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A Morally Complex Novel.

Book critic Maureen Corrigan reviews "The Illusionist" (Scribner) by Dinitia Smith.

05:22

Other segments from the episode on March 5, 1998

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, March 5, 1998: Interview with Jerry Strahan; Interview with Jamsheed Akrami; Review of Dinitia Smith's book "The Illusionist."

Transcript

Show: FRESH AIR
Date: MARCH 05, 1998
Time: 12:00
Tran: 030501NP.217
Type: FEATURE
Head: Managing Ignatius
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:06

MARTY MOSS-COANE, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Marty Moss-Coane in for Terry Gross.

There's nothing like the taste of a hot dog served by a street vendor when you're hungry. Hot dogs are sold on many urban street corners in this country, but the wieners sold by Lucky Dogs in the French Quarter of New Orleans have a history and lure all their own.

My guest, Jerry Strahan, is the manager of Lucky Dogs, Incorporated and has just written a book about the crew of characters -- the strippers, panhandlers, transvestites, drifters, disgruntled doctoral students, and sailors on leave who have worked a Lucky Dog vendors over the last 20 years. The title of his book, "Managing Ignatius" is taken from the Pulitzer Prizewinning novel called "The Confederacy of Dunces" about an eccentric New Orleans hog dog vendor named Ignatius J. Reilly (ph).

Lucky Dogs has been in business since the 1940s, and very little has changed, including the design of the cart -- a shiny metal 10-foot-long mustard-covered hot dog on a bun. Today, Lucky Dogs is owned by Doug Talbott (ph) and has a fleet of 20 carts and as many vendors who work on commission.

I asked Strahan what it is about selling hot dogs on the street that attracts such an odd collection of people.

JERRY STRAHAN, AUTHOR, "MANAGING IGNATIUS: THE LUNACY OF LUCKY DOGS AND LIFE IN THE QUARTER": I think the characters that come and work on the street are characters who are looking for an alternate lifestyle. They're the ones that don't want to fit into a nine to five job. They're the ones that don't want to sit behind a desk. They're the ones that don't want to have a lot of authority looking over their shoulder all the time. I kind of liken them to the old hoboes who used to ride the rails. They want a certain freedom of a lifestyle. Some choose it; others end up becoming a part of that lifestyle because of the situations that drive them to that level.

MOSS-COANE: And we're talking about hookers and bikers and panhandlers and transvestites and schizophrenics and on and on.

STRAHAN: All -- you know, right now I have a gentleman working a cart who helped work on the Apollo space shuttle. He also designed a minesweeper for the U.S. Navy. He got caught up in detente and the downsizing of the military arms complex. And because of his age, he couldn't find work and he's now working a hot dog cart. I've had attorneys who decided they didn't want to be attorneys anymore, and for one reason or another drifted around. I had an accountant.

So you have -- you have the street people who may be not very well educated; then you -- on the other side, you have some extremely well-educated people who have left and are looking for an alternate lifestyle. I have a gentleman work for me right now who used to be a geologist for Texaco. And he came and he worked a cart for two days. He had been -- he'd been laid off when Texaco moved out of New Orleans, and he said: "I just -- I've always seen the carts. I just wanted to see what it was like to work them."

MOSS-COANE: And so what they -- what -- what brings these people together, I guess, binds them together is the kind of freedom that they have with the cart?

STRAHAN: There's a freedom. There's a -- there's the not the nine-to-five structure of a job. You can come and go as you want. They drift in; they drift out. It's the excitement of the street -- the people they meet. It's just a lifestyle that pulls them in, almost.

MOSS-COANE: Well, I want to have you read a passage from your book, and this is about one of the vendors -- a fellow named Richard Dagel (ph).

STRAHAN: OK.

STRAHAN, READING: "He arrived at the shop at approximately four p.m. every afternoon. Then, until almost six, he would piddle around. Sometimes he talked to himself; other times he just stood by his cart twiddling his thumbs. Once in a while, something that he considered humorous would flash through his thoughts and he'd chuckle to himself. He was a little eccentric, but totally harmless and he loved being a Lucky Dog vendor.

"Once his cart was completely set up, he carefully went over it as a pilot might inspect a plane -- chili, hot; dogs, cooking; buns, steaming; garbage basket in place; napkin dispenser filled; mustard containers filled; tongs and ladle handy; tire pressure -- "OK, let's roll."

"Firmly gripping the cart's handle, he would push the wagon through the open doorway, head left up Decatur (ph) then left on Bienville (ph), and then roll towards Bourbon. But he never rolled far and he never rolled fast. It took him forever to reach his corner, which was only five blocks away. Frequently, he stopped to dine at Arnaud's, Galatoire's (ph), Brennen's (ph) or one of the other fine restaurants in the Quarter.

"While his cart stood on the sidewalk, steam bellowing out of the cooker, Dagel, wearing his green corduroy jacket, sat at a window table eating supper and keeping a watchful eye on it. By the time he finished his meal, had coffee and dessert, and got to his corner, it was after eight p.m. But still he wasn't ready to open for business. He would take another 10 or 15 minutes to say hello to all of the street people that he knew.

