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Spooktacular Spooktacular! 13 Picks from the Master of Cult Cinema

Cult Horror MoviesWho's up for some scary movies? I am. So is Danny Peary.

Peary established his bona fides as an expert in weird cinema with his Cult Movies series from the early 80s: three volumes packed with wisdom on off-beat movies of all stripes. The requirements for "cult" status were specific; all of Peary's subjects "elicited a fiery passion in moviegoers that exists long after their initial releases,” a rubric which made The Maltese Falcon, Emmanuelle, and The Rocky Horror Picture Show all fair game for his always enlightening and entertaining essays. The books were cult hits on their own--I skimmed them between customers during my Tower Books counter shifts in the early 90s, along with other books of ill-repute, such as The Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film. Tower, remember, was open late.

Though they have been lately out of print, Workman Publishing is now releasing Peary's essays from Cult Movies as a series of genre-specific ebooks. Horror and Sci-Fi are first, with Midnight Movies (November 11) and Crime (December 2) following later this year.

So who better than to ask for recommendations on spooky Halloween films? Here are Peary's picks for chill-seekers of all tolerances.

 


My Lucky Thirteen for Halloween, by Danny Peary

I was eight in 1957, when Shock Theater presented Universal Monster Movies on television, and only Psycho, three years later, ever scared me more than seeing Frankenstein, Dracula, The Wolf Man, and all the sequels about brides, sons, daughters, and nephews, for the first time. Indeed, if I could have programmed a Halloween movie marathon back then to scare youngsters and adults in 2014, I would have picked those classics. But today, when such ferocious fare as The Walking Dead and American Horror Story are popular television shows, coming up with thirteen horror films that will please the I've-seen-everything-and-more crowd is a tricky proposition. Today's viewers get bored even before the blood on the screen dries, so my simple objective to keep everyone's eyes riveted on the screen even while frustrated trick-or-treaters bang on their doors. My tack is to mix past and present films, the violent and the humorous, the familiar and the unexpected. I have included five* films I write about in my new eBook Cult Horror Movies, and eight others. All good movies, none too barbaric. My Lucky Thirteen for Halloween:

Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948): Count Dracula (Bela Lugosi) wants to implant Costello's puny brain into the head of the Frankenstein Monster. Before the kids are sent to bed with their candy-induced tummy aches, allow them one movie treat, showing them one of the best comedy-horror films ever made. You'll like it, too. It's a great introduction to Frankenstein, Dracula, and The Wolf Man (Lon Chaney Jr.). Universal's iconic monsters are scary, there's some nifty special effects and makeup, and the fab comedy team that saved the studio from bankruptcy is in top form.

The Night of the Demon* (1957): An American doctor (Dana Andrews) arrives in London to help a professor discredit a devil cult--only to discover that the professor is dead and that real witchcraft may have been responsible. This smart, tense, and sadly neglected British horror gem was scripted by frequent Hitchcock writer Charles Bennett (The 39 Steps) and directed by Val Lewton alum Jacques Tourneur (I Walked with a Zombie, Cat People). It has a fabulously sinister and erudite Hitchcockian villain (Niall MacGinnis) and scares us as Lewton did, with darkness and shadows, sudden sounds, and wild animals. As in Lewton films, science/reason and the supernatural have equal validity. The filmmakers were upset that the studio insisted on showing "the Demon." but it's such a spectacular creature that I'm glad it did.

The Scream of Fear (1961): A young woman in a wheelchair returns home to meet her stepmother for the first time and suspects that her missing father isn't away on a trip but has been murdered--in fact, she keeps seeing his corpse when no one else is around. This spooky sleeper from Hammer Studios features the lovely, ill-fated Susan Strasberg and the British studio's star Christopher Lee not playing a vampire or even a bad guy for a change. Numerous later movies have had similar plot twists, but the direction by Seth Holt (The Nanny) is imaginative and there are a few times when you'll be on the edge of your seat.

Night of the Living DeadNight of the Living Dead* (1968): A disparate group of scared people barricade themselves in a farmhouse as cannibalistic zombies terrorize the countryside. Although heavily influenced by Hitchcock's The Birds and Psycho, George A. Romero's cult classic was innovative and influential, anticipating and paving the way for today's zombie craze. Many films have since passed it on the gross-out meter, but it holds up very well. And it deserves credit for being, along with Romero's equally satirical The Crazies, the first horror film in which we Americans do battle not with aliens but each other.

