In ‘Shtum,’ A Portrait Of Autism Drawn From Real Life


Shtum is a Yiddish word that means silence. It’s also the title of a novel that centers around three generations of men who get thrown together in a small space and can’t talk to each other. Jonah, the little boy, has the best reason: He’s profoundly autistic and can’t speak. The story has a personal resonance for author Jem Lester, who says that while he bears no resemblance to the father in Shtum, Jonah’s story has parallels to his own son. “A lot of the behaviors and the feelings that he inspires in the book, Jonah, are very very close to my feelings, because I couldn’t really see the point of reinventing an autistic character when I had one so close to home.”

Interview Highlights

On the portrayal of autistic people in popular culture

Things are improving, but certainly, down the years — I think my first introduction to autism, really, along with a lot of people’s, was Dustin Hoffman’s portrayal in Rain Man. And I think since then there has been this perception that an autistic child has some kind of special gift … well, that’s just a tiny tiny percentage of the thousands of millions of autistic people in the world. It doesn’t in any way reflect the 30% of autistic people who have no language, and sit in a very very different place on what people like to describe as the autistic spectrum.

On Jonah

Jonah is ten when we meet him in the book, with no language. And because of that, and because of the frustrations, he can suffer from bouts of self-harm — he will bite down on his hand, and has a big scar on the base of his thumb where he bites down through frustration. He is doubly incontinent, which means he’s a ten-year-old that has to wear nappies during the day, and at night. And yet, there is such a level of innocence to him. There is no anger in his face. There is something pure about the way that he looks, and the sparkle in his eyes …

He posesses, as a lot of autistic children do … an almost superhuman strength. And so when he does have a meltdown he is virtually impossible to control. This is something I know very well. And people have asked me questions about, did you really need to provide that much detail? Was it really necessary? And I say, to be honest with you, I toned it down.

On what he’s learned from his own son

My son Noah has taught me patience, compassion. He’s taught me to understand the things in life that really should be important to everyone. And they’re the kind of life lessons that you only really learn by being around people that have no axe to grind. So it’s made me far more aware of just how many things in this world that have no bearing on my life and should not upset me or drive me mad, just are worthless and pointless and not worth thinking about. And on that basis I suppose, despite everything else, there is — I find a contentment in my own life that doesn’t require me to search after goods and services, and all the other things that maybe at some point when I was younger, I’d have been trying to fight for. Now I understand, and that’s through someone who’s never actually told me that. He’s never sat me down like a wise old man and given me the talk. He hasn’t had to say anything, he’s just had to be him. And I think that’s a massive gift.

Art You Can Wear On Your Arm? For Judith Leiber, It’s In The Bag


Nearly 100 of Judith Leiber’s handbags are currently on view at the Museum of Art and Design in Manhattan.

Jenna Bascom/ Museum of Arts and Design


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Jenna Bascom/ Museum of Arts and Design

Judith Leiber’s handbags are meant for wowing — not schlepping. They’re shaped like penguins, fruits, zebras, streetcars and firecrackers. First ladies and movie stars have carried them, and now they’re the subject of an exhibition at the Museum of Art and Design in Manhattan.

Judith Leiber’s career making extraordinary handbags spanned 40 years.

Judith Leiber/Museum of Arts and Design


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Judith Leiber/Museum of Arts and Design

Judith Leiber’s career making extraordinary handbags spanned 40 years.

Judith Leiber/Museum of Arts and Design

“I wanted to make something that was more interesting and more special than what other people made,” explains Leiber, now 96.

But that also meant they weren’t cheap.

“I wanted to make the most expensive bags that anybody could make,” she adds. “That’s what I like to do.”

Leiber initially planned to make her fortune in cosmetics. Her family sent her to college in London to study chemistry, but World War II broke out and she returned to her native Hungary. Completing her education was no longer an option and the Jewish teenager became apprenticed to a handbag company — rising to master craftswoman. But as the war escalated, the business closed.

Her family was moved from their home, her father sent to a camp, and Judith, her sister and mother were forced to live in the ghetto. They all survived the Holocaust and Judith met Gus Leiber, an American soldier, and moved with him to New York in 1946. There, she worked in the American handbag industry and, at her artist husband’s insistence, founded her own company in 1963.

“Every night she would cut patterns,” Gus Leiber says. “She was simply a genius with a knife. She worked night and day — it was remarkable.”

