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Other segments from the episode on February 20, 1998

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, February 20, 1998: Interview with Temple Grandin; Interview with John Kander; Review of the film "Palmetto."


Date: FEBRUARY 20, 1998
Time: 12:00
Tran: 022001NP.217
Head: Thinking in Pictures
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:06

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

On this archive edition, we have an interview with Temple Grandin. She's autistic. Neurologist Oliver Sacks, who profiled her in his book "An Anthropologist on Mars," described her as one of the most remarkable autistic people of all.

In spite of her autism, she holds a Ph.D. in animal science, teaches at Colorado State University, and runs her own business. She's worked for many livestock companies, designing humane restraining systems for handling cattle and hogs on ranches and for veterinary procedures and slaughter.

One-third of the cattle and hogs in the U.S. are handled in equipment she designed. Her drawings, as well as two chairs she co-designed with an artist, are currently on display at MIT, where she will speak next Thursday.

I spoke with her in 1995 after the publication of her book "Thinking in Pictures and Other Reports from My Life with Autism."

Autism is a condition of aloneness. Most autistics shut out anything from the outside and insist on sameness and repetition in all their movements. Dr. Sacks says Grandin's story shows there are forms of autism which don't incapacitate in the expected ways. Grandin owes much of her success to her ability to think in pictures.

TEMPLE GRANDIN, AUTHOR, "THINKING IN PICTURES AND OTHER REPORTS FROM MY LIFE WITH AUTISM," LIVESTOCK FACILITIES DESIGNER, INSTRUCTOR, COLORADO STATE UNIVERSITY: I think totally visually. All of my thoughts are like videotapes playing on a VCR in my head. When I design livestock handling equipment, I can test run the system in my head.

It was easy for me to figure out how animals think and how animals would react because I think visually. Animals don't think in language, they think in pictures. It's very easy for me to imagine what would it be like to go through a system if you really were a cow, not a person in a cow costume, but really were a cow.

And autistic senses and emotions are more like the senses of an animal. My nervous system was hyper-vigilant. Any little thing out of place, like a water stain on the ceiling, that would set off a panic reaction.

And cattle are scared of the same thing. They're scared of things like high-pitched noise, sudden clanging and banging, sudden movement, maybe even a little chain that hangs down in the chute and jiggles, because it looks out of place. And things that are out of place can mean danger out in the wild.

GROSS: Though like most autistic people, you don't really like to be hugged or touched by other people, but you found a way of getting that comforting, secure feeling from a machine that you designed.

GRANDIN: That's right.

GROSS: You call it a squeeze machine. Some people have called it a hug machine. Would you describe what the machine does?

GRANDIN: Well, I can get in it and I -- it's made with foam rubber padded sides on it. And I can apply pressure to myself.

See, when I was a little kid, I wanted to feel a nice feeling of being hugged, but the stimulation was too overwhelming, my overly sensitive nervous system just couldn't tolerate it. You know, I got an engulfing tidal wave of stimulation just pouring over me.

And when I got into puberty, I started having horrible anxiety attacks. And I found that pressure calmed it. So, I built this device I could get into that would apply pressure that would calm down my nervous system. Many autistic children seek pressure, they'll get under mattresses, they'll get under sofa cushions.

And at first I would tend to just pull away from the device, but then gradually I got to where I could tolerate more and more, you know, being touched. And now I'm -- you know, much more desensitized and can tolerate it.

GROSS: So, how often do you use that machine now?

GRANDIN: Oh, I will -- oh, sometimes once a week. Now that I'm traveling on the road, I hardly ever get a chance to use it.

GROSS: So, how does it make you feel when you use it?

GRANDIN: Well, it makes me feel very relaxed. It makes me feel gentler.

I think that, you know, little babies need to feel the feeling of being held in order to, you know, develop empathy. I've found that my empathy with the cattle got much deeper when I actually started touching the animals. I found when I touched the animals, you know, I could calm them down.

GROSS: If somebody were to hug you now, would you feel as overwhelmed and uncomfortable and afraid as you did when you were young?

GRANDIN: Oh, no, no, no, no, no, no. Now, I actually like it when people hug me.

