Even if LO:CI doesn’t get renewed, CI fans can get their fix (that is if they don’t mind learning a little français)
May I present the website for Paris Enquêtes Criminelles courtesy of the French TV channel TF1? From now on here is a new abbreviation to get used to so that I don’t have to flail around on my keyboard searching for non-existant French characters like the circonflex “^” e that belongs in ‘Paris Enquêtes Criminelles’ : PEC. Learn it well, because I have a feeling I’ll be using it a lot.
Regardez bien/ Take a look at Commander Vincent Revel (played by Vincent Perez) and Lieutenant Claire Savigny (played by Sandrine Rigaux)
TF1’s PEC site is a bit less developed than NBC’s CI site is now, but it reminds me of how the NBC CI site was back in 2001…it’s a little more polished though than NBCs (which back in the day had very little video to it)
I particularly love this tiny snippet of an interview from Vincent Perez on what Perez thought the differences between Goren and Ravel are (I translated this partly with help from an online translator and then used my own modest knowledge of French to Americanize it):
“I watched very little of the original version so as not to be influenced by it, but I have the impression that Goren is very cerebral. Revel is more instinctive and perhaps more vulnerable. At times, it is necessary that Revel has doubts, that he is a little lost. These two characters however have much in common. We had already begun filming [PEC] when we left for New York to meet the American team. When Vincent D’ Onofrio spoke to me about his own experience, I really had the impression that we had passed by the same stages. What he said evoked my memories, of my personal interrogations of the character of Revel. It was amusing.”
Here’s how Sandrine Rigaux answered the question: “Did you seek your American counterpart Kathryn Erbe’s advice?”
“Not really, but naturally we spoke about the difficulty of coexisting with our partners. The Americans also advised us to develop the female character more quickly than they had done it. Building a character alongside Revel’s is inevitably delicate. This partnership of cops functions like that formed by Sherlock Holmes and Watson. I was to find my moments, without falling into the trap of imitating my partner at the risk of destroying the balance of our team. Vincent Perez really helped me.”
Unlike the American CI which began with ‘One’, the pilot of PEC is an adaptation of the CI Season 1 episode ‘Phantom’ or ‘Fantôme’ as the French call it. The clip on TF1’s site (click on the ‘Extraits’ tab to watch it) shows Revel and Savigny questioning Nadine Delcourt (played by Hélène Degy) about the death of Malek Kelkal (played by Mustapha Ben Stiti). The quick thinking American CI fan will recognize that Nadine Delcourt is an adaptation of the character Charlotte Fielding aka Cookie Caspari! You will also note that the writers preserved one of my favorite detective exchanges ever:
Goren: One thing this job teaches us is that guys will do anything for love.
Eames: Or money.
Paraphrasing and translating
Revel …les hommes feront n’importe quoi pour l’amour.
Savigny Oui. Mais aussi pour l’argent.
The second episode of PEC will be an adaptation of the first season CI episode ‘The Faithful’ called ‘Requiem pour un assassin’ or ‘Requiem For An Assassin’ If you watch the promotional spot for PEC (click on the Bande Annonce tab to watch it) you will see Ravel doing his version of the infamous ‘Goren show’ investigation of a mentally ill homeless man from ‘The Faithful’.
From what else I can glean of the show by watching its promo spot, PEC’s Captain Deakins/Ross equivalent, Police Chief Bonnefoy, is male (and played by Jacques Pater) and the ADA/prosecutor role we would have associated with ADA Ron Carver (played by Courtney Vance) is a female called Judge Lherbier (played by Hélène Godec)!
PEC’s first two episodes will initially air back to back on Thursday May 3, 2007 beginning at 8:50pm (that’s Paris time). I am hoping that these episodes will be available online somehow, or that someone in France can hook me up with DVDs once the show gets going. The French are skeptical of this remake of an ‘American’ show…many of them think why redo CI, when what the Americans have done is so good. I say give PEC a shot…it might translate well to French culture and get better ratings there than CI ever did here in the USA.
I am posting this only tangentially related to VDO article because it really fascinates me on a lot of levels:
1) I happen to really like the film ‘The Red Violin’. I’m not wild about it because of its actors per se (although they and their performances are excellent), but because I am fascinated by the act of collecting as is the film’s story: People collect or covet objects for a lot of different reasons. So to learn that this article deals with Joshua Bell, the violinist who performed the violin solos on the soundtrack to ‘The Red Violin’ intrigued me.
2) This violinist performed all of his music described in the article on a Stadivarius. A Stadivarius like the violin of ‘The Red Violin’ fame is something to be collected prized and cherished and in this case the Strad in question belongs to Joshua Bell. Apparently it is a Strad with a history similar to the fictional violin of ‘The Red Violin’ and Bell traded in a different Strad to acquire this particular Strad, the Gibson ex Huberman.
3) Joshua Bell came to Washington DC to (among other things) admire, personally handle and give a concert on a national treasure: the violin of composer Fritz Kreisler. This violin is actually in the ‘collection’ of the American people at the National Archives. So I think it’s safe to say that Bell is at least an admirer if not a collector of fine musical instruments.
4) Getting to Bell’s connection to VDO, Bell apparently performed on camera in ‘The Red Violin’ for Greta Scacchi, Vincent D’Onofrio’s ex-wife. Bell was the ‘music double’ for the Frederick Pope character, who was otherwise played by Jason Flemyng. Scacchi played Victoria Boyd, Pope’s lover.
5) Having spent some of my childhood growing up in the Northern Virginia suburbs just outside of Washington DC, I am very familiar with the Metro and the stop in question where Bell and the Washington Post conducted their experiment: L’Enfant Plaza. L’Enfant Plaza is a two block walk from the National Mall where most of the Smithsonian museums (and their many collections) are located.
6) Although saddened by the video I watched at the original article link (included below), I can hardly say I was surprised…in my experience, Washingtonians are ruder, more jaded, and more inclined to take for granted the spontaneous cultural happenings around them (even in comparison to say New Yorkers or Los Angelinos). In their defense, they are somewhat time-pressed when they are commuting to their jobs with or supporting the federal government, but then again that makes them no more or less important than anyone with any job anywhere in the United States of America. I’m also inclined to think that had Bell played on the Mall itself (or say at the Arlington Cemetary stop where tourists predominate among the riders), the reaction would have been far different and far more appreciative.
Anyway I’d like to think that even if I were working at one of those jobs and hurrying to work, I’d have stopped to listen if not left a little money for Bell…and made an excuse that there was an issue with Metro to those who questioned my lateness ;-)
Pearls Before Breakfast
Can one of the nation’s great musicians cut through the fog of a D.C. rush hour? Let’s find out.
By Gene Weingarten
HE EMERGED FROM THE METRO AT THE L’ENFANT PLAZA STATION AND POSITIONED HIMSELF AGAINST A WALL BESIDE A TRASH BASKET. By most measures, he was nondescript: a youngish white man in jeans, a long-sleeved T-shirt and a Washington Nationals baseball cap. From a small case, he removed a violin. Placing the open case at his feet, he shrewdly threw in a few dollars and pocket change as seed money, swiveled it to face pedestrian traffic, and began to play.
It was 7:51 a.m. on Friday, January 12, the middle of the morning rush hour. In the next 43 minutes, as the violinist performed six classical pieces, 1,097 people passed by. Almost all of them were on the way to work, which meant, for almost all of them, a government job. L’Enfant Plaza is at the nucleus of federal Washington, and these were mostly mid-level bureaucrats with those indeterminate, oddly fungible titles: policy analyst, project manager, budget officer, specialist, facilitator, consultant.
Each passerby had a quick choice to make, one familiar to commuters in any urban area where the occasional street performer is part of the cityscape: Do you stop and listen? Do you hurry past with a blend of guilt and irritation, aware of your cupidity but annoyed by the unbidden demand on your time and your wallet? Do you throw in a buck, just to be polite? Does your decision change if he’s really bad? What if he’s really good? Do you have time for beauty? Shouldn’t you? What’s the moral mathematics of the moment?
On that Friday in January, those private questions would be answered in an unusually public way. No one knew it, but the fiddler standing against a bare wall outside the Metro in an indoor arcade at the top of the escalators was one of the finest classical musicians in the world, playing some of the most elegant music ever written on one of the most valuable violins ever made. His performance was arranged by The Washington Post as an experiment in context, perception and priorities — as well as an unblinking assessment of public taste: In a banal setting at an inconvenient time, would beauty transcend?
The musician did not play popular tunes whose familiarity alone might have drawn interest. That was not the test. These were masterpieces that have endured for centuries on their brilliance alone, soaring music befitting the grandeur of cathedrals and concert halls.
The acoustics proved surprisingly kind. Though the arcade is of utilitarian design, a buffer between the Metro escalator and the outdoors, it somehow caught the sound and bounced it back round and resonant. The violin is an instrument that is said to be much like the human voice, and in this musician’s masterly hands, it sobbed and laughed and sang — ecstatic, sorrowful, importuning, adoring, flirtatious, castigating, playful, romancing, merry, triumphal, sumptuous.
