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Curious Guy: Chuck Klosterman

Curious Guy

Welcome back to “Curious Guy” with author Chuck Klosterman. In case you missed it Tuesday, here’s Part I.

Simmons: My friends and I spend an inordinate amount of time arguing about movies, sports and TV … so what’s wrong with writing about this stuff? For instance, at a friend’s house watching football last Sunday, my friend Dave Dameshek and I were trying to figure out the most ridiculous scene from “Face Off.” Our friend Ace has a theory that they came up with the title before anyone wrote the script, like some movie exec told two writers, “Okay, the movie is called ‘Face Off,’ we start filming in two weeks, and Travolta and Cage are signed on … I need a script by Monday.” That really might have been what happened, so it’s not like we’re arguing about “The Godfather” here. But when you consider that it featured two huge stars (at the time), and it did pretty well at the box office, it’s one of the most astounding cable movies to watch after the fact. Although ‘Shek makes an excellent point: You can’t argue about how ludicrous the premise is, only because we accept the premise simply by watching the movie. We knew going in that Travolta and Cage would eventually switch faces, we accepted it and that was that.

Want more Klosterman? Then head on over to Amazon and treat yourself to some Chuck.

“Killing Yourself to Live”

“Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs”

“Fargo Rock City”

With that said, I thought the most ridiculous scene was when Cage’s character wakes up from a coma with his face missing, so he uses the hospital phone to call one of his buddies to help him get Travolta’s face. I just don’t think it’s possible to make a phone call if there’s no skin on your face and you don’t have lips. Call me crazy. ‘Shek argued that the most ridiculous scene was the ending, when Travolta foils Cage and nearly gets shot to death, and he goes into the hospital and they save him, and they give him his old face back, and then the movie ends with him heading home to see his wife … and she’s on the computer and seems totally surprised that he’s home. As though she’s like, “Oh, wait, THIS was the day you were coming home from the hospital with your new face after you saved the world? I thought it was tomorrow!” (It’s much funnier when ‘Shek does it with his Pittsburgh accent, but whatever.) And you know what? He might be right.

The point is, people DO discuss this stuff in real life, which is why it should be OK to write about it. Like you said, it’s not mindless trivia, it’s a goofy way that people from our generation relate to one another. For instance, ‘Shek just moved into a new house, and I just had a baby, and I guarantee we spent more time talking about “Con Air” then either of those other two things. Why is that? I have no idea. But that’s our generation. Which brings me to my next question: We had Generation X, and then the Internet generation … how do you think the next generation will be defined, and how do you think your writing will change (if at all) to reflect that evolution? Along those same lines, where do you see your focus shifting over the next few years? Do you think you’ll ever shift to scripted stuff, or do you like writing conventional stuff too much?

Klosterman: I am not sure if I necessarily agree with the scope of your generational analysis. What will be interesting about the coming generation of people (at least if you’re a writer) is that they will have a twisted concept of what the word “media” is supposed to mean. A term you hear people use a lot these days is “New Media,” which really just means, “Electronic Media, Minus the Actual Reporting.” This is what the Internet is, mostly. I constantly see all these media blogs that just link to conventional “Old Media” articles and pretend to comment upon them, but they add no information and no ideas. They just write, “Oh, look at this terribly archaic New York Times story. Isn’t it pathetic?” But that sentiment is being expressed by someone who’s never done an interview and has no tangible relationship to journalism. It all seems kind of uncreative. My favorite blog was always chaunceybillups.blogspot.com, but I think the dude who wrote it went on some kind of sabbatical.

Face Off

New Media will never replace Old Media, because New Media couldn’t exist without Old Media; they would have nothing to link to. But the net result is that all people are starting to assume that the media is inherently useless and that there is absolutely no difference between news and entertainment. This will make the coming generation even more cynical than the current one, which is mostly bad (but not necessarily tragic). I think this is why so many teenagers are obsessed with things like myspace.com: They have lost interest in the world at large, so they’ve decided to just build an interior culture where they are the sole focus. The can live without the world.

My writing will change as I get older, but it won’t have anything to do with how audiences evolve. It’s impossible to anticipate that sort of thing in any meaningful way; it would be like when Skid Row suddenly tried to sound like Soundgarden. I have a few ideas for movies and television shows, but I’ll probably never pursue them. It would be satisfying to create an especially good TV show (like the original BBC version of “The Office” or “Freaks and Geeks” or “The Wire” or “Twin Peaks”), but I would be nervous about turning over so much control to the producers and the actors and the network. When TV is bad, nothing is worse. And that stuff gets even more complicated when it comes to film, because — if you want a movie to be remotely decent — you pretty much have to allow the director to do whatever he or she wants. I would really have to trust the people I was working with. That is one advantage I’ve had in book publishing: My editor at Scribner (Brant Rumble) appears to be the last honest man in all of New York.

