A professor in the Department of Cinema Studies at New York University, Dana Polan has written prolifically on film and television since receiving a PhD from Stanford in 1980 and a Doctorat d’État from the Université de la Sorbonne-Nouvelle in 1985. His books include The Politics of Film and the Avant-Garde (1984), Power and Paranoia: History, Narrative and the American Cinema, 1940-1950 (1986), Scenes of Instruction: The Beginnings of the US Study of Film (2007) and Julia Child’s The French Chef (2011), as well as works on In a Lonely Place, Pulp Fiction, Jane Campion and The Sopranos. In addition to his work on American cinema, he has had a long-term interest in French film theory and philosophy, and translated Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s Kafka: Towards a Minor Literature into English. He was awarded the Chevalier dans l’Ordre des Arts by the French Government in 1998, and was inducted into the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences as an Academy Scholar in 2003.
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DF: One question that seems to have a remarkable longevity is the question of the death of cinema. It seems to be something that people have been saying for decades now. What’s strange is that the discourse doesn’t go away, even though the cinema survives. We could almost compare it to religious sects who announce that the world is going to end on a given date, and then when the world doesn’t end they push the date back. What are your thoughts on that whole trope?
DP: I think it is a trope, I think it is a gesture. I’m fascinated in general by recurrent declarations whose content tends to be apocalyptic. For me the one that is just as interesting as death of cinema – and maybe it’s because I’m an academic – is the crisis in the humanities. There’s often a cyclical quality to them, there will be the announcement of some apocalypse coming, there will be reaction against it, correction, caution, and then it comes back again. And some of that may be that a certain discourse needs that kind of crisis mentality in order to sustain itself. Your mention of the religious thing is interesting because a lot of the death of cinema talk came right around the end of the 20th century. There are people who talk about millennial thinking, and the way in which messianic concerns seem to come up not only when centuries are turning but when millennia are turning. Frank Kermode’s Sense of an Ending talks a lot about what happened in the year 1000, what would happen in the year 2000. So the death of cinema is both the death of a century of art, but also the death of a millennium, there were a lot of things going on, Y2K, and so on. There was a general anxiety within which the death of cinema was lamented. I did a thing for Film Criticism, where I said that the people who talk about the death of cinema, such as Susan Sontag, what they really mean is the death of a certain kind of cinema that was dear to them, a kind of content, European or Asian art film, and a particular mode of exhibition, watching films theatrically. I’m never much of a prognosticator, but moving image culture is not going away. That’s definitely clear: there will always be ways for people to consume moving images. But even within Sontag’s terms, I’m not sure art cinema will go away. It may mutate. It may find it needs different kinds of platforms. A lot of things that may have gone to an IFC or a Film Forum are now going to Netflix and other streaming sites. And clearly, even theatrical exhibition is not going away. The idea that people aren’t going to the movies any more, and that the movies are just the thing that gets the train of other release forms going is not completely true. There are movies that are still very big as theatrical events. I don’t think any of that is going away. But I suppose that a lot of what goes on in the discourse, cycling back to notions of crisis and death, is that it enables the discourse to keep going.
DF: That’s quite a paradox.
DP: Yes, except there’s a difference between film studies and film. They don’t necessarily have to coincide. There are fields that study dead forms. I once spoke to the chair of Slavic at Yale, a scholar of mediaeval Russian literature, and he said, “I happen to be the last scholar of mediaeval Russian in the US. I’m in my early sixties, and two things will happen soon, either I retire or I die. And when that happens that sub-discipline ends. No one’s doing it.”
DF: It’s like when someone who’s the last speaker of a language dies.
DP: Exactly. So an object of study can disappear. Film discourse could stop even if moving image culture continued. But it’s not going to happen that film studies will disappear. And one of the things discourse does is generate crises so you can keep going. The humanities seems particularly good at that. I just read a manuscript that’s about the crisis in the humanities, and the very act of talking about the crisis in the humanities allows you to then generate the next text. I’m presently giving a course on Howard Hawks, and this generation of ever new texts to keep a discourse going is sort of similar to how criticism on Hawks unfolded. You have the first pioneering text, and then someone writes a critique of it or an extension of it, then it becomes historical, so someone writes a summary of the debates. And the essay doing the summarising will become something someone else comments on. So there’s an auto-generating of discourse. And virtually every essay will then begin with “Cahiers du cinéma first discovered Hawks, then Robin Woods said this, then Peter Wollen did this.” So the very fact that the discourse multiplies generates the multiplication.