You know, sensory over-sensitivities can be desensitized. There are a lot of little autistic kids that pull away and they don't want to be touched. But then you gradually work on touching them.

It's sort of like taming a wild animal. At first, the wild animal pulls away. But then after you work on touching it, then a stimulus that was at first overwhelming becomes something that the animal will like.

And firm touch is calming and very light touch sets off a fear reaction. Also, steady pressure is calming and sudden, jerky motion causes agitation and excitement.

And the same thing's true with animals, because I've designed a lot of systems for holding animals. In fact, one-third of all the cattle in this country, when they go to a meat-processing plant, are held in a device I designed.

And I've found that you have to have just the right amount of pressure. You hold the animal too tight, it hurts and they fights it. If you don't hold him tight enough, he doesn't feel held and he fights it. There's an optimal amount of pressure. Also, slow, steady pressure is calming, and if you do it too quickly the animal will get excited.

GROSS: Is the hug machine that you created for yourself based on cattle restraint devices that you had seen?

GRANDIN: Well, yes. 'Cause when I was 18 years old, I had a constant state of anxiety all the time. It was like panic attacks. I felt like first radio interview nerves all the time for absolutely no reason. You know, I was in complete nervous system flight, you know, as if a lion was stalking around, you know, ready to get me. And I was desperate to get relief.

And I watched when the cattle went in the squeeze shoot to hold them for their vaccinations, some of the animals would sort of just relax. So then I talked my aunt into letting me try it, and for about an hour afterwards I was a lot calmer.

In fact pressure is used by a lot of therapists with autistic children. They'll roll them up in mats. They'll get them onto bean bag chairs. And it helps to relax them and calm down the nervous system so it's easier to work on things like learning how to talk.

GROSS: So, your aunt had a cattle ranch?

GRANDIN: Yes, she did.

GROSS: So, after you realized how comforting the pressure of this restraining device could be, did that lead you to want to work with animals?

GRANDIN: Well, that's one of the things that got me interested. Because I started going out to the feed yards and watching how the cattle reacted.

And then I -- this was about 20 years ago -- and so I wanted to learn more about how the cattle reacted to things, so I got down into the chutes with my camera and took pictures through the chutes to get a cow's eye view.

And I began to see the sort of things that would bother the cattle -- a shadow, a little thread out of place, any little thing, a coat or hat hanging on the fence -- and see the things that would make them balk.

GROSS: Well, you've really devoted your life to creating more humane conditions for animals and more humane, pain-free ways of slaughtering them. Do you feel like you empathize with cattle?

GRANDIN: Well, I know how cattle feel. And a lot of people, you know, when they think about the slaughter plant, all they can think about is, well, the cattle have got to know they're being slaughtered. Well, the things that scare the cattle are not the same things that we worry about.

There's several slaughter plants in Colorado. I go, you know, visit them fairly often. And at one of them, the cattle don't like a little chain that's sometimes hanging down in the chute. They'll watch that little chain. I was at the plant one day and a train went rushing by, and the cattle were much more scared of the train then they were of going into the slaughter plant.

You've got to have proper lighting. They won't go in if they can't see. High pitched noise. Sometimes just changing the plumbing on the hydraulic system to get rid of high pitched noise will make the cattle go in much easier.

It's easy for me to figure out how the cattle think because they think the way I do. In fact, title of my book finally got made to be Thinking in Pictures, and that's the way animals think. They think in pictures.

GROSS: Tell us about one of the designs you came up with for a more humane slaughterhouse.

GRANDIN: Well, I've done a lot of work on putting in curved chute systems. And one of the reasons this works is because the cattle can't see people up ahead, they just sort of go round and round and round like the Guggenheim Museum.

And then I designed a device called the center track restrainer system and it replaced older-type conveyor systems and holds the cattle in a more comfortable manner. And they just follow through, they just keep following the animal in front of them, and they just go in there and they're shot and they don't know what's happened.

Also want to emphasize the importance of good management. You can have very good equipment in a slaughter plant, but you've got to have management to go along with it. The slaughter plant manager has got to control the behavior of his employees.

