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Culture | The Atlantic
Culture | The Atlantic
An Epic Novel Haunted by the Ghosts of Colonialism
To whom does one life belong? As the man born Abel Paisley prepares to greet death, the question takes on a sudden urgency. At the beginning of her new novel, These Ghosts Are Family, Maisy Card sketches the swindler’s portrait: Decades prior, when his friend Stanford Solomon died on the job in England, Abel assumed the other Jamaican man’s identity. Leaving his old name and family behind, he claimed a life that was never his. “Where is his soul now?” Card writes of Stanford. “Circling the world, looking for a grave that does not yet exist?”These Ghosts Are Family doesn’t follow Stanford’s wandering soul, but it does trace the fallout of Abel’s decision over the next several decades. By the time the elderly man gathers his daughters and granddaughter in his Harlem brownstone in a contemporary scene to tell them the truth, his family has long been fractured. Unaware of each other’s existence, the Paisley and Solomon daughters endured isolation and poverty across oceans, mountains, and New York City boroughs. Zeroing in on how Abel’s original sin affected each of the women, These Ghosts Are Family joins other recent novels that track troubled families over generations. But while books such as Yaa Gyasi’s transatlantic opus, Homegoing, and Namwali Serpell’s Zambian epic, The Old Drift, home in on the experiences of their living characters, Card’s novel stretches beyond the earthly realm.Like other works of Caribbean literature, These Ghosts Are Family takes a wide-ranging approach to its depiction of undead spirits. The titular beings aren’t just malevolent boogeymen who show up to frighten the living, as a Halloween tale. Rather, they drift in and out of the humans’ perception, shifting people’s relationship to the world around them by compelling overdue reckonings. Some of Card’s ghosts, such as those that manifest in Jamaica as a result of Abel’s faked death, are born of recent familial wrongs. Others force characters to remember longer-buried transgressions, recalling the tradition of Haiti’s post-Revolution zombie folklore, which emerged from imagined horror stories about enslaved people trapped in their bodies after death.CaptionIn its invocations of ghosts, or “duppies” as they’re sometimes called throughout the Caribbean and its diaspora, Card’s book joins a literary tradition that challenges imperial records of history by imbuing the present with voices from the past. Not all of Card’s ghosts were once enslaved, but they still unearth the institutional evils that shaped modern Jamaica—namely, the transatlantic slave trade and British colonialism. For example, while Abel’s 20th-century deceit causes chaos among his living descendants, no figure in These Ghosts Are Family wreaks more havoc than the late slave owner Harold Fowler. Harold, the British man for whom Abel and Stanford’s hometown in Jamaica was eventually named, presided over a massive plantation in the early-19th century—and delighted in the violence required of his post. In some sections, Card gives contemporaneous descriptions of Fowler’s depravity, and its effects on the white women and enslaved people in his charge. Taking care to also depict Fowler’s brutality through the eyes of the black Jamaicans he domineered over, Card’s novel draws a direct line from Harold to the trauma that now shapes Abel’s family. Harold’s soul never appears in a room with a Paisley or a Solomon; he doesn’t lurk inside dark closets. His haunting is more insidious, palpable in the two centuries of lives destroyed, familial connections ruptured, and economic stability stolen.These Ghosts Are Family moves across time and space as it deftly weaves the families’ paths. One of Harold’s modern descendants, an aspiring museum curator named Debbie, begins to see visions of him after her father gives her Harold’s journal. Debbie repeatedly dreams that she is being subjected to all the atrocities that her ancestor committed. In one scene, she reads of Harold pouring honey on the feet of a young enslaved girl who’d tried to eat some, then waiting for insects to tear into the girl’s flesh. Debbie wakes with her own feet burning, though there are no fire ants in her room. Even before she leaves her family-funded New York apartment to visit Harold Town, Debbie senses that her ancestor’s actions in Jamaica must be atoned for now. Harold’s presence never leaves her.Ghost stories take on different roles across cultures. In recent American literature, for instance, many such tales have excavated both the country’s genocidal founding and its bleak present. Card’s novel gestures toward America’s inequalities, too, in part through its emphasis on the Fowlers’ unearned wealth. Whether in a former British colony named Jamaica or one called the United States, their whiteness affords them a safety and comfort that the black people around them can never access. Though he was cruel to the Paisleys’ ancestors, These Ghosts Are Family casts Harold’s spirit as a more complicated force in Debbie’s life. While she may want to disavow him entirely, she can’t. Her family’s financial stability does, after all, come from generations of inherited wealth that Harold accumulated through slave labor—wealth that the Paisleys’ ancestors created. And so Card’s duppies function in a decidedly Caribbean manner: as symbols of malice and white domination in the world. (Consider the Bob Marley and the Wailers song “Duppy Conqueror,” in which the reggae legend sings that the “bars could not hold me,” aligning himself with the country’s downtrodden.)[Read: ‘How to Love a Jamaican’ complicates the idea of home]These Ghosts Are Family also wrestles with the limits of human memory. As guardians of Harold’s journal, Debbie and the other Fowlers don’t just sit upon their ancestor’s blood money; they also withhold crucial information from the black Jamaicans whose family Harold enslaved. It’s Harold’s records that provide clues that could help countless people trace the ancestors whose lives weren’t recorded in official 19th-century ledgers. Debbie hoards that knowledge, only sharing it piecemeal with the black historians she encounters through her museum work in New York. Later, she travels to Jamaica herself, offering to show a local professor the journal, only to rip out its pages after he takes her to Harold Town. In the river, where she left Harold’s journal to dissolve, Debbie defies both the living Jamaican scholar and the ancestor haunting her. She cannot bear the weight of what they want her to remember, and so she robs others of the chance to do so, too.Here, These Ghosts Are Family critiques the very foundation of many accepted mythologies about slavery and colonialism. Like the writing of the Jamaican poet Lloyd W. Brown or the Bajan scholar Kamau Brathwaite, Card’s novel reveals fissures in recordkeeping and the fallibility of documents written in colonial English. When anchored in the Paisley family’s experiences, Card’s duppies teach her living characters what “history”—the official sort enshrined by Debbie—cannot. In their capacity for instruction, Card’s ghosts call to mind the spirits that animate texts such Soucouyant, by the Trinidadian Canadian author Daniel Chariandy. Soucouyant’s protagonist connects with his mother, who has early-onset dementia, through the stories she tells of her childhood in Trinidad. One such tale is that of a duppy known as a soucouyant, a witch believed to shed her skin at night and suck her victims’ blood.While Chariandy’s soucouyant is a distant figure that links the protagonist to his family history, Card’s soucouyants, who appear in the novel’s final sections, force a whole town to remember the harms they suffered while alive. Card weaves these bloodthirsty characters—tragic, but complex—into the novel’s larger arc by emphasizing their origins. Though they weren’t Paisleys, they were among those who suffered as a result of Abel’s deceit. In other words, these soucouyants are a warning, and These Ghosts Are Family is a tale of the most monstrous acts: intimate betrayals with unthinkable consequences.