"Other vendors had been selling for over three hours, but that didn't bother Dagel. He didn't need the money. His parents had been quite wealthy and had left him a trust fund. For many years, he had been receiving a monthly check which covered his basic expenses. The Lucky Dog cart simply gave him a purpose. When he died, all of his friends from the street contributed and bought flowers. Doug and I, along with many of Dagel's other Quarter companions, attended his funeral."

MOSS-COANE: And that's Jerry Strahan reading from his book called "Managing Ignatius: The Lunacy of Lucky Dogs and Life in the Quarter."

What kind of camaraderie between the vendors who work for Lucky Dogs?

STRAHAN: Our crew of vendors is really made up of a very diverse group. We have people from Alabama who might be considered in modern day as rednecks. We have lesbians. We have transvestites. We have the well-educated. We have the -- the not-so-well-educated. And I think it's the experience of working the street together. They're going through the same routine day-in and day-out together. They -- they get to know the people in the street. They start sharing experiences on the street. They're out there in the rain together. They're there in the good times together.

And there's a friendship that develops, and you don't worry about where people have come from and you don't really worry about where they're going. You're just getting to know them for the moment. And I see that happen an awful lot down here.

MOSS-COANE: There's a character who is -- is pretty well -- pretty prominent in your book -- a fellow named "Frenchie." And describe for us when did he really goes berserk on the street selling hot dogs.

STRAHAN: Well Frenchie is an ex-punch-drunk boxer from Canada, and originally worked for us on the street. It was a very slow sales night and he was getting more and more depressed as the tourists walked by and no one bought. And it just -- he broke. And since they wouldn't buy hot dogs, Frenchie started tossing hot dogs and weenies at people. So by the time I got out there, we had -- here we had tourists and locals alike hiding in doorways, behind cars, and Frenchie's launching steamed franks from the cart. And finally he ran out of franks and started launching buns.

And at that point in time, I went over and got him and -- and we brought his cart in. I sent a crew to clean the street and there were a few people that had small grease blotches where he had direct hits. But other than that, all went fine.

MOSS-COANE: And where's Frenchie today?

STRAHAN: I haven't seen Frenchie in a number of years. The last time I saw Frenchie, he was a little inebriated at a corner bar not far from Lucky Dogs, and had started some trouble in the bar and five policemen were trying to wrestle him to the ground. I mean, he was a brute of a character -- friendly and nice, but when he got a little inebriated, then he got a little out of hand. And the last time I saw him, he was in the back of a police car driving away.

MOSS-COANE: Well, it seems like a lot of people working for Lucky Dogs disappear. There was a guy that took off and took about a six-month lunch break.

STRAHAN: Jim Sloan (ph). And it's common down here. When you're dealing with a transient workforce, they'll be here today and for whatever reason -- it could be that they run out of onions one night; or it could be that they just miss someone and go back home. But they won't tell you they're leaving. They'll just disappear for six or eight months. Sloan disappeared, left his clean folded clothes in the kitchen; left his eyeglasses on the counter; walked out of the shop one day to go get lunch and showed back up six months later looking for his glasses as if he had never been gone.

MOSS-COANE: And what was his explanation?

STRAHAN: That he started walking for lunch and as he walked toward the restaurant, he started thinking about his niece and got lonely and decided he just wanted to see her. So he walked over to the bus station, got on a bus, and went and visited his niece and her husband; stayed with them for quite a while; and then just decided he wanted to come back to the Quarter and showed back up as if nothing had ever happened.

MOSS-COANE: Now, in most workplaces, that would be grounds for complete firing. As the manager of Lucky Dogs, how do you deal with that?

STRAHAN: I'm glad to see him come back.

MOSS-COANE: Yeah.

STRAHAN: There's so many of them that come and go. Now, Bill McCarty's (ph) been here for 20 years. Sloan was around for a while. Hudson -- James Hudson had been here for a while. But we do have a tremendous number that come and go. Some are here for six weeks; some for two years. But we've built up a pool now that drift in and drift out. And as one's drifting out, generally there's someone else drifting back in.

So in this business -- in a street vending business with transient labor, I think the key and important factor in managing it is you kind of have to manage the business according to your labor, as opposed to the labor according to the business. You have to be flexible and that's probably the key to being successful in this.

MOSS-COANE: And are there vendors that either the locals or the tourists just gravitate to because there's something about their personality?; and conversely ones that are kind of intimidating on the streets?

STRAHAN: Jim Campbell has been us for a long time, and Campbell loves working the Quarter. And people tend to gravitate toward Jim because he's got a very, very friendly personality. Jim left for a while; was here in the hey-days of the '60s, '70s and decided that he was going to move out west, and he did. And when he moved out west, he -- he worked at a nine-to-five, three-piece-suit job for the Small Business Administration for eight years.

Then one day, Jim called me and said: "I'm coming home." I said: "Jim, stay back out west. You know, you're remarried -- you have a wife out there you've been married to for several years. You have a nice home in the suburb." He said: "I can't take the nine-to-five job anymore." He said: "The French Quarter's like Woodstock every day and I want to come home."

So he came back down here, and people tend to just gravitate toward Jim because of the personality. I had a -- Bob McGregor (ph) was another gentleman who looked like a Wall Street Banker -- graying temples, curly hair, friendly, very clean, very neat -- everyone loved Bob -- the street kids, the tap dancers, the local hookers, the police, the tourists.

