transcripts


Excerpts from the film “Straight Time” commentary by Dustin Hoffman and Ulu Grosbard. (All commentary by Hoffman except where noted)

“Straight Time” was based on the book “No Beast So Fierce” by Edward Bunker.

 Dustin Hoffman:

…I met Eddie Bunker, and once I was convinced by him that I could play the part, then I started to research it for maybe 2 years – going to prisons, hanging out with ex-convicts, going to where they lived. …I just learned so much from him, in terms of what it’s like to be in that life and what recidivism is really all about, at least from his point of view…

***

…What he told me was extraordinary, ‘cause we had long conversations during the research days [of the movie.] It was the best research experience I’ve ever had, in any film. And he loved to talk, and he was very articulate and piercing in the way he answered my questions. And he understood where I was coming from, meaning the inadequacy I felt.

He says, “Let me tell you something I’ve done since I can remember, since I was in reform school – maybe it started there – it started very, very young. People don’t know I do it. I do it with everyone – I do it with you. I do it not just the first time I meet people; if we become friends – it’s just something I do. I’m not in control of it and the other person never knows I’m doing it.

“And as I’m talking to you, I’m kind of doing it right now and that may be what you mean about not making eye contact.”

He said, “I look to see what I could kill you with. ‘Cause let’s say I don’t have a knife or a gun, so I look for anything nearby – and I can see the mike stand, the – right here you have a kind of a – what do you call it? A stand where you have your questions. There’s no lamp, no phone…”

And he said, “That’s something I just do, and then I also look what I can steal from you, after I’ve hit you.”

I started doing that in life. And what I found was, is that it altered me. It didn’t make me think about killing; it was what in acting – in Strasberg’s class – he would call it ‘a task’. You give yourself ‘a task’, and it just alters you. It alters your behavior. It doesn’t make you want to kill, it just makes you observe. In fact, it’s so – it has such a pathology behind it, that it objectifies the person. So if anything, there’s no emotion. It’s probably part of the training in boot camp – you kill, so as not to be killed.

***

I wanted to make a film – and I don’t think studios would’ve particularly liked this mantra, but I don’t care – rather than caring about whether it was ‘successful’ or not – which we all – obviously, we would like our films to be successful – but more than that [I wanted] criminals, people who were in the life, to see this film and say, “That’s our reality.” That was my first priority.

You know, what comes to mind is that when I was in San Francisco [doing research], I met a guy who ran a half-way house. He was an ex-convict… I went in there and I talked to him, and he was quite known in the community of ex-convicts and prison personnel, he was well-respected, he had been a convict, and now his whole life was [trying] to help guys that came out of the joint and were going through the impossibility of [being on] parole, as we showed in the film. I was getting background with him.

I remember he looked at me at one point, and he was upset that I was going to make a film. “The Godfather” came up, ’cause that had come out already. I said, “Didn’t you think that was accurate?”

He was angry, ’cause he was a passionate man in terms of his work. He said, “No… The minute you put actors on the screen, 70 feet of screen, you guys are all – it’s romanticized, by definition. What comes to mind is Belmondo in “Breathless” – I mean, you just put that face on the screen and it’s a romantic image. So don’t tell me about a horse’s head in a guy’s bed, tell me about what they really do…

“I don’t care what you do, you’re a big movie star, you’re going to put your face in a close-up on the screen – and it’s going to be romanticized. There’s no way that you can make a film that does not soften the reality of what it’s like.”

And we tried our best, but I understood what he was saying.

***

          [Bunker] was very passionate about how criminality had changed, for the worse. He said in his day, there was a dignity to being a criminal. This was now the Seventies. He says, “Now the kids will just kill you, just for the hell of it. They’ll stick you up, they’ll mug you… In our day, we just wanted the money, we didn’t want to hurt anybody. In the joints – you could do some good time in the joints. In the old days you’d get your shit together, you’d get a lot of reading done. But now, you’ve got to watch your back every second.”

          I think Reagan had been governor of California, and one of the things he’d done while he was governor was he had closed down a lot of mental health facilities. Those people then went into the general prison population. Eddie said, “…Someone could drop a sand bag on your head and kill you and you’d never know why.” It [became] a very scary place in the joint because of the mix of people and also the breakdown in societal values, from Bunker’s point of view.

***

          I’m trying to understand something I don’t understand, ’cause somewhere there’s something that’s not connecting for me.

I said, “So let me ask you this, Eddie,” and I’ve never forgotten this. “Let’s say you’re robbing a bank and you start screaming just like we did in the scene, and they all get down. Except one guy, the guard. You think [he’s] reaching for his gun, you think he’s going to challenge you, and you fire.

“And let’s say – I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt. You don’t even want to hit him, you just want to scare him. So you purposely miss, and the bullet goes past him” – I’m just making this up as I go along – “and it goes through the window.

“And then, that night, when you’re watching the news, they announce that the bullet that went through the window hit a baby that was in a baby carriage that a mother was walking past the bank at that moment, and killed the baby.” Just making this up; I wanted to know if there was a feeling of guilt. I said, “How would you feel about that?”

