Sunday, December 15, 2013

Show for Dec 15, 2013. Comedian Ron Funches.

Up and coming comic Ron Funches is trying to make it in the big time, and so far, so good. He’s moved to LA, has a part in a new TV comedy series and is writing for another. We talked about Ron’s path from open mics to paying gigs, developing his comic chops, his partiality to women comedians, why he still gets confused for a homeless person and what it’s like to be meeting and working with some of his comic role models.

As a writer for Kroll Show, Ron gets to create sketches for talents like Nick Kroll and Jenny Slate. How cool is that?

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Sunday, December 8, 2013

Show for Dec 8, 2013. Mathematician Cédric Villani.

Since winning the Fields Medal (the closest thing in mathematics to the Nobel Prize) in 2010, Cédric Villani has become something of a roving ambassador for math and science. He’s well-suited (literally) to the role: a patient explainer and broad-minded thinker, passionate about education and social engagement, with a seemingly limitless range of interests. And just a cool guy.

We talked about Cédric’s emergence as a math whiz, what it’s like to spend years exploring a single equation, his fascination with statistical mechanics and entropy, whether math is “real” in some more-than-conceptual sense, what mathematicians do that computers can’t, his love of comic books, and, yes, his trademark retro look, seen below.

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Sunday, November 24, 2013

Show for Nov 24, 2013. Literary critic Helene Moglen.

That old 60’s phrase “consciousness raising” may sound quaint and overblown today, but for a generation of progressive intellectuals it wasn’t hyperbole. Feminism, for example, was more than a push for equality and social justice; it was a wholesale re-evaluation of all sorts of unexamined “truths” about the world and the stories we tell.

I think it’s easy to underestimate at our remove how much the ground shifted back then, which is why I wanted to talk to Helene Moglen. She was there for, and part of, the whole shebang. She began her career as a literary scholar in the Madmen-era 1950s, when the utterly apolitical, de-historicized New Criticism was all the rage. She found her voice in the civil rights and women’s movements in the 60’s and made the turn to feminist criticism, working to show how the complexities and contradictions of gender influence so many narratives, literary and otherwise.

In this interview, Helene offered an engrossing look at her life and times, including:

  • Studying at Yale when the New Criticism reigned supreme
  • Getting swept up in the women’s movement, and what those feminist consciousness raisings were really like
  • The work of her TV-producer husband, Sig
  • Her academic career, from NYU and SUNY to UCSC, where she became the first woman dean in the University of California system
  • An intro to feminist criticism, including feminist readings of Robinson Crusoe and Frankenstein
  • What happens when feminists have sons

Helene Moglen in her current role as emerita professor literature and feminist studies at UC Santa Cruz.

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Sunday, November 17, 2013

Show for Nov. 17, 2013. David Harris-Gershon: What Do You Buy the Children of the Terrorist Who Tried to Kill Your Wife?

David Harris-Gershon grew up regarding Palestinians as the enemy: “They were just the latest in a long line of people wanting us dead, lined up throughout history: Arabs, Germans, Russians, Romans, Greeks, Persians, Babylonians, Egyptians.” So you might think a Hamas-orchestrated bombing in Jerusalem that left two of his friends dead, his wife badly injured and him with a nasty case of PTSD would only harden those feelings. Instead, it led to a re-evaluation, a visit to the bomber’s family and a more complicated view of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. David and I talked about his new memoir and his change of heart.

Click the Listen arrow at the top of this post to listen to the show, or you can download the MP3 here (if using a Mac, control-click the link and choose “Save Link As…” If using a PC, right-click and choose Save Target As…”)

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Show for Nov 3, 2013. Learning to Live While Doing Life in Prison.

Filmmaker Michel Wenzer isn’t interested in the lurid fare that typifies popular depictions of prison. He is interested in how some inmates manage to find a way to live and to grow in a place of desolation. For the men profiled in Wenzer’s documentary At Night I Fly: Images from New Folsom, salvation comes in the form of self-examination and artistic engagement, helped along by the remnants of California’s once-thriving Arts In Corrections program.

Michel has a very personal connection to his subject; it was his immersion in reading, literature and music that sustained him while growing up in the foster care system in Sweden. We talked about his experience filming in New Folsom (younger sibling of the original Folsom Prison) and the life lessons we could all learn from some of the lifers he met. I played some clips from At Night I Fly and also some bits of interviews I’ve done over the years with prison artists, including the poet Spoon Jackson, who was the inspiration for Michel’s film.

At Night I Fly has its west coast premiere Wednesday, Nov 13 at the Rio Theatre in Santa Cruz, Ca. in a benefit for the Prison Arts Project. More info here.


Spoon Jackson in New Folsom (photo from At Night I Fly by Michel Wenzer). My 2010 interview with Spoon is here.

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Sunday, October 13, 2013

Show for Oct. 13, 2013. Richard Rodriguez—Darling: A Spiritual Autobiography.

