Dan Schneider: Now, the book ends with the last couple of decades of Woody’s cinematic output. You have it divided into a last two eras. What are the two eras? Give me a film, pro or con, that you think is the most representative, the best, the most interesting, what critics… whichever one jumps right out at you. So what are the last two Woody eras that you tackle?
Alex Sheremet: The last two eras are 1993 until 2004, so that’s the films between Bullets Over Broadway…No, Manhattan Murder Mystery and Melinda and Melinda. And then I go from Match Point in 2005, up until 2013’s Blue Jasmine. Looking at the first time period, that film that I want to talk about most is Celebrity. This is because this is a film that’s been pretty much ignored, it’s been neglected, and in many ways it’s been much more panned, even, than Stardust Memories, or Another Woman, or similar films. It has not necessarily had this kind of revitalization like some other films might have, and it’s… I wouldn’t call it a great film. It’s not up to par with his best work, but at the very least, I would argue that it is an excellent film. It’s an excellent film for the very reasons that people deride it for. For example, you have the character of Simon, through Kenneth Branagh, and he’s been derided as this really poor Woody Allen stand-in, that he’s merely doing the Woody Allen shtick in a way that Woody Allen wouldn’t be able to do.
But this is kind of the point. If you look at his appearance, he is clearly more handsome than Woody Allen, he looks more manly than Woody Allen, and he’s somebody that would much more easily fit into this kind of celebrity life than Woody Allen would. If you see, for example, the flirt scenes that he has with various women, if you see him going around with different models… these are not things that Woody Allen would be able to pull off, himself, because if he were to do it, it would look like mere comedy. And it would look like mere comedy because here’s this nebbish that has these glasses and just looks so awkward and just acts so awkward. There is no sense of genuine romance, there is no sense that this is a realistic move for this kind of human being to make. But with Woody Allen’s stand-in, as he’s being called, he does a very good job. He’s very realistic in that role, and these are all pluses. This is not the negative that it’s been made out to be. A close viewing of the film without allowing Woody Allen to enter into this universe… I think most people would come away with this sort of interpretation.
DS: Yeah, the best film I think from that period, I would put as Sweet And Lowdown. I think Sean Penn, who’s not really my favorite actor, but he has given some terrific performances. He’s one of the most hot and cold actors out there. I think he’s terrific as the guitarist, and Samantha Morton in that film… It’s one of the few non-speaking roles in the post-silent era that is really affecting. But most of those films I think were very small films. Let’s go on to the most recent era. Give me one film from that era and why it stands out for you.
AS: In the most recent era, there’s only really two disagreements that I would have critically when the consensus that’s developed. On the one hand, you have this extreme praise for Midnight In Paris. I consider Midnight In Paris to be a stylish but fairly mediocre film, with some pretty bad acting all-around. But that’s forgettable, and I think I can forgive that kind of thing. But the one thing that is far harder to forgive is the kind of panning that Cassandra’s Dream has received.
AS: Now, Cassandra’s Dream is a film that is probably — slightly, even if it’s ever so slightly — better than Match Point, a film that has been praised. It’s great in a number of respects. It has a number of wonderful script inversions, the acting all-around is pretty good. Not everyone is on the same level, but all around, I’d say it’s pretty good. The characterizations are both realistic and deeper than they have been given credit for. So, for example, you have, I believe it’s Howard, who’s the uncle of the two brothers. You sort of see him as this rich businessman who is aloof and standoffish and perhaps involved in things he’s not supposed to be in. And, for the most part, he seems to be pretty calm. Suddenly, though, there’s a storm that passes, and the two brothers go under some foliage with their uncle, and he completely goes nuts. He starts to take on a far darker tone, he starts to yell, he starts to do things where you see the composure that he’s spent such a long time cultivating as, you know, the ‘proper’ and ‘prim’ businessman… It’s now coming undone, and you see his true colors. And despite this fact, in Hollywood, you’d have this closeup of his face. Instead, you actually see him be obscured by the leaves, that is sort of, almost dismissive of the things that he might be saying, and eventually, when the two brothers say, No, we’re not gonna do it, they’re sitting around and they’re feeling guilty at the fact that they’re essentially saying No to murder.
AS: They’re so insecure, they’re so… At least Ian, is such an obvious social climber, that he feels guilty over saying No to murder. This is the level of people that we’re dealing with, and this is a scripting moment that is so easy to miss. You might look at it and say, Oh, they’re just bullshitting about whether to do it or not, but, no, they’re essentially revealing who they really are, by these emotions that really are at odds. And they may be emotions that most people MIGHT experience under these circumstances, but to look more deeply, they’re emotions that they should NOT be experiencing. And this is a clue as to what will happen in the rest of the film. And they’re so many little moments like this — I’m just covering a couple, as my review covers a lot — that bring the film to a much higher level than it’s being given credit for.
DS: Yeah, and I think that one of the things in the last 20 or so years, in the post-Golden Age Woody, that he goes back and scavenges some of the greater films. And we didn’t mention in the Golden Age films, you know, Crimes And Misdemeanors, which I think blows away Dostoyevsky. We talked about Love And Death, with the Dostoyevskian themes. That’s again right up with Stardust Memories and Another Woman as one of his all-time great films, and one of the great American films. And both Match Point and Cassandra’s Dream are both sort of the serious side of the ‘Woody’ digression in Crimes And Misdemeanors, and they’re both lesser takes.
But both of them are films that are a lot better than other films, and this is one of the problems with critics generally. You can get spoiled. My wife Jessica and I, when we write, and sometimes when we read our own stuff… not to blow our own horns, but what the fuck? There’s such an expectation of quality that when you do something a little different, there’s sometimes a letdown. And I think that with Woody Allen, people got spoiled from his 15, 16 year run from 1977 to 1992. He did, maybe, 12, 13, or 14 films in that period, and maybe only 3 or 4 were mediocre films, like A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy, and 1 or 2 others that slip my mind…Alice, or whatnot. But it’s a run that almost unprecedented in American film. But anyway, let’s wrap up this section and in our next section, let’s focus on you and your life up until this point, and then once we get the basic biographical facts, we’ll talk about art in general. So, stayed tuned.
