Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Barnes & Noble’s fate rests in the hands of a British indie bookstore owner

By Sarah Todd
July 21, 2019

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James Daunt

In 2018, it seemed like the days of the United States’ last major bookstore chain were numbered. A decade of falling salesbrutal layoffs, 150 store closures, six chief executives, and a $1 billion loss on its Nook e-reader had left Barnes & Noble in the throes of anidentity crisis. So acute was its struggle that one New York Times critic imagined a sequel to the 1998 romantic comedy You’ve Got Mail in which Tom Hanks—the big-box bookstore owner who crushes Meg Ryan’s independent book shop—is now the David to Amazon’s Goliath.
But here’s a better plot twist: What if Meg Ryan got tapped to save the big chain, and teach Hanks what people really want from their bookstore?
That’s the mission that Elliot Advisors, the hedge fund thatpurchased B&N for $638 million in June, has handed to freshly appointed CEO James Daunt. A 55-year-old Englishman, Daunt has spent nearly three decades in the bookselling business. For most of that time, he was exclusively Team Indie, overseeing an idyllic, boutique book-buying experience as the founder of Daunt Books, which has six locations in well-heeled neighborhoods in London.
Despite his small-business bona fides, Daunt has in the past decade emerged as an unlikely savior for big-box bookstores, first overseeing the revival of Waterstones, a UK chain with close to 300 branches, and now at Barnes & Noble. His turnaround strategy is centered on a simple premise: In a world where Amazon offers unbeatable convenience and prices, big book chains will only survive if they act more like independents.

Humanizing the big-box bookshop

“A good independent bookshop is something pretty special,” Daunt tells me. “It has personality and character, and that’s primarily driven by the people working in it, the booksellers. Also the manner in which they display their books, the amusement and serendipity of how they curate their shops.”
Daunt’s London bookstores guide readers toward such serendipitous discoveries. Some have books arranged by country rather than genre, a setup that encourages browsing: You might visit the Japan section looking for Haruki Murakami novels only to find yourself paging through a history of ramen or a book of haikus about cats. All Daunt stores eschew detailed signage for genres like “self-help” and “history” in favor of closely themed tables of books. In a recent podcast interview, Daunt said this is “so you can find your way around a shop subliminally.”

Daunt Books locations are also beautiful spaces, filled with dark wood shelves, green lamps, and gold light. The original location in Marylebone, which opened in 1990 on the site of an Edwardian-era bookseller, is long and narrow, with tall galleries of books offering a reassuring vision of orderly abundance. When authors do readings in Marylebone, their backs to an arched stained-glass window that serves as the room’s centerpiece, the scene resembles nothing so much as a church service.
That’s in keeping with Daunt’s attitude toward reading as a sacred act, and bookstores as gathering spaces for the devout. “Books, if you’re lucky enough to read and to be educated and opened up to reading, it’s hugely affirming,” he says. “It’s something that humanizes at all ages.”
Daunt’s personal affinity for books was what inspired him to open a bookstore at age 26, having worked for four years as an investment banker at JPMorgan—well, that and the urging of his then-girlfriend (now wife), who wanted Daunt out of finance. “I thought if I’m not going to do that office job, which was about as good as an office job as I could imagine, then I had to do something else,” he told the Financial Times in 2011. “And I like traveling and I like reading and it really wasn’t more sophisticated than that.”
The core of Daunt’s bookselling strategy relied upon investing in, and trusting, his staff. “The key to good staff is to keep them long-term; to build their careers; to teach them the trade,” Daunt told Jen Campbell for her 2014 book The Bookshop Book. “I think that the intelligent, proactive people who make good booksellers also make good bookshops.”
Daunt Books employees know how to make customers feel that they’re part of a community of readers. They abide by certain principles: Never recommend more than three books at a time, lest you overwhelm the customer. When someone asks for a recommendation, don’t just dish out your personal favorites. Instead, start by asking them, “What was the last good book you read?” Someone who loves Tana French mystery novels is more likely to appreciate Ruth Rendell than the newest Thomas Pynchon.
Over the years, Daunt Books developed a devoted fan base, securing a spot on pretty much every list of the best bookshops in London. In 2010, it even launched a publishing imprint, featuring both original works and reissued classics by authors like MFK Fischer and Arthur Conan Doyle.
Then, in 2011, Daunt’s career took an unexpected turn. Waterstones was sold to Russian billionaire Alexander Mamut, who tapped Daunt to be its managing director. His task was to turn around the struggling chain, which by that point was both unprofitable and widely perceived as money-grubbing and tacky. “They decided to take on the supermarkets and Smith’s by discounting prices and celebrity biographies,” former Waterstones managing director Tim Coates told The Guardian in 2009. “It was a strategic error. What they should have done was take on Amazon by offering something Amazon can’t—the lovely, serendipitous experience of being in a really good, big bookshop.”

The power of autonomy

Daunt describes the beginning of his Waterstones reign as “horrendous“—he cut costs by closing stores and laying off 200 employees. But then Daunt set about breathing life back into the company, in part by doing away with everything that made it cookie-cutter. He gave booksellers at each of the remaining stores autonomy over their inventory and promotions, so that each location’s offerings could be tailored to the communities it served. “What we did was give freedom over what they chose to display, in what quantity, and how,” Daunt says. Booksellers at individual stores could even set their own prices.