Halloween* (1978): After fifteen years in an asylum for stabbing his sister to death, Michael Meyers escapes and returns home to Haddonfield, Illinois, dons a mask, and stalks three teenage girls on Halloween night. John Carpenter's seminal work would be the obvious choice for a Halloween marathon strictly because of its title, but these many years later it remains the scariest and most shrewdly directed of the teenager-in-peril slasher movies. In her debut, Jamie Lee Curtis deservedly became the cinema's "Scream Queen" as the attentive virginal babysitter Michael pursues, with her distracted-by-sex friends becoming collateral damage. A masked lunatic is needed in a Halloween movie festival, and I pick Michael over Jason of the Friday the 13th series because he's not just out to kill but, having missed his childhood, seems to be playing a very mischievous kids' game. Am I right in thinking that babysitters have charged outlandish fees since this movie came out?

An American Werewolf in London* (1981): After two likable young Americans are attacked and bitten by a werewolf while backpacking at night on the British moors, one (David Naughton) turns into a werewolf when there is a full moon and the other (Griffin Dunne) becomes a deteriorating corpse-ghost who tries to persuade his alive friend to commit suicide before he kills. From the opening moment when John Fogarty belts out "Bad Moon Rising" on the soundtrack, this is a wild ride, the best werewolf movie after 1941's The Wolf Man. There are great transformation scenes and Oscar-winning makeup by Rick Baker, and director John Landis deftly mixes terrifying moments (including the attack on the moors) with laugh-out-loud humor. Cult favorite Jenny Agutter is Naughton's love interest, and it's notable that Landis includes sex and violence but keeps them separate.

ScreamScream (1996): A year after her mother's murder, Sydney Prescott (Neve Cambell) realizes she could become the latest teen victim of whoever is driving up the body count in the small town of Woodsboro. Directed by Wes Craven and knowingly scripted by Kevin Williamson, this blockbuster revitalized the horror genre in the late 1990s by both paying tribute to the slasher film and revamping it. It's a sure-fire crowd pleaser because of its fun characters, super cast--Campbell, Courtney Cox and Dave Arquette would return for the sequels--hip dialogue, and horrific murders that do justice to their strong buildups. Remember: if you get a Halloween night call from someone asking What's your favorite scary movie, hang up.

Ringu (1998)/The Ring (2002): Teenagers die a week after watching a mysterious VHS video, spurring a female journalist to--big mistake--take a look. On Halloween, if you can't get hold of the Japanese original on dvd--don't accept a VHS copy!--watch the American version directed by Gore Verbinski and starring Naomi Watts, because it's just as unnerving. We grew up being scared of what lurked in our closets or underneath our beds, but that didn't prepare us to see what crawls out of the TV in this story. Be ready for chills to run along your spine.

Pan's Labyrinth (2006): In Spain in 1944, young Ofelia and her pregnant mother move into her vicious fascist stepfather's large house, and, while he hunts rebels in the area, she ventures into an ancient labyrinth, where she interacts with various mythical creatures and puts her life at risk. Mexican writer-director Guillermo del Toro's enchanting and frightening parable draws a connection between real-life and fantasy horror. In this unique film, Sergi Lopez is one of the cinema's vilest villains, and Ivan Baquera is as captivating a heroine as Alice. If she were in a Lewis Carroll story, Ofelia might get in trouble, but in a Del Toro film she might not even survive.

The HostThe Host (2006): An enormous, amphibious monster kills many civilians along the Han River and abducts a man's daughter, prompting him to search for her. The biggest box-office film in South Korean history barely was noticed in America because super-talented Bong Joon-ho (2014's Snowpiercer) was still an unknown director here. There's too much silly humor, but the scenes with the monster are thrilling and the monster is stupendous. The rescue scenes in the sewer recall the terrific fifties giant-ant movie, Them!

Paranormal Activity (2007): A couple feels a demonic presence in their new home, so they turn on cameras to record any unusual activity while they sleep. I think the creepy first film of a highly successful franchise ranks second to The Blair Witch Project among "found-footage" horror films, but it is perhaps the most efficient good horror movie ever made, providing a tremendous number chills for the few dollars spent. And Katie Featherston's totally credible performance is Oscar-worthy. It's such a nerve-wracking movie that maybe you'd better wake up those kids you sent to bed earlier because you won't want to watch it alone, particularly the shocking ending!

