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Walter Kirn on His E-book, the Meaning of ‘Douche Bag,’ and His Oscar Predictions

Some people use the Bible to scold others, some to justify their political positions, and some to thank God for their feats on the athletic field or at the Academy Awards. Up in the Air author Walter Kirn, who has also done some writing for New York, used it to connect with his recently deceased mother when he found a copy among her things. Reading his mother's scribbled asides in the margins, he realized it was a way to have one last conversation with her, so he studied it anew and turned his humorous discoveries into a short e-book, My Mother's Bible. Kirn held a nontraditional Bible study class of sorts for Vulture, in which he shared his theories (Adam and Eve's Fall is a drug bust), chatted about his pal Val Kilmer, and gave some serious thought to the use of the term "douche bag."

Sorry about the phone tag. Was it confusing because my number is blocked?
I was wondering if it was one of my weird Hollywood friends calling! Even if some of them aren't as famous anymore, they still block their numbers.

Who did you think I was?
Oh, Val Kilmer. Here's a tip: His real ambition, and what he's putting all his time and money into — and this is no joke, because he's good at it — is to be this generation's preeminent Mark Twain impersonator. He wants to succeed Hal Holbrook. It's actually kind of staggering, because no one really knows what Mark Twain's voice sounded like. There are some descriptions but no recordings.

So he's developed a show that he puts on somewhat spottily and informally around Los Angeles, where he wears $3,000-worth of prosthetic makeup, and he's actually awesome at it. He wants to make the same kind of transformation that he did with Jim Morrison when he did The Doors. And as a friend, I think if he can just get a grip on his flakiness, he could really make a splash with this. It sounds a little eccentric, but he's got a lot of material, because it's not just old Twain, it's the drunken, sad, regretful, pensive character that we're not used to.   

Your Byliner e-book shows us a look at the Bible that we might not be used to as well — God as a single parent, the Fall as a drug bust, Jacob as a sex slave.
I tried to read the Bible as if there had been no other history of mankind. I took the fundamentalists at their word, that all truth is contained there, as if we didn't need any other guide to history, and I approached it on those terms. The Bible has been through millions of rounds of exegesis and interpretation, but it hasn't been until quite recently that it's been taken as the absolute truth, to the point where people expect it to inform ideas about biology and life on this planet. So I went at it like the Bible hadn't been softened up by metaphor, and when you think about the Fall, and a plant that gave us knowledge of good and evil, I can only think of a few plants that can do that, and they were all taken by Timothy Leary. You'd think Cain and Abel would be the first atrocity — that's a killing; that I understand. But what's all this fuzzy business about eating a piece of prohibited fruit? So the only parallel that I can find that makes sense is taking some kind of drug.

Literally, but with irreverence.
Ricky Gervais takes the Bible literally in his act, and there's a tradition within British comedy, in the Oxford Revue, to take those stories literally, but that never caught on in America, which tends to be a more pious and theologically oppressive climate and because Bible stories aren't the common currency that they used to be. So I also tried to look at it in terms of contemporary life, with shameless, anachronistic tools. Every generation looks at literature through the lens of their own experience, but with the Bible, everyone gets apprehensive and thinks it'll be too stuffy. And my mother, who I was trying to honor with this, is the least stuffy person I ever met. She was one of those people who would treat royalty and proletarians the same, and in some ways, the Bible would have been no different than Time magazine, or, "Guess what I saw on Gawker!"

You only do Genesis and Exodus. Why not the rest of the book?
At the pace I was going, it would have taken 800 pages and eight years to do the whole book. I'm not saying that it's an impossible task or that I wouldn't be interested in doing that, but the economic reality doesn't allow it. And I found myself taking a tone that I don't know would be sustainable for that length of time. Plus, everybody knows about Cain and Abel, Joseph and his brothers, Noah and the Ark, but the stories are sparse after the first two books, and it's not a lot of narrative for the rest of the Old Testament, so I hit the sweet spot. And I like God as a character. He doesn't come into the New Testament as much, because he's done the heavy lifting already. And He was the one who interested me. It wasn't Jesus who took my love or birthed me and other human beings, and I'm concerned with the ultimate issues of existence itself.