DF: It sounds a little like Mediaeval monks re-transcribing religious manuscripts.
DP: To tell the truth, I find Laura Mulvey astoundingly important, but I no longer care to read the tenth essay that’s post-Mulvey. After a while there’s not a lot left to say, except to summarise everybody else, and then add a slight inflection. And, maybe this brings us back to film studies: one inflection that people add, instead of a new meta-discourse, is a new case study, so applying an idea somewhere that it hasn’t worked before. So you can have: there was Mulvey, there was Williams, there was Doane, but none of them are applicable to women’s cinema of recent years (which is kind of an easy gesture), and here’s how cinema today escapes the models they set up. It occurs to me that using case studies is sometimes a way of continuing the discourse while pretending you’re doing something different. So a lot of case studies are driven by an exceptionalism: here’s the thing that doesn’t fit the endless train of the discourse. But it just adds to the discourse, and causes it to auto-generate. This goes to the question of the future of film studies. Disciplines, when they get going, do have a self-maintaining quality. The study of film does not just disappear. When things are institutionalised, they keep going, unless they get cut or mutate. But once they get going they have a momentum that’s hard to stop.
DF: Is that institutional or discursive?
DP: I think it’s both. I’m not sure I would make a distinction, because in the humanities in particular, the role of the institution is to facilitate the generation of the discursive. I think all of this has its good side, too. But publish or perish, or tenure tied to publishing, leads the university to have quantitative demands before any discussion of content or quality: a book of a certain length, or a number of articles, and that is the baseline for continuing on in the profession. It automatically impels the generation of discourse. I believe in tenure, but it forces everybody towards the quantification of scholarship.
DF: It also creates an inflation of scholarship. It’s impossible now to have an image of the field as a whole, because there’s simply too much.
DP: Yeah. I read a lot, but there are moments when I find myself scrambling to keep up, or saying “Do I really need to read essay number ten on Mulvey?” One of the interesting things about the crisis in the humanities is that cutting back has led to more things: more journals, more venues for publishing. And there are no commonly shared venues. Everybody in the US will be at SCMS, and Cinema Journal is the journal of record, but increasingly it’s the journal you get, you glance at and then put on the shelf. Probably no two people are reading the same two journals in the field. The last SCMS had 22 simultaneous panels. I remember organising SCS (as it was then) in the 1980s, and one of the goals was to have no two panels whose subject matter overlapped be on at the same time, but now it’s impossible. I’m very enamoured of the new film history that’s about the concrete, the material, the located, but I think one of the things it does is become this auto-generating of endless discourse. After a while all it will do is generate lots of examples that are not generalised to anything higher. We’re seeing a kind of return to the empirical which, on the one hand, grounds study, but it also lacks a larger sense of why it might be like something else, because there’s an emphasis on the differential. If you get so caught up in the details you lose sight of the larger picture. If you just end up studying a thing for itself in its own uniqueness, then you never raise it up to a higher level. And I think exhibition studies is starting to be a bit like that.
DF: Is it also because there’s a surfeit of data, and it becomes more about data wrangling than thinking about the meaning of the data.
DP: At times, it’s also, maybe not a surfeit of the data, but a faith that there is a lot of data out there. I’m struck by a lot of audience studies, how limited the data pool they’re using is. We’re getting these micrological studies that are very limited in scope, and perhaps not indicative of the larger pool. So there’s a lot out there, it’s hard to keep up, but less and less of it may be useful. I see this when I go to SCMS, and I’m hanging out a lot with people from my generation, and we admit to each other, “I’m not going to a lot of these talks, because they just sound so trendy.” In an ideal world we might want to read all of these books, but in the real world we actually want to read very few of them. I don’t want to be the traditionalist who says “we don’t need Buffy the Vampire studies”, but after a while is there anything new to say? In fact, I’m still surprised when a new book comes out on film noir. What is there left to say?
DF: But you’re still teaching Howard Hawks this semester. Some material has an inexhaustibility to it, in the same way that people will still teach Shakespeare 500 years from now.