2020-03-11 20:48:02
2021-05-08T11:29:18.000000
1 y
theatlantic.com
TV’s Age of Algorithm Anxiety
Devs, the new eight-part drama written and directed by Alex Garland (Ex Machina, Annihilation), is the kind of series that signals its grandiosity from the word go, with an abstract montage featuring choral music, saxophone interruptions, and fragmented scenes of San Francisco. In the opening seconds, the camera pans in slowly on the darkened features of Forest (played by Nick Offerman), a tech-company CEO with a bedraggled beard and a frozen expression, like a Geico caveman who’s seen some stuff. Then it cuts to a triptych of video installations featuring a small girl blowing puffy white seeds off a dandelion. Devs is immediately ponderous, alienating, and full of unintentionally funny details: Why is there a 100-foot-high sculpture of that same small girl in the middle of the redwoods? Has the Golden Gate Bridge always seemed so IKEA-poster generic? Why is the most high-tech coding campus in Silicon Valley as gilded and blandly opulent as a Mandarin Oriental business center?With Devs (one of the first shows to air on Hulu under the “FX on Hulu” mantle), and with the third season of Westworld, which debuts on HBO on Sunday, TV seems to be entering its age of algorithmic anxiety. There are no robots in Devs, but the characters are so flatly preoccupied with determinism—and with data’s potential ability to assess and contain the complexity of human lives within lines of code—that there may as well be. Every character in the show seems oddly muted in some way, tranquilized into mechanical acquiescence. It’s not that Offerman doesn’t have the range to play Forest, the delphic overlord of a “quantum AI” company called Amaya, with its unspecified products and creepy child logo. It’s that on-screen, the actor practically bursts with ebullience, and this is a whimsy-free zone. I burst out laughing when, in one scene, Forest shoved salad into his face without using any utensils, like a combless Amy Klobuchar. It was the one scene in eight plodding hours when Devs, for a minute, seemed as if it were in on the joke.Sonoya Mizuno (Ex Machina) plays Lily, a young employee at Amaya who commutes cozily to work from San Francisco each day on the company bus with her boyfriend, Sergei (Karl Glusman). In the first episode, Sergei is handpicked by Forest to join “devs,” Amaya’s top-secret development initiative. The story unfolds in obtuse layers: Sergei’s walk down a (literal) garden path toward devs’ concrete-sealed headquarters; his introduction to the code that spells out what devs actually does; his visceral shock in response. By the time Sergei goes missing, viewers have seen enough to know that the “official” security footage of his dramatic self-immolation at the feet of Amaya’s enormous child idol is entirely unreliable.Devs is one several recent shows whose characters are flatly preoccupied with data’s ability to contain the complexity of human lives within lines of code. (FX)Devs is only the latest in a series of puzzle-box shows more preoccupied with their own cleverness and their labyrinthine twists than with the burden of watchability. The past two seasons of Westworld have prized complexity over coherence; the work of Sam Esmail, specifically USA’s Mr. Robot and Amazon’s Homecoming, has set a tone for jarring, dour auteur-driven drama. Garland’s own style is distinct (think the chilling, philosophical agitations of Ex Machina or the vivid eco-horror of Annihilation), and yet the director seems to have come to television, like so many of his film peers, with little sense of what the medium offers other than extra time. The mysteries of Devs don’t unspool so much as eke out in a torturously slow drip. And the show’s aesthetic details—the score by Ben Salisbury and Portishead’s Geoff Barrow, the Kubrickian jumps and color-blocked portrait shots—feel so detached from the story that they’re often insufferable.The overarching theme within Devs is the relationship between data and determinism. The more data tell us about ourselves, the more we can predict human behavior and the more free will is eroded, Garland suggests. Forest and his deputy, Katie (Alison Pill), talk about the delineations and divides within determinist theory in surprising detail (although the show’s casual treatment of quantum computing and the meaning of the multiverse might send you straight to Google). The universe, Forest explains to Sergei in the first episode, is “godless and neutral and defined only by physical laws.” Humans “fall into an illusion of free will,” he argues, “because the tramlines are invisible.” But they’re there, all the same.Oddly, Garland seems flummoxed by simpler dialogue. “Sir, you’ve got more money than God,” an employee tells Forest. “You think I care about money?” he replies. “You did once.” “Well now I don’t.” Lily’s ex-boyfriend tells her, “I know you. You do stuff. The stuff other people only think about, you go ahead and do it.” By the time a character in the final episode trots out the old “Don’t blame me; it was predetermined” excuse, it’s hard to believe that these characters are human beings at all.The more data tell us about ourselves, the more we can predict human behavior and the more free will is eroded, Garland suggests. (FX)Garland was an art-history major, and Devs leans heavily on the idea that art in particular is what separates humans from advanced artificial intelligence. A pivotal character quotes Larkin and Yeats and cites Bach and Coltrane as the pinnacle of human significance. So it’s ironic that Devs is so robotic. Interactions between characters are as languid and ambiguous as a Harold Pinter play, without the accompanying tension. If Garland is trying to make the point that working in tech has robbed these people of their soul, he’s succeeded. But he has also left his show devoid of animation, of passion, of any emotion that might pull the story out of the automated culture he’s trying to indict.The determinism-driven paranoia of Devs dances through Season 3 of Westworld, which for the first time leaves the park of the show’s title to explore what real life looks like in a world that abuses robots. The first two seasons of Westworld explored the idea that the AI “hosts” were being tortured—not only by the physical and sexual violence they endured at the hands of the park’s glumly sadistic visitors, but by the scripted narratives, or story loops, that suppressed their agency, their ability to think or feel for themselves outside of their coding. In Season 3, whose tagline is “Free will is not free,” the show suggests for the first time that the robots aren’t the only ones whose lives conform to existing scripts. One of the new villains in the first four episodes is Serac (played by the French actor Vincent Cassel), a reclusive trillionaire who’s found an algorithm that uses data to predict the future for every human on Earth.The show’s creators, Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan, seem bruised