Dec 16, 2013

The M.P.A.A. and Lo. Lee. Ta.

This is a final paper I wrote for a class called "Sexual Revolution: Hollywood in the 1960s", taught by the lovely Michael DeAngelis of DePaul University. Again, not really journalism but definitely in the realm of pop culture academic noodling, so I thought it would fit in nicely on here. 


"While it is true that in ancient Europe, and well into the 18th century (obvious examples come from France), deliberate lewdness was not inconsistent with flashes of comedy, or vigorous satire, or even the verve of a fine poet in a wanton mood, it is also true that in modern times the term 'pornography' connotes mediocrity, commercialism, and certain strict rules of narration."
 -- Vladimir Nabokov, On a Book Entitled 'Lolita' (1959)

For as long as the rights to Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita have been bandied about Hollywood, the story has had a reputation for being unfilmable. As Jon Lewis says, “The negative buzz was complicated by the fact that the topic of the screenplay – Humbert’s affair with his underage stepdaughter – was, to many in the business, unfilmable and doomed in the first place” (294). Nonetheless, market potential was realized, coupled with an opportunity to capitalize on the censorship stir the book had made, and initially Nabokov was brought in to write the screenplay for his novel. It turns out that his tyrannical brilliance as a prose stylist and creator did not translate well into the medium of film – he delivered a monster of a screenplay, lengthy and obtuse, giving himself a cameo as a butterfly collector that Humbert Humbert bumps into (BBC). It was ultimately rejected, and Lolita’s first Hollywood treatment came from Stanley Kubrick in 1962. Sue Lyon, a 14-year-old girl from Iowa, was her first incarnation on celluloid. This paper examines the representation of the character of Lolita in American media, specifically the notoriety and cultural situation of Kubrick’s film adaptation.


The sad truth that one immediately comes up against when examining Lolita is that Lolita herself only exists through Humbert’s own artistic interpretation of her, because the novel is presented as his written confession (or, Confession of a White Widowed Male). So from the start, she is an image perceived by someone else. Urbane, educated, pedophilic Humbert makes for an unreliable narrator to say the least. Lolita’s personality still shines through, but she is mostly engaging as an extension of Humbert’s imagination and vivid dream-life. In trying to recreate her character on film, as a real starlet rather than just the starlet of Humbert’s eye, a director has to take on Humbert’s perspective to some degree in order to tell his story. “Lolita is at once a chance for the male narrator (and author and director as well) to redeem and make immortal their own stardom, and the recognition that this stardom will always entail failure since it depends on making into a star a girl who will outgrow those features which made her capable of being a star in the first place” (Power, 3). The novel is framed as a confession, an apology; the story instantly has an element of the pathetic in it, the failure – desires impossible to be realized. This does not translate well into the setting of moralistic 1962 Hollywood. 

Pedophilia – what Humbert calls nympholepsy – is a hard sell, and the way that Kubrick chooses to frame it is questionable: as a black comedy. In his adaptation, the character of Claire Quilty (originally a shadowy, corrupted side-character who eventually abducts Lolita away from Humbert and tries to get her to act in his pornographic films) is inflated beyond all recognition by Peter Sellers. Humbert (James Mason) is relegated to playing Quilty’s straight man in a number of scenes, giving terse answers and chilly responses to Quilty’s bumbling. In one such scene the two are on the balcony of a hotel lobby and Quilty, disguised as a policeman, offers to procure a bridal suite for Humbert and his little girl, saying, “She wasn’t so little! Fairly tall little girl!” and laughing nervously all the while. The dominion of the Motion Picture Production Code at this time perhaps made this kind of lukewarm, joking innuendo necessary. If Kubrick wanted to have any kind of commercial success with his film, he would have to somehow make pedophilia palatable by distracting as much as possible from the true implications of the story.  



Another way in which Kubrick attempts to downplay the pedophilic aspects of Lolita is by making actress Sue Lyon appear as mature as possible. In the film, the first shot of Lolita (pivotal in sealing Humbert’s helpless, lavishing devotion to her) is of her lounging on a towel in the garden, in a modeling pose, wearing a bikini, feathered sunhat, and cats-eye sunglasses. She slowly tips her glasses down her nose and stares frankly back at Humbert. All throughout the film this Lolita is perfectly groomed and poised, with smooth, curled hair and neat clothing. This scene is treated very differently in Adrian Lyne’s 1997 re-imagined adaptation; Lo is lying on her stomach, in pigtails, reading a movie magazine and wriggling her bare feet in the shower of the lawn sprinkler. She turns her head, notices Humbert staring, and smiles widely. The audience keenly feels the hideous shock of her mouth full of braces, her obvious girlishness, after following Humbert’s and the camera’s gaze up and down her body. This is much more in keeping with the novel’s description of the moment: “In the course of the sun-shot moment that my glance slithered over the kneeling child…while I passed by her in my adult disguise (a great big handsome hunk of movieland manhood), the vacuum of my soul managed to suck in every detail of her bright beauty…” (Nabokov, 39). 

It is obviously much more comfortable, morally, to have Lolita be a teenager rather than a child. “Certainly Kubrick had a vested interest in making his Lolita look as old as possible on the grounds that a teenager was less likely to fall foul of the Production Code Authority than might an ostensible twelve-year-old. In keeping with the general calculated vagueness of the film, however, Lolita’s age is never actually given at all on-screen” (Vickers, 117). The interesting thing about this avoidance of the pedophilia issue is that Kubrick’s marketing strategy relied entirely on the book’s controversial reputation. This reputation was mostly based on hearsay rather than legal action: “But the feared American obscenity trial never took place – at least not in a courtroom. Instead the book became the butt of endless jokes and cartoons. Again America was absorbing something controversial into its popular culture instead of subjecting it to a witch hunt” (Vickers, 51). According to promotional materials, Kubrick’s film was not an attempt to make Lolita respectable; the film was labeled “For Persons over 18 Years of Age,” making Sue Lyon unable to attend the premiere. So, the audience was tantalized by the air of scandal surrounding the story but ultimately denied any visual representation of it in the film. There is no sex in Kubrick’s Lolita – the scene always fades to black before anything morally questionable happens. As Elisabeth Landsenson says, “The publicity campaign for the film featured the rhetorical question ‘How did they ever make a film of LOLITA?’; Hollywood wags aptly responded: they didn’t” (217). 