Simmons: I liked your point about New Media. Everyone keeps talking about the Blog Revolution, but what does that even mean? If you were in film school and wanted to make movies for a living, would you create a movie from scratch, or would you just make documentaries about other filmmakers and how much they stunk? You’d make the movie from scratch, right? Well, what’s the point of writing about people who write about sports/movies/politics/music if you’re not backing up your words with your own columns or features? How do you have credibility then? I could write for a living, I just choose to rip everyone else. What? How does that make sense? What’s the ultimate goal there? Why not come up with your own material, angles and thoughts? Wouldn’t that be more rewarding? How do you get better? That’s what I don’t understand.

I’m not killing all blogs here — some of them are useful because they find me stories that I couldn’t find on my own, and some of their comments or features make me laugh and think. When the goal is to keep everyone on their toes, have some fun, provide an alternate take on things and remain at least somewhat objective, that’s great. If you’re using a blog to constantly ream everyone else, that’s depressing. Also, how can we have so many libels/slander laws in place for newspapers, and yet the Internet is like the Wild West? People can steal material, slander people, rip them to shreds, make up news … I mean, you can get away with anything now. Do you know how many times an NBA Web site reported having sources that confirmed some trade that ended up never happening? It was embarrassing. I could go on about this forever.

Switching gears, you argue about music almost like your opinions are fact — like your comment that “‘Vitalogy’ is almost irrefutably the best Pearl Jam album” — which is one of the reasons I like your material so much, because you’re so sure about your opinions on these things, and you will argue them to the bitter end. But can you really argue about music to the level that you can argue sports? Isn’t music more subjective? For instance, we could argue about the ’86 Rockets and Lakers, I could probably find stats that would show how Kareem had stopped rebounding that season, how that Lakers team wasn’t big enough to handle a Sampson-Hakeem combo, and so on. But there are no stats to prove that “Vitalogy” was better than “Ten” or “Vs,” just like there’s no way to prove that “Jungleland” was Springsteen’s defining song (although I will always believe that it is).

Klosterman: Certainly, music is WAY more subjective. These two subjects are not even comparable. For example, I could insist that the greatest band in the world is actually four unsigned guys from Oregon who have never made a record and are just bouncing around the Portland club scene, and that this band is like what would have happened if Lennon & McCartney had formed a quartet with Keith Richards and Charlie Watts, and that these people write the best songs since The Smiths and they play louder than Blue Cheer. I could argue that this group is cooler than The Arcade Fire or the White Stripes, because I could insist they are more “authentic” or “incendiary” or “visceral.” I could create reasons that explain this hypothetical band’s greatness, and a few crazy people would find my theory interesting and potentially valid. However, I could never claim that the best quarterback in the country is actually some 28-year-old dude working in a car wash in downtown Detroit, and that this person is substantially better than Peyton Manning. That would immediately seem idiotic to everyone. This is why the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is such a failure; there are no quantifiable qualities for the inductees. There is no way to *prove* that a musician is good. And this is not an issue in sports. There’s no risk that Greg Maddux won’t make the Baseball Hall of Fame simply because certain sportswriters don’t think he’s hip enough, or because they feel his pitching style is derivative.

I think you somewhat misread my rock writing, though; I don’t think I ever imply that my opinions are some kind of universal truth. When I say “Vitalogy” is “irrefutably” the best Pearl Jam album, I’m really just saying that fact is irrefutable *to me.* But I am only speaking about my own reality. If I say a band is good, it only means that *I* think they’re good; if I say a band is bad, it only means that *I* think they’re bad. All my criticism is autobiography. I have no interest in persuading (or dissuading) readers from liking anything.

