Episode 316: George Saunders, “The Last Blockbuster,” Brandy Jensen

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Promo still from "The Last Blockbuster": Film critic Jared Rasic browsing aisle
Courtesy of Pop Motion Pictures

The acclaimed author George Saunders shares some life lessons from 19th-century Russian writers like Chekhov and Tolstoy. We’ll also meet the creators of the documentary, “The Last Blockbuster.” And Twitter star Brandy Jensen talks about turning her life mistakes into an advice column.

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  • George Saunders On Life Lessons Learned From Russian Writers

    The acclaimed, award-winning author George Saunders has been teaching a class about the Russian short story to his MFA students at Syracuse University for the past two decades. Now he’s transformed this class into a book called “A Swim in a Pond in the Rain: In Which Four Russians Give a Master Class on Writing, Reading, and Life.”

    The book features eight stories by such 19th century Russian masters as Anton Chekhov and Leo Tolstoy, along with Saunders’ insightful essays about the stories. He describes the eight stories as “moral fables.” He told WPR’s “BETA” that these stories “speak to the kind of questions that keep us up at night: ‘How should I live? Why is there death in the world? You know, what is love really?’”

    “I just love them so much, and what I found over the years was if I was teaching something about which I felt enthusiasm, it always made for a better class,” Saunders said. “We ended up getting into these beautiful moments where the distinction between teacher and class goes away, and we’re just a bunch of writers trying to figure out how these stories work.”

    Saunders refers to the “physics” of a short story throughout his book. He says that he likes to use this word because before he became a writer, he was an engineer from a working-class background. As a result, he always viewed stories as entertainment. And he discovered over the years that the best way to think about short stories is to figure out where his mind is when he starts reading a story. At that point, the mind is empty.

    “Then you read, even a paragraph, and suddenly you’re inflected a little bit,” he explained. “You’ve got some curiosity aroused, you’ve got some emotions aroused. So that’s really the basis for how I write and read stories, is let’s just treat it as an experience that we go into that inflects us and does something to us. We can look at it kind of diagnostically and say, ‘Well, what did it do? Where did it do it? Was it positive or negative? And when I left the story, how was I changed relative to the guy who started it?’”

    Saunders first encountered Chekhov’s 1898 short story “Gooseberries” during his first semester as a student at Syracuse. His teacher, Tobias Wolff, was scheduled to do a reading on a snowy night. Wolff was feeling a little under the weather, so he decided to read some Chekhov instead of his own work.

    “And it was just one of the most beautiful performances I’ve ever heard,” Saunders recalled. “It was almost like Chekhov had materialized in the room.”

    This experience was a turning point in Saunders’ life.

    “It was just a moment when I went, ‘Oh, yeah, this is what I’m going to be doing with the rest of my life for sure. If I could do anything that even approximates the feeling that we had in that room, I would kill to do it, you know, let’s get started.’”

    On the surface, “Gooseberries” is a fairly simple story. It’s about two men who are out hunting on a Russian plain. It starts to rain, so they seek shelter at the home of a friend who lives nearby. One of the two hunters tells a story that bores the other two men.

    His story is about a very kind of radical notion, which is that happiness is not actually good, that happiness is a form of decadence, that if I’m happy, it’s because someone else, somewhere, has paid for it, you know, oppressing them,” Saunders explained. “It’s a story about the way that we all feel when everything goes right and when we do a little victory dance, and then we feel kind of guilty about it. You know, that kind of almost sugar buzzy feeling that comes from happiness, especially in a culture like ours where so many have so much and others have so little.”

    Saunders describes “Gooseberries” as “a living, breathing thing” that contradicts itself.

    “It leaves the reader at the end saying, ‘Wait a minute, is happiness good or not?’ And the story goes, ‘I know, right?’ And then Chekhov leaves the stage. It’s almost like Wile E. Coyote when he goes off the cliff, you know, he stands for just a second. For a second he’s flying, you know, and then he’s not.”

    “BETA” asked Saunders about the physics of his short story, “Sticks,” from his short-story collection, “Tenth of December.” The story is only 392 words long, yet it is very powerful. Saunders wrote the story back when he was still working as an engineer. He and his family had been going to a Lutheran church. There was a house that they would pass every Sunday that had a metal pole with a crossbar in the front yard. Somebody living in the house would decorate it every week. They’d put a ghost costume on it for Halloween and a helmet on it when the Buffalo Bills were playing.

    “So I was going to write a story admiring that guy,” Saunders recalled. “And when a first idea about a story comes to you, if you just turn it around 180 degrees, it’s better. So in this case, I said, ‘OK, I’m thinking about the positive qualities of doing something like that. What about the negative? What might that tendency be hiding or cloaking?’”

    He wrote “Sticks” in one sitting and he doesn’t think he did much rewriting. Saunders put it aside and 15 years later, he included it in “Tenth of December.”

    “And people have responded to it. I’m not really sure why. It was just literally an impulse and then a blurt. That doesn’t happen too often, but it’s always nice when it does.”

