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'Pearl': A Tale of Motherhood and Martyrdom

Novelist Mary Gordon's new book, Pearl, is about a mother's struggle to understand her daughter's public act of martyrdom. Gordon is the author of seven novels, including Final Payments and The Company of Women), and four nonfiction works.


Other segments from the episode on January 31, 2005

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, January 31, 2005: Interview with Mary Gordon; Review of the Sundance film festival.


DATE January 31, 2005 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A

Interview: Mary Gordon discusses themes from her new novel,

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

My guest, Mary Gordon, has written novels, memoirs, short stories, essays and
a book reflecting on Joan of Arc. Before I tell you about Gordon's new novel,
I want to read you what James Carroll said in a review of Gordon's book "Joan
of Arc." `This quintessentially American writer with her skeptical eye, her
impatience with sentimentality and her readiness to skewer pieties of all
kinds has also, in her fiction, proved to be motivated by a profound spiritual
curiosity. She is a critic of institutional religion whose writing is deeply
rooted in Roman Catholic sacramentality.'

I think Gordon's new novel "Pearl" fits that description. The story begins on
Christmas night 1998 as Maria, a single mother, gets a call from the State
Department saying that her daughter Pearl, who has been studying in Ireland,
has chained herself to the flagpole in front of the American Embassy in
Dublin. Pearl hasn't eaten in six weeks and is refusing food and drink.

In exploring what led Pearl to put her life on the line, the novel reflects on
politics, guilt, sacrifice, mother-daughter relationships and, along the way,
asks where the line is between martyrdom and suicide.

Mary Gordon says that when she was growing up, martyrdom was like a job
description. You could be a nurse, a teacher or a martyr. I asked Gordon
what martyrdom meant to her as a child and if she tried to emulate the

Ms. MARY GORDON (Author): Well, first of all, what it meant was you would go
straight to heaven, and that was always the phrase, `straight to heaven' like
it was the express train. And I remember before we were being prepared for
our first Communions, which was--it would be six or seven, we were told that
we should pray for a martyr's death. So you would have these seven-year-olds
saying, `Oh, my God, I'd better pray that'--and it was the Communists at that
point; this was the '50s--`I'd better pray that a Communist will say, "Either
say there is no God or we'll shoot you."' But you didn't want to be shot.
Basically, you wanted to live to have lunch.

But I would do things like--when I was about nine or 10, I would put thorns in
my shoes to try to walk around to experience the preliminaries of martyrdom so
I'd be sort of toughened up for the real thing. But I didn't want my feet to
hurt, so I would put the thorns in my shoes, then I'd try not to step on them.
So it was a sort of equivocal appetite for martyrdom and, nonetheless, always
feeling that I wasn't quite up to scratch because I wanted to live, because I
didn't want to die.

GROSS: What adults in your life knew that you were walking around with thorns
in your shoes?

Ms. GORDON: Nobody. That would, you know, really--even in my family, that
would have been considered extreme. It was a real secret that I had to keep.
And I knew it was strange, but part of the cult of martyrdom was that nobody
understands you. You know, martyrs are never understood by their family.
Their family's always telling them to shape up. And so it was part of the
glamour of martyrdom that you would be misunderstood by the ordinary bourgeois

GROSS: Being misunderstood was a classic part of American popular culture
then, too. James Dean was misunderstood. All of teen-age culture was

Ms. GORDON: Exactly. We wouldn't have known what to do with ourselves if
we'd been understood. And so the roots of that are very deep and wide.

GROSS: Did you ever tell any nuns about this?

Ms. GORDON: Oh, no. I would never tell anybody because it was almost like it
was too special for anybody. And I also didn't want anybody to tell me to
stop, and I knew they would.

GROSS: Now in your novel, the mother was brought up Catholic, as you were,
and she intentionally doesn't expose her daughter to the literature of
martyrdom. What is her fear of exposing her daughter to it?

Ms. GORDON: Well, her fear is fanaticism and her fear is that a desire for
purity--and, I mean, the theme of a desire for purity is very important to me
in this book because I think it's a desire that doesn't get named in our
culture, and so it enacts itself in very strange ways. And it is essentially
a desire that the world be less mixed than it is. And Maria, who is the
mother, believes that all this talk about the cult of martyrs and the cult of
purity is really a love for death, and she wants her child to love life rather
than death.

And another aspect of modern culture that I wanted to explore in this book is
what happens to all these ideals which are larger than life and even
life-denying if they are, in fact, denied. It seems to me that they come out
in different ways. I think that the girlhood impulse to idealism and to
purity now has really relegated itself to anorexia. And I think there is
something particularly in young people that desires purity, and it only now
gets expressed in terms that, it seems to me, are really perverse, because
they go back to the individual body. They don't really stand for anything
larger. They're not an idea. They're only another emendation of the body.