DP: Increasingly, I’m focused on my teaching, and I just want to teach things I have fun with. Next semester I’m teaching a Frank Sinatra course. For me Hawks is really teachable, it’s a good way of getting at issues of authorship, culture, masculinity. So for me, teaching is a place where I see the future of my discipline. There used to be a joke where if you asked an academic “What are you working on?” they would never say “My class is on…” It would always be “My essay is on…” Even though the constituency for that essay might be three people. A lot of professors treat teaching as secondary, but for me it’s as interesting to teach as it is to do scholarship. It’s interesting how little teaching matters in tenure decisions. There used to be a joke at places like Harvard that if you won a teaching award, that was the death knell for getting tenure, because it meant you weren’t a serious scholar. Maybe it’s where I am in my career, but a lot of what I’m thinking about is the role of teaching. It’s not just the humanities. Even in the sciences the typical article is read by three-and-a-half people. No one can keep on everything in a discipline, or even a sub-discipline. So there’s no longer a sense of the synoptic view. I tend to like erring on the side of knowing a little bit about a lot of areas rather than having an intense specialisation. There are exceptions, sometimes you come across someone who’s read everything and knows everything, but that’s becoming rarer and rarer.
DF: In your own case, you have a classical cinema side, but you also work on television. How do you find those different sides to your research working together?
DP: I’ve been lucky enough to be in institutions where I was allowed to go off into areas I’ve wanted to. No one has said, “You are the French scholar, and you can’t do anything other than that.” I’m primarily thought of as post-war American, but I wouldn’t limit myself to that. When I was at the University of Pittsburgh there was a clear idea that no one owned a course. If you made a case for teaching a course, you could. I’ve always liked using teaching to follow through on an interest of my own. For me teaching is often a way of getting at new topics and using it as exploration. I will cycle back to certain things every so often. There’s a course I like doing on the Frankfurt school in America, I teach a general survey of American film, but it keeps changing, the films keep changing, the readings keep changing, I think it differently. I do try to keep up as best I can on some of the new literature. That’s a regular base for me. Some time next year I will probably do a Benjamin Arcades Project course. Courses are where I push myself to study something. In an age where you can’t cover anything, I like being capacious, taking some risks. I would rather be adventurous and make mistakes, rather than not ever changing. The one where I really think I went beyond my capacity was the book I did for the BFI on Jane Campion. I consider that my least successful piece of writing.
DF: Is that because you felt you lacked the cultural context?
DP: Yeah. I think I said some interesting things about The Piano (Jane Campion, 1994)and why a certain kind of audience would like The Piano. A bit reductively: women from the professional class who like art cinema, but who also like the phenomenology of certain materials, like wind and sand and water that that film very much plays on. And it was important for me to write because it got me thinking about audience. One of the next things I wrote was about The Sopranos, which discussed how The Sopranos meets a particular type of target audience: an urban professional who wants a kind of edginess, the HBO demographic. That was an important moment to think about the implied spectator, the inscription of the spectator in the text. The Sopranos is clearly imagining a certain kind of spectator. The show is interesting because it makes us superior to a world that we also want to enjoy. We would never go to a strip club in New Jersey, but we get to see it, so we get to participate salaciously in it. And the Melfi character becomes the surrogate for the HBO audience. With my own work, some of it has been about the luck and the opportunity to follow wherever I want to go. Nothing in my CV would have said that my next thing would be about Jane Campion. In retrospect, I can see that it was about audience, but I certainly don’t think I knew enough about Australia or New Zealand to have done it well. But I would rather have taken the chance and failed than not done it at all.
DF: It’s interesting that there is more of a felt need to culturally contextualise a work when it comes from a “minor” culture like Australia, but we don’t have the same anxiety when dealing with, say, Proust, where you don’t need to know the ins and outs of fin de siècle Paris in order to appreciate it.
DP: I don’t want to call my book on Jane Campion “dabbling” but I don’t think I had the knowledge to make it as rigorous as it could have been.
DF: But she’s still an artist who can speak to universal questions.