So, what do you think happened?
HANG ON, WE’LL GET YOU SOME EXPERT HELP.
Leonard Slatkin, music director of the National Symphony Orchestra, was asked the same question. What did he think would occur, hypothetically, if one of the world’s great violinists had performed incognito before a traveling rush-hour audience of 1,000-odd people?
“Let’s assume,” Slatkin said, “that he is not recognized and just taken for granted as a street musician . . . Still, I don’t think that if he’s really good, he’s going to go unnoticed. He’d get a larger audience in Europe . . . but, okay, out of 1,000 people, my guess is there might be 35 or 40 who will recognize the quality for what it is. Maybe 75 to 100 will stop and spend some time listening.”
So, a crowd would gather?
And how much will he make?
Thanks, Maestro. As it happens, this is not hypothetical. It really happened.
“How’d I do?”
We’ll tell you in a minute.
“Well, who was the musician?”
A onetime child prodigy, at 39 Joshua Bell has arrived as an internationally acclaimed virtuoso. Three days before he appeared at the Metro station, Bell had filled the house at Boston’s stately Symphony Hall, where merely pretty good seats went for $100. Two weeks later, at the Music Center at Strathmore, in North Bethesda, he would play to a standing-room-only audience so respectful of his artistry that they stifled their coughs until the silence between movements. But on that Friday in January, Joshua Bell was just another mendicant, competing for the attention of busy people on their way to work.
Bell was first pitched this idea shortly before Christmas, over coffee at a sandwich shop on Capitol Hill. A New Yorker, he was in town to perform at the Library of Congress and to visit the library’s vaults to examine an unusual treasure: an 18th-century violin that once belonged to the great Austrian-born virtuoso and composer Fritz Kreisler. The curators invited Bell to play it; good sound, still.
“Here’s what I’m thinking,” Bell confided, as he sipped his coffee. “I’m thinking that I could do a tour where I’d play Kreisler’s music . . .”
“. . . on Kreisler’s violin.”
It was a snazzy, sequined idea — part inspiration and part gimmick — and it was typical of Bell, who has unapologetically embraced showmanship even as his concert career has become more and more august. He’s soloed with the finest orchestras here and abroad, but he’s also appeared on “Sesame Street,” done late-night talk TV and performed in feature films. That was Bell playing the soundtrack on the 1998 movie “The Red Violin.” (He body-doubled, too, playing to a naked Greta Scacchi.) As composer John Corigliano accepted the Oscar for Best Original Dramatic Score, he credited Bell, who, he said, “plays like a god.”
When Bell was asked if he’d be willing to don street clothes and perform at rush hour, he said:
“Uh, a stunt?”
Well, yes. A stunt. Would he think it . . . unseemly?
Bell drained his cup.
“Sounds like fun,” he said.
Bell’s a heartthrob. Tall and handsome, he’s got a Donny Osmond-like dose of the cutes, and, onstage, cute elides into hott. When he performs, he is usually the only man under the lights who is not in white tie and tails — he walks out to a standing O, looking like Zorro, in black pants and an untucked black dress shirt, shirttail dangling. That cute Beatles-style mop top is also a strategic asset: Because his technique is full of body — athletic and passionate — he’s almost dancing with the instrument, and his hair flies.
He’s single and straight, a fact not lost on some of his fans. In Boston, as he performed Max Bruch’s dour Violin Concerto in G Minor, the very few young women in the audience nearly disappeared in the deep sea of silver heads. But seemingly every single one of them — a distillate of the young and pretty — coalesced at the stage door after the performance, seeking an autograph. It’s like that always, with Bell.
Bell’s been accepting over-the-top accolades since puberty: Interview magazine once said his playing “does nothing less than tell human beings why they bother to live.” He’s learned to field these things graciously, with a bashful duck of the head and a modified “pshaw.”
For this incognito performance, Bell had only one condition for participating. The event had been described to him as a test of whether, in an incongruous context, ordinary people would recognize genius. His condition: “I’m not comfortable if you call this genius.” “Genius” is an overused word, he said: It can be applied to some of the composers whose work he plays, but not to him. His skills are largely interpretive, he said, and to imply otherwise would be unseemly and inaccurate.
It was an interesting request, and under the circumstances, one that will be honored. The word will not again appear in this article.
It would be breaking no rules, however, to note that the term in question, particularly as applied in the field of music, refers to a congenital brilliance — an elite, innate, preternatural ability that manifests itself early, and often in dramatic fashion.
One biographically intriguing fact about Bell is that he got his first music lessons when he was a 4-year-old in Bloomington, Ind. His parents, both psychologists, decided formal training might be a good idea after they saw that their son had strung rubber bands across his dresser drawers and was replicating classical tunes by ear, moving drawers in and out to vary the pitch.
TO GET TO THE METRO FROM HIS HOTEL, a distance of three blocks, Bell took a taxi. He’s neither lame nor lazy: He did it for his violin.
Bell always performs on the same instrument, and he ruled out using another for this gig. Called the Gibson ex Huberman, it was handcrafted in 1713 by Antonio Stradivari during the Italian master’s “golden period,” toward the end of his career, when he had access to the finest spruce, maple and willow, and when his technique had been refined to perfection.
“Our knowledge of acoustics is still incomplete,” Bell said, “but he, he just . . . knew.”
Bell doesn’t mention Stradivari by name. Just “he.” When the violinist shows his Strad to people, he holds the instrument gingerly by its neck, resting it on a knee. “He made this to perfect thickness at all parts,” Bell says, pivoting it. “If you shaved off a millimeter of wood at any point, it would totally imbalance the sound.” No violins sound as wonderful as Strads from the 1710s, still.
The front of Bell’s violin is in nearly perfect condition, with a deep, rich grain and luster. The back is a mess, its dark reddish finish bleeding away into a flatter, lighter shade and finally, in one section, to bare wood.
“This has never been refinished,” Bell said. “That’s his original varnish. People attribute aspects of the sound to the varnish. Each maker had his own secret formula.” Stradivari is thought to have made his from an ingeniously balanced cocktail of honey, egg whites and gum arabic from sub-Saharan trees.
Like the instrument in “The Red Violin,” this one has a past filled with mystery and malice. Twice, it was stolen from its illustrious prior owner, the Polish virtuoso Bronislaw Huberman. The first time, in 1919, it disappeared from Huberman’s hotel room in Vienna but was quickly returned. The second time, nearly 20 years later, it was pinched from his dressing room in Carnegie Hall. He never got it back. It was not until 1985 that the thief — a minor New York violinist — made a deathbed confession to his wife, and produced the instrument.
Bell bought it a few years ago. He had to sell his own Strad and borrow much of the rest. The price tag was reported to be about $3.5 million.
All of which is a long explanation for why, in the early morning chill of a day in January, Josh Bell took a three-block cab ride to the Orange Line, and rode one stop to L’Enfant.
AS METRO STATIONS GO, L’ENFANT PLAZA IS MORE PLEBEIAN THAN MOST. Even before you arrive, it gets no respect. Metro conductors never seem to get it right: “Leh-fahn.” “Layfont.” “El’phant.”
At the top of the escalators are a shoeshine stand and a busy kiosk that sells newspapers, lottery tickets and a wallfull of magazines with titles such as Mammazons and Girls of Barely Legal. The skin mags move, but it’s that lottery ticket dispenser that stays the busiest, with customers queuing up for Daily 6 lotto and Powerball and the ultimate suckers’ bait, those pamphlets that sell random number combinations purporting to be “hot.” They sell briskly. There’s also a quick-check machine to slide in your lotto ticket, post-drawing, to see if you’ve won. Beneath it is a forlorn pile of crumpled slips.
On Friday, January 12, the people waiting in the lottery line looking for a long shot would get a lucky break — a free, close-up ticket to a concert by one of the world’s most famous musicians — but only if they were of a mind to take note.
Bell decided to begin with “Chaconne” from Johann Sebastian Bach’s Partita No. 2 in D Minor. Bell calls it “not just one of the greatest pieces of music ever written, but one of the greatest achievements of any man in history. It’s a spiritually powerful piece, emotionally powerful, structurally perfect. Plus, it was written for a solo violin, so I won’t be cheating with some half-assed version.”
Bell didn’t say it, but Bach’s “Chaconne” is also considered one of the most difficult violin pieces to master. Many try; few succeed. It’s exhaustingly long — 14 minutes — and consists entirely of a single, succinct musical progression repeated in dozens of variations to create a dauntingly complex architecture of sound. Composed around 1720, on the eve of the European Enlightenment, it is said to be a celebration of the breadth of human possibility.
If Bell’s encomium to “Chaconne” seems overly effusive, consider this from the 19th-century composer Johannes Brahms, in a letter to Clara Schumann: “On one stave, for a small instrument, the man writes a whole world of the deepest thoughts and most powerful feelings. If I imagined that I could have created, even conceived the piece, I am quite certain that the excess of excitement and earth-shattering experience would have driven me out of my mind.”
So, that’s the piece Bell started with.
