DATE December 2, 2002 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: David Thomson discusses his "Biographical Dictionary of
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
When I interview an actor or director, I often turn to David Thomson's
"Biographical Dictionary of Film." It not only has basic biographical
information, it offers Thomson's critical observations of the person's work.
Thomson describes the book as `personal, opinionated and obsessive.' He
cautions that within nearly every entry there are things that may be startling
in a biographical dictionary, the sharp expression of personal taste, jokes,
digressions, insults and eulogies.
The first edition of Thomson's "Biographical Dictionary" was published 25
years ago. A new edition has just been published. Thomson was born in
London, and now lives in San Francisco. He's a regular contributor to The New
York Times, Salon, Film Comment and The Independent in London. He's also the
author of three novels and a biography of producer David O. Selznick.
I asked David Thomson for an example of an entry in his "Biographical
Dictionary" that many readers have disagreed with.
Mr. DAVID THOMSON (Author, "Biographical Dictionary of Film"): Well, there
are many people I have known and many women I have known who have found my
adoration for Angie Dickinson far-fetched. They don't know whether I'm
teasing or whether I really mean it. And I'm here to tell you that I do mean
it. I think that in the 1950s, particularly, and in the 1960s, she was an
extraordinary actress. And I'm deeply fond of her. I've never met her, but
everything I say about her is sincere and heartfelt.
I think everything in the book is heartfelt, although sometimes I think one
needs to tease people a bit. And I always understood that saying Angie
Dickinson was a great actress would make people laugh. But laughter sometimes
is a prelude to thought.
GROSS: Now Cary Grant, you've described him as `the most fascinating male
personality in pictures.' Why do you give him that prized spot?
Mr. THOMSON: Well, it's a complicated thing; I'll be as brief as I can about
it. I think essentially it comes to this: That Grant could go from lightness
and humor and charm and being incredibly attractive to being dark, secretive,
selfish, unpleasant. And he could do it in a moment. He could do it in a
beat. And I think in a way it's that kind of ease of transition that makes
the most interesting people in films to do it without going through immense
antics of "acting"--with quotes around it--but just to let your being shift.
And for years, Grant was regarded as simply a movie star. I think, again,
people have come to realize that in so many ways he's a very uneasy figure.
We sort of take for granted now that he was very uneasy sexually. I think he
was very uneasy with his fame. I think he was uneasy with being a hero and
all of those things. And in his best work--and that's often the work for
people like Hitchcock and Hawks, because he did his best with the great
directors--I think you see that really volatile, uneasy personality.
GROSS: OK. I'm going to flip to your entry for Jayne Mansfield. You
describe her as `the swan song of pre-nude sexuality in films.' Explain what
Mr. THOMSON: Well, Jayne Mansfield had her brief glory in an age when women
on screen could not really quite take their clothes off. They could give you
the indication that they were prepared to, and they could often be startlingly
close to being naked. There was even a film, I think, once where Mansfield
was naked for a few frames and they had to paint in something to cover her
nipples. She was intensely suggestive. And in the film she made with Frank
Tashlin, who was a cartoonist who had turned into a filmmaker, nearly a
forgotten figure today, she was a cartoon figure. I think, in fact, she was a
good deal more intelligent than she ever appeared on screen, and I'm sure she
was horribly burdened by having this immensely voluptuous body.
But, you know, within five, 10 years of Mansfield's glory, it was very common
for actresses to take off their clothes and for sexuality on screen to have
reached into far more intimate and allegedly daring situations. I'm not sure
that that's always true, but she and Marilyn Monroe are sort of near
contemporaries, late '50s, early '60s. And they're beautiful examples of just
before censorship was going to crack.
GROSS: Who is one of your favorite actresses working today?
Mr. THOMSON: Well, I have to say that I like Nicole Kidman more and more with
almost every film I see. She's someone who I think in the space of 10 years
has become her own woman. I think she's made amazing career choices. One of
the things you face when you do a book like this is that, as well as artistic
careers, people have professional careers. And in most cases, they're only
aware of a professional career. And some people make very bad choices--they
just pick the wrong films. And you can see their career turning to ashes and
I mean, I would say that, for instance, Michelle Pfeiffer has made a lot of
bad choices. I don't know why, but I think she has. Nicole Kidman, it seems
to me--and she's obviously had big pressures on her life of one kind or
another. Nicole Kidman has made choices that I just think enlarge our sense
of her and enlarge her craft all the time. There is a film coming out at the
end of this year, just after Christmas, where she plays Virginia Woolf. Now
once upon a time, the idea of this young, very Australian woman playing
Virginia Woolf, a kind of archetypal figure of Bluesberry culture(ph), might
have been thought ridiculous. I think people will be amazed at how good she
is in that role. So she's someone I really admire very much.