DP: Yes, and at the end of the book I speak of her not as an Australian director, but as a post-national director. She’s hitting an international art cinema scene. It’s right, but it’s also a way of justifying not dealing with Australia a lot. So I like taking risks and going into new areas, but I would rather do it with rigour and competence than not. I really don’t like people who dabble in areas, especially with a kind of patronising condescension. Film is something a lot of people think they can say something about if they’re in literature or philosophy. And sometimes they simply don’t do their homework. Cavell is tremendously important for the field, but I still find it troubling that in his screwball comedy book, Pursuits of Happiness, there is no mention of other people who have written on the same movies, and there’s a deliberate ignoring of critical literature. I want people to do their homework. A number of years ago I got a call from a friend of a former colleague, who said “My dean would like me to do a Shakespeare and film course, what are some good films to show?” Whereas if I called a Shakespearian up to say, “I need to do a Shakespeare course, what should I teach?” they would be so offended. There’s no sense that that’s offensive in film. I’m constantly asked to teach French cinema, but I’ve done no work on French cinema. Every so often I’m asked to do a tenure case on French cinema. Well, you wouldn’t ask a Proustian to evaluate Chandler. The other day we had Nicholas Baer, he’s one of the editors of the new anthology of German film criticism, The Promise of Cinema. So he was at NYU talking on Kracauer. And I was thinking that Kracauer would be great to do a course on. But I don’t know German, and the German edition is 20 volumes. So I just wouldn’t do it. On my own I’ll read more on Kracauer, I’d love to do reading groups, but that is the kind of risk-taking I wouldn’t do.
I did do a couple of books on TV. But I tend not to think that film study is the same as film appreciation. Study and scholarship is not about your taste. Scholarly writing is not about what you like. You may like what you write about. I’m enjoying teaching Hawks, but I don’t like his bad films, and I have some ideological issues with the most Hawksian films. I’ve really thought that that’s what critical discourse is about. You can read my Pulp Fiction book without knowing whether I like it or not. Towards the end of that book I talk about people who think of it as empty post-modernism, but I still wouldn’t say whether I think it is or not. I don’t think scholarship is about brandishing your likes and dislikes. You don’t write about your likes, they may help drive your writing, but that’s not what criticism is.
DF: It is nonetheless a nagging question for me when I go to SCMS panels, or read articles, and I think to myself: do the people actually enjoy what they’re doing? Sometimes the lack of a passion for the object of study is really flagrant.
DP: For me it’s almost the opposite question: could they have disliked this and still given the paper they gave? I serve on admissions committees a lot, and especially at the undergraduate and masters level, but sometimes even at the graduate level, you have personal statements that begin: “I love film, and I want to come to NYU to further my love of film.” I should ask someone in chemistry about this, but I can’t imagine you get people in chemistry who say, “I love molecules” or “I love nitrogen”. I would almost appreciate an application that started as “I hate film, and I want to come to NYU to understand how film functions as an ideological apparatus, or how it was a promise that was never delivered.” That said, that’s partly why I turned to television, because contemporary Hollywood was disappointing me. Whereas The Sopranos was a show I was watching that seemed worth writing about.
DF: Does having the background of being able to watch things in a cinematic manner train you to see things in a different way to someone who has a pure background in television studies, who doesn’t have that same kind of acculturation? Much as people who listen to classical music train their ears to listen in a different way.
DP: Absolutely, and part of what’s interesting about The Sopranos was feeling the limits of what film can do, especially in terms of narrative. In terms of character, narrative-driven culture, a lot of it has moved over to television.
DF: Television is kind of a novelistic culture.
DP: Yes, in fourteen episodes you can develop characters that you perhaps can’t in a two-hour movie. Whereas the two-hour movie has primarily become about effects, sensations, rather than characters. Jaws, in the end, is about the physical encounter with the shark. That could be enjoyable to an audience, but it’s not enjoyable to me. So the sense of developing a character happens more in TV than in film. There are some exceptions. I’m fascinated that every year, there are one or two character-driven films that get Oscar nominations in writing, acting, but not much else. Lonergan, for instance, is a master at the character-driven film. Or Blue Valentine (2010) by Derek Cianfrance, a small nicely written film about people.
DF: One of the works of yours I find most fascinating is Scenes of Instruction. For a couple of reasons. Firstly, because it’s useful to break down the widespread idea that film studies did not exist before 1970. But more importantly, do you see parallels between the period you analyse (the 1920s and 1930s) and the present day? Perhaps not on the institutional level, but on the level of scholars grappling with new phenomena.
