David Denby is a staff writer and film critic for The New Yorker. His new book, American Sucker, is a memoir about his brief obsession with the stock market — during the height of irrational exuberance in 2000-2001. It started with his wife's announcement that she was leaving him. Denby began an attempt to make $1 million so that he could buy out his wife's share of their New York apartment. (This interview continues into the second half of the show).
Other segments from the episode on February 2, 2004
DATE February 2, 2004 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: David Denby discusses his new book "American Sucker"
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
David Denby is the film critic for The New Yorker magazine. He's been writing
about movies since 1969. I'm sure I wasn't the only one of his readers who
was surprised by the subject of his new memoir, his adventures investing in
the stock market. The book is only partially about his wild ride in the
market buying high-tech stocks at the height of the bubble. Much of the story
is about how his life changed when his wife left him. Their separation is
what led him to invest so heavily in the market. Taking on the risks of
investing helped rouse him out of despair, but it only increased what he
describes as the bizarre torment of our age, the constant need to keep up and
the overwhelming sensation of never staying on top of things. Denby's new
book is called "American Sucker." I asked him to describe the changes in his
life that made him feel like he needed more money, and the way to get it was
through the market.
Mr. DAVID DENBY ("American Sucker"): It was '99 and my wife, Kathleen
Shine, the novelist, and I were splitting up, and I was, I think, grief-struck
is the proper word, and one of the things I wanted to do--I mean, it
was a very amiable and amicable partner, but she was going off in search of a
new life, and there's no way I could argue her to change her mind, so one of
the things I wanted to do after we finally parted and--was to earn enough
money to buy her out of our apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan,
which is the place at 76th Street and West End. Nothing special about it. I
mean, it was a nice piece of turf in Manhattan and everyone knows what that is
worth, but, you know, it was an ordinary place on the second floor. The light
wasn't so good. Many, I think, middle-class people have more light and space
than we did.
But anyway, I needed to raise a lot of money to buy her out, and the market
was booming. It was late '99, early 2000, the peak of what is now known as
the bubble, and I got caught up in that euphoria. My initial intention, of
course, I suppose, was rational, to make money to buy out my wife's share of
an apartment. I got caught up in the tech boom, which had been roaring along
for almost five years. And with Kathy's permission, I threw--now it seems
almost impossible to imagine--about 80 percent of our liquid assets into the
tech end of the market just before it started to burst. So that's--and people
around the magazine at The New Yorker noticed that I was obsessional, and a
brilliant editor there, Henry Finder, said, `Keep a journal.'
GROSS: Why the stock market? When you thought...
Mr. DENBY: Yeah.
GROSS: ...`OK, I need money. My life's falling apart. My wife's leaving.
I've got two sons. I want to buy her out of the apartment so that I can
continue to live there.' Why the stock market as opposed to, `Let me land
that really big book advance,' or, `Maybe I can get another job or a big raise
at The New Yorker?'
Mr. DENBY: Well, I was working hard for The New Yorker doing movie reviews
and longer pieces, and the market was going up. You know, the Nasdaq was
climbing a couple percent every week, and it seemed like we were creating new
wealth. It's very hard now to recall that euphoria of four years ago, but it
seemed like hundreds of billions of dollars in new wealth were being created
out of nowhere, and it seemed the fastest way. We had been doing OK in the
market. I was never, you know, obsessed with it or anything, but just in a
kind of conservative balancing, diversify, the usual common-sense wisdom--all
through the '90s we had been doing fine. And so there was a pile of usable
assets sitting around, and so that seemed like the quickest way to employ
them. I did eventually get a book contract, so that helped through the rough
periods a little bit.
One of the things that happened was I attached myself to people who--you know,
I was looking for gurus who knew something. I didn't know much, so I like
plunging into a situation and teaching myself. I'm an outsider. I mean, I
did a book seven years ago about going back and reading the Western classics
at Columbia. I love just throwing myself into something and, as a non-pro,
and seeing if I can figure out, you know, how the turf works. So I was
running around New York going to investor conferences and attaching myself to
people, I thought, who were interesting and who would lead me into the
technological future and also make me wealthy, and two of them turned out to
be scoundrels. And one is Sam Waksal, Martha Stewart's friend, who's now
languishing in federal prison in central Pennsylvania for seven years, and the
other is Henry Blodget, the Merrill Lynch Internet analyst who's been banned
from Wall Street for life and fined $4 million by Eliot Spitzer.
GROSS: Are you angry with them for suckering you?
