Before his career took off because of good books he actually wrote, Jarett Kobek published a short collection of 100% faithful transcripts of conversations spoken between celebrities and their partners in the nonsexual bonus content found in sex tape DVDs. Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee are there. Vince Neil. Paris Hilton. The only additional context or commentary the book offers on the transcripts is to remind readers of all the criminal and often violent acts these public figures had committed. While the book resonates with interesting ideas for the reader to bat around, the true reason for the book’s existence is answered by the book’s title: If You Won’t Read, Then Why Should I Write?
In his wildly faithful film adaptation — here re-titled If You Won’t Read, Then Why Should I Write? by Jarett Kobek (The Movie!) — Nick Toti doubles down on the inessentiality of the entire enterprise to create the authoritative version of Kobek’s nasty little book. Here, actors saturated in bright colors faithfully deliver the celebrities’ lines in grainy unmoving one-shots. Some of the actors’ performances skew toward flat irony while others closer to naturalism. Honestly, it works either way, and is probably better for the variation: A more coherent tone would give the sense that there is something to be honored in all these hollow words.
The book and film’s biggest swing is their inclusion of the final words of two genocidal dictators. If Kobek and Toti were with me now, I’d ask them, “Do you guys feel as if these distressing moments from real history are slicing through all of this banality? Or do you feel as if last words are their own banality, heightened artificially by circumstance, and that genocidal dictators are just destructive DVD idiots on a broader scale?” As it’s presented, I could see it either way.
But again, I don’t want to stray too far from honoring the enormous fuck you baked right into the title, or from honoring the real effort that went into finding, carefully selecting, and then presenting all the most insipid words Kobek could find. And it works: All this curated celeb vapidity offers plenty of rueful laughs. Leaving the screening, I said to Toti, “Great job, man,” but when pressed to clarify, I said a truer thing: “You really did everything you set out to do here.”
Kobek’s writings often appeal to my most puritanical side for what a fun scold he is. He presents evidence of the West’s moral degradation and then barks at us for pages about it like an old tent revival preacher. Here, he and Toti are all curation, all evidence, and leave the scolding to us. Picturing the trashy rich in repose at an airport Burger King, you’ll find yourself muttering “this too led to Trump” but reflexively, unsure whether you’re making a solid point or if you’re just impossibly tired forever.
-Gabe Durham, author of Bible Adventures and Fun Camp
Nick Toti’s If You Won’t Read, Then Why Should I Write? by Jarett Kobek (The Movie!) had its first, and likely only, public screening on Saturday, August 17th, 2019 in Los Angeles, California. The following week, Nick and Jarett sat down for a long, casual discussion of the movie, the book from which it was adapted, and sundry other crimes against common sense and good taste. The following is a heavily edited transcription of that conversation.
Jarett Kobek: Seeing your film hammered home the single biggest difference between a writer and a director of films. You have a talent that I do not. Which is the ability to get large groups of people to embarrass themselves on camera. It’s a lot of people that you’ve corralled into doing something very stupid. How do you explain your preternatural ability to get people to do this?
Nick Toti: Well, I would argue that relative to the average production, or even small productions, this was a very, very small production. I was basically the entire crew.
NT: There are eight performers involved, and they all play about five or six different characters, but that’s still a relatively small amount of people involved.
JK: After I saw the film, I finally watched [Nick’s earlier feature] The Complete History of Seattle.
NT: Oh good.
JK: And that is rammed with large groups of people embarrassing themselves as they enact quasi-religious tableaux.
NT: That’s true.
JK: It’s a skill that I don’t have. Maybe writers don’t have it at all. Obviously, it’s a skill that you have to have if you’re directing.
NT: I like that you put it in terms of getting them to embarrass themselves. And I think the way I marshal that is to make it readily apparent to everybody that nobody’s going to be more embarrassed by the finished product than me.
JK: But that can’t be true.
NT: I think it is.
JK: So is it a ritualistic act of shame for you to make a film?
NT: Another way of looking at it is in the context of love. I’ve only recently come to embrace the term “love” as an accurate descriptor for how I feel about filmmaking. You know, people used to say, “Well, I don’t get it, but you’re doing what you love.” To which I always wanted to respond, I don’t really love it. I kind of hate it. I hate everything that goes into it. I hate motivating people to agree to do something that I want them to do, I hate being responsible for everything. Filmmaking is incredibly stressful. I wouldn’t describe it, or at least in the past I wouldn’t have described it, as fun or as something that I love doing. But then I started thinking about love as an irrational act that you basically have no control over. And I realized, I guess that I do love it because, despite everything, I just keep doing it. I mean, I’m never going to make any money from filmmaking, and I don’t know if there’s culturally a way to quantify value other than money.