DS: Now we’re gonna talk a little bit about Alex and his life. When and where were you born, Alex?
AS: I was born in Belarus in 1987, in a city that was only a couple of hundred miles from the Chernobyl power plant in the Ukraine. So, this obviously has relevance to me because the main reason why my family ended up moving to America was because of this event. Had it not been that sort of impetus, perhaps I’d not be here, and I’d not be writing, among other things. And since that time, I’ve been living in New York City, mostly in Brooklyn and Queens, depending on the year.
DS: So that was actually the USSR at the time. I often asked people when I was doing my written interviews about a cultural touchstone in their life. Obviously, the Chernobyl event happened before you were born. Give me something from your earliest youth, maybe, during your first 5 or 10 years, once you got to America. Something that… you know, like some people remember JFK getting shot, the Challenger explosion, or even if it’s something on a personal level that directed you towards art. Give me one event that is seminal in your life.
AS: I normally didn’t pay attention to the outside world during that time period, but the one event that I still really remember and that I knew was very different to me, compared to most people, was… when I was about 4 or 5, I was still living in Belarus, and there was this kid that I knew. I guess he was my friend, or perhaps my acquaintance. And he had a toy that I really, really wanted. I don’t remember what that toy was, I don’t remember what it looked like, and I don’t really remember why I wanted it. But, I just knew that I really, really wanted it, so I got myself into a situation where I knew that I’d be able to steal it from him, and I’d be able to steal it in a way that I’d never be caught. And, sure enough, I stole it, and I was never caught. And immediately, I had it in my hands, and for the first second, I thought: wow, this thing that I wanted for so long, I finally have it in my hands! But the next second, it was a complete letdown because I immediately thought: yes, I have it in my hands, I have this thing that I wanted, with me, but it can never really be mine! It doesn’t belong to me, in a deeper sense. It has its own history, it has its own context. And I got in a way that ensures that it will never really be mine. And I don’t understand how other people could steal things or take credit for things or do anything outside of their own really genuine self.
At the time, this was a pretty different mentality, from most people, and this was only reinforced over time. So I can’t say that I was somebody back then that had a whole lot of intellect, or all these interests in reading and books, or art — I didn’t… But, I did have a set of feelings, I did have a set of sensitivities, that pointed me to something greater and deeper that, at the time, was merely a promise, and eventually I was able to execute that. But for a while, it was merely that: it was the sensitivities, the feelings, and these are the kinds of memories I recall the most. Everybody has physical memories, I don’t really consider them that important. But some of these, I guess, monumental sensitivities, is what really sticks with me.
DS: Give me a childhood hero if you had any, and did you have any career goals as a kid? I know I didn’t even think of becoming a poet until I was 19 and wanted to impress a girl. How about you?
AS: Can’t say that I had any heroes. Again, I didn’t really pay attention to the wider cultural world. For a while I didn’t speak any English, so it was hard for me to pay attention to any of that. On the other hand, I was just kind of stuck in my own neighborhood. The closest thing that I had to a hero was, ironically, and very strangely now that I say it…they were the Hasidic Jews in my neighborhood. I was in a very, very Jewish community, and they were ultra-Orthodox, and for the longest time, I would look at them and I would think: they have such perfect families! But beyond having such perfect families, they have such a rich spirituality, they have such an austerity, they have such a… I guess, such an esoteric eccentricity that I really wanted for myself. Although my family was Christian, and although I considered myself religious for a time, I also knew that nobody that I knew that was Christian was ever truly serious about it. At least not like these Jews! So I’ve always had these really strong spiritual drives, this strong desire to be like them, despite the fact that it would go against everything that I grew up feeling and thinking. There was that strong spiritual edge that was always with me, and eventually, even when I completely let go of religion and considered it silly, I now see that my drive for art was merely a sublimation of this kind of spirituality. I get the same that I got back then, watching them walk through a snowstorm on the Sabbath — just walking through the streets that now had dissolved with snow — I get the same feeling then as I do now, when I create a book or finish something that I think is wonderful, or when I read a great poem or whatnot, or see a great film. So it was a sublimation. I didn’t have heroes but I had people that I always wanted to be, and although I never became those people, I think I did well for myself anyway.
DS: Do you currently consider yourself an agnostic or an atheist? Let’s not get into a deep religious discussion, just agnostic or atheist?
AS: Atheist. Small ‘a,’ but atheist.
DS: Where did you go to high school, and where did you go to college?
AS: I went to high school… I spent a couple of years in New Jersey, but the only high school of any real memory to me is Abraham Lincoln High School in Coney Island. It was a… I didn’t really think of it like this back then, but when I speak to people now, they say it’s a really terrible school. And I guess in some ways it was. Very overcrowded, very violent… but I really enjoyed my time. I skipped class, I never really went. The teachers, they knew me and would mark me as present in the attendance, and I just sort of did whatever I wanted. At the time it was politics; I was really into politics, and high school let that be an outlet for me.
DS: How about college?
AS: College… I went to the Macaulay Honors College in the CUNY system. There’s a school up in the Upper East Side called Hunter College, and that was my base school for 4 ½ years.
DS: Did any college professors stand out either pro or con, and you don’t have to name them… but was there any guiding influence, or was college something you just had to get through?