This lack of sexuality was thoroughly remedied by Adrian Lyne in his 1997 adaptation, which was initially denied release in the United States but received high praise from Dmitri Nabokov, the author’s son and manager of his literary affairs. Lyne knew what he was getting into with this allegedly unfilmable story, but was eventually able to get circulation in the U.S. with the support of Showtime; “Unlike major studios, which continue to protect their public image and decline to take risks with films that might cause them trouble with the general public, Showtime successfully hawked Lolita as a film everyone else in the business was too ‘chicken’ to screen” (Lewis, 296). So even in a post-Production Code era, adapting Lolita to film becomes a kind of defiance – a protest to censorship in the name of art. I would argue that Lyne’s film does have more artistic merit than Kubrick’s, as it stays very faithful to the story arc and narrative style of the novel. It does not excise certain elements of humor from the story, but doesn’t go down the farcical black comedy route that the 1962 version does – instead the film evokes an atmosphere of overwhelmingly poignant tragedy, portraying the desperate wreckage of Humbert’s life and the pain it causes everyone around him. 

Although the story is Humbert’s, Lolita the girl will become the central image of the film by virtue of Humbert’s obsession with her, making her casting choice seem much more important. There is more riding on the power of her image on screen, just by nature of her role in the story. Adrian Lyne’s casting call for the part was as follows: “Lolita: legally 18, must look 13-17, she is very much a regular American kid, but more knowing, sensual and un-inhibited than we might expect. Possesses the sort of ambiguous beauty that can go from childlike to intensely erotic at the blink of an eye. A combination of innocence and provocation that should affect every man in the audience. Nudity required” (Lewis, 293). Actresses Dominique Swain (1997) and Sue Lyon become the bearers of meaning – the heavy implications of Humbert’s own obsessive devotion and the tragic waste of their childhoods. So although they are the faces of the film, so to speak, their powerful presence is not as characters but as tools of sexual insinuation. Laura Mulvey articulates this phenomenon beautifully: “The man controls the film fantasy and also emerges as the representative of power in a further sense: as a bearer of the look of the spectator, transferring it behind the screen to neutralize the extra-diegetic tendencies represented by women as spectacle” (5). Disturbingly enough, these Lolitas cannot be sympathetic characters because they are not even really characters: they are part of the spectacle of the movie’s titillating central theme. Moreover, they are idealized hallucinations of Humbert’s fascination, recounted for the audience through the viewpoint of his narrative. 

The staging of Lolita’s actions is essentially fetishistic, perhaps inescapably so. The opening title sequence of Kubrick’s adaptation shows a young foot being cradled and its nails painted by a rough, masculine hand. The effect is appropriately chilling, but mostly because of what the audience already knows about the story in the film to come. This scene also foreshadows the way in which the film will continually strive to present seemingly innocuous actions as sexual innuendo – being unable to show the real thing, according to the Production Code. An early moment of this innocuous innuendo occurs when Lolita is hula-hooping in the backyard with Humbert watching her from a lawn chair. There is nothing sensual or lascivious in the utilitarian movement of her hips, and yet the audience put on their guard to notice any hint of lewdness. The moment ends with Charlotte – Lolita’s mother, enamored of Humbert – snaps a picture of him from the front porch and crows, “See how relaxed you’re getting?” It seems that the voyeuristic aspect of cinema is heightened when you tell the story of Lolita; because of context, the audience is forced to view the young actress in a sexual light. The camera pulls your gaze in, focuses it, as a constant reminder of who the narrator is and what his intentions are. Sue Lyon smolders and smiles, seeming to enjoy the attention of Humbert and the audience. 

Sexual innuendo takes an interesting turn in the appearance of Jean and John Farlow, friends of Charlotte’s who – in the 1962 film – meet Humbert at a middle-school dance. When Charlotte leaves to dance with John, Jean turns to Humbert and says, “We could sorta swap partners… When you get to know me better you’ll find that I’m extremely broad-minded. In fact, John and I, we’re both… broad-minded.” She might as well have winked at Humbert and jostled him with her elbow, the insinuation is so clear. Instead Jean just smiles up at him mischievously, in the lingering silence, waiting for the movie-going audience to get it. This small episode, entirely absent from the novel, seems to be an attempt to make Lolita more timely by referencing the swinger phenomenon that came to prominence in the 1960s. It also paints Humbert as a stodgy relic of a sexually repressed Victorian/Old-World sensibility, a social misconception that works to his favor in hiding behind an air of false respectability. Charlotte will sometimes delightedly coo to him, “Oh, Hum, you’re so delightfully Old World!” and try to get him to break out of his shell, unaware of his complete lack of attraction and faint repulsion to her. 

Although Lolita has been described as a story of young, innocent America being corrupted by the Old World that Humbert is said to represent, Nabokov vehemently denies that that was his intention in writing the novel. Referencing the charge that Lolita is anti-American, Nabokov says, “This is something that pains me considerably more than the idiotic accusation of immorality. Considerations of depth and perspective (a suburban lawn, a mountain meadow) led me to build a number of North American sets. I needed a certain exhilarating milieu” (315). Kubrick’s film does not fall into this anti-American trap, and does not even acknowledge the aspects of the novel that critique Hollywood culture and its early oversexualization of young girls. In the novel, there are references to Humbert resembling a movie actor on which Lo has a crush; once he realizes this he exploits it to his advantage. He says to himself, as narrator, “All at once I knew I could kiss her throat or the wick of her mouth with perfect impunity. I knew that she would let me do so, and even close her eyes as Hollywood teaches” (Nabokov, 48). In Kubrick’s film adaptation, Lolita carries herself like a movie-star and revels in Humbert’s attention, at times aping the flirtatious technique of a Hollywood temptress. Charlotte, played by Shelley Winters, at one point rants about her daughter, “Now she sees herself as some sort of starlet! Well I see her as a sturdy, healthy, but decidedly homely child!” On the cue of “decidedly homely child,” Humbert cracks a walnut he is holding in his hands in exaggerated shock – another attempt at comedy.