by some of the criticism of the second season, with its indecipherable strata of conceits involving the Man in Black, the mythical game-within-a-game, the potential immortality of both humans and robots, and a timeline jumpier than a flea circus. So in Season 3, everything is markedly different. In a futuristic, Blade Runner–esque Los Angeles, a new character, Caleb (played by Breaking Bad’s Aaron Paul), tries to navigate life as a veteran, unfulfilled by his day job as a construction worker and disaffected by his nighttime activities of app-enabled petty crime. Through Caleb, Westworld suggests that humans outside the park are being manipulated into following the same prewritten paths, the same “tramlines,” as Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood), Maeve (Thandie Newton), and the other hosts.Westworld Season 3’s tagline is “Free will is not free.” The show suggests for the first time that the robots aren’t the only ones whose lives conform to existing scripts.Determinism aside, this is a zanier, sillier Westworld, and much more entertaining for it. When Caleb successfully commits crimes, his app tells him, “You made bank, now get drank.” Self-flying drones transport the ludicrously wealthy from one rooftop poolside martini bar to another. Dolores apparently escaped Westworld at the end of Season 2 to joyride motorcycles in scarlet bandage dresses, as if she’d somehow teleported into the Fast and the Furious franchise. Marshawn Lynch plays a new character whose T-shirt acts as a mood ring, spelling out whether he’s angry or amused or bored.But through it all, the show’s anxiety about free will—and its extension of that conundrum to its human characters—is apparent. That everything takes place in a near-future landscape complete with product placement for Coach and Tory Burch only makes the show’s willingness to untangle subliminal cues more ironic. How much do we actually decide things for ourselves, Westworld wonders, and how much are we steered by the systems around us? “You and I are a lot alike,” Dolores tells Caleb in one scene. “They put you in a cage, Caleb. Decided what your life should be. They did the same thing to me.” If Devs is angsting over the moral and existential significance of technology that still seems—for now—out of reach, Westworld is taking the data mining and user profiling of contemporary life to its logical, dystopian extreme. The requisite “We’re not so different, you and I” speech here comes not between hero and villain, but between human and robot.
2020-03-11 14:28:00
2021-05-08T11:29:18.000000
1 y
theatlantic.com
The Film That You Might Not Hear About but Have to See
The journey that Cookie Figowitz (played by John Magaro) took to get to the Oregon territory in 1820 was clearly a difficult one. As Kelly Reichardt’s new film, First Cow ,opens, he’s near the end of his trek, clambering over challenging terrain and dodging threats from his fur-trapping companions. By comparison, the voyage of the first cow to set foot in Oregon seems graceful: She enters the screen floating upriver on a raft, transported across the continent as an ostentatious display of wealth by a local trader attempting to force his old world into this new one. Reichardt’s movie is a quiet study of such incongruities—the story of a docile, domesticated creature entering the untamed wild, and an intimate friendship blossoming amid the cruelty of developing capitalism. It’s a small, understated movie, but it’s also one of the best of the year so far.First Cow—co-written by Reichardt and Jon Raymond, and loosely adapted from Raymond’s novel The Half-Life—has a touch of the caper genre and a sprinkling of buddy comedy. It also has all the hallmarks of Reichardt’s past work. Acclaimed by critics, the film is a profound examination of social hierarchies on a personal scale, a work that grapples with global themes in the silent pauses between conversations. The action plays out mostly in ramshackle hutches or thick vegetation, and Reichardt’s visual approach relies on her usual naturalism. She captures the beauty of the forest not via wide-angle vistas, but through a tight, square aspect ratio that makes the woodland feel overwhelming, almost impossible for any human to change.[Read: Kelly Reichardt talks with Bong Joon Ho about how she made ‘First Cow’]Both Cookie and the cow have come west with the boom of “soft gold,” the beaver-fur industry that drove European interests all the way to the Pacific Northwest. While the cow is a purely ornamental possession of the reigning trading company’s Chief Factor (Toby Jones), Cookie’s journey is about the promise of a new, independent life. He befriends a Chinese immigrant named King Lu (Orion Lee), a fellow outsider in search of a future, and the two men quickly hit on a bizarre but simple business scheme. They steal the milk from the Chief Factor’s cow at night and use it to make donut-like treats that they dub “oily cakes”—and that soon catch the attention of the Chief Factor himself.Reichardt captures the beauty of the forest in a tight aspect ratio that makes the looming woodlands feel overwhelming. (A24)“History hasn’t gotten here yet,” King tells Cookie wistfully, envisioning Oregon as a world where he can live outside the boundaries of social station and nationality. Yet the viewer knows that commerce is flooding in, and that the Chief Factor’s cow is the first milestone of many in a land that will be radically transformed. Cookie and King’s surreptitious milking of the cow can barely be called a crime, yet the Chief Factor’s status forbids it; the cow and her milk are his property. For all the mythos around the frontier as a land of opportunity, Oregon’s ranks of power are already so rigid that even Cookie and King’s humble dreams of entrepreneurship sound far-fetched.Reichardt has long excelled at smuggling those kinds of provocative messages into such simple, spare narratives. Wendy and Lucy, a 2008 drama about a young homeless woman trying to make her way up to Alaska in search of work, uses a series of small obstacles to build up a crushing sense of futility, demonstrating how a seemingly minor inconvenience can amount to life or death for someone on the margins of society. Though First Cow lacks that film’s contemporary thrust, it has the same atmosphere of hopelessness for Cookie and King in the face of encroaching capitalism, mercilessly chugging down the Columbia River like a barge full of cattle.Even so, Reichardt’s astonishing gift at managing tone ensures that First Cow never comes off as bleak or unrelentingly grim. Cookie and King’s connection is genuinely heartwarming. Reichardt depicts many of their misadventures (including a mission that involves making a clafoutis for the Chief Factor and his upper-crust guests) with a light comic touch, which turns riveting as the stakes get higher for the pair’s baking operation. First Cow is a masterwork of indie cinema—a tale that’s both charming and unsparing, suffused with equal measures of wonder and dread.