NT: Unless we accept shame as being a way of quantifying value, in which case I think I’m rich with shame.
JK: That’s the title of the interview, “Nick Toti: Rich with Shame.”
NT: I mean, with filmmaking, if you have millions of dollars backing you it might be something you do for power and prestige or things like that. Whereas when you have no money, it’s something you’re doing out of an irrational compulsion to just humiliate yourself endlessly. Even this charade of an interview. I was thinking about it on the way over here. How many professional, “real” interviews come about because somebody asks someone else to interview them. And then the person says, “I’ll do it, but only if you transcribe it.” It basically takes any semblance of journalistic integrity out of the process. If I say anything that makes me sound like an idiot, I can just go back afterwards and change it. I mean, it’s kind of perfect for me, but it’s essentially a bullshit PR farce and I’m putting it out despite any actual, organic interest in my movie.
JK: Well, in that spirit, the only thing I ever really want to talk about is myself. So what attracted you to my book?
NT: The first book of yours that I read was actually Soft & Cuddly, [Jarett’s nonfiction book about crude video games made by a bored British teenager in the 1980s], and I really liked your approach to the subject matter in that book. It reminded me of the approach I took in The Complete History of Seattle [Nick’s movie about the crude Seattle punk band Raft of Dead Monkeys], which is taking something that’s very micro, like an obscure punk band or an obscure video game, and using to explore things that are very macro.
JK: That’s a very good comparison, and I’ll tell you why. And this is not to insult Boss Fight [publisher of Soft & Cuddly], which is probably the press that I’ve had the least fractitious relationship with and who were some of the very best editors that I’ve worked with.
NT: By the way, Gabe [Durham, Publisher and Series Editor of Boss Fight Books] of agreed to write a review of the movie for the same online release as this interview, so we’re now also doing a shameless product placement for Boss Fight.
JK: There you go. But the obvious template for Boss Fight is the 33 1/3 books. The point of all of these forms is to legitimate nostalgia. What makes Soft & Cuddly a very funny book, in the context of the series, is that no one ever played the game upon which the book is based. It’s an inversion of the formula. To me was really interesting. And also doing a really smart book about a really stupid thing. But anyway, I see a connection to The Complete History of Seattle. A documentary film about a band, or any artist, probably has two functions. One function is to legitimate the viewers who’ve wasted whatever amount of their lives on that artist. And the second thing is to make upper middle class people in college towns feel that they understand things happening out in the wider world. These films in their second function are not so different from The New York Times. And, ultimately, your film doesn’t do any of that, right?
NT: Yeah. And Raft of Dead Monkeys was also a band that, by their own estimate, only ever played for about 200 people. There wasn’t some massive cult following that was clamoring for that movie to be made.
JK: What you’ve done is ensure that they can never escape their otherwise dormant past.
NT: Yes. I mean, somebody has to be responsible for looking at someone else’s career and saying you did this one thing that was genuinely interesting. And even if nobody else cares, I’m going to single that one thing out.
JK: I see.
NT: And that’s how I feel about If You Won’t Read, Then Why Should I Write?
JK: But the difference, of course, is that I had an audience once. I was a literary sensation for a brief period of time. I’m not the tragic failure. I’m the has been…the has been that arguably may never have been. My success, as far as I can tell, was based on a misunderstanding by media people and had no true reality. My audience was a lot more than 200 people! I’ve sold in the very low hundreds of thousands!
NT: Well, I was just joking anyway. I don’t actually think that If You Won’t Read is the only thing you did that was worthwhile.
JK: I could argue that it is. Why not? Maybe now that you’ve insulted me and my achievements, we can get to the thing we’re supposed to be talking about, which is the far graver insult of your filmic adaptation of my book. Perhaps the best way in, yet again, is to talk about myself. I did If You Won’t Read after ATTA had come out. The intent was to rub people’s faces in shit. ATTA came out, sold a couple of copies, and then disappeared for a few years. I didn’t know that it would have an eventual resurrection, so I was in a particularly bad mood. ATTA’s disappearance surprised me because ATTA is arguably the best book I have ever written. It’s Literature with the the Capital L. And it seemed to me, okay, fine, if you don’t want this densely layered construction of crystalline symbolism about one of the foremost events in your lifetimes, then I will supply you pigs with what you really want to eat. Here’s your slop. Here’s mindlessness about celebrity. But your film manages to take the take the argument of the book, and take it even further, and take it to a place that may be impossible for a book. And I think that’s really interesting. I think it’s really interesting as the person who came up with this really stupid-slash-good idea, to see someone adapt it, and then almost inarguably do it much better. It’s fascinating. It works better as a film.
