This week we’re sharing stories by Jason Fagone, Betty Ann Adam, Christian H. Cooper, Clarissa Wei, and Robert Kolker.
At Bloomberg Businessweek, Robert Kolker walks us through the confusing, byzantine, and downright shady world of Hollywood profits and payouts, as part of an exploration of the $400 billion lawsuit brought by the creators of the ancestor of all mockumentaries, This Is Spinal Tap. The lawsuit details are interesting enough (according to the film’s current owner Vivendi, the creative partners’ share of worldwide merchandising over a 32 year period was… $81), but Spinal Tap fans will also love the insider tidbits about the creation of the film, which started with a 20-minute demo version.
“I was amazed when I last looked at it,” says Shearer, who plays Derek Smalls, the band’s bare-chested, mutton-chopped, pipe-smoking bassist. “We had this little pittance”—a $60,000 screenplay fee from a company that eventually rejected the idea—“to shoot characters and performances.” He remembers his long black wig costing about $5, and that it took an hour and a half to remove once the shoot was over (the costumer had used super glue). Shearer, Reiner (who plays Marty DiBergi, the fake documentarian), Guest (as lead guitarist Nigel Tufnel), and McKean (as vocalist David St. Hubbins) had been nursing and developing the idea since 1978. They first performed as the band in a 1979 variety show called The T.V. Show. Then they wrote seven new songs, played a few gigs in costume in Los Angeles, and worked out a complete band history to ensure that their improvisations had a narrative spine they all could rely on. “Michael McKean, I believe, still has the napkin on which the possible names and the possible misspellings were outlined,” Shearer recalls, “because I think at one point we thought maybe S-p-y-n-a-l?”
This Is Spinal Tap is a comedy classic, but its creators made practically no money from it. Robert Kolker looks at the legal battle over what Hollywood owes Harry Shearer, Rob Reiner, Michael McKean, and Christopher Guest.
Below, our favorite stories of the week. Kindle users, you can also get them as a Readlist.
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Below, our favorite stories of the week. Kindle users, you can also get them as a Readlist.
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“‘There was this transformation of the whole culture—and curriculum,’ Andrea says. ‘I could see it mostly through the homework. It really looked like test prep. There were even bubble sheets.’ Oscar had more than a year before the third-grade test, when students start taking the New York State English Language Arts (ELA) and math tests—but the thinking goes that the sooner they learn how to take big standardized tests and the sooner any skill shortfalls can be dealt with, the better they’ll do in the long run. Oscar, however, had a paradoxical reaction. ‘His interest in school,’ says Andrea, ‘took this immediate plummet.’”
“She felt as if her son had been caught in a vortex: The school starts teaching Oscar differently, he loses whatever spark of curiosity inspired him to want to learn, and the school punishes him for it. He made it to third grade, but by then, test prep had come to dominate his classroom. Grand plans for science experiments and hands-on interactive projects, Andrea says, ‘would just kind of fizzle out and disappear because there wasn’t time to do them.’”
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I’m of the belief that a good murder story should put you out of commission for a while. There is a storyworld to journey into, and it is a doozy. But most of what we get on a day-to-day basis is just cheap entertainment: lurid play-by-plays and gleeful reveling in the perpetrator’s villainy. In one of my favorite murder stories of 2012, Vanessa Veselka writes, ”It seems our profound fascination with serial killers is matched by an equally profound lack of interest in their victims.” The unifying theme of my 2012 picks is simply that these pieces honor the stories of the people who were wronged.
Delving into a murderer’s mind, not for kicks but for understanding
The long view of Fort Hood, as seen by both the victims’ families and the shooter’s family
An anatomy of a wrongful execution
[Not single-page] Brigitte Harris was sexually abused by her father for years, before she decided to stop him from ever doing it to anyone again. She’s now in prison for second degree manslaughter, with a parole hearing this week:
The first thing she learned was that it could be done. ‘Everyone always focuses on Lorena Bobbitt because it’s the most popular. But each and every case I researched, no one died.’ She read about cases in China and in Europe. ‘And I start seeing how to do it without actually killing him.’ On June 26, she bought a package of 50 scalpels on eBay for $6.83, including shipping.
On July 25, Harris had her final argument with Carleen. On her home video, titled ‘My Reasons,’ she mentions Carleen’s children explicitly. ‘We both know what he wants to do with them.’ She talks about what she’s about to do. ‘Somebody’s got to do something,’ she says on the video.
When I went back into my Kindle and my Twitter and Tumblr and email and all the other places where I noted or saved especially noteworthy stories from the past year, I found that many of them fell into certain categories. And so, here they are. (There are more than five stories, just because.)
