Over the past dozen years or so, I have written 620 reviews that appeared on Rotten Tomatoes, an aggregator of film reviews written by those regarded as a “top critic” (adorned by a star) like Anthony Lane of the New Yorker Magazine and the lowliest like me. Most reviewers, like my colleagues in NYFCO—a group by virtue of my membership allows me to post to RT—are appealing to the same reader, namely the man or women trying to figure out which movie to go see on a Saturday night. My reviews target an entirely different readership, those reprobates who are looking for a radical documentary or some neo-neorealist flick from the Third World, the grittier the better.
I would estimate that 80 percent of my reviews were based on a press screening or a DVD sent to my home by a publicist. And of those, about a half were accompanied by an invitation to interview the director or star, something that has never interested me until a couple of weeks ago when a publicist told me that Sandra Steingraber was in town for a tour promoting the new documentary based on her book “Living Downstream”.
Last June I wrote a highly complementary review of the book that started:
Anticipating that “Pink Ribbons Inc.” would deal with the question of the corporate role in making women sick, I read Sandra Steingraber’s “Living Downstream: an ecologist looks at cancer in the environment”, a book that I purchased in 1997 when it first came out. To give you a sense of its provenance, you can read this blurb by Richard Levins on the back cover: “Sandra Steingraber’s ‘upstream’ approach to cancer is imperative. It is about time someone wrote this book.” Levins, as you might know, is one of America’s most respected Marxist biologists.
Born in 1959, Steingraber grew up in rural Illinois surrounded by corn and soybean fields that were drenched by chemical pesticides and herbicides. In her 20s, when studying biology, she developed bladder cancer, a disease that is not usually found among the young but is endemic to the kind of workplaces that The Plastic Focus Group endured. The book is written as a kind of memoir and investigative journalism that revolves around her return to her hometown and the various places that might have led to her disease.
Despite my enthusiasm for her book, I had nagging doubts about the wisdom of doing an interview with a big shot celebrity. This is a distinguished professor from Ithaca College who has probably been interviewed on NPR dozens of times. She has also been the recipient of many awards. In the documentary you can see her receiving one of them before an audience of several thousand adoring people. I worried that she might regard 30 minutes spent with me as a waste of her precious time even though she probably understood that she was obligated to meet with me since the publicist had arranged it.
I went down to the publicist’s office in the West Village for a 2pm meeting last Friday during a driving rain. When I got up to the office, the publicist introduced me to Steingraber and the director Chanda Chevannes who were sitting at a conference table looking at me with an expression on their faces like Charles Manson’s parole board. I almost excused myself to go to the bathroom to see if my forehead had accidentally been smudged on the subway in the shape of a swastika.
Since I had brought my camcorder with me, I broached the subject of recording the interview, explaining that I would not put it up on Vimeo if they preferred not to. But I would like to have it for my own use in writing up the interview later on. The expression on Steingraber’s face changed at this point as she said, “No-no. I don’t want to do that.” This time she looked more like Julia Roberts being asked for her autograph by a stubborn fan following her down the street.
I was also told that the interview must end after 30 minutes. Fine, I replied, since I planned on getting straight to the point. I was starting to get a very bad vibe. I wasn’t sure whether the two were more aggravated by my obscurity or by my politics.
Keep in mind that my questions sought to clarify issues posed by the film and her writings. I didn’t plan to ask her, for example, how she felt during an exam at her oncologist. Let NPR take care of that.
Since we were nearing Election Day and since Steingraber blogs at Huffington Post, an Obama outpost like the Nation or MSNBC, I wanted to hone in on class questions. I asked her that since she credited Rachel Carsons with leading to the formation of the Environmental Protection Agency, what she made of Lisa Jackson, the current head of the EPA and an Obama appointee. One of the major concerns of “Living Downstream” is the carcinogenic nature of Atrazine, a widely used pesticide. It turns out that Jackson assembled an EPA panel that concluded that there was insufficient evidence to ban the chemical. I was also curious to see how Steingraber would react to Jackson’s statement before a Senate investigation committee that she knows of no instances where fracking led to contaminated water, an issue that Steingraber has taken up in recent years.
Her reply was to talk about the need of the federal government to protect its citizens. That’s about it. Despite her ability to make connections between the environment and our health, she was not able to tie both to the nature of the economic system we are living in. This is something that Chris Hedges does quite well but it does not lead to banquets and awards.
At two twenty-nine sharp, the director informed me that I had one minute left. She reminded me of Columbia University business school dean Glenn Hubbard telling Charles Ferguson in “Inside Job”: “In fact, you’ve got three minutes. So give it your best shot.”
As I was getting ready to put on my jacket and head back uptown, Steingraber asked me when my article would appear. I told her that evening. I planned to write it up when I got home. She then asked me for my email address. What for, I wondered? She told me that it was important to get the science of cancer causality and treatment correct so she wanted a copy of my article before it went up since corrections might be necessary. I didn’t mention it to her at the time—mostly because I was so stunned by the request—but I planned to write a film review not something to be submitted to the New England Journal of Medicine. I suspect that her real concern was politics, not cell mutation. Like most big shots she probably was anxious to control how she was perceived.
That evening I dashed off a brief email to her explaining that I was not going to write a review but simply post a notice about the showing of the documentary over at Lincoln Center the next day with a description from the film’s website. That would save her the trouble of putting my review under a microscope.
I also pointed out that she would have not had the nerve to ask someone like Anthony Lane to submit to such a vetting process, only someone at the bottom of the totem pole like me.
Whenever I am confronted by situations like this, I am always reminded of Michael Yates’s priceless account of going to an after-conference social hosted by Columbia University professors that appeared in his wonderful “Cheap Motels and a Hot Plate”:
I had come to Manhattan to give a talk at one of Columbia University’s ongoing seminars. Faculty and outside scholars have organized these on a wide variety of subjects; the same one might run for many years. I was to speak to the Seminar on Full Employment. I walked through the great university’s gate at Broadway and 116th Street with some trepidation. I had never spoken at an Ivy League university, and I wondered if the group’s participants would be as brilliant as I sometimes imagined people at such schools were. We found our way to Faculty House, where we were to have dinner and where the meeting was to be held. We met the person who had invited me, a friendly elderly man of some renown. The first thing he did was inform me that I would have to pay for my wife’s dinner. I was astounded. I should have refused, but I gave him the money. Dinner was a lavish affair, with fine food and table settings. The dining room overlooked the slums of East Harlem. Everyone was white except the servers. The conversation revolved around trips these elite academics had taken and the research they were doing. When the talk turned to children, we silenced the polite chatter when we said that our three sons were cooks. Apparently no one could believe that a college professor had children who did such work. After dinner I gave my talk. It went well, but the questions were abstrusely academic and trivial. Later we were dragooned into going to a professor’s apartment, which overlooked Central Park, to watch a television show about the overboard spending of American consumers. The host served cheap beer; I got a half a glass. When the show ended we had to go around the room in order and make comments. These were so convoluted, egotistic, and laden with academic jargon that Karen and I wondered what we would say. I was glad her turn came first. She stated that the show was shallow and again that pretty much stopped the discussion. Thankfully we left soon after. As we walked out the door, we heard one person remind another that she owed a dollar for the short cab ride from the college to the apartment.