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The Program for the 50th Anniversary of Cannes Falls Flat

Fresh Air film critic Joh Powers has been in Cannes for the film festival. He talks with Terry about what he saw there.



Related Topics

Other segments from the episode on May 21, 1997

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, May 21, 1997: Interview with John Powers; Interview with Rick Moody; Review of the "Ultra Lounge" CD series.


Date: MAY 21, 1997
Time: 12:00
Tran: 052101np.217
Head: Remembering Cannes
Sect: Entertainment
Time: 12:06

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Our film critic John Powers just returned home from the world's biggest, glitziest, and most important film festival, the Cannes International Film Festival on the French Riviera.

Film industry people from around the world come to watch the new movies and make deals. The streets are also filled with movie fans hoping to catch a glimpse of a visiting celebrity.

John spent last week watching movies from around the world, some of which will be heading this way in the near future.

We asked him to talk with us about the new movies and about the scene at the festival. I asked him if this year's festival was set apart by its 50th anniversary.

JOHN POWERS, FRESH AIR COMMENTATOR: Well, actually, you know, the French are extremely good at pomp, and so that you knew all along that the 50th anniversary was going to be something special. But the problem is that you can't control the quality of films that you get for a 50th anniversary.

So, what happened was that the festival was filled with stars, I mean celebrities were being airlifted in like -- and boated in as some sort of celebrity D-Day at Cannes.


And, you know, everywhere you turned there were famous people.

And at the same time, they were giving a special award to Ingmar Bergman, the Palm d'Or of Palm d'Ors, which was the 50th anniversary to the filmmaker who they thought was the best filmmaker never to win there.

So, they were doing all this sort of stuff. President Jacques Chirac flew in for the ceremonies. There were zillions and zillions of people in the city to see all this pageantry.

And, yet, at the same time, even as all that was happening, people thought the festival was flat and that the movies were no good. And so that you had this strange disjunction between the aspirations of a 50th anniversary festival and the actual fact of it.

GROSS: Does France set the tone for the festival?


The French are probably the great film loving culture in the world. You know, unlike the United States, for example, film is considered to be an essential part of the national culture and an essential part of world culture. And so that when you go there you're immediately struck by how much more seriously film is taken, both as entertainment and as culture, than probably anyplace in the world.

An example of that would be that there was a series of things they would show before the competition screenings, and they were called preludes. And what they would be, they'd be little five-minute snippets on a various theme like striped clothes or Mozart. And there would be snippets from films throughout film history from all over the world.

And what was interesting was the French audience almost always knew the clips as soon as they appeared. So, there'd be a momentary clip from "Bringing Up Baby," the Howard Hawks film, and within two seconds there'd be a gasp from the crowd because they all knew the film.

And that wouldn't be true in the United States, for instance, where I think people would barely, especially young people, would barely recognize Cary Grant. In France these things are well known.

GROSS: Let's talk about the scene at Cannes for a bit. What was the high point of the festival scene?

POWERS: Well, actually there were several high points of the festival scene.

You know, for me this probably wasn't the high point, but it was a peculiar point, was that Planet Hollywood had just opened under the Splendide (ph) Hotel. The Splendide is sort of the hotel that's nearest to the festival Palais (ph) and is sort of a meeting place for a lot of people.

And for years they'd been trying to keep out American culture. McDonald's had tried to put a restaurant there, and, you know, it was a great local triumph when McDonald's was kept out.

But Planet Hollywood came in this year, and they were able to sort of exert their influence and occupy that space. And as a sort of promotional thing, a lot of the parties were being held at Planet Hollywood this year.

And I remember sitting one Saturday afternoon talking to Woody Harrelson who was, you know, talking a bit about (intelligible) and a little bit about hemp and a little bit about his film about Sarajevo.

And looking out the window of Planet Hollywood, you could see people at the gate, and gradually it was like something from "The Birds," you know, where like every time you look you know, there were more seagulls appearing.


And that's precisely what happened. Every time you looked there were more French people waiting outside just to get a glimpse of Woody Harrelson.

And so that was the sort of general feeling of it, was -- I mean there was another day when I was trying to go down the street, and the problem was no one could move because people were so packed because Sylvester Stallone might be being seen in Planet Hollywood.

GROSS: The Planet Hollywood thing is so bizarre because here you have a genuine film event, and the center of activity at the genuine film event is this like theme park version of movieland, which is Planet Hollywood.

POWERS: Yes. Well, I think that actually is part of the great -- that was part of the great split between the high and low sides of the festival.

You know, the high side of the festival is Ingmar Bergman. The low side is you actually have people going to the theme park version of the real thing. And actually in some ways, for a lot of people, preferring the theme park version of the real thing.

GROSS: 'Cause that's where all the big stars were?

POWERS: Well, that's partly 'cause that's where all the big stars were, because Planet Hollywood has been very well marketed. And it's because in a way you felt as if you had a little big more access.

