Brow Beat
Slate's Culture Blog

Aug. 28 2015 4:41 PM

Neil deGrasse Tyson Soothingly Explains the Science Behind The Martian  

We already know from the trailer for Ridley Scott’s The Martian that Matt Damon is “gonna have to science the shit out of” a bad situation—namely, getting left behind on Mars after a violent storm. Now, in a pretty ingenious bit of publicity, the marketing team has recruited another man who knows a thing or two about science—Neil deGrasse Tyson—to break down some of the finer points of the movie’s plot. (In its description, the video is presented as a special episode of StarTalk.)

“Ever since our species first looked up at the sky, we’ve dreamed of reaching Mars,” Tyson says. “Back in 2029, that dream became real when the first humans set foot on the Red Planet. And in a few months, a new group of astronauts will make the journey.”

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Tyson then outlines the space quest that will, presumably, not go as planned for Damon—including all the life-threatening perils one faces when traveling so far in space. Highlights include cosmic radiation, solar flares, and asteroids.

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Aug. 28 2015 3:23 PM

What Hannibal Can Teach Other TV Adaptations About How to Cannibalize Their Source Material

NBC’s Hannibal, which airs its final episode Saturday, will be remembered for many reasons. It offered a sly twist on the standard network crime drama. It helped elevate the careers of its stars, Mads Mikkelsen and Hugh Dancy. It’s proven to be one of the most formally innovative, groundbreaking shows on television. And it’s a prime example of how to do adaptation well.

For a while, it was a cliché in writing about Hannibal to express surprise that it was any good, precisely because the underlying story has been told so many times—first in Thomas Harris’ novels, then the Hannibal Lecter movies. The cannibal psychiatrist had become a dead caricature of himself, until showrunner Bryan Fuller resurrected him and made him scarier than ever before. When the credits during each episode flash “based on the characters from the book Red Dragon by Thomas Harris,” it’s almost a challenge, asking the viewer to contend with the fact that something so original has such long roots. How did one of the best, freshest shows of the past few years come out of something so old?

In part, the show is so successful because it takes great liberties with the Lecter “canon.” Rather than quickly catching Hannibal, investigator Will Graham (Dancy) forms a close, painfully intimate bond with him that gives the show an emotional spine. It’s an element that isn’t so much a part of the books, where Hannibal and Graham have a connection mostly based on a shared understanding of human monstrosity. And it’s why the second season of Hannibal is a near-perfect run of television, capturing the iconography and themes of the films while devising new and surprising plots. The show wasn’t just telling a new story; it was asking us how we felt about the old one.

Fuller and the rest of the Hannibal team treated Harris’ novels the way a more liberal church might treat the Bible: as a rough series of rules for how to live, how to eat, and, occasionally, how to punish sinners, rather than heavenly commandments deserving of literal, exacting, textual adherence.

Harris’ novels and their original film adaptations helped define and redefine the serial killer genre, painting portraits of twisted psyches in blood and sweat. Like the best monster stories, they’re flexible enough to be imbued with the spirit of new times. So not only does Fuller’s visual aesthetic direct us toward tiny moments like a floating drop of blood or a ring falling through water, the show sees old events through new eyes. Where Harris’ novels emphasize the general indecency and deviancy in his killers, and where the Academy Award-winning Silence of the Lambs is startlingly open with its transphobiaHannibal treats human bodies and everything they can do as beautiful, and ultimately has a surprising central theme for a story about murder: love.

Aug. 28 2015 2:10 PM

“Dressing a Refined Story With a Touch of Vulgarity”: An Interview With Elena Ferrante’s Art Director

The much-anticipated fourth and final book in Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels will be released in English on Tuesday. In anticipation of The Story of the Lost Child, I interviewed Sandra Ozzola, co-founder, publisher, and, more importantly for these purposes, co-art director of Europa Editions and Eizinioi E/O, which publishes Ferrante’s novels. (Ozzola and her husband, Sandro Ferri, conceive the idea for the cover art and then work with the graphic designer to create it.) I asked Ozzola via email about the cover design: how they chose the dreamy illustrations, why they intentionally went with something, in Ozzola's words, “kitsch,” and whether Elena Ferrante, whoever she is, approves of the covers. The interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

You read the first book in the series before it received all the glowing reviews. What was your first impression of the Neapolitan novels?

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That we were dealing with a true masterpiece. As gripping as a pop fiction novel but written in an extremely refined language that alternated unadorned, neutral sentences with language that becomes hard, even brutal at times. A book with the power and breadth of a great classic.

With Ferrante’s earlier books—The Days of Abandonment, The Lost Daughter, and Troubling Love—you went in a more abstract direction for the cover design. With the Neapolitan novels you opted for an almost dreamy color scheme, but the images themselves are pretty literal, featuring characters from the book. What was your thought process there? 

