Episode 614: Gary Gulman, Wes Anderson’s ‘The French Dispatch,’ Why Tammy Wynette Matters

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Director Wes Anderson poses for photographers at the photo call for the film 'The French Dispatch'
Director Wes Anderson poses for photographers at the photo call for the film ‘The French Dispatch’ at the 74th international film festival, Cannes, southern France, Tuesday, July 13, 2021. Vadim Ghirda/AP Photo

Comedian Gary Gulman on what it was like growing up awkward in the ‘80s. TV and movie critic Matt Zoller Seitz takes us behind the scenes of Wes Anderson’s 2021 film, “The French Dispatch.” And artist Steacy Easton makes the case for why country singer Tammy Wynette matters.

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  • Comedian Gary Gulman remembers growing up awkward in his memoir, 'Misfit'

    As a comedian, Gary Gulman has been making audiences laugh for more than two decades. He has been a guest on all the major late-night comedy shows.

    But things have not always been a laugh riot. There have been some tough times along the way.

    In 2016, Gulman moved back into his mother’s home in suburban Boston in an effort to recover his mental health. He’s turned his life around since then.

    Gulman is the author of the hilarious and moving memoir, “Misfit: Growing Up Awkward in the ’80s.” He talked all about it recently with Wisconsin Public Radio’sBETA.”

    Every chapter of “Misfit” covers one year of his childhood, from kindergarten to 12th grade. Gulman also includes some poignant writing about his battles with depression.

    And Gulman being Gulman, he also had some fun with the book. For example, he wrote an “Introduction to the Introduction.”

    This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

    Doug Gordon: Gary, why did you decide to write an “Introduction to the Introduction” for your memoir, “Misfit”?

    Gary Gulman: I have sort of a compulsion or a ritual of reading the intro, the preface or the foreword, and that I will not start after it. I will not do anything before it.

    And I’ve gotten a lot out of reading, though, as I read kind of a new foreword or a preface to an edition of ‘The Grapes of Wrath.’ And reading it is just as important as reading the body of the book, the actual book and was really helpful.

    So I’ve always been insistent on this. And I wanted to call out people who don’t read the intros and then tell you that they read the book. So it was sort of a thing where I was teasing people about not reading the intro and skipping forward and cutting corners. But also I wanted to reinforce how important it was in my case to read the introduction.

    DG: I think it is important to read the introduction. And I have OCD, so I when I read something, I insist that I have to read the introduction. And I’m wondering, did you ever consider writing an epilogue and an epilogue to the epilogue?

    GG: I didn’t consider that. But now I wish I had, because that is a really great idea. I remember early in my life, people would write letters to each other and they would put ‘PS’ and then ‘PSS’ and ‘PSSS.’ And I always found that really funny and clever.

    It’s a missed opportunity, but you’re a very clever person.

    DG: Well, thank you. That means a lot coming from such a clever, funny person. I’ve got to get that tattooed on my arm. But you could still do it for when the paperback comes out.

    GG: That’s a great idea, because there are adjustments made to paperbacks, and I will definitely partake in that.

    DG: Excellent. You devote entire chapters to each year of your education all the way from kindergarten to the 12th grade. And I’m just astonished at all the details you remembered. How were you able to remember all these details?

    GG: It was a combination of things. One thing was that I have this habit that probably started as soon as I became conscious. It was knowing there were things and events that I would never forget and frequently commented on them. Either in my head or aloud, I would say, ‘I will never forget this.’

    And it was either a great thing or in some cases a negative, sad or traumatic thing. And I was true to my word. I never forgot so many of these things.

    The other thing is that I always admired my dad’s ability to tell compelling stories from his youth. And we had heard them over and over again over the years and knew them and requested them and could repeat them and still sometimes think about them. But I knew early on that remembering what happened to you as a kid was going to be a positive thing and a helpful thing in terms of being a compelling storyteller.

    cover of Gary Gulman's memoir, 'Misfit: Growing Up Awkward in the '80s'
    Photo courtesy Flatiron Books

    DG: You had one enemy in Jewish summer camp, a boy you referred to as Kapler. Can you tell us about him?

