was out of place here. I had only been in the organization for a few months. I had only been to one meeting before. And it was kind of a fluke that I submitted to this election. It felt like submission because I didn't want to be a leader. But, of course, we didn't believe in leadership. Nobody wanted to do it. And so I stepped forward onto the gangplank.
GROSS: Now, you were pretty full-time devoted to politics. And being the head of SDS meant a full-time commitment without pay, right? You didn't get paid for being the president, did you?
GITLIN: Are you kidding?
GROSS: Yeah, right. So what I'm wondering is, did you or did a lot of your friends end up going to graduate school or staying around the universities so that you could stay committed to the political cause, which was so centered around student politics and university organizing? After a certain number of years, you're not a student anymore. And I think a lot of people became graduate students more to stay politically active than to attend graduate classes.
GITLIN: That's true in a sense. Although it's also true that in my generation in SDS, we had concluded by '65 - well, two things, actually. One was that we should all leave the campus and go out into the so-called real world.
GROSS: Into the community.
GITLIN: Yeah, that was the first thing we did, was to try to organize an interracial movement of the poor. But also, we had in the back of our minds that SDS was only a student organization, and there ought to be a sequel. There ought - and what - we didn't know that people stop being students. And so starting in '64, we started paying lip service to the idea that there should be a post-student general, radical ecumenical organization. And in fact, in the book, I tell the story of what happened when we tried to organize a conference to do that.
We organized in '67 something called the Back of the - Back to the Drawing Boards conference in a campground in Michigan. And we had 150 or 200 people who were already getting old enough to thinking about being lawyers and doctors and teachers and so on. And the thing was disrupted by the diggers, who were these countercultural wild men - very interesting - could have - very smart anarchist druggers from San Francisco who drifted in. They'd heard about this thing. And they'd basically drifted in and took over, turning on Abbie Hoffman in the process, who was visiting. And it would arrive there with Paul Krassner of The Realist to look into this thing. And they paralyzed us. They mau-maued us. They basically baited us as a bunch of middle-class panty waists and so on.
GROSS: Tell the story of what - yeah.
GITLIN: We let them do it, amazingly enough.
GROSS: Tell us, what are some of the things that they said to you when they - when the diggers crashed this meeting?
GITLIN: Well, they barged in, and they said, you know, you're a bunch of middle-class kids. And, you know, first they needed a lawyer because that - one of them had driven the car into a canal, so they needed a straight person to help. So a straight person went off to help one of them. And then the rest of them, they kicked over tables. They denounced us as rich kids. They said that where it's at is going actually into the community and giving people free food. And so when they read a poem by Gary Snyder cursing the white man in the Pentagon and so on, it was quite wild. It was a kind of pseudo fight. There was a terrorism - somebody said that she was a mother and they denounced all mothers and so on. It was right out of central casting. Quite ingenious of them to have tied us all up in knots.
GROSS: Well, I think that that story really illustrates one of the themes of your new book, "The Sixties," which is some of the conflicts between the cultural radicals and the political radicals.
GITLIN: Right. We often thought of trying to find a way to fuse or harness or marry the politicos and the hippies, and it was like the holy grail that everybody was looking for. And at various times, various people thought they had found it. I mean, Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman thought they found it in their way. And there were a lot of people around Berkeley who thought - and I suppose I let myself think in giddier moments that there was this creature stalking Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley, who was super-hip and super-savvy and at the same time politically radical and serious. And this was some sort of new creature like something - someone had walked out of the pages of William Blake. I confess, I let myself think such things at times.
GROSS: Do you think that there were conflicting goals between the political left and the cultural radicals?
GITLIN: Yeah. In fact, you could put it starkly. It would be a bit of an exaggeration, but you could put it starkly by saying that the politicos believed in creating something that was going to happen later, and the counterculture people wanted to bring God to be present now. Now, it's actually more complicated than that. I mean, part of the genius of the new left and the civil rights movement was that they were in themselves countercultural. I mean, when you sat down at a lunch counter to integrate it, you were saying the present is the future. I'm going to abolish segregation, not by making a demand or knocking on somebody's door or writing to my congressman, but by abolishing it right here and now.