DP: One of the things about Scenes of Instruction is that it’s mainly about teachers. Very little of it is about people who studied film without also having a classroom practice. It’s a book not so much about film intellectuals as film academics. For me a big, and sort of depressing, revelation was when I realised that I had become an academic as much as a scholar. The two are not quite the same. Being an academic means taking on all the responsibilities, problems and burdens of the institution. The amount of time an academic spends on issues and committees that have nothing to do with their scholarship, or scholarly ideas, is astounding.
DF: Bureaucracy in academia is like a parasite that keeps growing and growing at the expense of the host.
DP: Right. Universities are generating more and more administrative positions, things like that. When I was at Stamford I discovered that the university had a “committee on committees”. I was astounded at first, but then I thought you have to have something like that. So there’s a distinction that has to be made between that part of you that is a scholar and that part of you that gets caught up in everything else you have to do: proofing the catalogue, going to graduation ceremonies, all these things that take you away from scholarship. So for me Scenes of Instruction was very clearly a book about the university. These were people who were hired at universities to teach courses. I would love to have had more about what went on in their classrooms – that’s very hard to reconstruct. The closest I came was the chapter on this guy Sawyer Faulk at Syracuse. I had come across mention that there was a film appreciation course at Syracuse in the 1930s, I thought it couldn’t be much, but then I had a couple of free days so I took the train to Syracuse and in the archive were the Sawyer Faulk papers. This guy kept everything, included student papers with grades on them from the 1930s. He kept all his lecture notes. I was able to reconstruct classroom stuff. So for me it’s a book that relates to what goes on in classrooms, and what goes on between the classroom and the larger world: the layers of university bureaucracy, things like that.
For my own part, I hate that part of scholarly life. What interests me is what goes on beyond the university. I do try to do things that go beyond the university. Public intellectual is too big a word, but I do DVD commentaries, and I take those very seriously as a form of outreach, I do the BFI books, which for me are about writing beyond academia. My book on Julia Child was reviewed by women in the Mid-West, writing about it in terms of cooking culture, which I was delighted about. The place where you meet audiences – other than other members of a boring academic committee – are in the classroom or in the broader public sphere. I get to talk about Howard Hawks in the classroom, or I could get invited on a radio station to talk about Hawks, but it’s amazing how I don’t even get a chance to do so with other professors. It’s amazing how much I talk with other professors about nothing intellectual. We talk about bureaucratic matters, curricula, hiring, retention – but very rarely about what any of us are doing as research. Very rarely do we interact around scholarship, it only really happens on an individual basis. That’s not what the university structure is about. So what was interesting about doing Scenes of Instruction is it’s about the classroom, and I wouldn’t at all idealise it in any way as a golden age before the bureaucratisation of the university, but it does strike me that very few of these figures are caught up in larger bureaucracies in any overwhelmingly consequential. I think of it as not the history of film studies but the pre-history. There is not this sense of a discipline as a burden, and because there’s not yet a discipline they can do what they want, there’s a relative freedom, there’s a kind of open experimentation. And although there are moments when they intersect, most of them are working fully independently of each other. They don’t have an annual SCMS to go to. They work in literal ignorance of each other. There’s not a shared culture or legacy. And that has problems but it also allows them to develop their own interests and concerns. Some of the questions they raise stay with us. One is the question of appreciation: should film studies make room for appreciation? Especially in the 1910s and 1920s, there’s a lot about film betterment, by teaching what film can be at its best, we will make cinema better, we will make better spectators. So it’s about aesthetic uplift. I don’t consider my courses to be about that. But it’s interesting that that was a model then.
Then there is the ongoing question of the role of production in relation to critical study. Many of these people, the one area that a lot of them teach in is screenwriting. Again, it’s about aesthetic uplift: by learning how to write a well-crafted screenplay, you learn about what a well-crafted screenplay needs. There’s not much ability to train in practical areas of filmmaking until USC in the 1920s. But the question of practice and production in a critical studies curriculum has always been a question for our field. There’s often a divorce between cinema study and the practical study, and there’s also a divorce between the graduate program and the undergraduate program. Every cinema program I know that has a graduate curriculum, the graduate curriculum is dismantling the very notions that underpin the undergraduate curriculum. So at the graduate level you will have a critique of Romantic notions of the auteur, but at the undergraduate level you have courses on Hitchcock or, in my case, Hawks. There’s a lot more that needs to be done about curricula.