At our Italian publishing house, Edizioni E/O, we all work together, without significant distinctions between roles. This is especially true when it comes to choosing cover art, which is often done by me and my husband (we’re the publishers) and then developed creatively by our graphic designer. This is an important fact when considering our covers. It’s true, the covers of Ferrante’s earlier books were very different from those of the Neapolitan novels. But the books were different, too. They were more contained; they focused on the experience of a single protagonist; they were more concentrated, I’d say, almost claustrophobic. But with My Brilliant Friend, which corresponds to a different kind of exploration on the part of the author, the atmosphere changes, everything expands, even the protagonist is, I’d say, doubled. We wanted the covers to signal this change.

How did you choose the image for the first book, in which you depict one of the final scenes—Lila’s wedding?

From the time of our first conversation with Elena Ferrante about her intention to write this novel, we knew the book’s title and that it would be the story of a long friendship between women—and that it would conclude with a scene of a very vulgar Neapolitan wedding. The wedding and Elena’s impression of it ... is an extremely important moment in the book. That’s why I intentionally searched for a photo that was “kitsch.” This design choice continued in the subsequent books, because vulgarity is an important aspect of the books, of all that Elena wants to distance herself from.

What about the other three covers, which feature scenes that don’t stand out to me as parts of the plot quite as clearly?

In the first two books we wanted to highlight the stories of first loves, in the other two, maternity; then, in the last book, the actual existence of the girls gathers weight.

A lot of discussion around the book has been about the friendship between Lila and Elena. Did you ever think of portraying them together?

It took us a long time to find suitable images, and we wanted the two protagonists to be unrecognizable, like the author herself. You can’t see the face of the woman at the center of the story in any of the covers of Ferrante’s books.

Have you communicated with “Elena Ferrante” about the covers? Do you know if she likes them?

Yes, we showed her the covers and she approved them. She trusts us and has faith in our work and she doesn’t intervene much in these kinds of choices, though she does share her impressions. She agreed with our choice to purposefully use “low-class” images. And she was surprised by the doubts expressed by some readers. We also had the feeling that many people didn’t understand the game we were playing, that of, let’s say, dressing an extremely refined story with a touch of vulgarity.

In the U.S., there has been a lot of discussion about the aesthetic differences between covers of books written by men versus covers of books written by women. It’s hard to imagine these four covers on a book written about a man. Is that intentional? And more generally, do you ever worry that book cover art is too gendered?

Perhaps in the case of some covers we reach out to a female readership more explicitly. ... But it’s not that important—the choice can also be entirely random. For us it’s sufficient that a cover is done well and that it properly represents the book.

Aug. 28 2015 12:41 PM

Key & Peele Re-Enact the Brainstorming Session that Led to the Bizarre Gremlins 2  

If you’ve seen Gremlins 2: The New Batch, you’ve probably wondered what exactly transpired in the writers’ room to produce such a ridiculous, bizarre movie. Key and Peele have apparently wondered the same thing, and have re-enacted their findings: The “Hollywood sequel doctor,” Star Magic Jackson, Jr. (Jordan Peele), has been sent by the studio to oversee things, in which case he encourages every writer to craft their own Gremlins. As he goes around the table, Star enthusiastically praises each idea and builds upon them in the most elaborate way possible. (“You mean a spider with eight legs and a thorax just catching pretty ladies in an office building? Oh my god, it’s in the movie, I LOVE IT!”)

Peele’s Star captures the silly, fun nature of the sequel perfectly: so much so, that director Joe Dante has confirmed the sketch’s validity.

Aug. 28 2015 11:28 AM

Adele’s 21 Follow-Up Album Is Finally Happening, and It’s Due Out in November

It’s been more than four years since Adele started a fire in our hearts with her hit album 21, and now, Billboard reports, the English singer plans to release her third album this November. Since 21, Adele has been pretty quiet—aside from her killer Bond theme in Skyfall. (Though she’s also been pretty busy doing things like giving birth to her son.)

From Billboard:

Danger Mouse has been working on the album, and Max Martin has contributed a single. Canadian singer-songwriter Tobias Jesso Jr. also has written a (reportedly, standout) track, and OneRepublic’s Ryan Tedder is back in the mix after producing and co-writing “Rumour Has It” on 21.
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Rumor has it that this album will be called 25, the age Adele was when she first began working on it.

Aug. 28 2015 10:45 AM

Watch Amy Schumer and Jennifer Lawrence Dance to “Uptown Girl” on Billy Joel’s Piano

On Thursday night, Jennifer Lawrence and Amy Schumer—who recently announced that they are writing a movie together, to the great delight of the Internet—solidified their status as Hollywood power couple du jour when they climbed onto Billy Joel’s piano to dance to “Uptown Girl” during Joel’s show at Chicago’s Wrigley Field.

Their jig was very likely rehearsed, but it still manages to seem goofily impromptu when Schumer and Lawrence start doing the can-can, then remove their shoes and scramble onto Joel’s piano to do the twist. Are Lawrence and Schumer the Jennifer Aniston/Courtney Cox of this decade? Only time (and a few more haircuts) will tell.

Aug. 28 2015 8:32 AM

How Did a Show Like Mr. Robot End Up on USA?

This article originally appeared in New York magazine.