GROSS: David Thomson is my guest, and he has a new edition of his
"Biographical Dictionary of Film."
I'm going to ask you to turn to the entry for the director James Toback, the
director and screenwriter. And I'm asking you to do this because he is a
friend of yours. And for our listeners who don't know his movies, his movies
include "Fingers" and "The Pick-up Artist." Name some other of his movies.
Mr. THOMSON: "Harvard Man" was the most recent, "Black and White,"
"Exposed," "Love and Money," "The Big Bang," "Two Girls and a Guy."
GROSS: Good. So this is you writing about somebody who's a good friend of
Mr. THOMSON: Yes.
GROSS: But as we know, as we've heard, you write very opinionated, critical
entries for everybody in your "Biographical Dictionary." So read us an
excerpt of what you've done for James Toback, your friend.
Mr. THOMSON: `Dear Jim, you may not know it but you were the best friend I
feel obliged to include in this book. That may be a wretched position for
both of us. You are also one of the friends I most value in life.' I then go
on and I quote what was an original review of his first film, "Fingers," which
opened in '78, in which I reviewed as critic on The Will paper in Boston. And
now picking up. `Anyway, our friendship began a few days after this review
ran, and it lasts, I hope. Have you known, or guessed, that I've never liked
anything of yours quite as much or nearly as much since? Have we betrayed
each other? Is it possible for a movie maker and a critic to be friends?'
GROSS: Well, let me ask you that question. Is it possible for a critic and a
movie maker to be friends?
Mr. THOMSON: It's extraordinarily difficult, and it requires enormous
tolerance and openness on both parts. And I would have to say that on Jim's
part--and Jim and I haven't spoken for a few months, and I think he knows it's
because I didn't like "Harvard Man." So, again, I'm sending a kind of letter
to him over the air. I think it depends upon his generosity, and to me he has
been an extraordinary, compulsive friend, someone I could never dream of
giving up. But it's very, very difficult if you're a critic because sooner or
later, the critic is going to offend the filmmaker, I think, and vice versa.
And in the decades over which I've done this book, I've come to know many more
people in the book. When I began the book, I didn't think I had met more than
two or three people that were in the book. I've probably met, oh, a couple of
hundred now who are in the book. And some of them don't talk to me anymore.
Some of them have become even friendlier. And I have to wonder whether that's
because I happen to like them. It puts friendship to a very, very great test.
But I do think that anyone in the arts knows this dilemma, and you have to
make up your mind how far flattery and the critical spirit, how much those two
things mean to you. And I try always to tell people what I think about their
GROSS: My guest is David Thomson. He has a new edition of his "Biographical
Dictionary of Film." We'll talk more after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is David Thomson. He has a new edition of his "Biographical
Dictionary of Film."
You know, some people get into making movies or writing about movies because
they love the magic of movies. And part of that magic is like the stars who
make the movies and part of the thrill of it all is the opportunity to maybe
get close to them and see what these people are really like. Of course, if
you're a critic and you're going to be writing bad reviews of these people, as
you know, it's not necessarily going to endear you to them. Was that ever
part of what you wanted? Did you ever want writing about movies to be like
your foot in the door to get to actually meet the people who make them?
Mr. THOMSON: Oh, yes. I think that was something. I mean, I was born and
raised in England, and for a large part of my life, America and Hollywood were
literally places that existed on a screen. And I fell in love with America
through the screen, which is probably because I was lucky enough to be a kid
watching American movies when they were pretty good--late '40s, early '50s,
that time. I never dreamed I would come to America, much less go to Los
Angeles. And I know when that began, when I began to sort of go on the sets
and meet people, it was enormously exciting but very frightening, too, because
it was really like stepping into a dream world.
And it has probably filled me up for good. If I never stepped on another film
stage, I would not be upset now. But what it has done is leave me with a
great desire and interest to write about the way business affects the art in
American film, because I think still to this day that is not fully understood.
The money is so powerful, I think there is literally a way in which even the
great artists we might like to name in American film do it for the money.
It's almost the only way to survive there. And I find that a fascinating
subject, and I hope one day to write a book about that. But I've met enough
actors and actresses by now, yeah.
GROSS: Well, you were talking about how money affects movie-making. Years
ago, I think it was in the '80s, you wrote an essay about why screenplays are
so bad. And your answer to the question is: Nobody reads them.