In addition to critiquing popular Hollywood culture, the novel hints at cinematic ideas that might’ve been in Nabokov’s later “unfilmable” screenplay. Looking at a wanted poster, Humbert muses, “Sullen Sullivan came with a caution: Is believed armed, and should be considered extremely dangerous. If you want to make a movie out of my book, have one of those faces gently melt into my own, while I look” (222). Nabokov had an awareness of the problematic implications of translating his novel to film, but its dependence on linguistic style makes the task very difficult. Perhaps he was predicting the cultural impact, the stir his story would create, and wanted to influence some of the early incarnations of Lolita. Although his screenplay was rejected, he was still asked to provide input on some production decisions in Kubrick’s film (as a gesture of courtesy more than anything, as none of them were heeded.) As Graham Vickers tells it, “We may charitably assume that Nabokov’s otherwise absurd suggestion that a ‘dwarfess’ be hired to play Lolita was simply a comment designed to avert any charge of being implicated in the corrupting of a living, breathing child. He had no need to worry: others would take care of the corrupting. They had been doing it in Hollywood for years” (53). 

There are many, many rich themes in Nabokov’s Lolita aside from pedophilia: obsessive love, loss of childhood, the rose-tinted glasses of memory, high culture meeting low culture, sociopathy, the voluptuous beauty of descriptive language (“Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.” [Nabokov, 9]): these are all mined to great effect by Adrian Lyne in his reimagining of the film. And yet the narrative framing of Kubrick’s film has endured in population culture, with the heart-shaped glasses from the promotional poster becoming cultural shorthand for a sexual young girl. In a recent music video, pop artist Leah LaBelle tries to twist this imagery in a female-empowerment way, by surrounding herself with fawning, shirtless men in heart-shaped glasses (to unclear effect), while singing lines like, “Baby I was born to make you do something you’ve never done / You’ll be forever young / I’m your Lolita / Uh oh oh oh” (Epic Records). She also culls the look of her blouse and skirt worn in the music video from Lyne’s 1997 Lolita – it’s a potpourri of cultural references. This endurance of the heart-shaped glasses symbol leads one to the age-old fetishization of schoolgirls, the Gothic Lolita fashion trend in Japan, and a Danish child pornography franchise that churned out films under the name “Lolita 1-36” from 1971-1979 (Vickers, 161). These perversions would exist regardless, but Lolita’s reputation in pop culture has given them a grim moniker. 

Eventually, the question emerges: why did they make a film of Lolita at all in the 1960s, under such restrictions by the M.P.P.A. and elsewhere? The most straightforward reason was capitalize on the hot-topic reputation of the book in America, a literary work falsely perceived as pornographic. According to Elizabeth Power, “Kubrick’s rejection of Nabokov’s screenplay and its rewrites also suggests his desire to distance his film from the novel and its potentially salacious content when he represented it on screen. His failure to adapt Lolita on film seems to be just that, his failure. As Kubrick conceded in a 1972 interview, ‘if it had been written by a lesser author, it might have been a better film’” (2). The story is certainly filmable, as Lyne later proves, but his faithful adaptation is emotionally shattering in a way that Kubrick does not even approach. Yet even though his attempt at adaptation can be pronounced a failure, the methods in which Kubrick chose to evade restrictions put upon his film – while injecting additional elements winking innuendo and humor – provide a picture of the ways in which a 1962 American audience could deal with sexual neurosis and allow a pedophile onto their screens, in the suave disguise of “a great big handsome hunk of movieland manhood” (Nabokov, 39). 



Works Cited

“How Do You Solve a Problem Like Lolita?” Biography. BBC. 13 Dec 2009. Television.

Landenson, Elisabeth. Dirt for Art’s Sake: Books on Trial from ‘Madame Bovary’ to ‘Lolita’.
Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 2007. Print.

Leah LaBelle. “Lolita.” Lolita – Single. Epic Records, 2013. Music Video.
Dir. Diane Martel. YouTube. 8 May 2013.

Lewis, Jon. Hollywood v. Hard Core. New York, New York: New York University Press, 2000.
            Print.

Lolita (1962). Dir. Stanley Kubrick. Perf. James Mason, Shelley Winters, Sue Lyon.
Turner Home Entertainment, 1999. DVD.

Lolita (1997). Dir. Adrian Lyne. Perf. Jeremy Irons, Melanie Griffith, Dominique Swain.
Lions Gate, 1999. DVD.

Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Screen: 16.3, Autumn 1975. London:
Society for Education in Film and Television. Print.

Nabokov, Vladimir. Lolita. 2nd edition. New York, New York: Vintage International, 1997. Print.

Power, Elizabeth. “The Cinematic Art of Nympholepsy: Movie Star Culture as Loser Culture in
Nabokov’s Lolita.” Criticism: Winter 1999, Vol. 41, No.1. Detroit, Michigan: Wayne
State University Press, 1999. Print.

Vickers, Graham. Chasing Lolita: How Popular Culture Corrupted Nabokov’s Little Girl All
Over Again. Chicago, Illinois: Chicago Review Press, 2008. Print. 

Nov 11, 2013

I blew Richard Speck!


Hokey opener of all hokey openers: Harris Glenn Milstead, a chubby boy from Baltimore, just wanted to be a star. The more tonally accurate opener -- a line that Dawn Davenport screams into the audience of her stage show in Female Trouble (1974) -- I have used as the title of this article.

At the Logan Theater in downtown Chicago last night I stood in line with a crowd of middle-aged men in leather jackets and sparkling earrings, waiting to get into the new Jeffrey Schwarz documentary I Am Divine. This is Divine's first legitimate biographical treatment, and I had been excited for months to be able to go see it during its premiere run in Chicago. It was a tiny theater with classic movie posters lining the walls (some for kitschy horror films, which made me glow inside.) Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall smoldered from the doors of the men's and women's bathrooms. The popcorn maker was frothing over and people were bitching about having their bags checked with a handheld flashlight.


Reeling 31 is the second-oldest LGBTQ film festival in the country, and I felt proud to sink into its faux-satin seats and listen to this voluminous beauty bellow from the big screen. I swear, the prevalence of middle-aged men in the audience is not a prejudiced generalization -- looking back from my seat, I saw that they really did make up about 2/3 of the people there. The wonderful thing about this is that they had histories with Divine; they knew the counterculture midnight movie scene he and John Waters were coming from. Before the film started, the emcee asked who had "experienced The Divine" in person and hands shot up around the theater.

The film itself wasn't geared toward any specific audience, but definitely had a lot of choice nuggets for fans (of which I'm one, though with not nearly as much credibility as these older guys sitting next to me.) It was a heart-warming, soft-eyed look at Divine's life -- a life full of chaos, addiction, and debauchery but also a lot of pure human silliness and emotional trials. The anecdote that provoked one of the loudest laughs in the theater was about high-school Glenn doing his prom date's makeup. Not long after that, he went to a costume party dressed as Elizabeth Taylor. His date agreed that he outshone every girl at the party.


