Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘interview’

27 NOVEMBER, 2013

November 27, 1965: A Rare Recording of Stanley Kubrick’s Most Revealing Interview

By:

“People react primarily to direct experience and not to abstractions; it is very rare to find anyone who can become emotionally involved with an abstraction.”

In the spring of 1965, the physicist and prolific author Jeremy Bernstein wrote a short piece for The New Yorker’s “Talk of the Town” about of 37-year-old director Stanley Kubrick, who was accelerating towards the zenith of his cultural acclaim after releasing Lolita and Dr. Strangelove and was about to release his greatest film, his cult collaboration with Arthur C. Clarke, 2001: A Space Odyssey. The piece garnered enough interest that Bernstein was assigned to write a feature-length profile of Kubrick — something the reclusive director wouldn’t have ordinarily agreed to, had it not been for one peculiar passion he shared with Bernstein: the love of chess. So Bernstein traveled to Oxford, where 2001 was being shot, and spent ample time with Kubrick, sneaking in chess matches during production breaks. And even though he never beat Kubrick, he accomplished an even greater feat: He got the young director, notoriously averse to long interviews, to engage in a 76-minute conversation, recorded on tape. This rare audio, recorded on November 27, 1965, is arguably Kubrick’s most extensive and revealing interview about his early career, discussing such wide-ranging subjects as how he learned that problem-solving is the key to creative success, why he got bad grades in high school, the promise and perils of nuclear power, the allure of space exploration, and what it was like to work with Clarke and Nabokov.

The profile, fittingly titled “How About a Little Game?,” was published nearly a year later, in the November 12, 1966 issue of The New Yorker, and was eventually included in Stanley Kubrick: Interviews (public library) — the same excellent collection that gave us Kubrick’s Playboy interview on mortality, the fear of flying, and the meaning of life. One of the most interesting — and prescient — subjects discussed in both the New Yorker article and the audio interview are Kubrick’s conflicted views on nuclear power and the atomic bomb. Bernstein writes:

It was the building of the Berlin Wall that shaped Kubrick’s interest in nuclear power and nuclear strategy, and he began to read everything he could get hold of about the bomb. Eventually, he had decided that he had about covered the spectrum, and wasn’t learning anything new. “When you start reading the analyses of nuclear strategy, they seem so thoughtful that you’re lulled into a temporary sense of reassurance,” Kubrick explained. “But as you go deeper into it, and become more involved, you begin to realize that every one of these lines of thought leads to a paradox.” It is this constant element of paradox in all the nuclear strategies and in the conventional attitudes toward them that Kubrick transformed into the principal theme of Dr. Strangelove.

Kubrick goes on to argue that nuclear energy and the atomic bomb have been reduced to an abstraction, one “represented by a few newsreel shots of mushroom clouds,” which hinders people’s ability to actually engage with the reality of the issue. He tells Bernstein:

People react primarily to direct experience and not to abstractions; it is very rare to find anyone who can become emotionally involved with an abstraction. The longer the bomb is around without anything happening, the better the job that people do in psychologically denying its existence. It has become as abstract as the fact that we are all going to die someday, which we usually do an excellent job of denying. For this reason, most people have very little interest in nuclear war. It has become even less interesting as a problem than, say, city government, and the longer a nuclear event is postponed, the greater becomes the illusion that we are constantly building up security, like interest at the bank. As time goes on, the danger increases, I believe, because the thing becomes more and more remote in people’s minds. No one can predict the panic that suddenly arises when all the lights go out — that indefinable something that can make a leader abandon his carefully laid plans. A lot of effort has gone into trying to imagine possible nuclear accidents and to protect against them. But whether the human imagination is really capable of encompassing all the subtle permutations and psychological variants of these possibilities, I doubt. The nuclear strategists who make up all those war scenarios are never as inventive as reality, and political and military leaders are never as sophisticated as they think they are.

And yet, despite this glib view of our capacity for transcending the limitations of our own minds, Kubrick did have beautiful faith in the human spirit, as his timeless words bespeak: “However vast the darkness, we must supply our own light.”

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner:





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount:





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

11 NOVEMBER, 2013

Lou Reed on Andy Warhol, Bob Dylan, Laurie Anderson, Setting Edgar Allan Poe to Music, and Why Record Labels Deserve to Die

By:

“Making things that are beautiful is real fun.”

In February of 2012, the late and great Lou Reed, already severely ill and awaiting a liver transplant , visited the Kelly Writers House at the University of Pennsylvania, my alma mater, as a guest at the Blutt Singer-Songwriter Symposium — an annual event inviting prominent musicians, including Patti Smith (whose recent tribute to Reed is pure goosebumps), Loudon Wainwright, and Roseanne Cash, to perform and discuss their work. Reed’s conversation with Rolling Stone critic Anthony deCurtis, author of the excellent In Other Words: Artists Talk About Life and Work, is one of his last recorded live interviews. Here are the essential highlights from the interview, in which Reed radiates his singular fusion of irreverence, insight, and uncompromising creative genius.

