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John Powers: Reflections On Cannes 2010

The film critic reports his impressions of this year's Canne Film Festival. On Powers' list of notable films: Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Palme d'Or-winning movie about a dying farmer, and a French film about Cistercian monks debating whether to stay put in a community full of terrorists.



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Other segments from the episode on May 25, 2010

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, May 25, 2010: Interview with John Powers; Interview with Amy Schatz.


Fresh Air
12:00-13:00 PM
John Powers: Reflections On Cannes 2010


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

We're going to hear about some of the movies that were shown at the 63rd annual
Cannes Film Festival, which wrapped up over the weekend. Held on the French
Riviera, Cannes mixes movie star glamour with films from around the world.

Our critic-at-large, John Powers, who is also film critic for Vogue, has been
to the festival many times. Yesterday, shortly after he returned, I spoke with
him about the festival and some of the winning films he thinks we should watch
out for. The jury was headed by Tim Burton.

Hi, John. Thanks for coming to talk with us about the Cannes Film Festival. Why
don't we start with the film that won the top prize, the Palme d'Or? Tell us
about the film.

JOHN POWERS: Yes. The film's by a Thai director with the hard-to-pronounce name
of Apichatpong Weerasethakul. And like many Thais, he mercifully goes by a
short name, which in this case is Joe. Internationally around the world,
everybody talks about Joe's films.

The film that he made was one of my very favorite ones of the competition, and
probably most critics would love the film a lot. It's called "Uncle Boonmee Who
Can Recall His Past Lives," and it is a Buddhist animus tale of a small village
guy named Uncle Boonmee - he actually is a farmer - who's dying.

And he brings his family together as he dies, and in the process of watching
him die, we meet the ghost of his ex-wife. We meet his son, who is now a
monkey. We actually have a dream sequence where a princess has sex with a
catfish, and we meet various animals along the way.

And we're never quite sure which of them is his past lives, but what the story
is about is the movement away from life and death, about the borderline between
spirit and material life. And what's great about the film is that when you're
watching it, you just don't know what's going to happen.

It's lovely to look at it. It's funny. It's not boastfully self-conscious. It's
not shrieking that it's an art movie. It's sort of a dream of a movie that when
it finished, it got the biggest applause of the festival. And this was
interesting to me because this same director, five years ago, had made a film
called "Tropical Malady" that I remember getting huge amounts of boos.

And over the last six years, people have begun to get what he does and realize
he's this interesting guy who makes movies unlike anybody else in the world.

GROSS: So what are the odds that we'll get to see this movie in American
theaters? Even though it won the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival, is it
likely to play here?

POWERS: Well, I think what's nice about it is that I think it's likely to play
because it won the Cannes Film Festival. It's one of the things about awards,
that they can elevate the profile of something.

In this particular case, you might add that this film won when the jury was
headed by Tim Burton. And through much of the week, people kept saying, you
know, Tim Burton might actually like this, this Buddhist animus movie, because
it's got these furry critters and it's got ghosts, and it's got this weird
stuff in it.

And as it worked out, you know, a very mainstream Hollywood director chose what
was, I think, the oddest film in the festival - or his jury chose the oddest
film in the festival for the top prize.

GROSS: The grand prize at the Cannes Film Festival went to a movie called "Of
Gods and Men." Tell us about that one, John.

POWERS: "Of Gods and Men" is a more traditional movie than some of the ones -
it's a straightforward narrative, but it's on a really interesting and moving

The story is about Cistercian monks in the 1990s who are living in Algeria, and
they've been living there among the Muslim community, providing health care and
just being the support for that local community.

All of a sudden, Islamic terrorists began to kill Westerners in the area, and
the whole film turns on whether or not they should stay. I guess you would call
that the ticking bomb of the story. But what the film is all about is more or
less the conflict between the timeless life of the Cistercians - who pray, who
chant, who sing, who grow their own honey - with the intrusion of history in a
country where history is very difficult, where both the terrorists and the
government aren't very likeable.

And gradually, over the course of the thing, you watch the debates about
whether or not you should stay and maybe risk your life to stay with the local
community, or whether you should go, and if you're a Christian, what it means
to stay or go.

And it's a very quietly gripping, very beautiful film with a sense of spirit. I
kept joking to people that if I were the Vatican, I would probably buy 100
million DVDs of this movie and distribute it, because I think it's maybe the
warmest, kindest, most thoughtfully positive presentation of Catholicism I've
seen on the media in years.

GROSS: From what I've read from what you emailed, it sounds like this wasn't
the only film that is about terrorism in one way or another. But before we get
to some of the other films on the same theme, I want to hear about the best
actor and best actress at the Cannes Festival. Best actor, that award was
shared with – between Javier Bardem and an Italian actor named Elio Germano. Am
I saying that right?

POWERS: Yes, you are. It's one of the funny things that, you know, there are
some awards you just don't agree with. And in this particular case, both Javier
Bardem and Elio Germano are in two – were in two of the worst films of the
competition. And part of what makes them bad is that they're so dependent on
the brooding, charismatic overacting of the lead performance.

