Episode 608: Rachel Cochran, Aisha Harris, ‘Lynch/Oz’

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stage featuring the green smoke from 'The Wizard of Oz'
Courtesy of Janus Films

Rachel Cochran talks about her Southern noir novel, “The Gulf.” Also, Aisha Harris, cohost of NPR’s ‘Pop Culture Happy Hour,’ joins us to discuss her book, ‘Wannabe.’ And director Alexandre Philippe on his documentary, ‘Lynch/Oz.’ It explores the connections between David Lynch’s films and ‘The Wizard of Oz.’

Featured in this Show

  • Author Rachel Cochran on her stormy southern gothic, 'The Gulf'

    Rachel Cochran’s “The Gulf” is a literary thriller set in the fictional Texas gulf town of Parson during the 1970s. Parson is reeling after a severe storm wreaked havoc and catastrophic damage on its residents.

    Even as the town works to physically rebuild, the depth of the psychological toll and forbidden pasts are just surfacing.

    “Southern gothic, uniquely, is not just about hauntings or about the transgression of the unnatural or the uncanny into the natural space, but it’s specifically about the American South and the violences that it committed,” Cochran told Wisconsin Public Radio’s “BETA.”

    I consider ‘The Gulf’ a southern gothic because the ghosts are both kind of internal and external. They do things that are just ever so slightly unexplainable. But almost all of it has to do with the psychologies of the characters and their own individual experiences of guilt.”

    At the center of Parson residents dealing with guilt is Cochran’s protagonist, the fiery Louisa “Lou” Ward. Lou is a handywoman by day and bartender by night and lives with her sister-in-law Heather and niece Sarah. Lou moved in with them after her brother Robby dies in Vietnam.

    “(Lou) can sort of take care of herself in a way that I think I really admire,” Cochran said. “Particularly as a queer woman — closeted, of course — but clearly incredibly out of step with what her community expectations about her, her gender and gender performance should be so very visibly a sort of other, an outsider which could make her a victim of potential violence.”

    Lou spends her days fixing up Parson House, an old plantation that’s been converted into a historic mansion. She does this for Miss Kate who mysteriously bought Parson House after the storm and happens to be the mother of Lou’s first love and childhood friend, Joanna.

    She spends her evenings bartending at Buck’s, one of the rowdiest bars in town, and avoiding arguments with Heather, whom she has formed a secretive love affair with, about moving to San Antonio.

    “Everyone else seems to be fleeing Parson in the aftermath. There’s no real reason to rebuild because the storm did so much damage. But Lou is very stubborn, and she clings to Parson, she doesn’t want to leave. It’s the only sense of home that she’s ever had or ever known,” Cochran said. “So, she’s a little stuck in the past, a little sort of drawn back into those moments from her youth.”

    Then, Lou finds Miss Kate dead in the Parson House garden. The town quickly conspires to rule Miss Kate’s death a suicide and move on, but something about the situation nags at Lou. Her suspicions only grow when the enigmatic and estranged Joanna returns to Parson to settle Miss Kate’s estate.

    “Lou blames Joanna for basically everything that has gone wrong in her life since Joanna left suddenly, right at the beginning of the school year, their freshman year of high school. There are some reasons Lou blames Joanna that are fair and that follow a kind of logic, and then there are others that feel like obsessively, tempestuously an extension of Lou’s more stubborn, more self-isolated, self-obsessed kind of side of her personality,” Cochran said.

    Lou and Robby were abandoned by their mother as children and taken in by their Aunt Cece. Cece’s Mexican-American heritage had to be kept secret to keep the kids in a prestigious all-white school and Robby’s football stardom alive.

    “Lou’s logic is that Joanna told the big secret about Aunt CeCe and made the community suddenly aware of and questioning of Lou and Robby’s parentage. So they ended up being moved to the other school with fewer resources,” Cochran said. “Lou blames Joanna for the fact that her brother ended up still stuck in this town when the Vietnam draft came calling, and he eventually lost his life in Vietnam. So Lou draws a tenuous connection between Joanna’s betrayal when they were children to her brother’s death in Vietnam many years later.”