Let The Right One In (2008): A nice, lonely, bullied twelve-year-old boy befriends the mysterious new girl in his apartment complex, and soon realizes she's a vampire and responsible for a series of deaths in town. Just when we thought every vampire movie had been made Swedish director Tomas Alfredson's novel horror film turned up. It may be the most violent film ever with kids in the lead roles. The killings are gruesome, the atmosphere is icy, but this is a touching, tender, and very romantic art film. If you can't make out subtitles after watching twelve other films, the 2010 American version, Let Me In, with Kodi Smit-McPhee and Chloë Grace Moretz is almost as good.

YA Wednesday: Carl Hiaasen on His First Young Adult Novel

SkinkBigCarl Hiaasen has joined the ranks of best-selling authors writing for younger readers.  He's already written a handful of books for readers age 10 and up, including his most recent, Chomp. Hiaasen's first young adult novel, Skink: No Surrender (one of our Best YA Books of September) marks the return of a popular character from his adult novels who first appeared twenty-five years ago. 

In the video below, we talked to Hiaasen about his blend of humor, environmentalism and timely subjects in Skink, as well as the books that inspired him as a young reader and led the way to his career as a journalist and author.

 

 

Books mentioned in the video above:

Where I Wrote It: Irish Novelist Stuart Neville's Musical Man Cave

Part of our new series featuring authors' desks and workspaces, here's a look at the guitar-filled attic of Northern Irish crime writer Stuart Neville, whose new novel, The Final Silence, publishes next week. The Final Silence is the chilling story of a politician's daughter who inherits her strange uncle's house, and in a locked upstairs room discovers horrific evidence of his life of crime. (No, not guitars. Much worse.)

Stuart Neville's Office.jpg

Neville1“I divide my writing time between the study room at my local library and the attic office of our old Edwardian house. When I know exactly what I want to write, I’ll tend to go to the library because it feels more like a working environment. When I’m still trying to figure out what I’m going to write, it’ll be at home, right at the top of the house. This is where most of my guitars live.

I’ve been trying to convince my wife that they’re an essential part of my creative process, but I’m not sure she believes me. It’s a nice room, isolated from the rest of the house by a steep and narrow stairway, with a view over the neighbouring park.

I have a few photos around, mostly of me meeting people I admire, like James Ellroy, or the one you can see on top of the Marshall amp, with my chance encounter with Jeff Beck in a Dublin pub. I don’t know if this room is as much an office as it is a man-cave, but it’s my place, my bubble, and everything I write starts here.”

     --Stuart Neville

Neville2~

   > See all of Neville's books

   > Visit his website

   > Follow him on Twitter

This Is No Bush-League Tapioca Pudding...

ThugKitchenThug Kitchen is a gust of profanity-soaked fresh air in the cookbook universe of late.  The subtitle, "Eat Like You Give a F*ck" is your warning light--if swearing bothers you, don't even open the cover.  For those who couldn't care less, welcome to the irreverent and delicious pages of this fantastic vegan cookbook.

I'm not even remotely vegan, and to be totally honest the first vegan meal I cooked (Wedding Soup with White Bean Balls and Kale) is from Thug Kitchen. The food was so tasty that I immediately flagged a fast half-a-dozen more recipes to try.  At first the vernacular is a little shocking (did they really just say that?!), but rather than becoming gimicky, I found it to be like listening to a good friend who has a cheeky and infectious sense of humor. I had fun cooking and ate well from this Best Cookbooks of October pick.

From page 189 in the Sweet Talk section of Thug Kitchen, this recipe for Peachy Almond Tapioca Pudding convinced even me (a staunch avoider of all things bubble tea or tapioca) that I might like this old-school orb-a-licious dessert.

 

 

Peachy Almond Tapioca Pudding

Thug_Kitchen_PeachyAlmTapioca

1⁄2 cup small tapioca pearls*
2 cups water
3 cups peach juice**
1 cup plain almond milk
Pinch of salt
1⁄2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 tablespoon agave syrup
(optional)
2 tablespoons lemon juice
Blueberries, for serving

Tapioca pudding might sound like an old lady dessert but trust them; they aren’t wasting their golden years on some bush-league bullshit. This pudding is creamy and perfectly sweet. Now go call Gladys and tell her that shit Ethel said earlier.
makes enough for 4 normal people