Rhinestone-encrusted minaudière after Faith Ringgold’s “The Purple Quilt”

Jenna Bascom/Museum of Arts and Design


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Jenna Bascom/Museum of Arts and Design

Gus Leiber taught art by day and, in his spare time, made deliveries and did whatever else his wife’s fledgling company needed. After an iffy line of green handbags that weren’t so popular, the company grew rapidly, from four employees to 200. All told, in her four-decade career, Leiber designed 3,500 bags. There are about half that many in the museum next to her house. Collections manager Ann Stewart says Leiber’s ideas could come from anywhere — paintings she’d seen, a piece of pottery, photographs, nature, even grocery produce. Leiber’s food series — sparkly fruits and veggies — is “really fun,” Stewart says.

The blood red tomato looks tempting enough to eat. The eggplant is a perfect specimen. And the bunch of asparagus? That was a favorite for sculptor Larry Kallenberg. It was his job to make many of the 3-D wax molds used to cast Leiber’s bags.

“This asparagus has always been the favorite thing I ever made for her,” Kallenberg says. “Lions, peacocks, ah, every day, but asparagus pocketbook? How crazy is that? And how wonderful that she would think of it.”

Click To See More From Leiber’s Food Series

Leiber called him her buddy boy.

“I was her hands,” he said. “They were all her ideas; what I did was to modify somewhat, every once in a while I’d come up with a design. But basically everything was run by her. … I just did what she told me to do — magnificently — but they were all Judith Leiber.”

Now, nearly 100 of them are in New York’s Museum of Art and Design, in the first major museum exhibition of her work in more than 20 years.

Original chatelaine with crystal rhinestones, 1967

Gary Mamay/Leiber Collection/Museum of Arts and Design


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Gary Mamay/Leiber Collection/Museum of Arts and Design

Original chatelaine with crystal rhinestones, 1967

Gary Mamay/Leiber Collection/Museum of Arts and Design

Show curator Samantha De Tillio says no woman would have carried an asparagus on her arm before Leiber came along.

“She, I think, introduced the idea that handbags could be whimsical and fun and that kind of humor could be appropriate for the red carpet or for a First Lady,” De Tillio explains. “So I think she created the environment where women wanted something more, or different — and then filled it very successfully.”

Leiber is now retired. She likes to sit in a comfy chair in her spacious, light-and-art-filled Long Island home and read murder mysteries.

“I was very happy with all the bags I made,” she says. “I made all kinds of things, some of them were very classic, some of them were kind of crazy, but we did all kinds of things that I thought were very good.”

Plenty of others agreed — and some spent several thousands of dollars to own one of her works of art. They’ve become not just collector’s items, but family heirlooms. In homage, many visitors arrive at the New York exhibit with Leiber bags on their arms.

Kashmiri embroidery-inspired minaudière with rhinestones, 1982

Gary Mamay/Leiber Collection/Museum of Arts and Design


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Gary Mamay/Leiber Collection/Museum of Arts and Design

Radio editor Tom Cole and Web producer Beth Novey contributed to this report.

Love, Money And Betrayal Make For Great Storytelling In ‘The Heirs’


You’ve seen The Royal Tenenbaums, right? I love that movie. It’s Wes Anderson at maybe his third-most Wes Anderson-iest, telling the tale of a family of geniuses that live, grow, shatter and die in a magical version of New York City. It begins with a book being laid down and opened to page one: “Royal Tenenbaum bought the house on Archer Avenue in the winter of his 35th year,” the narrator says, the camera cutting away, the voice fading, a gypsy cab pulling up to the curb. After that, it becomes just a movie, but I have always imagined that, in my own make-believe New York, there’s an actual book with those actual words — the story of a rich, sad, messed up clan of geniuses going slowly to pieces in a world that they once commanded, but has now begun to escape them.

There is no such book. I get that. But what does exist is the next best thing: The Heirs, by Susan Rieger, a novel that nearly fills that void for me. That treads that same familiar ground. That reads in the same clipped, clean, lock-jawed voice — as if the words themselves had all gone to Vassar and spent their summers boating in the Hamptons.

“When he was dying, Rupert Falkes had the best care money could buy. His wife, Eleanor, saw to that. After the last round of chemo failed, she installed him in New York-Presbyterian in a large, comfortable private room with a window facing the Hudson.”

This is how it begins. The wealthy, powerful, charming, dying father of a family of five boys (plus lovely wife) who leaves, in the wake of his passing, all the normal destruction, and a little extra. Who leaves (probably) a mistress and (maybe) two bastard children and (perhaps) even more than that. Who had been, up to the moment of his last words (“Settle my just debts.”), the picture of slightly distant, slightly cold fatherly perfection, beloved and adored — but then becomes something else once the Other Woman shows up.