AS: I was very excited starting college for the first couple of months, but then very quickly I just realized it would be complete drudgery. So, as far as memories of professors, the only ones that really stood out in a positive sense were those that had a very hands-off approach. So, we would be given, for example, texts by Shakespeare, or books by somebody else, and we’d sit there and we’d read, and merely talk about the plays or the books or whatnot, we’d talk about what worked, what didn’t, and these are discussions you could have. These are normal, human discussions. On the con side was pretty much everybody else. Professors that would assign very silly esoteric readings, and stuff from academic journals, professors that would try to get into fights with me, or perhaps have me bow down to whatever it was they were teaching. I remember one professor in particular, she… it was a graduate class, and it was about black postmodernism, and we had a couple of great books. We had to read Oxherding Tale by Charles Johnson, we had to read Middle Passage… so there was some great material there. But for the most part, we had some pretty shitty books to read, whether it was poetry by Clarence Major, or stuff by Ishmael Reed, stuff by Toni Morrison… And every single time that we were supposed to have a class discussion, I would be the only one that was prepared, because instead of merely letting her kind of set the tone, I would have a book open, I would have pages highlighted, I would passages highlighted. I would say: but professor, look at this passage, look at how poorly it’s written! Look at all these cliches! Look at how structurally inept it is! Look at this, look at that! And she never really wanted to talk about it, but she would passive-aggressively remark about me to the rest of the class, and she was the only professor who ever tried to fuck me over with my grades.
DS: Let’s move on to your family. Your parents — you didn’t know your father? Am I correct?
AS: No, I didn’t know my father.
DS: And your mother — she was not an artist? What did she do?
AS: Well, as far as my mother is concerned, it’s a pretty simple thing. She’s led a very private and anonymous life. And this is was not merely a personal choice. On some level, it became a survival strategy. I have not fully come to terms with her life and her existence, and her way of doing things, and this is something that I’ll have to deal with on my own terms, eventually, over time, and in the only way that I really can — which is artistically. So, I’m gonna leave that question open ended, and eventually, I will tell everything, and more than everything in time.
DS: And you do one sibling, a twin, in fact, an identical twin who’s also into the arts. What is he currently doing? Is he a writer as well?
AS: He’s interested in painting but more recently he’s been trying to do some mixed media stuff involving painting, video games, and other electronic based material.
DS: And you recently got married this year to a Korean woman. Your wife is Korean-American, correct? Is she also an immigrant?
AS: She was born in Seoul, but came here when she was younger than I was, maybe when she was 4 or 5 — I don’t really remember. But she came here from Seoul, and we grew up not too far from each other. I grew up in Brooklyn; she grew up in New Jersey. Ironically, I hated New Jersey; she loved it. And we grew up under very different circumstances, to put it mildly.
DS: And she’s a musician, and she comes from a family of artists, but she’s not, from what I remember, currently pursuing — she doesn’t work in any symphony, but she’s teaching music?
AS: She’s teaching music, different instruments. But she does pursue music in the sense that she has a few groups she rehearses with, and they sometimes put on events. It’s not necessarily in the professional sense, it’s not for money, but this is something she enjoys and it’s something that keeps the mind sharp. It keeps you doing something productive and at the very least interesting. So she does that in her free time on top of the teaching at various schools.
DS: Last question biographically before we end this section…. You mentioned your youth, your first book that you wrote which was a novel — what was it called? Kensington?
AS: A Few Streets More To Kensington, and Kensington is the neighborhood that I grew up in, in Brooklyn.
DS: Right, and just give a one minute or so idea of where you grew up. Because I know I grew up in a New York that was sort of the Mean Streets of Scorsese. What was your New York like? Woody Allen had the Radio Days, I had the Mean Streets New York. What was the Sheremet 90s to early 00s New York?
AS: Well, it was a very different time from both. I grew up in a very heavily Hasidic Jewish community that, because of the fact that they were so different, established a kind of romance and nostalgia in my mind. But, at the same time, there were things going on in that neighborhood that only those that were NOT Hasidic Jews would know about, because we were actually in the real world. Across the street from me, there was a church that eventually became a brothel and a crackhouse, so for a couple of years, we’d see pimps and johns coming in and out, drug deals… and this was literally a 20 or 30 second walk from my front door.
I had friends from all over the place. It wasn’t necessarily a very tough place or anything like that, but it was a very interesting and diverse place to grow up, part of this due to the fact that we were the first generation to grow up in 2 worlds. One was in the streets and playing past midnight and skipping class and doing the kinds of things that are typical of city kids. On the other hand, we also grew up on the Internet, we grew up in media, we grew up in places that played with human feelings and emotions and intellects that were unprecedented. And I think that has also had a lasting impact on how I view the world.
DS: Alright, and in our next section that’s coming up, we’ll talk about his views on life, art, beyond Woody Allen, though we may touch back on the book and whatnot. That’s coming up.
DS: In this section, we’re gonna talk with Alex… we’re gonna sort of free-form a little bit. I had a list of questions that I’d sometimes ask. One of the questions I’d ask was sort of the standard one. One of the books… Some of the books that influenced me when I was growing up was Alex Haley’s Autobiography Of Malcolm X, Walt Whitman’s Leaves Of Grass, Lauren Eiseley’s All The Strange Hours — also an autobiography — a book called Art And Physics by Leonard Shlain that helped me understand modern art a bit, Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows In Brooklyn, a novel. Give me one or two books or any other works that influenced you. Just briefly — you don’t have to go in depth, but just give me a brief precis of what influenced you.
AS: I became interested in reading fairly late in life. I was 16 years old. I just moved to a new neighborhood in Brooklyn where there was a library right across the street from me. So, I entered, and I saw this book on the shelves called Soul On Ice by the Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver. I checked it out, and it was the first book that I’d read quickly. I read it, I think, in about 1 or 2 days, and I remember when I finished it, just sort of lying back in bed, and thinking: There’s no way that my life could be the same after reading this book. It was not something that I could really understand intellectually, but it was something that was very strong within my head, and from that point on, I became interested in politics — not so much the art, yet — but I became interested in politics, reading, in general, and perhaps a little bit of writing here and there. And from that point on, this is really what sort of set me on my trajectory.
