Julian Barnes The Noise of Time is Masterful

By Julian Barnes
Knopf, 197 pages
* * * *
A great writer makes you care about something about which you once cared not at all. Julian Barnes is a great writer. He won the Man Booker Prize for his 2011 novel The Sense of an Ending and I suspect The Noise of Time will win some accolades of its own. Its subject is the Soviet pianist/composer Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) and I can safely say that his music has never been on my personal playlist. Leaving aside the fact that my taste for symphonic music is minimal, what little of Shostakovich’s music I’ve heard strikes me as over-the-top in ways that only Soviet-era music purporting to honor the proletariat can be.  As we learned, first in the official denunciation of Stalin in 1956, again after glasnost in the 1980s, and with finality after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russian communism seldom cared about the masses as much as the personal power of tyrants, the security of apparatchiks, and privileges of Communist Party members.  Shostakovich’s greatest act was that he survived three denunciations; in part by composing music for whichever way the political winds chose to blow. The consensus opinion today is that he produced several symphonic wonders, but was largely a propagandist.

Barnes provides a fictional, but plausible explanation for how Shostakovich survived. His is not a tale of music, but of a life in a regime of unnamed and often unexplained terror. It reminded me a bit of Franz Kafka’s The Trial in that Barnes places Shostakovich inside a world ruled by whim and arbitrary might rather than logic of morality. It is ultimately one that slowly sucked the humanity out of Shostakovich. Here’s how Barnes describes it: “A soul can be destroyed in one of three ways: by what others did to you; by what others made you do to yourself; and by what you voluntarily chose to do to yourself, Any single method was sufficient; though if all three were present, the outcome was irresistible.” This beautifully written passage occurs near the end of the novel, but it’s summative of how Barnes structured the novel.

Bares has three sections—movements if you will—titled “On the Landing,” “On the Plane,” and “In the Car.” The novel follows the trajectory of the above quote. Barnes also refers to each as encounters with "Power," his personification of the vampiric terror inherent in the Soviet system. In the first section, set in 1936, the young Shostakovich sits in the hallway near his apartment, waiting for what he thinks is his inevitable arrest. After several experimental compositions that brought him renown, Stalin expressed his dislike for his “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk” and Pravda immediately denounced it as “muddle instead of music.” This was generally a ticket to Siberia or an anonymous date with the firing squad. Instead, Stalin and his minions decided to put fear to work in the service of propaganda. Shostakovich's “Fifth Symphony” was filled with the histrionic flourishes beloved by Stalin and the composer was resurrected at a hero.

Ahh, but at what of psychic and artistic costs? Barnes imagines Shostakovich’s inner turmoil. Move the clock ahead to 1948, when Shostakovich—over protests that he is unworthy, though Barnes imagines this as inner conflict—is on his way to New York as the Soviet representative to the Cultural and Scientific Congress for World Peace. There he will be largely shunned by peers and writers whose opinions he values: Copeland, Odets, Stravinsky…. As Shostakovich later thinks upon his life, Barnes puts these thoughts into his head: "…it was not easy being a coward. Being a hero was much easier…. To be a hero, you only had to be brave for a moment—when you took out the gun, threw the bomb, pressed the detonator, did away with the tyrant, and yourself as well. But to be a coward was to embark on a career that lasted a lifetime. You couldn't even relax." What wisdom—and what writing!

Shostakovich's third encounter with Power occurred in 1960, by which time he had been rehabilitated a second time. (His music had been declared "formalist.") We find him in a car about to assume another duty he does not want: chair of the Russian Federated Union of Composers, a post that makes the former judged the judge of a new generation of musicians and composers. In other words, he is now Khrushchev's puppet. Safe at last? Barnes writes, "All he knew was this was the worst time of all. The worst time was not the same as the most dangerous time. Because the most dangerous time was not the time the time you are in most danger…." A tautology, or deep insight?

Again, it's important to realize that The Noise of Time is fiction, not historical biography. We don't know how much of this Shostakovich actually thought, but the glory of this novel is that I immersed myself into the mind of a person about whom I hitherto cared not a wit. Moreover, Barnes made me do so by paying scant attention to the very reason anyone would care about Shostakovich: his music. There's no reason to mince words—Julian Barnes is a masterful writer who melds prose into psychological drama. His writing is economical, but the weight of his well-chosen words is profound.