He’d clearly meant it when he promised not to cheap out this performance: He played with acrobatic enthusiasm, his body leaning into the music and arching on tiptoes at the high notes. The sound was nearly symphonic, carrying to all parts of the homely arcade as the pedestrian traffic filed past.
Three minutes went by before something happened. Sixty-three people had already passed when, finally, there was a breakthrough of sorts. A middle-age man altered his gait for a split second, turning his head to notice that there seemed to be some guy playing music. Yes, the man kept walking, but it was something.
A half-minute later, Bell got his first donation. A woman threw in a buck and scooted off. It was not until six minutes into the performance that someone actually stood against a wall, and listened.
Things never got much better. In the three-quarters of an hour that Joshua Bell played, seven people stopped what they were doing to hang around and take in the performance, at least for a minute. Twenty-seven gave money, most of them on the run — for a total of $32 and change. That leaves the 1,070 people who hurried by, oblivious, many only three feet away, few even turning to look.
No, Mr. Slatkin, there was never a crowd, not even for a second.
It was all videotaped by a hidden camera. You can play the recording once or 15 times, and it never gets any easier to watch. Try speeding it up, and it becomes one of those herky-jerky World War I-era silent newsreels. The people scurry by in comical little hops and starts, cups of coffee in their hands, cellphones at their ears, ID tags slapping at their bellies, a grim danse macabre to indifference, inertia and the dingy, gray rush of modernity.
Even at this accelerated pace, though, the fiddler’s movements remain fluid and graceful; he seems so apart from his audience — unseen, unheard, otherworldly — that you find yourself thinking that he’s not really there. A ghost.
Only then do you see it: He is the one who is real. They are the ghosts.
IF A GREAT MUSICIAN PLAYS GREAT MUSIC BUT NO ONE HEARS . . . WAS HE REALLY ANY GOOD?
It’s an old epistemological debate, older, actually, than the koan about the tree in the forest. Plato weighed in on it, and philosophers for two millennia afterward: What is beauty? Is it a measurable fact (Gottfried Leibniz), or merely an opinion (David Hume), or is it a little of each, colored by the immediate state of mind of the observer (Immanuel Kant)?
We’ll go with Kant, because he’s obviously right, and because he brings us pretty directly to Joshua Bell, sitting there in a hotel restaurant, picking at his breakfast, wryly trying to figure out what the hell had just happened back there at the Metro.
“At the beginning,” Bell says, “I was just concentrating on playing the music. I wasn’t really watching what was happening around me . . .”
Playing the violin looks all-consuming, mentally and physically, but Bell says that for him the mechanics of it are partly second nature, cemented by practice and muscle memory: It’s like a juggler, he says, who can keep those balls in play while interacting with a crowd. What he’s mostly thinking about as he plays, Bell says, is capturing emotion as a narrative: “When you play a violin piece, you are a storyteller, and you’re telling a story.”
With “Chaconne,” the opening is filled with a building sense of awe. That kept him busy for a while. Eventually, though, he began to steal a sidelong glance.
“It was a strange feeling, that people were actually, ah . . .”
The word doesn’t come easily.
“. . . ignoring me.”
Bell is laughing. It’s at himself.
“At a music hall, I’ll get upset if someone coughs or if someone’s cellphone goes off. But here, my expectations quickly diminished. I started to appreciate any acknowledgment, even a slight glance up. I was oddly grateful when someone threw in a dollar instead of change.” This is from a man whose talents can command $1,000 a minute.
Before he began, Bell hadn’t known what to expect. What he does know is that, for some reason, he was nervous.
“It wasn’t exactly stage fright, but there were butterflies,” he says. “I was stressing a little.”
Bell has played, literally, before crowned heads of Europe. Why the anxiety at the Washington Metro?
“When you play for ticket-holders,” Bell explains, “you are already validated. I have no sense that I need to be accepted. I’m already accepted. Here, there was this thought: What if they don’t like me? What if they resent my presence . . .”
He was, in short, art without a frame. Which, it turns out, may have a lot to do with what happened — or, more precisely, what didn’t happen — on January 12.
MARK LEITHAUSER HAS HELD IN HIS HANDS MORE GREAT WORKS OF ART THAN ANY KING OR POPE OR MEDICI EVER DID. A senior curator at the National Gallery, he oversees the framing of the paintings. Leithauser thinks he has some idea of what happened at that Metro station.
“Let’s say I took one of our more abstract masterpieces, say an Ellsworth Kelly, and removed it from its frame, marched it down the 52 steps that people walk up to get to the National Gallery, past the giant columns, and brought it into a restaurant. It’s a $5 million painting. And it’s one of those restaurants where there are pieces of original art for sale, by some industrious kids from the Corcoran School, and I hang that Kelly on the wall with a price tag of $150. No one is going to notice it. An art curator might look up and say: ‘Hey, that looks a little like an Ellsworth Kelly. Please pass the salt.'”
Leithauser’s point is that we shouldn’t be too ready to label the Metro passersby unsophisticated boobs. Context matters.
Kant said the same thing. He took beauty seriously: In his Critique of Aesthetic Judgment, Kant argued that one’s ability to appreciate beauty is related to one’s ability to make moral judgments. But there was a caveat. Paul Guyer of the University of Pennsylvania, one of America’s most prominent Kantian scholars, says the 18th-century German philosopher felt that to properly appreciate beauty, the viewing conditions must be optimal.
“Optimal,” Guyer said, “doesn’t mean heading to work, focusing on your report to the boss, maybe your shoes don’t fit right.”
So, if Kant had been at the Metro watching as Joshua Bell play to a thousand unimpressed passersby?
“He would have inferred about them,” Guyer said, “absolutely nothing.”
And that’s that.
Except it isn’t. To really understand what happened, you have to rewind that video and play it back from the beginning, from the moment Bell’s bow first touched the strings.
White guy, khakis, leather jacket, briefcase. Early 30s. John David Mortensen is on the final leg of his daily bus-to-Metro commute from Reston. He’s heading up the escalator. It’s a long ride — 1 minute and 15 seconds if you don’t walk. So, like most everyone who passes Bell this day, Mortensen gets a good earful of music before he has his first look at the musician. Like most of them, he notes that it sounds pretty good. But like very few of them, when he gets to the top, he doesn’t race past as though Bell were some nuisance to be avoided. Mortensen is that first person to stop, that guy at the six-minute mark.
It’s not that he has nothing else to do. He’s a project manager for an international program at the Department of Energy; on this day, Mortensen has to participate in a monthly budget exercise, not the most exciting part of his job: “You review the past month’s expenditures,” he says, “forecast spending for the next month, if you have X dollars, where will it go, that sort of thing.”
On the video, you can see Mortensen get off the escalator and look around. He locates the violinist, stops, walks away but then is drawn back. He checks the time on his cellphone — he’s three minutes early for work — then settles against a wall to listen.
Mortensen doesn’t know classical music at all; classic rock is as close as he comes. But there’s something about what he’s hearing that he really likes.
As it happens, he’s arrived at the moment that Bell slides into the second section of “Chaconne.” (“It’s the point,” Bell says, “where it moves from a darker, minor key into a major key. There’s a religious, exalted feeling to it.”) The violinist’s bow begins to dance; the music becomes upbeat, playful, theatrical, big.
Mortensen doesn’t know about major or minor keys: “Whatever it was,” he says, “it made me feel at peace.”
So, for the first time in his life, Mortensen lingers to listen to a street musician. He stays his allotted three minutes as 94 more people pass briskly by. When he leaves to help plan contingency budgets for the Department of Energy, there’s another first. For the first time in his life, not quite knowing what had just happened but sensing it was special, John David Mortensen gives a street musician money.
THERE ARE SIX MOMENTS IN THE VIDEO THAT BELL FINDS PARTICULARLY PAINFUL TO RELIVE: “The awkward times,” he calls them. It’s what happens right after each piece ends: nothing. The music stops. The same people who hadn’t noticed him playing don’t notice that he has finished. No applause, no acknowledgment. So Bell just saws out a small, nervous chord — the embarrassed musician’s equivalent of, “Er, okay, moving right along . . .” — and begins the next piece.
After “Chaconne,” it is Franz Schubert’s “Ave Maria,” which surprised some music critics when it debuted in 1825: Schubert seldom showed religious feeling in his compositions, yet “Ave Maria” is a breathtaking work of adoration of the Virgin Mary. What was with the sudden piety? Schubert dryly answered: “I think this is due to the fact that I never forced devotion in myself and never compose hymns or prayers of that kind unless it overcomes me unawares; but then it is usually the right and true devotion.” This musical prayer became among the most familiar and enduring religious pieces in history.
A couple of minutes into it, something revealing happens. A woman and her preschooler emerge from the escalator. The woman is walking briskly and, therefore, so is the child. She’s got his hand.
“I had a time crunch,” recalls Sheron Parker, an IT director for a federal agency. “I had an 8:30 training class, and first I had to rush Evvie off to his teacher, then rush back to work, then to the training facility in the basement.”