He also passed on some tricks of the trade. Daunt told booksellers to check the visual appeal of their displays by borrowing someone else’s glasses: With the titles fuzzed out, they might see how the colors juxtaposed. He did away with staff uniforms and three-for-two discount deals, and worked to make the shabby branches look polished and welcoming again. “A lot of what I did at Waterstones was spend money to make the places look nicer,” Daunt says.
He also had Waterstones stop peddling so many non-book products. Stationary, greeting cards, and other paper-based items were similar enough to books to be sensible. Educational toys and games were logical, too. Galoshes, on the other hand, were not. Says Daunt, “You’ve got to be able to work out why you’ve put the thing that isn’t a book in a bookshop.”

The retail rules do not apply

Daunt’s changes eventually paid off. In 2016, Waterstones turned a profit for the first time in eight years. In 2017, annual profits rose 80% over the year before, and in 2018 it was sold to Elliot Advisors. The turnaround was all the more remarkable because Daunt essentially convinced Waterstones to think locally—a reversal of the usual formula for success in big retail stores.
Starbucks, for example, trains baristas to make mocha lattes taste the same way at every location. Branches of Gap and Dick’s Sporting Goods don’t try to differentiate themselves with specialized stock; customers are supposed to have confidence in the brand’s consistency and know that they can walk into any store and pick up the same fishing pole or pair of skinny jeans.

But Daunt thinks books are a fundamentally different kind of product. “When you apply retailing principles to books, the wheels come off,”  he says. “If you’re selling vitamins, there’s just so many vitamin D’s and vitamin whatevers to make your hair luscious—there’s a limit. Booksellers have got millions and millions of product lines available to them, and the way you make a bookshop interesting is by mixing them up … So if you apply normal retailing discipline to bookstores, you wind up with something huge and full of books, but they don’t have soul.”
Not all of Daunt’s changes have come without controversy. Waterstones faced criticism for opening some unbranded stores that could easily be mistaken for indie shop. Daunt says the stores are categorically different from typical Waterstones outposts. “We decided that as they were very small bookshops in very small towns, it was barmy to call them Waterstones,” he told The Guardian.
Critics have also come after Waterstones for failing to mimic Daunt Books in one important respect: pay. While the workers at Daunt’s independent shops are salaried, Waterstones employees and their supporters recently petitioned for the chain to instate a minimum wage of £9 per hour and £10.55 per hour in London, in keeping with the recommendations of the UK’s Living Wage Foundation.
Daunt told The Bookseller that he agrees the wage for entry-level employees is inadequate, and said he’s “very sympathetic to the notion that booksellers should be paid better.” But, he said, “there is an equation to be had to what is a sustainable level of profit for the business and whether it’s wise to inflate the cost at the base rate at the moment.”

Why we still need Barnes & Noble

The UK consensus is that Daunt brought Waterstones back from the brink. Now Elliot Advisers is hoping he can do the same for Barnes & Noble. B&N operates at a much larger scale than Waterstones, with 627 locations, and its stores take up more square footage. Nonetheless, Daunt sees clear parallels between the two chains. As with Waterstones, he thinks this turnaround should start with giving booksellers autonomy over what they sell and display.
“That strategy has worked well for Waterstones, and it could work for B&N, which in its heyday gave some autonomy to regional and store managers and had regional buyers,” says John Mutter, editor in chief of Shelf Awareness. “Unfortunately in cost-cutting moves, buying has been centralized and made less personal, and most display ‘ideas’ come from headquarters. It’s one of many reasons that the company has had problems."
Daunt also expects to give B&N locations some of the aesthetic TLC that has been put off in an effort to hold down costs. With the company going private under Elliot’s ownership, Daunt expects Barnes & Noble will be somewhat liberated from short-term financial pressures.
As for how Barnes & Noble fits into a bookselling landscape where Amazon offers unbeatable convenience and indie shops hold the key to bibliophiles’ hearts, Daunt has faith that the big-box store remains valuable. Chains “have considerable resources in terms of availability, scale, and locations people want to be in,” he says. Moreover, they’re no longer the nemeses of independent sellers. As chains have faltered, indie bookshops are experiencing a resurgence in the US, increasing their numbers by 53% to more than 2,500 stores between 2009 and 2019, according the the American Booksellers Association.
“Only two decades ago, [Barnes & Noble] and Borders were considered the major rivals of indies,” Mutter says. “Now for most indies, B&N is more of a grumpy uncle who you hope does well.”
Independents want Barnes & Noble to succeed for two major reasons, according to Donna Paz Kaufman, who consults with independent-bookstore owners and runs her own store, Story & Song Bookstore Bistro in Fernandina Beach, Florida. They’re rooting for the chain both as a hedge against Amazon—a monopolistic force in bookselling if ever there was one—and because when Borders closed in 2011, along with its 399 remaining stores, many communities were left without access to any bookstores at all.
“Chains are fine and they’ll bring bookstores to places that maybe would otherwise not have bookstores,” Kaufman says, noting that many independent booksellers can’t afford the large retail spaces that permeate the suburbs. “We really feel like brick-and-mortar stores are important to the culture and US society at large.”
Support your local corporate behemoth bookstore” may sound like an odd rallying cry. But Mutter notes that the fate of the entire book industry is intertwined with that of Barnes & Noble. “If B&N disappeared, publishers and wholesalers would have so many fewer brick-and-mortar stores to sell to, which would mean all kinds of cutbacks in sales, marketing, distribution, warehouses, etc., that service indies and B&N,” he says. In other words: Everyone who wants the US to have a thriving book trade should be rooting for Barnes & Noble to stick around.
A Barnes & Noble revival could also benefit the stores’ surrounding communities. Lively public spaces with the capacity to host readings, book clubs, children’s story hours, and larger events are a boon to both suburbia and cities. At Waterstones’ Picadilly location, the chain’s largest, a Friday evening might see four or five events going on on different floors. “Frankly, if you’re looking to meet someone in a nice environment and have an intelligent conversation, go there,” Daunt says. “It’s absolutely stuffed full of young people meeting each other and having fun. It’s a dramatically nicer place to do it than a pub or bar.”
Of course, this approach requires a staff to support it, and breathing room to build connections with local schools, clubs, and businesses. As of April 2018, Barnes & Noble had 23,000 employees, half of what it had in 2003, and Mutter notes that the company has a history of undervaluing its rank-and-file workers. “Only last year, there were company-wide layoffs that focused on the most experienced booksellers,” he says. “It made sense to the numbers guy in headquarters, but was a terrible move.”