  1. Put the tapioca pearls in a bowl with the water and let them soak overnight. You can do this in the morning too; they just need to sit for at least 6 hours. Don’t let them go more than 16 hours, though. Shit gets weird after that.
  2. When you are ready to cook, drain the tapioca pearls. Put them in a medium saucepan with the juice, almond milk, salt, and vanilla. If your juice isn’t super sweet, then go ahead and add the agave. Just fucking taste it and you will figure it out. Warm the pot over low heat and stir constantly. You don’t want it bubbling or anything, so pay attention and don’t fucking stop stirring. At around 8 to 10 minutes it should start thickening up and the pearls should start looking clear. Keep stirring until it is about the same consistency as a thick soup or gravy, about a minute more. Turn off the heat and stir in the lemon juice. Pour the pudding into a medium bowl and put in the fridge to cool.
  3. Let it sit for 3 to 4 hours, otherwise you’ll be eating hot pudding and that shit is gross. If it thickens up too much in the fridge, just stir it up real good and add an extra tablespoon of peach juice. Top the tapioca with blueberries and serve.

* These little white balls are usually sold in bags in the baking aisle of the store or

just look on the Internet. They are the starch that helps this thicken up so don’t even

fucking think about leaving them out.

** You can use whatever the fuck kind of juice you want, just not something real acidic

like orange. Peach-apple juice is a good one, too.

Go Forward, Move Ahead: Mark Mothersbaugh's Guide to Modern Living

Myopia by Mark MothersbaughIf you're familiar with Mark Mothersbaugh, it's probably through his day job. In the early 70s, Mothersbaugh--along with fellow Kent State art students Gerald Casale and Bob Lewis--founded DEVO, and began their four-plus-decade broadcast of uncategorizable, avant-garde sound and vision, of hazmat-besuited robot Jaggers singing songs of dark futures and opt-in de-evolution. "Freedom of choice/Is what you got/Freedom from choice/Is what you want."

As it turns out, DEVO was only one facet of a complex project. Before music, Mothersbaugh occupied his time and indulged his obsessions as a visual artist, creating a huge collection of paintings, photographs, and prints--including over 30,000 postcards--that represent an often surreal, sometimes disturbing, and always fascinating take on modern existence. 

Denver's Museum of Contemporary Art has amassed many of these pieces--curated by Adam Lerner--for Mothersbaugh's first comprehensive exhibition. If you can't make it to Colorado or any of the five other cities currently scheduled to host the collection, Princeton Architectural Press has published Mark Mothersbaugh: Myopia as a companion volume, with a set of postcards (Collected Facts and Lies) coming December 2. With the show's opening set for October 30, we asked Mothersbaugh a few questions about his influences as a visual artist, his work, and its relationship to DEVO's music. The publisher has also offered several images from the book, presented below.

 


Most people know you for your music than for your visual art, but which came first, and when? Is one the natural extension of the other? Has your art influenced your music or vice versa? Is it all part of the same project?

I first dreamt I would be an artist when I was seven years old. I took keyboard lessons when I was seven, but didn't want to write and perform music until I was twelve. Early on I was impressed with sound and vision artists and mixed media artists. Then in college cross-platform artists like Andy Warhol, Dadaists and the Futurists inspired me. All the different artists who believed that the idea came first, and then the technique followed. With DEVO, Jerry Casale, Bob #1 and Bob #2 and I thought we were sound and vision artists. We designed costumes, stage shows and choreography, films, all related artwork besides the music. We created interstitial music for our films and live shows.

Three artists or works—in any medium-- that influence your current work the most. Or a lot.

I could list a lot of people, but Chester Gould, Beto Gomez and Alan Vega are the first three I thought of. I also am especially interested in artists who channel other dimensions, gods, spirits, ghosts, energy, or whatever is out there to interact with. Maybe I'm mostly inspired by the "other 90%" of our brains... not just the 10% that has to babysit the rest of our meat computer, but the part we know very little about.

You’ve created over 30,000 postcards, which implies a kind of compulsion or commitment. What urges you to create art? What’s your routine?

The content and goal of my drawing has changed and goes in and out of specific thoughts, stream of consciousness and anger venting, positing questions and just illuminating a thought or feeling. The content has changed since I acquired two children and started showing the newer drawings to others. Thirty years ago, I was the only viewer, and I made them exclusively for me, occasionally picking select images for use with DEVO or to just print them larger for art shows. I draw every day between sun up and sun up. It is kind of compulsive at this point, there is a relief in just finishing at least one drawing, poem, whatever in every 24 hour cycle. I am an insomniac, and drawing gives me something to do during those hours.