He said, “Oh, man, I wouldn’t feel good, man. I’d feel bad.” But he said it very dispassionately to me; his eyes were very cold.

I said, “But would you feel responsible?” He said, “No, man, not at all.”

I said, “Why?”

And here’s what he said: “That woman’s got a responsibility, she’s a mother. And if you’ve got a kid, you know better than to walk by a bank; because banks get held up. She should’ve been walking across the street.”

When he told me that, I literally got goose bumps and I understood everything that I had to understand. Because here was a very, very intelligent man who had rationalized this aspect of his life; in a way that he had to, in order to be able to do what he did.

***

          …Eddie was the first one to say that [incarceration] is not about – and I agree with him; probably not just the United States, but anywhere – that incarceration is really not about rehabilitation. A penitentiary is not a place to be ‘penitent’, as originally conceived. You come out much more dangerous to yourself and to society.

He once used an example – I remember so much of what he told me – one example was: “You know, man, if somebody steps on your foot, it really hurts sometimes. On the street, you’ll just give somebody a look, say ‘Hey!’… Whatever. But if you’ve been in the joint and somebody steps on your foot, you might really react physically, immediately, because you’re just a different person. It’s taken you to a much more primitive place.”

***

          Director Ulu Grosbard:

There were instances where the book was written with quite a bit of fiction, but the details of the life – the details of having to come out of jail on parole, the humiliation of the parole operation; trying to get a job when you have a record – it’s like everything is stacked against you. You have to be of an extraordinary character to overcome the obstacles that are put in your way; then try to find a way to go straight, making whatever – five dollars an hour? – against buddies you know outside who tell you, “Oh, I’ve got a new score, we can do something and we’ll make a couple of grand, you know,” so you’re constantly having to make that choice – and I think it’s a very hard choice to make. Over a long period of time, I think it eventually wears you down, the reality.

And that’s basically what the movie tells, and what I think Bunker captured very well; and it is what interested me in the story.

…A lot of them [the audience] are going to end up saying, “Well, we don’t like the guy.” …And that’s the point of the movie, to some degree – they end up not liking the guy. By the end, I think, the more sophisticated audience perhaps still understood what was going on, but it isn’t what they had expected.

They expected a hero, a hero-bandit, a hero-criminal. And it wasn’t a hero-criminal – it was just a criminal.

*

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The following are excerpts from the memoir Education of a Felon by Edward Bunker,   © 2000, St. Martin’s Press

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Pg 259   On his first published novel, No Beast So Fierce:

In my sixth novel I was trying to write of the underworld from the criminal’s viewpoint. Many books are written about criminals, but the writer is always observing them and the world from society’s perspective. I was trying to make the reader see the world through the criminal’s perspective; what he saw, what he thought, what he felt – and why. I was trying to write on three levels: first for the excitement of the story; second into the psychological makeup; and third so it promulgated a philosophical view. I was also trying to follow Hemingway’s dictum that a writer should be as devoted to truth as a prelate of the Church is to God. Unlike most pundits and all politicians, I have never shaved a fact to fit an assertion. I sometimes end up positioning things that contradict each other, but we all know that a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, which I read in the essay, not in Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations.

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pg 147 On remorse, forgiveness, moving on:

          “…I wasn’t a killer, although there had been times in prison when I would have killed in self-defense. I wasn’t going to run. I wasn’t vengeful, nor did I feel remorse for most things that I had done. I believed that yesterday could be learned from but never erased. If I had dwelled on the past, there is a good chance I would have gone insane. I had done too much already, and too much had been done to me.

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Pg 28    On developing his survivor ethic:

          [Bunker was sent to a youth prison (18-25 year olds) when he was 15 (1948?) On his first day there, after witnessing a knife fight between two Chicanos fighting over “a petite white queen named Forever Amber” which resulted in the death of both, Bunker reflected on the events]:

          Bang! He was dead. With a snap of the fingers! [The other one] was history, too. That night after the lights were out, I lay on my upper bunk, listening to the night sounds, creaking bedsprings, wordless whispers, and choked laughter – and I thought about those two dead young Chicanos. They had died fighting over a sissy and pure machismo. To many in the world, my behavior was chaos for the sake of chaos. You probably could’ve gotten good odds that I would not live into my sixth decade, much less reach my seventh. Now I’d seen a double killing and it was a serious shock. Although I made no conscious decision and my behavior would continue to be wild and erratic, thereafter I always had something that stopped me on the brink of the precipice. I would never and have never gone mano a mano with knives. I wanted real victory, not a Pyrrhic version.

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pg 34  On ‘queens’ at the LA jail, circa 1950, and his survivor ethic:

          The Tanks were racially segregated for the most part. One exception was the “queens” tank. With towels wrapped like turbans around their heads, jail shirt tails tied at the bottom like blouses, makeup ingeniously concocted from God knows what, jeans rolled up and skin-tight, they were all flamboyant parodies of women. Spotting me, as I walked with the guard along the length of their tank, they hurried along beside us: “Put him in here, Deputy! We won’t hurt him.”

          The deputy snorted and quipped, “All we’d find is his shoelaces.”

          “What’s your name, honey?”

          I didn’t reply.