GROSS: When you're in a slaughterhouse, is the smell of blood and the sight of the cattle lining up on their way to slaughter, is that upsetting to you?

GRANDIN: Well, if things are going right and they're just walking in calmly, it's not upsetting.

You know, people forget, nature's very harsh. I mean when a lion rips apart -- rips apart an animal and just dines on it while the animal's still alive, that's not very nice for the animal. And, you know, if I was an animal, I think I'd rather go to a -- you know, a decent slaughter plant than have a lion dine on me while I'm still alive.

GROSS: You seem to really understand cattle and to be able to know what's going to disturb them and upset them. Do you feel you have the same insights about other people?

GRANDIN: Well, you know, it's easy to figure out cattle 'cause I think visually and I -- I -- my nervous system reacts the way cattle do. But there are a lot of, you know, social things that go on I just had to learn by, you know, rote memory.

I'd never realized how visual my thinking was until I started talking to other people about how they thought. I mean, I used to think everybody thought in videos. And now I've found out that some people think in words and just sort of vague pictures.

See, all of my thinking goes from specific to general. Like, for example, my concept of what a dog is is not a generalized concept, but I see a whole bunch of pictures in my mind of very specific dogs.

And I've actually, you know, tested people's visual thinking by saying, "access your memory on church steeples." And I deliberately picked that because it's something that's not in the room that they can see, it's not something they have at home. And most people just see sort of a vague, generalized picture. I see only specific ones, starting with very specific childhood memories and then very specific ones I saw maybe yesterday or last week.

And with specific-to-general thinking, you know, I have to just learn social skills by example. I have to learn social skills like a child would learn his school lessons. I'm sort of like Data on "Star Trek."

When I was in high school, I mean I just couldn't understand, you know, all why there was so much interest in things like jewelry and clothes. I mean, there was much more interesting stuff in Mr. Carlock's (ph) science lab.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Temple Grandin, and she is autistic. She is one of the nation's leading designers of restraints for cattle. She's very successful in that field.

You understand cattle so well. What do you find very mysterious about other people?

GRANDIN: Well, my emotions are not as complex. I have a difficult time understanding how somebody can be jealous and love somebody at the same time.

I definitely have emotions, but fear is one of my main emotions. And, of course, that's one of the main emotions of animals. They see a little chain or something jiggling or they see a shadow looks out of place, they get a fear reaction.

And I just don't -- it just isn't part of my experience to, like, swoon over some guy 'cause I think he's really cute. When I was in high school, my roommate would, like, practically faint on the floor when Bob the science teacher walked into the room. I mean I -- and she'd be swooning on the floor when she was watching the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan show. And I'd go, "yeah, they're cute, but I'm not gonna faint on the floor over it."

GROSS: Do you understand love?

GRANDIN: Well, I understand caring. And, see, most of my relationships are more intellect. I have a number of friends that I think I've been able to help them out, you know, on some counseling sort of things. And, to me love is caring.

In fact, my mother wrote one time that love was making something grow. I mean that's sort of the way I look at it, but it's more of an intellectual thing. And when I see people abuse cattle, it makes me very angry, and, you know, and I want to, you know, change things.

GROSS: Do you feel like you're missing out on something special by not being in love and not understanding that emotion?

GRANDIN: I'm missing out on some things, but I also have talents that other people don't have. I don't want to give up visual thinking.

In fact, Oliver Sacks asked me in his book Anthropologist on Mars, "if you could, you know, suddenly snap your fingers and not be autistic, would you do that?" And I'm, "no, I wouldn't." Because I don't want to give up visual thinking.

Visual thinking makes me a very clear thinking on -- in -- gives me very, very clear thinking in scientific and technical things. To me, a lot of the highly verbal thinkers are very fuzzy thinkers and they're not logical.

GROSS: My guest is Temple Grandin. We'll talk more about her experience of autism after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

Back to our interview with Temple Grandin. She's an autistic woman who's a very successful designer of humane restraining systems for cattle and hogs.

Children who are autistic often engage in very repetitive, obsessive behavior, like rocking back and forth or spinning. You did some of that when you were young.