Myopia by Mark MothersbaughYou’ve never exhibited your visual work before the Denver exhibit, at least in a large scale. Did you ever intend to? How does this feel?

I have had smaller shows in museums and colleges before, but the bulk of my public viewing over the last 15 years has been in smaller indie galleries. In that arena, I have done upwards of 125 gallery shows around the world in a 13 year period. The Denver show is by far and away the largest museum-size show I have ever put together. Jeffrey Deitch got me interested in bigger, more center-stage art exhibits, but Adam Lerner is my intellectual saint. Not one to shy away from controversy, he both suggested and has co-created this project. I feel pretty darn good about the whole thing.

Has the acceleration of technology and its pervasiveness—especially communications technology—influenced your work and themes? Is it insidious or liberating?

This is the best time in the history of man to be an artist of any stripe. Technology has made so many disciplines transparent and available to young artists these days. It has democratized previously out-priced art mediums including music and video, to name just a few. I think technology gives us so many more options and is very inclusive. I only wish I had the energy of an eighteen year old.

There are so many conflicts inherent in your work: man/ machine, thinker/consumer, high-brow/low-brow (maybe what Adam Lerner has called the “DEVO aesthetic”). Do you start with these ideas, or do they naturally emerge as a project develops? Are you delivering messages or observations?

I think in some ways I'm doing the same thing I did when Jerry and Bob and I started DEVO. Delivering observations regarding the condition of man in the world these days.

 

Images from Mark Mothersbaugh: Myopia:

 
Untitled postcard
 
 
DEVO changed their look for each of their major albums. The plastic wigs they wear in this photograph were part of the image they created for their 1981 album New Traditionalists.
 
 
Mark Mothersbaugh, Untitled, February 7, 1984
 
 
Mark Mothersbaugh, Untitled (Bury Me…), February 21, 2013
 
 
Roli polis
 
 
Mark Mothersbaugh, Wipe!, 2004-7
 
 
Anita’s First Boyfriend, 2004
 
 
This Enigma Records promotional image features the best of DEVO’s many outrageous costumes and showcases the elements of their performance influenced by the 1913 “futurist opera” Victory Over the Sun.
 
 
Mechanical Aviary, 2014
 

Moonshine, and an Interview, with John Grisham

GrishamThe first time I met John Grisham was eight years ago in a bookstore in Charlottesville, Virginia, his home town. I was there to give a reading from my second book, and Grisham was in a back room signing stacks of copies of The Innocent Man. The store owner (I think it was New Dominion) kindly brought me into the back room to meet the man--he was signing more copies that day than my book probably sold in its lifetime--and he graciously spent time asking about my book (the story of southern moonshiners and the birth of NASCAR) and eagerly shared a swig from the jar of moonshine I'd brought along for the reading. 

So, is there a connection between that day in Virginia, and his new book, Gray Mountain, also set in Virginia, about a city lawyer battling Big Coal? 

Nope. None whatsoever. I just never get tired of telling people I sipped moonshine at a bookstore with John Grisham. (See below. No, that's not a wig.)

Earlier this year, I spoke with Grisham (at Book Expo America, in New York) about not only his then-unnamed twenty-seventh novel, Gray Mountain (which went on sale last week) but about his first book, A Time to Kill, and his decision to revisit those characters 25 years later, in 2013's bestselling Sycamore Row. "It was really enjoyable going back to that locale, with those people," he told me.

~

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> See all of John Grisham's books

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Gisham-moonshine

The World of Ice and Fire: A Sneak Peek at Interior Pages

IceandfireThe World of Ice and Fire is coming. It publishes Tuesday the 28th, and the parts of it I've seen are gorgeous. Here's a sneak peek at some of the pages (click on each page to get a closer look).

Here are some specs:

• full-color artwork and maps, with more than 170 original pieces
• full family trees for Houses Stark, Lannister, and Targaryen
• in-depth explorations of the history and culture of Westeros
• 100% all-new material, more than half of which Martin wrote specifically for this book

The publisher describes it as "the definitive companion piece to George R. R. Martin’s dazzlingly conceived universe." Sure seems like it.

 

Now for the sneak peek at those pages...