So there was actually a countercultural thread in the civil rights movement. The first people I ever heard use the language do your thing were people in SNICC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, southern civil rights organizers. And they were already talking about soul sessions, which were later, I guess, sensitivity groups and so on, in 1965, if you can believe it. So there were - it wasn't entirely crazy to think about bringing these two things together. Nonetheless, there was always this tension. Politicos wanted to have meetings and organize organizations and make something happen later on down the road.
GROSS: And hippies wanted immediate gratification.
GITLIN: Yes, and they wanted to shake it out, you know, express yourself. That was the other thing. Political radicals wanted to discipline themselves in order to make something else happen. And freaks wanted to undiscipline themselves and shake, rattle and roll. So there was always that tension.
GROSS: Now, I found it interesting in your book, which has bits of autobiography interspersed, you say that you smoked your first joint about two years after you became the president of SDS. So really, political radicalism came first in your life, I mean, chronologically, first.
GITLIN: That's true. And a lot of the people in my crowd in SDS were very suspicious of that. And I think I also mentioned..
GROSS: Suspicious of you smoking?
GITLIN: Dope, yeah. And I remember at a party during the SDS convention in '67, when I was a little high, and a quite well-known leader of SDS came into a room where I was being that way. And I was having trouble, I think, finding the doorknob or something like that. And he looked at me and rolled his eyes as if, you know, a noble mind was here or a throne. Of course, later on, he was doing the same. I think - and I know - I also tell the story in there of how I was really fairly puritanical about this stuff. And when - a Be-In was organized in Chicago in 1967, an echo of the San Francisco Be-In on the shores of the lake, where one of the people who came down there with her legs painted in psychedelia was Bernardine Dohrn, then a law student.
I felt really quite troubled by the hippie organizers of this thing, because I thought it was sort of a delusion to think that you could simply go off and have a good time. I mean, maybe worse than a delusion because, after all, there was this hideous war on. And I actually toyed with the fantasy, believe it or not, of distributing a leaflet. There was this - there was a lot of talk in the media about getting high by smoking banana peel. This was the mellow yellow period.
GITLIN: And I had this crackpot idea that I should make up a leaflet that alerted potential banana peel smokers that, in fact, the people who picked bananas in Guatemala make 2 cents a day or something like that, and that would somehow turn them around. In retrospect, I think that I was simply trying to ward off the siren song of the counterculture myself because a few months later, I was living in California and growing my first beard.
GROSS: So even the conflicts between the politicos and the hippies were happening inside of you.
GITLIN: Yes. And in many people, in fact.
GROSS: That's right. That's right.
BIANCULLI: Activist, scholar and writer Todd Gitlin speaking to Terry Gross in 1987. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's return to Terry's 1987 interview with Todd Gitlin. The author, scholar and activist died Saturday at age 79.
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GROSS: Let's talk about confrontational politics, which was one of the really major issues for the new left in the 1960s. And I'd like to go back to Chicago, which was the location of one of the first stories that you told during our interview. You described being in Chicago during the convention with tear gas in the streets, and it was a time when you really - when people were forced to decide what their tactics were, if they were comfortable with confrontation, if they were comfortable with violence, if they were willing to be tear-gassed, if they were going to wait inside until that blew over. You write in your book that you had no illusions of being a street fighter, that you were somewhere in between not believing in it and not feeling tough enough. And I thought, well, that is probably such a typical feeling that so many people had, the kind of ambivalence that they felt about the confrontational tactics that were happening.
GITLIN: I think it was, and that - what I said there was true. I think that I always - I did hate violence, and I never perpetrated any. On the other hand, you felt constantly that if you weren't going to do that, what else were you going to do? I mean, you were always beating yourself inside your head with the need to do something else, and...
GROSS: Because you felt that working within the system had failed?
GITLIN: Well, we felt we were getting nowhere. And in fact, we were actually just looking at our impact on the war. We were actually having an impact on the war that we didn't understand, and part of the reason we didn't understand it is that the White House was lying about it. That is to say they were saying always that we were having no impact. I mean, Nixon watched the football game instead of coming out to see the demonstration in 1969. In fact, we know now from documents that the White House was always looking over its shoulder, at the very least, at what was going on in the streets. Lyndon Johnson felt the pressure.