GROSS: Do you see anorexia as a quest for purity or just thinness?

Ms. GORDON: I think that it's a quest for purity in the guise of thinness.
That is to say, you know, girls who are eating a carrot stick for lunch
because they want to get into a bikini are one thing, but anorexia, I think,
is a real desire to be purged of fleshliness. And that desire to be purged of
fleshliness, I think, is a desire to be of a purity that our species simply
isn't made for. But it's a very strong and, I think, quite mysterious

GROSS: Did you expose your children to the literature of martyrdom?

Ms. GORDON: No, absolutely not. And I have to say they have no interest in
it. One of the--my children are less Romantic than I am, with a capital R,
and you know, they wouldn't dream of doing the things that I did when I was a
child, and they're much more practical. They actually do more good in the
world, more effective good, than I did with all my dreams of heroic goodness.
And so that's very interesting to me, to see what they do. But they're not
extremists. They're not attracted to the extremes that I was when I was

GROSS: What were the other extremes you were attracted to?

Ms. GORDON: Well, I think, you know, coming of age in the '60s, I really
believed that--and because I thought I was an artist, I thought that you had
to experience everything, and you couldn't say no to anything, you couldn't be
afraid of drugs, sex or rock 'n' roll or political extremism, that in order to
be fully alive, you had to be very risk-taking and push things to their
extreme. And I don't think that my kids have that impulse.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is writer Mary Gordon. Her new
novel is called "Pearl."

So in your novel, you know, Pearl not only decides to become a martyr for the
cause of the IRA, but also for something more personal. She develops a kind
of self-hatred of her body. Her mother thinks that the things she did would
spare her daughter from feeling that way. And just as I think a lot of
mothers felt that bring up their children in a feminist context would spare
them the kind of prefeminist self-consciousness and self-hatred that so many
girls felt. And in a lot of instances, it just didn't work. It wasn't
enough. It wasn't--there seems to be something deeper.

Ms. GORDON: Yeah, and this was something that I really wanted to explore
about motherhood, that when you have babies or young children, you think,
`Well, I'll do it this way and the world won't touch them.' And often, that
doesn't work out. And I think particularly in the case of feminism, one of
the things that feminism hasn't touched at all--and I'm a feminist; I'm not
afraid to use the F-word at all. But one of the things that the women's
movement hasn't touched because the culture has been too strong is this notion
of the hatefulness of the female body. And you know, women are more obsessed
with weight than ever. There are more products on the market that tell us
that we're wrong, that there's something wrong with us. The boom in plastic
surgery, which seems to me just bizarre, has come in the wake of the women's
movement. So obviously, we have done nothing to say that the female body is
not, in itself, inherently hateful. And if you have a girl child, you say,
`Oh, you know, I'll put her in Oshkosh overalls when she's little and, you
know, I'll cut her hair short and she can play soccer with the boys, and I'll
never make her wear high heels and never tell her she has to wear a girdle,
and she'll love herself,' it didn't work so well in face of this pervasive
cultural message that there is something inherently loathsome about the female
body. And that makes me very sad.

GROSS: Have your views on why so many girls and women as well have this
discomfort about or hatred of their own bodies? Have your views changed on
that from, say, the '60s or the '70s?

Ms. GORDON: No. The only thing that--I think that it's in the interests of
whatever dark forces there they are--and I don't know who they are. It's too
simple to say capitalism. It's too simple to say men. I don't exactly know
what it is. All I know is that every woman I know spends too much time
thinking about the way that she looks. And if she doesn't spend time thinking
about the way she looks, then that can be a kind of self-hatred, because at
it's best, adornment--I mean, I have to tell you, I'm a person with 200 pairs
of shoes, so it's not like I want to, you know, make myself out to be Emma
Goldman. At its best, adornment is play and joy. At its worst, it's anxiety
and self-loathing. And what makes me sad is that for women, either adornment
or lack of adornment more often is a source of anxiety and self-loathing than
of joy and play and freedom.

GROSS: Do you feel like you have a good fix on whether self-adornment is joy
and freedom in your life or an expression of self-loathing or somewheres in

Ms. GORDON: Well, yeah, I'm not a perfect person, so it kind of depends. I
know that shoes are a perfect place of pleasure for me, because I have no
anxiety about my feet. So I...

GROSS: In spite of the thorns that you used to wear.