Mr. DENBY: They did not urge me to invest in anything in particular, so I
cannot hold them responsible for my follies, but they were certainly part of
this enormous delusion of that period. And, you know, I labor over this
question a great deal in the book. Was he a conscious swindler and scoundrel,
or was he just a fantasist who just wanted the glory so much? He had these
series of social intellectual evenings at his loft in Soho in Manhattan to
which I began going. And they were very pleasant nights and for a few
privileged people. But Sam was trying to, you know, fulfill the old dream of
the salon, to bring together people with power and money with people who have
ideas and people who write, artists and so on. And there would be good food
and good drink, and everyone would mill around and talk, and then someone
would give a little talk on something, and it would be wonderful arguments.
He was incredibly charming, and it is incredibly charming, so he conned a lot
of people for years.
GROSS: As a film critic, one of the things that you do is study character.
Now they're fictional characters.
Mr. DENBY: Right.
GROSS: But you're always kind of studying character and reading between the
Mr. DENBY: Why didn't I read his lines, you mean?
GROSS: Well, it's different in real life, isn't it? But did you feel like
you should have seen something?
Mr. DENBY: Well, I saw the hustling, certainly. I saw the way he would
flatter people, including me, and although I couldn't do him any good, but he
still does that habitually. But you know, all the biotech entrepreneurs do
the same thing, because it takes 10, 12 years to get the drug through clinical
trials and then past the FDA. So they're out there like Burt Lancaster in
"The Rainmaker," holding up their arms, you know, and saying, `Just believe,
it's going to rain sooner or later,' telling their story over and over again.
It's not just Sam who did it. He did it perhaps in a more manic way than
other people, but he got very serious people to believe in him. You know,
Carl Icahn, the corporate raider, and Pete Peterson, former secretary of
Commerce and Ehud Barak and Bill Clinton. I mean, a lot of people thought,
you know, that he was terrific. And as I say, the drug does work, but at the
same time, he was pulling various fast ones and swindles, and pleaded guilty
to six federal charges.
BLOCK: If you're just joining us, my guest is David Denby. He's film critic
for The New Yorker magazine. His new book, "American Sucker," is about the
period when he invested kind of obsessively in the stock market. And
unfortunately, for him, it was during the height of the bubble, so it didn't
turn out the way he was hoping.
Mr. DENBY: We lost quite a bit on paper--or on screen I'm supposed to say.
BLOCK: How much did you lose on paper?
Mr. DENBY: Well, on paper, we lost $800,000 at the worst time. Now this is
what happened, Terry. I did--the minor holdings were in tech stocks, and I
sold them out near the bottom, I'm sorry to say, but I held onto the funds,
which were the major holdings, and they have come back quite a lot since
October 2002, which was the bottom of the Nasdaq Composite Index. It's up 80
percent since then. So if you get kicked in the stomach, or you kick yourself
in the stomach in my case, and then you get out altogether, you're just being
stupid twice. In other words, you miss the recovery. So, I mean, I haven't
made up our losses, but I've minimized them. Let's put it that way.
BLOCK: How much real money did you lose?
Mr. DENBY: Well, I think--I finally totalled it up, what Kathy and I had
invested all through the '90s, and then where we were about a year ago. And
it actually came out about even. So in that respect, it was all paper gain
and paper loss, or screen gain and screen loss. I mean, classic bubble
BLOCK: My guest is David Denby. We'll talk more after a break. This is
(Soundbite of music)
BLOCK: My guest is David Denby, film critic for The New Yorker and author of
the new memoir "American Sucker," which is about being heavily invested in the
stock market at the height of the bubble and being quite obsessive about those
At what point did you realize you were becoming kind of obsessive about
Mr. DENBY: Oh, right there at the beginning. I'd say at the beginning.
Exactly four years ago, the beginning of 2000. I'd get up in the morning,
turn on CNBC, you know, watch it through breakfast and, you know, try to
figure out what in the world they were talking about, listened to all of these
CEOs and stock analysts lay out their goods on a blanket, you know, and try to
hock them in the bazaar. I mean, they now have to be much more forthcoming
about what stocks they hold and what they own and their own interests because
of all the scandals. But I was fascinated by it. And then I began to read,
and I read a lot of literature around it. And I wound up cutting it out of
the book, because it impeded the narrative, but I had a lot of fiction in
there, Dreiser and Edith Wharton and Fitzgerald and Trollope. I felt actually
like Nick Carraway in "The Great Gatsby," looking at someone like Sam at his
parties. I mean, he was very much like Gatsby, and I was like Nick Carraway,
the observer with his face pressed up to the window.
GROSS: Why was the market a good fit for your obsessive needs? I mean,
obviously, you wanted to make some money in it, but it was fulfilling
something else in your life, too.