On Andy Warhol and the birth of The Velvet Underground:

Warhol was what you would call a workaholic. … And he worked — people have no idea. … He was an astonishing person. When you consider what he was like when he was doing art direction in windows and all that — with the suit, the tie, the whole thing. And then, one day, PHOOM! He’s not Andy Warhol anymore — now he’s Andy Warhol, he’s in Levis and the wig and the jacket — fantastic! He created himself — you gotta love it.

Reed doesn’t conceal his contempt for the music labels, who didn’t like or even listen to the very music they were selling:

All these record companies deserve to go bankrupt. They’re all, you know, lying sacks of shit. No joke — these are bad guys, they deserve everything that’s happened to them.

On Bob Dylan:

On his wife, the artist and musician Laurie Anderson, whose remembrance of Reed is one of the most soul-stirring meditations on love and loss ever written (“And death? I believe that the purpose of death is the release of love.”):

She’s so smart and can do anything — anything she does is absolutely great. It’s amazing.

On balancing raw force and raw vulnerability in his music and writing:

I like conflict — it’s balance. Or, like tai chi, balance is like the yin and the yang. Even a song like “Perfect Day” — the kick is at the end, the last verse: “I thought I was someone else, someone good.”

Illustration by Lorenzo Mattotti from The Raven by Lou Reed. Click image for details.

On adapting literary works to music and rewriting Edgar Allan Poe’s poetry in his 2003 album The Raven and the companion graphic novel:

The trouble with Poe was that his language is so serious — the vocabulary — the words he’s using — some of those words were arcane when he used them — and then, architectural terms from Greece. And I, dutifully sitting there with the dictionary, looking all of this up and thinking, certainly, in a song or on the album I don’t want to have [things like this] in there — you can just as easily use a word someone knows what it means. … For him, great. For me, no. I spent most of the time translating them into English before even starting, but I couldn’t wait to rewrite “The Raven,” the poem. Mine is like a contemporary version of it, and we have a graphic novel out … illustrated by this great Italian artist, Lorenzo Mattotti. … Making things that are beautiful is real fun.

The Raven is absolutely fantastic — here’s a taste:

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner:





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount:





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

11 NOVEMBER, 2013

Susan Sontag on How the False Divide Between Pop Culture and “High” Culture Limits Us

By:

“There are contradictory impulses in everything.”

“If I had to choose between the Doors and Dostoyevsky, then — of course — I’d choose Dostoyevsky,” Susan Sontag wrote in the preface to the 30th-anniversary edition of her cultural classic Against Interpretation, then mischievously asked, “But do I have to choose? … Happenings did not make me care less about Aristotle and Shakespeare. I was — I am — for a pluralistic, polymorphous culture.” This demolition of the false divide between “high” and “low” culture has since had its ample exponents, most recently and convincingly Rolling Stone critic Greil Marcus in his fantastic 2013 SVA commencement address. But Sontag remains arguably the greatest patron saint of this “pluralistic, polymorphous” view of culture.

In 1978, Rolling Stone contributing editor Jonathan Cott interviewed Sontag in twelve hours of conversation, beginning in Paris and continuing in New York, only a third of which was published in the magazine. Now, more than three decades later and almost a decade after Sontag’s death, the full, wide-ranging magnificence of their tête-à-tête, spanning from literature and philosophy to illness and mental health to music and art, is at last released in Susan Sontag: The Complete Rolling Stone Interview (public library).

Cott marvels at what made the dialogue especially extraordinary:

Unlike almost any other person whom I’ve ever interviewed — the pianist Glenn Gould is the one other exception — Susan spoke not in sentences but in measured and expansive paragraphs. And what seemed most striking to me was the exactitude and “moral and linguistic fine-tuning” — as she once described Henry James’s writing style—with which she framed and elaborated her thoughts, precisely calibrating her intended meanings with parenthetical remarks and qualifying words (“sometimes,” “occasionally,” “usually,” “for the most part,” “in almost all cases”), the munificence and fluency of her conversation manifesting what the French refer to as an ivresse du discours — an inebriation with the spoken word. “I am hooked on talk as a creative dialogue,” she once remarked in her journals, and added: “For me, it’s the principal medium of my salvation.

Susan Sontag on art: Diary excerpts illustrated by Wendy MacNaughton. Click image for details.

As remarkable as the entire conversation is, however, one of its most rewarding tangents is Sontag’s meditation on the osmosis between intellectualism and pop culture, her resistance to that enduring, toxic divide between the two, and her conviction in expounding the pluralism of culture — something Cott likens to “the pile on the velvet that, upon reversing one’s touch, provides two textures and two ways of feeling, two shades and two ways of perceiving.”