He did indeed want to be a star, to escape Baltimore and express himself in performance after a lifetime of being bullied and stifled in shame about his weight. After John Waters helped form his image and launch his film career, Divine took off (alienating his uncomprehending parents.) Much of his life was lived in self-destructive free-fall; he was like a camp Chris Farley in some ways, a fat performer who careened completely over the top and would do anything for a laugh. Case in point, his tiresome but still incredible claim to fame, is eating fresh dog shit on film in Pink Flamingos (1972). Wonderfully, even among the fans in this audience who knew exactly what was coming, that scene still provoked groaning, shifting in seats, intakes of breath... John Waters used to say that someone vomiting at one of his movies was like a standing ovation, and his work has clearly not lost its power to shock.

Part of the feel-good aspect of the movie is achieved by all the campy touches. There's a lot of pink glitter, basically. The closing image is an animation of Divine, wrapped in a white toga-style dress, winking out of sight as a harp-wielding angel in an exaggeratedly idyllic blue-sky stratosphere. So much of his performances are tinged with burlesque, grotesque, excess... but it would be impossible to tell his life story without comedy and flights of fancy.

It's undeniable that Divine was incredibly sexy, though I can't put my finger on how or why. Maybe it's a combination of the mellifluous, sensual, powerful, husky voice (with a great Baltimore accent -- "Connie Marble, you stand convicted of AAYS-hole-ism"), expressive blue eyes, and wild lack of inhibition with his huge body. He is such a bewitching performer to watch, you literally can't take your eyes off him and have no idea what he will do next. But reality intervened on the glorious spectacle -- Divine died young, from health problems that he was just starting to get a handle on (shortly after the filming of Hairspray in 1988). This was not before he reconnected with his parents, however. His sweet mother's interview segments were among the most touching moments in I Am Divine.


What is empowering about Divine the performer, the person? Why did I feel so much more vital and brave walking down the bleary neon-striped street after the show was over? I love a good freakshow just as much as the next person, but moreover, I identify with them. John Waters' Dreamland makeshift film studio of the 1970's was all about that: freak culture, bad taste, filth, deviant sexuality, hedonism, seedy glamour, TRASH. And Divine was undeniably the brightest star to come out of that grubby little enclave first formed in Baltimore.

There is something so beautiful and touching about Divine's life story, and my envious little heart goes out to anyone who can strut out into an unforgiving world with such raunchy style and splash. Watching it from a movie audience last night was pure vicarious, anarchic joy.


Aug 22, 2013

Elvis is Alive 5K


Apologies for the shitty picture quality, all I have to work with is my very old cell phone... but trust me, this is an image of an Elvis impersonator (between the starting line and the hanging American flag) counting off the start of a 5K race along Diversey Harbor with: "A one for the money, two for the show, three to get ready and GO CAT GO!" He also sang the national anthem from that perch next to the starting line, prompted by one of the announcers saying how we should take a moment to reflect on how lucky we are to live in the greatest country in the world and be free to congregate and do this without fear (? no comment.) Those who came dressed as Elvis were relegated to run at the front of the pack, with bedazzled white jumpsuits, capes, and wigs flapping in the breeze. As the runners passed by the costumes steadily declined in sparkle and production level... jumpsuits turned into spandex, into masks, into Elvis shirts, into inflatable guitars bouncing in-hand.

So many of the runners did not come dressed as Elvis but as runners that I was dismayed at first when I arrived on the scene. The 20 minutes before the race were spent waiting around sheepishly on the fringes drinking free promotional coffee, thinking that they were going to sniff me out as an out-of-shape media addict rather than a sports lover. Thank God for the brave, freely-perspiring few who wore the jumpsuit (no one came as slim and devastating '50s-era Elvis, employing instead the look of corny casino-performing, huffing-and-puffing comeback Elvis.) I even saw someone I knew, surprisingly, not recognizing her at first because of the stick-on sideburns. After the race, the celebratory atmosphere was wonderful to bask in -- with peanut butter and banana sandwiches (not fried,though) and lots of beer.

The leader of the Elvii was Joe "Elvis" Tirrito and his backing band, The Mimix. He was tanned and chiseled, a teetering blend of suave and smarmy, and stayed in character even while holding one end of the finish line tape. A nice authenticity touch was having a woman onstage just to hand him water bottles, towels, scarves, and to drape his guitar over his shoulders. I kept waiting for them to play "Heartbreak Hotel" and they never did... but I stayed and danced anyway. It was interesting to see everyone feeling so nostalgic and warm about Elvis, the idea of him. Maybe it's a kind of brand recognition. I watched women young and old go up to the stage to touch the King's rings, get scarves put around their necks, or just smile and sway at him. I'm sure that they weren't just irresistibly drawn to this Tirrito guy sexually -- there's a cultural convention that women are supposed to act this way around an Elvis figure.

Here is Joe "Elvis" Tirrito's website: http://www.joeelvis.com/. Looks like he's going to be in Illinois for a while, he's opening a Bank of America event here in mid-October.

Aug 12, 2013

My Chemical Romance: A Personal History


“This band will save your life.” – Gerard Way

From the beginning, they invited all the freaks in. Give us your hungry, your weak, your lonely, your goth-draped dweebs, your loners and misfits, your marginalized, your depressed, your suicidal, your Dungeons and Dragons dorks, your obnoxious theatre kids, your school shooters, your P.E. non-participants, your ugly, your obese, your neurotic and fucked-up… we will take them in. We will dry their tears, clothe them in black, and arm them with words.

“If you look in the mirror and don’t like what you see
You can find out firsthand what it’s like to be me
So gather ‘round, piggies, and kiss this goodbye
I’ll encourage your smiles, I’ll expect you won’t cry!"
   – “The End.”, The Black Parade, 2006

I loved My Chemical Romance (in descending order: My Chem, MCR) when they were dorks. I loved Gerard Way when he was pudgy, pale, and smeared with makeup. I was precisely their target audience: a female teenage emotional wreck who grew up inundated with musical theatre and wrote dark poetry. Although conceived in grayest New Jersey from the bedroom-stewed minds of comic book addicts, the music of My Chemical Romance galvanized me into the wild and made me feel feral. Their words hit me as I was sheltered in another reclusive bedroom worlds away, down the backroads of rural Vermont. Sitting in the corner of my room on a gritty carpet, pouring my gaze into my laptop screen, for two years of my teenage life I completely surrendered to my idolization of these kindred spirits whom I understood very little about.