But traditionally, in these award ceremonies, often the people who are giving
the biggest, broadest, most obviously dynamic performances win the acting
prize. So in this particular case, to my mind, Javier Bardem - who's a
wonderful actor and incredibly charismatic - is quite bad in a film called
"Beautiful," where he plays the most improbably circumstanced man you could
ever think of. Which is to say, he's a man who's dying of cancer, who's married
to a bipolar wife, who has two jobs.

One of his jobs is that he helps Africans sell black-market goods. The other
one is to provide illegal Chinese laborers to construction sites. And he's
poor. And then you add that this is the starting point, where the movie's
happy, and it goes downhill from there. It's kind of bleak chic, a bad film.

The Italian film that Elio Germano is in is called "Our Life," and it's about a
construction worker whose wife dies and then who tries to go corrupt in order
to make money for his kids. Once again, it's a hammy performance.

Weirdly enough, the monks film contained the actor who should've probably won,
a guy by the name of Lambert Wilson, who people might remember from "The
Matrix" movies, who plays the head monk in that film and also had another big
role in a Bertrand Tavernier movie about the religious wars of the 17th century
in France. And he was great in both films. But his weren't flashy performances,
and generally, people like flashy performances.

GROSS: Did you like the actress who got the Best Actress Award, Juliette
Binoche, any better than you liked the best actors?

POWERS: Yes, well, actually Juliette Binoche gives a wonderful performance in a
film by the Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami.

GROSS: And he's somebody who you've spoken about before. You really like his
film "A Taste of Cherry."

POWERS: "A Taste of Cherry." Yes. You know, Kiarostami is considered by many
people to be the great Iranian director. And what he's done here is, for the
first time ever, made more or less a version of a Western art movie. It's shot
in Tuscany, and it stars Juliette Binoche and an English opera singer. He's
basically a two-hander about this couple that...

GROSS: What does that mean, John?

POWERS: A two-hander?

GROSS: Yeah.

POWERS: Oh, it means that more or less, there are two people who are really the
whole film.


POWERS: And he's a writer who she meets, and she's showing him around Tuscany.
And gradually, over the course of a day, they go from being strangers to role-
playing as if they were married, which is a very precious conceit. And about
half the people who saw the film thought it was the worst thing they'd ever
seen, and the other half really liked it. It was almost evenly split between
cheers and boos.

The one thing that I think that everyone agreed on was that Juliette Binoche,
as the woman, is unbelievably good. You know, she's funny. She's - her emotions
are transparent. She provides an energy to the film that keeps it going when
it's sometimes too precious for its own good. You know, you just aren't buying
what's going on. Would two strangers meet and actually, over lunch, start
pretending that they had been married 15 years ago?

But she's so good that no one, I think, would feel cheated by her winning. And,
in fact, it was made all the easier because she was on the official poster for
Cannes this year. So when you walked through the city, Juliette Binoche's face
was everywhere. You know, she was inescapable. She probably would've had to
give one of the worst performances not to win, because she was just so there.

GROSS: It's understandable, I suppose, that Kiarostami would decide to make a
film outside of Iran, considering what's happening in Iran now. And there's an
Iranian filmmaker - correct my pronunciation if it's wrong here - named Jafar

POWERS: Panahi. Yes.

GROSS: ...who was supposed to be on the jury at the Cannes Film Festival,
except for the fact that he's in prison in Iran. And he's been on a hunger
strike because his request to contact his family and speak with his lawyer has
been denied. So he sent a message to the film festival, saying: I swear upon
what I believe in, the cinema, I will not cease my hunger strike until my
wishes are satisfied. My final wish is that my remains be returned to my family
so that they may bury me in the place they choose. What reaction did that get
when that message was read?

POWERS: Yes, well, you know, many people broke into tears, I mean, because the
interesting thing that's going on is that there are - as in every place in the
world - there's a huge range of reaction to what's going on in Iran, so that -
Jafar Panahi is considered to be one of the most daring of the Iranian
directors, and he is a protege of Abbas Kiarostami, whose film was in Cannes.

And Kiarostami has, in general, been thought to be relatively mild in his
criticism of the government. He's received lots of criticism. Whereas Panahi is
considered to be probably the bravest of the international ones in that he
speaks out. His films are clearly critical of what's going on in Iran. And to
my mind, he's probably the best and most interesting person now working in
Iranian cinema.

And to have him in prison, essentially for backing things that, you know,
millions of Iranians believe is a very, very powerful thing. And it's all the
more powerful because he is someone with an international reputation.

GROSS: We're talking about the Cannes Film Festival with our critic-at-large,
John Powers. We recorded the interview yesterday, right after John returned
from the festival. Today, Jafar Panahi was released on bail from prison in
Tehran. He'd been held in custody since the beginning of March. The comments at
the Cannes Film Festival were just one example of the international campaign to
free him. He supports the opposition in Iran. Some of his films are banned
there. Panahi's indictment will be sent to a revolutionary court for future

We'll continue my interview with John about the Cannes Film Festival after a
break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is John Powers, our critic-at-large,
and we're talking about what he saw at the Cannes Film Festival. The festival
wrapped up over the weekend.