Even though you weren't going to get to touch John Travolta either at the Palais for the festival or at Planet Hollywood, somehow you knew that really, if you waited a week, you could go into Planet Hollywood. But you still couldn't get into the Palais of the festival.

GROSS: Speaking of Hollywood, what's Hollywood's relation to the Cannes film festival?

POWERS: I think skeptical and suspicious. I think they used to like it more, but I think what's happened is now that release schedules in the United States have become such a big and important business, that you can no longer arrange things around the Cannes Film Festival.

So that most of the films that would be done for the summer and that would be the most appropriate for Cannes are busy -- actually they're probably not done right now, people are busy crashing them through, so that there's no way of actually getting them into Cannes.

Then there's the secondary risk, which is that if you show a Hollywood film at Cannes and people don't like it, you've created the sort of bad international buzz on your film.

I mean I think one of the most interesting events at Cannes this year was when Miramax had this big movie called "Copland" (ph) which stars Sylvester Stallone in his attempt to become paunchy and ordinary and human. And it has Robert De Niro, Harvey Keitel, and lots of other stars.

The film was invited by Cannes, but Miramax said that it wasn't done. Now, I mean some people don't believe that. I don't what's true about this or not.

But in any case, the problem was the risk of showing a film like that at Cannes would be that you'd have bad press two or three months before you opened.

So, what Miramax very cleverly did was they showed 30 good minutes from "Copland" and then flew in Stallone, Robert De Niro, and all the rest, and bused all of us journalists out to the famous Hotel du Cap, one of the most beautiful spots in the world, where we could then talk to the people about the film we hadn't seen. Because this ensured that they were gonna get the most publicity of any film in the world on that day, and they didn't even have to show it.

GROSS: John, you served on the jury at the Sundance Film Festival in the States, and you told us about that a few months ago. Did you have a new empathy for the jury at the Cannes Film Festival?

POWERS: Well, I did, just because I know that at Cannes, even more than at Sundance, you're under the spotlight all the time.

I mean also part of the problem if you're on the jury at Cannes is that you're likely to be famous, so that what that means is that you really can't walk out of anything. And if you're sitting there, you are being watched all the time.

Plus, you're under enormous pressure because Cannes is closer in spirit to, say, the Vatican than it is to, I don't know, some sort of, some sort of Swiss model of open democracy. So, you always have this sense that there are secret agendas being pursued the entire time.

So, one of the agendas of this festival was that everyone knew that an American film wasn't going to win the festival.

GROSS: Why not?

POWERS: Because the Americans have been winning a lot lately. But, in addition to that, it's that this was the 50th anniversary for international film, and all over the world people are worried that Hollywood and American films are taking over. So, it was gonna be very, very difficult for an American film to win on the 50th anniversary because that would somehow seem like capitulation.

GROSS: So, what did win at the Cannes Film Festival?

POWERS: Well, actually the -- you could tell it was a tortured jury because they split the top prize, which on a 50th anniversary means that you're actually diluting the impact of your choice.

And from what I heard the jury wasn't happy. On the stage on the closing night they weren't looking at one another. They all looked miserable. They all looked drawn. I'm told that, you know, they'd spent a long time fighting over everything.

What finally won were two films, one from Iran called "The Taste of the Cherry," and it tied with a Japanese film called "The Eel." And "The Eel"'s by a man by the name of Shohei Imamura, who'd actually won the festival before.

Whereas "The Taste of Cherry" is by a man by the name of Abbas Kiarostami, who I think throughout the film world, except in the United States, is probably considered one of the two or three greatest filmmakers now working. He's only had one film released in the United States, and it was basically dumped on the market a couple of years ago.

But his film was the best film in the festival by far. I mean there was no comparison, his was the best film.

GROSS: What makes it so good?

POWERS: I guess what makes his film good is that every single moment is intelligent and tender, to begin with. I mean a lot of films you saw were filled with hatred or contempt for people, or lectured you about how the fact that violence is bad.

You know, I mean there was one film, if I can just say this parenthetically, whose point seemed to be to prove to the audience that it's wrong to shoot the heads off old men. And...


GROSS: A lesson I feel I need to learn.

POWERS: Yes, I was gonna say that, you know, that somehow I feel I knew that even before going in and can't see why he seemed so pleased with himself for announcing it.

But the Kiarostami film is a very simple film, it's a man driving around, and he's going to commit suicide. And he's looking for the person to bury him.

And what happens is, he sort of drives the same route over and over again, and he meets just different people. He meets a soldier, he meets a seminary student. And they all just talk to him. It's a very simple, pure film.

But what gradually emerges is that this story about a suicide becomes sort of a love letter to life and to the decency of the people he meets. And that as the story goes along, even though the hero is caught in this very dark place, as you watch the film, the film is actually about what is beautiful and wonderful in life.

And it's such a rare thing to see that in a film that when you paired off -- you know, pair that up with the fact that it's beautifully acted, wonderfully shot, it has a wonderful rhythm and seriousness, it was just the best film.