 

 

IceandFire#4
“The Wall and Beyond” chapter opener; art depicts The Wall and Castle Black

 

IceandFire#2
Title Page; art depicts Aegon the Conqueror upon Balerion, the Black Dread

 

IceandFire#3
“The Glorious Reign” chapter opener; art depicts The Red Keep and King’s Landing

 

IceandFire1
 Endpapers depicting Dragonstone

 

 

 

 

 

 

Top Chef Returns for Season 12

Top Chef image

Bravo’s immensely popular reality show, Top Chef, kicked off season 12 in Boston, and while I’m still riding the excitement from Top Chef Duels (no spoilers!), I love the new season which includes Richard Blais, a previous alum and Top Chef All-Stars winner, stepping in as a judge.  

Top Chef has spawned many a cookbook from the contestants and judges over the years, fostering my belief that I too can cook a 4-course meal for my family even if I don’t own a sous vide immersion circulator or have a canister of liquid nitrogen in the pantry. Here’s a quick rundown of some of the key cookbooks to come out of the Top Chef family since the series began 11 seasons ago.

ChefTop Chef Compilation Cookbooks:

Top Chef Contestants and Winners:

Chef2Judges Table:

Four Great Novels That Can Be Called Post-Multicultural (Or Not)

Who We BeJeff Chang has spent the better part of his adult life analyzing and chronicling the role of race in America. The result is Who We Be, a compendium of essays, photos, lyrics, and other snippets that define, well, Who We Be. Here’s how he puts his thoughts in the book (below). And here is Chang’s list, exclusively for Amazon customers, on further reading on related topics.

When the legendary curator Thelma Golden wanted to name the generation of Black contemporary artists who came of age around the turn of the millennium, she jokingly called them "Post-Black," as in post-civil rights, post-Black Arts, and as she put it, "post-Basquiat and post-Biggie." Writers of that generation—you might call even call them part of the hip-hop generation—shared lots of things with Golden's visual artists. They were no less concerned than previous artists with legacies of race and racism, but they had a different relationship to identity. Their elders had dealt with invisibility. They were dealing with visibility. They were writing for audiences who knew all about affirmative action, diversity trainings, and "political correctness"—but were just as stumped at how to forge racial progress. These audiences knew what not to say to each other, but not what to say next. These novels capture the difficulty—and, just as often, the absurd hilarity—of the post-multicultural, post-whatever, post-post era we are living through.

 

POST TIME:
Identity in the New Millennium

But if I have to choose between
I choose me
—Erykah Badu, “Me”, New Amerykah Part One: (4th World War)

There was a joke that was everywhere at the turn of the millennium. It had started long before, among high-school friends, back when the saying was, “It’s a Black thing, you wouldn’t understand.” But this post-“Black thing” thing was much smaller than that, even more impenetrable, a sub-tribal sign.

The joke had begun with a group of Black guys at a diverse high school in West Philly. It first surfaced in a two-and-a-half minute film short Stone had made with some of those same friends, called True.

It opens with a shot of Stone lying on the couch watching a football game. The cordless rings and it’s his friend Paul, lying on his own couch watching a kung-fu flick.

“’Sup with you?”
“Nuttin’ man, just chillin’.”
“True, true.”

The other characters don’t do much either: Dookie draws comic book characters, Fred picks up the phone and buzzes his friend Porto Rock into the apartment. The dialogue amounts to maybe a dozen words, the most meaningful of which is simply “Wazzzaaaaauuuuuup?!” When each says it, he stretches out the “aaauuuuuuuuh,” wags his tongue, bobs his head, improvises his own stupid faces in his own way.

By the end, Paul has changed the channel to the game, and he and Charles watch together, still having a non-conversation conversation.

“So what’s goin’ on, B?”
“Chillin’. ’Sup with you?”
“Nuttin man, just chillin’.”

And that was it—a group of Black men at rest, not called upon to perform, just being who they be. The short was like what an anthropologist might call “thick description,” what a psychologist might call “the opposite of micro-aggression,” what a comedian might call great material. Years later, when director/actor Charles Stone III’s Whassup? commercial for Budweiser debuted in the 2000 Super Bowl, it seemed that millions were let in on the joke, too.

Multiculturalism had allowed artists of color to toy with the possibility of no longer having to play a role already scripted for them. After multiculturalism, they might move beyond the aesthetics of uplift and respectability, be freed from the burden of representing positivity or confirming oppression. They could aspire just to be. They might still choose to represent identity, race, difference, and inequality. But they wanted to consider it a choice.