Mr. THOMSON: Really nobody reads in Hollywood at all. I mean, that is
something that you learn when you do a book like this which has some harsh
things to say about certain people in Hollywood, and years later they will
come up to you and embrace you and tell you it's a hell of a book, a terrific
book, and they've not read it. And Hollywood is not a reading community, I
think, on the whole. And I'm not sure that it ever was, but there was
certainly a time when people wrote scripts to be read. There was a quality in
the dialogue in them, for instance, that alone begged to be read and begged to
be read aloud sometimes. We don't have very many people left who can do
dialogue like that.
GROSS: Well, how can screenplays not be read if the screenplay's going to be
Mr. THOMSON: Because the screenplay is a concept. It's a package. And
people will tell themselves, `Well, no need to read the screenplay yet because
we're going to rewrite it anyway.' What I need to know is the concept, and
the concept is, let's say, Tom Cruise and Leonardo DiCaprio together, action
film set in the South Pacific. We might bring it in for $110 million. Now
those are the vital things about the concept. If someone whispers in your
ear, `But, you know, the screenplay's really not very good yet,' you say,
`Well, don't worry. We'll doctor that. If it's a Tom Cruise film, Robert
Towne probably will have a moment where he'll go over the script and he'll
turn it smooth and he'll turn it into gold. No need to read the script yet.'
And it sounds like a preposterous and far-fetched notion, but I seriously mean
it, that scripts are always changing. Sometimes a movie never has a finished
script. And because of that, certain people feel they never need to actually
read the script in detail. They will get coverage on it, they'll get reports
on it, they'll ask other people what they think of the script and there will
be a sort of word-of-mouth estimate of the script that circulates around a
film. But then next day you'll get new pages. So nobody settles what the
script really is or what they think of it.
GROSS: You know, Todd Haynes has a new movie out, I think is very good,
called "Far From Heaven." And it's an homage to the movies of Douglas Sirk,
who made the movies "Magnificent Obsession," "All That Heaven Allows,"
"Written on the Wind," "Imitation of Life." You have an interesting entry on
Douglas Sirk in your "Biographical Dictionary of Film." Would you talk a
little bit about what you see as Douglas Sirk's style and importance?
Mr. THOMSON: Well, Sirk was a very interesting figure. He had come out of
German theater and he came to America in the late '30s. And he gradually
found his way to Universal where in the 1950s he made a series of very
successful, what are called women's pictures, pictures with Rock Hudson, Jane
Wyman, people like that in them. He was a great stylist. He loved color, he
loved decor, he loved camera movement.
And those people who just love film style for film style's sake adore Sirk and
were in raptures, as I was, when "Far From Heaven" unpeeled on the screen,
because it isn't just a homage, it's as if Todd Haynes has become Douglas Sirk
almost for a moment. It's just breathtakingly beautiful. The colors in the
film are put together with a kind of boldness that really no one since Sirk or
Michael Powell has dared to do.
GROSS: You know...
Mr. THOMSON: It's interesting--mm.
GROSS: ...we usually use the word `melodrama' in a very dismissive way, like,
`Oh, it's just a melodrama.' In your entry for Sirk, you sing the praises of
melodrama and you write, `Long live melodrama, and let us stress the quality
of Douglas Sirk.'
Mr. THOMSON: I think...
GROSS: What do you think of as melodrama? Like what does melodrama mean to
Mr. THOMSON: I'll tell you what...
GROSS: ...what was his approach to it? Yeah, go ahead.
Mr. THOMSON: I'll tell you what melodrama is. Melodrama is going in out of
the daylight, paying money to sit in the dark packed in by strangers so that
you feel you can't get out in front of a screen the size of an ocean liner
where the screen is filled with a tear dropping from a woman's blue eye down
to her red mouth. That's melodrama. It's in the nature of the movies. It's
sitting in front of a screen where you know that quicker than you can close
your eyes, the image can change from, say, the one I've just described to an
image of a knife tearing down that woman's cheek. It's the basic melodramatic
condition of not knowing what's going to happen next and longing to find out.
And so long as that lives, movies will live. When people feel they've seen it
all before and, therefore, are not surprised, are not shocked, not delighted,
not moved, and maybe we're there already, that's when movies are in danger of
fading away, I think.
GROSS: As a practicing critic yourself, what do you think of the state of
film criticism today?
Mr. THOMSON: I'm not really what I would call a practicing critic. I
GROSS: Because you don't review movies on a regular basis, right.