Or does he? This is the question that Rieger explores in The Heirs, or one of them, anyway. Does death root us in memory as the people we were while breathing, or should consequent data, gathered after the fact, be used to ret-con the recollections of the survivors?

She proceeds methodically, moving back and forth in time and in and out of the heads of various characters like Jane Goodall among the moneyed elite of the Upper West Side. And god, yes, I agree. The last thing we need in the world is yet another novel of dead fathers and their messed up children. Yes, the last thing we need is another forensic examination of American elitism in the late 20th century, and backhanded examples of how easily emotional complications can be resolved with the liquidation of a trust or the speedy application of half-a-million dollars to buy a new apartment when the last one proves too haunted by past mistakes.

But there is something so voyeuristically sweet about this version of that done-to-death trope, and so viciously cutting when observed with such wit and precision as Rieger offers. No one simply goes out to eat. They go to E.A.T. or Caravelle and sit only in the best seats. The champagne is Veuve Cliquot. Rupert’s hospital room has a view over the Hudson and even the jokes all come with an educated accent.

“‘I knew [your father] was dying from the first diagnosis. You all thought he’d get better. It’s no surprise you were thrown.’ Eleanor cleared her throat. ‘Gotterdammerung on West Sixty-Seventh.'”

She is, of course, talking to her children there. Five boys, each successful, all Princeton grads — lawyers, agents, one musician (but with a MacArthur grant, of course). And as much as the story of The Heirs is about their coming to grips with the death of their father, that tale — those five tales, really, with their dance of divorces and DNA tests, family gatherings and tearful confessions — are secondary. Of her son Harry, Eleanor at one point says, “He’s re-writing his entire life up until yesterday.” And that’s the trick that Rieger pulls on the reader, too, every page re-writing our understanding of the past, of how we feel about Rupert and Eleanor, or Harry, Will, Sam, Jack and Tom — the “Five Famous, Fierce, Forceful, Faithful, Fabled, Fortunate, Fearless Falkeses”.

Love and sex and money and betrayal make for excellent storytelling. And The Heirs has all of that in excess. As an exploration of the hidden lives of Rupert and Eleanor Falkes, it is a posh soap opera written by Fitzgerald and the Brontes. As a window on a family shaken by death, it is The Royal Tenenbaums, polished up and moved across town.

But its beauty, economy and expensive wit is all its own.

Jason Sheehan knows stuff about food, videogames, books and Starblazers. He is currently the restaurant critic at Philadelphia magazine, but when no one is looking, he spends his time writing books about giant robots and ray guns. Tales From the Radiation Age is his latest book.

In ‘Becoming Bond,’ A Look At The Man Who Was Only 007 Once


George Lazenby, right, and his fiancee, Christina Gannett, shortly before their marriage in 1971.

Courtesy: Everett Collection


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Courtesy: Everett Collection

George Lazenby, right, and his fiancee, Christina Gannett, shortly before their marriage in 1971.

Courtesy: Everett Collection

When Roger Moore died last week at the age of 89, many tributes hailed him as the actor who’d played James Bond the longest. That isn’t quite wrong, but it isn’t exactly right.

The span between his first 007, Live and Let Die, and his last, A View to a Kill, was 12 years, during which he played the famous spy in seven movies. But Sean Connery, who’d quit the role with one film remaining on his contract only to be lured back twice, eventually got to seven, too. That is, if you count the non-canonical Never Say Never Again, released in 1983 — 21 years after his double-oh debut in Dr. No — when it competed against an “official” Moore-starring entry, Octopussy. The latter would be the one where Bond goes undercover as a circus clown. (Yes, really.) The Bond pictures were never without humor, but they got a lot goofier during the Moore era.

But between Connery’s departure and his (first) return there was a one-and-done Bond, perennial Trivial Pursuit curiosity George Lazenby. He’s now the subject of Josh Greenbaum’s Becoming Bond, a very funny original Hulu documentary that, through pure coincidence, made its debut on the streaming service only about 48 hours before the news of Moore’s passing broke. The 90-minute movie is comprised of a longform interview with a still-handsome, seventy-something Lazenby intercut with Drunk History-style reenactments of the frequently hard-to-swallow episodes he recounts, mostly from his pre-Bond life.