The guys in Seattle

And what of Amazon—or, as Daunt sometimes refers to it, “the guys in Seattle.” In 2011, shortly after taking control at Waterstones, Daunt referred to Amazon as “a ruthless, money-making devil” and said it devalued booksellers by outsourcing their work to an algorithm. “All that ‘If you read this, you’ll like that’—it’s a dismal way to recommend books,” Daunt told The Independent. “A physical bookshop in which you browse, see, hold, touch and feel books is the environment you want.” 
A year later, Daunt had changed his tune; he announced that Waterstones would selling Kindles in its stores. But by 2015, Waterstones had started pulling the e-readers due to “pitiful” demand.
These days, Daunt is philosophical on the subject of Amazon. In his view, the company’s unmatchable scale is liberating for booksellers; it means stores can focus on curating books that communicate a particular aesthetic, rather than stocking up on things people need but don’t get excited about. “They’re allowing us not to have the boring books in our shops and just be places where you discover books and talk about books,” he says. “We don’t have to clog up [stores] with medical textbooks.”
He is similarly even-keeled about e-readers, one version of which he’s inheriting in Barnes & Noble’s Nook. While many industry experts have given up on the device—Mutter says it “failed irretrievably,” and Nook sales fell 17% during the fiscal year ended in April 2019—Daunt has not yet expressed plans to kill it, especially since B&N already dealt with the losses involved in its development. “It cheers me up greatly, now we’re in the position of being able to reap the benefits,” Daunt says. “As long as your reader is as good as a Kindle, which the new versions, and I’ve got one, seem, you’re letting customers choose to interact with you.”

The purpose of bookstores

The central conflict inYou’ve Got Mail revolves around the question of what bookstores are for. According to big-box CEO Joe Fox (Tom Hanks), selling books is the same as selling hardware or mattresses: They’re commodities, and Fox Books exists to help consumers buy the goods they want, cheaply and efficiently.
Meg Ryan—whose store is called The Shop Around the Corner—has a more idealistic view. Bookstores are communal and spiritual spaces. “She wasn’t just selling books,” Ryan’s character says of her late mother, who ran the shop before her. “She was helping people become what they were going to be.”
The past decade seems to have proven Ryan right. When community redevelopment projects poll residents about which businesses they’d like to see open in their area, Kaufman says the top answer is a bakery; the second is a bookshop. “A bookstore in a community is an anchor and a symbol of ideas and solutions and dreams and stories,” she says. “It’s really a lovely symbol and place for people to be, and to remember that all of those things are important in our lives.”
The success of chains rests on their ability to credibly convey this kind of symbolism. By contrast, Barnes & Noble for a long time seemed to be a bookstore that didn’t much care about reading. “Sadly, like Borders, B&N as a publicly held company had to please institutional investors, which meant, among other things, that it hired many executives from outside the book industry,” says Mutter. “Sometimes it’s been helpful to have a non-industry perspective, but the flood of non-book people helped sink Borders and has had, in the end, a bad effect on B&N.”
It’s safe to say that Daunt is, at the very least, a book person. He adores the work of Irish novelists Edna O’Brien and Sally Rooney, and reminisces about the joyful costume parties that took over Barnes & Noble locations during every Harry Potter release. Already, he’s planning (and “seriously overexcited about”) the rollouts for The Testaments, Margaret Atwood’s forthcoming novel, and The Mirror and the Light, the final book in Hilary Mantel’s trilogy on Thomas Cromwell.
“We as booksellers, for those who are lucky enough to be able to buy books, are the way in which you can create an environment that communicates fun and humor and good nature,” Daunt says. “It’s important that they continue to exist.”