As far as art books goes, I was very influenced by Countee Cullen’s poetry. I remember reading a lot of poetry during that time period that really stuck out to me as being malformed and poorly worded, among other problems. But here was a poet that, although he talked about the deeper, topical things, that more kind of, I guess, stereotypically ‘black’ things, he did it in a way that was seemingly at odds with a lot of the styles of that kind of content. It was just very classical in form, very well-written, and, like I mentioned earlier, I was very influenced by his poem Heritage. So as far as the arts go, I would probably say that it was Countee Cullen who turned me on to writing in general.
DS: Ok, let’s talk about art, and we’ve touched upon criticism. What do you think is one of the things that in BAD art that fails or doesn’t succeed as well as it should? What would you think is the one thing, and just briefly, that is contained in all kind of bad art. Is it all art being political? Is it the subjective/objective thing? Is it the use of cliches? We’ve touched upon some of these. Or something totally different?
AS: I’d say that… and this encompasses all of these things, the one thing that bad art has in common with itself, is the fact that it tries to APE reality, as opposed to SHOW reality. Now, reality is obviously something that is implicit within art. It’s something that is necessary for good art to function. But you can’t simply take a video camera, stick it outside of your window, turn it on for 12 hours, and say you made a great film. It doesn’t work like that. You need to be able to take reality, you need to be able to concentrate it into a smaller form, and this is what the viewer and the consumer needs to see. It’s sort of like if reality is a funnel, and reality is all the stuff you see going into the top end, what comes out, this concentrate of things, is art. The water, or whatever else, suddenly it’s being concentrated, now it has order, now it has form. And this is reality in the sense that it’s not merely being aped, but being shown. And great art shows reality; it does not simply ape it. Reality apes reality, not art. The two things are distinct.
DS: Yeah, I was thinking — I was talking to my wife Jessica, a week or so ago, about something that I’ll mention in a second… Two things stick out to me that people fall into the trap of, I was arguing just earlier this morning with this young girl in her 20s, around your age, in a chatroom. And we were talking about something that happened on a television show. I forget what the subject matter was, but I’d used a phrase where I’d said something like, ‘Glass being half-empty or half-full,’ as representing the two things [we were discussing]. And the girl had convolutedly thought I was using a double negative, although I was talking about the STATE of the thing. And I was thinking to myself, My God, here’s a girl who doesn’t even understand what she’s talking about, and she’s trying to school me on grammar.
And then the other thing, it’s not only that a lot of people who try to engage art don’t understand art, or the basic tools of art, much less the art itself, but people also have this solipsism that art always has to be about them. It goes to the thing about, ‘I need to be pleased’ — the whole ‘like’ and ‘dislike’ thing. And I’ll give you an example. Recently, you saw that I did this obituary — I’ve done a couple of obituaries, one on James Emanuel, a great American poet who died last year — but I recently did this obituary about this woman that I had known and was involved with a quarter century ago, Maggie Estep. She was a well-known Nuyorican poet. I sent it around to a lot of people I knew, and in it, I had this one small passage — a couple of sentences — about this other woman writer that I’d known. And when I sent the piece to her to read, she got upset about something — I won’t get into what it was — and this was like a 5,500 word piece, and 30 words mentioned her, and the similarity of this Estep woman to her. And just to quell her, I removed the 2 sentences or so, and yet she just sort of blew me off. So, to me, I’ve always found those kinds of things. People just don’t have the equipment to engage art, or philosophy, or higher ideas, and second, if they do — like this other writer woman, who did — they don’t, because it’s all about themselves. Have you ever experienced that?
AS: I mean, you see it all the time, whether it’s… Probably the most concentrated form of this that I’ve experienced is was in college. I’d talk to professors, or even fellow students. People would get into the arts, they’d get into various things, but they don’t necessarily know what they’re stepping into. They think they know, they think they have a pretty good idea of what’s what, but realistically, they’re interested in things that are very extraneous to the art itself. This is just a very common occurrence, and even beyond art, in most facets of life, this is sort of what people do. They step into things without being thoughtful about what they’re even attempting.
DS: What do you think about the approach to art — do you have an ontological approach to art, would you say, do you approach art in a more pragmatic sense, and whatever way you approach it, what are the pros and cons of that?
AS: I don’t approach it in the sense of identity too much. I approach it primarily as a means of offering a service. On some days, there are things I would rather be doing than art. One of my favorite things is to just sort of lie back and read, read, read… not necessarily having to respond to anything, not necessarily having to engage with anything more deeply than within my own head. But I feel like, by some odd combination of events, and luck, and whatever else, I’m somebody that HAD a talent and was able to develop it. So, right now, my main concern is how I’m going to make this talent relevant to the rest of the world. I think most artists need to start expanding beyond themselves, and they need to really start challenging themselves.
A few days ago, I was in this poetry library in NYC, and I was just struck by the number of poetry books that I read in that sitting that were just so small. And I don’t even mean in terms of just quality — they weren’t good writing for the most part — but they were very small in idea, they were very small in ambition, they were very small in what they were trying to do. You look at it, and it’s almost as if, if ants could have art, this is the sort of thing that they would do. And I don’t know what it comes down to, but a lot of it might be people’s inability, and, more often than not, people being scared of going any more deeply. I think when people create art, they really need to stretch themselves. They need to try different media, they need to try different genres, they need to try different styles. This is the only way you’re gonna grow, this is the only way you’re gonna challenge yourself. Because if you think of art as offering a service, this goes beyond merely being able to please yourself, or doing the kind of work that you, yourself, might want to read. And this goes into the territory of: What is the kind of work that the WORLD needs? What is the kind of work that people will really benefit from? And you don’t necessarily have to be so mechanical or so specific about this, but if you really try to be as great as you can, and you try to be consistent, and you try to do this in as many ways as possible, those sorts of questions really tend to take care of themselves in the end.