He would just get them all -- he would talk to them when they came over to the cart and he'd just explain the Quarter, explained what was happening around them; point out things they should see; listen to them; befriend them. And people constantly returned to him. They'd send him a postcard from other parts of the world.

MOSS-COANE: Are there vendors that have been trying to -- either tried to rip you off or run some scams to try to pocket some of the -- the money they make on the street?

STRAHAN: All the time. It -- that's a daily occurrence. Generally what will happen is they'll leave their ID with us, but there are times when someone will be on a corner and just decide to abandon the cart and go get on a bus and go out of town. And when it hits them, it's not premeditated because I've seen guys who have $200 or $300 in their pocket that they owe us, and come in at the end of the night and pay it, and the next day abandon a cart and take $10.

So it's a reaction to the moment more than anything. And then there's those that will go to the grocery stores on the corner and try to buy their own hot dogs and buns and sell them on the cart and keep 100 percent of the gross. That happens also, so you have to constantly monitor that. It's a crew that keeps you on your toes.

MOSS-COANE: So what do you do when someone's working some of these scams on you?

STRAHAN: Well, you know it's almost better to find them and catch them the first time and forgive them because then I know their tendencies. It's the guy that I haven't caught yet that I really get worried about because that guy may be a little smarter than I am. So he's the one I'm really worried about.

MOSS-COANE: Well I'll tell you what -- let's take a short break and then we'll talk some more. And our guest today is Jerry Strahan. He's the manager of Lucky Dogs Incorporated. That's a hot dog vending company in New Orleans. And he's written a book about it. It's called "Managing Ignatius: The Lunacy of Lucky Dogs and Life in the Quarter."

We'll be back after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

Our guest is Jerry Strahan, and we're talking about his new book. It's called "Managing Ignatius."

You write about selling hot dogs in Washington, D.C. across from the White House. How did you get there?

STRAHAN: We did a test in Washington. A gentleman wanted us to put carts in Washington, so we brought carts up there. And initially, I had brought another person up there to be the vendor and he and I both went through the Washington, D.C. vendor school, which is a five day school and you have to pass a test at the end. It's basically on various health regulations.

And he got sick. So I was the only other one that had a badge that could possibly work the cart. So I worked it. And one day, I worked right across from the White House. Then the next day, I was across from the FBI building. We went from corner to corner to corner trying out little -- just test at each space to see exactly how well we would do and how many carts we could possibly put in Washington.

But at the FBI Building, it was a little different. I pulled up there, and you can't be within 10 feet of another vendor. So I pulled the cart up, measured my distance between a fruit vendor who was sitting on the corner, and between a set of planters that were sitting on my other side. And I had just enough room for me to get in there. And the fruit vendor looked at me and he said: "You know, if you were a woman, they'd just kind of beat you up. But since you're man, they're probably going to kill you."

LAUGHTER

I said, well: "Gee thanks." You know, and who's going to do this dastardly deed? And they told me -- he said: "Philip." He said: "Philip's the regular vendor on this corner." Well, in Washington, D.C., it's first come, first served. You can't have a specific corner. So I -- I explained that to him. And he said: "Yeah, but Philip doesn't care about laws."

A few minutes later, this little Volkswagen beetle turns up with an old beat up stainless steel hot -- square hot dog cart on the back. And a young gentleman gets out, slams the door, and runs up to me -- about 22, 23. He looks at me. And in very colorful language tells me that I'm on his corner. And I explained to him that, well, it's not his corner; that it's first come, first served.

And then after a few minutes of discussing this, he realizes that I have no intention of leaving. So I told him about the spot right across from the White House; that he could go there and do well for the day. And that by tomorrow, I would no longer be on this corner.

And he said, no, he wasn't going to do that. He said -- he kind of broke down; said it was his birthday and that he wanted to go ahead and work the corner, but since I was here, he was just going to take off and go to the beach. So kind of angrily, he stormed off, pulled off in his car, and a few minutes later, this very large guy on a Harley-Davidson chopper pulls up. And he looks at me and he says: "Where's Philip?" He says: "Where's my brother at?"

And the only thing I could think of was I said: "Didn't you remember that today's Philip's birthday? He took off and went to the beach." And this guy then stormed off down Pennsylvania Avenue, I guess looking for a Hallmark Card shop. Never came back; never saw him again. The next day, I was not on that corner. I took one over by the National Archives the following day.

MOSS-COANE: So this can be dangerous work at times.

STRAHAN: In Washington, it seemed to be.

MOSS-COANE: Now, you were doing some testing in Washington. Was that to see whether Lucky Dogs could make it in the nation's capital?

STRAHAN: Yes, it -- you know, sales were really very good. We did well there, but Washington then structured their system to where it -- it's more for a one-cart/one-vendor concept than for a business to own multiple carts. So when they did that, it really made it where it was not profitable for us to go in.

MOSS-COANE: You have been scoping out China to see whether it's possible to move the franchise to that country. How's it going over there?

STRAHAN: Well, we are a legal entity -- it's called Beijing Lucky Dogs Fast Foot Incorporated. And we are a licensed corporation in the People's Republic of China. It's very interesting -- incredibly interesting. We took a cart over. We shipped it over via air so that it would get there faster. And it took us almost 3 1/2 weeks to get it there via air because it kept getting downloaded in Frankfurt, Germany, which was kind if ironic 'cause that's where the frankfurter was discovered.

