James Franco’s Face: A Subjective Account of the New Yorker Festival

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SATURDAY, OCTOBER 17, 2009 1:00pm – Malcolm Gladwell: The Curious Case of Michael Vick (Florence Gould Hall) “Beer compared to this rum is what a pea shooter is to a bazooka.”Malcolm Gladwell “I don’t know if this has a point,” said Malcolm Gladwell. “And feel free during the Q&A to tell me if it doesn’t.” He said he wasn’t going to talk about Michael Vick, the NFL quarterback who pleaded guilty to running a dogfighting ring, as he was supposed to. Instead he talked about Dwight and Ann Heath, two WASP anthropologists who went to Bolivia in 1956 and came back “deeply tanned.” They had gone to Bolivia so Dwight could work on his dissertation on Land Reform. But the “WASPs in the jungle” ended up getting drunk with the Camba, an indigenous tribe, and learning some important things that would later contribute to studies in alcoholism. Most important of these things was that the Camba had a ritualistic way of getting drunk. The dearth of negative consequences that flowed from their heavy drinking had something to do with the civilized way in which they got smashed. Malcolm Gladwell (who was interviewed by this site) was standing behind a podium of some clear modern material so you could see how he was standing at all times. He was in jeans, black Nike sneakers with a white swoosh and a charcoal jacket over a button-down shirt. He often kept one foot crossed over the other like a boy would. He moved his hands often and with purpose. Sometimes he gripped the podium at either side other times his hands went up like a preacher’s and sometimes he ducked down or jumped. Malcolm Gladwell compared the carefully orchestrated drinking ritual of the Camba, which involved 180-proof rum, to Brown’s campus where kids were getting drunk on beer. “Beer,” said Malcolm Gladwell lifting his hands in the air, “compared to this rum is what a pea shooter is to a bazooka.” I thought back to college and the time I saw my first, and last, keg stand. Malcolm Gladwell compared the Camba to second-generation Italians in New Haven, Connecticut in the fifites (1/3 of the 3000 calories that they consumed was wine) and their Irish counterparts (who were three times as likely to get arrested for public drunkenness). Whether it was a glass of wine, or a “nip of whiskey,” the point it seemed was to have a rule w/r/t drinking. Malcolm Gladwell gave facts and figures. He said some things very loud, like “boom,” and stilled the audience with other words quietly delivered, like “serendipity.” He marshaled enormous amounts of information about such things as the Yale Center of Alcohol Studies, the studies of Giorgio Lolli, Claude Steele (“Provost of Columbia or NYU, sort of the same thing”), E.M. Jellinek and Mark Keller, told a story about the time a social scientist walked into a bar, did dramatizations of beer commercials and pretended to be a sexy woman. He explained things like “self-inflation,” “imposing constraint,” and “disinhibition,” and talked about Robert B. Edgerton’s theories on why alcohol is “not reliable in its effects.” Malcolm Gladwell said, “I told you I said I was going to do a bad job of giving you a point.” Q&A Someone said “Malcolm,” with a kind of determined ownership as if in reading Malcolm Gladwell’s books she had acquired a vested interest that she was now redeeming. She asked something about how altitude affected the Camba. Malcolm made a downward motion with his hand to suggest low altitude and talked about chainsaws. “Chainsaws are largely used for good,” he said. “But use of chainsaws can have negative consequences.” Malcolm Gladwell talked about another beer commercial where kids acted tipsy, which he said was unusual since beer commercials rarely ever show half-empty glasses, tipsy people or any evidence of drinking at all. “If you can find me another ad that shows people tipsy,” said Malcolm Gladwell, “I’ll give you ten dollars.” The mention of ten dollars deflated any sense of excitement instilled by the wager. It could have been made more exciting–$1000–if it didn’t seem like people in this audience would use the bet as an opportunity to call Malcolm Gladwell and say, “Malcolm,” in a familiar way, “I found another commercial where people look more tipsy.” Someone said, “Malcolm,” and asked a question about legal drinking ages. Malcolm Gladwell said having notions of drinking age at 21 is “ridiculous.” He said, “College presidents agree.” Schools should “teach students how to drink.” Someone said, “Malcolm,” and asked what this topic had to do with Michael Vick. Malcolm Gladwell said, in a very polite way, that it had nothing to do with Michael Vick. Malcolm Gladwell smiled at one point and said, “Canada is better.” Malcolm Gladwell is Canadian. Though when talking about the problems of Americans, he always said “We.” Someone in the audience said, “Malcolm,” and asked something about guns and gun violence. “That’s the best question,” said Malcolm Gladwell. He went on to give a long and detailed answer about the particular difficulty that American culture has because we disagree about a lot of things, though it makes us interesting. “In America you see people who are happy, sad, murderous, sentimental.” A man said he had a 3-part question. One was about drunk driving, one seemed unrelated to the first and contained the phrase “Ivy League schools,” and the third I forget. Malcolm Gladwell did not say, “That was the longest question.” Someone said, “Malcolm. How often do you find yourself writing without a point?” Malcolm Gladwell said, “More times than you would think.” A young man got up and said there was a ritual to “getting wasted” and it involved bragging about how much you drank the night before. Malcolm Gladwell said that that wasn’t the kind of ritual he was talking about. Someone asked if it was the family’s responsibility to instill alcohol-related rituals. Malcolm Gladwell talked about how on the television show “The O.C.,” people drank enormous amounts and with no rhyme or reason. “The drinking is so haphazard,” he said and waved his hand with the casual authority of the czar of ritualistic drinking that he had become in the course of the hour in Florence Gould Hall. Someone said, “Malcolm. Is it possible to change drinking patterns?” Someone said, “Malcolm. I’m curious about 12-18 year-olds.” Someone said, “Malcolm. Why no hangovers? (the question was about the Camba). Someone said, “Malcolm. I have a question unrelated to alcohol: What are you currently reading?” Malcolm Gladwell said, “Heavy Drinking.” Someone from the audience with a British accent said “Malcolm.” It was a man in an argyle sweater with neatly combed gray hair and a gray beard. Malcolm Gladwell said, “This is my father by the way.” I don’t remember what he asked because I was imagining Little Malcolm having long Socratic discussions with his father along the banks of some Canadian river. I imagined Little Malcolm asking his father questions and getting rigorous truthful answers in response rather than underestimatory lies in a dumb voice. I imagined Little Malcolm telling his father he wanted to write and his father saying something other than, “Who in their right–don’t you want to be somebody?” I was sorry I hadn’t heard the question because Malcolm Gladwell said, “No. That is the best question.” 2:44pm – Walking by Apple Store “Malcolm Gladwell’s an impressive person,” said Madison. We walked down Fifth Avenue. “Do you think he’s had 10,000 hours of practice speaking in public?” We looked into the glass structure of the Apple Store and watched people ride the glass elevator down to where many people moved around each other and grabbed and pulled things. Madison said, “You’d think they were giving things away.” “Maybe I’ll see you at James Franco?” I said. “He’s everywhere and nowhere,” said Madison.


Rozalia Jovanovic is a founding editor of Gigantic, a magazine of short prose and art. She is the Deputy Editor of Flavorpill and has received fellowships from The MacDowell Colony and Columbia University. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming from Unsaid, The Believer, Everyday Genius, Guernica, elimae, and Esquire.com. She blogs at The Astonishing Egg and is The Rumpus New York Editor. More from this author →