Rob Weir


Richard Nixon versus Ulysses S. Grant: Pairing Presidents

Richard Nixon and Ulysses Grant
Pairing Presidents VII

And now for two presidents with terrible reputations that are probably a bit better than you think they were: Ulysses S. Grant and Richard Nixon.

How they were similar:

First, we associate scandal with each administration. In fact, it often surprises people to learn that Grant's eight years in office (1869-77) produced more investigations and indictments than Nixon's five and a half (1969-1974). (It also surprises people to learn that the most-indicted administration in US history is that of Ronald Reagan.)

You name it, and someone robbed it under Grant. The most infamous was a railroad/investment scheme called the Credit Mobilier, but there were major frauds involving the U.S. Post Office (the star route scandal), the Whiskey Ring, a dispute over Congressional salaries, graft in the Customs service, kickbacks at Western trading posts, nepotism and ineptitude in the U.S. Civil Service, crooked government contracts, and corruption in both the Interior Department and the Attorney General's Office. The Credit Mobilier was the most publicized scandal, but the Gold Ring was more serious—the failure of Grant financial overseers to reign in speculators, James Fiske, Jay Gould, and Jay Cooke precipitated the Panic of 1873, which led the U.S. into a deep recession that lasted into 1879. Depending upon which scholars you read, this was either the second or third worst depression in American history.

Nixon, of course, will be forever known for Watergate that led to his resignation. There is no sugar coating Watergate; it was a serious assault on the U.S. Constitution and would have certainly led to deserved impeachment and removal from office, had Nixon not resigned. It is not discussed nearly enough, but the break-in of Daniel Ellsberg's psychiatrist's office was a veritable dry-run for Watergate, complete with several of the same culpable individuals. Both were horribly bungled, with Ellsberg escaping all possible prosecution for his release of the Pentagon Papers—an exposé of government lies on Vietnam that didn't even involve the Nixon administration! A third scandal touching Nixon was the resignation of Vice President Spiro Agnew pursuant to dirty deeds done as governor of Maryland. Although it wasn't indictable, Nixon's infamous enemies' list–which included everyone from the New York Times staff to Barbara Streisand–exacerbated social tensions at a time in which they were already at fever pitch.

Neither man was a good steward of the economy. Grant oversaw, with little influence, the Panic of 1873. This event had a profound effect on American society in another way­: it caused an already weary Northern public to ignore Reconstruction, which hastened its demise on Southern terms. Conservatives don't like to hear this, but Nixon instituted wage and price controls in a futile effort to stem inflation related to the first OPEC oil boycott in 1973. Although many Americans blame Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter for 1970s stagflation, each inherited it from Nixon, who was president when the post-World War II economic expansion ended.

Both men wrestled with personal demons. Until recently, Grant was viewed as a clinical alcoholic. Doubt has been cast upon this diagnosis, but there is no doubt that Grant drank heavily. How much of this clouded his judgment is hard to say, but those wishing to argue that military officers make poor civilian leaders find ammunition with Grant. He trusted his appointees to carry out orders and was furious when scandals ensued. He wanted to serve a third term and—as he later told Mark Twain, who helped him write his memoirs–blamed subordinates for making a third term impossible. Grant might also be an example of the Peter Principle, a man promoted to his level of incompetence.

Many in the mental health field speculate that Nixon was clinically paranoid. The enemies' list suggests this, as did Nixon's penchant for speaking of himself in the third person, his hidden taping of White House conversations, his own heavy drinking, the rapidity with which Nixon flattered and then slandered those that disagreed with him, and the fact that he had few confidants and even fewer friends. Watergate could also be viewed in this light–it was completely unnecessary and only a deeply suspicious person could have thought the outcome of the 1972 election in doubt. Nixon was our angriest president and probably the loneliest.

Now for the controversial part: Personal failings aside, both men have surprisingly progressive achievements on their vitae. Grant soothed a political climate roiled by the impeachment and near-removal of Andrew Johnson. Unlike Johnson, Grant supported Reconstruction efforts and was not in favor of appeasing the South. He personally lobbied for the 15th Amendment, which declared black men citizens and defended their right to vote. He insisted that federal laws be enforced and nearly destroyed every remnant of the Ku Klux Klan and other such hate groups, until two Supreme Court rulings tied his hands (the Slaughter House cases and Cruickshank for those keeping score). Even then, he sent troops to Louisiana in the wake of the horrific 1873 Colfax Massacre. Grant was equally good on Indian affairs. He urged greater sensitivity on the part of whites and appointed Seneca Ely Parker as his Commissioner of Indian Affairs, the first native to head the agency. Grant ruffled feathers (pun intended) when he expressed his view that Custer got what he deserved at Little Big Horn!