DF: To loop back to where we began: our talk of the death of cinema, the crisis of the humanities, is that symptomatic of a deeper sense of crisis in the world?
DP: That’s a good question. I think it must have been the Chicago SCMS in 2013, I was asked to be on a panel about graduate programs and professionalisation, where I talked about this recurrent trope of the crisis of the humanities. It’s often treated as something cyclical and inevitable. But on the other hand, history isn’t cyclical. Things change, things happen at particular moments. I don’t believe that there’s always a crisis of the humanities. There’s always a rhetoric of crisis, but nothing would prevent there from being, at a specific moment, a real, concrete, irreducible crisis. I worry that, in our particular conjuncture, things could happen to the humanities that aren’t cyclical, but specific. The National Endowment for the Humanities could disappear. The consequences of the 2008 recession in academia almost go beyond its consequences elsewhere, because, in a moment of belt-tightening, it leads to the humanities being looked at with a lot of scrutiny: do we need that program? Do we need women’s studies? That kind of thing. We’re in a moment where, unfortunately, parents often ask “What will this major get my children?” There are very specific pressures on the humanities right now. On the one hand, there are good things about the turn from cinema study to larger media study, but some of it is also about giving people a lot of contact with a lot of moving images so that their skillset is broader. We teach a course in my department called Cellphone Cinema. It’s a production-based course, and it’s really cheap because everyone uses their cellphones, but it is a course in professionalisation in a way that I worry about because I’m not sure that what we need to be doing is professionalising our students into the production marketplace. First of all, most students do not major in the career they end up doing, so we’re not actually giving them the right skills.
I do think that the humanities should be a resistance to market skills, so the fact that we play into that is sometimes worrisome. I don’t think of myself as a traditionalist but increasingly when I think of American undergrad students in the humanities, I would recommend the small liberal arts college, the Mount Holyoke, the Antioch, the Oberlin, where you get a broad set of concepts that can be used in a lot of different ways, some professional, but some just to think about the world. I’m not big on specialisation, I prefer breadth over depth in a lot of ways. Maybe media studies as something bigger than film studies helps in that, but I do worry that it just gives people things they can use in the media industry. We had a job going in new media, and virtually every candidate had a course that involved the students doing a blog. Which was fine, but I thought, what if a student has an Adornian resistance to writing a blog? Ordinarily, you wouldn’t require people to engage in a form that you study, but there’s an assumption that studying new media implies an endorsement of it.
DF: Not just an endorsement, but entering into the logic of the system’s own functioning.
DP: It goes back to what I was talking about with the quantification of tenure. No discussion yet of content or quality, but the blog is built in and endorsed as a form, before there’s any interrogation of it.
DF: On the other hand, can the humanities play a role in developing the critical tools to allow people to step beyond this mindset of marketisation and professionalisation?
DP: In my more optimistic moments I think, we live in a world of images, and cinema studies is a place that studies the power of images. F.R. Leavis said that English should be the centre of the university, because it teaches us how language operates. Now, communication in America has become a kind of bleak, quantoid field, but there are times when I think that communication should be the core thing, because it studies messages and how information is conveyed from person to person. By the same token, I think image literacy should be something that everybody has, and film studies participates in that. After 9/11, I was struck by the number of people who said: I turned on the TV and the first thing I thought was I was seeing a movie. This is something that cinema studies can help us understand. And the fact that we saw it as a movie and cast everyone in the Middle East as movie villains, and that is something we can understand. In no physical crisis can we anticipate what practical needs there will be: it could be doctors, or engineers, or bacteriologists. But all of those will also have an imagistic presence, in television, in newspapers, and that’s what we analyse: the role of representations. And I don’t think representations are secondary, they need to be studied and analysed. I’ve tried to avoid this in the Hawks course because I don’t want to make it just about relevance, but there are many things in Hawks. For instance, his fascination for masculinity. He has a libertarian side. His biographers guessed that he was probably Republican, he was certainly anti-New Deal. I don’t want to make out as if he leads up to Trump. You don’t want to falsely make things relevant. But you want to make the connections. America has a history which is now a shameful history, and it’s going to be worth unpacking how we got there. And movies are part of how we got there.
Interviewed by Daniel Fairfax