John, were there themes at the festival that emerged, themes from the movies?

POWERS: Yes, there were. I think the great theme is that now we're getting lots
of movies about terrorism, and not of the dreary kind that came immediately
after 9/11, where everybody felt they had to do something.

At this year's festival, there were a bunch of films about it. Perhaps the most
interesting of them and certainly the most exciting was one of the great events
of the festival, which was a five-and-a-half hour screening of a film about the
terrorist career of Carlos the Jackal, who terrorism groupies may remember as
one of the great terrorists of the '70s and '80s.

And it was made by Olivier Assayas, who made a radically different movie that
came out in the U.S. last called "Summer Hours," which was about a country
house in France and the family dividing it up.

This is a vivid, exciting, often thrilling portrait of this unlikeable guy,
Carlos the Jackal. And we follow his career from him more or less entering the
terrorist business in a big way, through the peak of his career - you know,
kind of his Super Bowl triumph - which was kidnapping all the ministers of OPEC
and getting a ransom of $20 million.

We get all of that. He becomes a rock-star terrorist. And then we then follow
him dwindling as the world changes and his terrorist skills have been replaced
by a different kind of terrorist skills. So it's this epic sweep story of a guy
who's a terrorist. And it's vivid, it's fascinating. It's really fun to watch.

It's going to be on Sundance Channel, and IFC's going to be releasing it this
fall. So everyone will have a chance to see it. It's in five languages. The
lead actor, a guy by the name of Edgar Ramirez, who's a Venezuelan, is great in
all five languages. It's a real movie-star-making performance for him. And I
urge people to see it. I think they'll really, really like it. It's just an
exciting movie.

GROSS: It sounds like this movie will do for him what Quentin Tarantino's movie
last year did for – I love this actor, and I'm forgetting his name.

POWERS: Christoph Waltz.

GROSS: Christoph Waltz - exactly, yeah.

POWERS: Yes. It's interesting when you watch somebody, and he's just, because
of the people he's dealing with, flipping from English to French to Spanish to
Arabic and keeping his performance going, and also being very virile and
charismatic. Because part of the Carlos thing is that when he's not kidnapping
people or blowing up innocent civilians, he's drinking lots of scotch and
sleeping with German feminists.

GROSS: Hm. Okay. It sounds like a very interesting film.

POWERS: Oh, no. It's a very interesting film. And what it does, if I could
point this out, is it actually explains how the Middle East worked in terrorism
terms, like who's funding who and how it all works.

GROSS: I was reading about another film whose theme is also terrorism called
"Outside the Law." This is a French film?

POWERS: Yes. "Outside the Law" is about three Algerian brothers who are
fighting for Algerian independence from France in the '50s, in the post-war
era. And the story takes place largely in France, where they are what would now
be called terrorists, or at least two of them were.

And it's very much an old Hollywood movie, in which you have three brothers,
you have the shifty, energetic one, you have the brainy ideologue, and then you
have the fighter who's really honorable. And each of them has a particular
skill, and they put it to work for the freeing of Algeria from France.

But it's a Warner Brothers movie because it's corny and filled with big
emotions, and it's a kind of big-hearted movie that you could imagine having
Spencer Tracy as one of the people in - except that in the current climate,
it's about people who actually are shooting policemen, blowing up cafes and all
the rest.

GROSS: So the French right, apparently, really doesn't like the film. Even
though they hadn't seen it, they were protesting it. So what were the protests
like at the Cannes Film Festival?

POWERS: I think I have never seen a protest with more old people in it. It was
outside the festival, and there were...

GROSS: What do you mean when you say the word old?

(Soundbite of laughter)

POWERS: I mean 80.

GROSS: Really?

POWERS: I mean – yes, because the South of France is one of the places where a
lot of the French colonists from Algeria moved after Algerian independence,
when they left Algeria. And so the South of France is very National Front
territory. There's a politician named Le Pen who's there, and this is a
stronghold for him.

But a lot of the feeling of anger about how history is being represented in the
film "Outside the Law" was felt by people who are a lot older than usual,
because these were events that did happen 55 years ago.

And so outside the festival, you had all these gray-haired people with protest
signs, and then you had the National Guard around. And because these days,
right-wing terror is as scary to people as Islamic terror, in some cases, when
we went into the movie theater, you couldn't take in bottles of water. Every
single bag you had was thoroughly scrutinized.

Normally, they're kind of half-hearted about looking at it, but all of this was
checked. And, you know, for me it was kind of exciting because as, you know, a
- you know, as a middle-aged white guy, I'm normally not part of the target
group for terrorist screening. They may screen me, but that's only to seem
fair. But, in fact, in this case, I was the kind of person who they were
worried was going to blow the place up.

GROSS: Because they were worried about the French right?

