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Sex, Rock, Film and Politics at the LAT Fest of Books

Unknown I spent much of the weekend flitting about the fragrant UCLA campus for the annual Festival of Books. The fur flew at the most entertaining panel, "Pushing the Envelope," moderated by novelist Diana Wagman (Bump), who seemed scared of her fellow panelists, including the laconic Dennis Cooper (The Sluts), the affable Susie Bright (The Best American Erotica), the intensely beautiful Karen Finley (George and Martha) and funny late-night talkshow host Craig Ferguson (Between the Bridge and the River), who was eager to make clear how much of a fish-out-of-water he was on this panel.

When asked if she wrote with the intent to offend, Bright said, "If you want to dig at the truth or feel angry about something you feel compelled to stop pussy-footing around." She sees a recent trend in erotica submissions featuring older men coupling with much younger women, exemplified by Gabriel Garcia Marquez's most recent hero bedding a 14-year-old virgin on his 90th birthday.

With George and Martha, Finley said, she included illustrations showing George W. Bush and Martha Stewart having sex. "For me it's powerful to imagine the sexual politics of George Bush. I imagine I'm holding George's balls."

"The politics of this country allowed me to write this book," countered Ferguson, who hails from Scotland. "I did not set out with the intent to offend anyone. I've noticed that that being authentic to myself seems to offend everyone. That's too fuckin' bad. I'm too old and too rich to give a damn."

Finley admitted to being inspired by 1963's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf. "I tried to understand George's psychotic psychology in his decision-making and how we are all George and Martha now living in a time of crisis, to have a Greek or Shakespearean understanding of where we are in this drama," she said. "There's lots of ways to penetrate the soul."

The American culture is taught that if you buy the next thing, "the dildo carrot," said Bright, "you will have sex. But no one ever gets sex."

At this point Ferguson said, "I think I'm on the wrong panel. I have a lot of sex. Sometimes with other people. I did not set out to write about sex. I couldn't help myself. Sex has a great polemic. It exists between me and women. It's the only thing we share 100 %. There's a great liberation to American sex. There are many places in the world where this discussion is prohibited."

Enraged, Finley retorted, "In history where sex has become polemical, the government will use sex to limit and censor people. Right now sexual torture is used by our government."

Ferguson responded, "I write about consensual sex, it's wonderful. Brutalization is not sex, it's violence."

Cooper added that his books are about fantasy, not about sex. Critic David Ehrenstein asked Cooper about his long relationship with the notorious fantasy writer J.T. Leroy. "Did she rip you off?" he asked. "He called me up in the 90s," said Cooper. "We became friends. The boy published two novels that were successful. But it was not J.T. It was Laura Albert doing a hoax. I was shocked. We talked every day on the phone for five years. I started the whole thing. It turned out that the J.T. Leroy persona was based on my books. What she did was a performance art piece. We're living in a country where we are lied to every day, but we can't do anything about it. What Laura Albert did was like Karl Rove, she used literary integrity and honesty as a way to push the truth. She should not be a celebrity. She's a liar and a greedy pig."

THE LAT's David Ulin did a graceful job of interviewing the birdlike Joan Didion at Royce Hall, which was packed to the rafters. Of her screenwriting with her late partner John Gregory Dunne (The Studio), she said, "screenwriting for us was an interesting fun collaborative act that supported us," she said. "From screenplays I learned technically how to do big scenes, set pieces. It's not exactly like writing books. There's no ego invested. It's not going to be yours, it's somebody else's. The screenplay that I loved, the studio couldn't believe I had done: The Ice Queen. I was crazy about this screenplay. Screenwriting was great entertainment. One whole summer we did one night stands with rock bands." Didion is now enjoying working on a one-woman stage show of her bestselling memoir The Year of Magical Thinking. It's her first play. "I hardly go to the theater," she said. She is looking forward to returning to the real world. "I haven't engaged in the culture in the past year or two. I want to get back to that."