Evvie is her son, Evan. Evan is 3.
You can see Evan clearly on the video. He’s the cute black kid in the parka who keeps twisting around to look at Joshua Bell, as he is being propelled toward the door.
“There was a musician,” Parker says, “and my son was intrigued. He wanted to pull over and listen, but I was rushed for time.”
So Parker does what she has to do. She deftly moves her body between Evan’s and Bell’s, cutting off her son’s line of sight. As they exit the arcade, Evan can still be seen craning to look. When Parker is told what she walked out on, she laughs.
“Evan is very smart!”
The poet Billy Collins once laughingly observed that all babies are born with a knowledge of poetry, because the lub-dub of the mother’s heart is in iambic meter. Then, Collins said, life slowly starts to choke the poetry out of us. It may be true with music, too.
There was no ethnic or demographic pattern to distinguish the people who stayed to watch Bell, or the ones who gave money, from that vast majority who hurried on past, unheeding. Whites, blacks and Asians, young and old, men and women, were represented in all three groups. But the behavior of one demographic remained absolutely consistent. Every single time a child walked past, he or she tried to stop and watch. And every single time, a parent scooted the kid away.
IF THERE WAS ONE PERSON ON THAT DAY WHO WAS TOO BUSY TO PAY ATTENTION TO THE VIOLINIST, it was George Tindley. Tindley wasn’t hurrying to get to work. He was at work.
The glass doors through which most people exit the L’Enfant station lead into an indoor shopping mall, from which there are exits to the street and elevators to office buildings. The first store in the mall is an Au Bon Pain, the croissant and coffee shop where Tindley, in his 40s, works in a white uniform busing the tables, restocking the salt and pepper packets, taking out the garbage. Tindley labors under the watchful eye of his bosses, and he’s supposed to be hopping, and he was.
But every minute or so, as though drawn by something not entirely within his control, Tindley would walk to the very edge of the Au Bon Pain property, keeping his toes inside the line, still on the job. Then he’d lean forward, as far out into the hallway as he could, watching the fiddler on the other side of the glass doors. The foot traffic was steady, so the doors were usually open. The sound came through pretty well.
“You could tell in one second that this guy was good, that he was clearly a professional,” Tindley says. He plays the guitar, loves the sound of strings, and has no respect for a certain kind of musician.
“Most people, they play music; they don’t feel it,” Tindley says. “Well, that man was feeling it. That man was moving. Moving into the sound.”
A hundred feet away, across the arcade, was the lottery line, sometimes five or six people long. They had a much better view of Bell than Tindley did, if they had just turned around. But no one did. Not in the entire 43 minutes. They just shuffled forward toward that machine spitting out numbers. Eyes on the prize.
J.T. Tillman was in that line. A computer specialist for the Department of Housing and Urban Development, he remembers every single number he played that day — 10 of them, $2 apiece, for a total of $20. He doesn’t recall what the violinist was playing, though. He says it sounded like generic classical music, the kind the ship’s band was playing in “Titanic,” before the iceberg.
“I didn’t think nothing of it,” Tillman says, “just a guy trying to make a couple of bucks.” Tillman would have given him one or two, he said, but he spent all his cash on lotto.
When he is told that he stiffed one of the best musicians in the world, he laughs.
“Is he ever going to play around here again?”
“Yeah, but you’re going to have to pay a lot to hear him.”
Tillman didn’t win the lottery, either.
BELL ENDS “AVE MARIA” TO ANOTHER THUNDEROUS SILENCE, plays Manuel Ponce’s sentimental “Estrellita,” then a piece by Jules Massenet, and then begins a Bach gavotte, a joyful, frolicsome, lyrical dance. It’s got an Old World delicacy to it; you can imagine it entertaining bewigged dancers at a Versailles ball, or — in a lute, fiddle and fife version — the boot-kicking peasants of a Pieter Bruegel painting.
Watching the video weeks later, Bell finds himself mystified by one thing only. He understands why he’s not drawing a crowd, in the rush of a morning workday. But: “I’m surprised at the number of people who don’t pay attention at all, as if I’m invisible. Because, you know what? I’m makin’ a lot of noise!”
He is. You don’t need to know music at all to appreciate the simple fact that there’s a guy there, playing a violin that’s throwing out a whole bucket of sound; at times, Bell’s bowing is so intricate that you seem to be hearing two instruments playing in harmony. So those head-forward, quick-stepping passersby are a remarkable phenomenon.
Bell wonders whether their inattention may be deliberate: If you don’t take visible note of the musician, you don’t have to feel guilty about not forking over money; you’re not complicit in a rip-off.
It may be true, but no one gave that explanation. People just said they were busy, had other things on their mind. Some who were on cellphones spoke louder as they passed Bell, to compete with that infernal racket.
And then there was Calvin Myint. Myint works for the General Services Administration. He got to the top of the escalator, turned right and headed out a door to the street. A few hours later, he had no memory that there had been a musician anywhere in sight.
“Where was he, in relation to me?”
“About four feet away.”
There’s nothing wrong with Myint’s hearing. He had buds in his ear. He was listening to his iPod.
For many of us, the explosion in technology has perversely limited, not expanded, our exposure to new experiences. Increasingly, we get our news from sources that think as we already do. And with iPods, we hear what we already know; we program our own playlists.
The song that Calvin Myint was listening to was “Just Like Heaven,” by the British rock band The Cure. It’s a terrific song, actually. The meaning is a little opaque, and the Web is filled with earnest efforts to deconstruct it. Many are far-fetched, but some are right on point: It’s about a tragic emotional disconnect. A man has found the woman of his dreams but can’t express the depth of his feeling for her until she’s gone. It’s about failing to see the beauty of what’s plainly in front of your eyes.
“YES, I SAW THE VIOLINIST,” Jackie Hessian says, “but nothing about him struck me as much of anything.”
You couldn’t tell that by watching her. Hessian was one of those people who gave Bell a long, hard look before walking on. It turns out that she wasn’t noticing the music at all.
“I really didn’t hear that much,” she said. “I was just trying to figure out what he was doing there, how does this work for him, can he make much money, would it be better to start with some money in the case, or for it to be empty, so people feel sorry for you? I was analyzing it financially.”
What do you do, Jackie?
“I’m a lawyer in labor relations with the United States Postal Service. I just negotiated a national contract.”
THE BEST SEATS IN THE HOUSE WERE UPHOLSTERED. In the balcony, more or less. On that day, for $5, you’d get a lot more than just a nice shine on your shoes.
Only one person occupied one of those seats when Bell played. Terence Holmes is a consultant for the Department of Transportation, and he liked the music just fine, but it was really about a shoeshine: “My father told me never to wear a suit with your shoes not cleaned and shined.”
Holmes wears suits often, so he is up in that perch a lot, and he’s got a good relationship with the shoeshine lady. Holmes is a good tipper and a good talker, which is a skill that came in handy that day. The shoeshine lady was upset about something, and the music got her more upset. She complained, Holmes said, that the music was too loud, and he tried to calm her down.
Edna Souza is from Brazil. She’s been shining shoes at L’Enfant Plaza for six years, and she’s had her fill of street musicians there; when they play, she can’t hear her customers, and that’s bad for business. So she fights.
Souza points to the dividing line between the Metro property, at the top of the escalator, and the arcade, which is under control of the management company that runs the mall. Sometimes, Souza says, a musician will stand on the Metro side, sometimes on the mall side. Either way, she’s got him. On her speed dial, she has phone numbers for both the mall cops and the Metro cops. The musicians seldom last long.
What about Joshua Bell?
He was too loud, too, Souza says. Then she looks down at her rag, sniffs. She hates to say anything positive about these damned musicians, but: “He was pretty good, that guy. It was the first time I didn’t call the police.”
Souza was surprised to learn he was a famous musician, but not that people rushed blindly by him. That, she said, was predictable. “If something like this happened in Brazil, everyone would stand around to see. Not here.”
Souza nods sourly toward a spot near the top of the escalator: “Couple of years ago, a homeless guy died right there. He just lay down there and died. The police came, an ambulance came, and no one even stopped to see or slowed down to look.
“People walk up the escalator, they look straight ahead. Mind your own business, eyes forward. Everyone is stressed. Do you know what I mean?”
What is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.
— from “Leisure,” by W.H. Davies
Let’s say Kant is right. Let’s accept that we can’t look at what happened on January 12 and make any judgment whatever about people’s sophistication or their ability to appreciate beauty. But what about their ability to appreciate life?
We’re busy. Americans have been busy, as a people, since at least 1831, when a young French sociologist named Alexis de Tocqueville visited the States and found himself impressed, bemused and slightly dismayed at the degree to which people were driven, to the exclusion of everything else, by hard work and the accumulation of wealth.
Not much has changed. Pop in a DVD of “Koyaanisqatsi,” the wordless, darkly brilliant, avant-garde 1982 film about the frenetic speed of modern life. Backed by the minimalist music of Philip Glass, director Godfrey Reggio takes film clips of Americans going about their daily business, but speeds them up until they resemble assembly-line machines, robots marching lockstep to nowhere. Now look at the video from L’Enfant Plaza, in fast-forward. The Philip Glass soundtrack fits it perfectly.