GRANDIN: Very definitely. And the reason why autistic children engage in these behaviors is to block out stimuli that hurt. But the problem is, if you just let the child sit in a corner and rock, he's gonna end up sitting in a corner and rocking for the rest of his life. I cannot emphasize enough the importance of getting a child very early, when they're two and three and four years old, into a really good program.

OK, what is a good program? You need to spend a lot of hours a day just keeping that child engaged with the world.

In my case, I was very lucky and my mother really worked hard to get me a good education. At two and a half, I went into a speech therapy nursery school where we had a very structured day and I was not allowed to just tune out.

And then meals were structured, because I'm 48 years old and I lived at a time when you sat at the table and you were taught manners. And then, my mother had a nanny that would spend two or three hours a day with me just playing games, keeping me occupied so I couldn't tune out.

But then on the other hand, you've got to protect these children from certain sounds that hurt, like a smoke alarm, like certain telephones, the school bell. These sounds hurt like a dentist drill going down my ear. And I was scared to go into certain rooms because I didn't know when the bell was gonna go off. And the children have got to be protected from these sounds.

I had a mother call me up and she told me that her child was scared to death of church. He would go into the Sunday school, but he wouldn't go into the church. And the reason for this is that one day the microphone fed back and squealed and that hurt the child's ears. And he was afraid to go in there because he was afraid it would happen again.

GROSS: When you went to school as a girl, was it a public school?

GRANDIN: I went to a small private school. Now, I had two years of really intensive treatment and I was mainstreamed into a normal kindergarten at age five. But it was a very old-fashioned, highly structured kindergarten, there was only 12 children in the class, with an older, experienced teacher. There was no open classroom with kids running around doing all different sorts of things. Everybody did the same thing all at once.

GROSS: And I want to get back to the idea of spinning, that kind of obsess -- or rocking, that kind of obsessive behavior. You say that it helped you and helps a lot of like autistic people block out painful stimuli.

GRANDIN: Well, it helps you block out painful stimuli. But the problem is, if you let the child do it all day...

GROSS: That's all they'll do.

GRANDIN: That's all they'll do. Autism is a neurological disorder. Research done by Margaret Bowman (ph) in Boston shows very clearly that there's immature development in the limbic system of the brain and in the cerebellum, which is involved with balance and with sensory modulation.

GROSS: When I see somebody spinning or rocking obsessively, to me it looks like the behavior of someone who's incredibly frustrated and unhappy. Was there any sense of frustration when you would be rocking?

GRANDIN: Well, actually, once I got rocking it was almost like taking a drug. I mean I would just used to like to rock. Also used to like to just sit and dribble sand through my hands, and it was just like getting high on something. And I would just be completely tuned out.

See, when you have senses that hurt you have two choices: you can let the whole world come in and just blast you out or you can sit and rock and shut everything out. And then, you get addicted to rocking. It's just like taking an addictive drug.

And there's some evidence in animals that there is actually an addiction. Endorphins get released, which are the brains own natural sort of -- brain's own natural opioids, and you can get addicted to the, to the behavior. But I wouldn't be here now if I'd been allowed to sit in a corner and rock for eight hours a day.

GROSS: What was the best way and what was the worst way that an adult could approach you to get you to stop rocking?

GRANDIN: Well, the worst thing you can do is cause too much sensory stimulation. Now, there seem -- there's different levels of autism. I had sensory sensitivities, but I did not have the kind of problems where seeing and hearing were actually mixing together.

You did an interview a while back with Donna Williams (ph), and she described being mono-channel. In other words, she couldn't see and hear at the same time. My problems weren't as severe.

So as long as I was in a reasonably quiet room, the teacher could kind of just say, "now, come on, you just pay attention." She could literally snap me out of it. Where a child that's like Donna Williams, that's not gonna work.

In fact, Donna told me that if somebody had grabbed her chin and tried to force her to pay attention, she would just go into sensory shutdown and nothing would get through. With her, you have to take a much more gentle approach, maybe get a darkened room and just work with singing very softly, so that only one sensory channel is used very gently at a time.