The most extreme themes possible are intensely exciting to a teenager – things like death, love, longing, revenge, evil, suicide. These represent a foray into the unknown, the romantic, the occult, the fear-wracked moment you first get up the courage to swear in front of your friends. My Chemical Romance’s lyrics are composed almost solely of these motifs just as their fanbase is composed almost solely of teenagers. The world they create for their fans is full of imagery culled from horror movies, comic books, and other fantasy-loving artists such as Iron Maiden and The Misfits. I firmly believe that fantasy is essential to surviving your teenage years – especially if you’re depressed or sensitive or creative or restless or ugly or ungainly or shy. Throughout 7th and 8th grade I created my own one-woman cult around this band, purposely defining everything about myself through them and evangelizing to my classmates on their behalf. I really did adhere to my fandom with the solemnity of a religious order, even doing daily rites (usually involving writing on myself with Sharpie markers and other poor makeup choices.) I spent nearly all my free time immersed in their online videos, photos, interviews, forums and fan sites. It was either that or making photo collages, elaborate drawings, and writing poetry in their honor. In my school notebook I created an illuminated manuscript for the lyrics of all of their songs, written out from memory and in chronological order (I think that one was prompted by a challenge from a friend.) Occasionally I would just listen to the music.


Naturally, it scared my parents. My dad came into my room one day and told me that I was “better than this” – which of course only led me to adhere more closely to my fandom. Like any religious zealot, I couldn’t be swayed by an outsider’s opinion. I can remember my mother reading the lyric booklet to I Brought You My Bullets, You Brought Me Your Love (2002) while sitting next to me on the bed with an undisguised expression of horror on her face. Once when my brother found blood on the toilet seat from my period, he worriedly asked my mom if she knew that I was cutting myself. I’d say that the question I was asked the most in middle school was whether I was emo or goth. I always said no, and that I didn’t cut my wrists either – an obnoxious stereotype about the sensitive, miserable types who listen to My Chemical Romance.


But I found a group of friends who didn’t think I was intolerably weird and even shared my obsession to some extent. One of the biggest highlights of my teenage obsession was when I went to the first concert of their Black Parade tour in Manchester, New Hampshire in 8th grade with my two friends Allison and Kitty. Allison laughed at me afterwards for the eye-popping epileptic fit I had at the beginning of the concert, when I saw Gerard wheeled onstage on a gurney. When he sang, when I thought he looked at me (!!!), my heart literally exploded. I must’ve looked hilarious, holding my arms out towards the stage, jumping up and down and screaming for two straight hours. That night I hit the hotel bed and fell asleep in my Converse sneakers feeling totally alive. Feeling part of something – part of the MCRmy (their word, not mine.)


When the band decided to ditch the dark poetry and go in a more frenetic pop/glam direction with Danger Days: The True Lives of the Fabulous Killjoys (2010), I felt so betrayed. I was in college at that point, but it was still horrifying. I saw videos of Gerard Way thin, clean and sober, sitting on a stool trying to riff like a lounge singer to their old song “Helena.” It hurt for a while, but I eventually realized that Gerard himself didn’t deserve my fangirlish fury. It was the same way I’d felt betrayed when he got married. It hurt that he was happy and I was not – he had left me behind. But he was never real to me. I didn’t know him, even though I felt like I did. Instead, I was in love with his artistic persona – the fantasy-self that he had created for public consumption. I mean, emoting is sexy! How could any of the pimply pre-pubescent boys around me have compared to a man who radiated dangerous and darkly romantic ideas, looked like my idea of a vampire, screamed and sobbed and sang his heart out without shame or restraint right into my crackling earbud headphones? I could summon him up with the click of a button on my iPod and get an immediate emotional release. Discovering that he and the rest of the members of the band are real people has been a bit of a process and a shock.

I had always known that they were intensely imperfect. Gerard Way’s voice is high, careening, desperate-sounding, and very unusual. His lyrics are more nuanced than those of the average alternative/pop-punk/emo/screamo rock band, leading to Gerard’s being known among English fans as “The Extremo Morrissey”. And one of the most emblematic quotes from Gerard to his fans is, “It’s okay to be fucked up, because there are five dudes who are just as fucked up as you.” As I’ve said, they welcomed the freaks in – I think that My Chemical Romance were conscious that they could easily be used as a coping mechanism for misery and thought that was a great purpose to have as a band. The first line to the first song that the band ever wrote is, “You’re not in this alone” (“Skylines and Turnstiles”, Bullets…, 2002). In addition, Gerard openly talked about how he started the band as therapy for himself. In his early twenties he realized that he was unhappy with his life, still depressed and suicidal, and needed a release. The band name came from his bouts with antidepressant medication, drugs and alcohol – so the name My Chemical Romance is really about being fucked-up. This never hit me while I was a teenage fan, largely because I knew almost nothing about drugs. What I did realize was that they touted the symbols of depression, despair, anger, and alienation; and that all the screaming and chainsaw guitars had a cathartic effect. Listening to their music supplemented therapy for me as well, at least for a while.


The unfortunate side to fantasy is that it allows you to not deal with your daily reality and ignore festering problems in your life. For me it was being overweight, emotionally unstable and just extremely unhappy all around. I didn’t deal with it for so long that I had a breakdown at 19 and ended up sobbing in the New York Presbyterian Hospital’s Psychiatric E.R., waiting for my parents to come and take me back to Vermont. Escape into fantasy had turned into a physical escape from college, into New York City and a bad relationship with a 26-year-old, making my life cataclysmically out of control. I returned home defeated, suicidal, and medicated with Prozac. The first thing I did was order a copy of Life on the Murder Scene online; the CD/DVD package from MCR’s most gothic heyday that I had never had the money to buy when I was younger. I tried to dive back into their world and realized that I couldn’t do it. The illusion had been shattered. In the process of my real therapy that began soon after, I realized why this was a step in the right direction and began churning over the ideas that ultimately led to my writing this. 