Ms. GORDON: Or maybe that's why. My feet have been purified by a martyr's
blood, so I deserve all those shoes. So I can say that the parts of my body
that I feel secure about, mainly my feet, I can really play with. And then
there are other things that, depending upon how I look that day or where the
10 pounds is one way or another, can be either fun or self-punishment. So
it's a very, I think, vexing and difficult problem, but look. It's only very
recently in the history of the planet that we assumed that women were similar
to men in most ways and might be equal to most men. My particular theory is
that's why the world is having a nervous breakdown, because of the relatively
new news that men and women might be equal. It's making everybody crazy,
because it's a lot to absorb as a species, and we've had to absorb it very

GROSS: Give me an example of why you think that's the cause of the nervous

Ms. GORDON: 'Cause I think that what all fundamentalisms share is a desire to
repress women, that--I was in Israel one time, and I went to the Wailing Wall,
and the men had to pray separately from the women. I went to the Dome of the
Rock. The men had to pray separately from the women. I went to the Tomb of
the Holy Sepulchre, and the women weren't allowed in the sanctuary. And I
thought, the way to get all these people to stop fighting with each other is
to have women step in the sacred places, and they would all join together as
brothers and tear the women limb from limb, because it seems to me that that
is the thing that unites all fundamentalisms.

What I don't exactly understand is the women who join with them in the desire
to exclude themselves. That's a real puzzler for me, except I think that
there's a lot of fear in the world, and I almost feel very sorry for the poor
species. It seems that we're just rocked by fear and fear of the unknown.
And I think one of the unknowns is how to live together as partners who might
be, not identical, but at least equal.

GROSS: My guest is Mary Gordon. Her new novel is called "Pearl." We'll talk
more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Mary Gordon, and her new novel
is called "Pearl."

Every time we talk on FRESH AIR, I like to ask where you are in terms of your
own spiritual life, whether you're going to church, 'cause throughout your
life, or throughout your adult life, there's been this kind of tug-of-war
between your kind of spiritual commitment to an interest in Catholicism and
your disagreements with the organized religion part of it, the hierarchy, the
church's views on birth control and divorce and abortion and women in general.
So where are you now?

Ms. GORDON: I'm in despair. I think the church has never been at a lower
point in my lifetime. The church's sexual phobia is just worse than ever.
The pedophilia scandal, instead of being a moment of self-examination and
humility, has been an excuse for the church to be more fortresslike, more
homophobic than ever. I don't see many new progressive forces in the church.
I still do go to church. I was just reading Czeslaw Milosz's last volume of
poetry which he wrote in his 90s, in which he keeps saying, `I have no
justification for doing this, but I believe in these practices as being
somehow leading to something valuable.' And what I do is I pick and choose.
There are a couple of places in the world where I can be Catholic, and most
where I can only be in a rage. Nevertheless, I hold on to the ideal of
people, like Oscar Romero, Pope John XXIII, Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton. You
know, again, it is that ideal of self-giving and a world larger than the
individual bourgeois biography that I'm very drawn to and that I don't seem,
despite my rage and despair, able to quite give up.

GROSS: What are the couple of places that you feel most at home being
Catholic in?

Ms. GORDON: Well, I have a church that's in my neighborhood, which actually
was the church that Thomas Merton was baptized in. And there are some
wonderful people there that I can really be with, and a few priests and
particularly nuns. I did a long piece a couple of years ago for The Atlantic
Monthly on the state of American nuns, or actually nuns worldwide. They're
really radical. They're really--they really are self-giving. They really are
large of heart. And I have met, in these people, an expansiveness of spirit
that moves me very, very deeply, so it's the people that I see in these places
that live in a way that is more suggestive of a radical and deep openness,
which is what I think we're on the Earth for.

GROSS: You know, I remember what I think was our first interview in the
1980s, and you were in Philadelphia, doing, I guess, a signing and some
interviews. And you had left your two children behind for the day in, I
guess, New York. And I remember you saying that you not only missed your
children, you physically missed having your baby in your arms. And I think
now, you know, of you being the mother of two adult children and what a
different experience of motherhood that is.

Ms. GORDON: Oh, yeah, I could have had a million babies. You know, I mean,
just babies, little children, that was easy for me, because I had no moral
life. But when I had to come to terms with the fact that they were
independent moral and intellectual beings that wouldn't necessarily do what I
wanted, that was when I found motherhood more difficult. The animal parts of
motherhood, I could do with, you know, my hands tied behind my back. I could
change diapers and clean up vomit and spilled juice and make play dough all
day long, but when somebody said, you know, `I'm not going to do what you want
me to do, 'cause I don't want to do it,' that was the more difficult part.

And then to watch them--and I'm really lucky. I have wonderful children
who--my daughter particularly has, you know, stood up to me and bucked me.
And I think that one of her first sentences was, `I'm not you.' And she's not
me. She's actually a lot better than I am. But watching them say to me, over
and over again, in words and in language, `I'm not you,' has been a very great
moral challenge for me.