It shocks modern Americans to learn that Nixon's signature is on the following: the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency, the Clean Air Act, and the Occupational Safety and Health Act. His Philadelphia Plan was the first time to U.S. government actively supported an affirmative action program. He was also in favor of the (ultimately unsuccessful) Equal Rights Act for women. His veto of the Clean Water Act (which Congress overrode) is puzzling, but Nixon claimed its high price tag was his reason. (Scholars now view this as a power struggle between Congress and Nixon, which the president lost badly.) 

How they were different:

The Grant scandals came from his administrative ineptitude and never touched him personally. Nixon, as we subsequently learned, was up to his eyeteeth in the scandals touching his administration. We might never know for certain if he planned them, but he simply ran roughshod over the Constitution.

Grant tried to improve race relations, whereas Nixon mostly saw black power movements as revolutionary enemies nationally and personally. He used the idea of the silent majority to position whites, blue-collar workers, and older immigrant groups as threatened by race radicals. The same strategy was used against campus groups; Nixon was president during divisive events such as the hardhat riots, Kent State, and Jackson State.

Grant didn't venture into the foreign relations realm very much. He did get sucked into an aborted attempt to annex the Dominican Republic, and sent peacekeeping troops to Cuba in 1873 that somehow managed to avoid embroiling the US in anything serious, but that's about it.

Nixon is, of course, best known for establishing US relations with China, an act that ultimately set the table for a truly global economy. He also signed an anti-ballistic missile treaty with the Soviet Union, a major thaw in the Cold War. The rest of Nixon's foreign policy falls into the divisiveness that marked his domestic policies. He fanned tension between the U.S. and Cuba, which many viewed as a cynical attempt to curry Republican favor with the Cuban-American community. His administration stands accused of green-lighting a CIA role in the overthrow of Allende in Chile, which ushered in authoritarian rule there. The U.S. actively sided with Israel during the 1973 Yom Kippur War. This was popular at the time and many scholars continue to support it. It was also, however, cited as a major cause of the OPEC oil boycott that weakened the U.S. economy.

Nixon's secret plan to end the Vietnam War is now viewed as a deeply cynical campaign ploy. Nixon went hard at Ellsberg because his own administration was involved in fabricating its own fictions, such as bombing Cambodia, extending the war into Laos, and seeking to cover up US operations at a time in which the US was officially winding down its involvement. Some of the largest (and most vociferous, even riotous) anti-war protests took place under Nixon. Although many American equate Vietnam with Lyndon Johnson, 36.4% of all American troop deaths occurred under Nixon. The peace treaty he ultimately singed in 1973 was distressingly similar to that which he could have signed in 1969. The Nobel Peace Prizes awarded to Henry Kissinger and Vietnam's Le Duc Tho now invites contempt. The communist North easily defeated the South in 1973, and both Cambodia and Laos fell to communist governments. Nixon's Vietnam policy was, by all objective standards, a disaster.


How does one rate these presidents: by their accomplishments, or by their failures; by their intentions, or by the demons that consumed them? Scholars give low ratings to each: #33 for Nixon and #36 for Grant. I would certainly rate Grant higher than Nixon, and it must be said that some of his bad press comes from Southern racists who opposed Grant's progressive views on Reconstruction. The scandals, though, mean he's unlikely to rise very much. I can imagine a mild uptick for each, though Nixon isn't going much higher until those who remember him are gone. His was such a divisive presidency that a significant forgive-and-forget rethink is unlikely.   


My Grandmother Told Me to Tell You She's Sorry is a Magical Masterpiece

By Fredrik Backman
Atria Books, 377 pages.  

Are you an adult who read the Harry Potter books–without a child–and secretly thrilled to each one of them? Do you feel kind of embarrassed by how much you enjoyed them? If so, do I have a book for you! My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She's Sorry is, simply, the most charming book I've read in many, many years. Yes, it's about a child, and yes, it contains long sections of fantasy and magic. But, no, it's not really a children's book. In fact, there are numerous themes–divorce, death, violence–that could traumatize a pre-teen.