    GG: Yes. He was my enemy because he was no more athletic than me or really charming or interesting than me. He was just a regular kid. But he had enormous confidence. And he made the softball team and he starred in the camp play and he won the sandcastle building contest.

    I just I could not understand why this kid who really did not have so much more going for him than I did was so confident. And I was so shy and sad and felt anxious all the time. And so I just felt — although he had no idea that I was resenting him — I had built up so much resentment because I was losing all these things to this kid who I couldn’t figure out why he felt so good about himself when I felt so lousy about myself.

    DG: You had this great opportunity to publicly display your resentment during the experience the day you guys went to a zip line in the woods. Can you tell us that story?

    GG: Yes. I didn’t go on the zip line because I was too afraid. And Kapler, of course, was the first to go on. He was so energetic and was not afraid. He believed in himself. He went on there and he zipped down and he came down and he returned a hero. And everybody was so impressed by him. They surrounded him and they said, ‘What was it like? And did you have a good time?’

    And I’ll never forget what he said. He said, ‘Well, you learn so much about yourself.’

    He was 9 or 10 years old. And I just remember thinking, well, he copied that. He heard that on a commercial for Outward Bound or from an astronaut or something.

    And he decided to say this and everybody oohed and aahed, and I said to him, ‘Kapler, why do you have to be so preachy? You sound like a commercial.’ And he was not fazed by being called out by that. He didn’t really care.

    People looked at me like I was an ogre and a jerk. And I just, it blew up in my face, but I couldn’t resist. I was so turned off by his bravado and his false confidence. Well, maybe it wasn’t false, but also his pretentiousness, I guess.

    DG: Besides writing about your childhood, you also wrote some very powerful passages about your battles with depression and anxiety in 2017. You were very honest about these feelings in your compelling HBO special, “The Great Depresh.” Why did you choose to revisit these dark days?

    GG: It was just this hurricane of nostalgia and reminiscing. It brought back a lot of the things that I feared but was now overcoming. And a lot of my trauma and a lot of my worldview had been developed when I was young.

    So I felt early on it needed to be clear why this 46-year-old man was spending so much time analyzing kindergarten through 12th grade. And I thought this was a really good device to make sense of that.

  • Wes Anderson’s 'The French Dispatch' may be his most personal yet

    Director Wes Anderson has always had an affinity for French films.

    In fact, his first short film, “Bottle Rocket,” featured a shot-for-shot homage to “400 Blows” — the debut film from French new wave director Francois Truffaut.

    “From a very early age, he was obsessed with all things French,” critic Matt Zoller Seitz told Wisconsin Public Radio’s “BETA” of the Texas-born filmmaker. “(Anderson) made Dallas, which among other things is not known for its architecturally dazzling qualities, look like it could be France in the 50s.”

    As it happens, Seitz was a young film critic living in the Dallas area at the time of Anderson’s emergence. He was the first (and perhaps only) person to review the “Bottle Rocket” short critically and the two forged a friendship that’s lasted over 30 years.

    “I’ve gotten to watch him evolve over that span of time, professionally and personally,” Seitz said.

    Nearly three decades later, Anderson would fulfill his obsession with French cinema with the release of his 2021 film, “The French Dispatch,” an homage to and inspired by The New Yorker magazine and the writers that contributed to it.

    Once again, Seitz was available to chronicle and critique Anderson’s creative process. He has captured it all in the official eponymous companion book, “The French Dispatch,” as part of his Wes Anderson Collection.

    In fact, it was Seitz himself who may have kickstarted Anderson’s interest with The New Yorker history.

    “I do know that he always loved The New Yorker from the time he was in high school,” Seitz said. “He got his subscription in college, and he has every issue of The New Yorker that he ever received in leather-bound editions in his New York offices.”

    Sensing Anderson’s fandom of The New Yorker, Seitz recommended famed contributor Joseph Mitchell’s book, “Up in the Old Hotel and Other Stories,” to Anderson.