You've played poker with Mel Gibson. What did you think about his Passion of the Christ?
I didn't see it, but I saw enough outtakes to know it might be excruciating. It was one of those things where I could follow the controversy or the movie, and I chose to follow the controversy. But he comes from more of a Roman Catholic tradition, and I come from a goofy Protestant tradition, if you consider Mormonism Protestant. Mel is devoted to reanimating historical and Biblical stories in a brutal and fresh way, but he's not an irreverent person. It was interesting that Hollywood was going to the Bible and that Darren Aronofsky is going there with Noah, because we seem to want foundational narratives again. If you want something contrary to the age of Twitter and fragmented storytelling, go back to these huge, basic stories. And I'm looking forward to portrayals by this current generation of actors, because you can't help but see Charlton Heston.

Russell Crowe is Noah in Darren Aronosky's film.
Wow, that might represent progress! But even in those Hollywood epics, the Bible never comes out from under the shadow of a comic-book treatment. The Bible was meant to be read, to be quoted, but reading it is now a radical act. My mom wasn't religious. She was doing the fifties thing of reading the Bible as literature. So I did the fifties thing, too. I was scolded by a Facebook friend that I was faux-naïve. I saw myself as being tactically innocent, to clear away preconceptions and prejudices. But I was struck over and over again by how my inherited knowledge of the Bible was based on summaries, sermons, comic books, movies, and other secondary sources, which misrepresent it. I was startled at how little basis there was for a lot of the scolding and condemnation done in its name. For instance, the important thing I learned about the Ten Commandments is that God breaks pretty much every one of them before he voices them, and then he goes on breaking them! It's the best example of "Do as I say, not as I do." But I have an incredible empathy for Him. He was a confused, overwhelmed, put-upon God who was never a child himself and who had children without any guidance that we know of, so he was unprepared for the shit storm. No wonder He regularly contemplates killing his family a couple of times — and does so a few times.

The Bible, like the Koran and other religious tests, is sometimes used for political gain without being fact-checked.
When I was writing about the Republican primaries, it was as though the Bible was a black box that people reached into to pull out edicts and prejudices and rules and opinions, and I wish they had fact-checked it! Especially Rick Santorum. The other thing is that people dismiss the Book of Mormon because it seems like it was written by Joseph Smith, that it's a made-up book, more like a novel. But how is that different than the Bible? That's a written book that individuals collaborated on, so whether you believe it was divinely inspired or not, some people treat it as a novel. Although it does a better and better job of being a novel as it goes on, in terms of narrative complexity. By the time you get to Joseph and his brothers, the storytelling is as nuanced as any movie or Broadway play. Part of that is how women come out from the shadows.

You say women invented the guilt trip.
I think they did, as far as we can tell from Biblical history! [Laughs.] It sure worked better than male posturing. All we can do is stand up and yell. But Rebekah says, "If you don't find the right wife, my life won't be worth living." It's a Philip Roth novel. And Jacob's status as the head of Israel has absolutely everything to do with his mother's cunning. He would have lost that sibling competition otherwise. Except for Joseph, the women make the more memorable characters. Adam was the dullest. He makes no real decisions except to do what his wife did, and the men are a lot like this afterward. So I did see the ways in which those Biblical writers started dismissing and marginalizing women but were then overwhelmed by their complexity and forced to acknowledge their existence.

Which character deserves a breakout film?
Abraham. All these religions [Christianity, Judaism, Islam] come back to him because he's the first human being to get God's attention. He's the first human being to tell God what to do: "Can you hold off on destroying Sodom? You're better than that, man." And God listens! There are all these indications that they did a lot of things together. It's almost a love story.

It's a bromance.
Yes, exactly. It's the first human being God fell in love with. What exactly did Abraham do to become the leader of God's entourage? It's not exactly clear, but it's striking that he did. So Abraham, closely followed by God himself. God is a freaking character, with enough foibles, tantrums, and paradoxical behaviors to supply a thousand screenplays. But who do you cast?

Morgan Freeman's already played Him. So has Alanis Morissette. Even your pal Val Kilmer.
I'll have to talk to Val about that! God would have to be played by three people. One who is the majestic, trumpet-blowing cloud-master; one who says farewell to Abraham and trudges off in the desert; and someone very Jewish, very neurotic, like Alan Arkin in his prime. But I think we grant too much intelligence and acumen to God. He didn't go to school. He isn't a very finished character. And He has impulse-control problems, and you can never quite figure out what he's jealous of. He's got no real competition, so I don't get it — those Egyptian cult figures roused his spirit, but when you've created the world, you can rest on your laurels. He's protecting his turf even from his own children!