“Koyaanisqatsi” is a Hopi word. It means “life out of balance.”
In his 2003 book, Timeless Beauty: In the Arts and Everyday Life, British author John Lane writes about the loss of the appreciation for beauty in the modern world. The experiment at L’Enfant Plaza may be symptomatic of that, he said — not because people didn’t have the capacity to understand beauty, but because it was irrelevant to them.
“This is about having the wrong priorities,” Lane said.
If we can’t take the time out of our lives to stay a moment and listen to one of the best musicians on Earth play some of the best music ever written; if the surge of modern life so overpowers us that we are deaf and blind to something like that — then what else are we missing?
That’s what the Welsh poet W.H. Davies meant in 1911 when he published those two lines that begin this section. They made him famous. The thought was simple, even primitive, but somehow no one had put it quite that way before.
Of course, Davies had an advantage — an advantage of perception. He wasn’t a tradesman or a laborer or a bureaucrat or a consultant or a policy analyst or a labor lawyer or a program manager. He was a hobo.
THE CULTURAL HERO OF THE DAY ARRIVED AT L’ENFANT PLAZA PRETTY LATE, in the unprepossessing figure of one John Picarello, a smallish man with a baldish head.
Picarello hit the top of the escalator just after Bell began his final piece, a reprise of “Chaconne.” In the video, you see Picarello stop dead in his tracks, locate the source of the music, and then retreat to the other end of the arcade. He takes up a position past the shoeshine stand, across from that lottery line, and he will not budge for the next nine minutes.
Like all the passersby interviewed for this article, Picarello was stopped by a reporter after he left the building, and was asked for his phone number. Like everyone, he was told only that this was to be an article about commuting. When he was called later in the day, like everyone else, he was first asked if anything unusual had happened to him on his trip into work. Of the more than 40 people contacted, Picarello was the only one who immediately mentioned the violinist.
“There was a musician playing at the top of the escalator at L’Enfant Plaza.”
Haven’t you seen musicians there before?
“Not like this one.”
What do you mean?
“This was a superb violinist. I’ve never heard anyone of that caliber. He was technically proficient, with very good phrasing. He had a good fiddle, too, with a big, lush sound. I walked a distance away, to hear him. I didn’t want to be intrusive on his space.”
“Really. It was that kind of experience. It was a treat, just a brilliant, incredible way to start the day.”
Picarello knows classical music. He is a fan of Joshua Bell but didn’t recognize him; he hadn’t seen a recent photo, and besides, for most of the time Picarello was pretty far away. But he knew this was not a run-of-the-mill guy out there, performing. On the video, you can see Picarello look around him now and then, almost bewildered.
“Yeah, other people just were not getting it. It just wasn’t registering. That was baffling to me.”
When Picarello was growing up in New York, he studied violin seriously, intending to be a concert musician. But he gave it up at 18, when he decided he’d never be good enough to make it pay. Life does that to you sometimes. Sometimes, you have to do the prudent thing. So he went into another line of work. He’s a supervisor at the U.S. Postal Service. Doesn’t play the violin much, anymore.
When he left, Picarello says, “I humbly threw in $5.” It was humble: You can actually see that on the video. Picarello walks up, barely looking at Bell, and tosses in the money. Then, as if embarrassed, he quickly walks away from the man he once wanted to be.
Does he have regrets about how things worked out?
The postal supervisor considers this.
“No. If you love something but choose not to do it professionally, it’s not a waste. Because, you know, you still have it. You have it forever.”
BELL THINKS HE DID HIS BEST WORK OF THE DAY IN THOSE FINAL FEW MINUTES, in the second “Chaconne.” And that also was the first time more than one person at a time was listening. As Picarello stood in the back, Janice Olu arrived and took up a position a few feet away from Bell. Olu, a public trust officer with HUD, also played the violin as a kid. She didn’t know the name of the piece she was hearing, but she knew the man playing it has a gift.
Olu was on a coffee break and stayed as long as she dared. As she turned to go, she whispered to the stranger next to her, “I really don’t want to leave.” The stranger standing next to her happened to be working for The Washington Post.
In preparing for this event, editors at The Post Magazine discussed how to deal with likely outcomes. The most widely held assumption was that there could well be a problem with crowd control: In a demographic as sophisticated as Washington, the thinking went, several people would surely recognize Bell. Nervous “what-if” scenarios abounded. As people gathered, what if others stopped just to see what the attraction was? Word would spread through the crowd. Cameras would flash. More people flock to the scene; rush-hour pedestrian traffic backs up; tempers flare; the National Guard is called; tear gas, rubber bullets, etc.
As it happens, exactly one person recognized Bell, and she didn’t arrive until near the very end. For Stacy Furukawa, a demographer at the Commerce Department, there was no doubt. She doesn’t know much about classical music, but she had been in the audience three weeks earlier, at Bell’s free concert at the Library of Congress. And here he was, the international virtuoso, sawing away, begging for money. She had no idea what the heck was going on, but whatever it was, she wasn’t about to miss it.
Furukawa positioned herself 10 feet away from Bell, front row, center. She had a huge grin on her face. The grin, and Furukawa, remained planted in that spot until the end.
“It was the most astonishing thing I’ve ever seen in Washington,” Furukawa says. “Joshua Bell was standing there playing at rush hour, and people were not stopping, and not even looking, and some were flipping quarters at him! Quarters! I wouldn’t do that to anybody. I was thinking, Omigosh, what kind of a city do I live in that this could happen?”
When it was over, Furukawa introduced herself to Bell, and tossed in a twenty. Not counting that — it was tainted by recognition — the final haul for his 43 minutes of playing was $32.17. Yes, some people gave pennies.
“Actually,” Bell said with a laugh, “that’s not so bad, considering. That’s 40 bucks an hour. I could make an okay living doing this, and I wouldn’t have to pay an agent.”
These days, at L’Enfant Plaza, lotto ticket sales remain brisk. Musicians still show up from time to time, and they still tick off Edna Souza. Joshua Bell’s latest album, “The Voice of the Violin,” has received the usual critical acclaim. (“Delicate urgency.” “Masterful intimacy.” “Unfailingly exquisite.” “A musical summit.” “. . . will make your heart thump and weep at the same time.”)
Bell headed off on a concert tour of European capitals. But he is back in the States this week. He has to be. On Tuesday, he will be accepting the Avery Fisher prize, recognizing the Flop of L’Enfant Plaza as the best classical musician in America.”
Steal This Interview! Vincent D’Onofrio Will Be Televised 08.16.00
Since I last interviewed the prolific and prodigiously talented Vincent D’Onofrio six months ago, the hardworking actor hasn’t slowed his pace one bit. He has half-a-dozen projects in the pipe and currently two movies in release: The Cell, in which he plays a serial killer, and Steal This Movie!, the Abbie Hoffman biopic starring D’Onofrio as the prankster radical.
When we met for this interview, the La Meridien Hotel in Los Angeles was abuzz with cops and federal agents on call for the Democratic National Convention. The irony was not lost on D’Onofrio who spoke at length about Hoffman, apathy and what’s not funny about sex with baked goods.
When I saw you at Sundance, you said you needed to take a break. It doesn’t seem like you’re taking one.
I wasn’t allowed to. When was that?
This year. It was Happy Accidents.
Yeah, I wasn’t allowed to, I guess. Yeah. I have no answer for that. I wasn’t allowed to.
Are there any actors or actresses you haven’t worked with yet who would be a dream co-stars?
I just worked with Jodie. That was like a dream. Jodie Foster. I’d like to work with her some more. Dangerous Lives of Alter Boys. I don’t know. I’m sure there’s a few. I just can’t think of them. (Zips his lip.)
Okay. You have Steal This Movie! and The Cell in theaters. What else do you have on your plate?
Happy Accidents is coming out. They’re looking for a distributor. Impostor. We’re still finishing. They’re in post. That’ll be done probably by the end of next year. Dangerous Lives of Alter Boys. Salton Sea, which I just wrapped. Can I talk about that? It’s with Val Kilmer. He played the lead in that, and I play a character named Pooh Bear, a methamphetamine dealer. I put on forty pounds for that, and I’m taking it off now. That’s why I’m a bit big. Val’s great. I love Val. He’s very, very good. Yeah. And Deborah Unger. She’s a good actress. There’s one! I like her. She has substance. Thank God I thought of someone.
Is there a role you wouldn’t take?
I’ve never played a racist. I never expect to play one. I was asked by John Singleton to play a racist, but I refused. It’s a difficult question to answer. I can’t forget that what I do for a living is entertainment. So, it has to be a pretty strong issue for me to refuse. And only because I have children and because I grew up a bit in Miami which I considered back then when I grew up part of the South that I have strong opinions when it comes to intolerance. There’s not much that I wouldn’t try to get away with as long as it was written well.
Is the writing what attracted you Steal This Movie!?