    One of the strengths of the Russian short stories that Saunders analyzes in his book is that they show us how “habitually judgy we are” and how the world we live in does not really support this position of strong judgment. Saunders says that our constant need to pass judgment makes us “morally smaller beings.”

    Saunders says he thought analyzing these short stories might make writing more difficult. He anticipated becoming more self-conscious while writing, but the opposite has happened. He said he is “so excited about the possibilities of the form.”

  • Did Streaming Kill The Video Store?

    Remember when you couldn’t watch movies streaming directly into the comfort of your own home? When you actually had to make a real effort to watch the latest hit movies by heading to your local video store and renting a movie?

    Maybe you supported your local independent video store. But chances are pretty good that sometimes you had to make it a Blockbuster night.

    You may think that Blockbuster Video went out of business years ago. And you’d be right; it was 2010 to be exact. But there is still one remaining Blockbuster Video store in Bend, Oregon. Director Taylor Morden and writer/producer Zeke Kamm joined forces to create the documentary, “The Last Blockbuster.

    Morden moved back to Oregon from the East Coast in 2016. He moved to the city of Bend. As he kept driving around the area, he kept seeing the big blue and yellow iconic Blockbuster Video sign. He knew that Blockbuster had gone out of business, so he just assumed it was an empty store. But then one day, he decided to stop and check out the remains of the store.

    “And much to my shock and amazement, it was a fully functional, fully operational battle station,” Morden told WPR’s “BETA.” “You walk in and it was like no one had told them that Blockbuster went out of business. It looked the same, it felt the same, it smelled the same — just like I remember it. It was like going through a time warp back to 1999. The first thing that popped into my head as a filmmaker was, ‘Oh, my God, what is going on here? How are they still in business? Who is still renting DVDs in 2016?’

    Morden teamed up with Kamm to produce the documentary, which features — fittingly enough — an all-star cast of talking heads, including director Kevin Smith, comedians Doug Benson and Brian Posehn, and actor Ione Skye. Actor Lauren Lapkus narrates the film.

    The first Blockbuster store opened in Dallas, Texas, in 1985 and other locations soon followed. The company was able to expand fairly quickly because they had some advanced software that allowed them to use computers while other stores were still checking out videos manually.

    In 1998, Blockbuster Video negotiated revenue-sharing agreements with major movie studios which further fueled the company’s growth. This allowed Blockbuster to buy multiple copies of movie videos for very little money and split the profits with the studios.

    “So Blockbuster could get 100 copies of ‘The Matrix’ and they weren’t paying $150 each. They were paying $1 each,” Morden explained. This gave the company a huge advantage over the independent mom-and-pop video stores.

    The star of the documentary is Sandi Harding, the manager of the last Blockbuster Video store. “She’s just the greatest lady,” Kamm said. “If you didn’t fall in love with her watching the film, then we failed.”

    Sandi Harding
    Promo still of Sandi Harding from “The Last Blockbuster.” Photo courtesy Pop Motion Pictures

    “She’s just so nice, so caring, so thoughtful. We finished shooting and we were trying to find a distributor, and we didn’t know if it was going to happen because all the film festivals were closing because of COVID. And she said to both of us, ‘If you guys need work, you can always work here at the store.’”

    One of the big moments in Blockbuster’s history occurred in 1994 when Sumner Redstone, the executive chairman of the mass media company Viacom, bought Blockbuster for $8.4 billion.

    At first, this deal helped Blockbuster expand, Kamm said. “But (Redstone) decided to use it as an ATM machine and started leveraging against it kind of as a sacrificial cow. And ultimately, it put them in a very, very difficult position as a chain,” he said.

    In 2000, Blockbuster was experiencing stiff competition from Redbox, Netflix, on-demand movies and the DVR. Netflix managed to set up a meeting with the Blockbuster Video executives, Morden said. At that time, Netflix was a new startup with their idea of allowing customers to rent DVDs via the mail.

    “We’ve got the startup company, and you guys have the infrastructure and the name Blockbuster,” Morden explained. “Why don’t you buy us out and we’ll merge and we’ll do DVDs by mail. And, you know, you can have all of Netflix at the time for $50 million, which was no money to Blockbuster.”

    That would have been the best bargain in the history of entertainment,” Morden said. “And then, Netflix went on to become Netflix and Blockbuster went on to, well, not become Netflix.”

    “To become our movie,” Kamm added.

    So, is it fair to say that streaming video killed the video store? Or is there more to it than that?

    Kamm says that’s definitely part of it. “But streaming didn’t happen overnight and Blockbuster went out of business overnight,” he said. “So I think when you look at those two, you realize what we realized when we started making the film, which is that’s not what happened.”

    At the end of the film, there’s a montage in which Morden and Kamm give each of the film’s talking heads a VHS tape.

    “Movies used to be an object, and this is what it felt like and sounded like,” Morden said. “And there’s weight to it, and we couldn’t think of a better way to convey that. All those wheels would turn in their brains just like they did for us. They’re struck immediately by the weight and the sound and the feel of it without fail. Every single person we handed it to was just like taken back 20 years instantly.”

