Weekend Reading

Praxis, Rutters, Dead Hedgehogs, and the Third Dimension

Enjoy the city’s best weather of the year with works by Ali Breland, Dan Xin Huang, Philip Larkin, and Film Forum

“A Peter Thiel-Linked Startup Is Courting New York Scenesters and Plotting a Libertarian Paradise” by Ali Breland in Mother Jones
‘The Praxis Society envisions a Mediterranean enclave — with just the Right kind of people’

Ali Breland hadn’t been reporting for long on Praxis, a startup planning to build a libertarian city-state on the Mediterranean, when he realized he had competition: Other reporters were on the story, too. “It didn’t feel great to be stressed out about that,” he told The Fine Print. “Half the time you talked to someone, they’d be like, ‘I’ve spoken to someone about this.’ Either they’d directly name them or they would just allude to having been hit up by a lot of people without specifying any further.” He and his editor at Mother Jones, Clint Hendler, realized they were in a race to publish. “We did the exact same process that we would have done over the course of more time but condensed into a month or so,” Breland said. “I did 4,000 words in three or four days. I just canceled all my plans for the weekend and got that all done.” He crawled into a writing and reporting hole. “There was a week and a half where I didn’t go to the office because I wanted extra time by having less commute time,” he said. “So I didn’t take the subway for a week and a half or see anyone besides people I was ordering food from or people at coffee shops.”

In some ways, it was an odd story to have reporters getting competitive over. “Some of my friends definitely did make fun of me,” Breland said. “They were like, ‘Why do we have multiple reporters on this absurd story when there’s all these other atrocities going on?’ Which I do get, but I think there’s value in the story.” He’d been hearing about Praxis for a while, and his brother had applied to work there but pulled out of the hiring process. The way Praxis was drawing in support from the downtown scene for a broadly political project funded by Peter Thiel and his friends reminded him of Joe Bernstein’s 2022 BuzzFeed News story about a Thiel-backed “anti-woke” film festival. “I wanted to understand if this was another vector for Silicon Valley people to try to intercede or influence culture or have some say or stake in it. Because it feels like they do have a cultural agenda — not just people involved in this, but people like [Silicon Valley venture capitalist] Marc Andreessen — but they can’t figure out how to make it work outside of the Valley,” he said. “I was like, ‘Maybe this is the first time they’ve actually figured it out.’”

To find out more, Breland started attending Praxis events. “The party they had in Midtown, I didn’t really need to identify myself. I did try to identify myself in their online form and RSVP,” he said. “Either way, no one checked my name at the door. And then [at] the open house I went to, I fully identified myself and I guess no one googled me any further.” Reporting at parties was new for him. “Going to parties and talking to people that way was something I’ve never really quite done before,” he said. “Not just Praxis events but also adjacent parties where I was able to talk to people who helped me, like [Neoliberalhell podcast co-host] Matthew J. Donovan. He’s someone I know and he’s a friend. Seeing him at parties, Praxis came up and he was able to tell me things that he’d come across and observed. Even though I texted him, we might not have had that conversation or I might not have known that had I not seen him at different downtown things.”

Explaining some elements of the scene Praxis has infiltrated to Mother Jones readers was complicated enough that Breland simply elided them. He named certain people, like Red Scare co-host Dasha Nekrasova, who attended a banquet for Praxis, but not others. “Dean Kissick was also at that banquet. We just cut him out because I don’t think a Mother Jones reader, for the most part, knows or cares about who Dean Kissick is,” he said, referring to the ubiquitous downtown art critic, curator, and Vital Moments recurring character. “The specific names mostly ended up getting left out, except for the ones that people might recognize or have an easier time googling. I think if you google Dean Kissick, it wouldn’t make sense to you if you were a 45-year-old living in Minneapolis.” (Or, to be fair, even a 38-year-old living in Brooklyn.)

Breland also dug into LexisNexis to learn more about Praxis’s property holdings and its co-founder and CEO Dryden Brown. “It ended up being useful to dig deeply into Praxis’s rough real estate situation, figuring out what was where and what they had,” he said. “There were things we ended up not putting into story because we wanted further verification, but if I wanted to go further, there were things in Nexis that helped me understand Brown’s background. We put in this childhood home, but I was also able to figure out to some degree who his parents were and get a sense of what he might be an heir to. I don’t want to say because I’m not 100 percent certain.”

Now that the story’s published, Breland’s taking the chance to detox. “I’m doing the least scene thing possible. I’m going upstate with some friends who are very much not in this world,” he said. “One of them is a doctor from Philadelphia who’s extremely offline and has no idea about any of this.”