POWERS: Yes. They're worried about the French right. They're worried about
middle-aged, angry white guys. And for all they knew, I could have been one of
those middle-aged, angry white guys. You know, they went through my bag with
incredible care. You know, they examined my cell phone to make sure that it
actually wasn't some sort of detonating device.

You know, my friends, you know, had their water bottle confiscated, or little
gels – little tiny bottles of moisturizing cream were taken away. In fact,
nothing did happen. You know, and, of course, the great comedy of all these
things is that the people who were so furious hadn't seen the film, and that
they were sort of preemptively furious rather than actually being furious on
the basis of what they'd seen.

GROSS: So do you think if they'd seen the film, they'd be as furious?

POWERS: I think they would probably still be furious, but maybe a little less
furious because the film is - it's not a particularly ideological film. It's
more a Warner Brothers movie. As I say, it's melodramatic and filled with big
emotions. They probably would be furious, because these people wanted to be
furious about it.

And, you know, like so many things in this country, films that tend to draw
lots of fury are attached to issues so much bigger than the film that the film
just becomes a pretext for the discussion rather than being the real cause of

GROSS: So there was an American film that also has a terrorist kind of theme,
and I'm thinking of the film about Valerie Plame and Joe Wilson, Joe Wilson
being the former ambassador to Iraq who wrote a New York Times op-ed saying
that he found no evidence that Iraq attempted to purchase yellow cake uranium
in Niger, and he accused the Bush administration of exaggerating the Iraqi
threat. And then his wife, Valerie Plame, was subsequently outed as a CIA
agent, which many people interpreted as payback for Joe Wilson's New York Times
op-ed. And Sean Penn is Joe Wilson. Naomi Watts is Valerie Plame. Is this a
good film?

POWERS: It's half a good film. You know, for someone who's lived through, you
know, the last 10 years, there's a kind of golden-oldies quality to seeing
Joseph Wilson and Valerie Plame coming back again because, you know, that was a
different administration.

What the film does is it takes you inside the story in a slightly different
way, and for the opening half-hour or 45 minutes, it's really wonderful because
you actually get to see Valerie Plame doing some spy work. And for me, that's a
really interesting thing, because somehow, she was always just this shadowy
figure. But in this movie, you suddenly see her off in Malaysia, you know,
bullying people into giving information, or being in Jordan arranging special
ops. So that's, you know, that's a very exciting thing.

Over the course of the film, as Valerie Plame gets outed, the film becomes a
comparatively obvious movie about how the government shouldn't lie and how it's
wrong to out CIA agents. And most of the complicated issues of this story get
lost along the way in a kind of obvious morality play and a story about their
marriage, because we're made to think it was incredibly hard on their marriage
to have the media talking about this all the time.

But given what's at stake - which is to say war and peace and life and death -
the trouble with their marriage doesn't seem important enough, yet the movie
moves in that direction.

I would just say in passing that if Sean Penn ever had a role that would be his
dream role, it's Joe Wilson - which is to say that he gets to be outraged,
embattled, opinionated, angry with the media, liberal and always right. You
know, I can imagine when they called him and said Sean, we'd like you to play
Joseph Wilson, he must have said I am so there, because he is having such fun
getting to be that guy.

I mean, it was interesting because at the festival, he didn't show up for the
film - not because he didn't support the film, but because he was busy in
Washington, D.C., testifying before Congress. You know, so Sean Penn, his dream
is to be Joseph Wilson.

GROSS: My guest, John Powers, will talk more about the Cannes Film Festival in
the second half of the show. John is our critic-at-large and film critic for
Vogue magazine. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross. Let’s get back to my interview with
John Powers about the Cannes Film Festival, which wrapped up over the weekend.
John is our critic-at-large and film critic for Vogue. We’ve been talking about
some of the prize winners at the festival. I asked him if any American films
won a prize.

POWERS: No American film has won a prize. But it must be said that there were
only a couple of them in competition. You know, this was one of those years
where there were movies that Cannes I'm sure would've liked to have. There's a
new Terrence Malick film coming up and they just weren't done. And so the
American presence was incredibly low this year. There were fewer stars than I
ever remember being. There were fewer of the groovy lunches where you go and
sit with stars out by the beach and talk to them about their movies, that it
was in some ways the least star-studded and Americanized festival I can ever

You know, in America we actually like our people to win, whereas when you’re in
Cannes, you’re reminded of the fact that really all over Asia people are making
movies. All over Europe people are making movies, and a lot of those moves are
good. And that in those countries their stars don’t get much attention because
the American stars sort of suck up all the oxygen, or a movie like “Avatar” is
just everywhere. So for them it’s really exciting to go and realize how much
good stuff there is in the rest of the world. And actually for me, that’s the
excitement, is that it’s a big world.

GROSS: Okay, so if the excitement is that it’s a global film festival and
there’s films from Chad and Thailand and, you know, places that we don’t
usually get to see movies from, why did the festival open with “Robin Hood"?