    “It was kind of this incredible breakout thing that introduced the writing of Mitchell to a wide audience that didn’t even know his name,” Seitz said. “I gave (Anderson) a copy of the book, which he still has, and that was what got him into the history of The New Yorker.”

    “I think his research into the history of The New Yorker and all the books and articles that have been written about The New Yorker and contributors and editors — that’s what ultimately led to ‘The French Dispatch,’” Seitz said.

    The movie is about an American magazine — originally called Picnic before ultimately the titular Dispatch — that covers the culture and lifestyle and politics of Anderson’s Paris stand-in, the superfluously named Ennui sur Blasé.

    The plot of the film is roughly centered around the abrupt passing of the editor-in-chief, Arthur Howitzer, Jr., played by Bill Murray. The film depicts the final edition of the magazine being put together and is formatted into vignettes based on the articles of its best writers, who are all loosely based on real life The New Yorker writers like Mitchell and James Baldwin.

    “‘The French Dispatch’ is more like a mosaic or a collection, really. Everything is self-contained, but it is kind of loosely united by the story of the publisher having assembled these writers and having created this magazine in the first place. And when he dies, it dies,” Seitz said.

    Seitz said this framing device and Anderson’s overall writing process isn’t as meticulous as the rest of Anderson’s perfectionist ways. He said that Anderson never comes to a film with the story fully conceived — that he often treats it like a group exercise in organic story telling.

    “He needs other people to create the story with him, and he does the story conference thing where it’ll be himself and a kind of rotating group of collaborators. There might be one person, there might be two, there might be three people in the room with him. But they will start with an idea for a scene or a story or a sequence, and then they will work their way through it,” Seitz said.

    The three main vignettes follow the various sections of the magazine. The first follows an imprisoned artist, Benicio Del Toro, and his rise to fame and is a meditation on the consumerism of art. The second, starring Timothy Chalamet and Frances McDormand, centers around a loose interpretation of the French youth riots of the 60s and the idolization of martyrdom in rebellious leaders.

    The final act perhaps best captures Anderson’s own view of himself as a global director and citizen. On the surface, this section deals with Jeffrey Wright’s food writer profiling Stephen Park’s immigrant chef of the Ennui police department, but reveals much more when you unpack it.

    “It’s also a really nice meditation on what it means to be a foreigner or an immigrant or a stranger in a strange land and that’s kind of what both of those guys are,” Seitz said. “There’s one moment at the end where the two of them speak to each other and kind of acknowledge each other’s fundamental connectedness. It’s, I think, one of the most touching scenes in any of his films and also one that I think says a lot about Wes, who started traveling abroad when he was promoting ‘The Royal Tenenbaums’ and never entirely came back to America.”

    While Seitz admitted the film’s look, rich on Anderson’s unmistakable diorama style, can be inspired by French cinema, the work itself won’t be mistaken for it. Even still, he said the French response to the film is mainly one of flattery and respect.

    “Olivia Peissel, who is one of the producers of the film (and) holds dual French and American citizenship, was talking to me about how when French people watch ‘The French Dispatch.’ What they’re seeing reflected back at them is a kind of American version of France — an idealized, almost mythological version of France. And even though it’s not true, they appreciate it in probably the same way that Americans appreciated the version of the American West that the Italian filmmaker Sergio Leone presented to them in his spaghetti Westerns.”

  • Steacy Easton on how Tammy Wynette transformed her tumultuous life into art

    Tammy Wynette was known as “The First Lady of Country Music” from the 1950s to the 1980s.

    Writer and artist Steacy Easton knows more about Wynette than we’ll ever know. They are the author of “Why Tammy Wynette Matters.

    Easton explains how Wynette’s feminine persona matched the themes of her songs — devotion, romantic redemption and the heartbreak of loneliness.

    Although Wynette came across as glamorous in her public performances, things were different behind the scenes. Easton said that Wynette faced a lot of troubles offstage.

    “I think that she had an enormous amount of difficulty with her medical situation towards the end of her life,” Easton told Wisconsin Public Radio’sBETA.”

    “She had tumultuous personal relationships outside of the (five) marriages. The only place that she was in control was in the studio,” they said.

    The following has been edited for clarity and brevity.