Bruce Springsteen

Simmons: I’m not arguing against that, but you have a way of condoning certain bands, albums and songs while putting down other bands, albums and songs, even if you’re rarely blatant about it. Just from reading the Billy Joel chapter in “Cocoa Puffs,” I know you respect “Glass Houses,” that you think the finest Led Zep songs are the obscure ones, that you don’t like Moody Blues or the Knack, that you think “Born to Run” and “Born in the USA” are overrated, and so on. By weighing in on these things, you don’t think you’re clandestinely persuading/dissuading readers a little? For instance, you shredded Coldplay in “Cocoa Puffs,” and I thought their first album was good, their second album was OK (but pretentious), and their third album sounded like a high-tech version of Bread. When you shredded them, I felt dumb for liking their first album. Then I thought, “Hey, screw you, Klosterman! I liked that song from the Kieran Culkin movie where he played the screwed-up rich kid, you’re not swaying me on that one!” You have to admit, your opinions about music — no matter how you formulate them, and no matter what your intent is — end up affecting the opinions of your readers in some way.

And while we’re here, you love sports and you love music. Which one is more fun to argue about?

Klosterman: I’m sure some people’s opinions are affected by the things I write, but that doesn’t have anything to do with my motivations for writing those sentences. Ozzy Osbourne wrote a song titled “Suicide Solution,” and some of the kids who listened to it decided to shoot themselves in the face. Now, that particular song was actually about Bon Scott’s alcoholism. And the fact that a few confused kids killed themselves after hearing it does not change the original intent of the song. Obviously, I’ll concede that calling the song “Suicide Solution” was probably a little misleading, especially since most kids are stupid. But my point is that causality doesn’t change intent. If someone who read “Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs” now hates Coldplay, they sort of missed the crux of that essay. That essay was supposed to be about how modern people use culture as a crutch to understand the elements of their lives that they can’t control. I mean, Coldplay does stink, and they are boring, and they (probably) aren’t as good as Bread. But my reasons for feeling this way are very personal and highly specific. I certainly don’t feel a desire to convince anyone else that I’m right about this.

In response to your second question: It’s more fun to argue about sports, but it’s more interesting to argue about music. When someone argues about music, you can usually get a remarkably clear portrait of their personality — you can get an idea of how they view authority, or if they have an adversarial relationship with mainstream culture, or if they are extremely worried about being cool. You can deduce which subcultures they experienced in high school, and you can figure out how much they are engaged with modernity. Of course, the downside is that people who always want to talk about music tend to be profoundly annoying (and often unshaven). Which is probably why it’s more fun to talk about sports.

Arguing about sports is the ultimate cultural equalizer: I can’t think of any subject that so many people know so much about. I feel like I personally know at least 100 guys who have a “near expert” understanding of the NFL. If you watch the games each week (and especially if you grew up watching the games each week), you can easily have a 90-minute conversation about pro football with a total stranger in any airport bar (assuming said stranger has had a similar experience). There is a shared knowledge of sports in America that is unlike our shared knowledge of anything else. Whenever I have to hang out with someone I’ve never met before, I always find myself secretly thinking, “I hope this dude knows about sports. I hope this dude knows about sports. I hope this dude knows about sports.” Because if he does, I know the rest of the conversation will be easy.

Also … the best Bruce Springsteen song is either “State Trooper” or “Thunder Road.” And I never said the ’86 Rockets were bad — I just said that the Celtics’ beating Houston had less symbolic value than if the Celtics had thumped the Lakers that year (regardless of how good the teams were).

Simmons: You argued earlier that the Lakers threw that series! Anyway, we should write an NBA book together where we just argue about dumb things like this for 400 pages — it could be like that Red Sox book that Stephen King and Stewart O’Nan whipped out, only lazier (if that’s possible). I would love to argue about stuff like “Gheorghe Muresan vs. Manute Bol, who was more underrated both from a talent standpoint and from a freak standpoint?” and “Realistically, can the Clippers ever become a competitive franchise, or do they have too much baggage — is it like Tara Reid bouncing back and suddenly becoming an award-winning actress? Should they just change cities and change their name?”

Klosterman: I don’t know if either Manute or Muresan could possibly be underrated within the “freak” idiom. Manute supposedly iced a lion in the Sudan, so he always gets free pancakes at my house. I think the most underrated sports freak would have be former San Francisco 49er cornerback Merton Hanks, who (almost certainly) had the longest neck in NFL history. He was like an emu. The only guy who came remotely close was Brad Johnson, a player my friend Jon Blixt’s wife regularly referred to as, “That ex-Viking quarterback who has the second-longest neck in the league.” I am not kidding about any of this.

Simmons: Wow, I haven’t thought about Merton Hanks in years. If he was like an emu, then Drew Bledsoe is definitely turning into a wildebeest — the ones that freeze when they see a lion approaching. This could make for a cool column that I’m sure ESPN would never run.