LAUGHTER

MOSS-COANE: (unintelligible)

STRAHAN: Yeah, so it finally got to Beijing and we got it through Customs. And we -- we got permitted, which was not incredibly easy to do in Communist China, but we had two young gentlemen over there that could follow the process and we got licensed. We put it on -- you know, a little mall. We never worked on the street with it. We put it in what they consider a mall shopping center, which really here would be more like a giant J.C. Penney's or Macy's or Sears. It's a big retail store.

And people would walk by and they would look at the cart. And they've never seen a hot dog in a bun before. So they didn't know if it was a missile; they didn't know if this was, you know, an automobile. They had no idea what it was. So we would give samples out. And I think they liked the taste, but the middle class is just developing in China, so we might be there a little early. We're gonna continue testing and see how it works.

MOSS-COANE: Well I -- I can't imagine that Chinese people have had too much experience with a hot dog, much less a hot dog with either mustard, relish, and/or catsup.

STRAHAN: What they're used to and what they eat are sausages on a stick -- a very small sausage on a stick. And they tend to love those, and they love them for breakfast. And most of the people wanted the hot dog for breakfast. Now, I went to a meat factory, we initially were going to have buy our meat at a meat factory. And when a westerner comes, it's a very, very big deal. When I went there, they waited 'til lunch to give us a tour of the plant. They didn't want us to see the plant operating. Then they invited me to lunch to eat with the director of the plant. And then they invited the Communist Party chief for the area over; then they invited the mayor of the area over.

So we were all sitting at this table and this elderly gentleman sitting to my left -- it was a round table -- he was sitting almost to my left -- started telling me about Chinese history and how it was 4,000 years old and was lecturing me on the greatness of China. So then he asked me, he said: "Well, what about American history?" And the only thing -- I looked at him. I said: "America's only been around for a little over 200 years." I said: "We really don't have a history. We're just a record of current events." And he tended to like that because, you know, he had history; we had current events.

The other problem we had was I had never eaten with chopsticks in my life.

MOSS-COANE: Really?

STRAHAN: And this was -- yeah.

MOSS-COANE: ... at whatever age you are?

STRAHAN: Yeah, well this was last year.

MOSS-COANE: Yeah.

STRAHAN: And if they invited me to lunch and I'm sitting here with all these dignitaries and I have my interpreter to my right. And so she showed me how to use the chopsticks. And luckily, I didn't have a problem. I picked it up pretty fast. But the -- the problem is I did have is I don't drink much. Working in the Quarter years ago, I decided that if I was going to work here and survive here, I better not be a drinker.

So the only thing we had for lunch was beer. And the one gentleman -- young gentleman sitting across from me would say "gum-by" or "gum-bay" which was "bottoms up." And he did this four times in a row, and you had to drink a glass of hot beer each time. So I knew that as long as I could pick up the peas with my chopsticks, I was doing all right.

And then they brought out a green liquid, which was almost like a molasses. It was some type of rice wine. And the interpreter said: "Don't smell it. Just simply drink it." So I guzzled two of those down because, again, we had to toast and you have to drink. And finally, that was the last big toast they had. And then the Chinese historian to my left told me that the greatest drinkers in the world were the Russians. And I was going to tell him: "You haven't seen my crew in the Quarter yet," but I figured -- I figured that that wouldn't work.

Then I discovered later on that unlike the U.S. where we have designated drivers, they have designated drinkers. If you're going to one of these functions and you're not a drinker, you can bring a designated drinker with you who will drink your toast. And I thought if my crew in the Quarter ever hears about this, I've lost them all. They'll all be in China.

LAUGHTER

MOSS-COANE: What's going to happen if Lucky Dogs gets really famous and, I don't know whether you're gonna have to clean up your act at all. Is there a danger of that?

STRAHAN: I think Lucky Dogs in the Quarter will always be Lucky Dogs in the Quarter. If I had the typical total straight person in the Quarter -- first off, he could never survive on the street. If you have any type of ego at all, if you've been on the street, by nine p.m. at night, you've lost it.

MOSS-COANE: Hmm.

STRAHAN: When people have walked by and called you "weenie man" and 9,000 other things, then I think that the regular college guy or regular high school kid or normal person could never handle it. There's always going to be that carney type of character who wants to work the corner; who's going to be on the corner.

And frankly, I think if I had the regular straight guy out there, they'd never sell. The people want the Quarter to be a little less like McDonald's and Burger King; a little more like the French Quarter should be.

MOSS-COANE: Right.

STRAHAN: So the colorful characters will -- they're part of the Quarter and the character of the Quarter itself. Now, we're it the New Orleans International Airport. That's a totally different operation. That is a kiosk, indoor, college kids who are going to school; people who are more the McDonald's-Burger King type. Those are the ones that work there.

Those people could never work in the Quarter, just like the Quarter characters who work for us the carts in the Quarter could never work at the airport.

MOSS-COANE: And do you still eat hot dogs?

STRAHAN: I love them. I really do.

MOSS-COANE: And is there some special way you like them prepared?

STRAHAN: I like the hot dog with chili, onions and cheese -- a steamed hot dog with a steamed bun, and the condiments would be chili, onions, and cheese.

MOSS-COANE: Well I thank you very much, Jerry Strahan, for joining us today.