NT: I think the correct way to read the book is to read it as poetry. Like dadaist poetry, you know? It’s just a found object, but it’s simultaneously the most banal and the most most loaded found object. Working with the actors, they would repeatedly say stuff like “This dialogue is so stupid, but it just makes me self-conscious about the way that I talk when I think nobody’s listening. I’m sure I just sound exactly like this.” So you could have just taken snippets of anyone’s dialogue on any given day. It would have been the same type of banal nonsense, but because it’s being said by these people who have been baptized in the waters of celebrity, it seems significant.
NT: And then, through the accident of how I chose to arrange the information from the book, the criminal rap sheets that come at the end of each section have this feeling of weightiness to them, which was not intentional. My original intention was that I wanted to have them scroll across the faces of the actors while they were talking. But then I liked the flow of the back and forth between the actors’ heads so much, and was so charmed by it, that I didn’t want to distract from it. I thought having the rap sheets scroll over them would just detract from the fun of watching the nonsense.
JK: I think that’s right.
NT: And so instead, I had the much less creative idea of just having them blandly, factually stated at the end. But it ended up having this unintended effect of, “Oh, these now feel meaningful.” Especially when watching with a crowd, you could hear people gasp at the criminal rap sheets.
JK: It’s very interesting to me because the criminal histories are the book, they’re what anchors it, and, in a way, they’re also the film. And they were a very late addition. When I started the book, the original idea was just sex tape transcription, which wouldn’t have made it a massively different experience. But I’m not so sure that’s a thing that could have then been turned into a film.
NT: Getting back to the question of why I was drawn to adapting this book, which like many of these questions has gone sort of half answered. That element [that you’re describing] is what was appealing to me about it. You’ve seen some of the other movies that I’ve made, and one of the things that I’m interested in, and probably this is the interest that bars me from ever having a viable career as a filmmaker, but I’m interested in atypical forms or odd structural ideas, things like that. There’s a narrative logic to stories, and that’s what people generally think of movies as being. I mean, there’s plenty of experimental stuff out there. I’m not really breaking any new ground here or have any misconception that that’s what I’m doing. But my interests are not in story, per se. They’re in, like, how can I make these weird, oddly resonant experiences by arranging things that you might not think go together in a way that creates interesting juxtapositions? For me, an ideal movie would be one where you could take any one element of it and isolate it, and it would work effectively on its own. And then if you put them all together, it still works effectively but in a different way. I also like the idea of setting up an impossible structural goal that you basically know that you’re not going to be able to accomplish. But by trying to do it and failing, the closer you get to the original idea, the more interesting the product is going to be. You end up pulling back from your own rules because you want your movie to actually work, or rather I want my movie to actually work. So that’s when that pesky idea of narrative starts coming back. And you say, okay, fine. I’ve got to have some sort of story here to hang all this stuff that I’m actually interested in onto. And so with your book, it resonated with me because I could kind of intuit those same interests or ideas. Like, it started off as an idea of being about transcribing celebrity sex tapes, but then there was a sense that this doesn’t really work as a book. So how do you make it work as a book? And it’s not like you’re reading, to put in in screenwriter terms, Robert McKee’s Story, and it’s telling you like, “In the third act, this needs to happen, you need a reversal” or something like that. You just thought, “Oh, well, if I put some genocidal dictators in here.” And then maybe you say, “Okay, well, it kind of needs a little something else. What if I put these criminal records in here?” You start realizing these things, and it’s all through intuition, and you end up with something that isn’t a narrative by any stretch, but it sort of functions emotionally as if you’ve gone through some sort of narrative. That was what resonated with me. Also, I saw it gave me an opportunity to play with some things that I was already interested in. I love having an excuse to put subtitles on the screen. So with the parts that are indecipherable, I just thought that would be funny. Doing strictly formal things that were essentially just dumb jokes was appealing. I like people talking directly into the camera, and this gave me an excuse to play with that form. I like colors, but I don’t have the patience for subtlety. So this part’s red, this part’s blue, etc.
