What is The New Yorker? I know it’s a great magazine and that it’s a tremendous source of pleasure in my life. But what exactly is it? This blog’s premise is that The New Yorker is a work of art, as worthy of comment and analysis as, say, Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Each week I review one or more aspects of the magazine’s latest issue. I suppose it’s possible to describe and analyze an entire issue, but I prefer to keep my reviews brief, and so I usually focus on just one or two pieces, to explore in each the signature style of its author. A piece by Nick Paumgarten is not like a piece by Dana Goodyear, and neither is like a piece by Ian Frazier. One could not mistake Finnegan for Friend, or Bilger for Lepore, or Collins for Khatchadourian. Each has found a style, and it is that style that I respond to as I read, and want to understand and describe.

Saturday, February 3, 2018

January 29, 2018 Issue

Pick of the Issue this week is Nick Paumgarten’s brilliant “Getting a Shot,” an account of the making of Madeleine Sackler’s prison movie O.G. Sackler shot the movie at the Pendleton Correctional Facility, a maximum-security state prison near Indianapolis, described by Paumgarten as follows:

The state pen isn’t one of those spare, futuristic, lightless dystopias, as in “Oz.” It’s an old-fashioned hoosegow—brown brick, arched windows, red tiled roof—not unlike Shawshank. From the parking lot, you might mistake the place for a dingy version of Stanford. But, like any prison, it is a soul-crushing complex, with its own fraught history of violence. In the eighties and nineties, the inmates called it Little Nam.

Paumgarten visits the prison in June, 2016, during the final week of rehearsals, and again the following month to watch the filming of some of the movie's more violent scenes. He tells about being led through a series of locked gates (“ ‘If it’s a lock, lock it,’ the signs read”); he describes “the offenders’ baggy milk-coffee-colored jumpsuits”; he observes “the mazes of fencing and razor wire.”

A unique aspect of Sackler’s film is that most of the cast consists of inmates (“ ‘Prison—it’s like a character-actor convention,’ Sackler said”). Paumgarten sits in on a rehearsal in which an inmate playing a white-supremacist gang member practices shouting a slur: “Fucking coon!” Paumgarten describes the scene:

Murray stopped. “I feel so odd saying this.”

“It’s make-believe,” Holbrook replied. “I don’t care if we’re in a prison or a fucking hedge-fund office. A certain rage builds up in each of us.” He tapped out a rhythm.

Murray tried to make it rote: “Fucking coon! Fucking coon! Fucking coon!”

Lawrence, leaning back in his chair, chuckled. “That’s bothering him.”

During a break, Murray recalled an earlier version of the scene, in which the script had him addressing Wright as an ape. “I didn’t want to do it,” he said. “I told them, I’m not gonna say the N-word, either. I have to live with a lot of people in here.” He also wasn’t sure that, in the context of Pendleton, either was a realistic insult. “Coon” was the compromise.

For me, the central figure in Paumgarten’s piece isn’t Sackler; it’s an inmate named Theothus Carter, who plays one of the main characters in the movie. Carter is serving a sixty-five-year sentence for armed burglary and attempted murder. Here’s Paumgarten’s description of him:

Theothus Carter strode into the rehearsal room. An immediate presence: he was tall, lean, and broad-shouldered, with long low-calibre dreads drawn up in a ponytail, gentle-seeming brown eyes, a deep voice, an air of self-containment, and no shortage of self-confidence. He had on heavy brown boots and a fancy-looking watch, which he’d accepted in payment for a gambling debt.

Paumgarten says of Carter:

No offender carried a bigger load, or evinced greater devotion. He read the script more than a hundred times, hardly venturing from his bunk except to attend rehearsals. He steered clear of the rec center and the chow hall, in order to avoid entanglements. There were certainly inmates and guards who disapproved of the “O.G.” shoot, whether because of their racial views (some white inmates complained to the filmmakers, in idle moments, that the script was too sympathetic to black inmates) or because they objected to coöperation with authority of any kind. And so Carter was vulnerable to provocation. It is hard for a civilian to understand what form such challenges took—he was coy about all this, and no one, among the daytime visitors, could really comprehend what it was like to live there—but he made it clear that the threat of instigation was incessant.

As usual with Paumgarten, “Getting a Shot” contains numerous inspired details. For example, at the beginning of Carter’s rehearsal, Paumgarten notes, “Through the windows you could hear the thwok of a handball hitting the wall.” He describes the film crew “crammed into holding pens that, like submarine airlocks, acted as passages from one environment to another.”

Over the years, Paumgarten has written many superb pieces – “Deadhead,” “Berlin Nights,” “Useless Beauty,” “Life Is Rescues,” “The Country Restaurant,” to name five that come quickly to mind. “Getting a Shot” is one of his best.

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