Sweden's Fredrik Backman burst onto the literary scene with his poignant and delightful A Man Called Ove. I read his third book, Britt-Marie Was Here, before I got hold of My Grandmother, his second book and one in which Britt-Marie is a character. All three books are marvels, but My Grandmother is in that special category that makes you grateful for teachers who taught you to read. As I've noted elsewhere, a great book takes you to places you've never been before, and this book does that in spades. It centers on Elsa, who is seven, but reminds everyone she's "almost eight" and that "I'm not an idiot!" That's for sure—she's precocious, voluble, and wise beyond her years. Alas, in the world of children, being different makes her a freak–worse, it makes her the target of physically abusive bullies. Elsa's only friend is Granny, whom most adults see as bat-shit nuts. She's not, but she's crank extraordinaire and not the sort who most people would think of as an appropriate role model. Her advice to Elsa for dealing with male bullies: "Kick 'em in the fuse box," which is just the sort of activity that gets you in big trouble and leads school personnel to suggest Elsa needs serious counseling. She doesn't and Granny knows this. Granny has a host of issues, but she's fiercely protective of Elsa in ways that her too-busy physician mother, remarried father, or pacifying stepfather can't be. Best of all, Granny helps Elsa construct a fantasy escape world: the Land-of-the-Almost-Awake, which has six kingdoms, the biggest of which is Miamas. Forget Hogwart's; Miamas is more magical than anything J. K. Rowling ever conjured. There are cloud animals that capture stories in golden nets and release them to the world, heroes that ended the War-Without-End, monsters, shadows, and special animals—including a giant dog-like creature called a "wurse." Some of Backman's descriptions of Miamas—often through Granny's voice­–are so deeply moving you'll need to wipe your eyes. Seriously!

And then Granny dies. Elsa is hurt, angry, and adrift, though the latter phase doesn't last long, as she discovers that Granny has left her with a special task: to deliver letters to various people to whom she wishes to apologize. But for what? Surely not her outrageous behavior–she's not the least bit sorry for any of that! I will not give away any of the charming mystery that unfolds. Let's just say that there are Big Fish moments in which the borders between fantasy and reality collide. The mystery also involves Granny's pre-Elsa life, the back-stories of people in Elsa's apartment complex (including Britt-Marie), family drama, real-life monsters, and Granny-charged protectors. And, yes, even a chocolate-eating wurse.*  What a story! What revelations!

One of the most clichéd phrases in book reviews is, "I didn't want the book to end." I truly didn't. I wanted to drift off to Miamas, watch the cloud animals, and listen to tales I had never heard before. Backman's book is as magical as the Elvin kingdom in Lord of the Rings, as heroic as a Roald Dahl story, as offbeat as one of Neil Gaiman's less-gruesome offerings, and as addictive as—yep!—Harry Potter. Check your cynicism at page one, declare yourself a terminal curmudgeon if you've not done so by page 50, and don't tell me about it if you retain an ounce of misanthropy. I utterly adored this book and I've forgiven Granny for all of her shortcomings, including dying.

Rob Weir

*Scenes of feeding chocolate to the wurse have bothered readers with more love for dogs than common sense. Oh please—this is fantasy and it's not at all clear that the wurse is (entirely) a dog. Besides, a dog of this size would have to ingest more than four pounds of chocolate to be in danger, and most dogs vomit long before they reach critical toxicity levels. If you're an adult, go with the fantasy; if you are sharing this book with a teenager, use it as a teaching moment.  


Gerry Ford and Chester Arthur: Pairing Presidents VI

Ford and Arthur:

Welcome to the Accidental President portion of this series. Chester Arthur (1881-85) was a more important president than Gerald R. Ford, but the two need to be considered in tandem because they might both have been illegal presidents. I lump them also because they are relatively forgotten. I'd wager a lot of people don't even know we had a president named Chester Arthur, and I suspect a lot of people asked to name the presidents from Kennedy to the president would overlook Ford.

How they are similar:

Think I'm kidding about the illegal part? The Constitution stipulates a president must be born on American soil. In theory, Chester Arthur was born in Fairfield, Vermont, which has duly erected a marker to that effect. There is, however, compelling evidence that Arthur was actually born in Noyan, Quebec, and that his family, which moved around a lot, came back across the border several weeks after his birth. As for Gerry Ford, try finding a passage in the U.S. Constitution that allows a president to appoint a vice president in mid term. Nixon nominated Ford in October of 1973, after the sitting Veep, Spiro Agnew, resigned after being indicted for corruption charges stemming from his time as governor of Maryland. Of course, Nixon was also under investigation at the time. When Nixon resigned in August of 1974, Ford assumed the presidency having been elected to nothing but his House seat in Michigan. (Only the relief of being rid of Nixon spared Ford a Constitutional battle.)