GROSS: Did you ever experience what she describes as that kind of sensory shutdown, the shutdown of her whole system?

GRANDIN: No, I did not. You see, her sensory problems are more severe than mine are. You know, both Donna and I are both very intelligent people. I want to make it very clear, this has nothing to do with mental retardation. This has to do with sensory processing. And even in my own case, I have problems with understanding complex speech sounds.

I think one of the things we need to be looking at a lot more carefully in these children is: can they understand complex speech? You can pass a pure tone hearing test and that doesn't tell you anything about your ability to understand complex speech. And I -- even I have problems with mixing up different consonant sounds. I have to figure out words by context.

Last year, I had a rather new research hearing test where they tested my ability to understand complex sounds and process complex sounds, and I mixed up things like workshop and woodchuck. Now, if I was out working with one of my meat clients, I'd know that they weren't talking about the woodchuck if we were down in the maintenance shop, they'd be talking about the workshop. So, I'm able to figure it out by context.

GROSS: Temple Grandin, recorded in 1995. Two squeeze chairs, or hug chairs, which she co-designed with an artist are now on display at MIT. We'll hear more of the interview in the second half of our show.

I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Back with more of our interview with Temple Grandin. She's an autistic woman who in spite of her autism is a successful designer of restraining systems for livestock. Neurologist Oliver Sacks profiled her in his book An Anthropologist on Mars. She told her own story in her memoir Thinking in Pictures published in 1995, the year our interview was recorded.

When did you realize that you were different from most other people?

GRANDIN: Well, as a little kid I had a really odd lack of awareness that I was different. You know, and even though my visual thinking, I mean I was an adult before I realized that other people did not have the extensive visual thinking that I had.

And I'd go out on a job where we'd be designing equipment and I'd go, "how could the engineers be so stupid? Wouldn't they know that's not gonna work?" Well, I just assumed everybody had visual thinking.

You know, now when I've -- like, carefully interviewed people about how they think, I've realized it's not stupidity that caused them to design it wrong, they simply don't have visual thinking. I mean some engineers definitely do have it, they are non-autistic people that have visual thinking. But there's also some people out there that have very limited visual thinking.

GROSS: Do you watch movies and television a lot and feel like you learn a lot from other people by watching them portrayed...

GRANDIN: Well, I...

GROSS: Yeah.

GRANDIN: Oh, I like to watch things like, you know, the news magazine shows. I really like listening to things like, you know, ALL THINGS CONSIDERED and FRESH AIR because I get lots of information from those things.

GROSS: What's it like for you to listen to the radio and have words without pictures?

GRANDIN: Well, I make the pictures. As the person talks, I make the pictures. And if they're talking about something where I can't make pictures, then it does not get remembered very well.

GROSS: What if the conversation is about something pretty abstract, about ideas?

GRANDIN: It depends what the idea is, you know, 'cause a lot of abstract ideas I convert to pictures. Like, somebody asked me the other day, "how do you visualize eternity, the concept of eternity?" Well, I just see "Star Trek" and, you know, looking out the front window of the Starship Enterprise and just seeing space going out there for ever and ever and ever. I think about the Hubble Telescope that was built to look to the ends of the universe. Those are the sort of things that are -- that -- pictures that form my concept of eternity.

Or, you take a concept like truth. Well, I think of things that were examples of truth, like reading a newspaper article about a man who returned a wallet with all the money in it.

GROSS: Do you feel that as time goes by you're becoming less autistic?

GRANDIN: Well, you keep learning how to get more and more normal. It's sort of like Data on Star Trek. You know, Data keeps trying to learn more about how people -- how people act.

And I remember watching a Star Trek, and I wish I could remember the name of the episode, but Data was trying to date a girl. And it was a total disaster because he told her that she was beautiful in scientific terms, like saying, you know, "you have a lovely, smooth epidermis." Well, that just doesn't work.

GROSS: So, you identify with him.

GRANDIN: Oh, I definitely identify with him. And I identified with Mr. Spock.

GROSS: My understanding is that most people who are autistic like repetition, familiarity, patterns, systems. You travel a lot. You do a lot of public speaking. You do a lot of freelance work, so you're working for different people. It's amazing to me that you can do that. Are you not upset by change?