DS: Let’s take a break after this next question that you answer, and then I’ll have a couple more questions in this vein. You mentioned earlier ‘sublimation,’ and I’m not sure if you’re familiar with Friedrich Nietzsche’s ideas on sublimation and greatness…
DS: …that you need to sublimate the inner part of yourself to DO something, and I think Nietzsche got balled up a little bit, in that he conflated greatness with ethical goodness to a certain extent. But if you’re familiar with Nietzsche’s ideas of sublimation, and the more logical, dictionary definition of sublimation, do you find anything relevant to that in art? Let’s make this the last question of this section.
AS: Well, I feel like with the world in general, what we’ve seen in the last 2000 years, there’s this clear trajectory into a more abstract way of living. Yes, we will always have our physical bodies, and yes, we will always have to deal with at least some base concerns. But, after a while, we have better and more complex societies, we have greater art, simply because there are so many drives that human beings have, there are so many instincts, and things that people could do, that they end up sublimating into something deeper. The example of me being able to let go of religion, and sublimating that into art… that’s just one example. If I didn’t have this moment of impetus, if I didn’t have SOMETHING driving me somewhere, if I didn’t have this feeling, I’d probably be a lot less inclined to do this kind of work. I want to be able to think that, in the end, I’d lived my life in a meaningful way, according to my purpose and ability. So I think with any kind of art, you’re definitely sublimating something, whether it’s Nietzsche’s ideas of sublimating hero-like qualities and violence into something better, or whether it’s something as simple as sacrificing a small part of yourself to actually be a greater artist. I think there’s a lot of relevance in these kinds of concepts, as far as how they relate to art.
DS: Ok, we will now take a break here and when we get back, we’ll continue a little bit with this discussion.
DS: We’re gonna ask a few questions of Alex, some of them that I’ve asked in my classic written interviews. There was a question… I remember, a question that had gotten a lot of e-mails just saying, ‘What the fuck?’, was a question that I’d asked quite often in my earlier interviews. One was to Daniel Dennett. He had appeared on an episode of the Charlie Rose Show, back during the turn of the century, about who was the most influential person in history. And I had gone off that, on this panel of supposed experts, it’s amazing that no one had mentioned Genghis Khan. And the reason I bring it up is because Khan was an interesting character. I mean, he was a mass murderer, but he is also someone who is at the forefront of developing a society in terms of laws, in terms of religious freedom and a lot of other positive things. But he was totally neglected. And to me this shows how a lot of intellectuals like Daniel Dennett or even someone like Richard Dawkins who I just shake my head over sometimes, miss the big picture for the little thing. Just in your own idea, and it could be in art and whatnot, who would you posit as the most influential people of the last 1000 years or the last 2000 years, and why?
AS: As far as someone who’d affect people most deeply and in the most immediate sense, I’d probably agree with some historical figures such as Genghis Khan. But as far as those questions, I really think they refer to ‘most influential up to THIS point.’
AS: I think if you look at some artists, perhaps some classical artists, or more recent ones like Herman Melville or Walt Whitman, you will probably find that, over time, they will have much more even historical impact than some of these other figures might. Because as you’ve pointed out elsewhere, Genghis Khan, he was not a solitary being. There were probably many other people waiting, both historically and contextually, to BE Genghis Khan. There’s many people waiting to be conquerors, there’s many people waiting to bring democracy to the world, there’s many people to do very physical, immediate things because if you see such an empty niche, it becomes very easy to fill. But when it comes to artistic concerns and very abstract concerns, these niches are not so easy to fill, these gaps are there and it’s only after a confluence of some fairly unique things that they end up being filled. So, probably in the long term, you will have people like Walt Whitman and Melville and perhaps Lao Tzu with the Tao Te Ching influencing history in far more profound ways over time. It’s not things that we can really measure right now, it’s not things that we can so easily think of and articulate now, but I think in the long term, this is really where it’s headed.
DS: Yeah, I call it all the time when I talk with my wife, and I have to reassure her about great art getting out there… I call it the ever-opening cone of greatness, in that greatness always expands. If you look at the books that are getting dusty on shelves from the 1880s or the 1900s, these were the Danielle Steeles, or the Dave Eggerses of those days, and they’re forgotten because their work has no relevance except to a very small group of people. The people who have real influence are those who are bottlenecks. Whitman — you can dislike Whitman’s poems, I think his greatness in his 20, 30, 40, or 50 great poems is inarguable, but he was someone who fundamentally changed poetry.
Now poetry doesn’t change things as much as, say, Lee Harvey Oswald shooting John F. Kennedy in the short run, but 500 years from now, John F. Kennedy’s being shot is not gonna seem as big as the art that will come from the worldview that shifted with what Whitman did. And someone like Genghis Khan, of course, I agree to a certain extent with what you said, but does the thing about George Washington being the first human leader who was elected, who ever stepped down from a position — and I could be wrong about that — and in the same way, Genghis Khan, while a ruthless conqueror, was also the first one to have a sort of vision. He’s not Atilla the Hun, he’s not Alexander the Great, in that sense, he was someone who I think was a different kind of person. But it’s interesting because I mentioned that I asked this question, Daniel Dennett, he had like a flippant little one sentence thing. I got so many e-mails that were like, Why did he blow that? That was such a great question. Then, I’ve seen people online who’ve written about my interviews say it was a great reply by Dennett. But it showed an utter vacuity from this guy whose career is about intellect. You see a lot of TED Talks, where you see a lot of these intellects go on and preen on this or that, and in reality they’re just aping a lot of things. But anyway, I’m not gonna preach —
AS: Well, just to elaborate on something I said earlier. So, as far as physical influence goes, I consider Genghis Khan influential as far as this shift in our mentality about what government can be, what it can do for people and vice versa. But at the same time, I think there will be some point in human history where physical concerns and revolutions that move physical things, they will not be as important. On the other hand, abstract concerns like poetry and art and whatnot, they will continue to expand, they will continue to deepen in a way that the more basic concerns will eventually hit some sort of baseline. They will eventually hit some point of stasis. They may sometimes be nudged a little here or there, but I anticipate real revolutions in humanity — and I mean 4 or 5 or more centuries on — to be primarily of an abstract sort. There will be a certain point where Genghis Khan will cease to influence human history. But I think when it comes to art or some of these other concerns, such things will not cease; such things will only deepen in time.