We were always a veto force, but that was invisible. It was hard to get a reading of that. What you felt viscerally and what you experienced watching television and reading the papers was they're sending more troops, they're dropping more bombs, there's more napalm. And what are we going to have to do to end the war? It felt - you know, again, you're in your 20s. The war now has become the central fact of your life. Whether you're a soldier or an anti-war soldier, that is the reality that you're living, and it swells. It eats you. It's eating away at your brain. It feels like this plague, and you can't stop it. And it was out of that pressure that you started making allowances for people who were bringing, let's say, ball bearings to throw under the hooves of police horses at one demonstration in Oakland, or people who were bringing little spike balls to drop in front of traffic in Chicago during '68. I knew people who did both those things, not that I wanted to do that. But I felt also, well, maybe there's something wrong with me that I'm not willing to do that. I think many people felt bullied in that way by the pressure to do something more.
GROSS: Well, the confrontational tactics of the left brought about more police repression, more tear gas, more billy-clubbing of protesters. But there was a shared feeling that this kind of repression was a good exercise in education about how repressive the government could really be. And you, for instance, say during Chicago that you were thinking, well, at least we've shown they can only rule at gunpoint. Do you want to explain that kind of thinking?
GITLIN: Well, it's so hard to recreate it, and I had to plunge back into that mood in order to write about it. But in a way, it seems not to make any sense. I think we felt that we were involved in a project of unmasking and that - there was a real rationalism behind that. In other words, we thought, well, if everybody else sees what we see, then they'll understand that the rationales for the war and for all kinds of other injustice are threadbare, and everyone will therefore be like us, namely disabused of wrong ideas and freed to turn everything upside down. There's a terrible innocence in that in an odd way. Now, of course, it doesn't necessarily follow that everybody sees the world we did. That's why it was a shock when after Chicago, we learned that most people, according to the polls, who had watched the spectacle on television thought that the cops had been right. See, we thought it would be obvious that anybody would side with us because we're the good guys. That sort of innocence was dangerous.
GROSS: Was writing this book an important personal experience for you? Do you feel that you've reconciled some things for yourself in having written it?
GITLIN: I actually do. I know that sounds a little pat, but it was not easy. It was painful in many places. It was sometimes hard. It was hard to crack into some of the old feelings and observations, and once into them, it was hard to crack back out. I do think that it's settled some things for me, and I recommend the process.
GROSS: Can I ask you in a couple of seconds to tell what one of the things that it settled for you was?
GITLIN: Well, it - I think it reminded me of how alluring some of that energy is. It made it clearer to me why so many people who at certain points knew better found themselves thinking three impossible things before breakfast, including that there was a revolution afoot. It also, I think, reminded me that it was right in many ways to think that you could change the world if you did the right things and were serious enough about it. And I think it's fine to remember that today, too.
BIANCULLI: Todd Gitlin speaking to Terry Gross in 1987. The writer, scholar and longtime social activist died Saturday. He was 79 years old.
After a break, we revisit a conversation with Art Spiegelman, whose graphic novel "Maus" is back in the news, this time as a book that's being banned. John Powers reviews a series of groundbreaking novels about a gay detective, which are being reissued, and Justin Chang reviews the new film "Kimi" by Steven Soderbergh. I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.
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DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli in for Terry Gross. Joseph Hansen, who died in 2004, was a gay crime novelist who, back when homosexuality was illegal almost everywhere, wrote a series of books featuring a gay detective. These novels are now being reissued by Soho Syndicate Books. Our critic-at-large, John Powers, has read the first three and says that Hansen's work isn't merely groundbreaking. It's very good.
JOHN POWERS, BYLINE: Ever since I was given my first Hardy Boys book, I've loved American crime fiction. In my younger years, I mulched my way through the canonical books of Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and Ross MacDonald then moved on to the likes of Dorothy B. Hughes, Chester Himes and Charles Willeford. I felt sure that I had read at least one book by everybody that's good. I was wrong. I didn't know the work of Joseph Hansen.