Mr. DENBY: Well, I think I'm probably obsessional by nature, you know, and I
have hobbies. And whatever I'm writing about, I like to plunge in, as I say,
and immerse myself in something, pile up a lot of books around me, of which I
read maybe a third. But it feels good to try to master something. But to
answer the question psychologically, I was lonely and upset and needed, you
know, something to keep the blood pumping in that down period of my life, and
I came out of it. What can I say? I'm in love again. So if you have to put
one foot after the other and get--the worst thing you can do if you're having
a terrible period is to globalize your despair, you know, and fall into
weltschmerz. But if you just say, `Let's see. I have to shop in the
afternoon and work with my son on his biology exam in the evening, and I have
to watch a movie tomorrow morning,' in other words, like that, one foot after
GROSS: Being a kind of obsessive personality, how do you think that your
obsessive nature affected your ability to handle the separation from your wife
when she decided that she wanted to leave the marriage?
Mr. DENBY: It didn't. It was totally amicable, and we had two sons to take
care of. And we're both non-confrontational. One of the things I did was
swallow my anger, because, you know, I hate these men who wander around,
talking about, you know, how awful women are. It's total nonsense. So we
remain friends throughout this whole thing, and, you know, we talk every day
now. So the last thing I wanted to be was, you know, a guy carrying his
divorce papers around and arguing for himself in court. We did the whole
thing through mediation, and it took a long time, because I didn't want to
sell the apartment. I suppose we should give that part of the plot away. And
I finally realized it was insane to hold onto the apartment, and sold it at
last after holding onto it for a couple of years.
There was something strange about that, Terry. I mean, as I said, it's a nice
piece of turf, but nothing special, but I just couldn't face the thought of
leaving it. And I was 57, whatever I was, 58, and I think, you know, I
finally realized that this is--I'm afraid I'm going to die if I leave this
apartment. I know it sounds a little bit nuts, but this is a kind of
middle-age craziness that--a kind of panic, you realize you're not going to
have an infinite number of days. And the apartment somehow became symbolic of
my life ending. Well, it was complete nonsense, and I finally realized it.
But I think that's why I so much wanted to hold onto it.
And it was home, of course, where we had raised two children. And there--you
know, for two writers to have 5,000 books and a personal relation with each
one of them, to split those books up was a minor trauma in itself, like each
one is a friend.
GROSS: Oh, here's an important question. This time around--I know you have a
girlfriend now. I don't know if you're living together, but have you mixed
your books together or kept them separately?
Mr. DENBY: We have not yet mixed our books together, but it is in the offing.
She's a great reader. So I don't know how we're going to, you know, fit all
of these things together, but...
GROSS: Do you have this, you know...
Mr. DENBY: Never enough book space.
GROSS: Do you feel like you should never mix your books again in case you
Mr. DENBY: No, no. You have to mix your books. All true relations depend on
mixed books, 'cause the books communicate to one another and to you, and, you
know, it's part of the family.
GROSS: Do you have a different set of standards for mixing bank accounts than
for mixing books, or is it the same standard?
Mr. DENBY: I think married couples should certainly have a common bank
account, and I still have one with my ex-wife, because we have to pay for the
children's school bills, and so we each contribute to this bank account in
equal amounts and then, you know, pay the school bills and the clothing and so
on. Yes, I believe that if you're married, for God's sakes, be married.
GROSS: Oh, I have a question about your divorce, and you just let me know if
this is too personal.
Mr. DENBY: OK.
GROSS: OK. When your wife left you, it was, I think, in part or largely
because she realized she wanted to be with another woman.
Mr. DENBY: Yes. I never wrote about that in the book because I thought it
wasn't really part of my story, and it was her business to tell that if she
wanted to. And she has told it in a variety of ways and is perfectly open
about it. And as a matter of fact, I'm good friends with her partner, who's a
totally wonderful person. I admit, I didn't speak to her for a year, but we
all get along quite well. But I thought that was Kathy's business. If she
wants to talk about it, you know, that's up to her.
GROSS: When your marriage ended--and you write about this in the book--you
went through a period of obsessively looking at pornography.
Mr. DENBY: It lasted a few weeks, yes, once--the summer after Kathy shipped
out. And I think I put it in there, even though I know it would upset some
people, because it's a common experience. God, I don't know any man who
hasn't turned on the Internet and looked at--you know, a few times. And I
think the stock market obsession which followed pulled me out of that cave,
although I do still hear, occasionally, from, you know, women like Heather,
the great Heather who sends out messages to so many people she's so close to.
Long ago, that obsession vanished. It's really pretty boring after the first
GROSS: After, you know, spending a few weeks watching a lot of the porn Web
sites, did you find yourself seeing love scenes in movies any differently?