    Certain frustrations and passions are reignited when Joanna arrives at Buck’s out of the blue one night to ask Lou to finish fixing up Parson House so that she can sell it.

    Cochran weaves in so many more fleshed out characters including friends, relatives and residents that are entangled in some way, shape or form — be they former classmates, church congregations or lovers — to the mystery around Parson House.

    “I am an obsessive outliner, and I use spreadsheets on my computer to outline the book,” Cochran said. “There’s a lot of moving pieces in the book and it took a lot of obsessive planning and careful sort of X-raying of the novel as I went along and as I went back through for revision to make sure everyone’s sort of on the right tracks throughout.”

    There’s an irreverent meta-moment in the novel where Lou ponders to herself during her journey to solve the nagging question of Miss Kate’s death, that there’s so many people who could’ve been behind it, but Cochran uses that to her advantage.

    That juggling of characters adds to the book’s propulsion and tension rather than bogging it down. These characters all shade and reshape Lou’s perspective on things that alter ours as readers as well. All of it leads toward a conclusion that’s both earned and ultimately internal.

    “I was reading a lot of these more literary mysteries where the thing that happens is more about unlocking a person’s truth than it is about any big kind of fireworks,” she says. “I think one of the most dramatic things that we do in our real lives is we learn new information about people we thought we knew and that new information, that new perspective totally changes our world. And it can rock us more deeply than any external event ever could.”

    The Gulf” is out now from HarperCollins.

  • NPR's 'Pop Culture Happy Hour' cohost Aisha Harris shares how pop culture has shaped her life

    If you’re an NPR fan — and the chances are pretty high that you are — you’re probably familiar with the hit NPR podcast, “Pop Culture Happy Hour.”

    Aisha Harris is a cohost and reporter for the show. She’s also the author of a debut essay collection, “Wannabe: Reckonings with the Pop Culture That Shapes Me.” Harris covers a lot of fascinating ground in her book.

    For example, Harris explores the evolution of the “Black friend” trope all the way from its origins in Taiwan to the Spice Girls during the 90s. She also puts her master’s degree in cinema studies from NYU to good use while writing about her work as a Black film critic.

    Harris talked to Wisconsin Public Radio’sBETA” about how she has worked through her more existential issues by examining pop culture.

    I learned that I am still evolving and still very much a work in progress as to how I interact with pop culture. It’s interesting because there’s a lot of big-issue life lessons that I detailed throughout the book (“Wannabe”), including my ideas around sex and gender and masculinity and this idea of wanting to be the sort of female version of a man in the most narrowly defined ways,” she said.

    “What I’ve learned is that I really do use pop culture as like a way of learning more about myself and that it’s OK to evolve and it’s OK to change my perspective on things.”

    Escaping the ‘Black friend’ trope

    “I was someone who grew up in predominantly white spaces, and a lot of my friends, especially in elementary school, were white,” she said. “And what I wanted to do was really work through both how the Black friends had shown up in pop culture and also how in many ways I reflected the Black friend trope in my own life.”

    Harris said she often felt like a sidekick or a sounding board during conversations with her white friends.

    “And so that was kind of one of the things that I really wanted to work through — how I created my own version of the Black best friend and how I had to eventually move away from it.”

    Reviewing Black movies as a Black critic

    One of the assumptions that bothers Harris as a Black film critic is the belief that all Black artists should be exempt from negativity.

    “Part of being a critic of anything white, regardless of your background, is that people are going to not agree with you because criticism is, of course, something that is subjective and we all have our different opinions,” Harris said. “But I think as a Black critic, there’s an extra layer of scrutiny and a sort of tension that exists when you are reviewing Black art that I don’t think exists in other cases.”