GROSS: Yet it was censored in Iran. Why?

POWERS: Because suicide is officially something you shouldn't do in an Is -- I mean basically Islam is against suicide. So, to even take suicide seriously meant that they didn't want to release the film.

And in fact the only reason it was released was because finally they found one government person who would take it upon his head -- and in Iran I'm sure it was his head -- to take it upon his head to let the film out.

And, I mean, we didn't know it was gonna come until almost halfway through the festival. And almost everyone felt that this was one of the things that actually helped saved the 50th anniversary, because the film that you thought you wouldn't see suddenly appeared and really was the best film.

GROSS: What other films were worthy of note that you want to tell us about?

POWERS: Well, some are, you know, some are worthy of note for bad reasons. Wim Wenders made a movie called "The End of Violence," which is set in Los Angeles and is about Los Angeles as a violent city. And it's so bad that I was almost faint, you know.

I was sitting watching it -- Andie McDowell (ph), who is not, you know, the greatest of actresses at the best of times, at one point is having to describe living with her husband. And she gives a speech that goes something about like this:

Living with him was like being in a giant rocket ship being blasted into space. The view was beautiful, but it was so alone. Things like that.

You know, no actress in the world could put across lines like this.

And so the Wenders film, which to my horror Europeans seem to like, was this preposterous vision of Los Angeles filled with the kind of stuff, I think, that most people in America would be embarrassed doing. All the white people are redeemed because they meet someone of color who's somehow nobler than they are.


So, that was one film.

The other film that stood out just in badness terms was Johnny Depp's directorial debut called "The Brave," where he plays a Native American who's going to sell himself to a snuff film in order to save his family. And this was a film that was in the festival because clearly the festival wanted to have a big star at the festival.

And, you know, Depp seems to think he's making this major statement about life and death, and clearly, as you could tell just from the plot, this is a sort of punchy thriller, you know: what happens to a guy who's so poor and downtrodden that he decides to sell his own murder to be filmed for his family? And this becomes a huge existential statement by Johnny Depp. People were just stupefied watching it.

GROSS: I'm sorry to hear that.

POWERS: (Unintelligible) it's, I think, he's not as clever as one thought, I guess, is the first thing. Yet, strangely enough, that wasn't the film that most people hated the most.

There's a young guy named Mathieu Kassovitz who is sort of the great French hope for the future. He's 29 years old. He's a very good actor. He made the film "La Ain" (ph) or "Hate." He writes. He directs. He's sort of what is described as, you know, basically their Quentin Tarentino (ph).

And he made this film called "Assassins," which was his big statement on violence. And it was so hated that when the film ended he was at the back of the theater cringing, literally cringing, while his handlers were trying to surround him, explaining, oh, no, it's really not so bad to be booed and mocked in your home country.

It was a genuine -- it was like, if you imagine, take "Natural Born Killers," and imagine it being made by someone who was being cynical in doing it. I mean...

GROSS: Oh, unlike Oliver Stone.

POWERS: Yes, that's what I mean. A colder, more manipulative, more derivative version of "Natural Born Killers." And that was this film.

And that was the French film that had been pegged to win, because one of the things going in people knew was the French would really love for Mathieu Kassovitz, their young hope for the future, to win the festival.

But instead it was a film that was just -- it was so bad that there were camera crews outside chortling as journalists left the first screening, and they just kept sort of goading you to say mean things. You know, I mean I said one myself. You know, I mean I was saying that, you know, tonight Johnny Depp doesn't look so dumb.

You know, because -- it was just really, it was a really startling experience to hear that many boos in any movie theater.

GROSS: My guest is our film critic, John Powers, just back from the Cannes film festival. We'll talk more about the festival after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: We're talking about the Cannes Film Festival with our film critic John Powers.

In the second half of our show today we're gonna be featuring an interview with Rick Moody who has a new novel called "Purple America." But his previous novel, "The Ice Storm," was adapted into a film that showed at Cannes. It's directed by Ang Lee, who did "Sense and Sensibility." It stars Sigourney Weaver (ph) and Kevin Kline.

How is it?

POWERS: It's actually pretty good, to my surprise. I didn't think I was going to like it, for all sorts of reasons, having nothing to do with the people involved in it. It just somehow had that feeling of something I wouldn't like. It's about '70s Connecticut.

And as it turns out it's a very -- it pulls you along. It's a little heavyhanded, but it actually captures some emotional truth about what it was like growing up in the 1970s and takes seriously suburban life in a way that lots of films don't take suburban life seriously.

It actually has, you know, a really good performance by Sigourney Weaver as a kind of cold -- as a sort of cold suburban matron. There's some very lovely interactions and some very funny jokes.

It's a strange thing, Ang Lee, being Taiwanese, is one of the people now who's best able to put across this kind of material in an American way. I mean I think it's -- he's, you know, he's a very solid commercial filmmaker.

I think no one would say he's, you know, a great artist auteur like Martin Scorsese, but he actually has a feeling of compassion for his characters. He lets them act.