"I consider an essay to be the biography of an idea," says Richard Rodriguez. Yes, ideas not as airy abstractions but as lived, embodied and temporal things. Richard’s writing has always balanced intellectual sweep with lyrical particularity, threading its way between big-picture cultural criticism and intimate memoir. In his latest collection he is as broad and deep as ever, musing on faith in the dark days after 9/11; Judaism, Christianity and Islam as "desert religions"; his own relationship to Catholicism and his argument with the "new atheists"; the role of women in his emancipation as a gay man; and finding a way to live in love and live with death. Richard brings the same intensity and acuity to conversation as he does to the page, which made this interview a special one.

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Sunday, September 29, 2013

Show for Sept. 29, 2013. Mike Jay on James Tilly Matthews and Techno-Paranoia.

For everyone who has since had messages beamed at them through their fillings, or their TV sets, or via high-tech surveillance, MI5, Masonic lodges or UFOs, James Tilly Matthews is Patient Zero,” writes Mike Jay. Matthews was an 18th/19th century British merchant who who believed a sinister conspiracy was afoot in London, employing the latest discoveries in gas chemistry and “mesmerism” to manipulate the minds of England’s leaders and plunge the country into war. He was branded a lunatic and locked away in Bethlem Royal Hospital, aka Bedlam.

A century later, visions of technology-assisted thought control were so widespread that Freud contemporary Victor Tausk felt compelled to give the phenomenon a clinical name. He called it the “influencing machine” delusion. Today, Jay says, the influencing machine has become a defining preoccupation of our age: not just the hobgoblin of schizophrenics, conspiracy nuts and sci-fi writers, but a generalized suspicion that invasive technology, unseen puppetmasters and seductive media hold increasing sway over our thoughts, decisions and collective future. 

So was James Tilly Matthews just cuckoo or was he a canary in the coal mine? 


Mike Jay’s book A Visionary Madness: The Case of James Tilly Matthews and the Influencing Machine, forthcoming in Jan. 2014.

 


James Tilly Matthews’s own drawing of the Air Loom, the pneumatic-magnetic contraption he said was controlling thoughts from beneath the streets of London.

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Sunday, September 15, 2013

Show for Sept 15, 2013. James Dawes on “Evil Men.”

We love monsters and villains – can’t get enough of them – as long as they’re confined to fiction, the page or the screen. But how many of us confront real iniquity in human form? James Dawes has written extensively on atrocity and trauma, but he’d never encountered flesh-and-blood perpetrators until he visited Japan in 2008. He went to interview reformed war criminals from the genocidal Sino-Japanese War of the 1930s and 40s, when Japanese forces raped, tortured and killed millions of Chinese. His meetings with the now-elderly men, and the memories they shared with him, left him unnerved and beset by questions. After some years of processing the experience, he’s written a wide-ranging meditation on the causes and nature of inhumanity, the stories we tell about it and the very complicated business of bearing witness.

Click the Listen arrow at the top of this post to listen to the show, or you can download the MP3 here (if using a Mac, control-click the link and choose “Save Link As…” If using a PC, right-click and choose Save Target As…”)

And here’s an extra segment from the interview that didn’t make it into the final edit – further thoughts on the utility of evil as a moral category, on hatred, lifelong culpability and the efficacy of punishment. Click here to listen.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Show for Aug 25, 2013: Henry Jaglom on Orson Welles.

It’s tempting, if you’re tempted by clichés, to call Orson Welles “larger than life.” But he was after all an ordinary mortal, however prodigious his gifts and imposing his persona. He was also, among other things, a struggling artist, and his travails should be familiar to anyone who’s sought creative fulfillment in a practical world.

One person who saw past the Wellesian myth and beheld the man was the filmmaker Henry Jaglom. Their friendship began in 1970, when the upstart Jaglom impertinently asked Welles to be in his first movie (A Safe Place) and the master improbably assented, and it continued until Welles’s death in 1985. They were frequent dining companions at LA’s then-trendy Ma Maison, and Henry recorded many of their conversations. Now film historian Peter Biskind has transcribed and edited some of the Welles-Jaglom tapes into a book, My Lunches with Orson. Though the dishy parts have drawn most of the media attention, I was more interested in the sheer breadth and insight (both Orson’s and Henry’s) on display. In this interview, Henry Jaglom describes the Orson Welles he knew and loved.

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Orson and Henry

Great interview with OW and Dick Cavett, c. 1970?

Sunday, August 11, 2013

"Gypsy Voices": Donald Cohen on Romani Music

I’ve featured Don Cohen on the show previously, discussing two of his favorite musical genres: Portuguese Fado and Argentine Tango. He joins me again with his latest book, Gypsy Voices: Songs from the Romani Soul, which collects Roma songs from the Balkans, Romania, Hungary and other parts of eastern/central Europe. We talked Roma history and music while playing tracks (some classics, some lesser-known tunes) from the book’s companion CD and doing our best not to overuse the term “Gypsy.”

