June 8, 2012
Guests: Natasha Trethewey â Ray Bradbury
DAVE DAVIES, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, filling in for Terry Gross. This week, the Library of Congress announced that Natasha Trethewey will be the next poet laureate of the United States, one of the youngest poets ever selected for that honor. So we're going to listen to an interview she recorded with Terry in 2007 after winning the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for her book "Native Guard."
Many of the poems in that collection are personal, relating to growing up biracial in Mississippi and Georgia. Her white father and African-American mother married when interracial marriage was still illegal in Mississippi. Trethewey's parents divorced when she was a child.
Life took a dark turn when her mother remarried and was murdered by her second husband in 1985, about a year after they divorced. Trethewey writes about that, too, in her collection of poems.
One section of the book is devoted to the Native Guards, regiments of black soldiers who had been slaves before fighting on the Union side in the Civil War. Natasha Trethewey is a professor of creative writing at Emory University in Atlanta. When she spoke to Terry in 2007, they started with the poems Trethewey wrote about her mother's murder. She told Terry it took a long time before she could write poems about it that were any good.
NATASHA TRETHEWEY: For many years, I would try occasionally to write a poem about it, and none of the poems that I wrote over the 20-year period since her death were successful to me. They weren't able to express the tremendous grief artfully in a way that I thought that a poem should.
And so I didn't start writing ones that make it into this book until I moved back to Atlanta about six years ago, and I think returning to the physical landscape of my past and of that great tragedy is what finally made me start writing the poems that I have here now in this book.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
How was your mother killed?
TRETHEWEY: My stepfather came to her apartment on the morning of June 5, 1985, and forced himself into the apartment. He found my brother outside waiting at the school bus and demanded his key and opened the door and found my mother there. And she struggled a bit to get away and ran out into the parking lot, where he caught up to her and shot her twice at close range in the face and neck.
GROSS: I want you to read a poem called "What is Evidence," and please introduce it to us before you read it.
TRETHEWEY: "What is Evidence" is a poem that tries to get at what remains both in terms of the physical and the memory of something. And I started thinking about writing this poem when I had visited my mother's grave again and felt overwhelmed by how there seemed to be nothing left of her or nothing left to remind me of her.
(Reading) What is Evidence? Not the fleeting bruises she'd cover with makeup, a dark patch as if imprint of a scope she pressed her eye too close to, looking for a way out, nor the quiver in the voice she'd steady, leaning into a pot of bones on the stove. Not the teeth she wore in place of her own or the official document, its seal and smeared signature fading already, the edges wearing. Not the tiny marker with its dates, her name, abstract as history.
(Reading) Only the landscape of her body, splintered clavicle, pierced temporal, her thin bones settling a bit each day, the way all things do.
GROSS: That's a great poem. You know, you titled it "What is Evidence," and when you introduced it, you talked about evidence of her life that remains, but it also seems to me that it's about evidence that could be used in her murder trial or in previous trials, if she brought him to trial about abuse.
TRETHEWEY: That's right. Those things that are in the first lines are the kind of things that were reported by emergency workers or the lawyers that she talked to in order to secure her divorce and also things that came up in the first trial, a year before, when he tried to kill her the first time.
GROSS: How aware were you when they were married, your stepfather and your mother, of the way that he abused her? Did she tell you about it? Did you see evidence of it?
TRETHEWEY: The first time that I was aware of it, I was in the fifth grade, and it happened in the late evening, perhaps 11 o'clock or so, but it was past my bedtime. And my brother had a room that was right next to their bedroom; my bedroom was down the hall. And so I think that's why I didn't know sooner what was going on.
And sometimes my brother, if he was afraid to sleep by himself, he was a toddler then, I would sleep in one of the bunk beds in his room, and on that particular night, I woke up to hear the sound coming from their bedroom of him hitting her and her pleading for him not to.
GROSS: And how old were you, in fifth grade?
TRETHEWEY: I was in fifth grade, and the next morning, I went to school, and I was very close to my fifth-grade teacher, and I asked her to come outside the classroom so I could talk to her, and we went down to the girls' bathroom, and I told her what happened. And she said, well, sometimes adults are upset with each other.