“Individuality,” wrote the philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah wrote in his 2005 post-multiculturalism book The Ethics of Identity, “is not so much a state to be achieved as a mode of life to be pursued.”1

Stone had been a music-video director, making videos like A Tribe Called Quest’s Bonita Applebum and The Roots’s What They Do that had slyly subverted Black male stereotypes. By the late 1990s the industry was changing. This short was Stone’s bid for new work. He knew he had something good, so he took his time. He spent two years writing it, and one more to shoot and finish the edit. He debuted True at a music video short festival in the summer of 1999.

An Irish-born-and-raised copywriter at agency DDB Chicago named Vinny Warren spotted True at a festival and brought it to Budweiser. Stone had worried about how the ad would play in the real world. “When people do it and do it badly, it’s like some old Blaxploitation shit, like straight-up minstrel,” he said.

“True” required context and specificity to work. Saying “Wazzzaaaaauuuuuup?!” to each other was an act of recognition. I see you. You and I are together in this moment. The ad had to be made by a Black director featuring an all-Black cast. Stone knew there would still be objections that his concept was “niche market.” Warren’s Irishness, his foreign-ness, Stone felt, allowed him to understand the nuances and see the big picture.

They still needed to pitch the concept to all the confused marketers, casting agents, and execs. In those sessions, Stone decided to describe it in gendered terms. “Look, it’s really simple. It’s men holding hands through the phone,” he would tell them. “It talks about that wonderful nothingness that men do that is actually quite complicated.”

One day DDB execs told Stone they wanted to try out a “multicultural” cast. By this, they meant that they wanted to try white actors. Maybe it was progress that whites could now see themselves in the “multicultural” thing. But wasn’t that still kind of missing the point?

On the last day of casting, Stone and Warren asked to bring back four of the five actors from the original True cast, just to compare them to the “multicultural” cast. Stone recalled, “Sure enough, they were like, ‘What are we doing? We should just stay with the original cast.’”

And so Stone turned up the lighting, put bottles of Bud in each character’s hands, and further slashed an already haiku-length script into what would become the commercial called Whassup? At the end the word “true” rested over a Budweiser logo. Six months later, he and his homies were partying in Cannes after receiving the Grand Prix, the global ad industry’s top award.

Fred Thomas—Stone’s old buddy turned international star—told a British reporter, “It was strictly our thing. Strictly our clique.2 It never went all over Philadelphia. Now the whole world is part of our clique.” One of the Cannes judges agreed, “It’s not just an ad campaign, it’s a movement.”3 Who in the history of advertising could have predicted that a sixty-second spot featuring a group of bored Black males would become the first globally viral ad of the millennium?

The joke among friends had become a joke shared around the world. But what was the world seeing?

 

1Kwame Anthony Appiah, The Ethics of Identity (Princeton University Press, 2005), 5.
2Simon Hattenstone, “Whassup?”,Guardian, October 25, 2000, http://www.theguardian.com/print/0,,4081177-103680,00.html.
3Michael McCarthy, “Budweiser’s ‘Whassup?!’ TV Ads Claim Grand Prix in Cannes,” USA Today, June 26, 2000.

The Only Way Out of the Apocalypse Is Through

Station ElevenPublished earlier this year, Claire Cameron's novel, The Bear, opens on a very dark night: On a family camping trip, a savage attack from a 300-pound black bear orphans five-year-old Anna and her younger brother, sending them on a terrifying flight for survival through the Canadian wilderness, ending their world as they know it. It's a thoughtful take on change and fear, and the strength we find within ourselves to propel us through.

Emily St. John Mandel's Station Eleven--recently announced as a finalist for the 2014 National Book Award in fiction--deals with the end of the world on a much larger scale: A doomsday virus that wipes out 99% of humanity. We thought it would be interesting if the two authors spoke about the new book and the inspiration behind it.


Claire Cameron Interviews Emily St. John Mandel, Author of Station Eleven

Station Eleven, the latest novel by Emily St. John Mandel, has been called, "an ambitious and addictive novel" by The Guardian and "equal parts page-turner and poem" by Entertainment Weekly. Author Ann Patchett said, "I wouldn’t have put it down for anything." 

The novel jumps back and forth between a post-apocalyptic world and the start of a flu epidemic that had wiped out 99% of the world's population twenty years earlier. This sounds like a dark story, and it is. But, as with the best tragedies, St. John Mandel manages to show beauty and hope in the gloom. It is also expertly crafted. She weaves time and develops characters in a non-linear and convincing way. It's a riveting read.