Back in 1970, Hansen began a series of 12 novels about an LA insurance investigator named Dave Brandstetter, who was something daring and new, a tough guy detective who was also gay. Soho Syndicate Books has just begun republishing the entire series beginning with the first three - "Fadeout," "Death Claims" and "Troublemaker." Having just read them, I'm a bit embarrassed it took me so long to discover it.
Because the series progresses through time, you should start with the first one, "Fadeout," which introduces us to Brandstetter, an honest, hard-nosed World War II vet. As the story begins, his company has sent him to the ranch town of Pima to investigate the case of a radio personality named Fox Olson, who has disappeared after a mysterious automobile mishap. If he's committed suicide, they won't have to pay the insurance.
Naturally, Brandstetter is soon caught in the usual crime story briar patch, where one murder leads to another and the key to everything lies hidden in the past. Just as naturally, the dogged Brandstetter must work his way through a whole range of potential killers from Olson's hard-edged wife to the bullying local mayor, whom Olson was hoping to unseat. Is Olson's adoring young assistant really as sweet as she seemed? Hansen's unfolds all of this with taut economy. Yet, he's equally deft in his handling of Brandstetter's private life.
Unlike most crime writers, he makes his hero's personal life essential. "Fadeout" has the confidence to treat Brandstetter's gayness matter-of-factly. We learn that he's mourning his longtime lover, a decorator who has recently died. We see him go to a gay bar and hang out with his best friend, a lesbian named Madge, who's overly susceptible to lovely, young women. And we watch him being wooed by a cute, young fella he just may sleep with. Through it all, Brandstetter displays the virile, no-nonsense romanticism of a Humphrey Bogart character.
Without ever hitting us over the head, Hansen reminds us that gay life is infinitely more varied than the insulting stereotypes that long dominated our culture, not least in the work of hard-boiled crime writers. There's a great exchange in the novel "Death Claims" when Brandstetter asks a young, male suspect about his close friendship with another guy. (Reading) Do I look like a f**? The guy sneers. I don't know what a f** looks like, Brandstetter replies. And neither does anyone else. You can't say it better than that.
Now, it would be an insult to Hansen to imply that his work is mainly of historical or sociological interest. Yes, Brandstetter is a groundbreaking figure. Yes, the plots sometimes turn on the psychic violence of being closeted. And yes, the series charts the changes in gay life over the years.
Yet even if his books weren't trailblazing, Hansen would still be a terrific mystery writer. He's every bit as good a stylist as Ross MacDonald with a similarly poetic eye for Southern California's defining blend of the sun-dazzled and the bleak. He populates his books with niftily sketched characters from chirpy innkeepers and bellicose mechanics to fading movie stars and self-satisfied hippies.
And in Brandstetter, Hansen has created a hero worthy of such predecessors as Chandler's Philip Marlowe and MacDonald's Lew Archer. Smart, tough, witty and honorable, Dave Brandstetter is also too good to be true. But who cares? Hansen's a talented enough storyteller that, book after book, we're happy to walk down the mean streets in his company.
BIANCULLI: John Powers reviewed the mystery novels of Joseph Hansen, which have been reissued by Soho Syndicate Books. After a break, we listen back to our 1987 interview with Art Spiegelman, whose graphic novel "Maus" is back in the news, this time as a book that's being banned. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Last month, a Tennessee school district banned the book "Maus," the 1986 Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel about the Holocaust by Art Spiegelman. We thought we'd listen back to Terry's 1987 interview with Spiegelman in which he talks about drawing and writing that book.
In "Maus," Spiegelman draws the Jews as mice and the Nazis as cats. He said he found the mouse metaphor appropriate to Hitler's rhetoric of extermination and his references to Jews as vermin. The book tells the story of how his Jewish parents survived the Holocaust in Poland. The comic is like a documentary about the making of the book. It shows Spiegelman in his father's house in Queens, N.Y. He coaxes his father to remember the war years and let him record his stories on tape. He has a difficult relationship with his father, and he hopes these conversations will bring them closer. The book has moving flashback sequences as his father describes passing as a Gentile, hiding out in bunkers, and facing death in a concentration camp. Here's Art Spiegelman talking to Terry Gross.