JK: It’s a strangely beautiful film. Given what it is. For a book that I didn’t write, for material that I didn’t create, I had a strange anxiety before I saw the film, which I imagine is the same anxiety that every writer has before they see an adaptation of their work. Let’s hope that this isn’t embarrassing. And as I was having the feeling, I was also trying to figure out why I cared. But then to see the film, and to see that, okay, this is actually an accomplished, thought out thing that’s very different from where it could have gone in other hands. And it manages, visually, to get the sparseness of the book. It’s a really accomplished film. I was not expecting that. When you emailed me two years ago asking to do the adaptation, I would never have guessed you were capable. I assumed it would be a shitshow. Which is why I said yes. Because a shitshow is also interesting. But the actual film was a very nice surprise.
NT: Well I’m glad to hear that, but I would never tell somebody that I’m going to make something that’s accomplished.
JK: It is. It’s an accomplished film.
NT: If you insist… Thank you?
JK: I mean, it’s an accomplished film that’s hiding the accomplishment.
NT: I’ll take that. I mean, I don’t want to use faux-humility and pretend I’m not that asshole who thinks he’s the smartest person in any room he walks into. Like, you don’t wake up and say, “I should make something that the world could obviously do without,” without being an egomaniacal, horrible person.
JK: Yeah. Right.
NT: But also one of the things that’s changed in my approach to filmmaking recently is that I’m more literally DIY now. Like, I do a lot of things myself that I really don’t have the necessary skill sets to do myself, and I have this sort of guiding idea in my head where I’m drawn to things that seem like any idiot could have made them. I like that idea, which is also a connection to your book. That book is possibly the most aggressive lack of authorial talent that I’ve seen in a published work. It makes no attempt at convincing you that the author of this work is a good writer.
JK: I’m a very good transcriber in that book. I felt like the transcripts had to be as accurate as I could make them. I don’t know why. In a funny way, it’s the only place where there is a really heavy authorial thumbprint. By adhering as close to what’s on the tape as possible, it’s a way of asserting the authorial voice while completely removing it.
NT: Right. It’s like you retained the authority while losing the voice.
JK: Yeah, yeah.
NT: You’re also sort of entering into an agreement with the reader saying, “You can trust me because it wouldn’t have been worth the effort if I was going to do this half assed.” Which was also where I came from as a filmmaker saying, “No, I’m going to have to ask you to redo the paragraph long soliloquy from Tom Sizemore because you said ‘uh,’ but it says ‘um’ on the page. So let’s redo that.”
JK: That’s the only way the joke, if it is a joke, works.
NT: And I think of course it has to be a joke, because if it’s not, then God help us.
JK: It’s content that’s gone through three iterations of reduction, and you can see the personalities of those celebrities without any sparkle. The one that disturbed me the most was the first Paris Hilton one. I had forgotten how vile it is. People knew that was out there. It wasn’t, like, oh, if you went on PornHub and looked for Paris Hilton, it would be on the third page of results. There’s something really dark about that tape being in the world and that person having suffered nothing for it. And I don’t think people should suffer for any of that shit, but if we do live in a world where people are being cancelled, how someone who is enormously famous–not as much any more, truth be told–never suffered anything for that is crazy. It shows you how arbitrary it all is. I don’t think any of the rest of those tapes are that revealing of anything new.
NT: We learned that Colin Farrell lives on porn, which maybe we all could have presumed.
JK: We learned that that diet of porn might also have a little bit of coke sprinkled on top of it. As I texted you yesterday, I saw him less than 24 hours ago. I have not thought about that man in probably four or five years, went to the premiere of your film, thought about him during that, and then a couple of days later I was at the coffee shop across the street, and there he was talking to the barista about snubnosed .45s. And it seemed to me that he’s some kind of demon invoked by your film.
NT: And maybe he is! I hope it did invoke him through some accidental manipulation of cosmic forces. Because to me, it’s remarkable that the finished product works as coherently as it does. By design, it was done in a really incoherent way. None of the actors were ever even in the same room with each other. I would spend one night recording a performer, and then there might be months before shooting the next one. And that was kind of the way I pitched it to people: “I have no idea how this thing is going to turn out.” So we were sort of being amateur alchemists, combining elements in the hope that something affective happens or we get some sort of result.
JK: So what do you do with it now? Because I decided to be on the cutting edge of the 21st century, the only thing I know about is writing and publishing. With writing, you send material out. It’s humiliating. But film is different, because there’s something about making a film and putting the film together and getting all the people and this and that. Like, ultimately writing is someone staring into Microsoft Word. As frustrating as that is, thinking about you paying to submit this to like fifty festivals…that’s much more humiliating. The way that the world has humiliated you is actually much worse than the imagined humiliations I’ve experienced.