And I miss--you know, I miss them terribly. My daughter's in California. My
son's in Michigan. And, you know, ideally, I'd like to be one of those
Italian mothers that has a three-story house with the children, you know, and
their families and children on the upper levels. I think that would be my
idea of a good time. I very much miss the presence of these animal children
in my life. I miss the smell of them. I miss cooking for them. And I just
think the best part of my life is over, because they live so far away. And I
adored having young children. And it's one of the losses, it seems to me,
that aging brings. And they're terrific, and they have their own lives, but
it's not as much fun.

GROSS: Why do you call it a moral challenge, though, when your children
started saying to you, `I'm not you'? Why a moral challenge and not just a
kind of crisis of self-confidence and ego?

Ms. GORDON: Because I think you have to judge whether they're saying they're
not you and whether their decisions are ethical and right in their own terms
which might be different from your terms. So you really have to start
thinking, `Are there other ways of being in the world besides mine that are
still acceptable?' And that's a real challenge, because you'd like everybody
to be--or I want everybody to be exactly like me. My idea of a good time is
if everybody says to me, `You're absolutely right,' 24 hours a day. And my
husband once said to me, `On your tombstone, it's not going to only the words,
"I was right." It's going to be, "I was right, and you were wrong."'

So for my children to not have been clones of me was a challenge for me to
look at them, not as myself, but as people really, really other from me. And
to say that within those boundaries, how do I then guide them to a way of life
that was good and luminous and fruitful for themselves and for the world, even
if it wasn't exactly my way, I did think that was a great moral challenge and
a challenge of imagination.

GROSS: Mary Gordon. Her new novel is called "Pearl." She'll be back in the
second half of the show. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)


GROSS: Coming up, we talk with our critic at large John Powers about some of
the best films he saw at the Sundance Film Festival. It concluded over the
weekend. And writer Mary Gordon reflects on being a mother and a daughter.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with writer Mary Gordon. Her
new novel, "Pearl," is about a mother struggling to understand why her
daughter has chained herself to the American Embassy in Dublin and is on a
hunger strike. The novel explores the line between martyrdom and suicide.
"Pearl" is also about mother-daughter relationships.

You said something very funny in a piece that you wrote, something very funny
about your son. You wrote--and again, he is an adult now. You wrote, `He's
the kind of boy who wouldn't have gone out with me in high school.' (Laughs)

Ms. GORDON: Yeah, he's very, very handsome. And he's--you know, he's really
hot. And I would have been absolutely outside the sphere. I mean, he's very
kind, so he might have danced with me occasionally. But I couldn't have
measured up to his girlfriends at all. He's a cool guy. And I didn't go out
with any cool guys in high school.

GROSS: That's really funny.

Ms. GORDON: Well, my son would not have been--my son was on the basketball
team. I went out with boys that were in chess club, if I went out at all. It
just wouldn't have happened. And it was always a surprise to me. I kept
saying, `Where does this person come from? Where does this person come from?'
And it was--that was interesting as a woman who is a feminist to have to see
that I had this kind of eminently beautiful, eminently desirable male, and how
as his mother did I give him permission to be that in the world, which is a
gift and a wonderful thing, but say to him, `You know, a lot of guys use the
gifts that you've been given in really terrible ways. And that's not OK'?
And that was a very interesting balance to have to try to keep.

GROSS: Do you know what your next book will be?

Ms. GORDON: I have a couple of projects. I'm working now on a book about my
mother, who died two years ago. And she...

GROSS: I meant to ask you about her because you wrote a beautiful piece about
her, a magazine piece, about her having Alzheimer's...

Ms. GORDON: Yeah.

GROSS: which you raised all kinds of interesting questions like, if you
go there to visit her at the home where she was and if she enjoyed the
experience but then immediately forgot it...

Ms. GORDON: Yeah.

GROSS: ...was there still a point in you going if it was not something that
was going to remembered beyond a minute. So it was a wonderful piece.

Ms. GORDON: And she was really in a state of--I don't know whether it was
Alzheimer's or dementia--for 11 years. And so I'm trying to write a book that
I'm calling "Circling My Mother," just to try to recover from before those 11
years a mother that was not quite so damaged and to get back to trying to know
my mother despite the stain of those extremely painful years. So I'm doing
that. I have another novel in my head. I have a series of novellas that I'm
working on. And I'm not quite sure which project will come first.

GROSS: Is it hard to find the memories of your mother from the period before
she was sick? I mean, has being sick overshadowed all the other memories?

Ms. GORDON: It has, and so I feel that it's very important work to know her
fully because she had a long life--she was 95--and to recover that life, to
recover the mother who was delightful to me. Even when she was problematic,
she was also a source of great delight. So it is a labor, but I think it's an
important one to sort of dig out from the rubble of her last illness a
delightful mother.