POWERS: Oh, because it’s one of the peculiarities of every festival that they
want to open with something big and splashy that will gets lots of attention.
And in this particular case I think Cannes, which does like having stars, and
has always liked having stars - I mean I remember pictures of Grace Kelly and
Cary Grant on the red carpet when I was a kid. You know, Cannes has always
liked having stars. This year I think they knew their competition didn’t have
many stars, so they were so delighted to be able to grab “Robin Hood,” which is
not a good film, to begin with, and to then on the opening Friday show the
"Wall Street" movie that Oliver Stone has made as what he refuses to call a
sequel to the original “Wall Street” back in the 1980s.

GROSS: Well, speaking of "Wall Street," how did the economic crisis affect the
festival, especially considering what’s happening to the euro and how that’s
affecting European countries?

POWERS: Well, I think the economic crisis affected the festival in two ways:
First, there were fewer films for the festival to choose from. You know, the
festival director, Thierry Fremaux, pointed out that a lot of things that might
have been – films that might have been done somehow hadn't gotten funding. If
you recall that when the economy went really bad internationally in 2008, in
the fall, that by then a lot of the films that showed in 2009 had already been
financed. It’s now 2010 and now is where you feel the year-later affect of the
loss of money. So there were just fewer films to choose from, which is like one
reason why many people felt it was a weak competition year at the festival.
There just weren't as many great films.

The second thing is, you know, there were fewer people at the screenings. Each
year I feel like someone who is watching, you know, his friends die off almost
or fade away or move away, because there seem to be fewer Americans there every
year. There seem to be fewer people in the screenings. There are fewer big
parties. There are fewer big lunches. The glamour is down. I don’t think it’s
an eternal thing, but at the moment you can actually feel that there’s an
austerity there, that everyone’s worried a bit about money.

GROSS: In the United States, a lot of movie industry executives are saying 3D
is the direction movies are heading in. Everybody’s going to go 3D. Did you
hear 3D talk at Cannes?

POWERS: 3D is on the one hand the great mantra for Hollywood. On the other hand
it’s like the Freddie Krueger for people around the rest of the world.

(Soundbite of laughter)

POWERS: You know, because, you know, we already live in a position where - at a
time where five percent of movies that are made occupying 95 percent of the
screens, and with the growth of 3D, it seems likely to shift that so that an
even smaller percentage of films will get even more screen space. You know,
because part of the problem with the 3D technology that now exists is that,
one, it cost a lot of money to make, and two, it limits the kind of stories you
can tell. Because, you know, what really is the point of having a small scale
but beautiful film about monks if you’re just shooting it in 3D and there's no
real action sequence in it? So that 3D in its very technological nature seems
to provoke a certain kind of storytelling, which is antithetical too much of
what the storytelling is around the world.

And at the festival you either heard people being really excited, because we
can now do 3D animation of “The Moomins,” which is Finnish fantasy series -
that’s the excited side, which is the money people. And the artistic people are
all freaking out, thinking that 3D is just going to gobble up all the screens
and art movies are going to be even more endangered.

GROSS: Sure, because if the theaters are equipped for 3D, they're going to want
to show movies that are in 3D.

POWERS: Yes. And I think also what happens is because you get to charge more
money for a 3D film, the industry really automatically wants to do it. But then
the other thing that happens is once people get more and more used to the look
of 3D, then the 2D thing starts seeming slightly dingier to people in the way
that black and white started seeming less appealing to people once they got
color. So the technology drives a certain perception of what film is. And as 3D
technology gets more and more that way, it’s then harder to seem like a real
film to lots of younger people in particular if you aren't in 3D, and everyone
seems to think that’s the future, which is 3D will drive everything.

And then meager 2D films, of the kind that I've spent my entire life watching,
will have less and less luck and will have a harder time doing it because 3D is
very expensive. So I mean it remains to be seen. You know, the world’s not
ending. The sky is not falling. Still, you can actually see how people can be

GROSS: John, is there a film that we didn’t get to that you'd like to talk
about before we have to wrap up so that we can keep our eyes open for it either
in the theaters or on DVD?

POWERS: Yes. A film I really loved was a film called “Poetry” from South Korea
by a director by the name of Lee Changdong, and it has a very simple-seeming
premise. It's about a woman in her '60s who is retired and on a pension, who
works as a maid to help support her grandson. And because her life is slightly
boring and looking for something, she decides to take a poetry-writing
workshop. And the poetry professor tells her - she learns to need to see life
as it is. And what gradually happens over the next two hours is she starts to
see that. Her grandson gets involved in a scandal. The way that the parents try
to deal with the scandal is kind of nasty. And in fact, she reveals herself
over the course of the film to be - have a much deeper, richer and bigger inner
life than you would have imagined from seeing it.

You know, and along the way she learns to see things that she hadn't seen
before - for example, how sexist Korean culture is. How in Korea people try to
cover things up using money. And she actually comes to see that maybe her
grandson isn't the great kid she thought he was. So it’s a movie centered on
people writing poetry or trying to write poetry that uses the idea of poetry to
take you into a way of seeing the world in a richer and more profound way. I
think it was probably one of the two or three most admired films there. It won
the screenwriting prize and it was the best written film of the festival by

GROSS: John, thank you so much for talking with us. It’s always great to talk
with you.

