May 15, 2011

It’s worth pointing out that this discussion of acting as an ongoing, live, ever-present support mechanism for our interactions in life was parroted almost word-for-word in James Franco’s recent interview with Charlie:

What makes this particularly interesting is the actorial lineage: James Franco’s style and persona are very much a copy of James Dean’s, which in turn were shamelessly modeled after Brando’s.

Full circle, y’all.

Bernard-Henri Lévy v. Les Gelb, April 4, 2011: Warring Words

April 7, 2011

By the New York Bureau Chief

On October 15, 2004, Jon Stewart appeared as a guest on CNN’s Crossfire and told its hosts, Tucker Carlson and Paul Begala, that they were “hurting America.” Stewart objected to Crossfire‘s amped-up partisan rhetoric, which, he said, fueled screaming matches instead of substantive discussions. A little over six years later, after the Tucson shootings, we’d hear congressman after congressman lodge similar complaints about the state of political rhetoric (ironic, or better put, telling that Crossfire, like the Sarah PAC crosshairs map, seems to be a literal call to arms). On Crossfire, Stewart said that he didn’t object to debate, far from it; he just wanted an honest show that would place a premium on the exchange of ideas, not Beltway spin. This past Monday, Jon Stewart finally found that show.

The subject was Libya. The host, we all know. The debaters, Bernard-Henry Lévy and Les Gelb, were perfectly matched. BHL (as his friends call him) is a dashing, libertine public intellectual who dabbles in film, writes high-minded books, and gets mentioned in Page Six for his romantic exploits. Gelb is a former ink-stained wretch (Times correspondent) and current President Emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations. He also writes books. He does not dabble in film. He is not dashing. He has never been mentioned in Page Six.

There are also plenty of philosophical differences that separate the Sephardic Libertine from the Ashkenazi Schlemiel. BHL, we realize a minute into his opening remarks, is a policy idealist of the dreamiest order. He, like our friend Cory Booker, enjoys basking in big words like “freedom” and “liberty.” He loves the war in Libya because it’s a humanitarian intervention that reinforces our commitment to humanist values. In fact, he was one of the war’s intellectual authors. Gelb, who’s first words on the show are “I disagree with most of what our French colleague had to say, starting with his history and going to what he thinks we should be doing right now,” is a policy realist. He doesn’t think the US should be taking the lead in the Libyan war, not so much because he disagrees with its premise, but because he thinks it’s a regional concern. BHL sees the world as romantic poetry. Les Gelb sees it as chess. Here’s a sample BHL moment:

Needless to say, Les Gelb thinks that’s all hogwash.

The Libertine and the Schlemiel rarely engage with one another. There’s a bigger audience they’re trying to convince. That audience is named Charlie Rose. The dynamic is fascinating. At some points, the show feels like a debate in the Oval Office—Charlie is the president, BHL and Gelb are two senior advisers who love their boss almost as much as they hate each other. At other points, Charlie seems like the desired woman, two suitors warring for her affections. The dominant metaphor for a dedicated Charlie-watcher, though, is of a conversation occurring inside Charlie’s head. If fused together, BHL and Gelb might very well become something like Charlie Rose—the sober-minded, libertine, realist, Francophile American sort-of journalist. BHL’s enthusiasm and bravado and Gelb’s caution and skepticism are all signature Rose-ian traits. In fact, Charlie barely has to speak during the broadcast, his presence is already felt so strongly. The two guests’ desperate need to win Charlie’s approval becomes not only the show’s animating force but its subject. By the end, Libya is almost incidental.

Julian Schnabel, March 24, 2011: Wildcat

March 29, 2011

By the New York Bureau Chief

In The Royal Tenenbaums there’s a scene in which a hotshot writer (played by Owen Wilson) appears on an interview show that looks a whole lot like Charlie Rose. The Charlie stand-in—in characteristic Charlie fashion—challenges Wilson’s character by asking him why his last novel was a critical failure. Wilson says that it was “written in a kind of obsolete vernacular,” then slowly repeats to himself the the title of the book, Wildcat. He’s like a kid stalling for time on a multiplication drill. It’s clear he doesn’t even remember having written Wildcat.

Julian Schnabel’s not a drugged-out dummy, but I’d peg him as the CR guest most likely to attribute the failure of one his projects to an “obsolete vernacular.” Quite simply, he’s the most pompous man in New York—though he’s not stuffy at all. The Pasha of Downtown Manhattan lives in an outlandish high-rise castle in the West Village (from which he’s made an absolute killing), burns through beautiful women half his age, and, as a celebrated painter and filmmaker, considers himself the ultimate artiste. He might be the only person in the world who could get away with wearing sunglasses on Charlie Rose.