2020-03-10 18:36:44
2021-05-08T11:29:18.000000
1 y
theatlantic.com
The Jazz Great Behind One of the Most Famous Pairings in Music History
Walk into any jazz room, anywhere on Earth, on any night, and you’ll probably hear a keyboardist copping McCoy Tyner’s licks and tricks.Even though the piano player, who died Friday at 81, played in John Coltrane’s classic quartet—one of the most famous and influential combos in history—his towering legacy was not a foregone conclusion. At the height of Tyner’s career, his playing was sometimes dismissed or overlooked, and he nearly quit music a few years later before regaining his footing. But his sturdy and timeless style was so powerful that it made him one of the most imitated, and admired, pianists in jazz.Tyner’s great achievement was the creation of a sound rooted in the blues but suited to the avant-garde. Its hallmarks are relatively simple to describe, belying its revolutionary impact: There are the great cascades of left-hand chords, less ludic than Thelonious Monk’s surprise attacks but no less jagged or forceful. There are the trilling flurries of notes in the right hand. And there are the signature open, epic chords. Despite all the imitators, Tyner’s playing is usually instantly recognizable—he was, as his 1967 masterpiece had it, The Real McCoy.Tyner emerged from a Philadelphia jazz scene overflowing with talent. Among his peers were the trumpeter Lee Morgan and the drummer Tootie Heath. Just a few years older were saxophonists Jimmy Heath (who died in January) and Coltrane. As a teen, Tyner was so obsessed with the bebop-piano progenitors Monk and Bud Powell that his friends called him “Bud Monk.” Tyner became friends with Coltrane when the older man was briefly living at home in Philadelphia in the late 1950s, and when he launched his own band, he invited Tyner to join.[Read: Thelonious Monk’s quiet, slow conquest of the world]From 1962 to 1965, that group—rounded out by Elvin Jones on drums and Jimmy Garrison on bass—produced one of the most impressive runs in music history, including classics like Crescent and Impressions, and A Love Supreme, a top contender for the greatest jazz record ever. Aside from Coltrane, Tyner was the pivotal member of the group. “When you are thinking of Coltrane playing ‘My Favorite Things’ or ‘A Love Supreme,’ you may be thinking of the sound of Mr. Tyner almost as much as that of Coltrane’s saxophone,” writes the critic Ben Ratliff.Coltrane was at the time rewriting not only what a saxophonist could play, but also what any improviser could do, and Tyner’s accompaniment laid a foundation for his boss’s work. “My current pianist, McCoy Tyner, holds down the harmonies, and that allows me to forget them,” Coltrane said in 1961. “He’s sort of the one who gives me wings and lets me take off from the ground from time to time.”Tyner attributed the band’s success to his and Coltrane’s shared background in R&B music, but Tyner wasn’t just recycling old blues tricks. To hold those harmonies down, he reached for unusual modes—alternatives to the familiar Western scale—and left room for experimentation by using chords with the interval of a fourth (think “Here Comes the Bride”). By sidestepping the third note of the scale, Tyner could make the music seem neither major nor minor. The openness lent itself to sweeping vistas of sound. Meanwhile, Tyner added rhythmic propulsion with his thumping left hand, creating something like a cubist rendition of 1920s stride piano.As the pianist, composer, and critic Ethan Iverson wrote in a 2018 essay, Tyner didn’t get much critical respect at the time. Write-ups of Coltrane’s band tended to disparage Tyner’s range as limited—though they often ignored him altogether in favor of the saxophonist. But the style he created transformed the way the piano is played in jazz, effectively influencing those who took it up after him. (Tyner’s influence was not limited to jazz. Bob Weir, the Grateful Dead’s innovative rhythm guitarist, has said he learned to accompany Jerry Garcia by imitating Tyner’s backing of Coltrane.)“No one—not Art Tatum, not Powell, not Monk, not Bill Evans—dropped a bomb on jazz pianists quite like McCoy Tyner,” Iverson wrote. “There was pre-McCoy and post-McCoy, and that was all she [w]rote.”Tyner’s place in the pantheon would have been secure if he’d never recorded another track after quitting Coltrane’s band, whose sound was, by the mid-’60s, too loud and chaotic for Tyner’s tastes. Tyner struggled to get gigs in the ensuing years, leading to his nearly quitting music. His experience doesn’t speak well for how America treats its greatest artists, though Tyner remembered the period with equanimity. (“Sometimes struggle’s good—it gives you conviction,” he told me in 2006. “You know, you might say caviar is terrible, but you gotta eat that caviar first … Give me a sandwich, I’m fine.”)But the music Tyner made even in that period was stellar. The Real McCoy burns from top to bottom, applying the new ideas of the Coltrane group to a more conventional jazz quartet. Expansions finds Tyner thriving with a larger ensemble—and what an ensemble it is: the trumpeter Woody Shaw, saxophonists Wayne Shorter and Gary Bartz, and Ron Carter on cello, plus a rhythm section.Tyner never went electric, which may have inhibited his commercial success in the 1970s jazz-fusion period. But much of his output during those years is both accessible to nonjazz listeners and uncompromising in quality. Work like the indelible 1973 “Walk Spirit, Talk Spirit” (a mystical ostinato that will get stuck in your head for days) and the string-section-adorned 1976 outing Fly With the Wind don’t just presage the recent crossover success of artists like Kamasi Washington—they also run circles around the modern-day copycats.If Tyner never fully escaped Coltrane’s shadow, who could blame him? Neither has any other jazz musician since, and Tyner had been integral to the success of the Coltrane quartet. But Tyner was modest about his legacy. When I asked how he wanted to be described as a player, he eschewed technical language or generic labels and replied, “As a guy who wasn’t afraid to take his chances—and hopefully to come out with something relevant!”He wasn’t, and what he came out with remains as startlingly relevant as it was 60 years ago.