          “Who’d you kill, kid?”

          “If you go to the joint, I’ll be your woman – and kill anybody that fucks with you.”

          I said nothing. It was a loser to exchange quips with queens; their tongues were too sharp, their wit too biting. Needless to say, I had no worries about anyone fucking with me. I was no white-bread white boy. If someone said something wrong or even looked wrong, my challenge would be quick, and if the response was less than swift apology, I would attack forthwith without further words.

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pg 166    On how criminality has changed:

 Professional thieves recognize that playing the game means doing time. They measure success not by the certainty of eventual imprisonment, but rather by the length of imprisonment vis-à-vis the length of a run he has and how well he lives before being incarcerated. Although the subculture of the professional thief depicted in Dickens, Melville and Victor Hugo was first eroded by Prohibition’s organized crime and their turf wars, it was destroyed by drugs and the drug underworld. Until today, when a young criminal’s skills are limited to shooting somebody and dealing crack. Back in ’57 there were still enough adherents that I could find righteous thieves, safecrackers, boosters, players of short con, and burglars. My initial parole officer had said, quite correctly, that he never worried about picking up the morning newspaper to read where I shot my way out of a supermarket or a bank. He had over a hundred cases, and others needed his attention far more than I did. After about six months without trouble, I saw him no more. The only requirement was that I send in monthly reports. That put no strain on my resentment of authority. I could do that.

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pg 264    On changes at San Quentin and racial stratification:

…From the early forties through the fifties, San Quentin went from being one of America’s most notoriously brutal prisons to being a leader in progressive penology and rehabilitation. Like other prisons, it was not ready for what happened when the revolution came to America. As drugs flooded the cities, likewise they flooded San Quentin. The racial turmoil of the streets was magnified in San Quentin’s sardine can world. The polarization within can be illustrated by two events. In 1963 when John Kennedy was assassinated, it was lunchtime in the Big Yard. Everyone fell into a stunned silence. Eyes that hadn’t cried since childhood filled with tears, including those of the toughest black convicts. Five years later, when Bobby Kennedy was shot in the head, the response was different. Black convicts called out, “Right on!” “The chickens come home to roost,” said the Black Panther newspaper….

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[Amy sez: It must be noted that Robert Kennedy’s murder followed the murder of Martin Luther King, Jr. by only two months. Need I say more?]

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pg 266   On tough guys and con bosses

          In prison movies it is a convention bordering on cliché that some super-tough convict within runs the show. In the days of Bogart and Cagney that kingpin con was white; now he is usually black. That notion may have validity in a small, soft prison in someplace like Maine or Vermont. But if someone really hard-core turns up in one of those joints, he is transferred under the Interstate Prison Compact. No convict runs the show in Leavenworth, Marion, San Quentin, Folsom, Angola, Jeff City, Joliet, Huntsville or other hard-core penitentiaries. Nobody of any color is that tough. Indeed, convicts do have little homilies such as, “tough guys are in the grave,” or: “everybody bleeds, everybody dies, and anybody can kill you.” Over the years I saw bona fide tough guys come to San Quentin or Folsom (usually San Quentin, because they don’t last long enough to reach Folsom) and think they could take over on the muscle. One of them was a Bronx Puerto Rican who weighed about 120 pounds. He stabbed somebody within weeks of reaching the Guidance Center. He seriously believed that he was a killer and had everybody intimidated. He lasted eleven months. They found him in his cell with a piece of electrician’s wire wrapped around his neck and eleven puncture wounds just under his rib cage, most of them directly in the heart. Someone gave a very terse eulogy: “Another tough motherfucker bites the dust.”

          With those parameters and constraints in mind, I think I had as much power and influence as any among the four thousand walking San Quentin’s yard. Over the years I had assumed a code and attitude that mixed John Wayne and Machiavelli. I respected every man, including the weak and the despicable, for it is better to have anyone or anything as a friend, including a mangy dog, rather than as an enemy. My friends were the toughest white and Chicano convicts. I maintained their loyalty by being loyal and their respect by being smart in several areas. One friend, Denis Kanos, whom I left in Folsom when I was transferred, had been granted a hearing by the California Supreme Court on the petition I had filed. Not only had they granted the hearing; they reversed the conviction. Denis, who had been required to wait fifteen years before even being eligible for parole, went free.

          Within a couple months of his release he was, as always, a kingpin drug trafficker again in Southern California. Every month or so, he would send me an ounce of heroin. Other men who got narcotics had to sell enough to pay for it. I paid nothing and was generous with my friends. It is difficult to convey what heroin is really worth in prison. Cocaine had almost no value, for convicts wanted what soothed them, not what made them crazier. A gram of heroin, a tiny fraction of an ounce, would, for example, easily purchase murder from many takes. When someone wanted to know who had heroin, they asked, “Who’s God today?” Such was the power of the white serpent.

                    Although I played the game (it was the only game in town), I was really tired of it. I had prison under control, but I started to think about when I would be free again. Without a miracle I would return to crime. It was the only way I knew to make money. God, if I could only sell a book. That, however, would be like hitting Lotto.

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6 or 7 Dylans? Oh no! What does it mean?!