  • Brandy Jensen Channels Life Experience Into Advice Column

    For years now, Brandy Jensen has been one of Twitter’s most prominent personalities. Where many social media users and influencers construct aspirational avatars of their lives, Jensen combines a fresh openness, snark and humanity to paint a fairly accurate portrait of who she really is. That may be the very ingredient to why she’s attracted over 100,000 followers.

    “My Twitter voice is just my voice. It really is. I just kind of tweet whatever pops into my head. And for whatever reason other people seem to like it. I wouldn’t say that there’s a whole lot of distance between my Twitter voice and just me,” Jensen said.

    She told WPR’s “BETA” that with a background in English and writing, the constraints of Twitter’s character limit honed her ability to compose with clarity. And she admits that she often even thinks now in tweet-sized measures.

    “Often, I’ll have an opinion about something that’s going on and it’ll just kind of like occur to me in the cadence and the syntax of a tweet. I’ll automatically try to kind of narrow it down to like, ‘What is the most basic the most fundamental way that I could express this thought?’” said Jensen. “It’s good at forcing you to kind of whittle down all the extraneous elements of what you want to communicate and just get it really down to basics. And that can be a good skill to have as a writer.”

    Jensen moved to New York from the Midwest after a divorce, using her budding Twitter brand to snag a job as a social media manager. She wound up doing social for the now defunct online publication, The Outline. It was there where Jensen began branching out and started editing articles.

    “At The Outline, I floated the idea that maybe I could try to be an editor because I have a background as an English major. And so I thought that editing might be something that I would be good at. They were good enough to let me try it and it turned out that I liked it a lot,” she said.

    During this time, Brandy tweeted out a joke that with all of the mistakes she’s made in her life, she could author a cautionary advice column. Her bosses at The Outline saw the tweet and acted on the old cliché that in every joke lies a little truth.

    “I thought it would be funny if somebody gave me an advice column based on the premise that I haven’t really managed to learn a lot from my mistakes, but maybe somebody else can,” she said. “And then my boss, the editor at The Outline at the time, just sent me a message on Slack and was like ‘You should do this. We want you to do this.’ And so that’s how it got started.”

    And thus, her column – ‘Ask A F— Up‘ – was born.

    Jensen — a fan of the advice column format and Cheryl Strayed’s ‘Dear Sugar’ in particular — admits that one of the bigger hurdles about an advice column is that you’re limited to your inbox.

    “I don’t think that when people write into an advice column, they’re necessarily looking for advice. I think more often what they’re looking for is permission or validation,” she said.

    While the concept began as a joke, Jensen takes her work seriously and has risen to the task. And even though there’s a lot of fun in her column, she said she tries to ground her advice in simply having people ask more of themselves.

    “I think of my advice column as a little bit more practical, which I think might go some way to explaining why it’s become popular,” said Jensen. “I think that there is definitely a need out there to think about practical ethics, like ‘How is it that we ought to behave? What is permissible? What do we owe each other? How do we live in a society with each other?’ I think people are kind of returning to more basic questions like that.”

    Recently though, Jensen was faced with an incredibly tough question. Someone had written in blaming themselves for their father’s suicide. For someone known for her snark and humor, Brandy changed gears effortlessly and handled the answer with grace, compassion and tact.

    “It’s very easy to meet somebody’s raw grief or suffering with empty platitudes and I think that often can make it worse. So, I didn’t want to make it worse.”

    Jensen reached out to a few friends who had lost loved ones to suicide and crafted a sincere response that prompted the letter writer to write back thanking Brandy.

    “I did hear back and she did say that she found it helpful, which is, you know, all I can ever hope for,” said Jensen.

    Jensen wasn’t sure how long her column would go on for and figured that when The Outline folded and she relocated to New Orleans that her column would wrap up too. However, it was picked up by the popular website, Jezebel and continues to thrive.

    “Jezebel has a larger readership than The Outline. So, it helps the column in that sense. I think I probably get a wider range of questions,” said Jensen. Although she’s noticing that writing for Jezebel — tagged as ‘A Supposedly Feminist Website’ — has skewed the gender split in her inbox. “I got a lot more men writing to me when it was at The Outline and I would encourage men to continue writing to me, even though it’s at Jezebel.”

    For now, Jensen is continuing on with ‘Ask A F— Up’ on her Substack page*. She quips that she never planned any of this so what’s next will likely surface in the same spontaneous spirit.

    “I learned long ago that that coming up with elaborate plans for myself is just a great way to like look back and laugh later when nothing goes the way you thought it would.”

    *Updated in January of 2024 to reflect the column’s new home. It was previously at Jezebel.

Episode Credits

  • Doug Gordon Host
  • Adam Friedrich Producer
  • Steve Gotcher Producer
  • Steve Gotcher Technical Director
  • George Saunders Guest
  • Taylor Morden Guest
  • Zeke Kamm Guest
  • Brandy Jensen Guest

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