And, you know, this film, this film actually won the best screenplay award at Cannes for the adaptation of the Rick Moody novel.

GROSS: Another movie I'm interested in hearing about is "The Sweet Hereafter." It's directed by Atom Egoyan, who did "Exotica," which was a really great film. And it's based on a novel by Russell Banks, who's a terrific writer. So, I figured this has a lot of potential.

POWERS: Well, it did. And it was the film that I actually expected to win.

There's a film critic from England named Derek Malcolm (ph) who in an earlier life had been a jockey, actually which says something about the way people become film critics these days. But because he was a jockey, he knows all about making book.

So, every year he has a big bookmaking operation at the end of the festival where people vote on what they think is going to win the top prize. So, you always go to Derek to find out what the odds are on everything.

And for him, "The Ice Storm" was actually, at the very end was the one that people thought was going to win the festival. And "The Sweet Hereafter" was his choice. These were the two odds-on favorites.

As it happened, "The Ice -- or excuse me, "The Sweet Hereafter" finished second. It won the prize that normally leads the person who gets it to insult the jury while on the stage. But Atom Egoyan's Canadian and therefore sweet natured. And he's also an extremely nice guy, so he gave a very gracious speech about not winning.

His film is actually, I think, one of his better films. I didn't love it.

It's got a wonderful topic, you know. It's about a town dealing with the death of a group of school children in a school bus accident. And a lawyer comes into town and basically wants the people to sue, trying to convince them that there's no such thing as just an accident, along the way somebody made a mistake and we should be able to exact something from it. Some people want money. Some people want vengeance.

And it sort of follows -- basically it's about, I think, people dealing with issues beyond their control and comprehension.

It's a nicely made film, but I think a little muffled. I think one of the things that Atom Egoyan tends to do in his films is to use an acting style that, depending on your point of view, is either sort of Brechtian or amateurish, where people don't emote in a full-fledged way.

And in this particular film, what happens is you have this extraordinarily volatile material -- and I know that Atom didn't want to push it and make it too emotional for fear of making it just some sort of horrific tearjerker -- but I think the ultimate effect in this particular film was to kind of tamp it down a bit.

I'm sure when it comes out I'll be talking about it on the show because it's -- I mean it's -- I mean Egoyan is one of the most interesting filmmakers working in the world.

GROSS: So, John, when these movies come out in the states and it's time for you to review them, will you go see them again?

POWERS: I will. I will. I will go see certain films again, and certain other films I won't need to see.

I mean one of things that happens is that a lot of the films that I've seen now will be coming out in two or three months, and I won't go to see them.

But in a case like the Kiarostami film, if it were to come out in the States I would go see it again because it's an extremely complicated film. And I think that it would be part of my job to figure out how I can convince an audience that really doesn't want to see Iranian films to go see this good Iranian film.

You know, I mean one of the things I always say is that I don't know how you could promote an Iranian film to make people in America want to go, you know. I mean, you know, the advertising line I once came up with was, "If you love Iran, you'll love this movie."


But I'm not sure that that would do it.

And yet what does happen, and it's probably one of the strange frustrations for American critics, is that we actually get to get out of the country and see what the rest of the world thinks is good. And once you've done that, it's very frustrating that so little of what the rest of the world thinks is good manages to make it to America.

And so you have this, you have this strange feeling that you're living in a culture that, on the one hand, controls the most powerful film images in the world, and yet is also strangely provincial. So that we don't actually know in some cases who the best filmmakers in the world are because their films only show at festivals. If you live not in New York or Los Angeles, you would have no chance ever to see their films.

So, that was one of the feelings I had. And if I can be, you know, talk about myself a little bit more here, what is something that's always pleasant to do, is that, on the other hand, even as I'm feeling that it would be nice that we had some of the greater awareness of things that Europeans have, I'm often driven crazy by what Europeans think about films when they seem them.

So that I'm thinking, boy, it'd be great to be in Europe and have that kind of sophistication, but, boy, it'd be terrible to be surrounded by all these dumb Europeans who can't tell that if a Wim Wenders movie is no good.

GROSS: Well, John, welcome back to the States.

POWERS: Thank you.

GROSS: And thanks for talking with us about the festival.

POWERS: OK. Sure thing.

GROSS: John Powers is our film critic and film critic for Vogue magazine.

I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.

Dateline: John Powers, Philadelphia; Terry Gross, Philadelphia
High: FRESH AIR film critic John Powers has been in Cannes for the film festival. He talks with Terry about what he saw there.
Spec: Movie Industry; Europe; France; Cities; Cannes; Festivals

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End-Story: Remembering Cannes
Date: MAY 21, 1997
Time: 12:00
Tran: 052102np.217
Head: Rick Moody
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:32

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Rick Moody has been described as the preeminent young literary chronicler of suburbia's decay. His novel, "The Ice Storm," is set in 1973, as the new sexual freedoms and self-help psychologies come to the suburbs. A new film based on the novel starring Kevin Kline and Sigourney Weaver just won the screen adaptation award at the Cannes Film Festival.