    Doug Gordon: Wynette’s first solo country No. 1 song was “I Don’t Wanna Play House,” released in 1967. What’s your take on this song?

    Steacy Easton: I love that she started a career with a refusal, a negative, which is fantastic, and is the originating of all of the rest of her great themes.

    This incredibly sad song — it’s a song about interiority, about having a relationship with her kids and having that relationship strained. And it has a wonderful performance of that difficult little hitch at the end.

    She had a deep career and a complex career. But it’s good. It’s good to have your themes clear and precise from the outset.

    DG: Another one of Wynette’s early hits was “Your Good Girl’s Gonna Go Bad.” And you say that this song has a more complex sexual subtext than it appears to on the surface. Can you tell us a bit about this subtext?

    SE: It’s the line, “I’m gonna be the swingingest swinger.” It’s such a great line, a willingness to commit to a pleasure inside the house that had previously been exterior to the house.

    There’s always been this sort of inside/outside dualism in country music between the home front and the honky-tonk, where it was very careful not to cross streams, so to speak. And I love the sort of unrelenting desire for that — to keep Wynette’s character in the song, to keep everything. She’ll let the honky-tonk inside. She’ll let all the more pleasure seeking that occurs within a honky-tonk to happen in her space, including — I think hinted with that “swingingest swinger” line — perhaps stepping outside of marriage.

    DG: Wynette’s legendary producer Billy Sherrill and Wynette co-wrote “Stand By Your Man” in 1968, supposedly in 20 minutes. It was a big hit, but also her most controversial song. How did people react to it?

    SE: It was nitroglycerin for the cultural arts, and it was interpreted badly often. But I think also Wynette, in a very complex way, allowed for its misinterpretation.

    I think as a queer critic who doesn’t put a lot of stock in the kind of heteronormative, mainstream relationships, I want the song to be more ambivalent than it is, and I could make an argument that it’s ambivalent.

    But I also think that for especially working-class women who didn’t have their stories told or didn’t have the values told, that ambition to have a single partner for their entire lives is validated. And I think that’s important.

    However, I also think that it was a song that was profoundly reactionary and also actively encouraged that kind of reactionary moment until much later where she made an argument that people misinterpreted it. But also, the subtext just becomes so culturally monolithic and so huge that they become the culture instead of the performer. And I think that’s also what happened with the narrative at the end of it.

    DG: In 1991, Tammy collaborated with the British band The KLF for a music video called “Justified and Ancient (Stand by the Jams).” It was an international hit. What did you make of it the first time you saw and heard it?

    SE: It was amazing. It wasn’t my first encounter with Wynette, but it was my first encounter with the KLF and that kind of very British “we are being very serious, but we are also doing this for the arts and craft camp of it” — and this tone where you’re never exactly sure who’s making the joke at whose expense.

    DG: In the very last paragraph of your book, you say, “As a trans person, I don’t want to give Wynette over to the transphobes and the homophobes.” That sentence really struck me. Can you tell us a bit about that?

    SE: I think there are queer ways of looking at the world. I think there are trans ways of looking at the world. I think that there are ways of looking at the world that prioritize an idea that gender is performative and that gender is something that you, as Tammy Wynette says in (the song) “Womanhood,” “step into or step out of.”

    I think with the way the discourse is going right now, in a way that makes me feel really scared and really sad that the assumption is that gender is something that queer folk or trans folk do, that only queer and trans folk can transfer from gender. And if we can police or destroy how queer folks and trans folks perform gender, then gender will never be performed again.

    And I think you have to look very carefully on at gender and Wynette and say no — that they are performing gender as much as we are, that gender is always something that is profoundly acted within a culture, that gender is always something that is played with or messed with or adhered to. And I think that nothing is natural and everything is acted. And those things have physical as well as cultural and emotional consequences.

Episode Credits

  • Doug Gordon Host
  • Adam Friedrich Producer
  • Steve Gotcher Producer
  • Steve Gotcher Technical Director
  • Gary Gulman Guest
  • Matt Zoller Seitz Guest
  • Steacy Easton Guest

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