And I was crestfallen because I knew that that wasn't the right response. It was just a response that said this is how it is, and there's nothing that really can be done. And so that night, I went home, and I went to my mother's room. She was sitting on the bed folding clothes, and I got up my courage, and I said to her in kind of abstract terms: Do you know how when you have someone you love, and you know they're hurting?
And she looked at me, and she nodded her head, and she had this very large bruise and a bump over the - over her eyebrow. And later on that night, I heard her telling him, telling my stepfather Tasha knows, as if he might stop if he knew that I knew.
GROSS: Did he ever threaten you?
TRETHEWEY: Not physically. He would often devise devious punishments for me when I was a child that mainly involved telling me that I was retarded or that I was like one of the patients at the mental institution where my mother was an administrator at the time and that I should be committed. And so he'd make me pack my suitcase.
And this is, you know, probably when I was in the fourth grade or something. He'd make me pack a suitcase, and then we'd drive around Atlanta for about an hour with me thinking that I was being taken there.
GROSS: That's tormenting a child.
TRETHEWEY: Yeah, I think it definitely was.
TRETHEWEY: And it probably seems strange that I would laugh at it now, but at some point, I realized that he - that it was a bluff, and that gave me a kind of power.
GROSS: Did you ever ask yourself how your mother fell in love with him and stayed for him so long, considering how he abused her and tormented you?
TRETHEWEY: Well, she didn't know that he tormented me. I never told her that. I had some idea that it was my responsibility to suffer in silence, to go along with my mother's life, assuming that she was the parent, and she knew best. And I also think that for a lot of battered women, it - you don't know at first that he's that kind of guy. I think it takes a while to figure that out.
And depending on the man, it might take a little bit longer. At first it probably came out as some bit of jealousy that was cute or flattering, and I don't think he actually began to hit her until about four years or so into their marriage. And by then, they had my brother, they'd bought a house. There was a kind of a trap.
And so she started with what she thought I think were the best options, and that was therapy and marriage counseling, and so I know that they did that for years.
DAVIES: Natasha Trethewey, speaking with Terry Gross in 2007 after winning the Pulitzer Prize for her book "Native Guard." Trethewey will be the next poet laureate of the United States. We'll hear more of their conversation after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
DAVIES: Let's get back to Terry's interview with Natasha Trethewey, the next poet laureate. She won the Pulitzer Prize for her book "Native Guard." Several poems in the book are about her mother, who was murdered in 1985 by Trethewey's stepfather.
GROSS: You know, we've been talking about how your stepfather, who was your mother's second husband, murdered her after their divorce. Her first husband, your father, is white, and your mother was black. They divorced when you were young, and then you lived with your mother.
Before we talk about what it was like to grow up mixed-race, I'd like you to read a poem called "Miscegenation," and this again is Natasha Trethewey from her latest collection of poems called "Native Guard."
TRETHEWEY: (Reading) Miscegenation. In 1965 my parents broke two laws of Mississippi; they went to Ohio to marry, returned to Mississippi. They crossed the river into Cincinnati, a city whose name begins with a sound like sin, the sound of wrong - mis in Mississippi. A year later they moved to Canada, followed a route the same as slaves, the train slicing the white glaze of winter, leaving Mississippi.
(Reading) Faulkner's Joe Christmas was born in winter, like Jesus, given his name for the day he was left at the orphanage, his race unknown in Mississippi. My father was reading "War and Peace" when he gave me my name. I was born near Easter, 1966, in Mississippi.
(Reading) When I turned 33 my father said, It's your Jesus year - you're the same age he was when he died. It was spring, the hills green in Mississippi. I know more than Joe Christmas did. Natasha is a Russian name - though I'm not; it means Christmas child, even in Mississippi.
GROSS: You know, in that poem "Miscegenation," you mention that when your parents got married, they broke two laws. One was the law of miscegenation, black people and white people were not allowed to marry, and that law was still on the books in Mississippi, which is why they got married out of state. What was the second law of Mississippi that they broke?