Both men calmed the public after a period of national crisis­–Arthur after the assassination of James Garfield, and Ford after the long national nightmare of Watergate.  

Neither man had great success in foreign relations. Although Arthur did play a role in ending a war consuming Chile, Bolivia, and Peru, he also ended a trade treaty with Hawaii that later led to violations of Hawaiian sovereignty. Ford was president when Vietnam fell to the communist North in 1975, and endured the humiliation of communist Cambodia seizing a U.S. ship, the Mayaguez.

Both men made decent appointments to the Supreme Court, two solid men in Arthur's case and John Paul Stevens in Ford's.

Both favored civil rights, but failed to do much to advance them, with Arthur making several very bad decisions. He signed into the law the Chinese Exclusion Act that prevented Chinese immigrants from entering the USA until World War II. Arthur also favored giving Native Americans individual allotments of land, a policy that led—in 1887, after his presidency–to the Dawes Act, which led to the loss of millions of acres on Indian land.
The Pine Ridge shootout occurred under Ford's watch and he didn't do much to deescalate tensions with African Americans either. The Boston busing crisis occurred during Ford's presidency, as did several major race riots.

Both Arthur and Ford are remembered (if at all) for one important thing: Arthur for reforming the civil service, and Ford for his pardon of Richard Nixon.

Evidence suggests that neither man really cherished being POTUS. Ford campaigned in such a lackluster fashion that he nearly lost the 1976 GOP nomination to Ronald Reagan, and proceeded to lose to Democrat Jimmy Carter, a relative unknown on the national scene. Ford was so uninspiring that unofficial slogans were remembered more than his official ones. Among the former were "Stay Bored with Ford" and "Re-elect Betty's Husband," a reference to Ford's wife, whose battles with alcoholism garnered more PR than Mr. Ford could muster. Chester Arthur had no stomach for the White House, literally and figuratively–a combination of ill health and disinterest led Arthur to eschew a run on his own behalf in 1886. 

How they are different:

Arthur was, by far, the more impressive of the two men. He is often cited as a man who rose to the level of the office he held. A small bit of background: After the collapse of Reconstruction, the Republican Party mired itself in a nasty factional dispute over patronage. So-called Stalwarts led by New York's Roscoe Conkling were content to fill government jobs through the old "spoils system" in which winning parties got to dole out patronage to friends, family members, and political allies; Half-Breeds led by James Blaine of Maine favored reforming the system. Prior to becoming president, Arthur was such a notorious and corrupt hack in Conkling's New York machine that President Hayes fired him from his post at New York City's Custom House. Arthur was an unlikely reformer, but he appears to have undergone a political conversion experience when President Garfield was murdered by frustrated office-seeker Charles Guiteau. Arthur angered his Stalwart friends by placing his signature upon the Pendleton Act, a bill that set up the modern civil service merit system entrance exams. There is nothing in Ford's record that matches this.

Arthur also balanced each of his budgets, whereas Ford ran big deficits and saw the outbreak of runaway inflation. Ford, who was in office for the second OPEC oil boycott, was considered a poor manager of the economy, and his W.I.N. program (Whip Inflation Now) was ridiculed at the time and was subsequently viewed as wholly ineffective.

Aside from the Nixon pardon, Ford's 18 months in office offered little of note, other than dodging two assassination attempts, including one by a former Manson family associate. His major contribution was to the field of comedy—his penchant for clumsiness sparked the career of Chevy Chase, a relatively unknown Saturday Night Live cast member who parlayed imitating Ford's pratfalls into TV fame–not exactly the sort of presidential legacy that sparks a wave of monument building!


Oddly, Ford currently ranks 26 and Arthur 28. There is no reason to rank Ford this high, and Arthur deserves a slightly better rating. Look for readjustment on both ends—maybe 30 for Ford and as high as 23-25 for Arthur, who deserves a higher rank for his facial hair alone.


Kate Plays Christine is Distasteful and Manipulative

Directed by Robert Greene
4th Row Films, 112 minutes, Not Rated (language, brief nudity)

Kate Plays Christine is a manipulative pseudo-documentary written and directed by Robert Greene. This film would deserve but one star, were it not for several decent performances, including that of Kate Lyn Sheil in the title role. But let me get this off my chest: this film is one huge lie from start to finish and one of the most distasteful pieces of filmmaking I've witnessed in quite some time.