Mr. THOMSON: I don't review movies, and I don't think I'm actually good at
it. Whenever I've done it briefly, it's not worked terribly well. I think
I'm much better at thinking about movies over a period of time and then
writing about them later. But to address your question, I think that we're in
a bad, bad times for the movies, and I pray that there's a young generation
coming. Sometimes you get the feeling that with the Addisons and people like
that, Alexander Payne, Spike Jones, there could be a really new, tough,
irreverent generation such as came into being in the 1970s in America. I hope
that's going to happen.
I would have to say, though--and I don't think I'm the only film writer or
critic who would tell you this in honestly--that going to the movies all the
time gets tougher.
GROSS: But what about the state of film criticism?
Mr. THOMSON: I think film criticism barely has a state at the moment, I'm
afraid to say. I think it's just a reflection of the times. I think it's a
reflection of a culture in which thumbs up or thumbs down has come to be the
central way of relating to a movie. I think advertising where you don't even
know the names of the people being quoted and it's no surprise to discover
sometimes that some of them were invented, I think people feel extremely
distant from film criticism. And there's been such a terrible falling off
since the great days of Pauline Kael, who--whatever you think about her, she
made film criticism central to the American intelligentsia. Don't think that
obtains anymore, and it's a real sadness for those of us who have followed it.
GROSS: David Thomson has just published a new edition of his "Biographical
Dictionary of Film."
I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: The great sleight of hand artist Ricky Jay is also a scholar of magic,
con games and sideshows. Coming up, he talks with us about his new book,
"Dice: Deception, Fate & Rotten Luck." And rock critic Ken Tucker reviews a
new rap album from Paul Barman.
(Soundbite of music)
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Interview: Sleight of hand artist and actor Ricky Jay discusses
his career and new book
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
Ricky Jay is a master sleight of hand artist and a spellbinding performer.
His one-man show, "Ricky Jay: On the Stem," which he recently performed
off-Broadway, and his earlier show, "Ricky Jay and His 52 Assistants," were
directed by David Mamet. Jay has acted in the Mamet films "House of Games,"
"Things Change," "The Spanish Prisoner" and the "Heist," as well as the films
"Boogie Nights" and "Tomorrow Never Dies."
Ricky Jay is also a scholar of magic, con games and sideshows. He's the
author of two histories of unusual entertainment, "Learned Pigs & Fireproof
Women" and "Jay's Journal of Anomalies." His new book, "Dice: Deception,
Fate & Rotten Luck," is a series of reflections and historical anecdotes about
dice. The book also features photographs of dice from Jay's personal
collection. These dice don't look like ordinary dice. They are old celluloid
dice and they are decomposing.
Ricky Jay, welcome back to FRESH AIR. I want you to describe what the
decaying dice look like.
Mr. RICKY JAY: Well, it's actually difficult to describe but over a period of
years and years, dice which are made from celluloid, celluloid nitrate in this
case, which was the industry standard probably up till about the middle of the
last century, eventually begin to break down, and they break down in the most
amazing ways. I mean, they start--you see crystallization on the corners of
the dice and they move to the edges, and eventually it--fissures occur and
stress and imploding of dice where you can wind up with actual crumbling
pieces with the paint used to mark the pips on the dice moving with the dice
taking absolutely extraordinary shape where the colors change, where material
which might have been in the dice, both in the makeup of the celluloid, which
would be cotton fibers and camphor in addition to sulfuric and nitric acid,
but also if the dice were, how shall we say, adapted for use by cheaters. So
if there were things within the dice you may see them coming out. You may see
oxidation. And this series of photographs which Rosamond took were absolutely
stunning. I mean, just stunning.
GROSS: I want to add that on some of these decaying dice you actually see
mold growing and there is something so creepy about it, and I think part of
what makes these photos so exciting to me is that they're inert substances
that are dying as if they were organisms. And it's almost like a definition
of surrealism. Remember how--you know how that surrealistic image of the cup
that is fur-lined...
Mr. JAY: Oh, yeah, yeah.
GROSS: ...is what these dice remind me of. This, like, almost unholy
combination of inertness and life. How did you start collecting dice?
Mr. JAY: Well, I suppose one could call them tools of my trade, I mean, as a
sleight of hand artist. Both magic and gambling techniques often involve
dice, and so they're wonderful objects, and over the years I realized without
consciously trying to amass an enormous collection of them that I did have
thousands of pairs of dice coming from disparate sources, from gamblers who
reformed and took to other fields for their financial support, from
collectors, from friends who would give me dice, and eventually I had many of
them. And over the course of the years this breakdown of the dice, this decay
and exposure, managed to make them create these unusual, incredibly unusual,
GROSS: When you started collecting dice, did you have any idea that they were
going to decay? Or did they just surprise you and start doing that?