TRETHEWEY: Going out of state to get married and returning to Mississippi.
GROSS: Oh, a catch-22.
TRETHEWEY: Right, they get you either way.
GROSS: When you were growing up, did you get different reactions when you were out with your white father as opposed to when you were out with your black mother?
TRETHEWEY: I did. At an early age, I could detect subtle differences in how we were treated if I was with my father or with my mother and together, what it meant when we were out together. And that's the way that I learned a little bit about how it was possible for me to pass for white when I was with my father and be treated better than if I was downtown with my mother in a store.
GROSS: Was there ever a part of your life in which you wanted to pass for white or even tried to?
TRETHEWEY: Oh yes, as an adolescent. I think that it's hard enough being an adolescent and wanting so much to fit in with your peers, your schoolmates, and to erase any sign of difference, to be part of the group. And being biracial but also being black in a predominately white school marked me as different. And so upon arriving at a new school, it was quite possible for me to pass by not saying anything at all.
Often people would mistake me for white when I was younger, and I didn't correct them, there would be a period of time that they just thought I was.
GROSS: Were there consequences your parents faced living in Mississippi and being an interracial couple? And were there consequences that you faced as a child of mixed race?
TRETHEWEY: Well, I think that the difficulties really weighed on my parents and their marriage, but I think that beyond the kind of problems that people who are in that kind of relationship, any kind of marriage would have - my parents also these external forces that were quite scary.
And for example when I was a baby, the Klan burned a cross in the driveway of my grandmother's house, where we were all living briefly. And I think that there was always that threat somewhere looming behind us.
GROSS: How scary was that for you when you saw a cross burning on your lawn? And did you even understand, were you old enough to understand yet what the Klan was and what the intention was of burning the cross?
TRETHEWEY: No, I really was too young to understand any of that, and my parents, of course, were keeping me from seeing what was going on. And so a lot of it has returned to me as stories that they told in recollecting what happened. And even now, we wonder what the intention of the cross burning was because my grandmother lived across the street, in Gulfport, Mississippi, from the Mount Olive Baptist Church, which in the late '60s was doing voter registration drives for black voters.
And so my grandmother had a driveway, the church did not have a driveway, and so on Sunday, she let the church park its bus in her driveway. And so it's quite possible that people thought that the driveway belonged to the church and that the cross was burned as a threat to the people who were doing voter registration.
It might have also been a threat to this interracial couple who was living inside the house, or it might have been a way to threaten both.
GROSS: How old were you when your parents divorced?
TRETHEWEY: I was six.
GROSS: And then you went to live with your mother.
TRETHEWEY: That's right. My mother and my father divorced during the time that my father was getting his Ph.D. at Tulane. And we had been commuting back and forth from Gulfport to New Orleans, which was about an hour's drive. We had an apartment in Gulfport, and my father had a roommate in New Orleans that he would go and stay with during the week for class, and sometimes we'd go and visit him on the weekends, or he'd come to Gulfport.
And so it seemed like a very gentle transition, strangely, for me when they actually divorced, and my mother and I moved to Atlanta for my mother to start graduate school.
GROSS: Did it change your racial identity when there was no longer, like, a white father in your home?
TRETHEWEY: Well, I can't say that it changed my racial identity because though I was a biracial child, and my parents talked to me about what they thought that meant, I also understood that I was a black child. And that didn't change.
GROSS: Now, your father is a poet and a professor of literature at Hollins University in Virginia, which is where you got your master's degree, and I believe he was teaching there at the time.
TRETHEWEY: That's right.
GROSS: At the risk of sounding obvious, he must be awfully proud you won the Pulitzer Prize this year.
TRETHEWEY: Indeed he is. He is a proud papa right now.
GROSS: Were there poems you remember him reading to you as a kid?
TRETHEWEY: Oh yes. From the time that I knew, I understood that he was a poet, which was probably about the time that I was in the seventh grade, that's when I really got it and knew what it meant, his first book had come out. And I had read all those poems myself, but he also read them to me, talked about them because a lot of them were - well, they're very autobiographical about his own family and growing up in Canada.