The Christine in the title is Sarasota, Florida, local newscaster Christine Chubback, whose name would be lost to history were it not for her live, on-the-air suicide in 1974, which she prefaced by decrying her station's obsession with blood and gore. Here's the first lie Greene tells. It is said that Chubback's suicide inspired the character of Howard Beale (played by Peter Finch) in the 1976 film Network. Not so—writer Paddy Chayefsky began work on his script several months before Ms. Chubback's death and insisted it was always his intent to have Beale commit (fictional) suicide.

Greene's film follows Ms. Sheil as she prepares to play Chubback, despite the fact that the fair-haired girl-next-door Sheil looks almost nothing like the exotic, stylish, dark, faintly Mediterranean Chubback. (And despite the fact that Greene didn't waste any money on a convincing wig.) The second lie, often uttered by Sheil herself, is that she's a struggling professional for whom acting is a "kind of disease." Actually, though her film work has mainly been in independent features, the thirty-two-year-old Sheil has worked almost continuously in films and on TV ("House of Cards," "Outcast") since 2007.

Greene's "hook" is blurring the line between documentary and fiction. We watch Sheil go down the Chubback rabbit hole to get into the role of a young woman about whom very little is actually known. So we watch Sheil walk outside the old studio building where Chubback's suicide took place, visit a tanning salon so she can darken her skin, converse with a wigmaker, etc. In some of the film's most pointless footage, Sheil interviews station personnel to try to find out more about Chubback, but everyone she interviews came aboard years later and they have no idea where old videos might reside, if they exist at all. Toward the end of the film, it seems to have occurred to Greene/Sheil to seek out people who were actually at the station in 1974. Lo and beyond, one of them has a bit of actual on-the-air footage that Sheil can use to understand Chubback's mannerisms.

This film could have been about many things, including how a method actor prepares for a role. We know, for instance, that Peter Sellers so completely lost himself in his roles that he came to see himself as a non-entity in real life. Greene suggests that Sheil is also depressive and is becoming more so as she disappears into who she imagines Christine to have been, but this turns out to be bullshit as well. The film could have explored the significance of Chubback's death, but Greene slams that door about a quarter of the way in when one spokesperson/character states that her death meant "nothing;" it didn't lead to changes in how women were treated on TV, didn't spawn a national discussion on violence, and didn't inspire new research or awareness into depression or mental illness. It could have been a character study of Chubback, but that didn't happen either; we are told Chubback was depressed, that she was spurned by a man in which she was interested, and that the loss of an ovary the year before may pushed her biological clock into warp drive, but this is all Psychology 101 speculation. (In fact, available evidence suggests she was severely depressed years before her operation or her non-start relationship.)

Instead, Greene indicts his audience for voyeurism and for this, I cannot forgive him, because he took every option off the table except waiting for Kate to stage Christine's suicide. I confess: I was waiting for this—not because I wanted the see the splatter, but because Greene made it inevitable and I was bored out of my skull. I wanted Kate/Christine to shoot herself so this damn thing would end. But first we had to endure two false starts posing as moral reservations, the second with Kate pointing the gun at the camera and castigating unseen viewers while shouting that she wanted "one good reason" why she should put any of this on screen. The third time she partly aborted, said "Fuck it—it's all bullshit anyhow," pulled the trigger, and face planted on the desk. Sorry, but if Green wants to deliver a message about violence and voyeurism in American society, the least her could do is find an unsullied choir girl. Sheil isn't one; she made the slasher film "You're Next," the blood-soaked "The Sacrament" (2012), and several sexually explicit films: "Green" and "The Zone." Once you know this, being lectured by Ms. Sheil is akin to having Willie Sutton regale you on the sanctity of private property.

I don't blame Sheil for any of this film's problems, though—these are on Greene. Sheil and fellow cast members, each of whom plays themself and a character from the Chubback story that's not actually being made, are actually quite good. Each is all made up with nowhere to go, but they plod along with aplomb. I left the theater after the film's credits, which Greene told us to watch the whole way through for a surprise. I think that "surprise" was that he didn't show a video of the actual suicide and, for that, I am grateful. He glared a bit at those like me who didn't stay for the Q & A. He apparently has little idea of how much respect we showed by staying for the whole thing. I needed a drink—and a shower.

Rob Weir