Australian actor Josh Lawson is an appealing stand-in for the young Lazenby — never mind that this is a role that should have gone to Matt Gourley, comedian and co-host of the podcast James Bonding. (Gourley’s other credentials include having played Bond creator Ian Fleming on Drunk History and on the Superego podcast, a gift for mimicking accents, and Bond-geek superknowlege.) The rest of the cast is rounded out by some very recognizable comedic actors, and maybe even a Bond series veteran or two, but it’s more fun if you discover their identities as you go.

But they’re not just riffing. There’s an actual story here, one of the greatest casting stories ever told. That an actor played the role of James Bond just one time is of less interest than the fact that he was not, in fact, an actor. What in 1968 was the most sought-after role in showbiz went to an Australian car salesman turned male model whose sole prior acting experience was bluffing his way past the receptionist at the London offices of EON Productions. (The Bond company, so to speak.)

Lazenby had never spoken one line in a movie. He’d never acted in a play. Bond producers Albert “Cubby” Broccoli and Harry Saltzman saw him in a TV commercial for Big Fry’s Chocolate wherein Lazenby doesn’t speak a word. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service director Peter Hunt says that he and the producers interviewed roughly 400 actors to find their new star. (One of them was a 22-year-old Royal Academy of Dramatic Art dropout named Timothy Dalton, who would become the next next next Bond, 19 years later.) Not until the rough-and-ready Australian actually broke a stuntman’s nose in a fight scene, performed as one of his many screen tests, did Broccoli finally decide to take a chance on him. Say what you will about his performance in the movie, he’s very convincing in the action scenes — more than the older, suaver, Britisher Moore ever was, certainly.

Accounts have varied over the decades as to whether Lazenby bailed of his own volition or was fired. On the On Her Majesty’s Secret Service Blu-ray, former United Artists CEO David Picker, among others, says it was the latter. And in a 2011 interview, Diana Rigg — Lazenby’s co-star — told the BBC, “George Lazenby was ill-equipped. It’s not for nothing that they didn’t offer him any sequels.” Even Lazenby himself has told the story both ways.

In Becoming Bond, he insists that he was offered a six-film contract plus a generous signing bonus, a package he declined on the advice of his manager. It was the end of the sixties, and Bond — a free-loving but otherwise totally square “blunt instrument” in the service of the waning British Empire — would soon look dated or worse, Lazenby and his advisors concluded.

That Lazenby refused to cut the long hair and beard he’d grown since filming of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service wrapped for the movie’s London premiere did not endear him to Broccoli and Saltzman. (In hindsight, this seems wildly ill-advised. Lazenby looked great with long hair, and having him photographed this way might help alleviate any creeping sense of conservatism.) They booted him off the movie’s American press tour, so Lazenby flew to the U.S. at his own expense and when knocking on TV station doors, asking to be let in to promote a movie from which he’d already distanced himself. Of course, the bigger issue was that Lazenby had announced before the movie even opened that he would not reprise the role — the same move Connery had pulled two years earlier.

While On Her Majesty’s Secret Service was not warmly received upon its initial release, it’s now frequently named among the two or three best of the entire Bond series. Some of this is just fan-protectiveness, naturally; die-hards will always want to claim that the obscure document most folks don’t know is superior to the popular one that they do. But OHMSS really is a marvelously rewatchable curiosity that looks and feels like no other entry in the long-running series. In many ways, it foreshadows the the way the Bonds would become more physical and (briefly) more emotional when the franchise rebooted with Daniel Craig in Casino Royale, 37 years later.

Craig was born in March of 1968, more or less the exact time when Lazenby was Becoming Bond.

Beaches, Bathing Suits, And Finally On The Big Screen, ‘Baywatch’


Dwayne Johnson, Ilfenesh Hadera and Kelly Rohrbach in the new guilty pleasure (until the story starts), Baywatch.

Frank Masi/Courtesy of Paramount Pictures


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Frank Masi/Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

Dwayne Johnson, Ilfenesh Hadera and Kelly Rohrbach in the new guilty pleasure (until the story starts), Baywatch.

Frank Masi/Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

It’s a beach in Florida this time — I know you care because we’re all here for the plot, right? — and head lifeguard Mitch Buchannon is now The Rock not The Hoff.

“Our team is the elite of the elite,” Dwayne Johnson’s Mitch tells his Baywatch recruits, “the heart and soul of this very beach.”

Also the pecs, glutes, and washboard abs of this very beach, of course. A beach that is apparently in peril, though you’d hardly guess from the less-than-rigorous lifeguard-tryouts Mitch is holding. Or from the snark he throws at Zac Efron’s stuck-up Olympic swimmer, Matt Brody, who tries to get out of those tryouts. Mitch won’t even utter the kid’s name.