DS: Now let me ask this final question, and we’ll talk about how we met, and your relationship to Cosmoetica got you into doing this book. This is a question that I’ve asked a lot of philosophers, and Steven Pinker famously dodged it. I’ve always had the idea that people are placeholders, and it doesn’t mean that they should be shoveled off to ovens and fried or whatnot. But it’s almost a version of the Great Man theory of history. People like a Walt Whitman or some of these other people that we mentioned, kick and drag the rest of society towards them. Towards the future, towards what’s better. And most other people, they’re just content in passing on their genes, and so on. It’s almost like I’m gonna sacrifice for MY child so that he could sacrifice for HIS child, so she could sacrifice for HER child, and whatnot, and it becomes an absurdity. And so, the question that I asked Pinker was: If there’s a burning building, and if somehow we could metaphysically get all the works of Shakespeare, or all of the paintings of Picasso, or all of the writings of Darwin, and somehow put them together and blow them up, and if you could stop, say, Bill the Plumber from dying, which would you do? And of course, most philosophers wanna be the good person, and say: well, I’d choose the human being. But, for me, the guy who’s maybe a good, hard-working, tax-paying citizen who’s a tailor, tinker, or beggarman thief, is not worth the overall of a great artist’s output, or a great scientist. Although I do value art over science because you remove Melville, there’s no Moby-Dick. You remove Darwin, there’s Wallace right next to him to take his place. Given that thing, if there was a metaphysical way that either all the works and ideas of a great artist are destroyed, or saving an individual life — what is your take on that?
AS: Well, in the abstract sense, I think it’s very clear that when you set up this sort of scale, it’s obvious that the works of Shakespeare or another great artist or whoever — it’s clear that their life is more important than the life of a janitor, since they’ll have far deeper effects upon history, and so on and so forth. However, if this is going to be a question that is personally asked of me, in that situation, I know that instinct will kick in for me, I will not be able to dodge that sort of emotion, and I will end up saving the janitor over the works of Shakespeare. This may not be the right choice as far as historical necessity is concerned, but it’s going to be something that I would end up doing, and I get the feeling that most people would end up doing. Now, in the specific sense, I think this might have some problems, but if you look at it in the mass sense, in human behavior, as it exists now as opposed to 2000 or 4000 or 100,000 years ago, I think the net effect of this is a good thing. I think it’s good that people are willing to make the sorts of choices that could have this impact in the long term. Eventually we won’t be in these kinds of situations to make these kinds of choices, but I think that for myself, as well as for most people, instinct will kick in, emotion will take over, and we’ll end up saving the janitor.
DS: Yeah, I probably would, too. It reminds me — just to tie back to Woody Allen — it reminds me of the Interiors scene where they go and see a play, and there are some people, I think, that are terrorists in the play, and want to kill off X amount of people, and the character played by Diane Keaton, the poet sister, Renata, says something like: Well, who are these people that would die? They’re just abstracts. And it goes back to the old thing that, if you woke up tomorrow and heard on CNN that China had just disappeared off the face of the Earth with 1.3 billion people or whatnot, would that affect you? No, it wouldn’t really affect me in any great day to day sense, but it’s just interesting because a lot of people — to get back to the girl I was arguing with — they don’t even, in their daily life, confront these sorts of issues. They don’t even think about it. They think is my DVR going to work and tape my favorite cable show?
AS: [Inaudible, but: Hopefully, I won’t ever be asked this question in real life, or else there will be no more Shakespeare.]
DS: We’ll go on to the next section.
DS: Ok, Alex, let us talk briefly about how you and I came into contact. Ultimately, just speaking of things and the Butterfly Effect, your book basically sprung out of your initially contacting me several years back, which sprung out my starting my website, Cosmoetica, which sprung out of decisions made years earlier. How and when did you contact me, or did you contact my wife Jessica? I don’t even recall.
AS: I ended up contacting you. I wouldn’t say that I was so much a reader of Cosmoetica, but when you’re serious about art, and you’re serious about poetry, I think it’s inevitable that when you do research on Walt Whitman, or you wanna read something about Yeats, or you wanna read something about contemporary poets, or whatever else it may be…. it’s inevitable that you’re gonna come across Cosmoetica, and I know this because I remember from 2004 or 2005 on, when I first became interested in such things, whenever I would do research, I’d keep coming across your essays over and over again.
Eventually, it seemed to me that you sort of knew what you were talking about. And around 2007, I was, I think, 19 or 20 years old, I was interested in writing poetry at this point already, but every single thing I had written to that point was pretty much incomplete, I never really had a fully completed poem. And that’s because I would always abandon them before they were able to satisfy me. I just didn’t know whether I was writing anything that was good or bad. So, since you seemed to have some grasp of these things, I decided to send you a poem that I’d just finished. And I remember thinking that, Here’s my final attempt after all these years and years of trying and not really knowing what I was doing. If Dan says this shit sucks, I’m probably just gonna give it up and do something that I’m better at instead of trying to fight against the inevitable. So I sent it to you, and I remember your response was that it was an excellent poem, and I remember one of the key things was that you didn’t tell me why it was an excellent poem. You had, I guess, some general suggestions, but for the most part I was glad that you didn’t tell me why, because it meant I was able to look through this poem on my own, and I was able to decide whether or not it was good writing, and I was able to allow this to enter me both through instinct as well as intellectually.
From that point on, I thought: if this is an example of good writing, how could I replicate this in MORE writing, so that I’d be able to do it in very different ways, while keeping the crux of what makes good art good art the same. So from that point on, we were in contact. This was since the very end of 2007, beginning of 2008.