Mr. JAY: No idea at all. It was a complete surprise. I mean, I had seen
dice in various states of decay and of course, older dice, really old
dice--bone dice, ivory dice--don't decay in this way. This is, you know, a
manmade process. Celluloid is the first commercially successful manufactured
plastic. So I suppose it should have a fate that suits that.
GROSS: Now these dice made out of celluloid, they disintegrate for the same
reason that old celluloid film disintegrates, right?
Mr. JAY: Absolutely. Absolutely.
GROSS: Now the photographer says that these dice smell also. Do they smell a
Mr. JAY: They do. And I must say keeping them in my house for a period of
years, I would occasionally, at the request of my wife or various other
visitors, have to move them into more secluded areas. I kept them largely in
all plastic drawers and then covered them and then you would not notice this
rather odoriferous eminence. But if you took them out of the drawers, you
GROSS: How have you used dice over the years?
Mr. JAY: Well, just as objects to conjure with, I suppose is the best way to
express that. There are lovely effects that can be done with dice.
Mysteries, effects of skill and if one were choosing to talk about gambling or
hustling, you could demonstrate, in fact, various things that could be done
GROSS: You quote your grandfather who said that who--he was a magician and he
said he never played with cards because if he lost, he was thought to be an
incompetent magician and if he won he was suspected to be a cheater. I was
figuring that would probably be true with dice, also.
Mr. JAY: Well, it is. I think I actually mention it in that aspect in the
book because of the same thing, of people being suspected of being cheaters if
they simply won. I mean, that bears to mind one of, I think, the most
interesting anecdotes in the book. In 1544, the year we find the first
serious account of cheating with dice in the English language and of all
places it appears in a study on archery called "Toxophilus" by Roger Asham,
and in it he talks about what I think is just a truly diabolical method of a
cheater gaining his advantage. So he says in this particular game a man that
the cheaters want to take for their money is actually winning honestly. So
what they do is to switch false dice into the game, let the honest man throw
the dice once and accuse him of cheating and then take his winnings. And
that's in 1544. I mean, the level of duplicity is just wonderfully
GROSS: How are loaded dice made? Like what's the principle there?
Mr. JAY: Well, the principle is that a foreign substance is placed into the
dice at some specific spot to make it favor the throwing of certain points.
So I think that's a reasonably accurate analysis of this, so that if it's
heavier on one side, it'll make--that side would tend to be thrown to the
bottom so that the opposite side would surface. And various materials could
have been used over the years--lead, gold, quick silver, mercury. And then
the placing of these loads within the dice became more and more sophisticated.
GROSS: What are the first forms of dice that you have found in your research?
Mr. JAY: Well, I think it's pretty safe to say that dice come from astragali,
which are the heel bones of hoofed quadrupeds, and this particular bone was
quite attractive and six sided and took well to decoration. And they say that
the heel bone of the antelope was particularly handsome and that was really
prized by the throwers of astragali. And we think that only four sides were
actually used in these dice games. And the evolution from astragal to dice
is, at least to my knowledge, not based on any single event, that it takes
place gradually over a period of years and years.
GROSS: You actually reprint a quote from--it's a craps dealer and his rapper
has come on. You have your book with you?
Mr. JAY: Yeah.
GROSS: Could I ask you to turn to page 38? Maybe you know this by heart.
Mr. JAY: Yeah, I'd be happy to do this for you.
Mr. JAY: (Reading) `Ladies and gentlemen, get your money down, it's betting
time. The heart six and the heart eight gets you seven to one. The heart 10,
the heart four gets you eight to one. I repeat, get your money down. It's
betting time and we're off. Coming out for a point, bet the big 11. Seven is
a crap. Bet the field. They come or they don't come. Five and after five,
the field. They come or they don't come. Leave your money set and win a big
bet. Don't cut it thin or you won't win. Leave it go and watch it grow. And
the winner five on the front line. And we're coming out for another point.
Yolev(ph) the winner.'
GROSS: What year is that from?
Mr. JAY: Boy, I would guess that that's probably the late--you have a craps
dealer in the '50s or '60s, you know, just somebody doing their spiel trying
to get someone to lay down money in a casino situation.
GROSS: Are there many casinos where you have people who can do the spiel as
Mr. JAY: I think that that becomes a dying art. It's very much like carney
which we've talked about on past shows together, that the language of the
carney and the carney come-on has changed enormously, that you used to have an
outside talker, someone that would do the pitch and that they would repeat
this pitch over and over again and the very concept of that has basically been
replaced by a tape-recorded loop. And I think in large casinos people think,
certainly in the really classy casinos of Vegas, that a spiel like that is
somehow an unfair inducement to bad betting. So I think in both cases they're
dying out, sadly.