STRAHAN: Thank you.

MOSS-COANE: Jerry Strahan is the manager of Lucky Dogs, and his book about managing hot dog street vendors in New Orleans is called "Managing Ignatius."

I'm Marty Moss-Coane and this is FRESH AIR.

Dateline: Marty Moss-Coane, Philadelphia
Guest: Jerry Strahan
High: Jerry Strahan is the author of the memoir "Managing Ignatius: The Lunacy of Lucky Dogs and Life in the Quarter" (Louisiana State University), about his 20 years managing Lucky Dogs, Inc., a fleet of hot dog carts in New Orleans' French Quarter. Strahan writes that he works among panhandlers, prostitutes, pimps, con artists, drifters, transvestites, and more.
Spec: Cities; New Orleans; Lifestyle; Culture
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1998 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1998 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Managing Ignatius
Show: FRESH AIR
Date: MARCH 05, 1998
Time: 12:00
Tran: 030502NP.217
Type: FEATURE
Head: Dreams Betrayed
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:30

MARTY MOSS-COANE, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Marty Moss-Coane in for Terry Gross.

Before Iran's Islamic revolution, most major Hollywood studios had offices in Teheran. But since the overthrow of the shah, the fundamentalist government not only closed those offices, but instituted strict censorship rules for their own filmmakers: no sex, no excessive violence, and no criticism of the government.

Despite that, Iranians have continued to make movies which still attract large and enthusiastic audiences. For the past 16 years, Iran has held the Fajr Film Festival -- "fajr" means "dawn." Last month for the first time, there was an international film competition as part of the festival. There were no American films entered, largely because of content, and some of the films shown had scenes edited out. But the relative openness of this year's festival reflects the policies of Iran's new President Mohammed Khatami, who used to be the country's minister of culture.

My guest Jamsheed Akrami attended this year's Fajr Film Festival. He's an Iranian-born filmmaker and professor who has lived in this country for 20 years. At this year's Fajr, Akrami says subjects that six months ago could only be discussed in the privacy of one's home were now being explored in public on the big screen.

JAMSHEED AKRAMI, FILMMAKER, "DREAMS BETRAYED": For example, the film which won the majority of the awards -- it was a film called "Class Agency" (ph) -- "agency" being a reference to a travel agency. And it has to do with a besigi (ph) -- a "besigi" is -- in Iran is referred as "besigi" but outside of Iran people mostly refer to them as "Hezbollahis."

He takes over a travel agency and takes the people inside the agency who are unanimously Iranian hostage. And the dialogue that ensues is really interesting because the people who are taken hostage are a cross section of the entire Iranian population. But every single one of them condemns the actions of this hostage-taker. And even we have the security police coming in and having a heated discussion with the hostage-taker, pointing out that your decade is over. Now, this is the decade of peace and security. You have to leave us alone. You've done enough and, you know, your time is up, basically.

And that's the kind of discussion, sort of irreverent, that we have not had in Iranian media in general.

MOSS-COANE: Well, were the filmgoers enthusiastic? Willing to participate? Or did they feel a sense of caution, that maybe we're not allowed to talk this way?

AKRAMI: I think they were taken by surprise. That was my own reaction, and I spoke to a number of friends and colleagues, and they had the same response. But we were all surprised in an obviously pleasant way. But the film did not have condemnatory tone. Even at the end of this movie, which was -- some people referred to it as an Iranian version of the Sidney Lumet's film "Dog Day Afternoon" -- because of the theme of the hostage-taking within a confined area.

Against the rules of the genre, you did not have one side defeating the other side. Normally, these movies end with the hostage -- with the hostages being free and the hostage-takers paying a price. But in this film, the hostage-taker actually gets his own wish, which actually is a noble one. He is trying to take one of his colleagues, which has been injured in the war to London. And he just doesn't have the means, the necessary means to do it. So he wants to force his way and his colleague's way out to London.

But at the end, he gets his wish. The hostages are free. He gets his wish. And there's a sentimental ending, basically (Unintelligible) of, you know, "We are the World." And, you know, we're all brothers. And there's no bad guys here.

MOSS-COANE: Did you see more women filmmakers at the festival?

AKRAMI: Not more. But there was a film from the most important woman filmmaker in Iran who is Ms. Rakshimanietimont (ph). And she had a new film in this festival.

MOSS-COANE: What was it that she did?

AKRAMI: Well, her film was about a woman filmmaker. So the character is from middle class. You don't have too many Iranian movies about middle class characters. It's all about children or poor people, most of them.

And this woman filmmaker was making a documentary about the conditions of women in Iran -- mostly, dispossessed women. At the same time, she had an ongoing relationship with a man. This is a divorced woman. And another important dimension of the film had to do with the relationship between the woman as a mother and her teenage son.

And the bold aspect of the film actually had to do with that relationship because we see that the teenage son and his friends get into some problems in the middle of the film because they have been playing loud music in their house and they get arrested by the people -- again, they are referred to as the "committee" people, but again outside of Iran, they are known as Hezbollahs.

And he actually punches one of the Hezbollahis in the mouth, and when he's arrested and sent to jail, the mother goes and talks to an Islamic judge, and that's an interesting conversation. Again, she attacks the restrictive norms and the fact that, you know, the teenage people -- the young people in the country don't have enough freedom.