Monday, August 19, 2019

It’s masculinity to the rescue

By Miranda Devine
August 14, 2019

 Members of the public used a chair and a milk crate to pin down the suspect
Mert Ney is held down by passersby after his stabbing spree in Sydney, Australia

When a knife-wielding killer went on a bloody rampage through the streets of Sydney, Australia,this week, he was stopped in his tracks by a group of courageous men using just a milk crate and a chair.
Brandishing a butcher’s knife and yelling “Allahu Akbar,” 21-year-old Mert Ney already had allegedly murdered one woman and stabbed another in the back when six men armed themselves with weapons, ranging from a café chair to a firefighter’s ax, and chased him down.
With the killer pinned to the ground, one of the men yelled at him in outrage over his violence against women: “You’re a piece of . . . You stabbed a chick, mate.”
In every story of bloodshed and mayhem, it’s the same. Tales of selfless male heroism and chivalry emerge in the face of mortal danger.
These are men who rush toward danger, risking their lives and even dying in the noble cause of protecting women and children.
We saw it in the El Paso and Dayton massacres. There was David Johnson, 63, who pushed his wife and 9-year-old granddaughter to safety under a counter at the El Paso Walmart before he was fatally shot.
There was bar bouncer Jeremy Ganger, who stood his ground at the front door of the Dayton bar Ned Peppers, reportedly pulling people inside as they fled from the shooter who was firing an AR-15 and wearing body armor. Ganger suffered a shrapnel leg wound.
And, of course, there was the extraordinary bravery and competence of the Dayton cops. We saw them in footage released this week, running toward the shooter when the logical response was to race in the opposite direction. Guns drawn, they shot the killer dead in all of 32 seconds.
Or take 21-year-old Riley Howell, who charged at a gunman shooting up his classroom at the University of North Carolina Charlotte, in April and managed to knock him to the ground. Howell was killed but his heroic act saved the lives of up to 30 classmates.
We always are quick to point to the dark side of masculinity when violence is committed, but too often we overlook the feats of bravery by men who combat it.
Call it the chivalry instinct, it is what inspires men to run toward danger to protect the weak.
This is the noble side of masculinity that we once would perpetuate in folklore and stories passed down from father to son about what it means to be a real man.
But in the new era of “toxic masculinity,” young men are taught to ignore their heroic instincts and learn to be weak. They are instructed always to be on guard against the monster within.
Shaving-products company Gillette’s “toxic masculinity” campaign is a case in point. Whereas the razor maker used to celebrate the bond between fathers and sons, its new woke advertising is all about showcasing bad male behavior — such travesties as men standing behind BBQs or little boys roughhousing.
This demonization of intrinsic maleness is part of a feminist movement to rewrite human history as the tale of tyrannical patriarchy. It quickly mutated out of the #MeToo campaign, which began as a reasonable get-square with powerful men who preyed on women but since has taken on a frighteningly punitive air.
Now masculinity itself is the enemy and must be crushed from its earliest manifestations.
Boys and young men are bombarded with messages pathologizing their DNA. If they look at a woman, they’re accused of leering. If they open a door for a woman, they’re sexist. Even the way they sit on the subway has been criminalized as “manspreading.”
The American Psychological Association formalized the new pathology earlier this year by declaring “traditional masculinity is psychologically harmful.”
The male attributes it fingered as most worrisome were: stoicism, competitiveness, dominance, aggression, anti-femininity, achievement, “eschewal of the appearance of weakness,” adventure, risk and violence.
Gimme a break! Without any of that, all you’re left with is a soy boy with whom no self-respecting woman would want to mate.
This is the paradox of human attraction. Evolutionary psychologists have found that women instinctively desire a mate who can protect her and their offspring. “Modern women” look for “ancestral cues of a man’s fighting ability,” in the words of a 2017 study in the Proceedings of the Royal Society.
This is the very masculinity that is being damned as the toxic seed of the patriarchy. Courage and derring-do is the essence of maleness and is what has allowed western civilization to prosper.

Friday, August 16, 2019

Get Lost, Charlie

Paul Beston
August 16, 2019

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Margot Robbie, Quentin Tarantino, Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt

If you grew up in the 1970s, it was hard to escape Charles Manson. His gang’s grisly 1969 deeds were already legendary, and they left a lingering dread over middle-class America, to say nothing of Hollywood and other more privileged enclaves. The early and mid-seventies retained some trappings of sixties culture, and the climate that had fostered the Manson Family, or that Manson had used to foster it, seemed still operative. Older Americans, trying to exhale after the sixties’ Olympian paces, found themselves bewildered in a new, hungover decade that made not even a pretense of restoring the old verities.

There would be no getting them back, it turned out, and certainly not with that sense of menace in the air. My street in suburban Chicagoland held an annual block party on Labor Day weekend, with food and drink set out on long tables in a kind of wandering feast from yard to yard. One year, though, some college or older high school boys, not from the area, invited themselves into one of our neighbor’s homes. The street’s houses were open, with people regularly wandering in and out; the interlopers must have seen an easy target. They made their move, probably looking for booze, or maybe more. One of the neighborhood men entered the house and discovered them. They set upon him, he called out for help, and my father rushed in. He slugged one of the boys in the belly, and they all ran off. He seemed embarrassed by the deed in later years, wondering if he really needed to punch the kid. To the rest of us, the justification seemed clear: he had acted to help a friend.

Yet the incident seems hard to separate entirely from those still-fevered times. My father was an inveterate newspaper reader. The era’s cascading outrages must have had some effect on him, and the Manson murders especially so—involving, as they did, home invasion, the loss of sanctuary, and the wanton slaughter of, among other innocents, a nearly nine-months-pregnant woman. By the late 1960s, many Americans had learned to fear stepping out of their homes; Manson made them worry about staying in. It was not a climate conducive to pondering proportional degrees of self-defense.

Manson was in kids’ heads, too, back then. Born too late to view hippies as harmless and naïve, I saw them as people who wanted to take drugs and slice up my parents. They were all budding Mansons to me. The impression deepened when one of the older boys in our neighborhood acquired a rawhide bullwhip and rode his bike around, trying to lash the younger kids as we fled. The sixties had famously given us the motto, “Don’t trust anyone over 30,” but from where I stood, the only reliable people were 12 and under or 35 and over. Everyone else was out of their tree.