You were wondering on Twitter what the meaning of "douche bag" is, and you were worried you might qualify. Did you find out?
Is it the same thing as when a man is referred to as a dick? I was worried that it might have to do with the way you're dressed. Like, if I'm in cowboy boots and sunglasses, I might be one?

I don't think it's purely the way you're dressed. I could be wrong, but I think it has more to do with self-absorbed behavior.
And not just general self-presentation? I think it's one of those words women have mastered among themselves that men are slightly puzzled by. Perhaps it describes a contemporary situation in which women have helped dispense with chivalry but are finding men who don't even have common courtesy? "Douche bag" may be representative of men who've lost chivalry in a post-feminist era and not replaced it with even decency. I'm really interested in the taxonomy of dismissive categories and the whole range of epithets that can be applied to women you're upset with: "bitch," "cunt," whatever. And each micro-generation, one comes to the floor as the composite objection. With guys, we had the "asshole," "prick," dick," and now we've got "douche bag." These things change ever so slightly, and this word is really answering some urgent need. I wrote a long essay about the use of "cunt" for GQ, and I've never gotten more grief than anything else I ever wrote. I was trying to understand its function as a word used in arguments and what made it particularly potent. It's a word you can only use once with a woman — it's a nuclear option.

But what distinguishes a douche bag from a sociopath? And how did that item become the totem? Louis C.K. says, "Suck the bag of dicks," and then I try to imagine the bag of dicks. And when people say "douche bag," I remember the old Massengill commercials and how they would beat around the bush about what it was. I had a fairly decorous mother and only brothers, so I was trying to figure out what things were. I asked my mom, "What is perspiration odor?" And she said, "It doesn't exist. They made it up." I took that for gospel for so long. Even if I saw Massengill boxes in bathrooms, they didn't go into depth about what they were, so I couldn't figure it out as a boy. But I started to think a douche were the guys who were postured in outdated, machismo ways, with sunglasses and sports cars and leather jackets, and I wondered if I was guilty of that, if people said that behind my back. I got paranoid! Like if you drive a Porsche Panamera, black with the dark windows — somebody said, "Only douche bags drive those." There are some insults people use about themselves — "I'm such a bastard." But no one calls themselves a douche bag, do they? So who do you think is going to win at the Oscars?

Zero Dark Thirty. Or at least I'm hoping that one will win.
But it's alienating. When Up in the Air was an Oscar candidate, I got to see how it works, and movies become placeholders for social issues. The vote for a film becomes a proxy vote for some set of virtues that are seen as particularly vital that year, and The Hurt Locker won that year. It wasn't a film that was widely seen at the time, and I didn't think it was a terrific movie — it bored me a little bit — but what seemed to win was Hollywood's guilt over having not paid proper attention to the Iraq War, our long national agony. Plus, it was directed by a female director, Kathryn Bigelow. To me, the movies that win have social dimensions that are ultimately noncontroversial.

But Up in the Air also had social relevance — it dealt with job loss in the recession.
The country didn't want to face it yet. This is how absurd it gets with Up in the Air — they wanted to hire a plane and fly all these unemployed people to Hollywood for a free vacation as a publicity stunt. That is the stupidest fucking thing I've ever heard — the most patronizing, tone-deaf thing of all time. Everyone thought the recovery would end soon. Jason Reitman was even asking, "Do you think by the fall ... ?" No one thought the recession would still be operative years later. And George Clooney couldn't win because he just looked like George Clooney with a briefcase. There was no stoop, not a lot of makeup, and they like to see the difference between the actor in character and the actor in People magazine. There's nothing they admire more than gaining, or losing, a ton of weight.

So what do you think will happen?
They can give Zero Dark Thirty Best Screenplay, which nods at its artistic integrity without endorsing it in a wider way, but there's a real fear that the movie is attached to a controversy that is embarrassing, and that might sink it. And a vote for Lincoln is a proxy vote for Obama and social reconciliation. There's some kind of Obama-Lincoln connection, so that's the one you vote for when you can't decide. But I knew Django Unchained didn't have a prayer as soon as that school shooting happened. They're not going to celebrate ultra violence this year. Ain't going to happen. When I saw Jamie Foxx immediately come out against violence in schools, I thought, That's total Oscar bullshit. They are spinning this, trying to sterilize it from charges of being part of the problem. It's so obvious to me.

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