GROSS: And where are you going to find about who she was?

Ms. GORDON: Well, one of the pieces that I'm working on now is about my
mother and her perfume, that I discovered a perfume that my mother had used,
which kind of went off the market for a long time, which was Arpege. And I
was in the airport in Paris, and I said, `Oh, my God, Arpege. I'll smell it.'
And I smelt it, and a whole world opened up to me. So I'm interested in
exploring her through her scents and through the perfumes that she used, which
were a way of my being delighted by her and being delighted by the possibility
of being female.

GROSS: In trying to reconstruct your mother's life, are you starting to think
about things that you have experienced as a mother? You think of your mother
from the perspective of a daughter. But you're a mother of two grown children
yourself now, and you've just written a book, written a novel about a
mother-daughter relationship. So are you trying to understand things from
your mother's point of view that you never perhaps noticed before? And I'm
wondering if any of the issues, any of the mother-daughter issues, that you
bring up in your novel "Pearl," if you think any of those existed for your

Ms. GORDON: I think, you know, my mother was so radically different from me in
that--when I say this, it sounds snobbish or elitist, and I hope to be able to
get past that. My mother was a peasant. My mother not just--she was very,
very smart, but she absolutely did not believe in self-consciousness. She
thought she was in the grips of fate. She would have called it God's will.
But she didn't think she had a lot of control over her life, or she was not
particularly interested in shaping it. And she was absolutely uninterested in
self-examination or self-analysis, you know? And she would say to me, `Well,
you know, you dwell on things. You just harp on things. And you just make
yourself miserable. I just live.'

And the fact that my mother was essentially an unself-conscious person makes
her so different from me. I mean, my mother would just--had virtually no
self-censorship mechanism. She would just say anything that came into her
head with no notion that that might leave a mark on me. And I was so
conscious of everything that I said potentially leaving a mark that it was
almost as if we had very different experiences as mothers. And my mother was
also physically handicapped. She was a polio victim. And so I was her
caretaker in a way that I was determined that my children were not going to be
my caretakers. I mean, I was just going to run marathons to prove that they
didn't need to take care of me. And when I see some of the rages and
anxieties in myself that my mother had, I always say, `Oh, God, I really don't
want to be that.' I think we share a playfulness and a love of pleasure. But
essentially because she was an unself-conscious person who thought she had
really very little control over her life, we're such different people that I
don't think our experiences were very similar.

GROSS: Mary Gordon, it's been a pleasure to talk with you. Thank you so

Ms. GORDON: You, too, Terry. Thank you.

GROSS: Mary Gordon's new novel is called "Pearl."

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Coming up, critic at large John Powers tells us about some of the best
films he saw at the Sundance Film Festival. This is FRESH AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Analysis: Sundance Film Festival

The Sundance Film Festival wrapped up Saturday night with its awards ceremony.
Sundance is the premier showcase for independent films and launches the
careers of many actors, writers and directors. Robert Redford's Sundance
Institute has run the festival since the mid-'80s. It's held in Park City,
Utah. Our critic at large, John Powers, attended the festival. We asked him
to talk with us about some of the best films he saw.

John, you started going to Sundance at the very beginning of the festival.
But this was your first time back in about five years. How has it changed?

JOHN POWERS reporting:

Well, when I first went to the festival in the mid-1980s, it was this very
tiny thing with earnest, lousy movies. And you just thought, `Nobody here has
any talent.' And then over the years, it kind of grew. You saw the arrival
of Steven Soderbergh and Quentin Tarantino and Paul Thomas Anderson. And it
grew bigger and bigger and bigger. And through the '90s, whenever I would go,
I would start being overwhelmed that it had become, right in the middle of
Utah, this huge cultural event.

I hadn't been for five years. And when I went back, the first couple of days
I was astounded at how much bigger and crazier it had gotten since I had been
there the last time. When I had been there before, I thought it was as big
and crazy as it could get. But now it's almost a bit like Ft. Lauderdale
during spring break. You know, in the old days, you know, it was packed with
people partying, but they were all united by an interest in movies, even if
the interest was nothing more than the desire to see Anne Heche or Ben
Affleck. Now you actually have hundreds of kids who show up for the first
weekend who don't care at all about the movies. They're there because they
know that when that many showbiz people show up, there are going to be really
cool parties. So the party people descend the first weekend.