Moody's new novel, "Purple America," is a portrait of a family falling apart. It takes place over the course of one weekend, when a son in his 30s comes to his mother's suburban home to help take care of her. Her husband has just walked out on her, and she has a degenerative illness which has left her helpless.

Here's Rick Moody reading from the opening of Purple America.

RICK MOODY, AUTHOR: "Whosoever knows the folds and complexities of his own mother's body, he shall never die. Whosoever knows the latitudes of his mother's body; whosoever has taken her into his arms and immersed her baptismally in the first floor tub, lifting one of her alabaster legs and then the other over its lip; whosoever bathes her with Woolworth soaps in sample sizes; whosoever twists the creaky taps and tests the water on the inside of his wrist; whosoever shovels a couple of tablespoons of rose bath salts under the billowing faucet and marvels at their vermilion color; whosoever bends by hand her sclerotic limbs, as if reassuring himself about the condition of a hinge; whosoever has kissed his mother on the part that separates the lobes of her white hair, and has cooed her name while soaping underneath the breast where he was once fed; whosoever breathes the acrid and dispiriting stench of his mother's body while scrubbing the greater part of the smell away with Woolworth lavender soaps; who has pushed her discarded bra and oversized panties scattered on the tile floor behind him to one side, away from the water sloshing occasionally over the edge of the tub and choking the runoff drain; who has lost his footing on these panties -- panties once dotted with the blood of children unconceived, his siblings unconceived -- panties now intended to fit over a vinyl undergarment; who has wiped stalactites of drool from his mother's mouth with a moistened violet wash cloth; who has swept back the annoying violet shower curtain, the better to lift up his stick-figure mother and to bathe her posterior where a sweet and infantile effluent sometimes collects, causing her both discomfort and shame."

GROSS: Rick Moody, thanks for reading that. This "whosoever" passage actually goes on for about four pages. That's a really long breath.

MOODY: Yeah, yeah.

GROSS: How does this...

MOODY: Hard to read.

GROSS: How did this opening come to you? The sense of like one, long -- one long sentence, one long meditation?

MOODY: Well, I wanted it to be litanical -- sort of scriptural in a way, and I'd been reading at the time that I started it one of the Gnostic gospels -- the Gospel of Thomas, which begins with a sentence "whosoever reads and understands these sayings, he shall never die." And I just loved the sentence, and I just decided to work with it in a sort of jazz way -- you know, improvise on these rhythms.

GROSS: Well, that's kind of how your "whosoever" ends, too.

MOODY: Yeah, yeah.

GROSS: Do you want to read the ending of this for us?

MOODY: "Whosoever in this instant of sorrow and reverence knows the answers to why roses bloom; why wine glasses sing; why human lips, when kissed, are so soft; and why parents suffer -- he shall never die."

GROSS: So, how did it feel that you basically copped something from the Bible?


MOODY: Well, it's sort of rash, I admit that, but, you know, the Gnostic gospels are considered a little bit rash themselves, and the idea of Gnosticism was that one was allowed to freely invent along the lines of faith, so I figured a little more free invention wouldn't hurt anybody's feelings too much.

GROSS: What were the technical problems of keeping this going for four pages?

MOODY: Well, for me the paramount technical problem is trying to stay close to incident and detail and not spin off into abstractions and stuff. So in a way, I'm trying to tell a little bit of story in this chapter, and that becomes really hard.

How do you move these people around, when the only way you have to move them is introductory, adverbial clauses? You know, you don't really get to the meat of the sentence. You're dealing with these fragments over and over again.

GROSS: Well, I think one of the most, well, disturbing fragments is talking about -- the character talking about his mother's panties which, you know, were once more sexual and are now designed to fit over vinyl undergarments. Was it disturbing to you to think about bathing a mother's private parts and seeing her undergarments?

MOODY: Yeah, it's a deeply painful passage, without a doubt. I mean, the book starts somewhat confrontationally and, you know, I understand -- I have heard from readers -- and understand that it's really hard for people, sometimes.

And it was hard for me writing it, but my feeling was, you know, I'm in a generation where this kind of situation if it's not already part of your life, is imminently a part of your life because our parents are living longer and, you know, so these kinds of situations come up. It's part of life now.

GROSS: Is that part of your life now?

MOODY: Well, no. Actually, my mother's in really good shape, but her mother died quite young and my maternal -- my paternal grandmother had Alzheimer's for many years, about 10 years. So, I've seen my share of these difficulties.

GROSS: The mother asks the son to help her commit suicide. Did you when you were writing this book wonder how you would respond if that question was posed to you?

MOODY: Well actually, Terry, that was the beginning of the book. Because of what happened to my grandmother, you know, she was chronically ill -- I mean, my maternal grandmother.