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ART SPIEGELMAN: People are usually very upset when they first hear that I've done a comic strip about the Holocaust. Like, just too - it's an oxymoron somewhere in there, and people just don't want to hear any more after that.
But it seems to me that comics are, on the one hand, a very direct medium. They come across very viscerally. And on the other hand, they're a very, very abstract medium. You have to do a lot more work to decode a comic strip than you do in understanding a film or even reading a book.
TERRY GROSS, BYLINE: When did you first become aware that your parents were survivors?
SPIEGELMAN: Well, I can't remember not knowing it, but on the other hand, I can't remember it ever being a significant fact. It was just one more thing that I knew about my parents. So that when I was a little kid, my mother had a tattooed number, and every once in a while, friends of mine would ask, Mrs. Spiegelman, why do you have a number tattooed on your - well, not tattooed. Why do you have a number on your arm? And she would say it was a phone number she didn't want to forget or something like that. So it was built into the fabric of our life without it being a specifically pointed one. And on the other hand, a lot of their friends and therefore their friends' children were also involved in the same background. So it wasn't that anomalous.
GROSS: But before you sat down and actually said to your father, tell me the story of how you survived, had he actually told you anecdotes about his survival during the war?
SPIEGELMAN: Oh, yeah, but the same way that some other person my age's parents might have told them about life in the Depression, you know? Oh, it was really hard back then. And the anecdote would just glimmer in and out between talking about taking out the garbage or doing homework.
GROSS: I got the impression that you were frequently taught grim lessons about life based on your parents' experiences during the Holocaust.
SPIEGELMAN: Yeah, that was something I didn't know until I left home. It's true. What would happen is these stories, which really haunted me, I didn't know were haunting me because they were what I was breathing. And it was only when I got some other perspective when I went away to college and was surrounded by people who didn't have those ghosts hovering over them that I realized there was something unusual about growing up with parents who survived a form of hell.
GROSS: Did you have Nazi dreams when you were growing up?
SPIEGELMAN: Yeah, I - see, one thing - I guess one thing that haunted me when I was growing up was this one blown-up photograph. It was a photograph that was originally just maybe two inches by two inches, but it was a large portrait photograph of what would have been my brother if he had survived the war. So I remember having dreams about him, although I never met him or knew much about him beyond a couple of anecdotes and that photograph. And although I don't remember all of them, I remember one fantasy that was recurrent was being in school and then the principal, instead of just telling everybody good morning on the PA system, would tell all the Jewish students to go out to the school yard, you know, that kind of thing.
GROSS: You didn't have dreams where you were chased by Nazis.
SPIEGELMAN: I think I've probably had many, you know. Any older kid that I was having trouble with would immediately have a swastika on his arm, you know.
GROSS: When you approached your father and sat him down and said, you know, tell me chronologically all the details you can remember from the war and from surviving the Nazis, was it hard for him to talk about it?
SPIEGELMAN: Not especially, although when I was growing up, my mother was more voluble than my father on the subject. And yet when I came back as an adult, he was rather giving of it. It wasn't a problem. And in fact, he didn't even seem to be aware of the fact that I was taping or anything till the very end. Getting it chronologically was impossible. Getting the conversation from him came in tidbits that were mosaic that had to be reassembled and worked out later. And sometimes, I felt like I was playing a pinball machine and trying to avoid those penalty holes because I'd ask a question and it would fall right back into an anecdote I had before. And there's no way to get out of the anecdote till I went through the entire 20-minute sequence, you know?
But the way I got it from him was after I did that comic strip in '71, I went back - and so I'm - actually even before I'd finished the comic strip, while I was two-thirds through. And I showed it to him, and I told him I wanted to tape him then. For the entire three- or four-hour session, which was when I got the bold outlines of what's now the book, he seemed totally oblivious to the tape recorder. We were just sitting on the terrace and talking. And then at the very end, he grabbed the microphone from me and says, and so, ladies and gentlemen, this is how it was and I want - you should know so nothing, God forbid, like this - so many millions were killed and that should never happen again - it was a statement for posterity, but I wasn't - he took me by surprise.