I saw the ‘biopic’ “I’m Not There” in a theatre when it came out, the imaginative retelling of the Bob Dylan story/mythology/sociological/cultural phenomenon. It kind of all went by in a blur. Dylan was portrayed by 6 different actors as 6 different seperate “characters”.

I watched it again on DVD a couple of days ago, and got slightly more into it. Then I watched it again with director/co-writer/auteur Todd Haynes’ commentary.

Wow! The sheer poetry of Dylan – and Haynes’ erudite study, astute and perceptive analysis – just blew me away. By the end of it I was bawling at the sheer inspiration and visceral connection I felt to the music; to Haynes’ vision and empathy; and to all that the music and story meant to people of my era – or anyone that’s ever been touched by it.

I thought I knew a lot about Dylan (at least, beyond the mysteries of his art and genius.) Haynes’ commentary really revealed a lot to me, though. His commentary during the last two scenes and through the end credits might serve as a good introduction to anyone that is slightly baffled by the kaleidoscopic, impressionistic imagery of the movie.

I was moved to transcribe Haynes summation over the end credits. I found it quite moving, inspiring, and a creative muse. If you’re a Dylan fan and haven’t checked it out; if you like the transcription; if you want to be inspired – it’s worth checking it out for yourself. All I can say is Amen! It’s good to hear a storyteller that knows what they’re on about!

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“…When Dylan was hearing “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” on playback [while recording Blonde On Blonde], he said, ‘Now that is religious music! That is religious carnival music. I just got that real old time religious carnival sound there, didn’t I?

“I’m just so happy, I can’t believe I have a movie that ends with ‘Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands’!……” [Hearing the comments and the music together was powerful!]

“We held off [using] ‘Like A Rolling Stone’ until the end, just to keep people in their seats”    [‘Like A Rolling Stone’ kicks in as the credits roll.]

“……The theme of freedom is something that they talked about a lot in the Sixties. ‘Only the man that says ‘No’ is free,’ to paraphrase Melville. And DH Lawrence said, ‘Men are not free when they’re doing what they like. The moment you just do what you like, there’s nothing you care about doing.’

“I really wanted to talk about freedom from identity; and I think that’s really what Bob Dylan stands for; and that’s sort of what the ultimate message is to this film.

“He said,  ‘You’ve got to be strong and stay connected to what started it all, the inspiration behind the inspiration; to who you were when people didn’t mind stepping on you. I tried, I guess, in my own mind to separate aliveness from deadness; to not let all the namers and blamers boundary it all up. But no one’s free, even the birds are chained to the sky.’

“Tony Scaduto, who wrote one of the first biographies [of Dylan] said that he built a new identity every step of the way in order to escape identity.

“In the final quotes from that great period where he was playing with structure – yesterday, today and tomorrow are all in the same room (from the “Blood On the Tracks” period.) Because I think all great works of art, philosophy, science start to challenge linear time and favor relativity, and that’s what Dylan was doing in his songs. And that’s what I tried to do in my movie. I mean, it was really an attempt to embrace what was radical about Dylan, what was experimental about Dylan.

“The fact that it [Dylan’s music] remains so popular and drew an audience and drew the following of an entire generation doesn’t disprove how radical it was. The genuine weirdness of Dylan I think is something you can’t forget; and that’s really at the root of what he’s doing. [‘Weirdness’ relates back to what was said earlier about the weirdness of the cultural mix of America, itself.] But that’s where he’s combining high and low art – that’s where he’s made something beautiful out of the juke box, you know. And he’s never compromised; whether he’s failed or succeeded – he’s just done what he had to do, and I tried to do that in this film.

“And we were lucky because we had support; we had amazing artistic collaboration; we had great critical response on this movie. And I think that it’s a movie that will live on. And I think it’s a movie that really does respect its subject and try to get to the core of its subject.”

Kurt Vonnegut

Transcript of Kurt Vonnegut interviewed by David Brancaccio on the [PBS] NOW show, October 7, 2005

This transcript contains a really evocative poem by Vonnegut about the environment (I’ve highlighted it in blue font.) His reading of it had gravitas and eloquence.

This is a great interview, it will get your thoughts going!

I saw the latter half of this 30-minute show; and was able to videotape that part of it. The exchange of ideas was rapid-fire. It was hard to believe that it had not been choreographed in advance (this thought came to me as I transcribed the videotape.) And yet – it was all obviously spontaneous; there was no hesitation. The concentration and focus were remarkable – the breadth of what they talked about – the clear exchange of ideas.

I was struck by the profundity of what Vonnegut had to say – the words of an honored and savvy elder. He spoke in a wonderful conversational style, with wit and expressiveness. You got the feeling that they were trying to cram as much as they could into those 30 minutes. I was so engrossed that I felt compelled to transcribe the part that I had on video.

The portion of the show that I caught on videotape – and the transcript that I made – began slightly less than halfway through. (I’ve made a notation at the beginning of that section below, where my tape began.) Later I saw PBS’s transcript online, which I used to complete my transcript.

I’ve slightly amended the part of PBS’s transcript that I used – even though I didn’t see that part. I think I caught the nuances better; was more in synch with what was being said; and that my transcription is more animated.