I read the script, and I liked it. And I liked it because it didn’t read like a biopic. It read like a drama to me which to me consists of sometimes a love story. It consists of fears and hopes and faith and denials and pain and human tragedy and joy and celebrations and it’s all this stuff that dramas are made out of for me. That’s why I did it. And I always looked at it as well as a kind of story of a man’s emotional life. I mean, sure we depict these events that take place and it does happen in the time that it happened when the air was very thick with this kind of countercultural revolution. But I approached it as a drama. Solely as a drama. A story about a man’s emotional life.
Was there a particular trait or personality quirk of Hoffman’s that you connected with?
He had so much charisma, this guy. He’s like a little rock star. We don’t go around thinking we have a lot of charisma, do we? No, we go around, you know, “I changed my baby’s diaper, I worry about my daughter, and I try to keep excitement in my relationship with my wife.” I don’t walk around thinking, “Boy, I have as much charisma as Abbie Hoffman.” But, I can act, and I have confidence in that. So I had to find what little I had or I felt I had and bring it up to his level. I know one of my tasks as an actor was to bring my own charisma up as high as I could to match Abbie’s. That was an immense task for me because I’m a bit introverted. That’s why I’m not at the political convention. That’s why I’m not doing what Troy Garity and his dad (Tom Hayden) are doing. I’d get up in front of the microphone and I’d feel like a fraud. I’d feel shameful, and I’d feel like a fraud.
What prompted you to attach yourself as executive producer to it as well?
Just to protect. My partner Ken Christmas and I came on as producers in negotiations to be able to be another creative person involved in the decision-making during production in addition to the director. I’m not talking about going up against the director. If the director says walk over there and make sure you’re in the light, then the executive producer walks over there and makes sure he’s in the light because he’s the actor at that point. He listens to everything the director says… unless the director’s an idiot and then you roll the window up on him while he’s talking to you.
I always trusted Robert, but what you do is you become a team. I’m talking about a team effort. Directors have some say in artistic and creative decisions that are made, but in the end, the producers make the decisions. I mean, unless you’re like some kind of like Truffaut or Martin Scorsese or Francis Coppolla or Woody Allen. There’s only like a few names you can throw out there that actually have a say.
Were you instrumental in casting Janeane Garafalo?
There were a lot of names floating around, but there are so few actors her age who have any kind of weight, character, that are kind of heavy, that have substance, you know? You actually believe that Janeane Garofalo could get up and support a man like Abbie, that she could stick up for her rights. You actually believe that. I mean, who else is around that you would really believe it in real-life? Who, really? Come on. Everybody else would be like, you know, you know, who knows, you know? Janeane was the only one. (Director) Robert (Greenwald) brought her name up and I was like, “There we go. That’s the one. That’s the one.”
She did great. She did as much work as I did as far as research. Robert was able to put a camera on Janeane and let the camera roll, and he’d ask her questions, and she’d answer him back improvising in character with factual answers. She was amazing. So he’s got all this footage of Janeane talking as Anita.
How much research did you have to do?
Tons. I had a lot of access to it, though. I had a lot of help from Robert. He had already collected so much information. My hotel room was like a library. I mean it was just full of tapes and film footage audio tapes from radio shows. Of course, I had every book that Abbie wrote. I had every book that was ever written about him, or that he was even mentioned in. I think I had most of them. I had Internet access to newspaper articles and I had a lot of photography, and I had the people, his friends, his loved ones, you know.
Including Anita Hoffman?
I had contact with everybody. It was quite a thing. I had Anita. She was there. Yeah. I had Stew and Judy Albert. Stew was very close to Abbie. I had Jerry Lefcourt, his lawyer, who was very helpful to me. I used to call on him a lot. Jerry was in a lot of the interviews that we actually recreated in the movie. He was also present in a lot of the documentary footage that I was watching of Abbie, so I was able to go through some of that with him and ask, “What are you saying there?” I mean, “What are you guys whispering to each other.” “Are you lying right there. What is that?” All this kind of stuff. And then, Tom Hayden was there.
How did Hayden respond to the recreation of those events in his life?
You should’ve been there the night Hayden came. He had just gotten back from Ireland, dealing with the IRA. He did this impromptu speech on the street in front of all the Canadians about Canadian politics and all the shit back in the ‘60s. I mean, Tom can go on-and-on about fucking anything. You just name it. He always knows exactly what happened and who was to blame. He’s like one of those dudes. And then at the end of it, he did this kind of impromptu sermon about what we were doing and he looked up at Abbie and, ah, he just said all these things and it was just so moving. It was just so moving. I mean, it sounds like it’s a bunch of Hollywood people just being pretentious, but if you were there, man, your eyes would’ve been full of tears. I’m telling you. It was quite something. Really something.
Do you think it affected you so much because you were merely recreating it, while Tom Hayden had lived it?
He’s the confirmation that these things actually did happen. I mean, sure, there’s footage of it and you read about it and people tell you stories about it, but these are the cats that were actually there. These people were there! They did it. They walked up to the soldiers and said, “We’re gonna join hands and scream and chant, and we’re gonna levitate the Pentagon. It’s gonna make all the evil spirits rush out of it.”
Do you know that there were actual soldiers in the Pentagon that were actually nervous and stood by the windows and watched to see what would happen? It’s a true story. We have footage of one of the secretaries, one of the higher ranked military guys there who in the interviews says that he was actually pacing in his room he was so nervous. Staring out the window because they actually thought what would happen if all these people join hands and try to levitate the building. They actually made them nervous! Which is quite funny, but it’s pretty profound considering what happens these days.
You read this stuff, but I think it’s so hard for our generation to understand that you can actually, as a citizen, raise issues and raise them that loud. I mean, sure there are demonstrators at the convention right now — I mean Troy (Garity) could come in here and tell you all kinds of things they’re doing, and I’m sure they’re doing great stuff. But the only thing that’s going to get kids from all around our country to travel across the country and join up with a few kids who are yelling and screaming about what the government’s doing — the only thing that could make kids travel across the country these days is like a Britney Spears concert or something. I mean can you imagine that happening today? What they did? “Okay, let’s get together and you know what we’ll do? We’ll levitate the Pentagon.” Can you imagine thousands of kids travelling across the country to levitate the Pentagon? I mean, it’s a fucking joke, you know, it would never happen today.
Do you think it would take the threat of being sent across the world to get killed to galvanize the youth?
But we still do that! We still send kids to fight wars that are about money. I mean, when are we gonna realize that until somebody attacks our shores, it’s only about money? And even then it’s about money but it’s about the other people’s money, not ours. When are we gonna realize that?
Will Steal This Movie! speak to the kids of the Britney Spears’ generation?
I hope so. I hope so. In the end, that’s the only statement I think that we have to say. It’s: “Don’t forget.” Don’t forget that you’re in a country where as a citizen you can get up and say that I love my country, but I hate my government. And these are the things I disagree with. Don’t forget that. That’s the only thing that I think we say in the end in our film. We take you on this kind of dramatic journey of this man’s life, but after that, the only statement is “Don’t forget.” Don’t forget that as a citizen, you can challenge your local government, you can challenge your federal government.
Are they gonna want to see a movie that says something like that or shine it and watch American Pie 2: Pie a la Mode?
I’m forty-one-years-old, and I got kids; I got nephews, and I think I still know what’s funny and what’s not, I don’t think fucking a pie is funny.
Do you prefer Hoffman’s sense-of-humor? More absurdist satire?
I think I like irony. I like messing with the truth. I think that’s funny. I think slapstick has been around for a long time and when I was a kid The Three Stooges used to make me laugh and watching some kid fuck a pie is just reminds me of like The Three Stooges rated-X or something. It’s just not funny to me. But that’s okay, you know. That’s okay. Because that movie made a lot of money, and I’m in the entertainment business just like they are, so I got nothing bad to say about anybody making any kind of silly movies. They’ve been making them since I started my career. When I started, they were making Brat Pack movies. Now they’re making them again, so, I really have nothing to say about them. I made one of them, Mystic Pizza. But you can only hope that the films that you do have something to say and the other ones are just entertainment, you know? I do films that are entertainment all the time.
What makes you laugh?
I’d much rather see time spent on throwing the truth back at society and saying, “See how foolish we are? You wanna laugh? Laugh at this. This is us. This is funny.” That’s what I think is funny. And I think the best comedians, stand-up comics like Janeane, do that kind of humor. We need the truth thrown back at us. It’s the only thing to me that’s funny. To see how ridiculous we are.
Yeah. Like all great satirists, Hoffman and the antics of Yippies held a mirror up to society, themselves included, and said, “Take a good long look at all that ridiculousness.”
That’s what those guys were so good at. Especially Abbie and Rubin. It’s debatable who really did it the best, the West Coast or the East Coast, but let’s talk about the East Coast, since I know a little bit about that. They got in your face with what they didn’t believe, but they would do it in a funny way. They would make a joke out of it. And at the same time as they are laughing at their own joke; the interviewer would be sitting there kind of baffled on how to react because he’d be representing like ABC or something like that. At the same time, Abbie’s saying, “We don’t like this, we don’t like this, we don’t like this, we don’t like this, we don’t like this, we don’t like this, we don’t like this, we don’t like this, we don’t like this, we don’t like this, we don’t like this…blam!” Right in their face.