GROSS: One of the things that really struck me in "Maus" was that every time he'd finish telling you this story about narrowly surviving some horrible thing, whether it's at a prisoner of war camp or being hidden away in a bunker in somebody's cellar who was protecting him or, you know, trying to pass for gentile, he'd come out of the story and he'd say something really petty, you know, like, criticize you for smoking or what you were wearing or something. Can you tell the coat story?
SPIEGELMAN: Oh, the coat story. After my father finished telling me the story one day, I just went to get my coat to leave, and I couldn't find it. So I was kind of walking around asking my stepmother if she had seen it, and she hadn't. And my father said, yeah, he knew exactly where it was. He had thrown it out. And at first, I don't believe him, and I asked him to give it back, and he says it's too late. He said, when you were sitting first down to dinner, I threw it outside. By now, the garbage men took it away. Such an old, shabby coat, it's a shame my son should wear such a coat. But I like it. I have for you a warmer one. I got myself at Alexander's a new jacket, and I can give to you my old one. It's still like new. Here, just try on it. Try it on a minute. Oh, great, a Naugahyde windbreaker, and it's too big. It looks on you like a million dollars. Look, Dad, you can't do this to me. I'm over 30 years old. I choose my own clothes. After you wear it a little, you'll see how good it looks. Come. I'll walk you downstairs. And then I went downstairs and kind of looked in the garbage can, and it was just buried under muck and I couldn't believe it. But I walked home in a Naugahyde oversized jacket that I didn't like. But it was typical of what my father would do to try to arrange my life to his liking.
GROSS: I kept thinking that just at the moment when you would be feeling tenderness towards your father and realizing the hell that he had survived, that he'd do something really manipulative like that, like throwing out the coat that you really love so he could give you his Naugahyde parka or something. And, I mean, how would you reconcile that? I mean, what you're supposed to do - like, the way it's supposed to be is that you find out your father's life story, all the hostilities of the past are erased, tenderness takes over, you embrace each other, you understand each other, and you reconcile.
SPIEGELMAN: It actually leads to a larger issue for me, which has to do with sentiment in literature and especially in this kind of literature. It's actually one of the banes of so-called Holocaust literature that when you're reading it, you hear violins in the background, you know, and, like soft, mournful chorus sobbing. And, well, I've met some survivors who work toward that, and I've met other survivors who just are much spunkier than that in a way. And what it is is, I guess, this - the subject matter makes such a large claim on your sympathies to begin with that I don't think it's necessary to, like, underline it and push it any further than that. In fact, it kind of seems trivializing and cheap to do it that way. And my life with my father wasn't tender. My life with my father was, well, probably as ambivalent as everybody's life is with their parents, ultimately, if they dig deep and look at what it is that was going on between them. And I just wanted to make an accurate portrait of that relationship.
GROSS: Your father also always complains about money, that his second wife just wants his money, she wants to rewrite his will, everybody's out to get him. And you write in "Maus" at one point - you write, it's something that worries me about the book I'm doing. In some ways, he's just like the racist caricature of the miserly Jew. Did you ever think, oh, well, maybe I should try to present him in a more positive light.
SPIEGELMAN: Oh, of course. I just would never do it. But of course, I'd think it - not even just portray him but in general, try to tailor the story to my own ideological bent or interests. And I just - it's just too dishonest. I mean, one of the things that was important to me in "Maus" was to make it all true. And that truth wouldn't be served by retouching the portraits. And on the other hand, I found that by working with the things that are actual, the book becomes far more potent so that my father isn't a caricature of a miserly, old Jew. He's a miserly, old Jew. But he's not a caricature of a miserly, old Jew. He happens to be Jewish. There are avaricious people of many different ethnic persuasions that I've met.
And I find that working with everything that seems a problem to me when I'm first approaching it, once it's been kind of looked at from the 15 different angles necessary and assimilated into the story, it becomes a strength of what I'm working on rather than a liability. I find this a lot richer than if I had a far more exemplary father because if I did, then I'd have a book, maybe, whose ultimate moral would be - and if you lead a virtuous, exemplary life, then you, too, can survive the Holocaust. And that's not the point. The point is that everyone should have survived the Holocaust. There should never have been a Holocaust. And that kind of assumption of some kind of supernatural picking of who would survive and who wouldn't wasn't based on ethics. And it wasn't based on goodness, nor was it based on being especially evil, which is, I guess, the flip side of the way one might try to perceive somebody who comes through a situation of extremis.