And -- but again, the scene -- the whole conflict ends with the teenage son hugging the Hezbollahi guy who happens to be a young man as well, and again making peace and the film concludes that there's no bad guy here and we just need to understand each other better.

MOSS-COANE: Well, I know there have been a lot of restrictions over the years about how women were portrayed in films. And looking at some of the -- some of the female portrayals, does that still exist? For instance, this idea that a woman has to be covered; that her head must be covered. Is that still in place in Iran?

AKRAMI: That's still in place, and since it's based on an Islamic principle, nobody even hopes that that will change. With all the unrealistic scenes in the film, including you know, having scenes when women are sleeping in bed but they're still covering their hair, or women having dinner with their family at night and having to cover their hair.

But nobody even expects that that would change because that has to do with the principle of -- the Islamic principle intimacy -- what they call "mahramboudan" (ph) and according to that, you can only be intimate with immediate members of your family.

Your question might be: Well, if a woman is having dinner with the -- with her children and her husband and those are the people whom she's intimate with ...

MOSS-COANE: Right.

AKRAMI: ... but then the problem is she's not intimate with the spectators -- with the millions of people that might happen to be seeing the movie. Actually, the person -- the actress who plays the character, she's not supposed to be intimate with them. So that creates an interesting problem for which there is no solution, basically.

MOSS-COANE: For Iranian filmmakers, do they then have to submit their scripts for approval even before they begin filmmaking?

AKRAMI: Yes, that was the norm up until a couple of months ago. But the new development is now they don't have to and they can just start their film. A lot of people are anxious about that move. They don't see it necessarily as a positive move because the government still holds all the cards and if they don't like a movie, they just ban the film.

So if they ban a movie at the script stage, you don't have to go through spending all that money producing the film. But what if now that you've produced a film, they don't like the subject or something about the film and they ban it altogether or they ask for major changes. So that's not necessarily a good development for the filmmakers.

MOSS-COANE: One of the films shown at the festival was Abas Kioristami's (ph) film called "Taste of Cherry" which won the Palm d'Or last year at the Cannes Film Festival. And this was a film that was about -- or is about a man contemplating suicide, and he's literally driving around looking to find people who will help him.

When the filmmaker accepted the award at Cannes Film Festival it was Catherine Deneuve who gave him the award. And I believe he kissed her, which sparked some protests in Iran when he returned. Any more reaction to that?

AKRAMI: Well first of all, he claims that she kissed him.

LAUGHTER

MOSS-COANE: OK.

AKRAMI: If that makes any difference.

MOSS-COANE: I don't know.

AKRAMI: That was his defense, basically. That's interesting. Actually, he had to defend himself in Iran, saying that just the same way that when you have foreign guests, for example in this Fajr Film Festival there were at least maybe 20 ladies from foreign countries, and they all had to conform to the Islamic code of covering their hair. So Mr. Kioristami used the same excuse, saying that, you know, when we go to another country, we have to conform to their customs, and if a lady kisses me, I can't just hold back and I can't push her back. So I just complied the same way that we expect women who come to our country to comply with our customs. Which I think, it was a clever and nice response.

MOSS-COANE: And well-received response? That was OK?

AKRAMI: No, no.

MOSS-COANE: No.

AKRAMI: A lot of people -- and I have to mention mostly fundamental people who are running the Iranian media -- were unhappy about when that happened, and it completely -- I have to mention again -- completely overshadowed the fact that he had one of the greatest honors that has ever bestowed on an Iranian product, not to just mention a cultural product, a film. But nothing Iranian has ever achieved that kind of a recognition. As you know, Palm d'Or is the most prestigious, most coveted film award. But that was completely overshadowed by the fact that there was a kiss happening in Cannes, and that's what -- there are some, even some people who had gone to the airport to attack him physically. And he had to be put in a car -- a car that had, I heard, had been sent by the daughter of the then-president Mr. Rafsanjani, to sort of be whisked away from the airport.

MOSS-COANE: And did things calm down when -- when the film was shown at -- at the Fajr Film Festival?

AKRAMI: Oh, it had calmed down before that. There was about a month after Cannes, there was a ceremony being held by his colleagues -- a formal ceremony, and in that ceremony they honored him and they all thanked him for winning the Palm d'Or.

MOSS-COANE: We're talking about contemporary Iranian cinema with filmmaker and professor Jamsheed Akrami. More after a short break.

This is FRESH AIR.

(BREAK)

Our guest is Dr. Jamsheed Akrami, and he's a filmmaker and professor, and we're talking about making films in Iran.

Before the revolution, there was a rather rich period of filmmaking, and often referred to as the "new wave." What were these filmmakers making? And why do you think that was such a relatively rich period in Iranian filmmaking?

AKRAMI: Well because it was a complete departure from the commercial escapist-type of movies that were being made at the time. And in retrospect, that was also the beginning of an important movement that now has gained international dimensions. You know, the first Iranian film that heralded this new renaissance in Iranian cinema was called "The Cow" and that was made in 1969.

Interesting enough, that was the same year that the Brazilian film called "Antonio Des Mortes" (ph) by Grover Roschau (ph) started a new wave of filmmaking in southern America. And also it was around the same year where you had a major film movement in Germany called "das neue Kino" (ph) -- the movement that introduced people like Fassbinder (ph); people like Herzog (ph) and Willem Wenders (ph) introduced.