“Hey, One Direction…” he snorts, then turns to returning guard Ilfenesh Hadera for support. “New Kid on the Block here is from Iowa. A lot of oceans in Iowa?”

“What is this,” wonders Brody, “lifeguard hazing?”

And yeah, that’s it in a clamshell, and it’s all the film has going on for most of the first hour. Which will probably be fine with its intended audience. On TV, the series was cancelled after its first season, then became a megahit during a decade or so in syndication.

Movies operate on different principles, though, and internet porn has made skimpy bathing suits less potent draws than they once were. So the screenwriters have come up with jokes to fill the time between explosions and near-drownings. Dwayne Johnson is endearing enough to keep that boy-band name thing going a lot longer than you’d think he could. Efron’s decently amusing, too, mostly at playing dumb, as when Alexandra Daddario suggests he raise his gaze.

“You should look at my face,” she flirts.

“I’m trying,” he smirks, “but it’s so close to your boobs.”

You’ll note that the women are a take-charge bunch these days (not that Pamela Anderson wasn’t — no emails please). No one would accuse the film’s women of having personalities, but the filmmakers did decide to let them make the jokes about physicality, not be the butt of them.

“Why does she always look like she’s running in slo-mo?” wonders Daddario, as she watches Kelly Rohrbach’s CJ do what Anderson did before her.

“You see it too?” marvels Jon Bass’ pudgy guard-in-training. It’s the cinematic equivalent of air-quotes.

The guys meanwhile get the gross-out stuff — genitalia caught in a lounge chair, a trip to the morgue where the talk turns scrotal (actually, the guy-talk frequently takes that turn). And when nudity is called for, who ends up naked? Bass, natch, who doesn’t realize he’s in a co-ed shower.

Females empowered, males embarrassed. All played with bathing suits skimpy enough that you figure there must be a spandex shortage in Florida. Which is guilty-pleasure-ish fun for a while, until director Seth Gordon feels the need to tell an actual story, involving real estate deals and a gorgeous villain (crossover Bollywood star Priyanka Chopra) in evening gowns so clingy, low-cut, and slit up the side that she might as well be in the red suits Mitch’s team is wearing.

Unlike the setup, the story founders and cramps like a tourist who swam too soon after an all-you-can-eat buffet, which is pretty much the only thing the filmmakers don’t toss into the water by film’s end. The plot doesn’t quite sink Baywatch, but it sure slows it down. Still, as Efron shouts over a motorboat’s roar, “all things considered, things coulda gone a lot worse.” True that.

Beaches, Bathing Suits, And Finally On The Big Screen, ‘Baywatch’


Dwayne Johnson, Ilfenesh Hadera and Kelly Rohrbach in the new guilty pleasure (until the story starts), Baywatch.

Frank Masi/Courtesy of Paramount Pictures


hide caption

toggle caption

Frank Masi/Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

Dwayne Johnson, Ilfenesh Hadera and Kelly Rohrbach in the new guilty pleasure (until the story starts), Baywatch.

Frank Masi/Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

It’s a beach in Florida this time — I know you care because we’re all here for the plot, right? — and head lifeguard Mitch Buchannon is now The Rock not The Hoff.

“Our team is the elite of the elite,” Dwayne Johnson’s Mitch tells his Baywatch recruits, “the heart and soul of this very beach.”

Also the pecs, glutes, and washboard abs of this very beach, of course. A beach that is apparently in peril, though you’d hardly guess from the less-than-rigorous lifeguard-tryouts Mitch is holding. Or from the snark he throws at Zac Efron’s stuck-up Olympic swimmer, Matt Brody, who tries to get out of those tryouts. Mitch won’t even utter the kid’s name.

“Hey, One Direction…” he snorts, then turns to returning guard Ilfenesh Hadera for support. “New Kid on the Block here is from Iowa. A lot of oceans in Iowa?”

“What is this,” wonders Brody, “lifeguard hazing?”

And yeah, that’s it in a clamshell, and it’s all the film has going on for most of the first hour. Which will probably be fine with its intended audience. On TV, the series was cancelled after its first season, then became a megahit during a decade or so in syndication.

Movies operate on different principles, though, and internet porn has made skimpy bathing suits less potent draws than they once were. So the screenwriters have come up with jokes to fill the time between explosions and near-drownings. Dwayne Johnson is endearing enough to keep that boy-band name thing going a lot longer than you’d think he could. Efron’s decently amusing, too, mostly at playing dumb, as when Alexandra Daddario suggests he raise his gaze.

“You should look at my face,” she flirts.

