Sunday, March 8, 2015

Dave Carr and The Sweet Spot

A few weeks ago, Dave Carr's death left a giant gap in the world of journalism. Gone was this bony, scratchy-voiced, witty, no-nonsense media presence who made the cut-throat, often intimidating world of news production seem like a fun, delightful, and even comforting place. I call it a gap because while another may fill his position, the sheer aura of his presence is irreplaceable. 

His success at the New York Times, where he was employed from 2002 till his death, seemed almost inexplicable. How did this lovable goofball with a severe history of substance abuse suddenly find himself at one of the world's most prestigious news publications so late in the game (he was in his late forties when he joined the paper)? Having not worked at the Times (smile) or any newspaper publication for that matter, I can't quite say what made Carr's presence so invaluable in the newsroom. But I can guess. Besides the fact that he was a hard-nosed, intrepid reporter and a good writer, Carr seemed to exude-almost simultaneously-a causal, funny demeanor and a shrewd work ethic that would not tolerate negligence or laziness. He never seemed to take himself too seriously, but he took his work dead-seriously, and from my surmising this is what made him such a valuable and beloved member of the American media. 

Besides the written pieces available to us, as well as his 2008 memoir The Night of the Gun, perhaps the best access we have to Carr's enduring and endearing persona is a weekly series he did with the Times' film critic AO Scott called The Sweet Spot. It was a simple concept in which the two would meet during breaks or off hours in the Times' cafeteria and discuss aspects of American/world culture in both a light-hearted and serious-minded manner. In other words, they took topics worthy of discussion and presented them in ways that were casual enough to be wholly entertaining while also touching on the important ideas that made such topics worth discussing in the first place. In a way it was a perfect outlet for Carr in that it encapsulated that aforementioned twofold strategy with which he went about presenting himself. He wanted to find a place for serious contemplation while also acknowledging the utter joy of simply gathering and conveying information and communicating with another human being. Talking with others can be fun and informative, seemed to be almost a mantra Carr lived by. It sounds cliche, but, given his rough background and the wonderful redemptive aspect of his success, you can't help but take it seriously. 

Nearly all of the Sweet Spot videos I've watched have been entertaining and, usually, enlightening. They're the perfect videos to watch when you hit Starbucks for your morning coffee, have ten minutes to spare before you have to be at work, and feel you might as well spend that time doing something other than just sitting there. I'm the perfect case in point. My Friday 1PM class was canceled because my professor, who had been in New York the entire week, was delayed yet another day because of some fierce snowstorms. Normally when that class ends on Friday I rush off to the train and arrive in Dallas at 2:58 with only a few minutes before my 3:00 shift starts. But because the cancelation, I was able to leisurely head to the train and catch an early ride with a good hour to spend in the city before I had to commit to the drudges of the workday. So I hit up a coffee shop, got a drink, opened my laptop, and started watching Sweet Spot videos. This was the day after Carr died.

One of the best is their discussion of Lincoln. It begins with Carr and Scott sitting at a table and talking about how the hour grows late and soon the twinkling of city lights will be around them. Normally it's broad daylight when they record the videos, but this one must have been done at end of the workday. The late hour gives Carr a perfect segue into the discussion of Spielberg's 2012 historical drama of our 16th president: "speaking of dark, I spent a week last night watching Lincoln last night." Carr's central complaint about the film is that it's too slow. Criticizing Scott for naming it the second best movie ("not second best history lesson, second best attempt to codify an important epoch, but second best movie") of the year, he establishes that for him in a movie he wants a rollicking tale to unfold. He develops his argument by comparing the film's opening Civil War battle footage to the opening of Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan, another movie, that to Carr, did a good job with the history but a bad job entertaining the viewer. Right away one gathers where Carr's priorities are with cinema: he recognizes when something is good, but if he's not having a fun time with it, he's not going to be happy. In many ways Carr is a representative of the common moviegoer, someone who doesn't mind if something is challenging or entertaining as long as they aren't checking their watches to see when they get to leave. Scott, on the other hand, is the antithesis, an highly academic film critic who called Amour, that interminable foreign movie about old people and death, an even better picture than Lincoln. 

This doesn't allow for too much deep analysis of the subject, but it does provide a very funny and entertaining dichotomy that ultimately seems to be one of main ideas behind The Sweet Spot. What also makes it such an enjoyable program is that these guys seem to just really enjoy talking to each other.

Carr goes on to call Spielberg a "bit of a gasbag," before offering one of his funniest complaints: "It ended five times, or four--I lost count. I don't know how many times I put on my coat to go and then had to take it back off." Asking for a defense of this problem, Scott says that he liked the multiple endings, and "if you keep going, you'll get to us." Not a terribly deep thought, and he doesn't expound on just what he means, but it's just interesting enough to give the viewer a little something to chew on. That's what The Sweet Spot is: it's like Scott and Carr are in that coffee shop and we're just eavesdropping on two friends having a friendly, casually intellectual discussion of the things they care about.

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