    “There’s this expectation that we should not be too harsh on the Black art that we don’t like. And I think that that comes from this scarcity mindset that has its roots in real history of there being scarcity. But as I argue in the book, I really wanted to point out that we are in this really flourishing time of Black art in the mainstream and on the outskirts where we have all of these creators — people like Barry Jenkins, Ava DuVernay, Issa Rae — who are really expanding what Blackness can look like on film and TV.

    “And it’s no longer just one person. It’s no longer on the shoulders of Sidney Poitier or Harry Belafonte or Ruby Dee. We have so much more. And so I think that because we also have so much more, some of it is not going to be great. Some of it is not going to be good, even. And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with pointing that out.”

    Reviewing Ava Duvernay’s ‘A Wrinkle In Time’

    A few years ago, Harris had some difficulty writing a review of Ava DuVernay’s adaptation of “A Wrinkle in Time.” The movie was based on Madeleine L’Engle’s Newbery Medal-winning young adult novel of the same name, the first book in the “Time Quintet” series.

    “I’ve always admired her work, and I still do,” Harris said. “But that movie presented a challenge for me because I didn’t like it. And the other challenge was that she was the first Black woman of color ever to direct a $100 million movie. So there was a lot at stake — ostensibly at stake — for that movie. And again, that scarcity mindset of, well, if this movie bombs, they’re not going to give the opportunity again to another woman of color to direct a movie this big. That’s a real fear.

    “But I also think you have to stay true to the work and true to how you respond to it. And my duty, I feel, as a critic, is to be as honest about how a movie hits me as possible. And so with that movie, I really struggled because I didn’t want to trash this movie because I respected her and also because of that scarcity. But I also wound up realizing, you know, I have to be honest about this. I don’t think my little review at the time did anything to harm the movie’s box office. It was going to do what it was going to do. And most of the critiques of that movie were kind of middling.”

    Black Santa goes viral

    In 2013, Harris was 25-years-old and she was working as a writer at Slate.

    “We were pitching ideas for potential holiday-themed articles, and I thought about how growing up, there was always a Black Santa in my household. But I never really saw Black Santas outside of that,” she said.

    “I thought, what if instead of Santa Claus being a human, he could just be a penguin? Because everyone loves penguins. It’s an animal. And little kids, regardless of their background, don’t have to wonder, ‘Oh, why doesn’t Santa look like me?’ I wrote that article and I meant it as sort of tongue in cheek. I didn’t actually think we were suddenly going to switch to making Santa a penguin. Megyn Kelly, who was at the time still at Fox News, did a whole segment on it and it went viral. And it was a little wild.”

    “It was really interesting to see how much people really reacted to it and how upset some people were and how happy they were about my point of view. And I really connected to the fact that 10 years later now, it feels like maybe things have gotten worse. And we have so many people, especially conservatives, complaining about things being too woke just because suddenly there are Black and Asian people in ‘Star Wars’ or ‘The Little Mermaid’ is now Black in the remake of that film.”

    Harris said she thinks that Americans cling too heavily to mythological and traditional representations in our history and popular culture. She said she wishes people would be more open and malleable when our fictional minds consider these fictional characters.

    “Be mindful of them being open to change because change is good, and I think everything should morph in certain ways and evolve in different ways beyond what we are traditionally used to seeing,” she said.

  • Follow the yellow brick road and take a left at Mulholland Drive

    Quick question for you: Which David Lynch movie reminds you most of “The Wizard of Oz?”

    Chances are that you said “Wild at Heart.” And yes, there are definitely some Ozian moments in that film — the drive to New Orleans could be interpreted as the yellow brick road. And let’s not forget the clicking of the heels.

    But director Alexandre O. Philippe would disagree. He says that “Wild at Heart” is the least Ozian film in the LCU, or Lynch Cinematic Universe.

    Philippe’s latest documentary is called “Lynch/Oz,” and as the title suggests, it explores the parallels between Lynch’s films and “The Wizard of Oz.”