Schnabel appears on Rose to plug his new film, Miral, the story of an orphaned Palestinian girl during the First Intifada. The film has gotten generally negative reviews, and while I can’t comment on its merits, I can on its premise. Is there anything more irritating than a multi-millionaire bon-vivant artist weighing in on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? It’s as if he wants to live out the ultimate cliché of limousine leftist self-congratulation, opining to CR, “I don’t care about the movie. I care about what’s going on in the Middle East.” (I hear an echo of another corpulent genius-asshole: “this film isn’t about Vietnam. It is Vietnam.“) Charlie, in case you were wondering, tells us at the beginning of the show that he and Jules are friends.

But you want to hear about the women. Schnabel’s last movie, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, featured his then wife, the Spanish model Olatz López Garmendia. Schnabel’s new movie, Miral, is based on a book written by his current girlfriend, Rula Jebreal. Charlie doesn’t mention their relationship in the interview (although given the fact that Jebreal is Pam Grier–hot, you have to wonder if anything’s cooking), but Schnabel makes a wonderful slip that reveals all.

CR: “Did you make this film in part because you met her and fell in love with her story?”
Jules: “…Absolutely had nothing to do with me falling in love with her.”

Indeed, Schnabel doesn’t seem all that committed to Jebreal’s story or its cause. During a discussion of the film’s advertising slogan, “The movie they didn’t want you to see,” Charlie sensibly asks, “Who doesn’t want you to see this movie?” Jules backtracks immediately. He claims that, had he been in charge of marketing, he would have plugged the film with the limp phrase “the movie we were waiting to see.” Then Jules throws down and calls out the haters who don’t want you to see his film. They are “the people who haven’t opened their hearts and minds to empathy.” Bam! A four-siren alert just went off on Drudge Report.

Jebreal, who also appears on the broadcast, is less cautious. She calls out the American Jewish Committee, which asked the UN to cancel a screening of Miral, and seems on the verge of making a bigger political statement when Jules shuts her up: “most of the people who worked on this film were Jewish.” When did Pasha Jules become so cautious? And why, based on this interview, do I not believe him when he says, “I think people are scared of this material?”

Subscribe to our New Pay Wall!

March 17, 2011

By the Chicago Bureau Chief

Interesting that the announcement of the New York Times’ pay wall should follow so closely on the heels of this interview.  David Carr, of the Times and Walt Mossberg of the Wall Street Journal, both weigh in on the iPad 2.

We find Walt Mossberg pretty blowhardy and generally not techy enough to write about tech, so we’re glad to see that his criticisms of the iPad have drawn criticism of their own.  David Carr is a point of contention among your editorial board – the Chicago Bureau Chief finds him a very entertaining interview, both for his weird, wide-mouthed, downhome midwestern accent and his baggy fitting suits.  And he doesn’t get any better than in this interview, live from SxSW where he looks and sounds like he scored some high grade coke from Bob Rodriguez right before the cameras started rolling.  (“When someone is described as the love child of a Hell’s Angel and a Sioux Indian, you’re gonna want to be able to hit that name and see that person with they’re big long hair and their feathered earring and have them talk you.”  Maybe peyote…)

But what’s we find most interesting re: the New York Times subscription plan is a lexical point.  David Carr – of the New York Times – tells us that the future of paying for news content will be delivered by Apps, which is “a sexy and wonderful word” – not subscriptions, which is a “terrible word”.

Well, it seems that the editorial board of the Times (our chief rival) didn’t consult Dave before they sent out this e-mail:

The editors of BATT wholeheartedly endorse freenyt on Twitter, the first of many easy and obvious solutions to this pay wall.

Chris Matthews, February 18, 2011

March 11, 2011

By the Los Angeles Bureau Chief

Chris Matthews is an Irish carnival barker.

He’s loud, he smirks a lot, he interrupts a lot, he wears a preppy haircut, he brags about being Tip O’Neill’s right hand man, he says things like “Nancy Reagan…good friend of mine,” and he apparently has a raging, unironic, uncritical, fanboy hard-on for Bill Clinton’s post-presidency.

As has happened on more than one occasion, I went into the interview wanting to deeply dislike the guest.  But goddamn if the guy wasn’t smart, articulate, and, most of all, passionate about the thing he was there to talk about: politics.  In this case, he was promoting a documentary he had just shot about the Clinton Global Iniative.  And, like I said, he all but fellated Clinton on-air (“genius” “like Winston Churchill” “could get elected president of Ireland tomorrow”).  But it somehow came off as charming.