2020-03-10 16:54:00
2021-05-08T11:29:18.000000
1 y
theatlantic.com
The Claustrophobic Menace of Boarding-School Fiction
The writer Rachel Cusk opens her 2009 essay “Shakespeare’s Daughters” by asking, “Can we … identify something that could be called ‘women’s writing’?” What Cusk seeks is “not simply a literature made by women but one that arises out of, and is shaped by, a set of specifically female conditions.” Why, she asks, don’t more women writers strive to describe the frustrations and limitations of life under patriarchy, which, “being a type of relationship, can never be resolved, only reconfigured”? Why not write “the book of repetition,” with female characters kept in place by social and perhaps biological constraints?Cusk suggests that male-dominated literary culture may discourage such work. She notes, too, that it is “pleasanter”—more exciting, more fun—to tell stories in which characters and their circumstances change than to write stories of monotony. These concerns have not vanished since 2009, and yet the intervening decade has seen a proliferation of novels that might answer Cusk’s description of women’s writing: Cusk’s own Outline trilogy, Sheila Heti’s Motherhood, Sally Rooney’s Conversations With Friends. These novels use repetition in two ways: They are cyclical in structure, and they have protagonists prone to mirroring both the people around them and their own past selves. The results are aching portraits of entrapment, and have resonated strongly with readers. Still, by design, they offer little hope. Of course, not all writers aspire to model progress; nor do all readers seek such models. But for some, the pure “book of repetition” may prove less appealing than the hybrid approach two recent novels have taken. Scarlett Thomas’s Oligarchy and Clare Beams’s The Illness Lesson first use a Cusk-like method to depict women’s subjugation, then turn, in their last act, toward change.DoubledayStylistically, the two novels are near opposites. Thomas sets Oligarchy in contemporary England and writes in snappy prose, while Beams locates The Illness Lesson in 1800s Massachusetts and expertly blends 19th-century and modern diction. But both are set at all-girls boarding schools, which prove fertile settings for exploring patriarchal authority. Both books see male headmasters strive to mold and constrain their female students, who are far more interested in imitating one another than in pleasing men. This behavior turns into illnesses that set off identical, frightening feedback loops: The sicker the girls get, the more vulnerable to male predation they become.In Oligarchy, Thomas’s tenth adult novel, the illness in question is anorexia. The protagonist, Natasha, a Russian plutocrat’s daughter, enrolls at a posh British boarding school where thinness equals social currency. Thomas establishes this dynamic swiftly, using teenage bluntness to maximum effect. (“Your thighs should not touch each other anywhere,” one classmate tells Natasha curtly.) Natasha’s instinct is to associate fatness with power, but seeking acceptance, she acquiesces to her peers’ “secret and weird” starvation diets. Oddly, their headmaster, Dr. Moone, encourages this behavior, accelerating the students’ transformation into, as Natasha puts it, “hungry ghosts.”Slowly, Thomas turns her characters’ collective diet obsession into a source of warped female solidarity, which makes for a strangely destabilized reading experience. As the girls mirror and control one another, their adolescent cruelty gives way to mutual protectiveness. The point of view begins sliding among them, as if they share one consciousness. These shifts are crucial to the plot’s advancement; through the perspective of one of Natasha’s peers, readers learn that, when alone with his favorite students, Dr. Moone expounds on his “theory of asthenics, where bodies must be lean, breastless, taut.” He is slowly convincing the students—and worse, getting them to convince one another—that physical frailty is a worthy goal.Oligarchy uses the familiar phenomena of adolescent copycatting and boarding-school insularity to cannily—and eerily—create a world that feels women-focused but proves to be the reverse. Outside fiction, misogyny and thin privilege—to borrow a term popularized by the writer Cora Harrington—have a comparable, if more diffuse, effect. For girls and women, thinness comes with a measure of social acceptance that often serves as an incentive to lose weight, even if that process is arduous, time-consuming, expensive, or dangerous. In Oligarchy, too, bodily control seems to bring the girls closer to power. But more often, it distracts them, or stands in their way.Oligarchy is deeply concerned with male control of women’s minds and bodies, but it puts the body first. The Illness Lesson takes the opposite approach. For Beams and her protagonist, intellectual life—and, ultimately, intellectual freedom—is paramount. Caroline has spent her whole life as the protégé of her philosopher father, Samuel, and depends on him for affection and purpose. Finding no place for a female thinker in 1800s Massachusetts, she retreats into Samuel’s world. When he decides that they should start an experimental girls’ school, Caroline takes issue with his pedagogical insistence that “the soul does not have a sex,” but caves to her father and teaches his way.Beams treats her novel’s central relationship as an opportunity to explore the pitfalls of female allegiance to patriarchy. Trained in what Cusk calls “masculine values,” Caroline struggles with female friendship and becomes oddly competitive with her most assertive student, Eliza, around whom the girls begin to unite. Samuel is delighted by his students’ growing harmony, referring to them as “one body,” but Caroline finds their desire to mimic one another threatening.Almost as one, the girls begin displaying mysterious symptoms: fainting, rashes, physical weakness, a humming hesitance when they talk. Beams never clarifies whether the disease is real, occult, or psychosomatic, but I read it as the last. Regardless of cause, the girls’ symptoms derail the school’s operations, which readers view primarily through Caroline’s eyes. Beams typically delineates her protagonist’s thoughts with analytical clarity, but when it comes to the illness, she lets Caroline slide into murky, recursive thinking. Soon, the reason emerges: Caroline herself has contracted the girls’ disease.With this development, Beams dooms her protagonist’s loyalty to Samuel, who treats the mysterious disease as simply an inconvenience that “must be addressed before [his] project can continue.” Horribly, his solution is to summon a predatory male doctor and ignore Caroline’s protests against the resulting “cure.” Beams uses Samuel’s willful deafness to make Caroline admit the bitter truth: Her father’s egalitarian ideas are empty. He will never trust a woman’s account of her own experience. The moment she sees this, her devotion to him is replaced by a driving urge to become “clean and empty with newness.” Wanting to exchange her ideas and her experiences completely, she flees her father’s house for a girls’ school run by women, symbolically and literally abandoning patriarchal control.For Cusk, this departure—and Natasha’s analogous departure from her terrible boarding school—might render The Illness Lesson and Oligarchy irredeemably male “book[s] of change.” Yet both novels rely heavily on characters repeating one another’s behaviors—and, in The Illness Lesson, repeating their own mistakes. This cyclical mirroring serves well to represent what Cusk calls the “eternal and unvarying” nature of female life under patriarchy. But Beams and Thomas also vary the unvarying: Steering their protagonists toward liberation, they seem to suggest that an honest reckoning with misogyny might produce not only solidarity, but also change.