And also the first weekend, you actually have all the agents who are hoping to
make the big deals, because part of what Sundance's whole thing is these days
is making the big, high-profile deal that will both launch a film and show
that your company is serious. So for, like, the first, maybe, 72 hours of the
festival, it was a madhouse. At one point I was driving maybe half a mile in
downtown Park City, and it took me 50 minutes to do it because I was
following, you know, stretch limo SUVs. You would actually have these drunken
kids spilling out while stretch limo SUVs were trying to make left turns. I
mean, it was just an absolute madhouse. And I thought, `Get me out of here.
This is the maddest thing I've ever been in.'

GROSS: Let's talk a little bit about the movies that you saw. Let's start
with some of the movies that won the top prizes. The top award, the Grand
Jury Prize, went to a movie called "Forty Shades of Blue." Would you have
given it the award? Tell us something about the movie.

POWERS: I probably wouldn't have. I mean, it's a nice movie. It's a
domestic drama in which Rip Torn plays this kind of overpowering Memphis
father who's married to a Russian emigre wife and has a son who feels kind of
beleaguered and overshadowed by the sheer Rip Torn-ness of his father. And as
anybody who's ever seen Rip Torn knows, when Rip Torn is going full throttle,
the sheer Rip Torn-ness of Rip Torn is pretty impressive. And it's a story
basically of people trying to find some sort of way of getting free from each
other and trying to live. It's actually very slow, rather stately. It feels
a bit like a short story.

I liked it fine, but I actually liked better the film that I think that the
jury came quite close to giving the top prize to, which was a film called "The
Squid and the Whale." You know, if you're a veteran at looking at juries, you
sometimes see these kind of odd patterns of voting. So although Ira Sachs,
who made "Forty Shades of Blue," won the top prize, he didn't win any other
awards. The best director and the best writer is Noah Baumbach, who made "The
Squid and the Whale." And having been in jury rooms, I can feel that that's
one of those cases where half the group thought "The Squid and the Whale"
should win, half thought "Forty Shades of Blue" should win, and what they
finally did was to say, `We'll give the one the top victory, but we'll give
the two big individual prizes to the other one.'

I much preferred "The Squid and the Whale," which is maybe more my kind of
film. It's set in the '80s in Park Slope and tells the story of Baumbach's
family. His parents broke up in the '80s when he was in high school, and it
traces what happens when this highly intellectual New York family breaks up,
and the kids have to deal with it. I mean, in real life, Baumbach's father
was a novelist, Jonathon Baumbach. His mother was a critic and writer,
Georgia Brown. And in fact, you see in this movie all the things that you
very seldom see in American movies, how men and women fight over career
things. You know, in the film, the mother's career is starting to do better.
The father's career is starting to slide a little bit. That creates tension.
That tension enters the heads of the two kids. And it's actually very, very
wittily and movingly played out.

GROSS: Well, I'm really looking forward to this movie. I'm hoping it has a
distributor, and we'll get to see it.

POWERS: Oh, it'll have a distributor. And it has just this unbelievably
wonderful performance by Jeff Daniels, who plays the bullying father who's
always, you know, bullying on the tennis court, is always pontificating about
literature and is, I guess, the whale of the title. You know, he just fills
every room he's in with his self-pity, his self-assurance and all the rest.
And it was actually very nice for me just to see Jeff Daniels get that kind of
role because I, you know, in the strange world of movies--and you know this
very well, Terry--there are people who you thought were going to be big stars,
and somehow the world wasn't very nice to them. You know, 20 years ago, Jeff
Daniels was, you know, in "The Purple Rose of Cairo" and in "Something Wild."
And everyone thought he's the coming guy, you know. And then within 10 years,
he's playing in "Dumb and Dumber" and small, little roles. And here, you're
reminded, `Boy, this guy's really a good actor.'

GROSS: OK. Well, the movie's called "The Squid and the Whale." Let's talk
about the movie that got the Audience Award. And it's called "Hustle & Flow."
What'd you think of this one, John?

POWERS: Oh, it's rubbish. But...


POWERS: But it's rubbish of a kind that's really fascinating. If you go to
Sundance long enough, what you realize is there's a particular kind of film
about African-American life that Sundance always eats up. And usually it's
that kind of film about life, a film about African-American life, that's both
street-wise and gritty, and also life-affirming. So on the one hand, it kind
of gives you lots of "Rocky"-style cliches but makes you feel like you're
down, you know, in the mean streets with the African-American people.

I remember seeing the screening of the movie, and this was the big event of
the opening weekend, was the screening of "Hustle & Flow," you know, where the
co-chairman of Viacom had flown in, surrounded by people all looking nervously
to see how he's reacting to the movie. Studio heads are on the phone saying,
`Should we buy this movie without even seeing it?' And the audience is jacked
sky-high for this movie. And, you know, the audience is 95 percent white and
upper-middle-class in Utah.