GROSS: You almost describe yourself as a prisoner in your home in some of your work. Did you ever feel like, oh, it's trivial to feel that you are living as a prisoner or that life is hell when you're not living through the war? This isn't really the Holocaust, you know?
GROSS: You're living a middle-class life, you know? Is it - (laughter) are you, you know, overexaggerating or, you know, indulging yourself to feel that way?
SPIEGELMAN: But actually, more than that, I've gotten interested in psychological literature about children of survivors. And one common denominator that cropped up a number of times was children who ended up in mental hospitals or in jails. And I was in the former. And what it is is referred to in the psychological literature as an anniversary reaction. It tends to happen not always, but very often - it didn't for me. According to the literature, at approximately the same age the parents were when they got caught up in the concentration camps, the children would end up in the mental hospitals or jails. And I think that I've found a safer way of dealing with all this stuff by drawing a book. And that - you know, one of the things is you can't live through what your parents lived through. And yet, you've been given this mandate to be happy because you didn't have to. And yet, you're not all that happy. And then there's all kinds of ambivalences that come up from that, including a certain kind of very perverse envy of your parents having lived through something that proved that they could - were strong enough to live.
So it's - I don't think it's a total accident that I ended up really starting work on this very long project at the age of 30, which is about the age my father was when he went into the camps, because in order to draw "Maus," it's necessary for me to reenact every single gesture, as well as every single location, present in these flashbacks. The "Maus" cartoonist has to do that with his "Maus" parents. And the result is the parts of my story - of my father's story that are just on tape or on transcripts, I have a very kind of - I have an overall idea. And eventually, I can fish it out of my head. But the parts that are in the book are now in neat, little boxes, you know? I know what happened by having assimilated it that fully. And that's part of my reason for this project, in fact. And in order to do it, like I said, it's necessary for me to do a certain amount of research - photographic research, looking up drawings of survivors, a lot of readings - in order to get a sense of what it was, in order to put it in some kind of visual order for others to look at. I went back to Poland. I went to Auschwitz to look around, tried to find my parents' hometown - all part of the same kind of trying to understand and understand from the bones out what happened. And I'll say, it's still - not totally understandable. But it's my attempt.
BIANCULLI: Art Spiegelman speaking to Terry Gross in 1987. His graphic novel, "Maus," was published the year before, won the Pulitzer Prize and is now more than 35 years old. Yet very recently, it was banned by a school district in Tennessee. After a break, film critic Justin Chang reviews "Kimi," the new movie by Steven Soderbergh. It begins streaming today on HBO Max. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. It's been 13 years since the director Steven Soderbergh made the eerily prescient pandemic drama "Contagion." His new movie, "Kimi," is a low-budget thriller that takes place during COVID-19. It stars Zoe Kravitz as a Seattle tech worker who stumbles on evidence of a crime. It begins streaming today on HBO Max. Our film critic, Justin Chang, has this review.
JUSTIN CHANG, BYLINE: There have been countless thrillers about women who shut themselves away in their homes, only to learn that the world inside may be even more terrifying than the one outside. Not all of them are winners. For every '60s classic, like "Repulsion" or "Wait Until Dark," there's also a howler, like last year's overwrought Hitchcock homage, "The Woman In The Window." The gripping new movie "Kimi" is a nifty little addition to the shut-in canon. Like a lot of Steven Soderbergh's output of late, it's a sleek, low-budget genre exercise that's eerily keyed in to our current moment. The movie takes place sometime mid-pandemic and follows a 30-something woman named Angela, played by a terrific Zoe Kravitz. She works for a large Seattle tech firm that manufactures Kimi, one of those virtual home assistants like Siri or Alexa that will dim your lights, play your music and patiently try to answer your every question.