Blurb:

DAVID BRANCACCIO: NOW on PBS.

His is a chaotic universe…remember SLAUGHTERHOUSE FIVE and CAT’S CRADLE? Kurt Vonnegut is back.

He’s on the bestseller list this week with powerful words about the state of the world and the failure of politics. [non-fiction, “A Man Without A Country”]

Vonnegut: on life, democracy, and the importance of being funny.


Intro:

BRANCACCIO: Welcome to a special edition of NOW.

This country has been through a lot in the last month and we’ve been out there covering it.

But I’m thinking its time to pause for the big picture. And when the brilliant and irascible Kurt Vonnegut said he was up for an interview, we jumped at the chance.

It’s rare to get to sit across the table from a giant. Do yourself a favor and read SLAUGHTERHOUSE-FIVE again …like now, this weekend.

Before it’s too late.

Mr. Vonnegut has a new book challenging us to think about how life works or doesn’t work. He’s 82 — but I’ll tell you what, he’s still a total riot.

And this icon of American literature has got some choice words for our political parties, our president, and our planet.


BRANCACCIO: Mr. Vonnegut, thanks for coming by.

KURT VONNEGUT: My pleasure.

DAVID BRANCACCIO: How’s life?

KURT VONNEGUT: Well, it’s practically over, thank God!

DAVID BRANCACCIO: For heaven’s sake!

KURT VONNEGUT: I’m 80– I’m practically 83. It won’t be that much more of– for me to put up with, I don’t think.

DAVID BRANCACCIO: Well, you were writing about maybe wanting to sue your cigarette companies. You smoked all those years; and there’s a warning on the package saying that this will –

KURT VONNEGUT: Brown and Williams, on their package, promise to kill me. And they haven’t done it. I mean, here I am — 83.

DAVID BRANCACCIO: False advertisement on the cigarettes?

KURT VONNEGUT: Yes.

DAVID BRANCACCIO: You know, as I grabbed every Kurt Vonnegut book I could find, to re-read — knowing you were coming — I was looking at the beginning of SLAUGHTERHOUSE FIVE.

KURT VONNEGUT: Uh-huh.

DAVID BRANCACCIO: The good uncle in that novel complains that people tend not to notice when they’re happy.

KURT VONNEGUT: Yeah.

DAVID BRANCACCIO: Maybe the character’s right. You don’t notice the stuff that’s good, around us.

KURT VONNEGUT: Yeah. Well, this was my uncle Alex. And I had a good uncle and a bad uncle. The bad uncle was Dan. But the good uncle was Alex. And what he found objectionable about human beings was they never noticed it, when they were really happy.

So, whenever he was really happy – you know, he could be sitting around in the shade, in the summertime, in the shade of an apple tree, and drinking lemonade and talking. Just sort of this back-and-forth buzzing like honey bees. And Uncle Alex would all of a sudden say, If this isn’t nice, what is?” and then we’d realize how happy we were; and we might have missed it.

And the bad Uncle Dan was…  when I came home from the war, which was quite painful, he clapped me on the back and said; “You’re a man now.” I wanted to kill ‘im!

DAVID BRANCACCIO: So you weren’t just in the war.

KURT VONNEGUT: Yeah.

DAVID BRANCACCIO: You actually were a POW.

KURT VONNEGUT: Yes.

DAVID BRANCACCIO: In Dresden during the fire bombing.

KURT VONNEGUT: Yes.

DAVID BRANCACCIO: Famously. So that’s what it took to make you a man?

KURT VONNEGUT: Yeah.

DAVID BRANCACCIO: In this uncle’s view.

KURT VONNEGUT: Yes. Well, he’d been made a man during the first World War in the trenches.

DAVID BRANCACCIO: You didn’t actually kill him, though.

KURT VONNEGUT: No. He would have been the first German I killed.

DAVID BRANCACCIO: Your experience as a soldier must give you great empathy for what our soldiers are going through, right now. Because whether or not a person agrees with the logic behind this war in Iraq, or vehemently thinks it’s a bad idea, everybody agrees that it’s hell for those guys and those women.

KURT VONNEGUT: Well, not only that, it’s — they’re being sent on fools’ errands; and there aren’t enough of them. And I’ve read that they go on patrols and they’re in awful danger. And the patrols accomplish almost nothing. And so sure, that’s a nonsensical war. That isn’t how you fight.

DAVID BRANCACCIO: It strikes me that maybe you are not the biggest fan of the president of the United States at this juncture?

KURT VONNEGUT: Well he is what it in my grade school, we would’ve called a twit. And in my high school, we would’ve called a twit. And so I’m sorry we have such a person as president.

DAVID BRANCACCIO: But just short of that, there must be things that you think the current administration has done wrong; that has so upset you?

KURT VONNEGUT: Well, yes, it doesn’t know anything about military science. Doesn’t know anything about science. You know, global warming, they just don’t believe it. And my lord, to send 143,000 soldiers, or whatever it is, to occupy a country — of what? Several million? Is– What, it’s seven million, you think?