It does two things. It makes you as the interviewer not be able to say to me that I do not take myself too seriously, okay? Also, it makes you not be able to say to me that I don’t take myself seriously enough because I’m naming all these issues at the same time. And also, it gives me the right to be happy even though I hate certain things. That hating doesn’t necessarily lead to violence.
It’s like a great attack. It should go down in history as better than Napolean divide-and-conquer shit. It’s enormous. Because it’s like a shield, yet it’s open. It’s like this dual thing. It’s fantastic. It did so much damage to our society in such a good way. That attack that they did. Doing it on the news. Doing it in the public. Being constant, constant, constant with it all the time. Smiling in the face of adversity. Laughing. There’s nothing more annoying to the federal government than somebody that’s trying to spread love and joy and be irritating at the same time, saying, “We hate you, but we love you!” There’s nothing more annoying to the government than that.
Vince Vaughn’s lanky, all-American good looks belie the creepy quality he imbues into all the characters he plays from the too-suave Trent in Swingers to the murdering Lester in Clay Pigeons to Norman Bates in Gus Van Sant’s remake of Psycho. In his latest role in The Cell, Vaughn plays the good guy, FBI Agent Peter Novak, but even Vaughn’s good guy is unmistakably disturbed, a victim of child abuse turned relentless pursuer of abusers.
Vaughn, not so creepy in real life, recently chatted about his role in The Cell, what attracts him to a role and why he wasn’t disappointed he doesn’t have a love scene with Jennifer Lopez.
What’s the scariest movie you’ve ever seen?
The Exorcist, for sure, is a shocking horror film. When I was a little kid I remember I got brave and saw a horror movie called the Evil Dead, the first one. I was about twelve or fourteen maybe — maybe I was younger. I went down in my basement, and I turned off all the lights because I was gonna really make the experience totally scary. I put the thing in, and I remember after twenty minutes something happened that scared me. I went to run to get the lights on and I smacked into a pillar I had in the basement and I was like, “Something’s going on here. Some karma’s happening. I’ve gotta get to the light.” But that movie probably scared me the most just because of my age and because I was by myself and I was like, “I’m gonna really try to scare myself tonight.”
Was there anything that was so horrific in The Cell that you were disturbed by it even during production?
It really wasn’t that disturbing to make. Only because you’re kind of involved in the process from the beginning. I wasn’t really involved with the stuff that happened with the little kid. I think that would have been disturbing. The girl in the cell was a bit disturbing, but see, on the day when you’re filming, she comes up for air and they bring her coke and stuff like that, so you kind of commit for the moment, but you know she’s fine. But what would have been hard for me would have been stuff with the little kid.
You know, it’s like when we were doing Swingers, we didn’t find that particularly funny while we were filming it or anything because you’re so involved in the process every step of the way that you’re not really analyzing it. You’re more focused. The process is like if you see a house before it’s built and you’re there everyday when the house is built, you don’t have the same impact I guess of seeing the whole thing put together at one time because you’re there from the beginning.
What attracted you to this role?
Really, Tarsem’s visuals. I’d never seen them before, I’m embarrassed to say. A lot of his stuff is kind of commercials that air in Europe that I never was privy to. So when I saw his reel, I thought his visuals were really cool.
Really, the acting in this film serves the visuals. You’re almost a part of a painting. There’s not a linear story to the film. Which I think is cool. The movie is told more through the visuals. It’s almost like a series of paintings. You feel a little bit like you walk through kind of a dark period during a painter’s life in seeing the film. These are kind of like individual paintings and compositions. I think it impacts you more because it’s something that you haven’t seen before. Whereas you can go numb to traditional effects.
Numb? How do you mean?
A lot of special effects films are sort of a building momentum of effects or grander explosions and that sort of thing. This movie is almost like an arthouse film. The cinematographer who just shot the movie me and Jon Favreau just did is Chris Doyle, who’s a Hong Kong DP. He does all Kar-wai Wong films like Fallen Angels and Chung King Express and those kind of films. Now this isn’t similar to that except that I think that the visuals carry you emotionally and almost storywise more so than the linear plot does. And I think effectively. At the end of the day, in watching the film, if you judge the film the way you would judge a normal action film, you would say, “Well, it makes no sense.” But I think if you check in with yourself and sort of drop that, you’re left with an impact and understanding.
Was there anything about the FBI agent character that you were drawn to?
Well, it’s a case-by-case thing. Sometimes it’s a script or a director or actors in a piece. For this, it wasn’t so much the character that fascinated me, truthfully. Even with Psycho, it wasn’t the character that fascinated me. (Director) Gus (Van Sant) fascinates me. I remember, I moved out to Hollywood when I was eighteen and Drugstore Cowboy came out that year, and I just was so taken by that film that Gus could say, “Let’s remake Spartacus,” and I’d probably remake Spartacus with Gus. It had more to do with that for me than anything else.
And then there’s times where, like in Return To Paradise, I was more interested in that character or in that specific story. I don’t have much of a game plan, but there’s just certain people that you feel interested to work with for different reasons, I guess. I definitely like Vincent D’Onofrio’s work a lot. Jennifer Lopez, I’ve thought she’s a terrific actress for a long time.
Did you know her prior to shooting The Cell?
I might have met her once before. I don’t remember. But this is the first time I worked with her and got to know her on any level more than saying, “Hi. How are you?” and shaking hands. I think she’s a hell of an actress. And I tell you, she’s one of the nicest people I’ve ever worked with, and I think that a lot of times it may sound cliché, but I think especially for women when they sort of know what they want or they’re ambitious or they directed a career, you hear these things said about them. Whereas other people out there — and I’m not going to mention names — but who have been very business minded or indulgent, just don’t get the same sort of backlash that a girl does when she is in that position.
Were you disappointed that you were playing opposite one of the most beautiful women on the planet and there was no romance?
I liked that. Part of the reason why I wanted to do it was I like that that wasn’t the focus of it. Especially because what they were trying to convey story-wise. It’s like you can only keep so many balls in the air at a certain time. To me, it seemed real and truthful. Especially for two people like these characters. Katherine is sort of into what her work is and Peter Novak kind of have his past. These people might not really be in a place where they are open to dating or feel comfortable with trusting someone or even feeling like they would be liked by someone else. So it just seemed like a natural thing to happen at the end of something like that. It made sense versus they would get together or they would, “Um, I really love you.” through this whole thing or whatever.
You brought up Gus Van Sant and Psycho, which did not fare well commercially or critically. Have you experienced any backlash in your career for doing it?
I don’t think so. I mean probably to some degree. You know, the remaking of Psycho is interesting because if you look how we all played our characters, most of us kind of did a campy twist on it. It was almost like an art experiment. It wasn’t a real true interpretation working from an absolute truthful place and that was sort of our intention of doing it. Whatever people’s perceptions of it are after that or however they feel is valid and true on their side. I don’t say that it’s not, but I did it because when I sat with Gus and what he explained his interest and why he was fascinated by doing it, I found it a cool thing to be apart of.
Swingers is probably one of the more liked projects that I’ve done, but there’s probably more repercussions [with that film], just because of the catch phrases in that. We sort of took expressions that existed from hip hop as well as sports, sayings like “money,” “player” and that sort of stuff, and old swing lingo and kind of incorporated it and meshed it altogether to make kind of a new wave of expressions. But they were all sort of original in that it wasn’t like people were going around saying it. There really wasn’t a swing scene when we made Swingers, either. There was a couple of bars in LA that one night a week would have a big band play. But Big Bad Voodoo Daddy played on our album and was in our movie and then, after that, sold their records and became popular, but they were just a local band.
We were just trying to give an overemphasis to dating and to geeky guys giving that sort of importance to it. The thing with the characters in Swingers was not that they were cool, but that they were pathetic. What was so strange for us afterwards is that they were embraced as sort of these cool guys. I always thought Trent was really pretty geeky. I mean, anyone who sort of would dress like that and make it like he’s so on top of it is always kind of a pathetic person, I think. That was something that we made for 250 thousand dollars we thought no one would see. As far as we were concerned, we were just trying to get tape on ourselves so we could get an agent so we could get really work. But those expressions were probably the most commercially used things of anything that I’ve done so far. You never know what will be the perception or what happens afterwards.
What happened after Swingers is that you became a celebrity. How do you deal with the pressures of that lifestyle?
I’ve never dealt with it on that level, honestly. I’ve been fortunate I guess because I’ve never had bad experiences. I mean one or two very rare things. Like, if you go to a bar and you have a bunch of drunk guys who want to pat you on the back and they want to give you a shot. I think they mean it in a nice way, but you can only do so many shots in a night. Even me.