But the part that resonates most deeply with me, as a lover of history and of consistently celebrating that fertile intersection of the timeless and the timely, is Sontag’s eloquent insistence upon the value of history as the petri dish of our becoming — something legendary graphic designer Massimo Vignelli echoed decades later in his meditation on intellectual elegance, where he argued that “a designer without a sense of history is worth nothing,” an insight that can be extrapolated to just about any discipline of creative and intellectual endeavor. Sontag tells Cott:

I really believe in history, and that’s something people don’t believe in anymore. I know that what we do and think is a historical creation. I have very few beliefs, but this is certainly a real belief: that most everything we think of as natural is historical and has roots — specifically in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the so-called Romantic revolutionary period — and we’re essentially still dealing with expectations and feelings that were formulated at that time, like ideas about happiness, individuality, radical social change, and pleasure. We were given a vocabulary that came into existence at a particular historical moment. So when I go to a Patti Smith concert at CBGB, I enjoy, participate, appreciate, and am tuned in better because I’ve read Nietzsche.

The Histomap by John Sparks, 1931, from 'Cartographies of Time: A Visual History of the Timeline.' Click image for details.

When Cott asks her how she thinks Patti Smith would relate to this notion herself — a remarkable musician celebrated as the Godmother of Punk, who also writes beautiful poetry, is enamored with Virginia Woolf, and reveres William S. Burroughs — Sontag answers:

In the way she talks, the way she comes on, what she’s trying to do, the kind of person she is. That’s part of where we are culturally, and where we are culturally has these roots. There’s no incompatibility between observing the world and being tuned into this electronic, multimedia, multi-tracked, McLuhanite world and enjoying what can be enjoyed. I love rock and roll. Rock and roll changed my life. . . .

Further in the conversation, while discussing one of her essays, Sontag introduces another dimension:

It seems to be quite convincing to argue that Buddhism is the highest spiritual moment of humanity. It seems clear to me that rock and roll is the greatest movement of popular music that’s ever existed. If somebody asks me if I like rock and roll, I tell them that I love rock and roll. Or if you ask me if Buddhism is an incredible moment of human transcendence and profundity, I would say yes. But it’s something else to talk about the way in which interest in Buddhism occurs in our society. It’s one thing to listen to punk rock as music, and another to understand the whole S&M — necrophilia — Grand Guignol — Night of the Living DeadTexas Chainsaw Massacre sensibility that feeds into that. On the one hand, you’re talking about the cultural situation and the impulses people are getting from it, and on the other, you’re talking about what the thing is. And I don’t feel it’s a contradiction. I’m certainly not going to give up on rock and roll. I’m not going to say that because kids are walking around in their vampire makeup or wearing swastikas therefore this music is no good, which is the square, conservative judgment that’s so much in the ascendant now. That’s easy to say because most people who make those judgments, of course, know nothing about the music, aren’t attracted to it, and have never been moved viscerally or sensually or sexually by it. Any more than I want to give up on my admiration for Buddhism because of what’s happened to it in California or Hawaii. Everything is always abused, and then one is always trying to disentangle things.

Curiously, Sontag’s premise seems to be the opposite of what she argues in Against Interpretation — there is no “high” or “low” culture, no “good” or “bad,” only our interpretations and whatever cultural purpose we extract from them. She seals this notion with one final example:

To take the traditional example, and it’s the one that precedes all the examples we use from contemporary popular culture: Nietzsche. Nietzsche really was an inspiration for Nazism, and there are things in his writings that seem to prefigure and support the Nazi ideology.

But I’m not going to give up on him because of that, though I’m also not going to deny that things could be developed in that way.

[…]

There are contradictory impulses in everything, and you have to keep directing your attention to what is contradictory and try to sort these things out and to purify them.

Ultimately, however, the greatest peril of the false high/low divide is that it robs a writer — a person — of being able to absorb the vibrant wholeness and multiplicity of life with complete awareness, to be fully present with the world and attentive to all of its dimensions. Sontag captures this beautifully, adding to her collected wisdom on writing, when she tells Cott:

Giving full attention to the world, which includes you … that’s what a writer does — a writer pays attention to the world. Because I’m very against this solipsistic notion that you find it all in your head. You don’t, there really is a world that’s there whether you’re in it or not.

Susan Sontag: The Complete Rolling Stone Interview is ineffably brilliant in its entirety. Complement it with Sontag on literature and freedom, the four people every writer must be, photography and aesthetic consumerism, writing, boredom, sex, censorship, and aphorisms, her radical vision for remixing education, her insight on why lists appeal to us, and her illustrated meditations on art and on love.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner:





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount:





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.