Click the Play arrow at the top of this post to listen to the show, or you can download the MP3 here (if using a Mac, control-click the link and choose “Save Link As…” If using a PC, right-click and choose Save Target As…”)

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Show for Aug. 4, 2013. Joshua Oppenheimer and The Act of Killing.

Joshua Oppenheimer isn’t the only documentary filmmaker to aim his lens at the perpetrators of atrocities. But he may be the first to find such willing subjects. In his new film The Act of Killing, former Indonesian death squad members are only too eager to describe their participation in the anti-communist purges of 1965-1966, when they helped butcher anywhere from 500,000 to more than a million people. So enthused were the genocidaires that they took an active role in Oppenheimer’s project, re-enacting their youthful exploits for the camera. As Anwar Congo, the film’s affable central character, proudly avers, “We have to show this is who we are, so in the future people will remember.” Werner Herzog, who served as executive producer with Errol Morris, says, “I have not seen a film as powerful, surreal, and frightening in at least a decade… it is unprecedented in the history of cinema.”

Joshua Oppenheimer has been interviewed up the wazoo as The Act of Killing debuts across the country, so when I got my chance, I tried to skip some of the compulsories and dig a little deeper into the making the film and the queasy questions it raises.

Find out more about the film and when it opens in your area.

Click the Play arrow at the top of this post to listen to the show, or you can download the MP3 here (if using a Mac, control-click the link and choose “Save Link As…” If using a PC, right-click and choose Save Target As…”)

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Show for July 28, 2013. Composers Kevin Puts and Derek Bermel.

Composer Kevin Puts returns to this year’s Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music with his new Flute Concerto and a Pulitzer Prize to his credit. Kevin and I talked about the new work and its charming backstory; about his love of heartfelt music, whatever proponents of modernist abstraction may say; and about his choice of a contemplative composing career over the athletic rigors of concert piano.

In the second part of the show, globe-trotting composer/clarinetist Derek Bermel describes Dust Dances, an orchestral piece based on his studies of the West African xylophone known as the gyil. Both Dust Dances and the Flute Concerto will be performed on opening night of the Cabrillo Festival, August 2.


 
 
Kevin Puts and Derek Bermel.

 

Want to build a gyil? Don’t forget the spiderwebs.

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Sunday, July 14, 2013

Show for July 14, 2013. 50 Years of Documentary Filmmaking with David Hoffman.

David Hoffman picked up his first spring-wound Bolex 16mm movie camera in 1963. Over the next five decades he proceeded to make scores of films on a huge range of subjects: profiles of famous and not-so-famous people; music docs (including BB King at Sing-Sing, Earl Scruggs, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez); political, historical and military docs for public television; documentary-style commercials for Mobil Oil and other companies; and one notorious film – King Murray – that challenged the whole documentary form. He’s still at it. 

I first met David when talking to him and filmmaker-friend John Vincent Barrett about their collaboration, Everything Which is … Yes, on the aftermath of a fire that destroyed David’s home and huge multimedia archive. David is a great storyteller, and I wanted to have him back to talk more about his prolific career, his adventures behind the camera and his thoughts on truth and fabrication in documentaries. 

David Hoffman’s 2008 TED Talk on the fire that consumed his home.

Click the Play arrow at the top of this post to listen to the show, or you can download the MP3 here (if using a Mac, control-click the link and choose “Save Link As…” If using a PC, right-click and choose Save Target As…”)

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Show for June 30, 2013. Philosopher Daniel Dennett on Matter, Mind and Meaning.

If you fretted that you were merely a billiard ball on the pool table of life, Dan Dennett says take heart: you’re actually a team of tiny robots. Dennett is often cast as the arch-reductionist, but he’s really more of an emergentist, as you’ll hear in this interview. I’ve been wanting to talk to him again ever since we discussed his religion-as-biology book Breaking the Spell in 2006. We didn’t have time then to get around to what he considers his life’s work on mind, consciousness and free will. So when an opportunity finally came up last week, I did my best to cover all that ground in the hour Dan granted me. 

Click the Play arrow at the top of this post to listen to the show, or you can download the MP3 here (if using a Mac, control-click the link and choose “Save Link As…” If using a PC, right-click and choose Save Target As…”)

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Show for June 23, 2013. Soul Man Pt II: The Return of Jazz Singer-Songwriter Gregory Porter.

Gregory Porter says his goal is to make art that’s not forced or contrived, that flows like water from who he is and how he’s lived. This conversation makes it plain just how entwined the singer and his songs are. Our previous interview with Gregory was surely one of our best shows of 2012, and this second one picks up where the first left off. We talked about his precocious taste for jazz, performing gospel in church, the influence of his minister mother and her message of love even in the face of hate, and his seemingly meteoric – but actually long-in-the-making – rise on the jazz scene.  We listened to some of Gregory’s recorded music and some that hasn’t been recorded (at least not until now), including his first original song, composed at the age of six.

Click the Play arrow at the top of this post to listen to the show, or you can download the MP3 here (if using a Mac, control-click the link and choose “Save Link As…” If using a PC, right-click and choose Save Target As…”)