The Manson book, Helter Skelter, circulated in those years. Among my younger crowd, it had a forbidden-fruit quality, like a Playboy that specialized not in nude bodies but dead ones. Published in 1974, it remains one of the top true-crime sellers, an epochal account of the murders and prosecution of the Manson cult by the man who had put most of them away for life, Vincent Bugliosi. The made-for-TV feature by the same name that appeared soon after, in 1976, relied on the Bugliosi account and is creepy in that dreamlike way of 1970s TV movies. Every kid I knew was told he couldn’t watch it. We all watched it.

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Steve Railsback as Charles Manson in 'Helter Skelter'

Bugliosi is a clear writer, and he paces his largely procedural narrative in a way that keeps readers on the hook, but his undertone of insistence leaves one wondering, vaguely, if all the pieces really fit together. Ed Sanders didn’t think so: before Bugliosi, he had published the first book on Manson, The Family, which is about as different from Helter Skelter as can be imagined. Writing with the flair of the countercultural figure he was, Sanders nevertheless managed to tell the Manson story with genuine outrage on behalf of the victims and disgust for their victimizers. He had wondered, at the outset, whether Manson and his acolytes were being framed by the government, but he quickly realized that they were murderers of almost unimaginable cruelty, and his contempt for them fired his hipster prose, as when he dubbed them “acidassins” or deflated their spooky talk by interjecting, “Oo-ee-oo.” Even his irreverence serves a purpose. “All was chop,” he writes, as the killers approach their prey—an off-putting phrase, but it gets at the annihilation of taboo that was the Manson Family’s calling card.

The Family asks questions that make Bugliosi’s version seem something less than airtight. Bugliosi had, after all, a huge stake in the official story: he had used it to prosecute Manson, to render historical judgment on the events, and to build his own reputation as an author and commentator. In the last 25 years, more books have come out on the Manson case, some taking new angles, such as Tom O’Neil’s just-published Chaos: Charles Manson, the CIA, and the Secret History of the Sixties. Yet the fundamental physical realities of the case, of who did the killing and who got killed, remain unchallenged, as does the premise that the killers were operating under Manson’s influence, in some degree or another. The rest of it depends on how deep you want to go.

Over the last half century, enough people have wanted to go deeper, resulting not only in more Manson books but also in seemingly endless documentaries and specials, as well as—disturbingly—a cultish sort of fan base. The Manson murders have long been regarded as a 1960s touchstone, and like other major events of that most-analyzed decade, it has been assigned a definitional significance: the murders, we’re told, symbolized the end of the countercultural dream of peace and love.

Fifty years on, though, they might be better seen as an early, bloody shot in a culture war between rationality and irrationality, unity and tribalism, and between incremental, liberal progress and visions of apocalypse. Demythologized at last in Quentin Tarantino’s new film Once Upon a Time in Hollywood as weak-minded losers, Manson’s followers stand as the opposite number, in every sense, to the Apollo astronauts, who, just weeks earlier, had pulled off the feat that might stand as the last great testament of an older, greater America: the moon landing.

Neil Armstrong’s footprints may be on the moon, but Manson’s footprints (or fingerprints, more aptly) seem more pervasive than do those of the Apollo heroes. American culture gives unprecedented authority today to privatized, subjective reality; the Manson Family didn’t just give it authority, they gave it action. Conspiracy theories are legion, often competing with empirical explanations for acceptance among the general public; Manson was a gifted conspiracist, regardless of whether he believed what he was peddling. And Manson was an unfulfilled artist (a singer/songwriter manqué), whose outrage at failure would eventually lead him to demand—as our mass shooters today demand—that the world pay heed to his importance. When insistence fell on deaf ears, only one solution remained. Then, as now, all was chop.

But just as another milestone anniversary resurfaces this foul and dreary story, Quentin Tarantino, of all people, comes along to remind us that old virtues remain stout enough to stand down monsters. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is a Tarantino opus that contains all his hallmarks, good and bad, along with what seems a new sense of humanity and justice. The movie is being criticized for many reasons, some familiar, some specific to our perpetually aggrieved,bean-counting political tempers. In their myopia, the bean-counters cannot see that Tarantino has allowed us to imagine a way out of at least one old American nightmare. After 50 years, someone finally told the Manson Family to get lost.

Paul Beston is the managing editor of City Journal and author of The Boxing Kings.