GROSS: Why do you think the underworld and illicit activities have always had
their own language?
Mr. JAY: Well, this becomes a very complex question and one for someone
whose skills are in areas other than mine. But I think the general thing that
you hear is the idea that this language is used to be exclusionary, but I
think people who study this carefully will tell you that's rarely the case.
Perhaps the only thing that comes to mind as an absolutely exclusionary use of
real language is the language of the pickpocket, where the pickpocket--the
hook, the wire, the dip, the canon(ph), the man who actually takes the
wallet--talks to his shell, his confederate, his stick, his stall, and
literally gives him directions in actual conversation that would allow the
stall to know where to set up and what pocket the dip wants to reach to take
the wallet away. And the idea that that actually happens during the
transmission of a crime is pretty wonderful to me. But it's the most specific
example that I can think of.
GROSS: So that they can talk in code and no one will understand.
Mr. JAY: Right. And then the concept of the office, which is giving a
signal. It's a wonderful 18th century term that's still used by gamblers all
the time. It's a method of communicating from one gambler to another. It
could be silent. It could be through language. Now that I say that, I mean,
it can be used in a monte game with the operator telling the shill by
language. The shill can't follow which is the actual card to be chosen, you
know, where the queen is amongst the two black sixes and so the operator, in
the course of doing his spiel, will actually manage to tell the shill which
card he should bet on.
GROSS: Before you became a master of the con game and a historian of the con,
were you ever taken? I mean, when you started to really love this stuff,
before you knew how it worked, did you play three card monte and lose all the
time? Did you play dice with people who were cheating, but you didn't quite
know how so you were a losing?
Mr. JAY: Let me say that I have been in card games and games of chance in
which people were moving. That's the correct term. People were absolutely
moving. And sometimes you can determine it while it's happening and other
times you might have to go back after the game and recall, `Ah-ha, that must
have been what happened in this situation.' I think anybody who thinks that
they can't be cheated in a game is the perfect person for you to play against.
Mr. JAY: Because they're clearly suckers. Anybody can be cheated. I mean,
they're just levels and new work that's being done all the time.
GROSS: My guest is Ricky Jay. His new book is called "Dice: Deception, Fate
and Rotten Luck." We'll be back after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Ricky Jay, the great sleight of
hand artist and the great historian of magic, conjuring and anomalies. He has
a new book which is called "Dice: Deception, Fate and Rotten Luck."
Your "Journal of Anomalies," which was like a very handsome almost newsletter
that you would occasionally publish featuring anomalies, freaks from history,
unusual performers through history. You collected that a while ago into an
actual book. Why are you so interested in people who would be known as
Mr. JAY: Well, I think I sometimes say that I'm not so interested in people
who were just--for instance, Siamese twins don't particularly interest me.
But Siamese twins who play the violin interest me enormously. It's a bit
glib, but I think you see where I'm going.
GROSS: Right. Exactly.
Mr. JAY: I really am interested in people who would overcome extraordinary
difficulties and become, you know, just absolutely fascinating people. One
man who actually crosses over to both books is a man we've talked about
before, Matthew Buchinger, one of my true favorites, a man who was born in
1674 and was only 28 inches tall and had no arms or legs and was an
extraordinary magician, which is how I got interested in him, but he also
played more than eight musical instruments and danced the horn pipe and did
trick bowling shots and fired pistols and he also was a dicer. Matter of
fact, I have this couplet about him in the book, `He throws the dice as
careless down as any gamester in the town and though the number cast be three,
two sixes you shall ever see.'
So the idea of this 28-inch man, who actually had no arms or legs, but he had
two--well, I guess the easiest way to describe his appendages were like the
thalidomide flippers that we saw in this country some 20 or 30 years ago. But
his enormous accomplishments are just absolutely intriguing to me and he also,
amazingly enough, was an ordinary calligrapher. And I've managed over the
years to build up a collection of original pieces of his calligraphy, often
done on vellum, sometimes on paper in the early years of the 18th century and
because they were so good, they were saved and I've been able to put together
a rather remarkable holding of this. But I think he may be the man that I'm
most interested in in the world. I mean, it's such an extraordinary level of
accomplishment, and also in an age where these people were exhibited in
horrible situations, here was a man who was allowed to have a real education,
you know, had an interesting family life, who had many descendants who became
accomplished in their own rights.