“The Rutters of Athens County” by Dan Xin Huang in New York
‘An Appalachian school district’s daring experiment in economic integration’

Growing up in Athens County, Ohio, Dan Xin Huang didn’t obsess over the extreme class divisions around him. “As a teenager, you just accept that things are the way that they are. You’re not thinking critically about it. You’re just trying to do what it takes to get by socially, academically, all the rest of it,” he told The Fine Print. “But ‘Rutters’ was a term that we were all familiar with.” As he writes in his piece, the designation was taken from an old coal-mining family name and eventually applied to the kind of “kids who packed snuff in their lips and skipped class to go hunting. They smelled of fire pits, box dye, and the last cigarette they smoked, sucked down before the bell… an underclass distinct enough to spawn its own name.”

“It was something that me and all of my friends, all of my classmates, even some of the teachers — it was the air you breathed, it was part of the environment,” Huang said. It wasn’t until 2016 that Huang realized how rotten that was. “After the Trump election, I think for all of us, the really big thing was, ‘Wow, we live in a very divided country.’ That was when that idea really hit the mainstream,” he said. “It occurred to me that I’d grown up seeing that all along.” At the time, he was a finance reporter at The Wall Street Journal. “I studied finance in college, and I really was pretty lucky to get that job out of college,” he said. “But when you’re coming into work, and you’re writing about how many points the Dow Jones went up, or the S&P went up, and you do that for months and months and months, I definitely felt like I would have loved to be telling more human stories.”

Huang left The Journal at the end of 2016, knowing he wanted to tell the story of Athens County’s attempt to reorganize its schools to remove their built-in geographic class segregation. He thought then that he’d be able to turn it around relatively quickly. “It was something that was going to take four to six months. That was the plan as I conceived it at the start and it didn’t go according to that plan, obviously,” he said, having finally published the piece after almost seven years of work. The process in town took much longer to unfold than expected, and Huang struggled to sell the story. “The feedback that I got early on from editors that I’d pitched out to was that it was a story that needed an ending,” he said.

So Huang kept reporting on his own, following the story while handling the other responsibilities in a freelancer’s life. “I tried to be a little bit responsible about leaving The Journal and leaving a full-time job, so I had some money in savings, but at a certain point, you also have to start rotating and taking on different projects,” he said. “A lot of the middle years, it was a matter of balancing — let me complete this assignment, let me finish this other project, and then let me turn back to Athens and see if there’s an opportunity to pitch it out again and get it caught up.”

In 2020, Huang was named a runner-up for the Matthew Power Literary Reporting Award, which funded his continuing work on the story. After three years of working on it on his own, it also made the project feel a little more real. “This thing at that point had just lived in my head and had lived in a bunch of notes that I had on my computer,” he said. “Knowing that there were other journalists and editors who found value in the work and were interested in seeing something come out of it was really encouraging.” One of the committee members for the award, Chris Cox, became his editor at New York.

By that time, Huang already had a very, very long draft. “I heard so many perspectives at what I felt to be a pretty deep level,” he said. “You reach out saying, ‘Hey, it’d be great to hear your thoughts about this debate that the town is having over what to do with the elementary schools.’ Because you’re talking about schools, at least in a place like Athens, and, really, I’d say pretty much everywhere, you’re also having a conversation about class. It very quickly got to these deeper levels, where people were sharing their own experiences growing up, or things that they’d seen, things that they’d heard, and how they felt about these big issues.”

Huang worked with Cox to streamline the material into a tight narrative but never lost the sense that those experiences of class discrimination were at its heart. Tammy Hogsett, a member of the Rutter family whose name had been twisted into the local slur, gave Huang one of the story’s most poignant moments. “Getting to meet Tammy felt like an absolute breakthrough,” he said. “I just felt so grateful for being able to connect with her.” The repugnant harnessing of their surname imposed an unconquerable shame on members of Hogsett’s family. “One winter, the family’s concrete business was struggling and Hogsett’s parents had to fill the gap with food stamps,” Huang writes. “Her mother refused to enter any of the local stores, so for months the kids packed tight into the backseat for the hourlong drive to Vienna, West Virginia, where no one would recognize them.” Her mother, he concludes, “always felt the eyes of the world on her.”

“Larkin the Librarian,” Tiny In All That Air
‘This is the podcast for anyone who is interested in Philip Larkin’

In 1979, Philip Larkin drafted a short, melancholy poem about a sin committed with a lawnmower:

The mower stalled, twice; kneeling, I found
A hedgehog jammed up against the blades,
Killed. It had been in the long grass.

I had seen it before, and even fed it, once.
Now I had mauled its unobtrusive world
Unmendably. Burial was no help:

Next morning I got up and it did not.
The first day after a death, the new absence
Is always the same; we should be careful

Of each other, we should be kind
While there is still time.