POWERS: Okay. It was my pleasure. Thank you.

GROSS: John Powers is our critic-at-large and film critic for Vogue magazine.
Fresh Air
12:00-13:00 PM
Net Neutrality: Who's In Charge Of The Internet?


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. The law hasn’t kept up with new technology.
Consider the Internet and broadband technology. The Communications Act of 1934
gave the FCC responsibility to oversee phone lines and airwaves. When the law
was updated in 1996, it hardly mentioned the Internet. Now there's the question
of whether Internet traffic should be regulated by the FCC, something the
telecom industry opposes and many consumer groups and Internet companies

Yesterday, two Democrats, Senator John D. Rockefeller and Congressman Henry
Waxman announced that they plan to hold meetings next month to begin the
process of updating the Communications Act so that it directly addresses
broadband service.

Amy Schatz covers technology policy and the FCC for the Wall Street Journal. We
asked her to explain why this issue was important and what’s at stake.

Amy Schatz, welcome to FRESH AIR. Before we get to the details of what each
side wants, frame the debate for us. What are the principles that are being
fought over now regarding regulation of the Internet?

Ms. AMY SCHATZ (Journalist, Wall Street Journal): Well, this comes down to an
issue that’s been bubbling in D.C. for a while and around the country and it’s
this idea of net neutrality. And the idea of net neutrality is really: What
kind of regulations can be on the Internet? What can phone and cable companies
do to your Internet lines? And can they do anything to your traffic or is -
basically the idea here is that: Who’s going to control those lines that go
into your house? And there's never really been any rules that sort of talk
expressly to Internet lines because we’ve always kind of relied on rules that
were on phone. But it really gets into a really big issue as more Americans use
the Internet to either make phone calls or watch movies or just connect with
their kids and email and things like that. And so it’s becoming a really,
really big issue.

GROSS: So it’s kind of like who controls the Internet? Is it the phone
companies? Is it the government? Is it the FCC? And the communications laws
that we have, do they say anything about that?

Ms. SCHATZ: Yeah, the communications laws we have were actually made in 1930s,
so - and they’ve been updated a few times since then, but even the last time
they were rewritten was back in 1996 and the Internet was barely even around at
that point and it wasn’t really mentioned in the law. And so the laws that
they're relying on now are so old and really aren't written for the Internet.
So that’s one of the issues that they’ve been running into as they’ve tried to
apply these rules to these new Internet lines, is that they weren't really
written for those. They were written for the very specific things that happened
with phones or cable lines. And so that’s where they're running into a lot of
problems, because this was just never meant to be this way and they were never
meant to try to apply them this way, and so it’s just been a very awkward fit.

GROSS: So let’s get to the FCC. What is the FCC considering doing in terms of
regulating the Internet?

Ms. SCHATZ: So they're basically talking about regulating Internet lines, and
there's a difference between - because the FCC chairman, who gets really sort
of offended when people say, oh, he wants to regulate the Internet. What
they're really - and there's a difference because they are lines that Internet
traffic go over and then there’s the Internet traffic. And so they're really
talking about the lines, the physical lines that come into your house or the
little airwaves that are coming into your cell phone or your iPhone.

They're basically talking about just ensuring that there are rules in place
that prevents companies from discriminating against other companies' traffic.
And so that if there’s data coming into your house, Comcast can't mess with it
and they can't block you from doing things. They can't slow the traffic to make
your experience really bad. And so the FCC’s basically proposed some rules to
give them power to stop that kind of behavior from happening.

GROSS: So the position the FCC is in now in trying to decide if and how it will
try to regulate the Internet is connected to a suit that the FCC lost, where
the FCC had challenged Comcast and then Comcast challenged the FCC. Would you
describe what that case was about?

Ms. SCHATZ: Sure. So a couple of years ago there was a network engineer name
Robb Topolski, and Robb was trying to download some movies or music or
something by these peer-to-peer sharing services like BitTorrent, where it’s
just a way to share a really large file. (Unintelligible) Robb was having
problems downloading something. And so being a network engineer and actually
understanding how to do this stuff, he looked into it and figured out that
Comcast was blocking traffic and that they were actually – not necessarily
blocking, but they were doing something very technical to slow traffic and it
was just causing him not to be able to download stuff, and this was happening
across the country.

And so a group of sort of public interest groups investigated this and
concluded that in fact Comcast was slowing traffic. And so they filed a
complaint with the FCC and the FCC looked into it and said, yup, Comcast wasn’t
telling anybody what was going on and they were deliberately slowing traffic.
And so they basically slapped Comcast on the wrist and said you’re not allowed
to do this and - because you’re violating our net neutrality principals - and
cut it out. And so Comcast said, well, the FCC didn’t kind of go through all
the administrative stuff that you have to go through to sanction somebody, and
they took them to court and they said, look, the FCC doesn’t have rules. They
only have these like weird principles they came up with years ago, and you
can't do this stuff.