And so it was great to hear those poems because they were the first poems that I really felt that I could enter into not as simply a kind of distant reader, the way you might read a poem in class at school, but as an intimate reader who knew the stories and found my own place in the language.
GROSS: Natasha Trethewey, speaking with Terry Gross in 2007 after winning the Pulitzer Prize for her book "Native Guard." Trethewey will be the next poet laureate of the United States. We'll hear more of their conversation in the second half of the show. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. We're listening to an interview with Natasha Tretheway, who has been named the next poet laureate of the United States. Terry spoke with her in 2007, when she'd won the Pulitzer Prize for her book "Native Guard."
GROSS: There's three main subjects that you're right about in "Native Guard." There's the murder of her mother, who was murdered by her stepfather from whom she was divorced. There's poems about growing up biracial and about the marriage between, you know, your mother's first marriage to your father who was white. Then the middle section of the book is a series of 10 poems. I believe they're sonnets...
GROSS: ...about the Native Guard. Tell us the story about the Louisiana Native Guard
TRETHEWEY: Well, the Louisiana Native Guards were the first officially sanctioned regiment of African-American soldiers for the Union Army in the Civil War and they were mustered into service in September, October and November of 1862. And the Second Regiment was stationed just off the coast of my hometown, Gulfport, Mississippi, on Ship Island where there was a fort called Fort Massachusetts. And they were there to guard Confederate prisoners.
GROSS: And were these mostly ex-slaves?
TRETHEWEY: Well, the Second Regiment actually was made up primarily of former slaves. The First Regiment was made up of a lot of free man of color from Louisiana, many of whom might have been slave owners themselves. In the Second Regiment, there was a Major Dumas who was the son of a white Creole father and a mulatto octoroon mother. When his father died, he inherited a plantation in all its slaves and though he was someone who did not agree with slavery or want to hold slaves, it was illegal in Louisiana at the time for him to manumit those slaves. But when the Union Army started recruiting black soldiers and mustering these troops he joined and he freed his slaves and encouraged the men of age to join as well.
GROSS: Now the first sonnet I'm going to ask you to read from this cycle of sonnets about the "Native Guard" is called "April 1863" and it relates to an incident during the Civil War, a battle in Pascagoula. Tell us the story of Pascagoula before you read it.
TRETHEWEY: Pascagoula is another town near Gulfport. And there was a skirmish in April of 1863 between the Second Regiment of the Native Guards and some Confederate troops. Toward the end of the battle, the black soldiers, the Native Guards were retreating back toward the beach so that they could board the ship and go back to the fort on the island. And at that point it was time for the Union sailors who were on board the ship to fire at the enemy to give them a little bit of protection so that they could get back, they could retreat safely and get back on the ship. Instead of doing that, the sailors fired directly at the Native Guards, their own Union soldiers.
GROSS: And why did they do that?
TRETHEWEY: Well, some historians who've written about the island have talked about that there have been a little bit of tension on the island between some white troops from the Northeast, Union troops who were there and the Native Guards - these white troops not wanting to interact, take orders from or whatever, the black troops.
GROSS: These poems that you've written about the Native Guard, whose voice are you writing them in?
TRETHEWEY: I'm writing in the voice of the imagined voice of one of the men who might have been a former slave of Major Dumas and who then would have been free and enlisted in the Second Regiment.
GROSS: And the Second Regiment, is that the regiment that was fired on by white soldiers from the North West?
TRETHEWEY: Yes it is. The Second Regiment is the one that was stationed at Ship Island guarding Confederate prisoners and was fired upon.
GROSS: Would you read "April 1863" and then "June 1863" for us?
