‘BETA’: Pilot Episode 2

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Fantasyland Station (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Are Americans living in a Fantasyland? Why does Florida hold the monopoly on strange news? Can you publish an album on X-ray film? And, as we get ready for jump scares, candy and scary films, what can we learn about society and race from the evolution of black horror films? It’s all coming up this hour on “BETA” with host Doug Gordon.

Author and radio host Kurt Andersen explains why we’re living in a Fantasyland. Plus, literary sensation Ottessa Moshfegh (“fegh” rhymes with leg”) talks about why we’re homesick for another world and journalist Craig Pittman shares the reasons why seemingly all the weird news comes from Florida. And we take a look at the illicit Cold War practice of publishing music onto X-ray films with musician and editor Stephen Coates and explore the renaissance of black horror films with Robin Means Coleman.

Featured in this Show

  • 'Music On The Bone': Examining Forbidden X-Ray Records Of The Soviet Union

    In Cold War-era Russia, to battle back against the state-imposed prohibition of banned music, entrepreneuring Soviet citizens would enjoy bootleg versions of outlawed music published illegally onto used x-ray films.

    Stephen Coates is a musician and editor of the book, “X-Ray Audio: The Strange Story Of Soviet Music On The Bone.” After coming across an X-ray disc in St. Petersburg, Russia, Coates went on a journey to retrace the roots of this incredible story of “Roentgenizdat.”

    Coates said that there’s still much that isn’t known about how this illicit practice began.

    Stephen Coates/x-rayaudio.com

    “We don’t really know who invented this technique,” said Coates. “Maybe one of those things that sort of simultaneously arose in various places. But they used it with a vengeance in Leningrad (as St. Petersburg was then known) because, of course, it was easy for them to get hold of used X-rays from hospitals. The government had said all hospitals had to get rid of their X-rays after one year because at that time, they were flammable, they were a fire risk. So, the people who work in the hospital have got this job of getting rid of all this slippery, flexible stuff and these guys will turn up at the back of the hospital in the evening with a few rubles and a bottle of vodka and they’ll take it off their hands. And they used it as a blank recording medium.”

    The records were grooved for 78 rpm, hand cut, single-sided, were of very low quality and could only hold three to five minutes of music, which usually meant one song. Mythology has it that the spindle hole was often burned by a cigarette. And of course, each featured its own unique image of suffering.

    “(The) most common image you will see is the rib cage, sternum,” said Coates. “And in fact, in Russia, older people who knew about these records often called it ‘music on the bones’ or ‘music on the ribs.”

    That’s because very commonly, you had these pictures of people’s chests and rib cage and the reason is, is that in the ’40s and ’50s, probably later, everybody in the Soviet Union had to go and have their chest scanned to see if they had tuberculosis. So, these records in a way say something about the health of the people of the time too.”

    Even with poor audio quality and a short shelf life — some records were unusable after a few plays on the gramophone — X-ray discs were still immensely popular as they featured forbidden Western hits from jazz and later rock-and-roll, including Bill Haley’s “Rock Around The Clock.” A black market emerged.

    Stephen Coates/x-rayaudio.com

    “As the demand grew and more people started to do it and more people wanted to buy these records, well, then it became a street trade,” said Coates.

    Coates said he considers the risk that many took to enjoy something we access so instantly and freely now.

    “X-ray records were made at a time when music mattered so much that some people were prepared to go to prison for it. We live in a time where we got infinite access to music and that’s amazing and I love it, but have we lost something at the same time,” he said.

    Listen to an X-ray recording of Bill Haley’s “Rock Around The Clock”:

    Watch short documentary:

  • Writer Dissects Why Florida Is Source For Weird News, Influences The Nation

    Whether it’s because of unusual circumstance, its eclectic population or just bad press, the state of Florida has a reputation for being the source of generally off-the-wall news and wacky occurrences. A Florida-based author has written a book that acknowledges that while his home state’s eccentricities make it an easy butt of jokes, there’s more to the Sunshine State than just as a source of click-bait headlines.

    In columnist Craig Pittman’s book, “Oh Florida: How America’s Weirdest State Influences the Rest of the Country,” one resident refers to it as “the drainpipe of America.” However, Florida is also the birthplace of the computer, USA Today, NASCAR, “Stand Your Ground” gun laws and the Hooters restaurant franchise.

    “Yes, Florida is the Punchline State,” said Pittman. “Yes, all this wild, weird comical stuff happens here and that’s what makes it interesting to live here. But on the other hand, there’s also a lot of stuff happening that influences people all around the world and they don’t even realize it.”