And what I'm concluding by comparing the three is those two other film movements are long dead -- gone. And Iranian film movement is still going.

MOSS-COANE: Well what's your explanation for that?

AKRAMI: The resilience of the Iranian filmmakers, because it remains basically the same filmmakers who started that film movement, and continued it right after the revolution as soon as they found that they can make films again.

MOSS-COANE: When you're talking about a movement, is it a certain style of filmmaking that you're talking about? Or is it that they were tackling certain topics or using films to tell certain kinds of stories?

AKRAMI: I think it's the style of filmmaking, both in terms of form and content. It's the kind of filmmaking that has borrowed heavily both from the French new wave and from the Italian new realism. Iranian filmmakers are in the true sense of the word creator of their films and in full control of it. So that's what they borrowed from the -- that personal vision, they borrowed from the French new wave.

At the same time, these are movies that show a great sense of social awareness, and that's something that they borrowed from the Italian new realism.

MOSS-COANE: Well, if we're talking about the 1970s, we're also talking about the period living under the shah. Were these filmmakers able to get around the shah's censors and what he would or wouldn't allow?

AKRAMI: Yes, the filmmakers at the time under the shah had to really resort to the language of symbols and metaphors and categories, but they did a successful job.

MOSS-COANE: So they were able to use some of those poetic skills to -- to get around the censors? Can you give us an example of one that was particularly clever?

AKRAMI: One that really comes to my mind at this point is a film called "The Tall Shadows of the Wind" by Pakman Fahrmanara (ph) -- one of the pre-revolutionary filmmakers. The film is about the people in a village who erect some scarecrows hoping that the scarecrows will help them to have a better crop and will keep the -- everything that bothers the crop out of the way. But what happens in a sort of mysterious and at the same time very poetic way is the scarecrows multiply. And then all of a sudden, you have a -- you have an army of scarecrows and then they start attacking the villages and they start attacking people and killing them.

I can't think of any more adequate and apt metaphor for a society that lives under the dictatorship of the shah and is harassed on a daily basis by the security police. This -- this movie was defining that situation.

MOSS-COANE: Well, did the audience understand what the censors didn't? Did they -- did they understand what these symbols and metaphors were all about?

AKRAMI: Well, the audiences, they didn't even have a chance under the shah to see the film because the film was immediately banned. But what is interesting here is when the film opened right after the revolution, the -- now the new regime banned the film. And when I -- when I was talking to the filmmaker, you know, expressing my amazement as why this new revolutionary government should be opposed to film, he told me that they had told him that the scarecrows you have in the film -- do you mean to represent the mullahs (ph)? -- you know, you think the clergy or the reactionary and people are going to revolt against them?

'Cause there is a very provocative scene at the end of the film that has people attacking the scarecrows and burning them down.

MOSS-COANE: Wow.

AKRAMI: And -- yeah, which was the primary reason why the shah's government had banned the film. And now the new government -- the clergy -- were unhappy with the film. And in either case, and it's interesting -- these are two very different regimes -- but in both cases they had thought that the movie had to do with them.

MOSS-COANE: How are films funded in Iran?

AKRAMI: The government plays a very important role in production of movies in Iran, which is both a blessing because some movies would not be made otherwise. But at the same time, you have their intervention and interference. But you -- you're able to make films in the private sector as well. The only difference in terms of Iranian filmmaking is the government has a monopoly of the film equipment, even the film stock. I mean, even in the private sector, you still have to go to the government and book a camera and book editing time using the editing facilities.

So in that sense, the filmmaking is still very much controlled by and administered by the government.

MOSS-COANE: Growing up in Iran, were there certain films -- either indigenous films or foreign films -- that had an influence on you?

AKRAMI: Oh, yes. American westerns -- that was one of the main staple of my childhood, and I was dreaming about living the lives of those characters and I was playing in the little Iranian alleys with my friends, where I was being "Shane" and some of them were being my opponents. And yeah, that was a strong influence.

But when I became a little more serious as a film buff and later as a film critic, I was following the films of Hitchcock and the Italian new realist filmmaker and also the new wave films with some more interest. And you'd be surprised that there was no dearth of movies like that under the shah. Iran was really more like a European country in terms of having access to non-Iranian films.

MOSS-COANE: You left Iran some 15, 20 years ago. Is it hard for you to get in and out of the country? Do you ever run into problems that way?

AKRAMI: Fortunately, I haven't run into any direct problems right now. But because of what you hear and because of what has been done to other artists and writers, you always go back with a sense of fear. That's -- that's one of the problems with Iran that nobody has defined what the law is. And you know, it's one thing to have a law in the book and experiencing the way it's implemented.

So as long as there's no guarantees like that, you know, anytime you go to Iran you have a sense of apprehension. Just like the people who live in Iran -- they live with a sense of apprehension. But hopefully, this -- this is one positive development that I notice this time -- that the whole ambiance is changing and people seem to be losing that sense of apprehension. They're really taking great interest in the -- this new president. They think this is the person whom they have elected and they can invest some hopes into his personality and the fact that he has promised some more freedom; some more -- the whole situation reminds me of a similar situation in Egypt under President Sadat when he started "Intefah" (ph) -- the policy of opening up.