My Chemical Romance is dead. I have known it since the travesty of Danger Days, but now I am 20 years old and they have officially disbanded. Conventional Weapons (2013), a series of EPs recorded between The Black Parade and Danger Days and released postmortem, has been a wonderful salve to my grief. I love to see the examples of Gerard’s new self-awareness: “I’m not dead/I only dress that way” (“Boy Division”, Number One, 2012). But I will miss his scream. As much as we both need to be stable and face reality at last, there is a part of me that wants to live out my own fantasy-life, play out my self-destruction the way that Gerard Way did in My Chemical Romance. Get in a van and go. Rant and rave and sleep in my own filth. Become feral. Reject responsibility, adulthood, the world at large. Live for emotional release, pitch and moment, a high, a whiff of fire in the air. To run myself ragged and out to the edge of collapse in a whirlwind chemical romance with drugs, booze, and rock ‘n’ roll only to regain consciousness and realize that I want to die. When I trace the scenario out to its logical, fatal conclusion I know that I will never do it – but that doesn’t stop it from being enticing, thrilling, and beautiful. 

Jul 7, 2013

Notes on 4th of July at Navy Pier


 - On the El there are guys in sunglasses and girls in billowy, optimistic, white Gatsby-style summer clothes -- all looking like the young, rich, and wannabe-famous. It's a heartening sight, though. Sticky, humid, hot, lively... little flags stuck on windowsills. Everyone's headed downtown.

 - 7.30 pm. It's a crush of bodies, and you truly do feel like cattle shuffling towards the McDonald's trough. I wanted to interview the boy behind the counter who looked on the verge of breakdown. The noise inside the foot court was enormous, a physical weight.

 - Wind-blown hair, face-painters, brown skin bound in red white and blue. People leaning over the railing, in the thick salty air of Lake Michigan. In the midst of it all, you feel overwhelmed with voices, sweat glands, footfalls, and gestures emanating from all sides. The crowd turns into an ever-morphing maze. We plunge through the gaps between people (there and gone in an instant), pushing on to get to the end of the pier. And all this for some sparkles.

 - Seagulls are swarming and circling overhead, pining for the deep-fried carrion scattered below.

 - Police officers everywhere, drinking Gatorade and strolling in pairs. They stop some black teenagers and root around in their backpacks for no discernible reason. My brother and I watch and are sad for a moment.

 - Now with McDonald's coffee thrumming in my veins, I walk to the end of the pier and pace beneath a line of fluttering American flags. The sky is flushed peach-pink and Chicago's skyline is gleaming orange in the sun. Clouds are red and pulpy over a patch of setting sun. There is a white van positioned at the edge of the crowd for WGN 9 News, "Chicago's Finest."

 - 9.15 pm. We're all watching the sky, waiting for a sign. Waiting for the flying saucers. Come, angelic bombs! A flattened popcorn box makes a cushion on the concrete for the woman sitting next to me. Across the water are the brief match-flares of faraway fireworks.

 - Fireworks bursting at last -- cheers, hoots, whistles, relief. There are blooming marigolds and halos... gunpowder gray smoke hanging in the hazy sky. Artificial stars, supernovas, mushroom clouds. Drooling golden chandeliers. Glitzed-out thunderclaps. The Ferris wheel is lit up & beautiful and there are electric garlands draped over McDonald's golden arches.



MORAL OF THE STORY:
slow down
eat a sugar
lookit the sparkles
all is well

Jun 18, 2013

Painted Skeletons & Amputation Saws

I entered the room and gasped -- it was Death draped in red.





















A skeleton posed elegantly on a chair, in an attitude suggesting a woman lost in a private thought at a cocktail party, her feet lapped in red velvet pooled at the base of the display. It was shockingly beautiful. The bones were threaded with blue veins and covered in vermilion arterial vessels, so delicately wisped that it looked like a red feather skirt puffed out around the skeleton's hips. I couldn't stop thinking of it as a woman. The bones were yellow like dead skin, gristly and crackling at the fingertips and toes. Teeth look gawky and protruding without a sheet of skin to cover them, but hers are still pearly-white and perfectly straight.

The International Museum of Surgical Science is possibly Chicago's strangest museum (possibly -- I'm still willing to test this.) Alongside the gleaming affluent sprawl of Lake Shore Drive is a statue of a stoic-faced man holding a quailing sick man up by his arms; behind that are four stories of artifacts and information about surgery. I started getting excited and taking notes once I passed a placard about congenital analgesia -- a rare genetic disorder that makes you unable to feel pain. Most sufferers are dead by age 25 because of little things like burns or joint pain (they never feel uncomfortable, your body's signal to shift position.) I am not a scientific-minded person at all, so I went through this as an art and history museum.

You are greeted by a glistening gurney on the first floor. Then, a little further up, is a sign on the door to an exhibit:

VISITORS PLEASE NOTE: You are about the enter the prenatal gallery...

Which of course sounded promising. The room was dimly lit with a subterranean glow, each exhibit in its own floodlight. There was a long table of fetuses in various stages of development contained in glass vials, their minuscule little bones tinted red. They seemed to glow with blood. The whole exhibit was haunting, but these especially. So delicate and small... like human tadpoles. In a glass case in the corner of the room was a 7-week-old fetus lying on its side, attached to a placenta. Its skin was like a wrinkled white peach, with a thin dusting of brown hair on its head and eyebrows inclined heartbreakingly upwards. There was also a fetal victim of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, next to a conjoined-twin fetus that looked like something you'd see unveiled with a flourish at a carnival freak show.


The museum was not solely populated with dead bodies, though. There was a whole cabinet of artificial legs and arms, a gynecological instrument from ancient Rome -- vagina specula -- and a plaster copy of Napoleon's death mask. I was struck by how flat-out attractive Napoleon was in death; with his paunch gone, cheeks narrowed down with the smooth bones accentuated, narrow lips, and aquiline nose, he was really beautiful. Walking through this museum produced a strange combination of feelings in me: I felt at once reverent, repulsed, and sensuously preoccupied with the structure of the human body. In the same room as Death draped in red (pictured above,) I saw the arteries of an infant's legs hanging suspended in a glass case and could not stop shivering until I turned away.

Entire passages and floors of the museum were relatively untainted with the odor of death, but naturally those don't stick as much in my mind -- exhibits about eyeglasses, hearing trumpets, X-rays, polio, painkillers (very interesting for tracing the history of intoxication, addiction, and big-business drugs in America)... One thing I realized: nurses are, aesthetically, very much like angels. That has to be on purpose. There was a bust of Florence Nightingale on one of the staircases, in white of course, and she had her eyes rapturously-yet-demurely upturned like the Virgin Mary. There is an atmosphere of care as opposed to violence in this museum, even though the history of the profession is bloody and gruesome by necessity.