I think my mother has been very sensitive to these issues, and at a certain point, made clear to me that she had plans with respect to any kind of chronic illness if it arose in her situation. As I say, she's quite well now, but she was thinking about these things. And she said to me, you know: I've made these decisions. I have what I need, if I should develop some kind of chronic illness, you know, I want you to know that.

And that conversation was so difficult for me that it became the kernel for this entire novel.

GROSS: Did you wonder: well, how am I supposed to respond to this? Am I going to say -- am I supposed to say: hey, great, Ma -- you've got it taken care of? You're going to kill yourself if the time comes. Or are you supposed to try to talk her out of it, and say: no, I'd be there for you. There'd be no reason for you to take your life. What are you supposed to say?

MOODY: Well, that's exactly the problem. I mean, what Purple America does for me is not come down on the side of one solution or the other, but present the complexities of trying to answer that question. I would say that in my case, eventually what I said to my mom was: look, you're in great shape. Can you keep this to yourself for now?


You know? And we'll talk about it later if something comes up. But I understand, you know -- I think that the way people work psychologically is that they inhabit all these positions, both sides of the question at one time or another, and that's what Dexter Raitliff (ph), the protagonist of Purple America, does. He flip-flops. He inhabits all the possible responses.

GROSS: My guest is Rick Moody and his new novel is called Purple America.

What is "purple" about in the title of your novel Purple America?

MOODY: Well, it has different meanings in different places, and you know, to land on one to the exclusion of the others is a little dangerous and there's sort of one very specific meaning in the last chapter that I don't want to unravel on the radio. But I will say that there are sort of two preliminary things, having to do with purple, that suggested to me the title.

And the first is the tendency in the '50s, according to my perception, to sort of decorate with pastels. So, there was kind of this purple -- in the decorating palate -- that is much -- is very important in the beginning of the book. And Billie Raitliff (ph), you know, Dexter's mother, being a woman from the -- of the '50s, really, hearkens back to that hue in her decorating scheme. So that's one important part of "purple" in the title.

And the other important aspect of it is that when I set out to write the book, I knew that I wanted to write a book that was operatic with respect to emotion -- that was big and sentimental because, you know, it was just an ambition I had to be that full of pathos. So, I wanted purple in the sort of sloppy American emotional sense. You know, full of feelings.

GROSS: You say you wanted to write a big and sentimental novel. I think a lot of fiction today is really filled with irony and detachment. Did that have anything to do with your desire to try sentimentality?

MOODY: Absolutely...

GROSS: Or sentiment, I should say.

MOODY: Yeah, yeah, exactly. I would make that distinction also. Absolutely it did have to do with wanting to avoid irony. You know, I, as a young writer, I was schooled in sort of the kind of experimental fiction of the '60s and '70s, so I'm well traveled with respect to experimentation and formal innovation and stuff.

I can do all that, but I really wanted to get back to what made fiction exciting for me when I was a kid, which was, you know, character and psychology and emotion and that stuff, and the desire to turn pages to see how people are going to react to calamity and how they're gonna get through the mess that they're in.

GROSS: What did you have to change in yourself as a writer to get from irony to sentiment?

MOODY: You just have to be willing to go down further and, you know, as you were saying about the first chapter, it often means that you have to write about things that are difficult and so forth, and that process can be really draining. It's easy to see why people often would be happy to look for another tactic; would be happy to look in another direction, because writing about this sort of stuff, you know, it's demanding.

GROSS: Sometimes I think that we've taken refuge in irony because real emotion has been cheapened by these kind of false, over-dramatized, over-sentimentalized displays of emotion in bad literature and bad movies and bad TV talk shows and stuff like that. And so, to detach ourselves from that kind of bad, sappy display of emotion, we turn to irony.

MOODY: Yeah, I agree, and it's easy to burlesque. I mean, you can see how people get in the position of sort of burlesquing the big center of American culture because so much of it's so silly sometimes. But I think there really is a place for sort of telling the truth about how emotion really gets articulated, and how people really react.

I find that stuff so invigorating that, you know, it makes literature exciting for me all over again.

GROSS: Rick Moody is my guest. His new novel is called Purple America. Let's take a short break and then we'll talk some more.

This is FRESH AIR.

Back with Rick Moody. His new novel is called Purple America.

An earlier novel of yours called The Ice Storm has just been made into a movie. And it just showed at the Cannes Film Festival and apparently it's been really well-received there. It's directed by Ang Lee who did "Sense and Sensibility" and it stars Kevin Kline and Sigourney Weaver.

Tell us a little bit of what the novel is about?

MOODY: Well, The Ice Storm is set in -- over the weekend after Thanksgiving in 1973 -- roughly speaking when, in the northeast of the U.S., there was this tremendous ice storm with snapping power lines and broken plumbing lines and floods and all kinds of damage. And it was, of course, during Watergate.

And I was living in Connecticut then with my mom, and our house was devastated by the storm. And the novel mainly concerns these two families, the Hoods and the Williams' -- they're called the Carvers in the film for legal reasons -- are sort of involved with their daily life and then suddenly this storm comes and it sort of leads them to try to deal more cogently with some of the issues at hand.