It’s preposterous. I knew better than that. Although the highest rank I ever held was corporal. And so these people don’t know anything, about anything. They’re incompetent. And, so, yes; they are getting a lot of our guys killed. But, also, they’ve emptied our treasuries. You know, we can’t fix our roads. We can’t fix the schools.

It’s my dream of America, with great public schools. I thought we should be the envy of the world, with our public schools. And I went to such a public school. So I knew that such a school was possible. Shortridge High School in Indianapolis. Produced not only me, but the head writer on the I LOVE LUCY show.

And, my God, we had a daily paper. We had a debating team. Had a fencing team. We had a chorus, a jazz band, a serious orchestra. And all this with a Great Depression going on. And I wanted everybody to have such a school. And, yeah, we could afford it, if we didn’t spend all the money on weaponry.

I brought something.

DAVID BRANCACCIO: Oh.

KURT VONNEGUT: It’s a message for the president. Is it alright if I read it?

DAVID BRANCACCIO: Yeah? For the President of the United States?

KURT VONNEGUT: Yes. I want to get it right.

(reading) “I am now an elder in this, the greatest democracy in the history of the world. I will be 83 in November. I am a member of what has been called ‘the Greatest Generation.’ I am a combat infantry veteran with a Purple Heart and a Battle Star. And I now want to put my president on notice. And I am talking about impeachment.

Enough is enough. If he commits oral sex in the Oval Office — and I don’t care with whom– that will be the straw that broke the camel’s back. Out he goes!”

There. I’ve thrown down the gauntlet. That be treason — make the most of it!

DAVID BRANCACCIO: But impeachment, that’s strong words! What do you want to impeach him for?

KURT VONNEGUT: For oral sex in the Oval Office. I said that!

DAVID BRANCACCIO: Wasn’t that the other guy?

KURT VONNEGUT: Well– I don’t know. That’s the standard now. That’s the precedent. It’s… the one unforgivable thing a president could do.

DAVID BRANCACCIO: Why has the president angered you so?

KURT VONNEGUT: Well, because he shouldn’t be president. It’s… we ought to have a stronger person. And he’s obviously an actor in a made for TV movie. And other people are, in fact, telling him what to say.

Of course, we have only a one party government. It’s the winners. And then everybody else is the losers. And, the winners are divided into two parties. The Republicans and the Democrats.

DAVID BRANCACCIO: Well, you write in the book — you say that the last election, the two leading candidates were two C students from Yale, as you put it.

KURT VONNEGUT: Two members of Skull and Bones at Yale, for God’s sake. I mean, that’s what a charade the combat between the Republicans and the Democrats is. It’s rich kids. Winners on both sides. So the winners can’t lose. And, of course, the losers have no representation in Congress or whatever.

But look, yeah. We had to choose between two members of Skull and Bones? What about if we had to choose between two members of Sigma Chi at Purdue? Wouldn’t somebody have said,  “Wait a minute. What the hell happened here?”

DAVID BRANCACCIO: You’re saying you don’t see senior political figures  — really, anybody — representing the interests of people who are struggling?

KURT VONNEGUT: No, not representing the American people. And, so there are people who made a hell of a lot of money, one way or another.

Making it during the war, incidentally. As you know, maybe the war is a bad idea. But some people are making a ton of money off of it. And they want to hang on to whatever they’ve got. And so they bank roll political campaigns for both Republicans and Democrats.

Look, we’re awful animals. We can start with that. You know, it’s a whole human experiment; if that’s what we are.

DAVID BRANCACCIO: That  — at heart, we’re awful?

KURT VONNEGUT: Look, we   — after two World Wars; and the holocaust; and the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki; and after the Roman games; and after the Spanish Inquisition; and after burning witches – the public…  – shouldn’t we call it off? I mean, we are a disease; and should be ashamed of ourselves.

And so, yeah, I think we ought to stop reproducing. But since we’re not going to do that, I think the planet’s immune system is trying to get rid of us.

DAVID BRANCACCIO: The planet is sort of trying to shed us, as if we are some sort of toxin…?

KURT VONNEGUT: Look, I’ll tell you… One thing that no cabinet has ever had, is a Secretary Of The Future. And there are no plans at all for my grandchildren and my great grandchildren.

DAVID BRANCACCIO: That’s a great idea. In other words a Cabinet post–

KURT VONNEGUT: Well, it’s too late! Look, the game is over! The game is over. We’ve killed the planet — the life support system.   …And it’s so damaged, that there’s no recovery from that. And we’re very soon going to run out of petroleum, which powered everything that’s modern, razzamatazz about America…   [the section I recorded starts here]

And it was very shallow people who imagined that we could keep this up indefinitely. But when I tell others, they say, “Well, look — there’s hydrogen fuel.”  Nobody’s working on it!

DAVID BRANCACCIO: No one is working seriously on it, is what you’re saying…

KURT VONNEGUT: That’s right! And what, our energy people — presidents of our companies, energy companies? All they wanna do is make a lot of money right now!

DAVID BRANCACCIO: If you accept your idea — that it is a horrible world out there –  and people are tribal; people are greedy; people are cruel — you can also conclude that: well, Americans didn’t invent that.