“I’m trying,” he smirks, “but it’s so close to your boobs.”

You’ll note that the women are a take-charge bunch these days (not that Pamela Anderson wasn’t — no emails please). No one would accuse the film’s women of having personalities, but the filmmakers did decide to let them make the jokes about physicality, not be the butt of them.

“Why does she always look like she’s running in slo-mo?” wonders Daddario, as she watches Kelly Rohrbach’s CJ do what Anderson did before her.

“You see it too?” marvels Jon Bass’ pudgy guard-in-training. It’s the cinematic equivalent of air-quotes.

The guys meanwhile get the gross-out stuff — genitalia caught in a lounge chair, a trip to the morgue where the talk turns scrotal (actually, the guy-talk frequently takes that turn). And when nudity is called for, who ends up naked? Bass, natch, who doesn’t realize he’s in a co-ed shower.

Females empowered, males embarrassed. All played with bathing suits skimpy enough that you figure there must be a spandex shortage in Florida. Which is guilty-pleasure-ish fun for a while, until director Seth Gordon feels the need to tell an actual story, involving real estate deals and a gorgeous villain (crossover Bollywood star Priyanka Chopra) in evening gowns so clingy, low-cut, and slit up the side that she might as well be in the red suits Mitch’s team is wearing.

Unlike the setup, the story founders and cramps like a tourist who swam too soon after an all-you-can-eat buffet, which is pretty much the only thing the filmmakers don’t toss into the water by film’s end. The plot doesn’t quite sink Baywatch, but it sure slows it down. Still, as Efron shouts over a motorboat’s roar, “all things considered, things coulda gone a lot worse.” True that.

Denis Johnson, Author Who Wrote ‘Jesus’ Son,’ Dies At 67




ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The literary world is mourning the death of a man who has been called one of the greatest writers of his generation. Denis Johnson won the National Book Award and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. He died of cancer on Wednesday at the age of 67. NPR’s Lynn Neary has this remembrance.

LYNN NEARY, BYLINE: Johnson, says Farrar, Straus and Giroux publisher Jonathan Galassi, is a writer’s writer. Galassi worked with Johnson on some of his best-known books – his story collection “Jesus’ Son,” his Vietnam War novel “Tree Of Smoke” which won the National Book Award and his novella “Train Dreams” which was a finalist for the Pulitzer. Johnson may have gotten the most attention for his prose, Galassi says, but he wrote with the empathy of a poet.

JONATHAN GALASSI: He started out as a poet, and then he started writing novels. And I remember him once saying, well, I can dream these novels up in a day, but it takes me months to write them.

NEARY: Galassi says Johnson was perhaps the most original writer of his generation. His work is infused with a hallucinatory quality, born out of his experiences in the 1960s and ’70s.

GALASSI: In his early phase of life, those hallucinations were enhanced by controlled substances which were part of the magic and the horror of his imagination.

NEARY: Johnson recovered from drug addiction in the late 1970s. But in 1991, he told WHYY’s Fresh Air that he held onto some of the insights he had gained during his time on drugs.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

DENIS JOHNSON: The world is very poetic as I experienced it. You know, you can just open a door, and there’ll be a world of fire and chaos on the other side. And you can shut that door and open another, and you know, all is sweetness and light. And I think that’s something I experienced by messing up my head a lot, and it’s something that stayed with me. And I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad perception to have.

NEARY: Johnson was able to balance violence with transcendence in his work. His writing was not biographical, says publisher Jonathan Galassi, but he drew deeply from his own experiences.

GALASSI: He has experienced the intensity, the depth, the despair, the direct hit of life in similar ways. And I think he’s very, very touched by it, destroyed by it. There’s something very religious about Denis’ work, I think.

NEARY: Galassi says he’s been touched by the large number of people who have contacted him since news of Denis Johnson’s death has spread, a tribute, he says, to how important Johnson was to so many. Lynn Neary, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF LOS CAMPESINOS SONG, “YOU! ME! DANCING!”)

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Beaches, Bathing Suits, And Finally On The Big Screen, ‘Baywatch’


Dwayne Johnson, Ilfenesh Hadera and Kelly Rohrbach in the new guilty pleasure (until the story starts), Baywatch.

Frank Masi/Courtesy of Paramount Pictures


hide caption

toggle caption

Frank Masi/Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

Dwayne Johnson, Ilfenesh Hadera and Kelly Rohrbach in the new guilty pleasure (until the story starts), Baywatch.

Frank Masi/Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

It’s a beach in Florida this time — I know you care because we’re all here for the plot, right? — and head lifeguard Mitch Buchannon is now The Rock not The Hoff.