GROSS: Such as?

MOODY: Well, you've got a little sort of suburban adultery; some adolescent sexual exploration; too much drinking; too much taking of drugs -- that kind of stuff. It's really, in my way of thinking, the book is about sort of moral duplicity.

You know, beginning with the Nixon administration and trickling down to a kind of sort of suburban -- maybe moral ambiguity is a better word, or moral confusion -- trickling down to these families in their own small moral confusions.

GROSS: And it's in part, too, isn't it, about a kind of suburban variation on the counter culture and, you know, free love and all that?

MOODY: Yeah, exactly.

GROSS: Did you grow up amid that? Did you grow up watching parents or parents of friends indulge in sexual experimentation?

MOODY: Yeah, there was a little bit of it around. I mean, like I was saying before, the town of New Canaan where the novel is set and where I actually lived at that time would prefer that I say that -- that that was not the case, but sad to say I did observe some of it in the neighborhood.

GROSS: I wonder what that was like? I mean, it's one thing to try things out yourself and it's another to watch your parents do it. I think a lot of young people would prefer to think of their parents as not sexual, or perhaps as sexual with their other -- you know, sexual together, but not with other people. That's a really discomforting experience.

MOODY: Yeah, I think it is. I think it opens your eyes in ways, perhaps, that you aren't prepared to have them opened. But that's the times. I mean, I think that that did happen to many of my contemporaries.

GROSS: You worked in publishing houses before you were published yourself, and I think one of your duties was to read manuscripts and write rejection letters. When you started getting rejection letters yourself, what did you start thinking about rejection letters and how they're written?

MOODY: Well, you know, when I wrote them when I was in publishing, I always tried to imagine that there was a person at the other end of the letter, you know, since I am a writer myself -- that I knew there's a writer out there who's getting this letter. And so I always tried to make them sympathetic in that way.

But it's true that you can never really be completely sympathetic about that situation until you've gotten some yourself, and Garden State got many, many, many rejection letters -- 22, I think, rejection letters. So I learned quite fast humility in this area.

GROSS: How personally did you take the rejection letters?

MOODY: Well, it depended. There were a couple that got under my skin and stayed there for a long time. And, in fact, The Ice Storm was really a reaction against some early criticisms of Garden State. So personally, probably -- I didn't take them personally, but I took them seriously in some cases.

GROSS: What were you reactioning to in those rejection letters?

MOODY: Well, the idea that Garden State was a little bit, sort of, imaginary and not as sort of realistic as it might have been, and that since I came from the middle class, it was probably at that time impossible for me to really know what it was like to be from the working class, and some characters in Garden State came from the working class.

So I realized that it was my duty as a writer, really, to tell fully this story of middle class suburbs as I had experienced them, before I could move on to learn about other people and other situations.

GROSS: Well, it sounds a little, in that respect, like the letters of rejection actually were very productive.

MOODY: They were productive. You know, you don't always like them, but they're certainly productive sometimes.

GROSS: Is there a letter of rejection that you wrote that you're particularly proud of -- that you thought was very sensitively handled?

MOODY: No, it's more often my personal burden, Terry, to imagine the ones that I did badly, and there are plenty of those which I might have done better.

GROSS: Did you write letters of rejection to people who are now wonderful, established writers you admire and who have been praised by critics and so on? In other words, do you feel you really missed the boat with anybody?

MOODY: You mean like the Decca Record executive who turned the Beatles down?

GROSS: Yeah, exactly.

MOODY: Well, there's one I wrote that I feel really annoyed with -- by a really great writer who's now become the head of writing program at my alma mater, in fact. And, yeah, I felt really badly about that one later. I actually have apologized to her since for it.

GROSS: How did she take it?

MOODY: She was mad. In fact, she stayed mad for a good long time.


GROSS: Do you think that a lot of people of your age read fiction now?

MOODY: Well, I don't know the answer to that. You know, I try to avoid these kind of demographic analyses...

GROSS: Right.

MOODY: ... in some ways because, you know, I have to think that when I do my job, I'm not trying to reach a demographic group. I'm trying to reach individual readers. You know, it's a relationship between me and a bunch of individuals, you know. That's how literature does its job. It's done solitarily. You know, a writer is now in the hands of a reader.

But having said that, you know I used to think, based on some examples -- Thomas Pynchon's "Vineland" being on the bestseller list and now "Mason and Dixon," his new novel is about to be on the bestseller list -- you know, that there are certain writers who everybody reads.

And they're, you know -- Pynchon's quite a difficult writer and yet, you know, he's going to sell 200,000 copies of Mason and Dixon or maybe more. And that, to me, is very exciting.