And I know someone wrote you, in the book–  someone wrote you this letter, saying, “We need to be armed against all the badness that you see. With Iraq, the threat is on a bigger scale than Al Qaeda,” the guy wrote to you. And he writes, “Should we sit back, be little children and sit in fear and just wait?” We need to take military action, is the implication.

KURT VONNEGUT: No we don’t. No we don’t. We should be… Somebody else has to declare war, first. And of course, Iraq never attacked us.

I have one more thing I wanted to read.

DAVID BRANCACCIO: Something in the other pocket, too? Alright.

KURT VONNEGUT: You know, Christianity is very big now… And our president, of course, is a Christian.

These are words I never hear:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit. For theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

This isn’t original. (laughter)

“Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the Earth. Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they shall be filled. Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.

“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God.”

Not exactly a Republican platform!

DAVID BRANCACCIO: These, of course, are called the Beatitudes.

KURT VONNEGUT: Yes.

DAVID BRANCACCIO: From the Holy Bible.

It’s interesting. It tends to be the Ten Commandments, not the Beatitudes, in modern day America.

KURT VONNEGUT: Yes. …Well, not only that  – “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” justifies a lot of violence, on the part of many different societies. But actually, that’s from the Code of Hammurabi. And what he was trying to do was cut down on violence in his society, in Babylonia.

– And saying, “Look – okay, you’re a real man. You gotta get revenge, I guess. But this much, and no more. Otherwise, Babylon is gonna– we’re just going to be people getting revenge, revenge.” (laughs) It’s going to become the chief business.

And, about Moses– I wish he had come down off the mountain with word from God that,  “Hey, we’ve got to cut down on revenge, too.”  Because revenge is bad news. It’s a very bad emotion.

And again, we have Jesus: “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Imagine that on a wall in the White House! (laughs)

No, it’s, “We must get revenge!” And, of course, the armaments manufacturers — what we used to call merchants of death — are making a lot of money out of this.

DAVID BRANCACCIO: It’s interesting. You normally describe yourself as, I think, a humanist.

KURT VONNEGUT: Absolutely. It’s my ancestral religion. It’s my ancestors who came over here from the north of Germany during the Civil War. One of them lost a leg and went back to Germany.  (laughs) But anyway, they were free thinkers. They had been Catholics. But science had impressed them that the priest didn’t know what he was talking about, often. And so they were free thinkers.

DAVID BRANCACCIO: What does it mean to you to be a humanist in this day and age?

KURT VONNEGUT: Well, to admire the hell out of Jesus Christ; or of anyone who speaks well. And… Well, my grandfather said, “What Jesus said was marvelous; what does it matter, whether he was God or not?” And it doesn’t matter! So this is a human being who spoke extremely well; and we humanists listen.

Not only am I, the honorary president of the American Humanist Association, preaching the sermon on the mount — I’m also announcing that the world is about to end…  The world as we know it, surely. One: we’re destroying it as a life-support system.

DAVID BRANCACCIO: Destroying the environment…

KURT VONNEGUT: Yes. And I wrote a poem about that. Which was published, incidentally, by the Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation, on their cover. [ He gets the folded poem out of his pocket]

But the poem goes,

“The crucified planet earth, / should it find a voice and a sense of irony, / might now well say of our abuse of it, / “Forgive them father, they know not what they do.” / The irony would be that we know what we’re doing 

And when the last living thing has died, on account of us, / how shapely it would be, / how poetical, / if the Earth could say, in a voice floating up, / perhaps from the floor of the Grand Canyon, / ‘It is done. / People did not like it here.’”

And they don’t. And they shouldn’t.

DAVID BRANCACCIO: If we’re despoiling our surroundings, it must mean that we don’t respect it.

KURT VONNEGUT: No. We don’t. And I think most people have an awful time here. And I have said on behalf of all animals, “Life is no way to treat an animal. It hurts too much.”

DAVID BRANCACCIO: Mr. Vonnegut, how does a man stay funny, when he thinks the world stinks, like this?

KURT VONNEGUT: He smokes. (laughter)

DAVID BRANCACCIO: Is that the secret to humor?

KURT VONNEGUT: Yeah, it helps a lot.

DAVID BRANCACCIO: Well, I want to ask you about this — You ask, in the book, a question that, actually, you don’t answer. So I want to –

KURT VONNEGUT: I’m old, I’m old!

DAVID BRANCACCIO: Think about answering this one. You write, “What can be said to our young people, now that psychopathic personalities — which is to say, persons without consciences; without senses of pity or shame — have taken all the money in the treasuries of our government and corporations and made it their own?” What can we say to younger people who have their whole lives ahead of them?

KURT VONNEGUT: Well…  You’re human beings, resourceful… Ah… Form a little society of your own. And, ah… hang out with them. Get a gang.

DAVID BRANCACCIO: You’re preaching getting into gangs?…

KURT VONNEGUT: Yes, well look it’s–

DAVID BRANCACCIO: But good gangs.

KURT VONNEGUT: Look, I don’t mean to intimidate you, but I have a master’s degree in anthropology!