GRANDIN: Well, you know, you've been in one Holiday Inn, you've been in 'em all.


In fact, they're starting to standardize the beds now and I really do like that. Seems like all the hotels now put these thick, quilted spreads on and I really like that.

You know, you get so used to airports they're not different. But it does make me nervous to do some different mode of travel. I don't travel by train very much, and trains make me nervous because I haven't been on them enough to get completely familiar with them.

GROSS: Judging from our conversation, it's -- you're a very good speaker. Is it as easy for you to write?

GRANDIN: I can write. I -- because I have an associational mind, I have problems with organization. And Betsy Lerner (ph), my editor, I really owe a big gratitude, to her rippin' her hair out on my organization, because I think associational.

Like, for example, I have a thing in my book where I copied a sentence out of a magazine that described the Olympics. And it said something like, "all the elements were in place, the waltzes and the little sprites jumping in the air," and it was talking about skating.

Now, if I just read that whole thing, I get a picture of the skating arena. But if I stop on the word "elements," then I get an association back to the periodic chart of the elements in my high school classroom.

If I look at the word "sprite" I get pictures of Sprite cans in my refrigerator, Sprite can at the store where I buy gas. Now I go to an association of putting gas in my car at one convenience market and then putting gas in my car at another convenience store. That's how the associational mind works.

And Betsy ripped her hair out on organization. And we got things organized. And if I ever do another book I'm gonna know how to prevent this problem, by making a very, very good outline and then each little part of the outline will just be two pages of the book. I mean I'm not gonna -- if I ever do another book, I won't put Betsy through all of that again, 'cause I learned a lot about organization writing it.

Because all my scientific papers I don't have a problem, because scientific papers aren't that long and scientific papers have a very big structure. You do an introduction, you do your methods, you do your results, and then you do your discussion, and then there's a summary.

GROSS: Now, the association didn't, you know, the associative thinking didn't seem to be a problem in this interview. You weren't -- you stayed right on the subject all the time.

GRANDIN: Well, because it isn't that long, you see. You see, writing -- doing the interview is more like doing a scientific paper, it isn't like doing a whole great big gigantic book.

GROSS: Right.

GRANDIN: But I just want to tell all the readers out there, I mean I've got decent organization in my book now, and I really can thank Betsy my editor.

GROSS: I'll concur, it's very well-organized. It's a very good book and I want to congratulate you on it. And thank you very, very much, thank you very much for talking with us.

GRANDIN: Well, it's been just great to talk with you.

GROSS: Temple Grandin, recorded in 1995 after the publication of her memoir Thinking in Pictures. Two of her squeeze chairs, or hug chairs, co-designed with an artist, are now on display at MIT where Grandin will speak next Thursday.

Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia
Guest: Terry Grandin
High: Temple Grandin is one of the nation's top designers of livestock facilities. She is also autistic. In her book, "Thinking in Pictures: and Other Reports From My Life with Autism" she describes how her inner-autistic world has led her to develop animal empathy. An installation of her work, including the squeeze chair she developed is currently on display at MIT. Grandin will speak at MIT on Thursday, February 26.
Spec: Health and Medicine; Autism; Agriculture; Design; Disabilities
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1998 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1998 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Thinking in Pictures
Date: FEBRUARY 20, 1998
Time: 12:00
Tran: 022002NP.217
Head: Palmetto
Sect: Entertainment; Domestic
Time: 12:55

TERRY GROSS, HOST: "Palmetto" is a new crime movie starring Woody Harrelson and Elizabeth Shue. According to our film critic John Powers, it's yet-another story about an ill-fated hero, a femme fatal, and a corrupt town.

John wonders why Hollywood is enamored with film noir.

JOHN POWERS, FRESH AIR COMMENTATOR: I sometimes think of Hollywood as a giant recycling center, where old movies are melted down and then poured into huge barrels, with labels like "romantic comedy" and "action picture."

Each time a movie needs to be made, the studio sends somebody to bring back a bucket of "gangster movie," or "chick flick," and this goop is processed into celluloid strips that contain nothing new, only recombined ideas and scenes from the old melted-down films.