2020-03-09 18:03:00
2021-05-08T11:29:18.000000
1 y
theatlantic.com
The Rappers Who Are Breaking Up With Britain
The concept of The Long Goodbye, a new album by Riz Ahmed, is that Great Britain is a girlfriend who threw him out. Ahmed, a 37-year-old rapper with a robust acting career, begins the album with a hoarse spoken-word piece about a romance marked by conquest, battles, dominance, protest, reconciliation. The details could apply to two lovers, or to the British empire and the people it colonized on the Indian subcontinent; it could take place over a few years or over a few centuries. Brexit arrives in the form of an existential crisis for “Brittney”—get it?—that causes her to turn on Ahmed, the London-born son of Pakistani immigrants. “Says she blames me for how lately she feels lost,” Ahmed says. “How she ain’t what she was and our kids don’t show no love / So now she’s taking back control / And she wants me to fuck off.”For the next few songs, Ahmed keeps working at the relationship metaphor, and between-song voicemails feature friends consoling their jilted buddy. “I never trusted that bitch,” the actor Mindy Kaling says in one skit. “Listen, do not let her kick you out of the house that you built. And if you have to go, take half.” But later in the album, Ahmed seems to drop the allegory and turns to out-and-out condemnations of the U.K. The “I” turns into a persecuted “we,” “the mans that Bannon put travel bans on,” who are so often written off as criminals or victims: “All we ever do is die / They either bomb us or we suicide.” The short film that Ahmed created to go with the album has no cute romance metaphor at all. He portrays the cozy home life of immigrants and their children in a U.K. neighborhood, and he portrays white cops suddenly rounding the family members up and shooting them in the head.All in all, The Long Goodbye’s argument is unmissable and scathing: Ahmed thinks that Great Britain has been a hateful and abusive partner to immigrants and native-born people of color, who now must determine whether to flee or fight back. This might seem to be a surprisingly radical statement from a charmingceleb best known for roles in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story and HBO’s The Night Of. But Ahmed’s political consciousness has never been hidden. His rap career began with the satirical 2006 track “Post 9/11 Blues” and includes well-received protest music made in collaboration with Heems, of the band Das Racist. Ahmed’s newest work feels part of a wider turn in U.K. rap toward articulating post-Brexit heartbreak, fear, and fury.Ahmed’s sound is very much his own, using blocky beats and South Asian influences for jolting, if sometimes didactic, purposes. But in his inflections you hear traces of British hip-hop’s signature innovation: grime, a frenetic, complex style arising in the early 2000s from impoverished populations residing in public housing. Grime is political in much the same way that U.S. hip-hop, rooted in the lived experience of people squeezed by inequality and racism, has often been. “I’m a problem for Anthony Blair,” Dizzee Rascal rapped on his classic 2003 album, Boy in da Corner, referencing the prime minister whose “urban regeneration” agenda ramped up policing and surveillance.In the 2010s, grime splintered off into drill, a style ruled by wobbling, scanning bass sounds. Drill’s attention to the violence of street life has, in turn, drawn heavy scrutiny from law enforcement.Grime and drill have become big business, generating pop success in the U.K. and among admirers worldwide. Drake has openly raided British rap in recent years. The American rising star Pop Smoke, shot dead at age 20 last month, exemplified the Brooklyn drill boom that was directly inspired by English musicians (who originally drew from Chicago’s drill scene). The irony is that U.K. rap’s global takeover has coincided with Britain’s global retreat via Brexit—which has, itself, coincided with amped-up pressure on the communities that birthed these sounds. The 2016 vote for the U.K. to leave Europe cemented a feeling—the subject of Ahmed’s album—that a multicultural nation’s white residents had reached a toxic level of resentment toward their black and brown neighbors. Rising rates of urban violence in the U.K. have been met by the relaxation of policies meant to counter discriminatory policing. The 2017 Grenfell Tower fire that claimed 72 victims, many of them immigrants, became another flash point for discussions about injustice, racism, and government neglect.This confluence of news events and cultural movementshas made the U.K.’s recent major musical spectacles into political forums, largely thanks to hip-hop. While the past few Grammy ceremonies in the U.S. have generated controversy mainly about the show itself, the headlines out of the U.K.’s equivalent event, the BRIT Awards, have been about the state of the nation. In 2018, the grime star Stormzy directed a freestyle at then–Prime Minister Theresa May for her handling of Grenfell: “You should do some jail time / You should pay some damages / We should burn your house down and see if you can manage this.” Two years later, the rapper Dave—in a year of acclaim for his elegant and richly emotional music—performed his controversial single “Black” with a bonus verse. In it, he called Prime Minister Boris Johnson a “real racist.” He also ticked through various recent offenses to black Britons, including by noting “how the news treats Kate [Middleton] versus how they treated Meghan [Markle].” In both Stormzy’s and Dave’s cases, those callouts were delivered with a potent blend of anger and mourning. In both instances, government officials were moved to reply.That same mix of moods defines Nothing Great About Britain, the buzzy 2019 album from the 25-year-old rapper Slowthai. The title sums up its confrontational message, which draws a direct line between Brexit politics and deeper, day-to-day inequalities. The songs are dense thickets of sound borrowing from both grime and U.K. rock traditions such as post-punk and new wave. Slowthai uses a raw, throaty yowl as he describes the reality of drugs, violence, and discrimination in his hometown of Northampton. One rollicking single, “Doorman,” moshes its way toward its point about class divides. The opening track sees him blithely calling Queen Elizabeth II by the U.K.’s favorite vulgarity. But there’s sensitivity in the album too, like when he visualizes his own mother on the night of his birth: “Northampton General, 1994 / Mixed race baby born / Christmas well a week before / Mum’s 16, family’s poor / Family’s all she needs / How they gonna show her the door?”Indeed, what’s remarkable about U.K. hip-hop in this moment is how deftly it connects personal testimony to a story unfolding globally. Amid the best albums released so far this year is J Hus’s Big Conspiracy, in which the 23-year-old son of Gambian immigrants uses a consolingly smooth voice over music that connects Afrobeats, dancehall, R&B, grime, and drill. Brexit gets no mention, but the dangerous reality created by segregation and failed policy does. As a wave of knife crime has commanded U.K. headlines, Hus has been arrested for carrying a blade, has been stabbed himself, and has been criticized as glorifying violence. This new album, his second, does not shy away from issuing threats or darkly contemplating his own survival. But the mayhem unfolds with a sense of grace and exhaustion, and against a larger social backdrop. In the opening track, he asks, “There’s no law; how can I be law abiding?” Another sing-along chorus goes, “How can you sleep at night when you don’t even fight for your rights?” The melody of that line is lullaby-like, but the sentiment is galvanizing: the ever more familiar sound of hurt turning to resolve.