TRETHEWEY: Yes I'd be happy to. (Reading) April 1863. When men die, we eat their share of hardtack trying not to recall their hollow sockets, the worm-stitch of their cheeks. Today we buried the last of our dead from Pascagoula, and those who died retreating to our ship - white sailors in blue firing upon us as if we were the enemy. I'd thought the fighting over, then watched a man fall beside me, knees-first as in prayer, then another, his arms outstretched as if borne upon the cross. Smoke that rose from each gun seemed a soul departing. The Colonel said: an unfortunate incident; said: their names shall deck the page of history.
June 1863. (Reading) Some names shall deck the page of history as it is written on stone. Some will not. Yesterday, word came of colored troops, dead on the battlefield at Port Hudson; how General Banks was heard to say I have no dead there, and left them, unclaimed. Last night, I dreamt their eyes still open - dim, clouded as the eyes of fish washed ashore, yet fixed - staring back at me. Still, more come today eager to enlist. Their bodies - haggard faces, gaunt limbs - bring news of the mainland. Starved, they suffer like our prisoners. Dying, they plead for what we do not have to give. Death makes equals of us all: a fair master.
GROSS: My guest is Natasha Tretheway. You won the Pulitzer Prize this year. It's certainly, you know, one of the absolute highest honors an American writer can, you know, an American poet can get. Do you feel like it's changed your life in any way?
TRETHEWEY: I don't know how - I'll think about this a year from now or whatever, even a few months from now in terms of it changing my life - but I think that what I'm most delighted with his that I received the honor at this time in my life for a book that tries to honor the memory of my mother. I was 40 the day that they called to tell me that I had won - the same age my mother was when she died and I was also just shy of my 41st birthday. And I knew years ago that I was writing this book and I wanted it to in terms of the timing, to appear at the same at this moment for me because reaching that age was very symbolic for me. What I couldn't have imagined is that it would have been honored in this way.
GROSS: Natasha Tretheway, congratulations on your Pulitzer. Thank you so much for speaking to us and to reading some of your poems for us. Thank you.
TRETHEWEY: Thank you, Terry. This has been delightful.
DAVIES: Natasha Tretheway, speaking with Terry Gross in 2007. Tretheway's been named the next poet laureate of the United States. You can hear two other interviews Terry did with Tretheway and an excerpt from her memoir "Beyond Katrina," on our website FRESHAIR.npr.org.
Coming up, we remember science fiction writer Ray Bradbury.
This is FRESH AIR.
DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
Science fiction writer Ray Bradbury died Tuesday in Los Angeles at the age of 91. His books include "Fahrenheit 451," "Something Wicked This Way Comes," "The Martian Chronicles" and "The Illustrated Man." He's also remembered for many of his 600 short stories.
Bradbury's often credited with making science fiction a respected literary genre. He said he liked to deal with human problems, like what it would be like to be an average woman on the night before she goes off to Mars to join her husband. He kept writing up to 1,000 words a day, even in his later years, but he never used a computer, preferring an electric typewriter.
Terry spoke to Ray Bradbury in 1988 after the publication of "The Toynbee Convector," a collection of short stories. The first story gave a new twist to one of the oldest ideas in science fiction: the time machine. Bradbury explained what motivated him to write that story.
RAY BRADBURY: The problem with the world is doomsayers. We're surrounded by negative people, and I can't stand them. I found out about them when I was nine years old. Everyone made fun of me in the fourth and fifth grade because I collected the Buck Rogers comic strips. That was 1929. The future was never going to arrive. And I've been surrounded by people who never believed in the future, and it was true then. It's true today.
So I - in that particular year, I tore up my comic strips. And a month later, I burst into tears and said to myself: Why am I weeping? Who died? And the answer was: me. I'd allowed these fools to kill me and to kill the future. So from that time on, I decided I'd never listened to another damn fool again in my life. And I went back and collected the Buck Rogers comic strips and ensured my future and began to write about it, became a writer.
So I've learned that by doing things, things get done. I'm not an optimist. I'm an optimal behaviorist. So that particular story in my new book, "The Toynbee Convector," is based on my conviction that we ensure that future by doing it.
TERRY GROSS, HOST: I want to ask you about another short story. The story is called "The Thing at the Top of the Stairs."