Mr. DENBY: No, because the whole thing about pornography--Right?--is that
the people are--it's completely impersonal. I don't want to see famous actors
naked, because I have very direct relations with them, you know, in my head of
a different kind, and they are really spiritual presences, and what I--you
know, in the old days, in the '40s, when there was no nudity, that Hepburn and
Tracy would just look at each other, and you'd say, you know, `Oh, my God.
Wow. It's happening. They're going to do it,' you know. It was, in a way,
more exciting. So I'm sort of--don't really want explicit sexual scenes,
particularly, I don't--I can't conceive of many times in which it's been well
done, although you need it in "Cold Mountain" when Jude Law finally gets home
to Nicole Kidman. You needed something there, 'cause the whole movie is
tending towards the two lovers finally getting back together. There, I
thought it was fine. It was dramatically justified. Pornography is a whole
other kind of terrible experience, furtive, you know, it's not the same thing.
GROSS: Did taking risks in the market lead you to take more risks in other
aspects of your life?
Mr. DENBY: No. Certainly I don't think so. Maybe in my writing. I mean,
this book is a risk in the sense that I'm exposing, you know, a period of
money lust, and intellectuals are not supposed to do that. In fact, in my
experience, intellectuals are as much concerned with money and status as
anyone else. It's just that they don't talk about. It's considered beneath
one's dignity, although...
GROSS: What? To you talk about money?
Mr. DENBY: Well, you can hear it underneath--I do talk about consumer
desires. I fell in love with an automobile, a very peculiar event, standing
there in Rockefeller Center and was sort of struck dumb by an Audi A6. I'd
never had a thing about cars before. And so I go into, you know, the whole
consumer quandary: Are we losing our souls to consumption?
GROSS: This is a $42,000 car you're talking about. It's not...
Mr. DENBY: It is a very expensive, very beautiful car. I did drive it. I
went over and, you know, grabbed one from the dealer in New York, and I had a
grand total of 20 minutes with it, 'cause another customer was coming in. I
dove it wildly up the West Side highway, and turned around and drove it wildly
back to the dealer. And it is a marvelous thing. I don't think there's
anything corrupting about one or two desires for luxury. Everyone, you know,
has something they're crazy about. But consumption as a way of life is
corrupting. But I'm very sympathetic, 'cause I think the real problem is that
most--and this is very hard to say. Most people's work isn't very exciting,
and so, you know, if they're dreaming about SUVs while they're sitting stoned
at a computer screen, they have my total sympathy.
GROSS: You say that, you know, intellectuals aren't supposed to be that
absorbed in money, but, you know, here you are really writing about it. But
everybody has a line that they draw that they won't go over in terms of
talking about money. I mean, for instance, your whole book is about your
investments in the stock market, but if I asked you, `How much does The New
Yorker pay you every week?' or...
Mr. DENBY: Yeah.
GROSS: ...`How much did they give you for your book advance?'...
Mr. DENBY: No, yeah.
GROSS: ...you probably wouldn't want to talk about that, right?
Mr. DENBY: No, I wouldn't--that really is private stuff.
GROSS: Yeah. I mean, I didn't expect you to answer that.
Mr. DENBY: Yeah.
GROSS: But, I mean, you, too, still have the line that you'll draw talking
Mr. DENBY: Oh, yes, absolutely. And I certainly wouldn't rant on about the
stock market to anyone who wasn't interested, because there's nothing more
boring than hearing someone else's obsession that is irrelevant to you.
GROSS: David Denby is a film critic for The New Yorker. His new memoir is
called "American Sucker." He'll be back in the second half of the show.
I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with David Denby. He's a
film critic for The New Yorker. His new memoir is about how his life changed
when his wife left him and, in the hopes of buying out his half of their home,
he invested heavily in the stock market at the height of the bubble. His
memoir is called "American Sucker."
You've probably seen all the gambling movies, you know...
Mr. DENBY: Oh, yeah.
GROSS: ...right? And, you know, in gambling movies, unless it's a comedy,
the person almost always loses.
Mr. DENBY: That's a good point. And when I was writing this, not to compare
myself in terms of talent but just obsession, I was thinking of Dostoevsky's
short novel "The Gambler," which he wrote in six weeks to satisfy a publisher
who was gouging him. And that really, as well as anything I can think of,
captures the whole madness, the obsession or the rushing towards the abyss,
even as you know you're going over the abyss. I did pull myself back, though.
GROSS: But I'm wondering if these movies or if the Dostoevsky story came to
your mind as you were getting deeper and deeper.