And a district court recently concluded that in fact Comcast was right. The FCC
had not done what they should've been doing to sort of adequately enforce their
principles, because you can't enforce a principle, you can only enforce a rule.
It gets very complicated. But bottom line is the court basically said, you
know, the FCC, you’re going to have to come back to us and explain this to us
and justify what you do a little bit better.

GROSS: So the court didn’t say that the FCC has no authority to do this. It
said it - applied – it took the wrong approach...

Ms. SCHATZ: Exactly.

GROSS: ...and it needs to come back and figure out a better approach if it
wants to ensure net neutrality.

Ms. SCHATZ: Exactly. They just basically said you need to do a do-over. That,
you know, the way you tried it didn’t work for us and that if you want to try
to do this again, you know, knock yourselves out, but to try to find to do it a
different way. And that’s what the FCC’s trying to do.

GROSS: So what are some consumer groups’ fears about the Internet being
controlled by the phone companies with no regulation?

Ms. SCHATZ: So, for net neutrality, it comes down to two issues; and for
consumer groups they're really concerned that the Comcast’s and the AT&T’s of
the world are going to restrict what consumers can do in their homes and what
they can access on the Internet. So there’s a fear that if Comcast cuts a deal
with Amazon that you may not be able to buy a book from Barnes & Noble as
easily as you could buy it from You know, it's not necessarily
happening right now, but there is a fear that if you give too much power to the
phone and cable companies over the lines that are coming into consumers' homes,
that that could be really bad for consumers and it will restrict consumer

GROSS: And a lot of Internet companies want some regulation as well. Companies
like Google, for instance, and Amazon. So what are their concerns?

Ms. SCHATZ: That gets to the other side of the net neutrality debate, because
I've always considered that a sort of two-prong thing here. One is the consumer
side and the other side is really the business side. And companies like Amazon,
or Google, or eBay don’t want phone companies putting up toll booths basically
in between them and consumers. And they don’t want the Comcast of the world or
AT&T or whomever to be able to charge them more to reach you. And so they want
to make sure that the FCC or somebody is in the way to prevent that from
happening and really changing the way that the Internet has acted in the past,
which is the Internet was designed as sort of this best effort system, which is
that, you know, they were going to make the best effort they can to get the
little packets to your PC but they don’t really guarantee the delivery of those
little packets.

And so, you know, one of the things that the phone and cable companies have
been looking at is trying to offer sort of guaranteed delivery - which would be
sort of like a UPS overnight service, versus just your regular mail service.
And, you know, so there are pros and cons to that but the Internet companies
like Google are really concerned that they're going to get hit up for extra
money on the backend.

GROSS: Okay. Meanwhile, the telecom companies don’t want any regulation. What
are their concerns?

Ms. SCHATZ: One of the reasons why is because, you know, these networks – you
know, the Internet, the way it was built, it’s a fairly complicated thing and
they don’t want government regulators coming in and telling them how they can,
you know, run their lines or what they can do with their lines. You know, we
went through – a couple years ago the FCC was looking into this issue and there
was this big public hearing out in Stanford. And during this hearing it was
like three, four hours long. And in the middle of it, you know, you had all
these FCC commissioners who were basically, you know, some of them were
lawyers, some not. And they were listening to all these network engineers try
to explain to them how packets would go over these Internet lines and these
networks and pinging and all this other stuff. And it got to the point where,
you know, I covered the stuff. I'm pretty good at this but even I was
hopelessly lost. And you could see every FCC commissioner was hopelessly lost

This gets really really complicated. And so, you know, for the phone companies
or the cable companies who were basically trying to sell you the service and
make as money as they can off of the service, they don’t want the government
coming in and telling them well, you have to run your packet this way or
something because they're concerned that government won't be able to keep up
with industry and what they're having to do with these networks as they're
trying to grow them and make your speed faster.

GROSS: I think one of the concerns of the telecom companies is that they’ve
made investments in the Internet based on the premise that the government
wouldn’t regulate it. Now they think it’s unfair that those investments might
be compromised in some way if the government changes their minds and decides
it’s going to regulate the Internet.

Ms. SCHATZ: And that's the major concern. It sort of depends. It’s a sort of
matter of degrees and how much control does the government want to have over
what kind of practices they are doing. And so, you know, if you listen to some
of the lobbying and you listen to some of the hand-wringing that's going on
with Comcast and everybody — they're saying that the FCC wants to run all their
lines. You know, they want to run all the network traffic and do all this
stuff, and that's not necessarily the case. Basically what the FCC and the
Obama administration are really saying is that, you know, somebody has to be
the cop on the beat here. Someone has to have the authority to stop bad
practices if they start happening and if that's the case, then it needs to be
the FCC.