    As a lifelong Floridian and award-winning reporter and columnist of the Tampa Bay Times, Pittman has had a front row seat to the eccentricities of the Sunshine State.

    “We’ve got spam kings living here, we’ve got professional python hunters, we’ve got monkey breeders, we’ve got lots of circus people, and so, you know you’ve got this really odd, interesting mix of people and it naturally produces a lot of really interesting news.”

    When tasked to grapple with why Florida can be so bizarre — outside of its residents — Pittman points to a few factors, including the weather.

    “Well we don’t have any snow as you know, and so as a result, people are able to be out doing weird stuff all year long,” he said.

    He also cites the shifting landscapes and inherent dangers in the geography that can lead to a live-for-the-moment attitude.

    “Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we may be wiped out by a sinkhole or a shark bite or lightening — all of which happen more in Florida than any other state. So, it leads to this sort of YOLO culture in Florida. And that’s, honestly part of what makes it kind of fun to be a journalist here — is writing about all the people who grab for the gusto … and miss,” he said.

    Pittman himself has a story from his childhood that best encapsulates his theory on Florida: While attempting to cross one of the state’s crystal clear rivers on a Boy Scout camping trip, he fell into the river and began to be pulled downstream. He remembers looking up through the water and seeing the sky and then a rope, which he was able to grab and pull himself to safety.

    “We’re surrounded by dangerous beauty, in way over our heads, pulled along by powerful forces and desperately grabbing for any life line,” he said.

  • How 'Night Of The Living Dead' And 'Get Out' Changed The Course Of Black Horror Films

    One of the best films of this past year was “Get Out,” a movie written and directed by Jordan Peele, that stood out as a scary movie that tackled racism in a very provocative way.

    “Get Out” marks a watershed moment in the history of black horror movies, a history that can be traced all the way back to even D.W. Griffith’s 1915 film, “The Birth of a Nation.” Although “The Birth of a Nation” wasn’t a black horror film, it was definitely horrific in the way it portrayed African-Americans.

    University of Michigan Professor Robin Means Coleman. who is the author of “Horror Noire: Blacks in American Horror Films from the 1890s to Present,” said that these films often mask deeper examinations of race relationships in society.

    Here’s an edited transcript of “BETA” host Doug Gordon’s conversation with Coleman:

    Doug Gordon: A real turning point in the way African-Americans were portrayed in horror films occurred in 1968 with the release of George A. Romero’s genre-defining zombie movie, “Night of the Living Dead.” What was so groundbreaking about “Night of the Living Dead”?

    Coleman: “Night of the Living Dead,” one of my favorite movies, is incredible on two fronts. The first is that Romero introduces this character, a black character named Ben. Up until this point, there had been a history in horror films where blacks were really mistreated. The blacks in horror films followed the kind of D.W. Griffith stereotyping where they were depicted as deficient and deviant.

    Romero doesn’t do that.

    In fact, Ben is smart, he’s resourceful. He is, in some ways, quite the intellectual. And what we see is Ben trapped in this remote cabin surrounded by the undead who are really trying to get them and eat them. And Ben is navigating both the horrors on the outside of this cabin, but also what is sort of horrific on the inside of the cabin, which is negotiating complex race and gender relationships.

    Gordon: And we should point out that, unlike in “The Birth of a Nation,” Ben is played by a black actor, a gentleman by the name of Duane Jones. The ending of “Night of the Living Dead” is very powerful. Can you talk a bit about that?

    Coleman: Ben emerges, he survives the night, and he’s the sole survivor of this horrific kind of zombie holocaust. And he survives all of the turmoil that’s happening inside the cabin. And he emerges and the sun is rising and he’s victorious. And then he’s killed. He’s not killed by zombies, he’s killed by the police. He’s killed by sheriffs. And in the case of “Night of the Living Dead,” these were real officers who were cast in the film.

    So, he’s killed by Pennsylvania state troopers who then do something far worse, if you can imagine that. Which is to essentially burn him, burn him on a pyre. And we’ve seen the kinds of horrific images of slaves being burned and being burned alive. And so it evokes all of those memories. And it was just such a blow and it was real.

    Gordon: And the officers in the narrative of the film, we’re led to believe that the police officers who shot Ben mistook him for a zombie. Or are we?

    Coleman: Exactly. And that’s what I love about the openness of the text. Perhaps.

    And I think Romero leaves that sufficiently open that perhaps they think that he’s a zombie and at the same time, perhaps in the back of our minds, we’re supposed to think that well, police officers are fairly used to shooting first and figuring out what’s happening later. And especially black men.