Mr. DENBY: Oh, sure. And I was searching around, you know, for analogs to
my experience. And, well, Trallup's novel "The Way We Live Now," which was
written, I think, 1878, which is about how finance capitalism hits London--and
there's a scoundrel at the center of it named Melmotte, who cons everyone and
takes their money and sets up a paper company to build a ridiculous railroad
and never actually lays down, you know, a single tie. That one was very
powerful because everyone around him sort of changed their behavior in
relation to him and relation to each other. It's a brilliant, brilliant
novel. I think it's probably the greatest Victorian novel and still isn't as
nearly well-known as it should be.
GROSS: You started reviewing movies in 1969. Do you think that that was a
particularly good time to start?
Mr. DENBY: It was a fantastic time. It was just beginning to happen. I
remember "Easy Rider" had come out that summer, and then Robert Altman's
"M*A*S*H." And what happened was the studios didn't--they overestimated the
size of the youth audience. You remember youth; when everyone took youth very
seriously. Well, I was a youth in those days. They overestimated the size of
the counterculture and the radical audience, and they said, `We don't know how
to make movies for these kids. But there are these young directors coming out
of film school. They're immersed in film. Oh, I don't know, one of them's
name is Spielberg or something like that and, you know, Scorsese and DePalma
and Ashby and this guy Altman,' and so on. And they gave the directors free
rein for a while, and we had a golden era there.
I think the bitterness of the Vietnam period got absorbed and calmed down a
little. But the movies of the '60s are too jumpy and zeitgeisty for me. But
by the '70s, you know, you get to "The Godfather" and "Chinatown" and
"Shampoo" and Altman's "McCabe & Mrs. Miller" and so on, and you're getting a
string of masterpieces from the American studio system that were, I think, far
richer than American movies had ever been up to that time.
Well, it ran out of gas, as we all know. By the middle-'80s it was beginning
to be obvious to me that, you know, the marketing was running the whole thing
and audience research and so on. And, Terry, the way movies open now is just
a disaster. I mean, it's so much part of the whole scene that no one even
thinks it's strange anymore, but movies open at 3, 4, 5,000 screens on Friday.
And by Saturday or Sunday they know whether or not it's going to be a success.
And then they either expand the run or contract it because television
advertising is so expensive.
So what do you do if that's the box you've put yourself into? You make movies
for people who will go on opening weekend. So that means that boys age 15 to
25, including young men, exercise an influence on what movies get made way out
of proportion to their numbers in the population, even in the movie-going
population. And that's why there are so many thrillers, and that's why there
are so many fantasy movies and so many characterless films.
GROSS: Do you think the movie industry is being stupid or misguided? I mean,
do you think--like, in your opinion, are they dumb, or are they just kind of,
Mr. DENBY: They're dumb and cynical, you know, in many ways, and they don't
trust artists. They trust their marketing people much more, even though their
marketing projections fail over and over again. They're actually a little
panicked at the moment because attendance was off a few percent last year, and
they're blaming it on piracy, which, I think, you know, is absurd. The
obvious problem is that most of the movies were terrible.
GROSS: I know you're very frustrated with a lot of the movies that get
released now. Do you think it's changing film criticism? You know, when you
started reviewing movies, there was not only the whole new generation of film
directors that you were talking about--you know, Spielberg, Scorsese,
DePalma--but there was also still a lot of, like, European films that were...
Mr. DENBY: Absolutely.
GROSS: ...you know, very groundbreaking for their time. And, you know,
Truffaut and Godard were still active--well, still making great movies. So
I'm wondering if you think that the state of film criticism, in your opinion,
has been affected by the state of movies.
Mr. DENBY: Well, it's sort of like criticism is running on two tracks.
There's a whole generation of what you'd have to call hack critics, who have
been created, in effect, by this distribution pattern that I'm talking about.
And, you know, when you open the paper on Sunday, wherever you are in this
country, and you see an ad for a movie that's opening the following Friday,
and it's already garlanded with masterpiece quotes around the title, you have
to wonder, `What is that? Are they reviewing this movie 10 days or two weeks
before the opening?' Well, what it is is that they've been sent to a junket,
either to Los Angeles or to New York.
And, you know, if you're a critic in the Midwest or somewhere or the Southwest
or anywhere actually, you can go 25 weekends a year and spend a very nice time
at a hotel wining and dining. You get to dine in. You get to see the movie.
You get to spend five minutes with Tom or with Tom or with Julia or with Jack.
And then you write that up. And then Sunday morning you trot down to the
publicist's office, and, as a kind of quid pro quo, you give a masterpiece
quote. Those quotes are not excerpted from reviews that have already been
given. The movie hasn't opened yet. So there's that.
And the serious people have been drowned. And, in other words, many of the
critics have been sort of coopted and moved into the promotional activity for
movies. And it's the fault of editors at newspapers who want that kind of
piece in their newspaper and don't say to their critics, `Don't do that. It's
corrupting. No one's going to trust you.' That's what they should be saying.