I think his grandson was, at one point, considered the best lute player in
England. Buchinger himself had four wives and 14 children. So he's just, to
me, endlessly fascinating.
GROSS: Where do you go to learn more about him?
Mr. JAY: Well, I don't know. I suppose every time that I'm on the road--this
is one of the pleasures of my life if I'm in a city performing I manage to go
to libraries and museums and bookstores and print shops in search of material.
And in that way I've been able to unearth a lot of material about him and
various other people that I write about as well.
GROSS: Do you think there is any contemporary equivalent of the freak show
Mr. JAY: Well, there still are some shows like this running. And, you know,
a man named Ward Hall and another man named Bobby Reynolds still put on shows
like this that are great fun. And, you know, it's considered a dying
entertainment on the level that there are far less of these shows than there
once were. And politically, they're rather peculiar as well, but often one
has to talk to the person who's been exhibited and often those people feel
like they have an honest way to make a living and are not being exploited at
all. But this is a difficult political issue. I mean, I love this world--the
world of the carnie.
GROSS: Ricky Jay, you just finished a seven-month run of your latest show
"Ricky Jay on the Stem" in New York. What was the show like? I'm sure you'll
be doing it again.
Mr. JAY: We have had some offers to do it on the road. At the moment I'm in
need of a serious rest. But it was a show based on I guess the deceptions and
old entertainment of Broadway itself on the stem, the stem being a slang term
for Broadway that was particularly popular in the teens and '20s. So it dealt
with the literature of Broadway, the entertainments of Broadway, the cons of
Broadway. And it was a full evening that I did, you know, with David Mamet
again, who directed it and came up with many a fine line. And with a
marvelous group of people who were involved in helping with the show on every
level--wonderful designers and stage crew.
GROSS: What kind of cons are involved with Broadway outside of selling
tickets to a bad show?
Mr. JAY: Well, the sense of cons that might have appeared on Broadway. So
things like three card monte or the endless chain or, you know, various
hustles that might have taken place in front of the recruiting booth on Times
Square and little Damon Runyon, a little Joe Mitchell, you know, just for
color and feel. It wasn't specifically about the idea of scalping tickets at
GROSS: Yeah, I figured. Ricky Jay could you perform an excerpt of your show
"On the Stem"?
Mr. JAY: Well, I'll try to do the opening for you.
Mr. JAY: Welcome to the stem. The stem is Broadway. Broadway's the heart
of a city. It's where the three roads meet. It's where Oedipus met his
father. It's where the bus from Minnesota meets the Minnesota strip. It's
the pimp, the pickpocket, the Murphy man, the old recruiting booth on Times
Square, Took Shore(ph), Sardi's and Lindy's. Quick, before they turn it into
Disneyland. Mr. Professor, please.
GROSS: Ah, so great. You can really write in the style of the old carnie
Mr. JAY: Thanks. And it's great fun for me and great fun for me to work
with David Mamet on this sort of material. We really do love it and I think
we've had some success in trying to get that feeling across to the audiences,
who seem to enjoy the show. I sure enjoyed doing it.
GROSS: Well, Ricky Jay, a real pleasure to talk with you. Thank you so much.
Mr. JAY: Terry, thanks very much indeed.
GROSS: Ricky Jay. His new book is called "Dice: Deception, Fate & Rotten
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: Coming up, Ken Tucker reviews the new rap CD by Paul Barman. This is
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Review: New CD by Paul Barman
TERRY GROSS, host:
The most visible white hip-hop artist Eminem, who's much praised for his
verbal dexterity and vivid scene setting as well as being condemned for
misogyny and homophobia. But there's another white rapper, MC Paul Barman,
who could be considered the anti-Eminem. Rather than seeking to appear street
wise and tough, he raps about his large vocabulary, bad schools and his crummy
sex life. Rock critic Ken Tucker says Barman's new CD called "Paullelujah!"
is both amazing and annoying.
(Soundbite of song)
Unidentified Man #1: All right. So are you going to an intro? Do an intro
Unidentified Man #2: Yeah.
Unidentified Man #1: Do it right now.
Unidentified Man #2: Yeah. You know what I'm saying.
Unidentified Man #1: Right now. You got to measure up.
Unidentified Man #2: Hey.
Unidentified Man #1: Quickly.
Unidentified Man #2: Break--no one can...
Unidentified Man #1: You got ...(unintelligible) man.
Unidentified Man #2: Yo.
Unidentified Man #1: All right. Rip it.