So we may be going through that kind of a period. But I'm also reminded of when Mr. Rafsanjani took power about nine years ago, and people were talking about this is the beginning of an Iranian Glasnost. And unfortunately, that did not materialize.

So hopefully this new development this time around will be for real, and then you can look back and see the election of Mr. Khatami as a true turning point in the Iranian contemporary history.

MOSS-COANE: We are out of time, and I think you very much for joining us today on FRESH AIR.

AKRAMI: It was my pleasure. Thank you.

MOSS-COANE: Jamsheed Akrami is an Iranian-born filmmaker and professor. The Iranian film "A Taste of Cherry" by Abas Kioristami opens in New York at the end of this month and around the country later in the spring.

This is FRESH AIR.

Dateline: Marty Moss-Coane, Philadelphia
Guest: Jamsheed Akrami
High: Iranian filmmaker and film professor Jamsheed Akrami will discuss filmmaking in Iran and Iran's Fajr Film Festival which took place in February. This year's festival included a juried competition for international films and was open to Iran's independent and government sponsored producers. Akrami teaches mass communication at William Paterson University and is a visiting professor film at Teachers College, Columbia University, where he teachers "Cinema as Cross-Cultural Communication." He produced the documentary "Dreams Betrayed" on political filmmaking under the Shah.
Spec: Iran; Culture; Lifestyle; Middle East; World Affairs
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1998 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1998 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Dreams Betrayed
Show: FRESH AIR
Date: MARCH 05, 1998
Time: 12:00
Tran: 030503NP.217
Type: FEATURE
Head: The Illusionist
Sect: Entertainment
Time: 12:56

MARTY MOSS-COANE, HOST: New York Times reporter Dinitia Smith has written a new novel called "The Illusionist" that's inspired by a well-publicized multiple murder case that roused the trans-gender movement.

Book critic Maureen Corrigan has a review.

MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BOOK CRITIC: The lurid, real-life tragedy that The Illusionist is based on happened in Nebraska. But one of the advantages of fiction is that it allows a writer to transplant actual events to a more poetically appropriate setting.

Consequently, Dinitia Smith's compelling novel about an androgynous stranger who appears one night in a small town bar and promptly reduces the local women into whimpering puddles of desire takes place in Sparta, New York. Sparta is one of those eerie hamlets composed mostly of empty factory buildings and overcrowded antique shops. In earlier centuries, like so many other upstate New York communities, it would have drawn followers of fringe religions and pilgrims in search of utopia.

These days, however, as one of the novel's narrators tells us, the town is filled with drifting tourists, drug dealers, and people left behind because they couldn't get jobs elsewhere -- people with something wrong with them.

The aura of the doomed and eccentric lies as thick as dirty, frozen snow around Sparta. It's the perfect place for a sexual outlaw to practice his odd seductions. As befits this quicksilver novel in which nothing -- not even sexual identity is unwavering -- The Illusionist has several different narrators.

The first is Chrissie (ph), a gangly nurse's aide at an old-age home. Chrissie walks into the Wooden Nickel Bar one autumn night and spots a delicate and beautiful young man performing magic tricks for the bored regulars. Chrissie recalls: "There was something about him that just struck you right away, that made your eyes rest upon him and made you puzzle. I know now that I wondered what he was. The question passed through my mind without being formed into words."

Mesmerized, Chrissie introduces herself to the stranger, who says his name is Dean Lilley (ph), and presto-change-o before the night is over, Dean has moved into Chrissie's apartment where the two live for a while like bachelors. One day, Chrissie sees Dean dressing and notices what look like faint breasts on his chest. He calls them a deformity and insists that inside, "I'm a real man."

As if to prove it, Dean goes on to have an erotically charged affair with Terry (ph), a young single mother, as well as a courtly romance with Melanie, the virginal town beauty. The two women, who narrate their own stories, give us further insight into Dean's allure. Melanie tells us that in a town where most people are too zombified to engage in conversation, talking with the articulate Dean was like love -- like kissing.

At the same time, she admits, part of his power over women derived from his way of holding himself back; of being mysterious; always keeping you wanting to know more. When Dean briefly takes over the narration in the middle of the novel, we readers gather close, expecting him at last to unravel the riddles his looks and behavior generate.

Instead, he spits out a horror story about the price he's paid for sending out sexual mixed messages. It's a nauseating account of his rape by two town toughs who wanted to teach him a woman's proper place.

Smith could have easily portrayed Dean here as some kind of trans-gender patron saint, but he's as morally complex as his appearance is visually confusing. Dean freeloads on his women friends and lovers. He manipulates and betrays them, even as he genuinely adores them. And yet despite, or maybe because of these flaws, Dean's sexual attraction is overwhelming.

By the appalling end of this novel, when Dean's anatomical femaleness lies on view for all to see, Smith has also stripped away an even greater illusion -- that human sexuality is straightforward and fathomable, normative and neat.

MOSS-COANE: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University.

Dateline: Maureen Corrigan; Marty Moss-Coane, Philadelphia
Guest:
High: Book critic Maureen Corrigan reviews "The Illusionist" (Scribner) by Dinitia Smith.
Spec: Entertainment; Dinitia Smith; Writers; Authors; Lifestyle; Culture
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1998 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1998 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: The Illusionist
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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