‘Apocalypse Now: Final Cut’: Coppola’s Surreal Vietnam Epic Returns

By David Fear
August 15, 2019

Image result for apocalypse now final cut

About a mile out, the man says, they’ll put on the music. The kid looks confused: music? Just a classical piece — the boys love it. “Put on ‘PSYWAR OP,’ ” he barks into his headset. “Make it loud.
The reel-to-reel starts up. Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries,” from the German composer’s Ring of the Nibelung opera, begins playing over loudspeakers. The soldiers look around, confused and bemused. The camera keeps shooting a group of helicopters, already in attack formation, from below — you’d think they were prehistoric birds of prey. The troops staring out from these metal beasts are in profile, stoic and larger-than-life, pure Riefenstahl 101. And from where you’re sitting, the command to “make it loud” seems redundant. It feels deafening, overwhelming. It feels like you’re on the whirlybird when that first missile launches, the bobbleheaded co-pilot bouncing in his seat, guns firing, people on the ground falling, explosions everywhere. Noise seems to be swirling around you, from static-y voices on intercoms to heavy artillery blasts. You’re in the middle of pure chaos.
It’s one of the most famous extended sequences in American filmmaking. John Milius wrote it, based on experiences he’d heard from folks who’d come back from ‘Nam after being in the shit. Gerald B. Greenberg edited it. The legendary Walter Murch designed the soundscapes. Akira Kurosawa allegedly loved it. Francis Ford Coppola says he’s watched it many, many times over the past 40 years, “in various states of dread and fear.” You may have seen these moments on a plane, in a train, on a boat, with a goat. (Just, please, do not say “on your phone.”)
But sitting in a cavernous theater in downtown San Francisco and viewing Apocalypse Now: Final Cut, a 4K restoration-cum-remix of Coppola’s 1979 Vietnam War magnum opus, it almost feels as if you are experiencing this attack for the very first time. It goes without saying that most movies are best seen on a big screen, with an audience and in the dark. When you’re talking about this surreal, psychedelic vision of life during wartime, however — a phantasmagoria of gung-ho surfing obsessives, gyrating Playboy bunnies, ghostly French colonialists, and Marlon Brando in greenface — you’re talking about a whole other mind-fuck when its madness is presented in IMAX. Which is all the more reason to catch this rejiggered masterpiece when it gets a brief run in select theaters starting August 15th. (A Blu-Ray release hits shelves, virtual or otherwise, on August 27th.) It is, in terms of storytelling and scope, a completely different trip up the river, through your acid-fried skull, and into the heart of darkness.
So about that “Final Cut” subtitle . . .
Back in early 2017, James Mockoski, the archivist at Coppola’s production company American Zoetrope, approached the director with the idea of doing something special to commemorate the film’s upcoming 40th anniversary. The ’79 negative was in decent though slightly beat-up shape, as was the material used for the expanded 2001 version known as Apocalypse Now Redux; according to mix engineer Colin Guthrie, the “original six-track master audio given to the studio and kept by Zoetrope . . . both were lost.”
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They each knew the restoration process would be laborious — “frame by frame, moment by moment,” as Guthrie says — but thanks to advances in digital technology over the past decade or so, not impossible. The two men began examining the elements they had from the various prints and home-entertainment reissues over the years. The idea would be to clean up the images and substantially improve the sonic fidelity, with the goal being a far better-looking and -sounding Apocalypse Now compared to previous rereleases, especially in regard to the audio’s low end. (At Zoetrope’s “mixing barn” in Napa the day after the San Francisco screening, Guthrie plays the newly restored “Operation Arclight” bombing sequence with massive speakers pointed at a couch in the center of the room, and the rumble of the bombing raid makes you feel like you’re seconds away from encountering the mythical brown note firsthand.)
Mockoski and Guthrie figured they could not only get everything into shape but could, in the former’s words, “push things in a different direction . . . into becoming more of an immersive viewing experience using technology that wasn’t around in 1979, especially once Dolby and IMAX  came on board.” (The Final Cut theatrical run will include screenings in the IMAX format, though not exclusively.) The question was whether Coppola was interested in going back into this particular jungle once more. He’d already revisited the film and radically added close to an hour of footage, giving us the second Redux version. Yet the idea of just putting a spruced-up, albeit technically superior, print of the movie out for the anniversary seemed like too much of a nostalgic indulgence. And which cut would he choose for the anniversary, anyway: original recipe or extra-crispy?
“When we were releasing the film in ’79,” Coppola says, sitting in one of his Northern California winery’s large, museum-like spaces above the tasting areas, “we knew it was too long, and too weird. The film was surreal — my feeling was the war was surreal, so anything trying to get to the heart of it was going to be out-there. But distributors kept telling us, ‘Make it shorter, make it less weird.’ So we did. Then, when folks were making my wife’s documentary [1991’s Hearts of Darkness], they had access to all of the hours and hours of footage. And by that point, the mainstream has sort of absorbed what we were doing in Apocalypse, so it didn’t seem quite so weird anymore. Ironically, it was the distributors who came to me and said, ‘Well, you have all this stuff, why not put what you cut back in?’ That’s how Redux happened.
“But I always felt,” he continues, “that the first version was too shortened — not too short, too shortened — and the other version was . . . well, maybe we shouldn’t have put everything back in. A movie is in service to a theme that runs through it, and I always felt that Redux never quite supported the theme of the film as fundamentally as I wanted. So we started with the second version, because that already had the restorations and corrections, and we began to tweak from there. I didn’t intend to make a new version . . . but I felt that this being longer than one and shorter than the other was the perfect blend.”
Thus was born Apocalypse NowFinal Cut, or what some say Coppola has privately referred to as “the Goldilocks edit” of the film — a just-right amalgamation of both previous iterations, something that seems equally sprawling yet tighter than either of the versions we’ve come to know. Some 14 minutes have been taken out. Several game-changing Redux decisions remain, notably the PBR Street Gang’s water-skiing excursion coming after their Col. Kilgore misadventure rather than before, as it does in the original — a move that makes the boat’s crew seem less gonzo from the get-go and more like guys deservedly blowing off steam. (Laurence Fishburne’s rubber-limbed boogieing to the Stones’ “Satisfaction” naturally steals the scene no matter where you put it.) The second encounter with the Playboy bunnies is gone; the slapstick stolen-surfboard vignette remains. And the controversial French-plantation sequence has been streamlined, though the immortal Jung-and-the-restless line “There are two of you . . . one that kills and one that loves” has, for better or worse, been left intact.
More important, this Apocalypse Now retains the center-can’t-hold insanity of its onscreen journey (and the offscreen legend of behind-the-scenes creative mayhem) that has always made this movie feel like a singular cinematic fever dream. If anything, seeing this New Hollywood landmark/last gasp in such a clean, crisp, larger-than-life state emphasizes the multitudes it still contains. You might notice that, say, when a CIA agent is cutting into a slice of roast beef during the initial meeting between Martin Sheen’s Capt. Willard and his military overlords, it mirrors the slaughter of a bull near the end. You may take note of the tenderness that Robert Duvall’s Kilgore — always and forever “a goofy foot” — displays toward children and babies during his siege on a Vietnamese village. You may find yourself really noticing, for the first time, the chorus of crickets that accompanies Col. Kurtz’s final breath. Or you may find yourself identifying with Chef, or Clean, or even Dennis Hopper’s countercultural motormouth instead of Willard this go-round. Viewers never step in the same river twice.
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As to whether Apocalypse 3.0 is the “definitive” version of Coppola’s warped war-film vision, the answer may depend on the moviegoer. No one is even sure if “final” is truly applicable either. After premiering this cut at the Tribeca Film Festival in April, he made a few extra trims for its official release; Mockoski notes that the director “never really locks a film, he latches it.” For Coppola, however, this is the end result of decades of thinking about the story he wanted to tell — a three-hour trek into man’s dark side and a nation’s military moral free-fall that has, at long last, come to a conclusion he’s happy with. “Film is an illusion,” he says. “And this was the version where the illusion of Apocalypse Now finally snapped into place for me."