GROSS: Well, I’ll tell you what, let’s take a short break here and then we’ll
talk some more about net neutrality. My guest is Amy Schatz of the Wall Street

This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Amy Schatz of the Wall Street Journal. She has been
reporting for about five years on the telecom industry, tech policy and the
FCC, and we're talking about net neutrality, which is basically the requirement
that interest providers treat all net traffic equally and not charge more for
certain transmissions.

As the FCC is trying to figure out what if anything it wants to do on the issue
of net neutrality, it’s also dealing with a big report – a 360 report it
released in March, on what’s wrong with the U.S. broadband and with proposals
for expanding Internet service. What are some of the things that we should know
about that are proposed in that report?

Ms. SCHATZ: So the idea of this was that there’s a general feeling that the
U.S. is falling behind in the Internet and that although we have more
subscribers to the Internet than I think anyone in the world, if you look at it
on a per capita basis, that we're really more down in the 15th, about 15th in
the world range. And so there's a thought that, you know, we need to do
something to make sure that every American can get online at a pretty fast rate
of speed and that it’s not too expensive for them. And so, I think really the
two main things that they really talked about in this report was that they need
more airwaves, because more Americans are using cell phones as really as
Internet browsers.

You know, you often replace your laptop or your PC at home with looking at
things on your iPhone or your other smartphone and as anybody who has an iPhone
and in an urban can tell you, there could be some congestion sometimes and you
might need a few more airwaves out there. And so the FCC said, you know, we
really need some more airwaves, because the growth in this is just going to
explode. If you think it’s bad now it’s going to get 10 times worse in the next
couple of years. And so they said well, we have to find some more airwaves. And
one big chunk of airwaves that they think would suit quite well for this would
be the airwaves that are being used right now by a lot of TV broadcasters
because TV broadcasters got great airwaves because they want to ensure that
everybody can see the TV and that you could watch TV in your basement if you
wanted to.

And so the TV broadcasters gave up, you know, a lot of airwaves a couple of
years ago when we all transitioned to digital TV. But the FCC says that they
could probably give up a few more, especially in urban areas on the East Coast
and other areas where you know, you are seeing a lot of congestion. The other
big thing they said was like, you know, we really have to change the federal
subsidy plan that we have which pays for phone service. It subsidizes phone
service in really rural areas where it can cost you an unbelievable amount of
money to reach a branch or something. And so they said, you know, look, this is
great. We’ve been using this for phone lines but this is crazy because most
people are using wireless phones now. And so we should really change this plan
to pay for broadband instead.

The other big thing here is that they're going to say well, look, and this fund
is $8 billion a year and it’s paid for by everybody out of their phone bill.
It’s called the USF fee. And the USF fee is like a buck or two bucks on every
phone bill every month, and they're going to use that money instead of paying
for phone lines or to subsidize phone lines. They're going to subsidize
broadband instead.

GROSS: Would you say we're at a turning point now and that we're - that America
is on the verge of deciding what the future of the Internet is going to look

Ms. SCHATZ: It is in a lot of ways and I think one thing that a lot of folks
really feel like, they just want faster more reliable cheaper broadband lines.
You know, it’s gotten to the point where if you don’t have broadband in your
house you’re falling behind. You know, I live in the District of Columbia and I
realized this week that I can't even go to the DMV anymore to reregister my
car. I can only do it online. And they're increasingly across the country
people are finding this. And that if you don’t have broadband service people
aren't going to come to your community. They're not going to move there if they
can't get decent broadband. And so it’s something that so many Americans now
rely on broadband. It’s just an integral part of their lives. Whether it’s for
keeping in touch with their kids or, you know, watching the news or just
finding out what’s going on or playing games or whatever. You know, it’s just
hard to imagine at this point, you know, going back to a pre-Internet world.

GROSS: So that raises the question, should the Internet be like a public
utility since people rely on it for their job searches, their home searches,
their news reading, their communications with family?

Ms. SCHATZ: Yeah. And that kind of gets back to the idea of net neutrality too,
which is this idea that, you know, it is a public good and it is sort of like a
public utility, even though it was paid for by private companies and that
someone has to be there to ensure that people have access to it. And, you know,
the FCC is sort of struggling with this a little bit, but they're trying to
sort of figure out a way to make sure that people in parts of the country who
don’t have Internet access right now – and they're a lot of people out there,
probably about 23 percent of, I think it was 23 percent of households who don’t
even have Internet – high-speed Internet service.

There’s still one megabit per second less in terms of speed, which is
practically crawling at this point. You can barely get on some of these
Internet sites if you don’t have – if you’ve got speed that slow. And so, you
know, one of the things that the FCC is really trying to do is sort of bring
this up to a public utility level. This idea that it’s important to have
electricity and it’s important to have running water and it’s really important
to have Internet service. And they're sort of elevating it to that level.

GROSS: Well. Amy Schatz, thank you so much for talking with us.

Ms. SCHATZ: Thanks for having me on.

GROSS: Amy Schatz covers tech policy and the FCC for the Wall Street Journal.
You can find links to the full text of her recent Wall Street Journal articles
about net neutrality on our website, where you can also
download Podcasts of our show.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.

(Soundbite of music)

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

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