NT: The way I compensate is that I basically have no social life outside of filmmaking. So I’ve just collapsed this irrational compulsion to make things into, well, this is how I have friends. So the consolation prize for endless humiliation, financial despair, and all of that is: at least I got to hang out with some people. To answer your question, though, I’ll be releasing this one online and then moving on with my life as quickly as possible. If anyone ever wants to screen it, they’ll have to contact me…or just stream it off Vimeo.
JK: Yeah, that actually reminds me, at the premiere of If You Won’t Read, Then Why Should I Write? you said you had an editor.
NT: That’s right. [Shoutout to Ryan McDuffie!]
JK: What did he do? As much as there are obvious disconnections between the actors, that film feels like a really unified whole. Clearly the editor did something right.
NT: Well, yes he did. But that’s what editors, or at least good editors, do. They take totally disparate material and figure out how to make it cohere into something that it really has no business being. But also, the secret of doing these aggressively minimalistic formal restraints is that, as long as you’ve got that same colored light and that black background, your brain will trick you into I thinking the thing works.
JK: I agree to a degree, but I also disagree. I think you’re, yet again…
NT: I’m from the Midwest. We’re a self-deprecating people.
JK: Yeah, it’s true. It’s like, the profound arrogance of humility is coming out of every pore. I spent a lot of time in the Midwest. This is the beginning. That emotion that you’re expressing? “No, it’s not that good. No, no, no, there’s a reason for it.” That’s the beginning of a five hour experience that ends with you putting an axe in someone’s neck. You know? That’s some In Cold Blood shit.
NT: I think that’s the appropriate place to end the interview.
p.s. Hey. Huge treat for the blog this weekend in the form of the online premiere of the new film by the masterful young filmmaker Nick Toti whose wonderful earlier film ‘The Complete History of Seattle’ had its world premiere here back in 2018. This new film is based on a book by the noted, fantastic writer Jarrett Kobek and the post features a conversation between Jarrett and Nick. Pretty great. So please enjoy the film and the premiere event and acknowledge your experience in the comments in whatever fashion you choose to show Nick you attended, thank you! And thanks a ton, Nick! Super psyched! ** David Ehrenstein, Hi. Thanks for the Hilton Al link. Reading Hilton is always a boon and a real pleasure. ** liquoredgoat, Hi, D. Thanks for the comment. Your library doesn’t do renewals? What in the world! Good weekend! ** Misanthrope, Glad you liked it. Ah, Morrissey. I can’t deal with him anymore for the moment. I’m soured. But I’m glad you enjoyed it so much. Pleasure’s the thing. I always think it’s strange when people say, for instance, that I have ‘guts’ as a writer. I don’t really think I do. When people say that, it just seems like they’re saying, ‘I don’t have guts’ about themselves or something. It seems like it’s more about self-censorship or not. It’s like they think one is writing for one’s parents or the police or something. I don’t know. That said, there were just as many bad aspiring poets in my college workshops who wrote in-your-face stuff as there were poets ho wrote about flowers and love. Hope you got the sleep that you sacrificed a payday for. ** _Black_Acrylic, Hi, Ben. I’m very, very glad you like her work. Obviously, take the time to get The Call #3 up to your standards. No rush. No time limit on our hunger. ** Steve Erickson, Hi. Harper Perennial was quite adventurous for a handful of years when I was lucky enough to be housed there. They published Blake Butler, Roxanne Gay, Tony O’Neill, and other adventurous younger writers, all of whom have scattered elsewhere now. It’s a shame it didn’t last. Hm, interesting indeed about the Seth Price. I hope to get to see it, and I look forward to reading more of your thoughts in your review. ** Keaton, Hey. Your tunes had to wait for this weekend because yesterday was a TV show project-eaten day. But I’m cool now. Can’t wait. Sonic You! Gushy sugary fruity love inside a pastry shell love to you. ** Conrad, Hi, Conrad. Thank you very much for coming in here. I’m of course thrilled if I helped introduce you to Renee Gladman. She’s incredible, obviously. Thank you a lot for telling me about her Paris bookstore events. I didn’t know, and I will definitely be there at one or both. Wow, great! See you there, I guess? Thanks again. Of course please come back anytime. Take care. ** All right. Please watch Nick’s film. It’ll be something you’re very glad to have seen, trust me. And let’s all reconvene here again on Monday, yes?