Here’s one big mystery that won’t be resolved by the season-one finale of Mr. Robotset to air next Wednesday: How in Monk’s name did a show so complex, twisted—and critically acclaimed—end up on USA Network? The cable giant has been cranking out summer hits for more than a decade, but starting with the aforementioned Tony Shalhoub vehicle and continuing with series such as Psych, Covert Affairs, and the still-chugging Royal Pains, those successes have mostly been popcorn procedurals, the video equivalent of beach reading. Mr. Robot, by contrast,may be TV’s most beautifully byzantine mystery-thriller since the first season of Lost, a show that encourages its audience to debate subtext and obsess over detail. It’s all very much off-brand for USA, and as execs at the network see it, that is exactly the point.

Officially, Mr. Robot came to life at USA a year ago, last summer, when network president Chris McCumber gave creator Sam Esmail the green light to begin casting and filming a pilot episode. McCumber, who credits USA development chief Alex Sepiol for “unearthing the project and putting it in front of” him, says he and his team were sold on the idea as soon as they read the script. “We realized we had a very, very unique show, which, if executed the right way, could be like nothing else on television,” he says. And yet, Esmail’s idea likely would never have gotten very far at USA had McCumber and his bosses not decided many months earlier that the network needed to shake up what had long been a winning formula for it. “We’ve been going through an evolution of our brand for a little while now,” the exec says. While USA has maintained a strong position relative to its competition—it finished 2014 as the most-watched general-entertainment cable channel—the network has suffered the same audience erosion plaguing most big, established cable networks: Viewership at USA fell more than 20 percent last year.

The dramatic increase in scripted competition has obviously had an impact, as has the move by consumers away from linear viewing and toward on-demand consumption. But McCumber believes there’s also been a significant shift in the kinds of programs audiences want, particularly the young viewers coveted by advertisers and thus targeted by USA. “We’re looking at changes in the demo, with [viewers] 18 to 49,” McCumber explains. “Millennials now make up the largest portion of that demo [and] are very sophisticated about the way they watch television. And now, if you look at the entire audience, they’ve all become very sophisticated about the kinds of dramas they want to see: more serialized, more characters that come from the real world and face real problems.” Or, in other words, not the easy, breezy, self-contained stories for which USA had become known.

Aug. 28 2015 8:02 AM

The Washington Post Says Salad Is Overrated. The Washington Post Is So Wrong.

This post originally appeared on Food52.

Tamar Haspel recently published an article in the Washington Post arguing that salad is overrated. And sure, salad gets a lot of attention—but Haspel calls salad overrated not because of the hype but rather because, she argues, it’s nutrient-poor, expensive, and a tax on our food system.

Hold that thought. To me and my colleagues at Food52, a salad can be so many things—not just a bowl of lettuce—so how could this be true? We have a salad confusion on our hands. Here’s where the article steers us wrong:

Aug. 27 2015 6:01 PM

Lin-Manuel Miranda on Jay Z, The West Wing, and 18 More Things That Influenced Hamilton

This article originally appeared in New York magazine.

In Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical Hamilton (which opens on Broadway on August 6 after a much-praised run this past winter at the Public Theater), the founding father emerges as an immigrant striver and Constitution architect, one who struggles with his own sense of ambition—and the odd duel—and does it while rapping and singing complex and historically accurate lyrics. Ron Chernow’s biography was a key influence, but, as Miranda told us, far from the only one.

1. Alexander Hamilton, by Ron Chernow

Obviously the whole thing starts at the now-defunct Borders at the Time Warner Center, where I picked up Chernow’s Hamilton book. My girlfriend at the time, now wife, and I were going on my first vacation after [his 2008 musical] In the Heights, so I just wanted a big book to read on the beach. Ron’s book seemed like a really interesting beach read, and it ended up changing my life. The first two songs are lifted directly from it; the opening number is basically the first two chapters of the book.

2. Founding Brothers and American Creation, by Joseph J. Ellis

He does this thing where he just goes deep on an event. He circles the duel, he circles the farewell address—he throws everything at you on these certain events, and they were events I cover in my show.

3. Director Thomas Kail’s Mom

She’s a historical archivist in D.C., and she pulled up a ton of materials for me that I never would have gotten otherwise. With white gloves on, she showed me Hamilton’s condolence letter to Martha Washington. And she made me sandwiches every day! One of my favorite parts of the process.

4. Jesus Christ Superstar and Evita

Structurally, in terms of the shape of the musical, you can see their influence, in that we have a killer telling his story, like Che in Evita and Judas in Jesus Christ Superstar.

Aug. 27 2015 4:39 PM

John Oliver Really Loves Making Fun of How Terrible Americans Are at Geography

Anyone who watches Last Week Tonight even semi-regularly might have noticed that John Oliver loves giving geography lessons—except if his show were a geography class, Oliver would be the teacher from Hell. Is the highlighted country on the map actually the country he’s talking about, or will it turn out to be on another side of the continent entirely? As bad as Oliver presumes us Americans are at geography, these little tricks are not helping! “I don’t know when I’m going to get tired of this game,” Oliver grins, “but it’s definitely not now.”

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