Without the cushioning distraction of a gift shop to speak of I walked back out into the sunshine three hours later, my breath shallow and caught in my throat, feeling almost unbearably attuned to life.

Apr 25, 2013

Unremitting Disgust

This is a paper that I wrote as a final project for a class called The Power of Food in Literature, Culture, and Film (just ending -- I present this paper next week.) The full title is:

"Unremitting Disgust: The Culinary Experience of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre."

It's not exactly journalism, but I'm pretty proud of it as a media analysis and so thought I'd post it here. Enjoy. Bring a bucket.


Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) is considered by many to be the first “slasher” or “splatter” film in the genre of horror. This distinction, while thoroughly deserved, is striking because there is almost no blood used for the film’s special effects. The unique atmosphere of unremitting disgust, terror, disorientation and chaos is created through the tactical use of organic decay – the butchery of farm animals, rotting meat and flesh, strewn chicken feathers and bones. The film’s power also comes from how the story plays off of deep-seated fears and taboos that are held about cannibalism in American society, blurring the line of distinction between human and animal meat. This comes to a head in the notorious “dinner scene” where Sally (the only victim to escape) is both the guest and the main course. The forced intimacy of this dinner invitation is heightened by the fact that Sally is completely under the control of her captors – she is tied to her chair, screaming, but is still given a plate of food and spoken to with a grisly-absurd kind of Southern hospitality. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre remains one of the most effective and artfully done horror films today, yet it cannot be described as gory. The images of rotting flesh, human butchery, animal detritus and decay throughout the film strike a very deep chord of disgust and fear in the viewer.

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is only one in a chain of films inspired by the true-crime story of Ed Gein – others include such touchstone works as Psycho and The Silence of the Lambs – which continues to fascinate today. Gein was a reclusive farmer in rural 1950’s Wisconsin who robbed graves and killed women to obtain body parts that he used to make crafts and costumes (face-masks, leggings, even a vest made of real breasts – a very primitive form of transvestism.) There were rumors of evidence of cannibalism found at Gein’s house, which were later revealed to be unfounded.

“It wasn’t long before the facts surrounding Bernice Worden’s murder – horrific enough to begin with – underwent some significant alterations. Mrs. Worden’s heart, for example, which had actually been discovered in a plastic bag near Eddie’s stove, was suddenly reported to have been found in a frying pan on one of the burners. The old suit of clothes in which her entrails had been hidden became a refrigerator packed with vital organs, all of them neatly wrapped in butcher’s paper. Stories began to circulate that the widow’s body had been dismembered and her legs hung up to cure in Gein’s summer kitchen. Eddie’s cellar was rumored to be stocked with quart jars full of human blood” (Schechter 93).

Ed Gein’s acts were so shocking and debased because the ways he used human bodies bespoke no understanding of their humanity, so cannibalism would not be a far leap – in a certain way, it would make more sense than his taxidermy-esque efforts. Nevertheless, the story of Ed Gein’s cannibalism persists. This hearsay about the horrific goings-on at the Gein farmhouse sparked the imagination of Tobe Hooper to create The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, with cannibalism combined with grave-robbing and some more bizarre fetishes besides. A particular rumor that seemed to scare the inhabitants of Gein’s small Wisconsin town the most was that of collective, unwitting cannibalism. As Schechter goes on to say, “The stories of Ed Gein’s cannibalism generated even ghastlier rumors – that the little man had handed out packages of human flesh to his neighbors, passing the meat off as venison – and local clinics suddenly found themselves trying to cope with an epidemic of gastrointestinal complaints” (119). This concept is explored in detail in Hooper’s film.


The group of five teenagers who become the victims of the wild, inbred Texas family first encounter the father as a seemingly-affable proprietor of a local gas station. They stop for gas and barbecue  which is revealed later in the film to be made of human meat. By this action an interesting spiral is created, where capitalistic consumers become complicit (however unwittingly) in the taboo consumption of human flesh, later to become consumed themselves (Merritt 202). All three generations of the family of killers are ex-abattoir workers who have continued using their skills to butcher ensnared humans and sell them as barbecued meat. They also make knick-knacks and furniture out of their bodies, a practice directly inspired by Gein. Leatherface, the burly older brother who kills his victims as swiftly and efficiently as if they truly were cattle, wears a mask made of flayed human skin.

An invitation to dinner is first extended to the band of teenagers when, after leaving the gas station, they pick up a hitchhiker who happens to be the youngest member of the Family. It becomes immediately clear that The Hitchhiker is very bizarre, twitchy and somehow revolting. Franklin, a member of the group, starts asking him about the old slaughterhouse where his grandfather used to sell his cattle and finds that the Hitchhiker’s family had been laid off from their jobs there, as a result of new technology. Merritt describes how, “While the Hitchhiker explains in an ironically coded way: ‘My family’s always been in meat’ (a description that gathers multiple meanings as the film progresses), Franklin is unwittingly close to the truth when he mutters a disgusted response: ‘A whole family of Draculas’’’ (213). This scene inside the van is cut between shots of the lines of cows confined in the slaughterhouse, foaming and dripping at the mouth from the strong Texas heat. The Hitchhiker gets very excited talking about how the cattle used to be killed by sledgehammer, and how his brother could make a great head-cheese from the remains. He invites the teenagers over to their house to try some, but they decline saying that, “We’re kind of in a hurry,” because by now everyone in the van is feeling a little uneasy and sickened by the whole conversation. They throw the Hitchhiker out after he cuts himself across the hand, smiling with glee, and drive away as he smears his blood across the door. 

The members of the group stumble one by one into the house of these killers, situated very close to where they are staying, and one by one are slaughtered by Leatherface (wearing a white butcher’s apron). They are clubbed over the head, hung on meat hooks, dismembered with a chainsaw, and stuffed into freezers. Sally, the last member to be caught, manages to almost escape after she witnesses Franklin being sawed to pieces. But when she runs back to the gas station in town, frantic and terrified, she is beaten and hauled back to the house by the father (whom the family refers to as The Cook.) There is a very striking, brief but quiet scene where Sally is sitting in the gas station believing she is safe – she is shaking and half-crying, gazing around the store, and spots a rack of grilling sausages bathed in hot red light. The camera lingers on the meat for a few seconds, seeming to imply something that Sally has begun to realize. The moment is quickly shattered by the father attacking Sally with a broom, but still serves to enhance the slaughterhouse atmosphere of the whole film. 