And what the movie is about is about a sensitive pimp who decides that he
wants to become basically a hip-hop artist and sort of realize his dream. And
people actually do say things like, `Man gotta have a dream, dog.' Anyway,
this is what he does. And so, you know, when you first see him, he's busy
lecturing one of the women who works for him before he sells her to somebody.
Along the way, to get money for his project, he sells his women. But in fact,
we're supposed to kind of be with him.

And what's really weird in watching it is that the level of casual misogyny in
the film is so profound that you realized if it was about any other group than
women, people, you know, would be up in arms about it. In fact, everybody's
fine. And there's one part where the sensitive pimp is writing his song about
how hard it is to be a pimp. And in order to make the song about how hard it
is to be a pimp better, he gets one of his prostitutes to sing a chorus.
She's not singing with quite enough heart, so he pops her to make her sing a
little bit harder. And the crowd ate it up. I mean, I simply couldn't
believe it, that somehow the desire to be with the happening thing and the
racially happening thing and the big-money thing at Sundance causes people to
lose their mind sometimes. And I think that's what happened with "Hustle &
Flow." A few years ago, it happened with the movie "Slam," where all of a
sudden everyone thought this is the real black experience, slam poets. And,
you know, there was the same kind of thing where the audience went berserk.
And then, in fact, nobody wanted to go see the movie.

GROSS: This story also has the big, like, financial studio drama behind it,
too. What's that drama?

POWERS: Well, the drama is that this was the film from the very beginning
that everyone thought was going to be the film that was going to make the most
money. Before the festival had started, the Los Angeles Times had already run
a piece, talking about the crazed bidding that was going to take place for the
film. You know, and in fact in the run-up, before people had even gone or
seen the film, the media is already building up the thought that John
Singleton has this movie that he's going to sell for lots of money. Once that
gets started, the apparatus starts rolling, every industry person has to be
there. It was the hardest ticket to get at Sundance the entire time. As I
say, I talked to people who ran specialty film divisions at major studios,
whose bosses were on the phone saying, `Let's just buy it without seeing it.'
And you're talking in this case about maybe spending 7, $8 million. In the
end, it sold for $9 million and got a two-picture deal beyond that for the
director, Craig Brewer, who, in fact, is a perfectly serviceable talent. You
know, it's not as though he's terrible. It's just that when you're having the
great celebration of independent cinema that is Sundance, to have the movie
there which is the hot movie be basically just a old-fashioned Hollywood movie
but dirty, is a very funny thing.

GROSS: My guest is FRESH AIR's critic at large, John Powers. We'll talk more
about the Sundance Film Festival after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: We're talking with our critic at large, John Powers, about the
Sundance Film Festival, which concluded Saturday night with its awards

Well, you told us about one of the movies you really liked a lot, the Noah
Baumbach film "The Squid and the Whale." Is there another film that you'd
like to single out that you really like, whether or not it won an award at

POWERS: Well, there's a film I liked quite a lot called "Thumbsucker," which
was made by Mike Mills. And it was based on a novel by Walter Kirn. It's his
novel. It's about a kid who basically can't fit in with society. And he goes
through various encounters, trying to sort of make peace with his life. You
know, so he actually has to go to his Zen orthodontist, played by Keanu
Reeves. And he's in a debate class where his debate teacher is, of all
things, Vince Vaughn. And it's a very accomplished film. The guy who made
it, Mike Mills, is sort of part of that group of people that includes Spike
Jonze and Sofia Coppola. And one of the things that's interesting about them
is that they come out of video and commercials, yet more than most people who
do that, they have a very real gift to somehow actually tell stories and keep
the things human in a way that lots of people who come out of that can't.
This actually has a very wonderful, young actor named Lou Pucci, who I think
is going to be a star. He's got a very sweet face. It's kind of--you can
sort of imagine Johnny Depp a little less pretty but the same kind of
soulfulness and same kind of radiance that you really want to watch him, you
know. And he actually was really, really good in the film. And, you know, I
liked that.

If I could mention something else on the opposite end, one of the nice things
about Sundance is that although you often hear that it's a hideously
commercialized place, every year it shows scads and scads of things that are
interesting and good that really don't have any commercial life. One of them
is called "Symbiopsychotaxoplasm Take 2 1/2," which I saw, which is a
wonderful film. It's made by an African-American director, William
Greaves. And what it's about--and it's a very tricky thing--is that it's
set over 35 years. It actually begins with a film that Greaves made in 1968
about the romance between a white man who's apparently gay and a black woman.
They're actually married. But it's a white gay man and a black woman. And in
fact, that film is the story that's being told in 1968. But there's a
secondary story in the original film which has to do with how the crew is
reacting to William Greaves telling the story of the gay white guy and the
African-American woman. And in fact, the original version of the film which
was released in 1968 is, in fact, a classic '60s production of criticism,
self-criticism, 'cause it not only tells the narrative story of this couple,
but it also tells the story of the making of the movie about this couple. And
in fact, the drama and conflict is much harsher between the crew and the
director than it is between the man and the woman.