“Our team is the elite of the elite,” Dwayne Johnson’s Mitch tells his Baywatch recruits, “the heart and soul of this very beach.”

Also the pecs, glutes, and washboard abs of this very beach, of course. A beach that is apparently in peril, though you’d hardly guess from the less-than-rigorous lifeguard-tryouts Mitch is holding. Or from the snark he throws at Zac Efron’s stuck-up Olympic swimmer, Matt Brody, who tries to get out of those tryouts. Mitch won’t even utter the kid’s name.

“Hey, One Direction…” he snorts, then turns to returning guard Ilfenesh Hadera for support. “New Kid on the Block here is from Iowa. A lot of oceans in Iowa?”

“What is this,” wonders Brody, “lifeguard hazing?”

And yeah, that’s it in a clamshell, and it’s all the film has going on for most of the first hour. Which will probably be fine with its intended audience. On TV, the series was cancelled after its first season, then became a megahit during a decade or so in syndication.

Movies operate on different principles, though, and internet porn has made skimpy bathing suits less potent draws than they once were. So the screenwriters have come up with jokes to fill the time between explosions and near-drownings. Dwayne Johnson is endearing enough to keep that boy-band name thing going a lot longer than you’d think he could. Efron’s decently amusing, too, mostly at playing dumb, as when Alexandra Daddario suggests he raise his gaze.

“You should look at my face,” she flirts.

“I’m trying,” he smirks, “but it’s so close to your boobs.”

You’ll note that the women are a take-charge bunch these days (not that Pamela Anderson wasn’t — no emails please). No one would accuse the film’s women of having personalities, but the filmmakers did decide to let them make the jokes about physicality, not be the butt of them.

“Why does she always look like she’s running in slo-mo?” wonders Daddario, as she watches Kelly Rohrbach’s CJ do what Anderson did before her.

“You see it too?” marvels Jon Bass’ pudgy guard-in-training. It’s the cinematic equivalent of air-quotes.

The guys meanwhile get the gross-out stuff — genitalia caught in a lounge chair, a trip to the morgue where the talk turns scrotal (actually, the guy-talk frequently takes that turn). And when nudity is called for, who ends up naked? Bass, natch, who doesn’t realize he’s in a co-ed shower.

Females empowered, males embarrassed. All played with bathing suits skimpy enough that you figure there must be a spandex shortage in Florida. Which is guilty-pleasure-ish fun for a while, until director Seth Gordon feels the need to tell an actual story, involving real estate deals and a gorgeous villain (crossover Bollywood star Priyanka Chopra) in evening gowns so clingy, low-cut, and slit up the side that she might as well be in the red suits Mitch’s team is wearing.

Unlike the setup, the story founders and cramps like a tourist who swam too soon after an all-you-can-eat buffet, which is pretty much the only thing the filmmakers don’t toss into the water by film’s end. The plot doesn’t quite sink Baywatch, but it sure slows it down. Still, as Efron shouts over a motorboat’s roar, “all things considered, things coulda gone a lot worse.” True that.

Denis Johnson, Author Who Wrote ‘Jesus’ Son,’ Dies At 67




ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The literary world is mourning the death of a man who has been called one of the greatest writers of his generation. Denis Johnson won the National Book Award and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. He died of cancer on Wednesday at the age of 67. NPR’s Lynn Neary has this remembrance.

LYNN NEARY, BYLINE: Johnson, says Farrar, Straus and Giroux publisher Jonathan Galassi, is a writer’s writer. Galassi worked with Johnson on some of his best-known books – his story collection “Jesus’ Son,” his Vietnam War novel “Tree Of Smoke” which won the National Book Award and his novella “Train Dreams” which was a finalist for the Pulitzer. Johnson may have gotten the most attention for his prose, Galassi says, but he wrote with the empathy of a poet.

JONATHAN GALASSI: He started out as a poet, and then he started writing novels. And I remember him once saying, well, I can dream these novels up in a day, but it takes me months to write them.

NEARY: Galassi says Johnson was perhaps the most original writer of his generation. His work is infused with a hallucinatory quality, born out of his experiences in the 1960s and ’70s.

GALASSI: In his early phase of life, those hallucinations were enhanced by controlled substances which were part of the magic and the horror of his imagination.