From her humble beginning dancing as a Fly Girl on In Living Color, Jennifer Lopez has slowly, surely and steadily worked her way up the Hollywood ladder to become a superstar. Her head-turning performance as the Tijuana pop stinger Selena in the biopic of the same name paved the path for Jennifer, who after appearing in a few more films, exploded critically and commercially with Out of Sight. The following year, she released a pop album of her own, On the 6, which shot up the charts and secured her status as a high-profile celebrity, her popularity fueled further by her relationship with Bad Boy Records bad boy Puff Daddy. Currently, she is starring opposite Vincent D’Onofrio and Vince Vaughn in the lauded sci-fi thriller The Cell, in which she plays a child psychologist who enters the dreams of her patients.
Lopez spoke recently about making The Cell, keeping grounded and living out your dreams.
Was The Cell as freaky to make as it is to watch?
No, I thought it would be worse than it was. When I first read it I was like, “This is gonna be really creepy.” And then when I saw the visual references that (director) Tarsem was gonna use for the movie I was like, “Oh God, it’s gonna be creepy.” But when you’re filming it, it’s a different experience, you know? You’re concentrating on other things; it doesn’t really freak you out like that.
When you finally saw the final cut, were you disturbed by it?
It’s funny. For me it wasn’t as disturbing as U-Turn. When I first watched it, it was just really crazy for me. But this does have some images that are graphic and disturbing. Not as graphic as I think Tarsem would have. But it’s definitely not for the little girls who buy my album, who like to sing my songs. This is not for them. They have to wait for The Wedding Planner. This is something else. This is for adults. It’s about a serial killer. It’s not going to be pretty inside the head of a serial killer.
Is there anyone whose head you’d like to get inside?
I wouldn’t really want to be just hooked up to a machine with one person. I’d like the chip implanted and just be able to read everybody’s mind who passed by me.
What was your first reaction to the film the first time you saw it put together?
I was really blown away. I was really impressed with what Tarsem had done with the film. It’s the most visually beautiful movie I think I’ve seen. And the story… when I first sat there and watched the finished product from beginning to end, I was like, “First of all, It’s moving along and the story’s there.” And then when I’m watching these incredible images, halfway through I thought to myself, “This is something I’ve never seen before.”
All the Blessed Virgin Mary parallelism and Biblical symbolism is drawing some heat from Catholics…
That’s what people are telling me, but it’s not about religion or Catholicism or Christianity in any way. It’s not a reference to that. We weren’t trying to dress up like the Virgin Mary. That wasn’t supposed to be a Madonna figure. The costume was based on a Brazilian Sea Goddess.
Is costuming crucial to you as an actor in developing the character?
Absolutely. But it’s funny because in this one there were so many weird costumes, to find yourself was, like, schizophrenic. I was schizophrenic! (laughs) Forget about the little boy and the serial killer.
Did you meet with therapists to prepare for playing one?
I went to see a therapist as research for the character because I play a child therapist, and I just wanted to see how a woman therapist dealt with a patient. I had never been to a therapist before — if I had, I wouldn’t have a problem saying it, either — but I hadn’t. I guess, the thing that I learned from her was that your perspective on something is not always a true perspective. For us, and I think for most people, when you think of something — like I went to her with a problem that I actually thought I had figured out. I just wanted to see her take on it. And she totally flipped it on me. She was like, “No, you are wrong and these are the reasons why…” I was like, “Oh. Okay…” It was nice to learn that.
Did you and D’onofrio interact a lot on set?
Vincent was great. Very intense. Very intense on the set. And he’s a very sweet, funny guy, so for him to play this character, I know he had to concentrate a lot. So we kind of kept our distance because we had this weird relationship in the movie. He was like this freak-of-nature to me and I was like this victim to him. It was better that we just stayed away from each other.
Did the original script call for you to be in your underwear, illuminated by the light of a refrigerator? And might I add, damn!?
I wasn’t in my underwear in the script. It was just when you’re at home alone and you’re hanging out. I don’t know about you, but I’d be in my underwear.
It’s obvious you maintain.
I take care of myself, I do. I think it’s important because I feel better that way. I feel it’s whatever works for you. I like feeling good, feeling healthy, eating right. I don’t feel good when I eat too much or the wrong things, or I don’t get to work out for months. That’s not good. You know, you have to do what works for you. I think drinking and smoking really wrecks you.
Since I’ve started down that road, is it true that you’ve insured your body, or at least parts of your body, for an astronomical sum?
Someone asked me what was the wildest rumor that anybody ever made up about me, and I couldn’t think and he was like, “Was it the 250-count thing?” Which was a lie about sheets — that I take sheets to the hotel and they have to be 250-count, some ridiculousness like that. I said, “No.” Then Alan, my publicist came over, “What about the billion dollar butt.” I was like, “Yeah, that’s right.” That was the craziest one ever! Because it was on the front page of the paper here in New York, and I happened to be in New York that week. It was insane. But it was funny and it was great that I had the front page of the paper I could save it to show my kids.
So you haven’t insured your body?
I think that’s what I’m trying to say, yeah.
Do your friends send you all these bogus items as a joke?
Oh, yeah. Oh, they love it. And they like the negative stuff that they know is not true because they’re like, “Look what they wrote!” I’m like, “Ha ha ha, very funny.”
With your schedule and the limelight, is it difficult to keep in touch with these friends?
I value the private time that I get with them, and I value it more maybe than I would if I wasn’t doing this.
How do you balance the pressures of celebrity with maintaining relationships with your friends and family?
When the Selena thing happened that was like the weird time when I had to sit back and go, “Okay, what’s happening, and how can I deal with this?” And the conclusion I came to is that I’m still the same person that I was when I started, and I will always be that same person, and I have a great family that I came from and a great background, and I still have their loving support, and just because I work in movies and I’m an artist and I do music doesn’t mean that you’re any different than anybody else. Yes, you’re in the public eye and, you know, there’s that whole other animal but it’s not who I am. And staying grounded I think is the most important thing.
How difficult is it to stay grounded when you have an entourage devoted to catering to your every need?
I don’t really stand for that kind of stuff, you know what I mean? I see myself as a regular person, and I have great people around me who care about me as a person first. I have people who are very involved in and believe in what I’m trying to do and do everything they can to help me do that. People who help me manage everything that I have to do. People who I love that I call “my family.” They call me “Ma.” I don’t call them an entourage, you know? I have a manager. I have a publicist. I have an assistant who does so much for me. And I can’t do it without them. I would not be able to function. There’s just not enough hours in the day. I would love to be able to do it all by myself.
And yeah, I have security. I hate security, by the way. I’m always trying to escape without the security. And then like Puff will get so mad at me. He’s like, “You can’t go out without security! You don’t know what’s going to happen?!” And then he’ll get on Benny, my manager.
Earlier you had mentioned “the little girls that buy my album.” You are a role model to a lot of little girls out there. Do you feel a tremendous responsibility to them?
Yeah. I feel like you can’t take on the responsibility of the world. It’s destructive if you start thinking, “Oh God, I have to do this, I have to do that.” You have to live your life. I’m not gonna do anything wrong. I’m not gonna go rob a bank tomorrow. I don’t do drugs. I don’t drink or smoke or anything like that. Those are the types of things that people are like, “Role models. Oh, you can’t be human.” Well, you are human. Things are gonna happen. But I think it’s nice that girls feel they have someone to look up to in me. And I don’t think I’m gonna do anything in the near future that’s gonna disappoint anybody — I hope.
When you were a little girl did your dreams involve all of this?
I had hoped. I’m really happy with where I am right now and as a little girl I always had dreams, and I still have a lot of big dreams that I wanna, hopefully, realize, so we’ll just wait and see, I guess.
I can imagine you’ve already realized your dreams as a pop singer. Did you expect that kind of response on your first album out?
You don’t expect that success. You just pour your heart and soul into your music. It’s really a reflection of who you are as a person as opposed to playing characters in a movie. You just hope for the best. You hope that somebody relates to it, somebody understands it — that they like it and that they can dance to it. So I was actually pleasantly surprised with the outcome.
Was it weird to be heralded as a part of the Latin Music Boom?
You know, it’s funny that they create a movement thing because three people come out with an album at the same time or whatever it was. Yes, I’m Latin. Yes, I made an English pop album because I grew here in the United States, so I don’t know. It didn’t bother me in any way. I didn’t think of it as a negative thing, but I also didn’t think it was fair to do it because it makes it seem like people are a fad or culture is a fad and I think that’s unfair to do. I think that music should be separated and judged by individual artists. We don’t go, “Oh, all those artists are from Texas; let’s put all their music together,” you know what I mean? It’s just not done with any other cultures, and I think it was unfair that it was done. It’s not important. The music should speak for itself.
I just got an email from Lou Taylor Pucci (or possibly his webmaster/webmistress). What a truly nice young man who genuinely deserves to have a fantastic acting career!
Lou wrote back to tell me he really is as big of a fan of Terry Gilliam’s ’12 Monkeys’ as he said he was in Mike Mills’s press junket blog for ‘Thumbsucker’ having seen it like “over 20 times now”. He also says he’d add ‘Field Of Dreams’ to his list of favorite movies.