On the latest episode of the Philip Larkin Society’s podcast, Chris Fletcher, keeper of special collections at Oxford’s Bodleian Library and a trustee of the Larkin Society, describes the less-than-contemplative circumstances that gave rise to the poem. “That was written in the middle of his furious correspondence with the East Yorkshire Mower Company,” he explains. “I did some work with colleagues at Hull and found this incredible 17-month-long correspondence from 1979 between Philip Larkin and the East Yorkshire Mower Company. Larkin gets increasingly tetchy. He’s furious the mower won’t work properly. The shop owner comes back at him and says, ‘You’re not doing it right. You’re mowing when the grass is too long. You’re mowing when it’s wet.’ Larkin starts actually keeping a record of telephone conversations on library overdue slips. So it became a total obsession for him.”

Fletcher found the correspondence while assembling an exhibit on writers and gardens for The British Library in 2004. “I knew, of course, the poem ‘The Mower’ and also had always been amused by Larkin’s love-hate relationship with gardening. He would put on a D.H. Lawrence T-shirt to go out and tackle the lawn. So, I thought I must have some Larkin in the exhibition and do something around the poem,” he says. “I found out that he had a number of different mowers and ended up actually borrowing from Hull his final mower, which was a blue Victa Power Plus 160cc two-stroke model that Monica Jones inherited and it then went to Hull. The mower in the poem ‘The Mower’ is actually an earlier machine, what was called a cylinder mower, as it could only be from the description in the poem.”

“I got too deeply into lawnmower history,” Fletcher admits. “I got in touch with a curator at the Lawnmower Museum called Brian Radam, who’s just the most incredible source of knowledge. And I haven’t been to that museum, but it’s absolutely at the top of my list.”

Hollywood’s First 3D Wave, 1953-1954, at Film Forum

‘In 1953, seventy years ago, 3D conquered Hollywood. After years of speculation and experimentation, stereoscopic movies finally caught fire, luring audiences away from their televisions.’

Film print abrasions in 3D read as unreal, flickering scratches of rain. They’re shockingly beautiful and only natural. There’s been plenty of time for the film to age: The first 3D screening in America took place in Times Square in 1915. But Hollywood didn’t take up the technology enthusiastically until the fifties. When they finally caught on, they went all out — for a couple of years until the novelty wore off. Film Forum, in association with The 3D Film Archive, is screening films from that short-lived wave, including Vincent Price’s masterwork House of Wax and Alfred Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder, in a series currently set to run through November. Despite the inconvenient time slots the theater has assigned many of the films, it’d be a shame to squander this chance to step into another time in 3D.

1953’s I, the Jury, starring the immaculately christened Biff Elliot as Mickey Spillane’s cartoonishly violent private detective Mike Hammer, was screened twice in the series. The film features plenty of noir tropes — Hammer is the archetypical mid-century lug confronting a psychoanalyst femme fatale — though, in terms of genre, it’s closer to a policier. Still, it’s wild to see classic fifties noir lighting, with its stark, meticulously thrown shadows, in a newly restored 3D print. And it’s not as glum as lesser noirs could be when the filmmakers got complacent. At one of the Film Forum screenings, Hammer’s casual sluggings were met with grim laughter, and stricken giggles filled the theater whenever someone pointed a long 3D gun barrel at the audience. It’s a fun, surprisingly well-executed movie, but not quite as good as Mike Hammer’s best cinematic outing, 1955’s Kiss Me Deadly, with its insurmountable great big whatzit. Then again, that one wasn’t in 3D.

Last Monday, Film Forum played a compilation of 3D rarities introduced by 3D Film Archive founder and president Bob Furmanek. The program included clips and shorts shot more than a century ago. “The first one is Kelley’s Plasticon Pictures from 1922. It’s footage shot in Washington and a few brief shots of New York City, so don’t blink, you want to see Times Square in 3D from that period,” Furmanek said in his introduction. The next film, from 1935, took the audience on a ride on Coney Island’s long-gone Thunderbolt roller coaster. Later, a stop-motion short captured the assembly of a Plymouth sedan. “This is not a miniature, this is a full-size car. It’s quite a remarkable piece of animation,” Furmanek said. “By the time it finished its run at the New York World’s Fair in October 1940, it was seen by four and a half million people.” Other highlights included a trailer for 1953’s Miss Sadie Thompson featuring Rita Hayworth dancing, a poetic antinuclear short from the same year called Doom Town, and Casper the Friendly Ghost in 1954’s Boo Moon.

One of the clips Furmanek included was of actor Lloyd Nolan introducing he first-ever color 3D feature film, Bwana Devil. As Furmanek explained, it’s what was showing in J.R. Eyerman’s iconic Life photo of a fifties audience wearing bulky 3D glasses shot at the film’s Hollywood 1952 premiere and gone on to appear, among other places, on the cover of Guy Debord’s situationist touchstone The Society of the Spectacle. Acting as a sort of spokesperson for 3D, Nolan tells the audience, “I feel very privileged that I’m about to become the first actor ever to appear before the public in Natural Vision 3-Dimension,” before the film flips into the third dimension. “Now, I assume that you all have your magic glasses on — they really are magic — and that you have them on straight.”