Q&A: Francis Ford Coppola on ‘Apocalypse Now’ 40 years later

By Jake Coyle
August 14, 2019

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NEW YORK (AP) — If filmmaking is a war, then “Apocalypse Now” was very nearly Francis Ford Coppola’s Waterloo.

The battles Coppola fought while making his 1979 epic nearly destroyed him. A typhoon wrecked a major set. Harvey Keitel was replaced by Martin Sheen. Coppola searched desperately for an ending. He worked even harder to coax a few lines out of Marlon Brando.

But out of that tumult Coppola created a masterpiece. And 40 years later, “Apocalypse Now” has never looked so good.

Coppola has supervised a 4K restoration of the film and, for the second time, tweaked the cut. Having perhaps gone too far in his 2001 “Redux,” which added 53 minutes, “Apocalypse Now Final Cut,” which opens in theaters Thursday and on home video Aug. 27, splits the difference at 183 minutes.

In its present and restored form, the majesty and madness of “Apocalypse Now” is more vivid and hallucinatory than ever. Coppola considers it the definitive version. It completes a four decade journey turning what was almost a mess into the masterwork he envisioned from the start.

Coppola, 80, has lately been busy with equally audacious plans.

In 2017, he published a book, “Live Cinema and its Techniques,” about his experiments and hopes for a new art form that combines cinema, television and theater in a live experience. He’s also recently returned to a long delayed passion project, “Megalopolis,” a sprawling sci-fi, New York-set epic. Coppola has been working on the script and casting, and searching for production partners. “Or maybe now it’s at the stage I can do it by myself, I don’t know,” he says.

In a recent interview, Coppola spoke about “Apocalypse Now” then and now, why he was “terrified” after making it and why he has so much trouble letting go.

AP: You’ve talked before about the theatrical version of “Apocalypse Now” missing some of the “weirdness” you wanted. What did you mean?

Coppola: In the 1979 version when it first opened, the various people who had sponsored it and were distributing it felt that it was too long and too weird. So we went through a tough few evenings trying to make it shorter and trying to make it appear more normal as opposed to “weird.” So we took some things out. Some of them were just 30 seconds long or a minute long but generally we were trying to make it shorter and less weird, which I guess is another word for “surreal.” After it was clear the movie had survived — meaning, you never know when you make a movie if its opening is going to be the last you heard of it or it’s going to have a life after that — I was looking at it on television and it didn’t seem so weird or surreal. It stuck out less as something unusual. For that reason, people kept saying to me, “Maybe you should have put back what you took out.”

AP: Did you consciously want to put your stamp on the war movie?

Coppola: The Vietnam War was different than other American wars. It was a West Coast sensibility rather than an East Coast sensibility. In war movies before “Apocalypse,” there was always a sort of Brooklyn character, an East Coast and Midwest personality. In “Apocalypse Now,” it was LA and it was surfing and it was drugs and it was rock ‘n’ roll so it was more of a West Coast ambiance to the war. In addition, there were many sort of odd contradictions that related to the morality involved. There was a line I once read that’s not in the film but to me it sums up the meaning of the movie. It was: “We teach the boys to drop fire on people yet we won’t let them write the word ‘f---’ on their airplanes because it’s obscene.”

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AP: You’ve gone back and made changes to a number of your films. For you, is a film ever really finished?