GROSS: And it's about an adult who is very afraid of the dark, as he was as a child. And he's afraid of walking up a staircase - an unlit staircase. There's a bulb that he has to turn on at the top of the staircase. And he's afraid that waiting at the top of the staircase is a monstrous thing. Were you afraid of the dark when you were young?
BRADBURY: Yeah, that's a true story. When I was four, five, six years old, we had the bathroom upstairs. And in the middle of the night, when I had to go up there, I had to run halfway up the stairs, turn on the light before I could go the rest of the way. Well, when I was doing this, I'd always say to myself, now, don't look at the top of the stairs, because it will be waiting for you. And I never learned not to look. And I would scream and fall back down the stairs, and my mother or father would get up and sigh and say, oh, my God. Here we go again. And they'd turn the light on for me and let me go upstairs.
GROSS: What shape did that it have, in your mind?
BRADBURY: I suppose it had a different shape every single night, maybe as the result of my seeing certain horror films that I dearly loved. You know, we all love horror films, and I saw "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" when I was three, the "Phantom of the Opera" when I was six. I think the Phantom stayed with me the longest. And it was probably the Phantom up there, the moment when Patsy Ruth Miller tears off the mask of Lon Chaney and his face is revealed in all its gruesome detail.
GROSS: I'm glad you mentioned "The Hunchback of Notre Dame," too, because that's a movie I used to watch over and over and over again when I was growing up. The first time I saw it, it just terrified me.
BRADBURY: Yeah, there...
GROSS: But I had to keep watching it again and again. I loved it so much. Did that movie scare you?
BRADBURY: I don't know if it scared me. It touched me.
BRADBURY: When you're three years old...
BRADBURY: ...the Lon Chaney version was very sympathetic and sad and very moving. And then the Charles Laughton version was the same way. I think all of us, no matter how we look born into this world, feel something like the hunchback.
BRADBURY: It doesn't matter if you have a beautiful face or not. I've talked to a lot of beautiful people in later years and found out that they went through the same thing in high school that I did. I went around with my face down most of the time, because I was suffering from the usual outbreaks on the face that most kids of that age have. But then in later years, I met some beautiful women and beautiful men, and they all confessed to the same feeling, regardless of how they looked. I think that Quasimodo appeals to all of us.
GROSS: I want to get back to the fear that you felt when you were in the dark, climbing up the stairs as a child.
GROSS: Is that kind of terror a good experience for us - for a writer, especially someone who spends part of their time writing science fiction?
BRADBURY: Or fantasy, or any other thing.
BRADBURY: Any experience that touches you, in any particular way, is good. It can be a horrible experience. I saw a car crash when I was 15 here in Los Angeles, and five people died as a result of it. I arrived at the scene of the accident within 20 seconds of hearing the collision. It was the worst mistake I ever made in my life. I didn't know what I was running into. People had been horribly mangled and decapitated.
So for months after, I was shaken by it. It's probably the reason I never learned to drive. I was terrified at automobiles for a long time after that. But I turned it into a short story called "The Crowd" six or seven years later, and that was part of my "Ray Bradbury Television Theatre" two years ago. It was one of the things we produced.
GROSS: You know, some writers have made a lot out of the fact that you don't drive, you know, the irony one of America's premier science fiction writers, envisioners of the future, doesn't drive a car. Has that ever seemed ironic to you, or do you just accept that there's reasons you don't want to drive?
BRADBURY: No. It's no different than love poetry, is it? We don't write love poetry in the middle of an affair, do we? We write love poetry when we're away from our loved one, or we anticipate a loved one. It's lack that gives us inspiration. It's not fullness. Occasionally, fullness can do that. But not ever having driven, I can write better about automobiles than the people who drive them. I have a distance here.
Perhaps I have a secret yearning to own a Maserati someday and go to hell. I don't know. But space travel is another good example. I'm never going to go to Mars, but I've helped inspire - thank goodness - those people who have built the rockets and sent our photographic equipment off to Mars. So it's always a lack, though, that causes you to write that kind of story.
GROSS: Have you had any direct correspondence with astronauts who've traveled through space?