So there's that.
And then there's the serious critics who, you know, are sort of marginalized
and manipulated, and we're kept out of screenings. I mean, it's still a great
job. I don't mean to introduce a note of self-pity here. And eventually, you
know, we get our say. But they're pushing us around as much as possible. And
there's this weird schizophrenia: On the one hand, they will always tell
anyone who asks that critics have no power; on the other hand, they never lose
any opportunity to, you know, make us feel small, push us around, marginalize
us, keep us out of screenings till the last second or afterwards, whatever.
So it still matters to some degree commercially.
GROSS: What are some of the ways in which you feel you are pushed around by
the movie industry?
Mr. DENBY: Well, you'll hear that--you know, you want to see a film, so you
can get it in your magazine on time. And then they say, `Oh, no, there's no
print in town.' This is in New York. And then you hear that so-and-so saw
the movie last night, and this or that group saw it the night before.
GROSS: They're afraid you're going to dislike it and give it a bad review?
Mr. DENBY: That's because of what I described before; that it's all
tending--that whole promotional effort tends towards that opening weekend when
the thing opens at 5,000 screens, even though they're telling everyone,
`Critics don't have any power.' They're terrified. You hear, you know,
there's some crumb bum living on the Upper West Side of New York, some
overeducated jerk, who's going to affect their $80 million investment. Don't
forget, ordinary movies cost $60 million coming out of Hollywood, another 30
for promotion. You have to double that in terms of box office to begin to
So each of these things, no matter how trivial it is as a movie, is an
enormous gamble. So if there's anyone, you know, who can hurt their
investment in any way, they want to minimize that person's importance. Now
that doesn't mean we don't have an effect on reputations. We do. And we may
have an effect on the awards, you know. And you have that weird thing at the
Oscars where they're all rewarding, in many cases, smaller, independently made
films. You know, they hate it, but they do it anyway, and then it has nothing
to do with their practice the rest of the year.
GROSS: What are some of the movies you grew up with that made you fall in
love with movies?
Mr. DENBY: Oh, no one remembers now, but commercial television in the '50s
was a kind of revival house because...
Mr. DENBY: Yeah. I mean, you know, Marshall McLuhan used to say that the
last medium becomes the content of the next one. So the content of television
in the early '50s was movies for the most part. Of course, there was Ed
Sullivan and variety shows, quiz shows, game shows, but a lot of it was
movies. And so I would, you know, watch "King Kong" and "The Marx Brothers"
and Fred and Ginger and John Wayne over and over again. And then when I was
at college, I remember, you know, walking to a revival house in Manhattan that
was not far from Columbia and sitting there in this horrifying theater, where
your feet stuck to the floor and your neck ached after an hour, and watching
two movies from the '30s by Renoir or two Marx Brothers movies. And that was
great. It was a big part of my education. And then I lucked into, as I said,
this wonderful period in the '70s.
So what worries me, Terry, is that a lot--and not just movies, but a lot of
minority culture choices--jazz, classical music, folk music, old movies,
documentaries, foreign films--could simply disappear. If everything's
digitized and we can download it through the Internet, everyone has fast
access, broadband access, that's fine. That would be a solution. We could
look at things on a decent-sized screen, play them on our music systems. But
if that continues to happen slowly, I'm afraid that a lot of things will
simply disappear because I don't trust Blockbuster and Tower to continue to
give huge acreage to these minority tastes, which are generating such small
amounts of revenue.
And this kind of thing has happened. Bill Gates bought a great photograph
archive, the Bettman Archive, buried it in a mine shaft outside of
Pennsylvania. Now nobody can get to it. And supposedly they were going to
digitize it, but they really haven't. And the same thing could happen with
certain kinds of cultural goods that you and I took for granted and older
listeners took for granted but that might not be available to our children.
That scares me a lot.
GROSS: David Denby, thank you so much for talking with us.
Mr. DENBY: Thanks a lot.
GROSS: David Denby is a film critic for The New Yorker. His new memoir is
called "American Sucker."
Coming up, a vast junkyard, mountains of corroded and decaying objects, and
why photographer and writer Rosemond Purcell finds it beautiful. This is
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Rosemond Purcell discusses her book "Owls Head"
TERRY GROSS, host:
Imagine acres of ruined, corroded and broken household and industrial objects
piled in mountains so high and dense that it's nearly impossible to get your
footing, a vast junkyard that is being constantly transformed by mice,
squirrels, bees, beetles, ants and worms. This may sound disturbing or even
repulsive to you, but it's a world of great beauty to my guest, Rosemond
Purcell. She's a photographer and writer. Her new book, "Owls Head," is
about a junkyard near Rockland, Maine, where she's visited dozens of times
over the past 20 years and from which she has taken home thousands of objects.