    “I think we all certainly know David Lynch as a very intuitive filmmaker, writer who does Transcendental Meditation, who taps into these other worlds in a way. And I’m absolutely convinced that there’s a number of moments in his cinema that tap into the vernacular of ‘The Wizard of Oz’ in a way that is not necessarily conscious to him,” Philippe told Wisconsin Public Radio’s “BETA.”

    “Lynch/Oz” includes commentaries from several film critics and directors like Amy Nicholson and frequent “BETA” guest “The Prince of Puke” John Waters. Collectively, they paint a fascinating connection between Lynch’s visions and Oz. We sat down with Philippe to find out why he wanted to make this intriguing film.

    “I’ve been a Lynch fan for a long time,” he said. “He’s one of the transformational filmmakers for me. And, you know, I came into ‘The Wizard of Oz’ rather late. I grew up in Switzerland and Geneva. And ‘The Wizard of Oz’ is not the quintessential fairy tale in Europe. You don’t really see it on television at all.”

    Philippe thinks he discovered “The Wizard of Oz” in his early 20s. And the David Lynch fan culture had been floating around for a while, so it was only a matter of time until people become aware of the discussion about the connections between Lynch and Oz.

    “Then, of course, when you get to pick the brains of people like John Waters, Karyn Kusama and David Lowery and so on and so forth, of course, you’re going to discover incredible things,” Philippe said.

    Chapter 1: ‘Wind’ with Amy Nicholson

    “Lynch/Oz” is narrated by seven different people. Philippe organized his film by thematic chapters. Chapter One is called “Wind” and features film critic Amy Nicholson. The rhythms and tone of Nicholson’s voice blend so well with the subject of how Lynch uses wind in his work.

    “Amy was the first one I reached out to,” Philippe explained.

    “I didn’t know she was going to be the first chapter, but I really loved a number of the things that she said in her podcast episode on ‘The Wizard of Oz,’” he said. “And I think she’s really important because she grounds the narrative and the significance of ‘The Wizard of Oz’ and culture, which is a very important sort of starting point and creates these very strong one-to-one connections between Lynch and ‘The Wizard of Oz.’”

    One of Nicholson’s astute observations occurs at the beginning of “The Wizard of Oz” when the title appears. The viewer hears a gust of wind, but it is not a sound effect. It is humans making the sound. Nicholson raises the question of whether or not these are the same winds that we hear in Lynch’s films.

    Chapter 4: ‘Multitudes’ with Karyn Kusama

    In Chapter Four, filmmaker Karyn Kusama explores the theme of multitudes, and she has some fascinating ideas about “Mulholland Drive,” especially her idea of the dream within the consciousness of Naomi Watts’ character.

    “What I love about her chapter is that she really zeroes in on ‘Mulholland Drive,’” Philippe said of Kusama. “She very strongly makes the argument that it is the most Ozian of all.”

    Kusama points out that the film says sometimes, we learn more about a character from their dreams rather than their reality.

    “There are a lot of ideas in her chapter,” Philippe said.

    He said that the greatest takeaway from this chapter is the way Kusama talks about this optimism.

    “You have a character who’s projecting herself as the best version of herself, and that through that, we get to appreciate her more as a character. I think there’s something really beautiful about that,” Philippe said.

    Philippe has made documentaries about “Night of the Living Dead,the “Psycho” shower scene (as featured on “BETA”), the origins of “Alien” and “The Exorcist.” And the film critic Owen Gleiberman said Philippe has basically made a quartet of documentaries about the four key horror landmarks of the last 65 years.

    Was that intentional?

    “No, it wasn’t intentional,” Philippe said. “And in fact, there’s one missing that we’re about to tackle, and that’s ‘The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.’ Let’s not forget that one.”

Episode Credits

  • Doug Gordon Host
  • Adam Friedrich Producer
  • Steve Gotcher Producer
  • Tyler Ditter Producer
  • Steve Gotcher Technical Director
  • Rachel Cochran Guest
  • Aisha Harris Guest
  • Alexandre O. Philippe Guest

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