One of the best true crime pieces of the past year was that David Grann lawyer-in-Guatemala story, but everyone has already said that, so I am going to go with Robert Kolker’s “A Serial Killer in Common,” which is the devastating, horrifying story about the Long Island serial killer and the families of the women who were killed. Also, it’s not exactly true crime in the traditional sense of the term, but Kathy Dobie’s GQ story, “The Girl from Trails End,” about the 11-year-old girl in Texas who was gang-raped, repeatedly, was another really excellent crime-related story. Also, I would like someone to write a longer story about Aaron Bassler, the guy who killed two people in California and then went on the run in Mendocino County for a month before he was killed by police.
THE WAY WE LIVE NOW
I didn’t make a “trend piece” category because, ugh, but two stories from the past year that I thought really captured Our Moment were Molly Lambert’s “In Which We Teach You How to Be a Woman in a Boys’ Club” and Caroline Bankoff’s “On GChat”. Molly’s piece was so, so smart, and very true, and had lots of good advice, including to only apologize if you truly fucked up, and then only apologize once. Also, this part: “The only men who are turned off by ambition and success are men that are insecure about their own talents and success or lack thereof. You don’t really want to know those guys anyway, because they suck and they will constantly attempt to undermine you, and even if you are secure enough in yourself not to care it’s still really fucking annoying.” And technically, I first encountered Caroline’s piece at a reading in 2010, but since it wasn’t published for public consumption until 2011 (on Thought Catalog) I am counting it. It is a wonderful encapsulation of the ways technology has changed the ways that we interact with each other.
The Ask a Dude column in the Hairpin is the best advice column ever to exist in the world, if you are a woman in your 20s or 30s who is trying to navigate THIS THING CALLED LIFE, which, yes! It was really hard to pick a favorite, because they are all cocktails of good, which is how I once heard an editor at the magazine I work for describe a story. But I think perhaps “Questionably Tattooed Manchildren and Uses for Old Jars” is one of the Dude’s best, because it offers advice like this to a woman who is worried she is a drunken slut: “If all was right, there’d be a country & western singer named Tammy with a hit named ‘A Whiskey Dick or Two,’ but here we are, in a world where a woman calls herself a slut for sleeping with a number of partners that she’s not ashamed of and then apologizes for it to feminists. I don’t think I even understand where that puts us. Somewhere not good, I believe.”
THE CELEBRITY PROFILE
A bunch of people who’ve submitted these Longreads things have said that they deliberately didn’t put any of their friends on their lists, but I am going to break that non-rule because fuck it, my friends are good writers! Take, for example, this profile of Channing Tatum—“The Full Tatum”—that Jessica Pressler wrote for GQ. It is a really good celebrity profile. It is even a narrative, which most celebrity profiles are not, they are just, like, “It is 87 degrees in Los Angeles and Kim Kardashian is lying on a chaise longue by the pool at the Chateau Marmont, her white string bikini showing off her perfectly tanned, perfectly toned, perfectly I-survived-Kris-Humphries body, and she is very deliberately not eating the house salad that she so carefully ordered—’No olives, two tablespoons of walnuts and the dressing on the side’—20 minutes before,” and you’re like, TELL ME SOMETHING I DON’T KNOW. (That lede could also work with Denise Richards/Charlie Sheen, or Demi Moore/Ashton Kutcher, or Katie Holmes/Tom Cruise in 3 years. It’s all yours!) My other favorite celebrity profile from the past year was Lizzie Widdicombe’s “You Belong With Me,” a profile of Taylor Swift. She had so many great little details in there, including that Taylor’s father Scott wears tasseled loafers.
THE PERSONAL ESSAY
Pressler snaked me by choosing John Jeremiah Sullivan’s “Peyton’s Place,” which is this amazing piece about living in the house where they filmed One Tree Hill, so I am going to choose this weird, wonderful three-part thing that Clancy Martin wrote for the Paris Review about trying to get to New York to see Christian Marclay’s The Clock exhibit. It contains this paragraph:
“It’s starting to rain, I’m ten miles from home and I already recognize how eccentric, how unstable, how woebegone, how doomed this plan is; the roar of the highway is an echo of my sure failure, and I’m thinking about the trucker who’s too wise to take the little baby in Denis Johnson’s “Car Crash While Hitchhiking” when I hear, incredibly, like a promise from God—there will be many of these in the next twenty-four hours, but I don’t know it yet—the elongated throaty syllables of Lou Reed coming from an amiable-looking white truck with wide mirrors coming off its nose and bumpers that give it a kind of Disney Cars effect. In the movie, the trucks are always the good guys. And, better still, a middle-aged black man with a potbelly is pumping diesel into it, listening to one of the most white-boy songs of all time.”
Share your own Top 5 Longreads of 2011, all through December. Just tag it #longreads on Twitter, Tumblr or Facebook.