BRADBURY: Oh, I've met most of them, thank goodness. LIFE Magazine sent me down to Houston back in early 1967, and I met 60 of them. The Apollo missions were just beginning. It's a wonderful part of my life. I feel very fortunate that I not only started out with Buck Rodgers in 1929, but wound up down at Houston, Cape Canaveral, in my own lifetime. I thought I would be a very old man by the time we landed on the moon. Well, I was only 49.
GROSS: Now, you actually wrote the screenplay for a book that had nothing to do with your books: "Moby Dick."
BRADBURY: That's right.
GROSS: And you really, I have to say, seemed like a very unlikely choice to adapt "Moby Dick" for the screen, and I was wondering how you got to write the screenplay.
BRADBURY: Well, by staying true to my own sense of the poetic. Again, here's the influence of Shakespeare on my life, the influence of the Bible, which I was raised on. And by staying true to my love of poetry and my love of metaphor - which you learn from the Old Testament and the New Testament and you learn from Shakespeare, to speak in tongues, huh, that are so vivid that people remember the metaphor, and also by staying in love with dinosaurs.
I fell in love with dinosaurs when I was five. And I was walking along the shore with my wife one night down in Venice, California - this is 1949 - and we found the ruins of the old Venice pier, all the bones and the skeleton of the tracks and the ties of the rollercoaster lying there in the sea.
And I turned to my wife, and I said: I wonder what that dinosaur is doing lying here on the shore. She was very careful not to answer, and three nights later, I heard something in the middle of the night. I sat up in bed, looked at all the fog out beyond the window, and way out in the Santa Monica Bay, I heard the braying, the calling, the oconing(ph) , of the foghorn over and over and over again. And I said yes, that's it.
The dinosaur heard the foghorn blowing, thought it was another dinosaur calling from a billion years of slumber and swam for an encounter, discovered it was only a damned lighthouse and a damned foghorn, tore the whole thing down and died of a broken heart on the beach. The next day I got out of bed and wrote "The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms," sent it to the Saturday Evening Post. It was published.
John Huston read that one story, and that changed my life forever, because he thought he smelled the ghost of Melville in that story.
BRADBURY: What he smelled in it was the ghost of Shakespeare and the ghost of the Bible, huh? And so he called me on the phone and offered me the job and a year later when I was working on the screenplay one night I said John, how did I get this job? You know, everyone thought you were crazy. He said, well, I read that story about the dinosaur. And I said, well, I was very honest with you.
I told you when I met you, I never read Melville. But once I got into Melville, I discovered he had been inspired by the same people who inspired me. So we were twins. He had been called upon by Shakespeare to cough up the white whale.
DAVIES: Ray Bradbury, speaking with Terry Gross in 1988. Bradbury died Tuesday. He was 91. Coming up, David Edelstein on the new film "Dark Horse." This is FRESH AIR.
DAVE DAVIES, HOST: Indie filmmaker Todd Solondz - best known for his films "Welcome to the Dollhouse" and "Happiness" - has a new one opening today called "Dark Horse." Film critic David Edelstein has a review.
DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: It's tough to get on Todd Solondz's wavelength, but boy, is it worth the emotional gyrations. Just when you've decided he has too much contempt for his characters to do more than take cheap shots, he'll shock you with flashes of empathy, insights that cast a revelatory light over what came before. You could never call Solondz a humanist, but he achieves something I've never seen elsewhere: compassionate revulsion.
Consider Jordan Gelber's Abe, the protagonist of "Dark Horse," who's 35 and portly and lives with his affluent parents in New Jersey and drives a ludicrous yellow Hummer, who takes a salary from his dad for ostensibly doing little but sit at his desk and bid on comic-book memorabilia on eBay. You might think when you see him: I'm going to be stuck with this guy for the next hour-and-a-half?
At the wedding that begins the film, Abe manages to extract the phone number of a dark, very pretty, palpably unstable, if not downright zonked-out young woman named Miranda, played by Selma Blair. After showing up at her house - or, rather, her parents' house, since she doesn't live on her own, either - he fields queries from her dad, whose eyes don't leave the newspaper.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "DARK HORSE")
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: So what do you do for a living?