NEARY: Johnson recovered from drug addiction in the late 1970s. But in 1991, he told WHYY’s Fresh Air that he held onto some of the insights he had gained during his time on drugs.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

DENIS JOHNSON: The world is very poetic as I experienced it. You know, you can just open a door, and there’ll be a world of fire and chaos on the other side. And you can shut that door and open another, and you know, all is sweetness and light. And I think that’s something I experienced by messing up my head a lot, and it’s something that stayed with me. And I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad perception to have.

NEARY: Johnson was able to balance violence with transcendence in his work. His writing was not biographical, says publisher Jonathan Galassi, but he drew deeply from his own experiences.

GALASSI: He has experienced the intensity, the depth, the despair, the direct hit of life in similar ways. And I think he’s very, very touched by it, destroyed by it. There’s something very religious about Denis’ work, I think.

NEARY: Galassi says he’s been touched by the large number of people who have contacted him since news of Denis Johnson’s death has spread, a tribute, he says, to how important Johnson was to so many. Lynn Neary, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF LOS CAMPESINOS SONG, “YOU! ME! DANCING!”)

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Beaches, Bathing Suits, And Finally On The Big Screen, ‘Baywatch’


Dwayne Johnson, Ilfenesh Hadera and Kelly Rohrbach in the new guilty pleasure (until the story starts), Baywatch.

Frank Masi/Courtesy of Paramount Pictures


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Frank Masi/Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

Dwayne Johnson, Ilfenesh Hadera and Kelly Rohrbach in the new guilty pleasure (until the story starts), Baywatch.

Frank Masi/Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

It’s a beach in Florida this time — I know you care because we’re all here for the plot, right? — and head lifeguard Mitch Buchannon is now The Rock not The Hoff.

“Our team is the elite of the elite,” Dwayne Johnson’s Mitch tells his Baywatch recruits, “the heart and soul of this very beach.”

Also the pecs, glutes, and washboard abs of this very beach, of course. A beach that is apparently in peril, though you’d hardly guess from the less-than-rigorous lifeguard-tryouts Mitch is holding. Or from the snark he throws at Zac Efron’s stuck-up Olympic swimmer, Matt Brody, who tries to get out of those tryouts. Mitch won’t even utter the kid’s name.

“Hey, One Direction…” he snorts, then turns to returning guard Ilfenesh Hadera for support. “New Kid on the Block here is from Iowa. A lot of oceans in Iowa?”

“What is this,” wonders Brody, “lifeguard hazing?”

And yeah, that’s it in a clamshell, and it’s all the film has going on for most of the first hour. Which will probably be fine with its intended audience. On TV, the series was cancelled after its first season, then became a megahit during a decade or so in syndication.

Movies operate on different principles, though, and internet porn has made skimpy bathing suits less potent draws than they once were. So the screenwriters have come up with jokes to fill the time between explosions and near-drownings. Dwayne Johnson is endearing enough to keep that boy-band name thing going a lot longer than you’d think he could. Efron’s decently amusing, too, mostly at playing dumb, as when Alexandra Daddario suggests he raise his gaze.

“You should look at my face,” she flirts.

“I’m trying,” he smirks, “but it’s so close to your boobs.”

You’ll note that the women are a take-charge bunch these days (not that Pamela Anderson wasn’t — no emails please). No one would accuse the film’s women of having personalities, but the filmmakers did decide to let them make the jokes about physicality, not be the butt of them.

“Why does she always look like she’s running in slo-mo?” wonders Daddario, as she watches Kelly Rohrbach’s CJ do what Anderson did before her.

“You see it too?” marvels Jon Bass’ pudgy guard-in-training. It’s the cinematic equivalent of air-quotes.

The guys meanwhile get the gross-out stuff — genitalia caught in a lounge chair, a trip to the morgue where the talk turns scrotal (actually, the guy-talk frequently takes that turn). And when nudity is called for, who ends up naked? Bass, natch, who doesn’t realize he’s in a co-ed shower.

Females empowered, males embarrassed. All played with bathing suits skimpy enough that you figure there must be a spandex shortage in Florida. Which is guilty-pleasure-ish fun for a while, until director Seth Gordon feels the need to tell an actual story, involving real estate deals and a gorgeous villain (crossover Bollywood star Priyanka Chopra) in evening gowns so clingy, low-cut, and slit up the side that she might as well be in the red suits Mitch’s team is wearing.

Unlike the setup, the story founders and cramps like a tourist who swam too soon after an all-you-can-eat buffet, which is pretty much the only thing the filmmakers don’t toss into the water by film’s end. The plot doesn’t quite sink Baywatch, but it sure slows it down. Still, as Efron shouts over a motorboat’s roar, “all things considered, things coulda gone a lot worse.” True that.