As a writer, the moment I finished the novel I wanted to know more about how it was written. I interviewed St. John Mandel by email. --Claire Cameron

Claire Cameron: What was the first spark of inspiration for Station Eleven?

Emily St. John Mandel: I wanted to write something quite different from my previous three novels, all of which were generally categorized as literary noir. I'm happy with the way they turned out, but I didn't want to be pigeon-holed as a crime writer. To be clear, I have a great deal of respect for crime writers and crime fiction. It's just that I don't want to be pigeon-holed as anything, and I love film and theatre, so I thought it would be interesting to write about the life of an actor.

At the same time, I wanted to write a love letter to this extraordinary world in which we find ourselves, this place where rooms fill with electric light at the flick of a switch, water comes out of faucets, and it's possible to cross the Atlantic in an afternoon. One way to write about the modern world is to contemplate its absence, which is why I decided to set parts of the new novel in a post-apocalyptic era. I think of the book as a love letter in the form of a requiem.

CC: How did you imagine the disaster specifically, the flu epidemic, in your novel?

ESJM: I imagined an extremely aggressive strain of swine flu—with some variant in the viral RNA resulting in a freakishly quick incubation period—making the jump from pigs to humans on a farm in the Republic of Georgia. In early drafts, the initial outbreak was quite specific and detailed: a teenaged girl who lives on the farm kisses her boyfriend, who's traveling to Moscow that afternoon. The following day, passengers on a plane from Moscow to Toronto begin to feel ill a few hours into the flight. This is also true of passengers in other airplanes bound for other continents, and in trains and buses bound for other countries. I imagined a mortality rate of 99%.

The Bear

The Bear

by Claire Cameron

CC: I was struck by a character who watched an airplane take off, “Why, in his life of frequent travel, had he never recognized the beauty of flight?” Do we live in an era of beauty?

ESJM: We do, although it's also of course an era of ugliness and horror. We live in a world filled with spectacular things that we too often take for granted, and flight is an easy example of that. I don't always enjoy flying. It's often a horribly uncomfortable experience. But the fact that it's possible is incredible, isn't it? I've been fielding accusations of being easily impressed since childhood, but in my defense, a lot of things are impressive.

CC: Your novel shows that even in the face of disaster humans can be good to each other, which is a different world than is depicted in many post-apocalyptic stories. Are you hopeful about human kind?

ESJM: Generally, yes. My suspicion is that the overwhelming majority of people on the world really just want to go about their business, raise their families, and live peacefully. But with regard to this book, the key here is the timing. Post-apocalyptic stories are often set in a period of chaos and mayhem immediately following a societal collapse. I assume that such a period would occur, but I was more interested in writing about what might come after that, fifteen or twenty years after the collapse. I assume that the entire world wouldn't be consumed by mayhem forever, because mayhem isn't a sustainable way of life over the long term.

CC: Though you now live in New York, you grew up in Canada. Did this influence your novel?

ESJM: Yes. Delano Island in the book is an ever-so-thinly fictionalized version of the island where I grew up on the west coast of British Columbia, and the book is partly set in Toronto, where I went to school.

CC: Station Eleven is a literary novel, but it also uses some of conventions of genre – suspense, science fiction and elements of horror. How does genre influence your writing? Do you think about genre or conventions when you write?

ESJM: I've always just set out to write literary fiction, with the strongest possible narrative drive. My ideal of the perfect book is Donna Tartt's The Secret History; it's beautifully written, but it's also a page-turner.

I try not to think about genre while I'm writing, because the whole question of genre seems completely arbitrary and amorphous to me. If a literary novel is set partly in the future, does that somehow make it less "literary" than a novel set in present-day suburbia? If a literary novel has a crime in it, is it automatically crime fiction? Ultimately, these labels have more to do with marketing than with the content of the work itself. Case in point: my first three novels were generally marketed as literary fiction in North America, but I'm a thriller writer in France. Same books, different marketing strategies.

CC: The traveling symphony has a line from Star Trek on the side of their caravan: "Because survival is insufficient." How important is art to our lives? Does it change how or why we live?

ESJM: I think it's very important, and it does change the way we live. Survival is never enough for us, and we find examples of this in the most desperate places on earth: people play musical instruments in refugee camps and put on plays in war zones.

 

See more books by Claire Cameron and read more--including the proper way to split firewood--at www.claire-cameron.com.

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