    Gordon: And that’s especially relevant these days, unfortunately. During the credits, we see this series of still images of the handling of Ben’s body, they use hooks to take him over to a fire and burn him. You say that those still images over the end credits look like they could be the weathered photos of Emmett Till.

    Coleman: Lynching imagery for sure.

    Gordon: Let’s fast-forward to February 2017 and the release of Jordan Peele’s “Get Out.” Can you give us a brief outline of the film’s plot without, of course, revealing too many spoilers?

    Coleman: So “Get Out” focuses on a black male character, Chris Washington, and his girlfriend who is white, Rose Armitage. They’re taking a road trip from Brooklyn, an urban space, a very diverse space. And they’re going to visit Rose’s family, the Armitages, who are in a really quite white suburban space. And so this is going to be a movie about how Chris navigates this predominantly white space.

    At least, that’s what we think it’s going to be about. Because when Chris arrives, he realizes that this is a family who is deeply involved in medicine. And ultimately, he comes to realize that they’re involved in medical experimentation.

    And so Chris is now fighting for his life in this movie.

    Gordon: How do you think white audiences experienced “Get Out” versus how black audiences experienced it? I’m guessing that they had to have experienced it differently.

    Coleman: White and black audiences alike, I think, really liked this film, if box office numbers are any indication. But the other thing that “Get Out” does is that it, in some ways, it picks up where George Romero left off and demands that we all pay attention to our social, our political, our cultural contexts. And so “Get Out” demands that we pay attention to race relationships, it demands that we pay attention to issues such as redlining and white flight and the creation of so-called “whitetopias,” to use Rich Benjamin’s language. So, it’s asking us to say how far have we really come in understanding the commonalities and also the unique cultural difference between blacks and whites.

    Watch movie’s trailer:

  • Author Ottessa Moshfegh Is 'Homesick For Another World'

    If you can relate to characters with existential insecurities — and these days, it seems like we all can — Ottessa Moshfegh’s fiction will resonate.

    Moshfegh is a rising star in the world of literary fiction. She is a novelist and short-story writer from Boston. While still early in her career, she has already put together an impressive resume. Her first novel, “Eileen,” won the PEN/Hemingway Award for debut fiction and was short-listed for the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Man Booker Prize.

    And now, she has recently released her first short-story collection, called “Homesick for Another World.”

    Here’s an edited transcript of “BETA” host Doug Gordon’s conversation with Moshfegh:

    Doug Gordon: Your new book of short stories has a great title: “Homesick For Another World.” I’m curious. Are you yourself “homesick for another world”?

    Ottessa Moshfegh: Am I homesick for another world? Yeah, I think we all are in multiple ways. The title comes from the last story in the collection, a story called “A Better Place.” And I took the title from that story because that story feels the most personal to me, actually. There isn’t any satire in it, in the way that I use satire, I think in most of the other stories in the collection.

    And it’s written in a different register and it is dealing with a kind of spiritual quandary or perhaps a misinterpretation of what life and death are in a way that I think all of the characters in the book experience. But this character from the story, “A Better Place,” felt the most like me in her attitudes. So. it felt natural to pick the title from that story. And that she is homesick for another world, kind of describes the general attitude I had toward this book, what I wanted this collection to be about.

    DG: This is the last story in the book. Was it the last story you wrote for the book?

    OM: It was. It’s funny, I didn’t expect this to happen. I didn’t know that when I finished the story that I would have been done with the book. But it felt so completely over by the time that story was over that, in fact, I felt, and continue to feel, like I don’t need to write another short story for at least several more years.

    And that was kind of a terrifying experience because the short story form had been really my thing since I had started writing. So. yeah, it was peculiar.

    DG: So if you don’t mind my asking, what kinds of emotions were you experiencing while you were writing this story?

    OM: This story came out of me in a weird, rare way. I barely edited it. It came out as though it was being transmitted by some other force … It’s almost like you just sit down and it happens.

    Penguin Press

    So, I was kind of just watching it and vibrating with it and writing it. And feeling a lot of things. I felt really moved by it. It saddened me, this question of not wanting to be in the world, but also not wanting to leave the people and things and places that you love in this world. This feeling of, I think we’re all feeling a version of this, watching what’s happening in the world, which is suddenly extremely undeniable, that things are kind of scary and not that wonderful in many ways. And we want, I think a lot of the people I talk to, a lot of my friends are saying I want out, but I don’t know where to go. And it’s that thing of this is my world, “How come it’s so hard here?” and “I want that version of the world that I felt safe and comfortable and right in.”

    But then all of these problems here are tied to things that I love too and we can’t really have it both ways.