Mr. PAUL BARMAN (Rapper): (Rapping) I make def tunes. Take from MF doing
the Jeff Koons. No one's left in the rest rooms when I got on stage. I can
rock the mike to "Silence" by John Cage with the arty flavor. I shoot the gip
like a party favor. Flip the script and make it do cartwheels. Feel smart,
steal hearts and start meals with chocolate.
There aren't many rappers out there who name check the artist Jeff Coons,
composer John Cage and proclaim a bit later in that song that he's iller than
the "Iliad" and boasts `I'm an A-plus ultra, a B-plus culture.' But does all
that make Paul Barman good? Barman makes much of his pedigree as a Brown
University graduate whose nerd persona renders him a hip-hop Woody Allen.
He's a whiner who gets the girl, a Jewish outsider having fun with couplets
that make fun of WASPs as, quote, "smirking jocks with hacky sacks in
Birkenstocks and khaki pants." Barman is a privileged outsider who writes
songs that put down the low standards of public schools.
(Soundbite of song)
Mr. BARMAN: (Rapping) Current event, comparison, contrasts, cause and
effect, embarrassing bombast. Five paragraphs each start with a topic
sentence, no hope for a proper sentence so much pop. Of course, people stop
attendance. And this court loves to drop defendants. Let me leave you an
illusion dispelled. Ninety-eight percent of the graduates matriculate because
the other ones got expelled.
TUCKER: Paul Barman doesn't merely rhyme, he writes eight-bar palindromes.
He writes about having sex with famous women, but his list includes not just
predictable stars like Winona Ryder and Elizabeth Hurley, but he insists that
distinguished essayist Cynthia Ozick is also an object of his desires. The
high and low culture references just cascade out of him, especially when he's
talking about sex. To put it as absurdly as Barman himself might, if the
novelist Philip Roth and the critic John Leonard had a child, he might sound
something like this.
(Soundbite of song)
Mr. BARMAN: (Rapping) I'm truly the hero of Julie Shapiro, but I'm sure to
spill sperm in Laura Silverman. I think of tacking long things in Maxine Hong
Kingston which brings in Amy Tan. She said lay me, man.
TUCKER: The problem with this CD is that its beats and rhythms don't equal
its verbal inventiveness. This results in a certain sameness that eventually
grows wearisome. As "Paullelujah!" proceeds Barman, becomes less like the
hippest Jewish rap act since The Beastie Boys and more like Weird Al Yankovic,
a novelty artist; Stan Freberg with flow.
(Soundbite of song)
Mr. BARMAN: (Rapping) People rapping clones accuse me of using rap as a
stepping stone. I thought about this crap when I was schlepping home. It's
because I went for the laugh? Because I'm not from the ap? Because I target
the fans that you wish you didn't have? Have I made a mockery of a culture
like the choco taco? Was I to rap as Prince was to Morocco? Was I colon rap,
colon, colon, France colon Morocco?
TUCKER: Paul Barman has said he's making music for, quote, "people who are
like a 16-year-old Paul: really, really bored with their environment;
rebellious inclinations toward authority; anxious about the future as it was
predicted; a desire to jump on your pretty friends," unquote. In all this,
he's succeeded I think. It's just that being a freakishly articulate hyper
16-year-old is also a textbook example of arrested development.
GROSS: Ken Tucker is critic at large for Entertainment Weekly. He reviewed
Paul Barman's new CD, "Paullelujah!"
(Soundbite of song)
Mr. BARMAN: (Rapping) Is my distance from the mike proper?
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
(Soundbite of "Anarchist")
Mr. BARMAN: (Rapping) There's a college town, with olive green all around,
professors and skate punks rock SG Paul's wall of sound. There's an anarchist
Backup Rappers: Anarchist bookstore.
Mr. BARMAN: ...that more of you look for.
A core of local folks wait for late lift. There's often a great drift to the
shop for the Wednesday night 5-to-8 shift. 'Cause the clerk at work is the
prettiest gal in town. She cries during "Allentown," a precocious socialist
and she's willing to pal around. She's twice as cool as the kids from her
high school. And every Wednesday after French Club she rides to work with a
stuffed mastodon in the basket on her bicycle.
`If Noam Chomsky was from the Bronx, he'd have been assassinated promptly.'
She said, `He was from the Bronx.' He said, `You know what I mean,
`Oh, boyee, what a pain this is,' said the only paid employee, the manager.
`I came for culture not accounting,' and a girl put a flyer up above the water
fountain. She carried clandestine $2 dollar mescaline in her blue-collar mess
tin plastered with stickers that said, `Food Not Bombs,' `Sex Not Proms' and
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