Gheorghe Muresan
OK, time for some shorter questions before we shatter Tolstoy’s record for words …

1. I loved the piece you wrote about spending time with Bono in Ireland and trying to figure out if he was full of crap or not. Who is the most interesting celeb you ever spent time with and why?

2. Seth reading “Cocoa Puffs” on “The OC” last year — where does that rank on your top 200 list of career achievements? Can you put this on a résumé? Have you gotten laid more or less since? What show would you have preferred over “The OC?” Personally, my dream would be either (A) William Peterson reading me during a “CSI” episode right before somebody said, “Hey, we got that semen sample back from the lab,” (B) Johnny Drama carrying my book around on “Entourage” and Turtle making some sort of derisive Red Sox comment while Adrian Grenier tried to fake-laugh in the background, or (C) somebody reading me in the waiting room as they waited for a hooker in HBO’s “Bunny Ranch” show. That’s my Pantheon. What was yours?

3. Please elaborate on your theory that Shaq is secretly planning a run for President.

Klosterman: In order …

1. It’s hard to pick which celebrity I’ve interviewed as the most interesting, primarily because celebrities are almost never interesting. Bono would certainly be one of the better ones, because he actually enjoys the interview process; he kind of treats it like psychoanalysis. Marilyn Manson is consistently the best subject for a Q & A, because he actively tries to be entertaining. Radiohead was the smartest band I’ve ever met, but Donald Fagen of Steely Dan and Robert Plant were probably the smartest individual people (at least among rock musicians). Jeff Tweedy was the most likable. Barry Manilow was really funny (I interviewed him in 1997, and we mostly talked about Trent Reznor).

2. The “OC” thing really isn’t an “achievement,” per se, but it was probably the single weirdest thing that has ever happened to me. I was sitting in this diner eating dinner, and I suddenly get a phone call from my associate Alex. Alex says, “You were just on ‘The OC'” Now, within this particular context, that kind of information makes no sense, so I said, “What does that mean, exactly?” So Alex explains what happened, and we have this five minute conversation where I say things like, “That’s weird,” and Alex says things like, “Yeah, that’s strange,” and I respond by saying, “This is curious,” and Alex would counter with, “This is indeed perplexing.” Eventually, we ran out of synonyms. I went back to eating my perogies. But then I looked down at my cell phone, and I noticed I had received a few voice mails during this dialogue with Alex. About 13 people had called me simultaneously. So — if nothing else — I now have an exceedingly accurate understanding of how many of my friends watch “The OC.”

I guess I’ve never considered what TV show I would most enjoy being mentioned on. Perhaps I could get a recurring role on “Reba.”

3. Here is my thing with Shaq: Remember when he decided to take care of George Mikan’s family after Mikan died, and he kept saying what a great guy Mikan was? I found myself thinking, “That’s really nice of him, I suppose, but it almost seems … political.” It’s like he was rebranding himself as some kind of historical humanitarian philanthropist. And then I started thinking about how Shaq always talks about wanting to become a cop, and how he constantly goes on those VH1 shows and does romantic things for his wife and how he is always trying to deliver stuffed giraffes to sick children (or whatever). That’s when I realized that Shaq is not-so-secretly gearing up for a presidential bid. That is his true goal. Shaq will become the first post-Jeb Democratic governor of Florida, and he’ll run for the presidency in 2020. However, he will lose to the Republican nominee, which will probably be Will Smith.

Simmons: I just hope Will Smith runs with Martin Lawrence. Couldn’t you see a “Bad Boys: 2020!” campaign? Last question: On a scale of 1 to 10, how badly do you think we’ll be skewered on message boards and snarky blogs for what just transpired over the past 7,300 words?

Klosterman: I’d probably say about 8.4, unless there happens to be a preponderance of Merton Hanks message boards that I am currently unaware of. In that case I’d go with 8.9, most of whom will be failed graduate students suggesting we’re estranged lovers (and will therefore make references to that upcoming cowboy movie starring Donnie Darko). Also, on Oct. 15 Notre Dame will defeat USC. Believe.

Bill Simmons is a columnist for Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine and his Sports Guy’s World site is updated every day Monday through Friday. His new book “Now I Can Die In Peace” hits bookstores on Oct. 1 and is available right now on Amazon.com.

Filed Under: Celebrities, Chuck Klosterman, People

Bill Simmons is the founding editor of Grantland and the author of the New York Times no. 1 best seller The Book of Basketball. For every Simmons column and podcast, click here.

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