    DG: Yeah, that’s true. How much of this homesickness for another world has to do with the fact that your mother is from Croatia and that your father is from Iran?

    OM: Well, it’s a complicated question because I’m not from those places, you know.

    DG: Yeah, you were born in Massachusetts.

    OM: Yeah, I was born in Boston. I’ve never been to Iran. I don’t identify as an Iranian at all. I don’t feel particularly Croatian although I think it’s a really beautiful country and I still have an uncle who lives in Zagreb … At the same time, I can’t say that I feel particularly American in the way that we can talk about Americanness. But I don’t know where else I would belong, you know.

    I’m from the Northeast. When I’m mining my imagination for places, I refer quite often to New England. I’ve written two novels now set in New England. A lot of the short stories are set in the northeast United States. And a novel that’s coming out next summer is set in New York City. That part of the country is where I’m from, it is in a way my homeland, but I don’t particularly care to identify with it. I don’t know if that’s just the kind of personality I have or that thing of I don’t want to be part of a club that would have me kind of attitude. I’m kind of a floater. For most of my young adult and adult life, I’ve moved every two years.

    DG: Your characters are so fascinating. They have these existential insecurities, insecurities that I can really relate to. Yet at the same time, they’re trying to, despite these insecurities, they’re trying to connect with other people and to better themselves. And I couldn’t help but notice that the first story is called “Bettering Myself” and the last story is called “A Better Place.” So, if you don’t mind my asking, how much of your characters’ existential insecurities come from your own life.

    OM: All of them. A hundred and 10 percent. Yeah. I mean I don’t have the answers. I mean, in some ways I’m asking these questions of my characters. Like “Is this going to be the story where at the end I’ve figured out my own existence?” Inevitably no, but maybe I’ve gotten a little closer to what my life is supposed to be, you know?

    DG: And if you did figure out your own existence, if you did write a story that you thought, “Hey, Eureka, I’ve figured out my own existence,” would that mean possibly, potentially that you would stop writing?

    OM: Yeah, probably. But I also think I would just disappear in a puff of smoke if that happened.

    DG: I read this story … in which you talk about this video performed by a singer named Lena Zavaroni and her cover version of a Neil Sedaka song called “Going Nowhere.” The response you had and the things you said about it were very intriguing and provocative. Can you tell me about this video and why it means so much to you?

    OM: Well, “Going Nowhere” is, first of all, an amazing song. And the more I hear it, the more relevant it feels in its lyrics and this description of where we feel we’re headed as individuals or as a society, generation after generation. But at the same time, it’s a really heartfelt and sweet song. It’s not a political song in the way that one might expect a song about the fallout of humanity to be.

    I was so moved by the performance because the singer, Lena Zavaroni, is this really small, delicate creature that possesses this insanely powerful voice. And in this performance of “Going Nowhere,” it seems like she is being possessed by a spirit. Her expression changes as the musical introduction begins. You can see her kind of getting into the state, she looks like she’s in a trance. And her performance is so intense, it’s like her life force being expressed directly to you. And it’s a powerful life force and it’s a message that feels non-intellectual in a way that just resonates really powerfully with me, like in my body. I understand this feeling of being lost, almost like in outer space. But knowing yourself and being fiercely determined to be alive. And I really related to her and just respected and admired her so much for this vulnerability and strength and deep unheard-of wisdom in the way that she transforms this song.

    DG: There was a really interesting part in this story where you said that writing saved your life. Can you talk a bit about how writing saved your life?

    OM: I think it saved my life in a way that it protected me from self-desertion at a young age. But it also, I think, protected who I was and that I could have an identity that was singular, I could have a relationship with myself through my creativity, and it had nothing to do with what anybody else was telling me.

    The messages I was getting from the world were mostly negative or I was interpreting them as negative. So, I could build an “Otessaland,” you know, out of my imagination and in that be productive and feel like my life is good for something.

  • Author: 'Magical Thinking' Is Baked Into Very Idea of American Exceptionalism

    Do you ever get the feeling that the world in which we live is becoming more fantastical and more surreal? Well, you’re not alone.

    That’s the very argument that best-selling novelist and “Studio 360” host Kurt Andersen makes in his new book, “Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire.” And according to Andersen, this tendency toward “magical thinking” isn’t a recent development. It goes back 500 years.

    Here’s an edited transcript of “BETA” host Doug Gordon’s conversation with Andersen:

    Doug Gordon: What is the “fantasy-industrial complex”?

    Kurt Andersen: I am mainly referring to the organized businesses and institutions and enterprises, non-profit and otherwise and profit-making, that are engaged in this, whether it’s all of the Hollywood enterprises of movies and video games and television and all the rest, all of the obvious stuff that has been part of our sort of show business past and where we’ve immersed ourselves more and more.