JORDAN GELBER: (as Abe) I've got a company, work in real estate - property management, commercial developments.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: You mean like all those strip malls.
(as Abe) Hmm?
Where there used to be parks and mom-and-pop stores.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: How'd you get into that line of work?
GELBER: (as Abe) My dad.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: You work for your dad?
GELBER: (as Abe) Yeah. But he wouldn't have hired me if I weren't up to the job. He interviewed a lot of people, so it's not like it's nepotism or anything.
EDELSTEIN: That scene felt too easy - Abe's indifference to the impact of his father's business, his insistence that talent got him a bad job he doesn't even deserve. The next scene is even more cringe-worthy, when Abe tells Miranda - who's both addled and despondent - that although he's just met her, he knows he wants to marry her. What is Solondz doing? Abe seems so un-self-aware that he's either a cartoon blowhard or delusional. Either way, he has zero stature.
And then, gradually, but steadily, he attains amazing stature - tragic stature. In Solondz's mind-numbingly boring, suburban New Jersey milieu of strip-malls, multiplex theaters and Abe's affluent Jewish parents' golden-hued furnishings, Abe passes the time with fantasies, many involving his father's secretary, Marie, played by Donna Murphy.
These aren't Walter Mitty daydreams in which a nebbish comes out a hero. Instead, people tell him the unpleasant truth: how lazy and out of shape he is, how unworthy of Miranda or anyone else, especially compared to his younger brother the doctor, played by Justin Bartha. In these fantasy scenes, even his endlessly indulgent, enabling mother - played by Mia Farrow - drops the pretense of admiring him.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "DARK HORSE")
MIA FARROW: (as Phyllis) Don't listen to your father.
GELBER: (as Abe) I can't believe you didn't discuss this all with me.
FARROW: (as Phyllis) How would it have changed things?
GELBER: (as Abe) You don't understand. It changes everything now. This whole time I thought I knew you, that I could count on you, trust you. All this time, my life - my whole life, it's been lies.
FARROW: (as Phyllis) Abe, honey, no one ever lied. You just didn't see the truth.
GELBER: (as Abe) But what truth are you talking about? That I'm a failure?
FARROW: (as Phyllis) Sweetie, we'd written you off as a failure years ago. Everyone knows Richard's the success and you're the failure.
EDELSTEIN: What a fascinating weave this movie is, with its blurred boundaries between reality and dreams that feel even more real. In Abe's fantasies, Donna Murphy's Marie goes from a pink-eyed maternal type to a sultry, taunting cougar - an amazing transformation Murphy largely achieves by straightening her posture and relaxing her features.
Christopher Walken, as Abe's dad, wears a thick toupee at hideous odds with his sagging, basset-hound features. He's so angry at the world - and his older son - that he can only contain himself by becoming borderline catatonic, staring at the TV screen in a stupor when he's not buying out mom-and-pop stores.
Selma Blair's Miranda rouses herself to admit to Abe that he might be what she needs to stop her pain. She could marry him, she says, and have kids and give up her dreams of a literary career, independence and self-respect. She says, I want to want you. And he says, that's enough for me - a heartbreaking line on so many levels. Poor Abe, who moans that he could have been a singer, but is now too old for "American Idol," awakes like Chekhov's Uncle Vanya to find he hasn't really lived.
In "Dark Horse," there's little trace of the archness that sometimes marred Solondz's early movies. Even the soundtrack's mindlessly upbeat pop songs, assuring us we can be anyone we want to be, sound less cynical than sadly irrelevant.
Solondz blames no one and nothing for Abe's wasted life - not nature or nurture or consumerism, but some irreducible combination of them all. He's not judging his characters from on high. He's too close to them for comfort. And from that discomfort, he has made a sublime work of art.
DAVIES: David Edelstein is film critic for New York magazine. You can join us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter @nprfreshair, and you can download podcasts of our show at freshair.npr.org.
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