DS: Ok, now as far as my writings on Cosmoetica at the time, and still I have essays that I continue to write, I have poetry, I had critical essays about poetry. Which do you think influenced you more: my poems then, or the criticism? Because obviously, in case anyone’s not figured it out, if they’d read my criticism, you are in very much the same kind of vein or approach. I won’t use a term like ‘school,’ because I don’t ever want there to be a Schneider school of anything. So, was the poetry, the creative writing, or the criticism itself that was more important to you?
AS: I think at the beginning it was definitely the criticism, and that’s because at least for me, when I first started out reading poetry, there were names that you could immediately read and appreciate and understand, and be able to intellectually engage with, and others that were further afield. So when I first started, Countee Cullen was an easy poet to understand, because besides the fact that he was a great poet, he was somebody I could easily engage with. Same with Philip Larkin, William Butler Yeats… But whenever I read your poems, I saw all your claims about being a great poet and whatnot, but I didn’t understand poems REALLY at that point. People like Rilke and Wallace Stevens were completely off-limits to me. And I put your poetry in that category. So, at the beginning, all I could do was read your criticism and think about whether it made sense. I was not able to see whether it applied to your own writing, I was only able to take your claims for what they were, and play with intellectually. This is how I started in my life: with ideas and politics and evaluating things in my life that had nothing to do with art. So, in a sense, I almost evaluated your claims independent of art, and eventually saw that they made sense.
The essay that I’d say was probably most influential was your essay on Robinson Jeffers and meter. For a very long time, I was one of those geeky types that was very interested in Latin and Greek and the minutiae of meter, and when I’d do my own writing, I’d try to make sure it was fitting into a certain metrical pattern. And I thought there was something very odd about this, especially when I was reading John Donne’s poetry, and I saw how he completely violated meter. But I thought at the same time, Hey: this is a great poet, and I know he’s a great poet, but he’s violating meter. How does this mesh with my own views? And eventually, reading your essay, the stuff that was instinct for me was finally articulated elsewhere, and I was eventually able to do something with it. So, yes, it was the criticism that turned me on.
DS: Yeah, there’s that old saying, to become good at something you have to learn the rules, but to become great, you have to learn how to break them, and when to break them, and why to break them. And I’m sometimes asking Jessica questions about grammar, because oftentimes I’ve got this sort of convective memory, and I can’t always pull things out right away, but she’s good at saying ‘This is that sort of clause,’ or something. But I know instinctively what it is, and that it’s correct, but I don’t remember those things. I know, too, I still get 1500, 1600 emails a week, not all of them submissions to Cosmoetica — there is some spam, and everyone sends me shit — but even recently I got a young Zimbabwean poet that has potential, from whom I’d like to see some more stuff.
But it’s interesting — some people will take criticism, and this isn’t writing criticism, but personal criticism, because they can get a comment about their poetry and then start to personalize it. I think I call it the divine inspiration fallacy, because they believe that their demiurge comes from beyond them, so if you say that’s not good, you’re attacking them, or if you do something great that they’re envious of, it means you’ve stolen something from them, from the music of the spheres, that THEY could have had. But these are all the silly kinds of things you observe over the years. And it’s always good with you and a handful of others I’ve encountered over the years, with art — you want someone to not APE you, but to get the fundamentals, get the tools; you want to be able to give someone a spade and a hoe, but don’t want to do their garden for them. And I think that’s one of the things with you.
Now let’s get to the criticism aspect of it. What do you think is the most valuable tool that you’ve learned, if you could just pin it down to one, either from Cosmoetica or my writings? And then we’ll go to the next section, and get back to the book.
AS: I think eventually, as far as criticism goes, by looking at your This Old Poem essays, and by not looking at your revisions, but knowing that the original poem could be better in some way, I would sort of try to come to an understanding of what makes good art, good art. And eventually, this came with a number of — I wouldn’t say ‘rules,’ or anything like that — but it came with a number of guidelines as to how this could be accomplished. So when I’m in a phase when I’m writing poetry versus writing prose, I walk down the street and I see certain things, I hear conversations, or I could be watching something or reading something, I interpret phenomena in the way of: can this somehow be formed into a poem? So, sometimes, there’s some kind of experience that immediately strikes me as, this is a great blueprint for a poem. This is something that has taken me a while, and it’s both a matter of allowing instinct to run free, and a matter of allowing these guidelines that you’ve formed in your head to shape things in a way that you could articulate beyond mere instinct. So, as far as Cosmoetica, after a while of learning these kinds of guidelines, you’re either going to be the kind of person that can internalize them, and can understand them intellectually, and CAN use it. Or you’ll be the kind of person who misses everything no matter how much you’re taught the same thing over and over again. Fortunately, I was in the former category, and it’s both become a matter of instinct, and articulation as well. You need both.
DS: Let me just end with the thing…. we talked about it, but I want everyone listening to the interview to hear it, as well. I’ve often said that people ought to approach art more as a verb than a noun. And what I meant by that was the WAY that something is communicated is the art, NOT like Rosenbaum, or some “ism”. Not a Feminist or a Marxist approach to something. Do you generally agree with that, and just give your own opinion and then we’ll move on to the next section.
AS: I think in the issue of art being a noun or a verb… I think you could really consider it both as long as you don’t get confused about what that really entails. So, many people who’d consider art in the ‘noun’ sense, they would sort of look at a poem, or they would look at a film as something that cannot be penetrated, that is really what it sounds like: ‘a thing,’ where ‘thing’ denotes something that they can’t can’t really enter into. As far as approaching art as a thing to be done, this is really the correct way, because if you look at content or philosophy or whatnot, there could be bad writing with great ideas, there could be bad ideas that are really well-written. It really goes both ways, and finding the intermediate is really where art is. Art is the confluence of these things, and is not merely one or the other. If you don’t have a way to properly do this, you’re not gonna have art, in the same way that if you don’t have any ideas whatsoever, you won’t have art, either.