She became friends with its eccentric owner, William Buckminster.
Purcell also did the photographs for the recent book about their Mutter Museum
and for Ricky Jay's book about his collection of decaying dice. I asked how
Owls Head compares to your typical junkyard beyond its sheer volume.
Ms. ROSEMOND PURCELL (Artist; Photographer; Author, "Owls Head"): It wasn't
filthy. It didn't have a sort of urban feeling of oozing oil and grease and
sort of filth. It had a clean feeling to it, because the place itself was
located on a peninsula and salt water on three sides, and the wind was damp
and apt to be full of fog. And you knew that there had been many, many years
of weather. And these pieces of metal, mainly metal, had been changed into
beautiful patina, especially the copper under the salt air. So it was really
quite peaceful and it was quite beautiful, in spite of the fact that these
were debris from our all-American civilization.
GROSS: What did you find beautiful about this huge collection of junk and
Ms. PURCELL: Well, of course, you know, beauty is a matter of opinion. And
for years I had been used to working in the back rooms of natural history
museums finding photographic excitement in fragments of things. So when I say
beautiful, I think maybe I was drawn to those useful objects that would no
longer work particularly, would no longer function the way they were supposed
to, like a clock or a flashlight, but that they had been battered and their
colors had changed. I mean, in particular, copper is a wonderful--it receives
the effects of weather beautifully. It turns green and has a sort of an
ancient look to it. So I think it was partly that familiar objects had been
made into instant--or sort of not instant, but into rather rapid antiques.
And then also, those things which almost looked like something, still looked
like something, but you could not use it. That was very interesting to me.
GROSS: That's one of the things I find fascinating about the objects that
you've claimed from this, judging from the photographs in the book. And I
should say, the book is largely text, but there are a few photographs. They
look like relics, but from our own culture, from contemporary times. You have
this fantastic photograph in there of a manual typewriter that is almost
totally corroded. You could barely make out what it is. But, like, you know
the bars that the letters are on a manual typewriter?
Ms. PURCELL: Yes. Yeah.
GROSS: They're, like, little bent and decayed so they look like almost the
spindly legs of a weird insect or a crablike thing or an animal. It almost
looks like it was once alive.
Ms. PURCELL: Well, that's really--I'm glad you noticed that particular one,
because when I found that typewriter which, by the way, is simply just a
rusted keyboard, and who knows what manufacturer it was. But I actually dug
it out of the mud. And it really reminded me of the sort of fossil echinoid
or something. I mean, that is one of those sea urchins, you know. It has a
ribbing that, as you say, was very much like an animal rather than an object.
And I think it is the sort of crossover quality also to these objects that I
responded to, that they were no longer just manufactured, because nature
had--I mean, the elements had worked on them. And they became increasingly,
many of them, more and more as if nature had half formed them, so that they
were almost becoming natural. You see what I mean? Sort of rather than a
typewriter that had been made in a factory, this was a typewriter that had
been worked on by the soil and by the rain and the wind and had come out to be
just a shell of itself.
GROSS: It must take a lot out of you, you know, as much as you love the
materials, going through the materials in this junkyard. You write, `The act
of going through it, I encounter layer upon layer of gnawed and masticated
lumps, stuff that causes allergic reactions, wheezing, sneezing and rashes.'
What's it like, you know, picking through all of this, like an archaeologist,
but it's just this, like, kind of rusted, decaying, maybe maggot-eaten kind of
Ms. PURCELL: You know, I have to say that I have an aversion to anything that
might be maggot-eaten, and I think I also make it rather clear in the book
that there's certain kinds of materials that really are too much for me. I'm
not really looking at things that are decaying--I mean, I suppose they are--so
much as things that are desiccated; that is, things that really have been
altered by being outside. But often, of course, I will find something that is
in the process of--Well, how can I put it? Appearance is very important, the
way something looks, the way something reminds me of something else that I may
have seen that is not what I am looking at. And you're right. I mean, going
through these things is not necessarily great for the health. I'm not
particularly allergic to things. But I think more than the allergies, it is
really difficult to climb around on these mountains of slippery objects or
objects that have been just thrown on top of each other. They're not meant to
be on top of each other, but there they are sort of at random.
GROSS: My guest is Rosemond Purcell. Her new book is called "Owls Head."
We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is Rosemond Purcell, and her new book is called "Owls Head."
How much have you brought back to your studio from this junkyard?