Later that day at the packed Royce Hall an adoring Arianna Huffington engaged witty historian Gore Vidal, who sat in a wheelchair. She called him "the conscience of America right now." Vidal described how he was "marinated in politics" as a young Senate page who read to his grandfather, a blind Senator from Oklahoma. "One thing about being a Washington kid is you are not impressed by any of these people...to talk about this administration is almost too sad for words. It's made me a creationist. Here I am a born-again atheist. From George Washington to George W. Bush makes a monkey out of Darwin...It will take two generations to recover from what he's done to us..he's president Jonah. He's plainly jinxed. ..It's looney tunes. It's humiliating, here we were the number one global power on earth. Suddenly we have this embarrassment. ..The Republic is a good thing as long as elections aren't stolen. Benjamin Franklin said, 'in time all republics grow corrupt and turn to tyranny.'"

Vidal says that the majority of the American people are always against foreign wars. "I put it down to the corruption of the media, which is owned by corporate America for its own wicked ends--to make money. We could make ethanol. The cost of fuel will be the next issue. Not immigration. We'll have to transfer over to another form of power."

The Republicans "get us to vote against our own interests every time," he said. "People are shrewd about their own business, but they are full of nonsense put in their heads by talk shows." Vidal also criticized the NYT: "They don't question power unless the roof is falling in," he said. "And the Washington Post is a court circular." He said that he had counseled Hilary Clinton to run for a Senate seat in her home state of Illinois instead of New York, where there are too many lobbyists.

About Al Gore, his cousin: "He's very intelligent, which is such a novelty after what we've had. One of the more important current wars is going to be the environment. That's where Albert is number one."

"It is not our task to regime change anybody but ourselves."

The panel "Fertile Ground: Building a Creative Community," moderated by Richard Rayner, featured Aussie expatriot and Kubrick biographer John Baxter, who said his French wife pushed him to write a bio about Federico Fellini. When he arrived in the great auteur's hometown, Rimini, Baxter recalled, the first woman he was introduced to was Fellini's sister. And so he was on his way.

L.A.'s charming Carolyn See (the must-read Making a Literary Life) admitted that after two husbands who didn't support her writing, her third was the charm. Something was going right when her spouse woke up in the morning and made his side of the bed, and actually made her coffee.

Family was also everything for the gaggle of musicians who began hanging out at Mama Cass Elliot's salon on Woodrow Wilson Drive in Laurel Canyon, said Michael Walker, author of the upcoming Laurel Canyon. (He'll be signing copies at Book Soup on May 18.) He talked of the music refugees from the 60s folk scene in New York. Cass was "the doyenne, the den mother, defacto talent scout and manager," he said. Graham Nash wrote Our House as "an instruction manual for non-traditional nurturing," at his and Joni Mitchell's log cabin on Lookout Mountain. One cloudy morning they came back from Art's Deli on Ventura with an antique vase and Nash said, "I'll light the fire, you put the flowers in the vase that you bought today." Then he sat down and in an hour wrote the song soon-to-be-made famous by Crosby, Stills and Nash, who were introduced to each other by...Mama Cass. The cozy Laurel Canyon family feeling went away, said Walker, "as the people got more successful and the drugs got harder."

I ran into Peter Biskind in the authors' lounge, who said he was still plugging away on his Warren Beatty book. He participated in a Sunday film panel about indie outsiders with LAT critic Ken Turan and Schreiber Theory author David Kipen, who got applause when he said, "There's nothing wrong with Sundance that moving to Playa del Rey wouldn't cure." He also blamed the foreign market for what was wrong with movies today--making films about the American experience is no longer possible, he said. "Politics is out, and baseball." Biskind cited Syriana and other recent political fare as the counter-argument. "Small movies are being made," he said. Brokeback Mountain cost $14 million and easily made its money back in ancillaries. Turan pointed out that "absent the studio specialty divisions, we would not be seeing these films."

Great fun. On my way out I bought two books at the Book Soup tent, a fantasy and a non-fiction psychology book. Enough already.

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