I used to use those kinds of examples to say: literature is fine, and it's really a marketing problem, not a sort of cultural problem in some way. But you know, I do have this sort of sneaking suspicion some days that, you know, that what Jonathan Franzen (ph), for example, has said recently in Harper's is true, that it just doesn't have the same cultural relevance, fiction, that it used to have. You know, that it's not something where you go: oh, I'm going to go read David Foster Wallace's (ph) "Infinite Chess" (ph) because, you know, this is literature and it's about my nation and it's very important that I should know about this.

I think oftentimes, you know, younger people think that the Internet is where the action is or, you know, television, or something. And so, there are more forums competing for this attention now.

GROSS: Well, I want to thank you very much for talking with us. Thanks.

MOODY: Thanks a lot, Terry.

GROSS: Rick Moody's new novel is called Purple America. His novel The Ice Storm has been adapted into a new film, starring Kevin Kline and Sigourney Weaver.

This is FRESH AIR.

Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia
Guest: Rick Moody
High: Novelist Rick Moody. His work has been compared to Cheever and Updike. His latest novel is "Purple America." His previous novel "The Ice Storm" has been made into a film which just won the best screenplay adaption award at the Cannes Film Festival.
Spec: Books; Movie Industry; People; Rick Moody; The Ice Storm; Purple America
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright (c) 1997 National Public Radio, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by Federal Document Clearing House, Inc. under license from National Public Radio, Inc. Formatting copyright (c) 1997 Federal Document Clearing House, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to National Public Radio, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission. For further information please contact NPR's Business Affairs at (202) 414-2954
End-Story: Rick Moody
Date: MAY 21, 1997
Time: 12:00
Tran: 052103np.217
Head: Ultra Lounge Reissued
Sect: Entertainment
Time: 12:53

TERRY GROSS, HOST: Call him a party pooper. Call him square, but commentator Milo Miles has been listening to revived recordings of cool, swinging, laid-back, and fun music he happens to think is none of those things.

MILO MILES, FRESH AIR COMMENTATOR: Ten years ago, if you had asked the executives of several major record companies whether or not they would ever make another dime off of obscure performers in their back catalog such as Esclavelle (ph), Les Baxter (ph), and Martin Denny (ph), they would like have said: absolutely not. We might as well burn the master tapes.

But in the last three years, a whole market niche has opened up, devoted to what's called "lounge" music; or "space age bachelor pad" music; or "cocktail cool;" or "that junk dad used to play on the hi-fi before the Beatles took over."

Now, major music stores have sections devoted to lounge, and dozens of young bands apparently make a living playing some updated variety of it. Actually, there is no one type of music in the lounge category. The term covers a range of oddball styles, mostly recorded from the middle '50s to the early '60s.

Here's my run-down of the types, based on Capitol Records' definitive "Ultra-lounge Reissue Series:" "Mondo Exotica" -- world music for tourists. Bandleader Martin Denny founded the style in Hawaiian hotel bars -- "international" in the sense of "International House of Pancakes."


"Space Capades," pseudo-far out instrumentals from the era when astronauts when astronauts were new, musical equivalent of the hoola hoop.


"Bachelor Pad Royale" -- light jazz trifle suitable for brooding or for wimpy dancing when up-tempo.


"Rhapsodesia" (ph) -- gooey white red romance tunes intended to accompany the seduction scene at the bachelor pad. Pretend bandleader Jackie Gleason specialized in this stuff. I ask you: who would want Ralph Kramden around in an intimate moment?


MILES: There a number of sad and terrible implications to the lounge revival. One problem is the corruption of the concept of "cool." Lounge is now hip city simply because it had once been so un-cool. Remember: Howlin' Wolfe (ph) was the underground sound of 1960, not Peggy Lee and Wayne Newton.

Besides, it's distressing that lounge music purveyors back when assumed there was no market for the hard stuff, like straight jazz -- thoughtful, experimental works, or authentic styles played by non-white people in other countries.

Anyone can hear and enjoy the non-goofy sources of lounge music nowadays, so getting all excited about this musical chop suey is repugnant. And just how much of a kick is the retro atmosphere of busty babes and guys with shiny hair?

Los Angeles artist Byron Warner (ph) coined the term "space age bachelor pad" music, and has noted that it's intended audience was: lonely guys with too much disposable income, who are picky about their stereos.
Early '60s nerds, in other words.

Now, you can be an ironic early-'60s nerd if you want, but make no mistake: that's what you're aspiring to as an ultra-lounge fan.

GROSS: Milo Miles is a music writer living in Cambridge. He reviewed Capitol Records' Ultra-Lounge Reissue Series.

Dateline: Milo Miles, Cambridge; Terry Gross, Philadelphia
High: Music critic Milo Miles reviews Capitol Records' "Ultra Lounge" reissue series.
Spec: Movie Industry; History; 1970s
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright (c) 1997 National Public Radio, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by Federal Document Clearing House, Inc. under license from National Public Radio, Inc. Formatting copyright (c) 1997 Federal Document Clearing House, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to National Public Radio, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission. For further information please contact NPR's Business Affairs at (202) 414-2954
End-Story: Ultra Lounge Reissued
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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