Ms. PURCELL: Well, I have a studio that's almost a thousand feet square, but
I think I've brought back relatively little even though it's full. I know
that's strange, but there was so much there. How much? Thousands of objects
I would say. Thousands of objects if you count all the very small things, and
then sheets of scrap metal, and then many ruined books, because I found the
ruined books completely compelling. I'm a book person anyway, and I gradually
got--well, instantly was fascinated by books there were not in good condition,
because they represented a different kind of book than I'd ever seen before.
GROSS: Why don't you describe one of those books?
Ms. PURCELL: The book that became the object that really kept me going back
to Buckminster's was something that we found that one of the students found on
our first trip there to Owls--to Buckminster's property, and that was a book
that was half book, half nest. It was two volumes that had been glued
together by the weather, and one end of it had been turned into a fluffy nest
of syllables and straw. So that it was very, very poignantly an object that
was half natural and half man-made. And that is exactly the kind of object
that was amazing to me. And I just dug down into the straw and the syllables
to see what the titles of the top book was, and it was "Flying Hostesses of
the Air." And I just thought that was great, the sort of pulp fiction and
this sort of way of turning it into fodder for the young.
GROSS: Can you talk a little bit about how these objects look in the more
controlled environment of your studio as opposed to how they look in the kind
of, you know, like, messy outdoor environment of the junkyard?
Ms. PURCELL: Well, I think that, like any collector who has sort of honed
their senses to look for certain qualities, when I find something at
Buckminster's and pick it up, I know pretty well why it is that I want to keep
it. And when it's back in the studio, it's supposed to look just about like
that. It shouldn't change. And one of the other reasons why I collect these
things is because they are not what they used to be so much as suggestive of
other things that they could be. So when I was--I've been trained as a
photographer--self-trained as a photographer. And when I began, I listened to
the words of the late Minor White who used to say, `To photograph things for
what else they are, to show things for what else they are,' and these objects
often suggest other times and places to me so that they are historically free
to be manipulated or to be turned into fictional objects.
GROSS: Do you remember any visual nightmares you had when you were young
where, like, the scary thing about the nightmare was how something looked?
Ms. PURCELL: Well, I can tell you, not so much a nightmare, but I can tell
you that one of my father's friends liked to come and tell us bedtime stories.
And one of the scariest ones he ever told to me was the one about Theseus, who
went off from Athens to kill the Minotaur and returned home. And his father
had said, `If you return home with white sails, I will know that you were
successful. And if your men return home and the sails are black, I will know
that you died.' And they forgot to change the sails in the story that I was
told. And this awful feeling of a father sitting on a cliff and seeing his
son coming home, and his son was coming home, but the sails hadn't been
changed. They were black, and so his father killed himself. At least that
was the story. What a bedtime story, huh?
GROSS: Oh, sweet dreams, yeah.
Ms. PURCELL: Yeah, right. I don't know. That was the one that came to mind.
GROSS: Right, OK.
Ms. PURCELL: But I think, you know, I guess people would say, `Well, don't
you have bad dreams?' And I would say, `Well, I'm sure, yes, of course, I
have bad dreams.' But I think that what it is is if you really just look at
these things during the day--and those things, by the way, Terry--I'm
interrupting here. Those things which I remember being too afraid to look at
are those things which I did not photograph in museums and which haunt me to
this day. It is not the things that I actually spent time with and really
considered. There's something I remember from a medical museum that I just
was--I couldn't even look at it, and I regretted it.
GROSS: What was it?
Ms. PURCELL: Oh, well, it was a veil. It was a veil, but it was a human
being, and I just couldn't deal with something that was that--it seemed to be
a veil and to have all the features of a human being, and I cannot tell you
more. Oh, it was awful. But you know, I could have taken a picture. Then we
could look at it, and then we could talk about it.
GROSS: Are there any images that you've seen that, even as a professional
photographer, you averted your eyes from because they were too upsetting?
Ms. PURCELL: Oh, I'm not very good--although I admire more than any other
aspect of photography documentary photography, I am not very good with war
pictures, looking at war pictures. I'm certainly not good at looking at
pictures of torture. I don't like seeing people hurting each other. Let me
see. Certainly no med--I'm not really interested in pouring through books of
medical diseases or skin diseases, pathological conditions, although I am
interested in medicine in a way. I don't think that my view of the objects
from the junkyard and from the museums really is a gruesome view. I think
that these are things that are benighted and changed and other than what they
were. But I don't think that they are grotesque. Does that make sense?
Ms. PURCELL: Yeah.
GROSS: Rosemond Purcell, thank you so much for talking with us.
Ms. PURCELL: Thank you, Terry.
GROSS: Rosemond Purcell's new book is called "Owls Head." An exhibition of
her work called Two Rooms will be at the Mount Holyoke College Art Museum
through March 14th. You can take a virtual tour of the show through a link on
our Web site, freshair.com.
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
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