Because along with all the obnoxious stuff came amazing stories about Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill (after Reagan was shot, O’Neill visited him in the hospital, “he nealt down next to Reagan…and together they recited the 23rd Psalm together, these two old guys, two old Irish guys, and then he kissed him on the forehead after they were done praying together, said ‘I dont want to keep you.'”)  And he calls people things like “the purple bear of Boston, the old shamrock, who went to the can.”  And he compares Barack Obama to Michael Corleone (“you know that scene in The Godfather where he lights the cigarette outside the hospital and you realize he was born for this?”).

So, all in all, a total charmer who I’d love to sit next to at a dinner party.

Charlie might disagree.  ‘Cause there’s a jealous tension that runs through this one.  Charlie passive-aggressively chides Matthews for “running around with the President.”  He says “you must have asked that question” of Clinton, when he know very well Matthews didn’t.  And he closes with a very tired, bored, “Chris Matthews…”  As if, “yeah, I know, I’m sorry, but at least you didn’t have to be in the same room with him.”

It’s odd.  Charlie’s an accomplished man and an accomplished journalist.  Is it just pure professional rivalry?  Personal dislike?  Does Charlie envy Matthews’ fame and access and pedigree and maybe even his energy?  Is Chris Matthews taking viewers away from Charlie Rose?  Are Chris Matthews types taking viewers away from Charlie Rose types?

Whatever it is, Charlie’s a little pissy.  And I like it.

Amy Chua, March 1, 2011: Prizefight

March 7, 2011

By the New York Bureau Chief

My friend was incredulous: “I can’t quite tell where the performance ends and where [the New York Bureau Chief] begins.” I was explaining my fascination with Charlie Rose, telling him why I’ve dedicated my time (albeit a small amount of it) to Back At This Table. People in the bureau chiefs’ age bracket are supposed to thrill to Stephen Colbert. Was my embrace of the Rose show a kind of ironic rejection of the ironic? The next phase in the meta-meta-meta evolution of hipster taste?

It’s not, and last week’s episode with Amy Chua (which I predicted would occur over a month ago) reminded me of all the very genuine reasons why I love watching Charlie Rose. At his best—and he was at his best in this interview—CR is both a dazzling performer and a master accompanist, the talking-head-show equivalent of Max Roach or Steve Nash—a virtuoso who enhances the abilities of those around him.

Charlie’s interview with Amy Chua rockets through its first round. Chua chatters away her very-talked-over points about how Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother is a memoir (her models were Nabokov’s Pale Fire and Dave Eggers—uh, huh) and not a parenting how-to guide. Charlie parries with her and throws the occasional counter-punch: “That seems mild compared to what you did!” Six minutes and thirty seconds into this 37 minute interview, all of possible subjects seem to have been covered. “What are they going to talk about for another 30 minutes?” I wrote in my notes. Charlie looks to have more than met his match.

It was all a classic rope-a-dope. Once Chua talks herself out, Charlie controls the interview. He challenges her: “Where does happiness come through in this book?” Then asks, haughtily, “You’re saying, read it properly to find the happiness?!?” Chua responds by going on the defensive, spinning the kind of answer-on-the-fly one gets good at bullshitting during law school. Charlie cuts Chua off, his voice rising from below, “I don’t think you would have written it if it weren’t a love story.”

This flurry of hard and soft, confrontation and affirmation, comes in the space of just a few seconds. It’s a brilliant tactic. Charlie forces Chua to answer tough questions but doesn’t repel her in the way that “gotcha!” interviewers like Deborah Solomon often do their subjects. Chua is—at her core—a student who wants nothing more than to please her teachers. Charlie quickly occupies this role and then presses Chua like a Harvard law prof. “How did you convey love?” Charlie asks his pupil. “”There haven’t been that many Nobel laureates from China,” he states, getting little Amy to concede that there’s something off about Chinese culture. (Couldn’t decades of autocratic rule and an aggressively anti-intellectual policy have had something to do with it? Charlie wins a point that should have been easy for Chua to challenge. He’s dominating this shit.) Then he makes his most teacherly declaration. When Chua admits that her daughter Lulu was a rebel from birth, Charlie says “Exactly right! That’s my point!” Does Charlie have the answer sheet to the secrets of human behavior? By the end of the interview, both he and Amy Chua seem to think so.

Charlie is so confident that he closes by confiding in Chua (and in us) that “probably this table has been the subject of more conversations with more people—five nights a week, twenty years—with more people of achievement than anywhere.” (It’s hard not to love the idea that the table itself is “the subject” of these conversations. Certainly, your bureau chiefs are rejoicing.) And what have these people of accomplishment told Charlie? That success is all about…wait for it…hard work! The revelation is probably not worthy of the buildup, but by that point Chua is just swooning. She ends the interview with a morning-after giggle that we’d have to second: “Thank you so much, Charlie, it was really fun.”


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