2020-03-09 16:34:00
2021-05-08T11:29:18.000000
1 y
theatlantic.com
Sexism Is Other People
In January 2019, more than a year before the first vote would be cast in the 2020 Democratic primaries, the humor site McSweeney’s published an essay that was narrated by an unnamed husband and father of daughters. The essay’s headline: “I Don’t Hate Women Candidates—I Just Hated Hillary and Coincidentally I’m Starting to Hate Elizabeth Warren.” Its conclusion: I’d love to see a female President. Just not Hillary Clinton. Or Elizabeth Warren. I am totally open to all other women leaders, but I have to admit that Kamala Harris and Amy Klobuchar are beginning to make me angry and I’m not sure why yet, but I know the reason will become clear soon … This was a joke that was also deeply unfunny, and the essay, written by Devorah Blachor, was widely circulated in the year that followed. I saw it pinging around Facebook and Twitter and my group chats, month after month, its URL often punctuated with a
2020-03-08 13:00:00
2021-05-08T11:29:18.000000
1 y
theatlantic.com
Ben Affleck Gives the Performance of His Career
Over the past few years, Ben Affleck has projected an onscreen energy that one might generously describe as “world-weary.” As a movie star, he’s experienced peaks and valleys, but his recent air of detachment came at an ostensible high point in his career, as he took on the role of Batman for a comic-book franchise. When Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice came out in 2016, Affleck had recently won his second Oscar (the 2013 Best Picture trophy for his film Argo) and gotten stellar reviews for his performance in Gone Girl. So why did he seem so bored while clad in a suit of armor battling bad guys?His personal life certainly played a part. Affleck had separated from Jennifer Garner, his wife of 12 years, in 2015 (they divorced two years later), and was admitted to rehab for alcohol addiction in 2017 and again in 2018. But the actor never discussed that difficult period in much detail until now, with the release of his new movie, The Way Back. A restrained and impressive drama from the director Gavin O’Connor, the film stars Affleck as an alcoholic basketball coach trying to get his life on track. In a lengthy interview with The New York Times last month, Affleck talked about his struggles with drinking and how “therapeutic” he found the role, one that O’Connor said the actor was “ready to go to really deep, dark places” with.That connection and dedication shows: The Way Back features the rawest and most natural performance Affleck has given in his career. He’s the worthy centerpiece of a small, character-focused drama—the sort of project that’s all too rare in Hollywood these days. Affleck plays Jack Cunningham, a high-school basketball phenomenon who has fallen on hard times and is coaxed back to his alma mater to coach its hoops team. The film has the ring of an inspirational sports drama, focusing on Jack’s journey to sobriety through his connection with his students. But the script avoids unnecessary speechifying and clean-and-simple lessons about how to overcome addiction, emphasizing how gradual and difficult Jack’s journey to recovery will be.The biggest reason the movie works, though, is Affleck himself. That’s something I’m not sure I would say about any other film he has been in, especially as he’s become better known for his work behind the camera with movies like The Town and Argo. This is not to say I dislike Affleck as a performer; he’s done standout work in comic fare such as Chasing Amy and Shakespeare in Love, and in restrained, almost forgotten 2000s dramas such as Changing Lanes and State of Play.In David Fincher’s Gone Girl, Ben Affleck’s leading-man charm belied a seething dark side. (20th Century Fox / Everett Collection)In the past, he worked best when his director knew exactly how to play off of his star image, and there’s no better example than David Fincher’s Gone Girl, in which Affleck plays a handsome golden boy suspected of murdering his wife. Fincher understood how to warp Affleck’s easygoing appeal with the slightest sense of menace, and the result called to mind Hitchcock’s collaboration with popular movie stars such as Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart. As the avuncular Nick Dunne, Affleck leaned into his dimple-chinned charm as he insisted he knew nothing of the disappearance of his wife, Amy (Rosamund Pike), all the while dropping hints that his marquee-idol looks were a façade for his insecurities. Looking back at Gone Girl helps explain why the authentic bluntness of The Way Back feels like such a departure: The new movie isn’t about Affleck the leading man, but rather Affleck the person.The undercurrent of darkness that Fincher tapped into for Gone Girl likely appealed to Zack Snyder, who picked Affleck to play Batman as a veteran of crime-fighting drained of enough idealism to be provoked into a fight with the idealist Superman. But Affleck’s performance was drowned out by frantic world-building and endless action sequences; his larger-than-life character felt lifeless. Batman v. Superman was a hit at the box office, but was poorly received by critics, and its follow-up, Justice League, which suffered through extensive rounds of reshoots, was a critically reviled financial disappointment. Plans to have Affleck write, direct, and star in a solo Batman movie were shelved (that film is now being made with Robert Pattinson in the lead role).(Richard Foreman / Warner Bros.)Affleck was indeed as uninterested in the press tour for Dawn of Justice as he seemed to be at the time, the actor told the Times in the February profile. “I showed somebodythe Batman script,” Affleck recalled of his shelved solo movie. “They said, ‘I think the script is good. I also think you’ll drink yourself to death if you go through what you just went through again.’” Now, instead of making impersonal franchise fare or movies that rely on his film-star presence, he’s currently focused on playing haunted and broken men in smaller, adult-themed dramas. The pathos that Affleck brought to his performance in last year’s Triple Frontier helped elevate the rather excellent action film, in which he played an alcoholic veteran who meets a tragic end.Affleck’s onscreen vulnerability is even more powerful in The Way Back. He plays Jack with lumbering physicality, knowing exactly how to dramatize his drunken stupors by slowing down his