DS: We’re gonna wrap up this interview in just a few minutes here. I wanted to ask the inevitable question, because a lot of people who are going to read this, or rather watch this video, or read Alex’s book, are probably going to be saying: Why was there so little talk about Woody and Mia, or Woody and the little girl — I can’t even remember her name…
AS: Dylan Farrow.
DS: Yeah, Dylan Farrow and the whole thing with Soon-Yi and whatnot. ‘How could you write this book to support this pedophile and terrible man?!’ Let’s just briefly talk about your take on the Woody/Mia and Dylan Farrow thing, and how that differs from, say, the Roman Polanski thing that he’s often compared to. How could you do this book on this evil human being?
AS: Well, I can do this book on this evil human being because, as you can tell by the interview, and the subject of my book, I must be an evil human being. The whole thing with Woody Allen and Dylan Farrow… I’ve done a large amount of research, both pro and con on the topic. To tell you the truth, I don’t know why I did it. I don’t really care all that much. But, I’ve come away with the idea that Woody Allen probably did not sexually abuse this girl. But, on a deeper level, the issue is that I don’t care all that much. I’m not writing this book and saying all this stuff about Woody Allen to be his friend. He’s not somebody that I see on the street, he’s not somebody that I am friendly with. This is me looking at his films, this is me engaging with his art-work, this is me engaging with his life’s work. Whatever he might or might not have done in his personal life is completely irrelevant to me. This is why, in the book, I take his biographical stuff and put it to the very end of the book. That makes a statement. The statement is: it’s irrelevant to me! I’m not here to gossip, the book is not a gossip rag, and this is really what it comes down to.
As far as issues with Roman Polanski and whatnot, people look at Woody Allen’s interactions with Soon-Yi, that he started as a 50+ year old man, and started dating a girl that was either 19 or 21, at the time — I don’t remember the age… They take this as an indication that he’s ‘into younger girls,’ and that, maybe, this might have come carry-over to Dylan Farrow. But the fact is, being an older man who’s interested in women that are thirty years younger than you, THAT is an act of personal immaturity. It means that you’re not really able to handle relationships with women in the way that you ought to be able to handle them. That, in and of itself, is an immature and silly act, but it is NOT a sociopathic one. When you talk about something like the sexual abuse of a 7 year old, that is a sociopathic act, and not one of mere immaturity. And the fact that people could so easily conflate the two as if there is some relationship is just very, very silly. Say what you will about Woody Allen’s personal choices or personal life, the way he fucked up his relationships — or not, whatever it may be — that may be true, that does not necessarily mean that he’s a sociopath. It simply means that he’s done things in his life that were immature. It’s not the same thing that he’s being charged with, however.
DS: Yeah, and even if, of course, he WAS guilty of everything that’s claimed, or Roman Polanski, too, who admitted to drugging and raping a girl, that is again divorced from his art.
DS: Some of the greatest artists are scumbags. Rainer Maria Rilke, one of the greatest published poets out there, was a terrible father. He was a louse and an adulterer. Caravaggio was a murderer, the great painter Caravaggio… that’s, again, not supporting them.
Anyway, let me just ask two things. Again, give us your book’s name, its price, when it’s coming out, and the press name so people can buy it when it comes out.
AS: The book is Woody Allen: Reel To Real, the press name is Take2 Publishing, and I’m not completely sure of the price yet, but it will be under $10.
DS: And I’ve read the book — it’s a hefty book, it’s about 150,000 words and it’s gonna be about out in about a month and a half — November 13th was, I believe, the release date. Let me just give you a minute or two, Alex, to wrap up this first Dan Schneider Video Interview, with whatever you wanted to say about the book or yourself or anything else.
AS: Well, doing this research for the book, among other things, one thing that stuck out for me is how often critics are just so repetitive, and are such copy-cats of each other. One person that I knew in high school that has now become a film critic…. He told me at one point that he considers himself a mediocre writer and a mediocre critic. And I asked him: if you’re a mediocre critic and a mediocre writer, why are you offering criticism to the world? Why are you even doing this thing? And his answer which, to me, was very, very silly, very stupid, was because ‘I can’t sing, dance, or act.’ But this is NOT the proper way to live life! Whether you’re a janitor, or whether you’re a scientist, a great artist, or whatever, you have a purpose, you have something to do, and you could either do it well or not well. It makes no sense to fight against the inevitable. It is of NO service to the world if you think yourself a bad writer and you do it anyway simply because you want to. Because there’s so much bad writing out there, there’s so much bad criticism out there, there are too many people that are confused about art. There are too many otherwise intelligent and potentially talented human beings that get completely derailed from any proper trajectory simply because of this mass of bad writing and bad ideas and bad whatever. Do NOT add to this kind of noise. If you have something to say, then you say it. If you feel like you’re just like anybody else, stick to something that you could actually be good at, and that you could actually not only feel good about, in the more personal sense, but actually offer as a service to the rest of the world.
This is why I’m doing it. I’m not doing it for my own ego. I don’t necessarily enjoy doing this kind of film criticism or writing these kinds of essays, but hey: there’s not been a book like this written, there’s not been this kind of length and depth, but here I am, and I’m able to do it, and for me to say NO would be personal immaturity. That would be personal irresponsibility. And I’m not gonna add to that. So, for everybody else: stick to your purpose, live within your purpose, do the best in what you could actually do. Do not fight against the inevitable because that’s just stupid.
DS: It reminds me of what your friend the critic said, one of my friends said that the reason that a lot of bad artist wannabes do poetry instead of painting or dancing or whatnot, is it’s easy to just get a pencil and paper. And I think that he was probably right!
Well, thank you again, Alex Sheremet. This was the first Dan Schneider Video Interview, recorded on September 27, 2014, with Alex Sheremet: writer, poet, film critic, and author of the forthcoming ebook, Woody Allen: Reel To Real. Again, thank you, Alex, and for our readers, stay tuned for further interviews. This interview with Alex was just the beginning.