GROSS: John, say the title of the movie again so we can remember it.

POWERS: The title is--it's called "Symbiopsychotaxoplasm Take 2 1/2." I
would add one other interesting thing about this film, which is that it's
presented by Steven Soderbergh. You know, one of the nice things that I've
always liked about Soderbergh as a Hollywood person is that you often find his
name attached to these interesting, weird little projects where, you know, he
puts his little bit of help to help somebody get a film out that isn't
commercial, but it's doing something that really interests him. And if you
watch the Soderbergh shows like "K Street," you realize he's very interested
in process. And the Greaves film is a film about process, the process of
making a movie. So it's a natural thing. But Soderbergh was there to support
the movie, which is a very good thing.

GROSS: So are there interesting insights into acting in this movie about the
making of the movie?

POWERS: Oh, yeah. It's actually, I think, maybe the best movie about acting
I've ever seen. And normally you hear people talk about acting, you know, and
they tell various anecdotes. But here you're following the process of people
shaping performances. You know, you have the method person coming in and you
kind of have the primal therapy person coming in, and you watch them play it
in different ways. You watch the actor be unhappy with the way the actress is
playing the part. You watch the actress be unhappy with the way the actor's
playing the part. You watch the director be unhappy with the way the actor
and actress are playing the part. And you gradually get to see how what seems
like a simple thing, which is this man and woman talking on a screen, is the
result of this incredibly complicated process of back-and-forth where they're
working everything through and, in fact, is deeply connected to their sense of
themselves, everything from, you know, your fear to their vanity.

GROSS: I can't let you go without asking you about your favorite party
moments if, in fact, you went to any of the parties at Sundance.

POWERS: Oh, I went to a lot of parties at Sundance, partly 'cause that's
where a lot of the action is. The best party to go--to have been to, I think,
was the one for "Inside Deep Throat," the documentary that Universal is about
to bring out about that famous oral sex movie from the '70s that's the most
successful movie of all time. And you know, really interesting thing,
Universal Pictures decided to have a party in what I believe is normally a
yoga studio where you came in and, you know, they played '70s music and showed
kind of clips on the wall while two strippers gyrated in the middle, you know,
doing all of this. I mean, I'd never been actually to a party thrown by a
movie studio that had quite that feeling. And, you know, they had been flown
in from LA to, you know, strut their stuff, to give you that kind of sordid,
tawdry '70s feel.

You know, and there were a couple of funny things about it. There's a great
moment when the film's producer, Brian Grazer, who people would know as--he's
the guy who is Ron Howard's partner and who made a beaut--you know, you saw
him on the stage accepting the Oscar for "A Beautiful Mind," and is considered
a high-minded fella. Well, he's produced this movie about "Deep Throat," and
he's there standing, kind of giddy and happy, at the whole party, and behind
him, the two women are gyrating, simulating sex acts. And I saw a
photographer racing up to get a photo of Brian Grazer in front of these women,
and the Universal publicist very tactfully pulled him away, knowing, you know,
that it's one thing to actually have this kind of secret party where all this
is happening in a small place in Utah; it's another thing to have the entire
world see one of the prides and joy of Universal at this party standing
gleefully in front of strippers.

The other thing that's sort of funny was that I was told that some of the
locals were slightly put off that they actually had to fly in the strippers
from LA. They were sort of offended because, in fact, there is a strip club
in Park City, Utah. So you didn't actually have to fly in stripping talent.
And I thought this was like the weirdest spin on the blue state/red state
thing of all time...

GROSS: (Laughs)

POWERS: ...which is, you know, the blue-state elitists, you know, are
condescending to our red-state strippers. I thought, OK, the world is just
too nuts now.

GROSS: Well, sadly, John, one of the souvenirs of Sundance this year was the
flu, which you're recovering from now. So I want to thank you for talking
with us today in spite of the fact that you're a little under the weather, and
I hope you feel better soon.

POWERS: Oh, sure. You know, and actually, one of the fun things about
Sundance is that it's kind of like being at summer camp or kindergarten. You
know, you're there with your friends and you're running around, you're keeping
crazy hours. And just as everybody always gets sick together in summer camp
or in kindergarten, when you go to the same movies over and over again for the
same people, it's like some sort of huge petri dish for viruses, and
eventually everybody gets it. I happened to get it this year.

GROSS: OK. Well, John, thanks so much for talking with us.

POWERS: My pleasure.

GROSS: John Powers is critic at large for FRESH AIR and film critic for Vogue


GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
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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