When the Hitchhiker sees that his father has brought Sally home, he recognizes her from earlier in the van and shouts laughingly, “I thought you was in a hurry!” She has now been forced to accept his dinner invitation, as she learns the true nature of this family’s business. The dinner scene soon follows, which Merritt offers some pertinent observations on: “Transgressive themes that destabilize the distinctions between human/animal, consumer/consumed, build to a sadistic climax during the ‘dinner party’ scene, where Sally is both guest of honor and ‘main course.’ In this parody of a domestic scene, perverted small-town hospitality, demented family values, unrepentant sadism, childish bullying, and cannibalism are absurdly combined” (224). Heightening the sense of domestic parody, Leatherface has now slathered makeup on his mask of human skin and put on a nice blue dress. Cook coos to Sally, while giggling at her terror, “Now young lady, you just take it easy there now. We’ll fix you some supper in a few minutes” (Hooper). Sally is given the odd courtesy of a plate of food (two sausages and some mashed potato), napkin, fork, and glass of water – although she cannot move to reach them because her hands are tied to the arms of the chair. When the Hitchhiker wheels his decrepit and near-dead Grandpa into the room, he pricks Sally’s finger and gives it to the old man to suckle. He does so, turning Sally into another kind of consumable and horrifying her so much that she faints momentarily.




When she regains consciousness and dinnertime resumes, the discussion turns to killing and who should have the pleasure of slaughtering Sally. Her screams and pleas do nothing to dissuade the members of the family, who laugh and mock her continuously from across the table while the father attempts to comfort her. He says, “‘Now just you hush. It won’t hurt none. Ol’ Grandpa’s the best killer there ever was. Why he never took more than one lick they say’” (Merritt 227). Over thirty hours were spent filming this dinner scene, and the cast describes how the combination of unbearable 100° F heat and rotting food on the table contributed to the very real hysteria and revulsion of the scene (Shellady). The headcheese had to be changed out every half hour because it kept rotting so quickly. The sausages on the table were injected with formaldehyde at intervals to prevent them from exploding in the heat. There were black curtains over the window, so they could film during the day, so the heat was even more intense – there was a chicken head nailed to a board in the middle of the table that got very grisly and rotting as time went on. People involved in working on the film describe how there were actually buckets placed around the edge of the set for people to vomit into if they needed to. In this kind of atmosphere, with this kind of decay and stench surrounding them, the actors were able to slip completely into their sadistic characters and give a truly insane performance. 


The filth and detritus of dead animals and humans that litters the killer family’s house (one kind of detritus sometimes indistinguishable from another) overwhelms the viewer with a sense of disgust and claustrophobia. This sensation plays off of the fear centers of the mind, while bringing up a very primal, ancient taboo about cannibalism and humans being hunted for meat. One major lesson to take from The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is to never underestimate the sensory power of organic decay, combined with horrifying and taboo implications, to provoke a greater response in a horror film than would be obtained through using buckets of blood. The film also drives home the intimacy and vulnerability suggested by a dinner invitation, especially one received from a stranger. The family wants the five teenagers for devious purposes, and eventually gets them – they ensnare Sally and tie her to her chair, relishing her forced compliance with their invitation and taking their time with the ultimate purpose of slaughtering her on the dining-room floor. She does escape in the end, but just barely – and there is no doubt by the end of the film that this “whole family of Draculas” will be able to carry on with all of their family traditions. 


Bibliography / Filmography

Hooper, Tobe, dir. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Bryanston Pictures, 1974. Film. 

Merritt, Naomi. “Cannibalistic Capitalism and other American Delicacies: A Bataillean Taste of
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.” Film-Philosophy 14.1 (2010). Web. 

Schechter, Harold. Deviant: The Shocking True Story of Ed Gein, the Original "Psycho." New
York, New York: Simon & Schuster Inc., 1998. Print. 

Shellady, Brad, dir. Texas Chain Saw Massacre: A Family Portrait. 1988. Film. 

Apr 24, 2013

My Night as a Street Preacher


Yesterday evening on a street corner in Lebanon, NH, I handed out 19 free copies of Good Omens to passers-by and kept one for myself. The last one was plonked at 10 pm in the bed of a parked pickup truck, while the cold whistled through my invigorated veins and I pondered how I was going to get home. I was purposeful, actualized, filled with holy fire, a book evangelist for World Book Night 2013.

It was a cause that needed all the help it could get -- this is only the second year that World Book Night has been happening in the U.S.. The venture began in England, spread to Ireland, and now has leeched across the Atlantic to us. Last year at a perfectly ordinary ice-cream stand on April 23rd, a blonde woman in a polo shirt asked me if I wanted a free copy of The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao and I didn't even wait for her to finish her sentence before grabbing it. What a revelation, to find that I was not alone in loving books so much as to actually physically foist them on strangers. The idea enchanted me... which is how I ended up standing on gray sidewalks for two hours sidling up to people and trying not to look like the fanatic that I was.

As expected, I got a lot of bemused and wary responses from people. There were a few simple "yes"es, smilingly folding the book into their side as they walked along, which was good enough for me. There was a sweet old man with a yellow pointed mustache and yellow, bashed-in fingernails who was wonderfully receptive and said that he would walk around trying to spread the word. I hung out with a legless truck driver with blue eyes and three chins for about half an hour. We talked off and on while he pivoted around me in his wheelchair, sometimes angling it outwards to talk to people walking by. He didn't want a book, even though I kept trying to offer him one, saying how full his brain already was from the crossword puzzles he has on his computer at home -- 14,000 and he's on number 1,741.

One man took one look at the book I was holding out to him...


... and said that he was a follower of Jesus Christ and probably wouldn't find it so funny.
I recounted this to another guy who came out of Salt hill Pub for a smoke and rolled up his free copy to stick in his jacket pocket. He waved his hand saying, "Just take it. It's a book. No harm ever came from a book. ..Well," he started to correct himself, but took another drag as I peered down the street to watch for more people to accost. 

It's surprisingly hard to get people to take a free book. My tagline for Good Omens was, "It's about the Apocalypse, but it's really funny" (which is basically lifted from a blurb on the front but is still the best way to sum up the book.) I really did start feeling like a religious zealot, an overly earnest missionary prodding at strangers on the street to recruit them to my cause. Being a World Book Night book-giver was a boundary-pushing experience, but so thrilling for me. I know that I feel passionate about sharing books with people and that seems like a good enough reason to run with the idea (into the street... waving my little flag...)