Coppola: The only reason I’m in a position to go back and evaluate some of these decisions is because I own the film, which is the same reason George Lucas looks at some of his movies. Obviously most filmmakers don’t own their films and would not be permitted to change a cut. But the version that you open with, you’re very concerned that it will have some longevity. And so you may do things for the opening that you’d rather not do but you don’t want to risk a negative reception because a film that opens with a negative reception is dead. If you can get it to be a positive reception or even a qualified positive reception then it has a chance of surviving. If you look at all the films I made, only “The Godfather” was just a runaway creative hit. Most of the other films were highly qualified and that meant that I was trying to nurse them into persisting and surviving. Later on, since I own them, I very often decided to undo things that were pushed on me by distributors or people at the time, and do what I wanted to do.

AP: Eleanor Coppola, your wife, wrote in her “Notes” that you took on some of Kurtz’ megalomania while making “Apocalypse Now.”

Coppola: Whenever I made a movie, I was always personally compared to the main character. When I was doing “The Godfather,” I was Michael Corleone, Machiavellian and sly. When I made “Apocalypse Now,” I was the megalomaniac. When I made “Tucker,” I was the innovative entrepreneur. The truth of the matter is all my life if I have been anything I’ve been enthusiastic and imaginative. I don’t have talent that I wish I had. My talent was more enthusiasm and imagination and a kind of prescient sense, a sense of knowing what’s going to happens before it happens. Other than that, my talent is limited.

AP: A recent Film Comment essay lamented the film’s portrayal of the Vietnam as “a spectacular but soulless backdrop.”

Coppola: It would have been interesting and good if the movie had been made in Vietnam. But the truth of the matter is when we were making “Apocalypse Now,” the Vietnamese War was only winding down. We did not have access to going there. We were making it in the Philippines and although we did have some Vietnamese people with us, it wasn’t the same as making it in Vietnam which would have made it possible to give an impression of the Vietnamese people, who I have only the highest regard for. When you make a war film, it’s from one side unless it’s “Tora! Tora! Tora!” and you’re deliberately deciding to depict both sides equally. This film was specifically about these young California Americans participating in this war, and that was the lens this film was made through.

AP: Did you emerge from “Apocalypse Now” a different filmmaker?

Coppola: Yeah, but no more than I was after the extreme experience of the “Godfather” movie. Every film I have made has been a new sheet of paper. I rarely would repeat a style. Every movie I worked on, I came out of it being a different person.

AP: How did you feel after “Apocalypse Now”?

Coppola: I was terrified. For one thing, I was on the hook for the whole budget personally — that’s why I came to own it. In addition, in those days interest was over 25, 27%. So it looked as though, especially given the controversy and all the bogus articles being written about a movie that no one knew anything about but were predicting it was “the heralded mess” of that year, it looked as though I was never going to get out of the jeopardy I was in. I had kids, I was young. I had no family fortune behind me. I was scared stiff. It was no different after “Godfather.” ″Godfather” was a project I was constantly about to be fired from, that the studio hated what I was doing looked like. I didn’t think I was going to survive that. All of those movies, which were these monumental attempts at art, left me in a different place when I finished than when I started. But then it was followed by another one that was a similar challenge. I’m 80 now but from age 25 to 60, my life was one crisis after another.

AP: Do you think you thrive in that kind of tumultuous environment?

Coppola: When you attempt something that you don’t exactly know how to do but you still long to attempt it, you’re setting the stage for a certain style and struggle in life. Clearly if after I made the gangster movie that was successful, if I had just spent my entire career making gangster pictures, that would have been a more tranquil life. I wanted to learn. I realize now that one of my fundamental aspirations is learning. There’s nothing more pleasurable than learning something you don’t know how to do.

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AP: Is going back to your films to get them just right for you part of preserving your legacy? Do you think about how you want you and your work to be remembered?

Coppola: I’m not so crazy about my legacy. I want people to know that I liked little kids and I was a good camp counselor when I was a camp counselor in 1957, that I have a family with wonderful children that I find so fascinating and very talented. But ultimately, to me, the greatest legacy you can have is that someone somewhere saw one of the things you did and it inspired them to do something that goes and then inspired someone else in the future. In a way, it’s a form of immortality.

AP: Today, most directors seeking the scale of “Apocalypse Now” would likely only find it in a superhero film. Do you sympathize with them?

Coppola: Absolutely. I feel now we have this bifurcated cinema in our country being of independent films where we have the most wonderful wealth of talent and then the industry films which are pretty much superhero films. One has too much money — the studio, Marvel comic-type movies. They’re basically making the same movie over and over again, and seducing all of the talent. Everyone is hoping to get a small part in one of those movies because that’s where the money is. And as opposed, the wonderful, unusual, exotic, interesting, provocative and beautiful independent films have no money. The budget for the craft service of one of those superhero films could more than be a budget for some of these brilliant young — and not only young — filmmakers. That is a tragedy.

AP: The long life your films have had can lead to strange places. Prosecutors want to show “The Godfather II” during Roger Stone’s trial . Donald Trump has cited it as one of his favorite films.

Coppola: The list of fans of the “Godfather” films not only includes the gentleman you speak of but also Saddam Hussein and Gaddafi. Just go through all of the toughest dictators in the modern world and their favorite movie is “The Godfather.”

AP: What do you make of that?

Coppola: Because “The Godfather” is an American story of an immigrant family that ultimately finds success in America. Success is not a bad thing but it depends on how you define it. If you define success as wealth, influence, power and fame, you have to know that does not bring happiness. We could go through the famous top 1% who have all the things we just mentioned and you’ll find some of the most unhappy people on Earth. What brings happiness is friendship, learning, creativity. We know what brings happiness. But what are you going to do when every nation in the world is pointing its main objective toward something that does not add up?