    But also the sort of amateur versions of that, from cosplay to LARPs (“Live Action Role Playing Games”) to all the rest, where people are immersing in their own various kinds of fantasies.

    But I also extend that to much of the Internet, to much of the real estate business, to much of the restaurant industry, to much of religion, to much of politics these days. So, what the point of that phrase was to say that it’s not just show business and it’s not just entertainment, that there are connections between all these other enterprises that we don’t think of as engaged in the business of fantasy that are, to various degrees, and more and more engaged in the business of fantasy.

    DG: So, how far back does the fantasy-industrial complex go?

    KA: I’d say it began in the early, mid-1800s and really had scaled up to its modern proportions early in the 21st century.

    DG: So, is it fair to say that this kind of magical thinking is baked into the very idea of American exceptionalism?

    KA: That’s what I came to believe. I’m not sure I started believing that. But my history and my inquiry and my tracing its roots back has led me to believe that, that it’s baked pretty deeply into it in various forms — whether it’s the religious forms that our earliest English settlers in New England had, this extreme sect of, frankly, of Christian zealots. Or the people in the South at that time who came desperately believing that they would in this Eden that was the New World where none of them had ever been, would find gold everywhere and get rich overnight. They didn’t. And so, those just desperately wishful cases of magical thinking were our beginning.

    DG: You’ve been paying attention to Donald Trump for a long time now. You co-founded “Spy” magazine in 1986 and devoted a lot of pages and a few covers to him. Now, here we are in 2017 and Trump is president. He’s probably the perfect spokesmodel for the fantasy-industrial complex, isn’t he?

    KA: Yes, he is. Absolutely. And I’m very grateful that I started writing this a couple of years before he was running for president. And then I finished it before he was elected president.

    Because it has a cleaner, purer existence; I didn’t take Donald Trump and say, “Oh, let me now reverse-engineer how this came to be.” It was the opposite. I wrote this, I thought about this for a decade, wrote it over a couple of years and then he appeared and was elected president. Yes — spokesmodel, apotheosis, avatar, choose your word. There he is.

    I mean, almost every one of my threads is embodied by him. He is not very religious, as we know, and religion is one of my threads. However, he is overwhelmingly supported by tens of millions of the most extremely religious Americans there are.

    So. No, it was extraordinary. And I also just realized since the book came out that if I hadn’t written it when I did and if it hadn’t come out now and Donald Trump had come along before I wrote the book, I would have said, “Ahh, I should have written the book. But now I can’t write it. It just looks like some fake explaining Donald Trump thing.”

    DG: I think it would be fair to say that one of the founding fathers of “Fantasyland” is Walt Disney. And the title of your book comes from one of the lands in his theme parks. What did Disney contribute to the fantasy-industrial complex?

    KA: Well, first of all, I think Walt Disney was hugely important. And second of all, much, if not most of what he did, in and of itself, wasn’t so terrible. But it does connect to what I’m talking about. And I think I’m not even talking about his amazing achievement as an animated film creator and producer. I’m really talking about Disneyland and especially, not so much Fantasyland, but the more real things. Like, for instance, Main Street, U.S.A. which is this recreation of, kind of an evocation of the small town in Missouri where he’d grown up. And I think it was this astonishing, incredibly, profoundly influential model for how America and how American developers and restaurateurs and everybody decided, “Oh, I get it. This is sweet, we shouldn’t tear down these old, well, maybe we should tear them down, but we can build fake ones that are just as good, or better.”

    And I think it became the model for housing, for real estate development, for renovating downtowns. And just in general, the kind of exquisite falsehood of Disneyland in general, beyond even Main Street U.S.A., was a revelation I think that Americans just went head over heels for. And said, “Oh, this is how I want to live, I want to live in my gated community, my themed gated community. Or I want to eat at my theme restaurant. And so on and so forth.” So, that’s my basic take on the incredible influence of Walt Disney.

    And then, of course, when this visionary idea of EPCOT, before he died and was unable to do what he wanted, was truly a visionary, fantastical remaking of urban America that he wanted to do. And not just a theme park. I think he, in a certain sense, would be happy about what’s happened in the half century since he died because, you know, what started in Disneyland certainly did not stay in Disneyland.

Episode Credits

  • Doug Gordon Host
  • Steve Gotcher Technical Director
  • Kurt Andersen Guest
  • Ottessa Moshfegh Guest
  • Craig Pittman Guest
  • Stephen Coates Guest
  • Robin Means Coleman Guest
  • Adam Friedrich Producer

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