DAVID BRANCACCIO: I’m intimidated. (laughter)

KURT VONNEGUT: …from the University of Chicago– as did Saul Bellow, incidentally.

But anyway, one thing I found out was that we need extended families. We need gangs. And, of course, they’ve — tribes and clans and so forth — have been dispersed by the industrial revolution; by people looking for work wherever they can find it. A nuclear family – a man, a woman, kids and dog and cat – is no survival scheme at all. Horribly vulnerable.

So yes… I tell people to form a little gang. And, you know; it… you love each other.

DAVID BRANCACCIO: You know, I think I’ve found at least some evidence, that – at heart – you’re a bit of an optimist. And here’s my proof. In the new book, there is a picture of yourself that you drew, some of your artwork. And that is definitely you, iconic image of Kurt Vonnegut.

But I looked…  You drew it on some old stationary, it looks like. It says, “Saab / Cape Cod / Kurt Vonnegut, manager”?

KURT VONNEGUT: Yes, I was in the Saab business. I think I was one… among the very first Saab dealers in the United States.

DAVID BRANCACCIO: That’s an act of optimism– selling one of those things, back then. Those are weird cars. (laughter)

KURT VONNEGUT: Yes, they certainly were…  And they’re Swedish cars. That’s why I never got a Nobel Prize. Of course, a lot of people ask me,  “How come you never got a Nobel Prize?”

DAVID BRANCACCIO: Well, why not?

KURT VONNEGUT: Because I spoke so ill of the Swedish car, Saab, which was a stinker, back then! Now, of course… the convertible, I guess, is the ultimate yuppie canoe. (laughter)

DAVID BRANCACCIO: You know, here we are talking about technology – cars. You’re a bit of a Luddite?

KURT VONNEGUT: Yes. Absolutely. I… All the new technology seems redundant, to me. I was quite happy with the United States mail service. And uh… I don’t even have an answering machine, for God’s sake!

DAVID BRANCACCIO: Sounds un-American to me.

KURT VONNEGUT: Yeah, well, certainly, for a science fiction writer… But Ray Bradbury can’t even drive! (laughter)

DAVID BRANCACCIO: So you have one up on him; if you were selling Saabs…

There’s a little sweet moment, I’ve got to say, in a very intense book– your latest [A Man Without A Country]– in which you’re heading out the door and your wife says, “What are you doing?” I think you say, “I’m getting– I’m going to buy an envelope.”

What happens next?

KURT VONNEGUT: She says, “Well, you’re not a poor man. Why don’t you go online and buy a hundred envelopes and put them in the closet?” And so I pretend not to hear her and go out to get an envelope; because I’m going to have a hell of a good time in the process of buying one envelope.

Well, I meet a lot of people; and uh… see some great looking babes; and a fire engine goes by and I give them the “thumbs up”. And ask a woman what kind of dog that is… And, I don’t know… The moral of the story is, we’re here on Earth to fart around.

And, of course, the computers will do us out of that. And, what the computer people don’t realize – or they don’t care – is we’re dancing animals. You know; we love to move around. And we’re not supposed to dance at all anymore.

DAVID BRANCACCIO: Well you wrote in the book about this. You write, “What makes being alive almost worthwhile for me, besides music… was all the saints I met, who could be anywhere. By ‘saints’, I meant people who behaved decently, in a strikingly indecent society.”

KURT VONNEGUT: Yes. Those are acts of kindness and reason, on a very… on a face-to-face.. on a very local…

DAVID BRANCACCIO: On a human level.

KURT VONNEGUT: Yeah. On a human level.  And… Well, I’ve also spoken about – you know, you’ve heard of ‘original sin.’ Well, I’ve called attention to original virtue. Some people are born… (laughs) just so nice… And they’re going to be nice all their lives, no matter what.

DAVID BRANCACCIO: Well, I think it’s easy to notice that some moments with you, Mr. Vonnegut, add up to, I think, a magic moment. Thank you very much.

KURT VONNEGUT: Well, I had a hell of a good time, I must say. If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is!

DAVID BRANCACCIO: The legendary man of American letters, Kurt Vonnegut. His latest book is called: A MAN WITHOUT A COUNTRY

Some of Virginia Woolf’s thoughts about her diary, transcribed from the “extras” section of the DVD of “The Hours”:  

“What sort of diary should I like mine to be? Something loose-knit, and yet not slovenly; so elastic that it will embrace anything – solemn, slight or beautiful – that comes into my mind.

“I should like it to resemble some deep, old desk; a capacious hold-all in which one flings a mass of odds and ends without looking them through.

“I should like to come back after a year or two, and find that the collection had sorted itself; and refined itself; and coalesced – as such deposits so mysteriously do – into a mold; transparent enough to reflect the light of our life; and yet steady, tranquil compounds with the aloofness of a work of art.”

From the same source; the son of a woman who was a friend of Woolf’s recalls what she said to him:

“She once said to me, ‘Nothing has really happened until it’s been described.’ And she meant described in words.

” ‘Therefore,’ she said, ‘Write a lot of letters to your family and friends. Keep a diary,’ she said. ‘Don’t let a day pass without recording it, whether anything interesting has happened or not. Something interesting happens every day,’ she said.”