Angela has a Kimi of her own, which comes in handy since she never leaves her spacious loft apartment. She's agoraphobic. And while she got a handle on her anxiety years earlier, she lost it again during COVID lockdown. Angela's job is to make Kimi smarter and more user friendly. She listens to audio streams from customers whose requests Kimi didn't understand and then writes code that will fix the issue. One day, she hears a disturbing clip of a woman screaming and realizes that Kimi must have somehow recorded a violent crime in progress. But when Angela tries to report her findings to the company, she's given the runaround and told to forget about what she heard. When she doesn't, and starts learning more about the victim, who appears to have been brutally murdered, things get unexpectedly hairy.
It's a pleasure to watch Angela turn digital sleuth. Soderberg is the kind of filmmaker so focused on minutia that he can wring suspense from shots of typing fingers and blinking cursors. Eventually, Angela is told to come down to the office and meet with a company executive and an FBI agent, forcing her to leave her apartment for the first time in months. The executive is played by Rita Wilson, with a seemingly warm, friendly manner.
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RITA WILSON: (As Natalie Chowdhury) I'm with you, you know?
ZOE KRAVITZ: (As Angela Childs) OK.
WILSON: (As Natalie Chowdhury) OK. Can I hear the streams then?
KRAVITZ: (As Angela Childs) Oh, right now?
WILSON: (As Natalie Chowdhury) Well, yes.
KRAVITZ: (As Angela Childs) Oh. I'm - sorry. I thought that you said we would do it in the presence of the FBI.
WILSON: (As Natalie Chowdhury) That's not exactly what I said. But I have to know what we're dealing with.
KRAVITZ: (As Angela Childs) We're dealing with what sounds like a premeditated murder.
WILSON: (As Natalie Chowdhury) How do I know that?
KRAVITZ: (As Angela Childs) Because I just told you - twice now.
CHANG: Soderbergh and his screenwriter, David Koepp, have structured "Kimi" as a sly, 21st century riff on classic paranoid thrillers from the 1970s. The fact that Angela is both surveilling and being surveilled harks back to "The Conversation," while the sinister corporate conspiracy she uncovers echoes "The Parallax View." Paranoia, of course, isn't an inappropriate response to a world where anyone with a smartphone knows that they're being closely tracked. "Kimi" packs a lot of ideas into its brisk, 89-minute running time about the pervasiveness of digital technologies, especially at a moment when COVID has made us more reliant on them than ever.
But the movie also works like gangbusters as a pure thriller, from its outdoor chase sequences shot across downtown Seattle to its squirmingly tense panic room finale. It wouldn't work nearly as well without Zoe Kravitz, who makes an extremely likeable protagonist, in part because her character has no interest in seeming likeable. Angela's anxiety earns your sympathy, and her persistence and resourcefulness earn your respect. But she can also be impatient and inconsiderate of the people in her life, whether it's her mom, whom she argues with on FaceTime, or the love interest who lives in the apartment across the street in a tip of the hat to Hitchcock's "Rear Window."
She's only human, in other words. And while most viewers may not share her agoraphobia, many of us can identify with her fears of going out after months of isolation. That's why it's both harrowing and moving when Angela finally musters the courage to leave home. Soderbergh, who shot and edited the film, uses tilted camera angles and bustling city noises to convey a sense of Angela's disorientation. But as she moves forward, Angela adjusts, and "Kimi" becomes a story about what it's like to reconnect with the world. That world might be a big, scary place, but it's not necessarily scarier than what's going on indoors, where someone might always be watching or listening.
BIANCULLI: Justin Chang is film critic for The LA Times. He reviewed the new Steven Soderbergh film "Kimi," now streaming on HBO Max. On Monday's show, comic and producer W. Kamau Bell talks about directing the Showtime series "We Need to Talk About Cosby" which explores how Bill Cosby became America's dad and a hero in Black culture, and how that changed when he was accused and convicted as a rapist. Kamau says the project was challenging because he grew up watching and listening to Cosby. I hope you can join us.
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BIANCULLI: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our senior producer today is Roberta Shorrock. our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering support by Joyce Lieberman, Julian Herzfeld and Adam Staniszewski. For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.
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.