That surely must be how they made Palmetto, which comes straight from the film noir vat. Woody Harrelson stars as Harry Barber (ph), a wrongly imprisoned man. When his conviction is suddenly overturned, he goes back to Palmetto, the small Florida town where he lives with his girlfriend Nina (ph), played by Gina Gershon.

Enter Raya Muldrew (ph) an eye-batting blonde played by Elizabeth Shue. Raya's the over-sexed wife of a dying millionaire, and she has a proposition. She and her teenaged stepdaughter, Odette (ph), are planning to stage a fake kidnapping, and demand a half-a-million bucks as ransom. All they need is somebody to pretend to be the kidnapper.

Although he knows better, Harry agrees to the scheme, which of course goes terribly wrong. The bodies pile up, and Harry becomes the fall guy, led around by both Raya and the sluttish Odette, whose jailbait coarseness is evident, as she and Harry first discuss the fake kidnapping.


WOODY HARRELSON, ACTOR, AS HARRY BARBER: So Odette, the reason I wanted you to come here today...

ACTRESS, AS ODETTE: You want to know if I'm in on this, right?

HARRELSON: Yeah, that's a good place to start.


BARBER: Yes, what?

ODETTE: Yes, I'm going to pretend to be kidnapped. Yes, Raya and I are gonna ask my father for $500,000. And yes, he'll pay it. Yes. Yes. Yes.

POWERS: Palmetto is based on a novel by James Hadley Chase (ph), a British pulp writer of the '30s, who may be best-known here as the subject of a withering essay by George Orwell, who flayed Chase's work for being fascist, cruel, and immoral.

It's been put on screen by, of all people, Folker Schlandorf (ph), the earnest German director most famous for "The Tin Drum." In Schlandorf's best work, movies like "Young Torless" (ph) and "Circle of Deceit," he shrewdly anatomizes the crazier curlicues of the German psyche.

Here he tries to make an old-fashioned B movie, and he frankly lacks the light American touch to put across a story that's so breezily implausible. Palmetto plods along, without the manic glee found in Oliver Stone's similar "U-Turn," or the palpable sense of place that Robert Altman brought to "The Gingerbread Man."

To be fair, Schlandorf's not helped by his cast. I continue to be baffled that Woody Harrelson keeps getting lead roles. After all, he's a born character actor, who -- when not playing dumb ala "Cheers" -- specializes in the vulgar energy he brought to "Natural Born Killers."

Since Harry Barber's both dumb and vulgar -- he works fruit-colored shirts with huge collars -- Harrelson might seem well-cast as a soiled anti-hero, sort of a human equivalent of the Palmetto bugs that keep scurrying across the screen. But he lacks the charisma to pull us into Harry's character.

Charm isn't everything, but does anybody really want to look at that goofy, triangular face, for two solid hours? The producers clearly hope to make a splash by casting their actresses against type, making a vamp of the sweet-looking Shue, and a good girl of Gershon, who looks like a creature from some X-rated storybook by Dr. Seuss.

But such casting wastes Gershon's trampy panache, while Shue is always more convincing as a victim. Although she tries to give Raya a sexual edge, her performance is pure camp. Even her buttocks overact. In the end, the real mystery of Palmetto is how a Hollywood studio could think the public wants to see another movie like this one.

After all, aside from the teen horror audience, '90s movie-goers want "Titanic" and "Good Will Hunting," not this kind of dark material. Even "L.A, Confidential," the best crime picture in two decades, has been a box office disappointment.

So why won't Hollywood let the postman stop ringing? The answer, I think, is simple: film noir conjures up a fallen world of a-moral hustlers, who scheme to get rich, use sex as a weapon, and sell their friends out at the drop of a hat. Which is to say, it creates a world a lot like Hollywood.

And as we all know, people love to see their hometown on screen.

GROSS: John Powers is film critic for Vogue.

Dateline: John Powers; Terry Gross, Philadelphia
High: John Powers review Palmetto.
Spec: Movie Industry; Palmetto; Arts
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1998 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1998 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Palmetto
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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