movements and dulling his reflexes. Affleck communicates all of the movie’s emotional breakthroughs via little choices—an angry swipe at an empty beer can when he’s being pressed on his drinking, or slowly curling into a ball when he admits the extent of his problem. It’s the kind of subtlety I’ve never seen Affleck demonstrate as a performer. The fact that he brings his real-life battles to the movie may be uncomfortable for some viewers, but the actor insists he approached the role carefully. “The benefits, to me, far outweighed the risks. I found it very therapeutic,” Affleck told the Times of playing a character with alcoholism. The director, O’Connor, added, “I think that Ben, in an artistic way, in a deeply human way, wanted to confront his own issues through this character and heal.”If The Way Back—and upcoming films like Ridley Scott’s The Last Duel—is the start of a genuine comeback for Affleck, it wouldn’t be his first return to form. He became a superstar in the 1990s, winning a writing Oscar for Good Will Hunting and appearing in blockbusters such as Armageddon. But he saw his A-list status fade after a string of flops, including Gigli and Jersey Girl. He reclaimed the spotlight mostly by displaying his talents as a filmmaker, then was brought low again by a combination of personal troubles, old scandals, and the Batman flop. For Affleck, the way back has tended to involve risk-taking. This time, he could rebound by leaving the superhero act behind and taking on roles that hold real meaning for him.
2020-03-07 17:42:01
2021-05-08T11:29:18.000000
1 y
theatlantic.com
Hulu’s Hillary Is a Warning
Despite the title, Hillary isn’t really about Hillary. Not to the docuseries’ director, Nanette Burstein, anyway.As a veteran of telling stories about controversial subjects, Burstein knew a documentary about one of the most prominent modern political figures would likely be short on revelations. Even with her exclusive access to Hillary Clinton and an array of her friends and staffers, the director understood that she’d be covering the same bases as Clinton’s own memoirs. So instead, Burstein approached Clinton’s life story as a case study, a way to try to answer a pivotal question about the state of U.S. politics today: Can a woman ever—really, actually, not just as a rhetorical question or thought exercise—become president?Throughout Hillary, which premiered yesterday on Hulu, Burstein splices archival clips from Clinton’s career with footage from her 2016 campaign. Those videos—culled from about 1,700 hours documenting the former presidential candidate on the road—had originally been shot by Clinton’s team in the hopes of making a retrospective film about her bid for office. The director, who sought to expand the scope of that project after the election, approached her interviews with Clinton with the intention not only of getting to know her subject, but also of understanding why people found Clinton so compelling—and so polarizing.Burstein and I spoke in January in Pasadena, California, shortly after she introduced the docuseries as part of Hulu’s presentation for the Television Critics Association press tour. She arrived onstage alongside Clinton herself, to the great interest of the journalists in the room. (A network’s slate preview doesn’t usually feature guests who come with a Secret Service presence.) To Burstein, that fascination—positive or negative—with Clinton made for the perfect gateway to explore her own interests in the docuseries. “As I got deeper into [studying Clinton], I really felt like, well, this is an opportunity to understand some of the things I most care about, which is the history of contemporary feminism in the United States, and the history of partisan politics and how that works,” she told me.As a result, Hillary covers Clinton’s rise to celebrity and feminist-icon status as much as it interrogates the intensity with which people react to her actions, and it does so without cinematic flair. The most conspicuous creative choice Burstein makes is to use Clinton’s 2016 campaign as an anchor to tell the rest of her life story, illuminating the contradictory expectations that have persisted throughout Clinton’s career. She weaves together proof of hatred (a clip of her being burned in effigy for pushing health-care reform as first lady in 1994) and of ardent adoration (news footage of women walking 13 hours to see her in India when she visited in 1995)—sequences that paint a picture of Clinton as a public figure who inspires visceral reactions. In her previous films, Burstein added artistic touches; The Kid Stays in the Picture told the story of the film producer Robert Evans mostly through stylized photographs. Hillary presents the story without embellishment or narration.It’s a call-and-response—here’s a scene from her 2016 run; now here’s what informed it—and it’s effective in its straightforward presentation. Burstein juxtaposes how, on the campaign trail, Clinton was criticized for coming off as too cold, yet years earlier, she’d been forced to learn how to be unemotional, to hold her ground as the rare female law student. Burstein shows how Clinton the candidate was accused of playing the “woman card,” but as first lady of Arkansas, she was once seen as not feminine enough. These contrasting snapshots accentuate Burstein’s point: that Clinton’s gender both helped and hindered her in unpredictable ways. She was scrutinized because of it, policed because of it, loved for it, hated for it. Any female politician who rises to national prominence, Hillary suggests, will be met with the same fierce admiration or harsh contempt. History tends to repeat itself, after all.When Hulu released the trailer for Hillary, the YouTube comments ranged from lingering #ImWithHer supporters applauding Burstein to detractors calling the director a modern-day Leni Riefenstahl. “I knew from the very beginning, doing this, no matter what I do, it will be criticized,” Burstein conceded. “It will be, ‘Oh, this is too fluffy,’ or ‘This is too critical. Please go away. Why are you doing this?’ No matter what we did, no matter how hard I tried to get at what I thought was the most honest depiction of all these very complicated things that come up, it will never be okay, and so I have to be okay with that.”Hillary covers Clinton’s rise to celebrity and feminist-icon status as much it interrogates the intensity with which people react to Clinton’s actions. (Barbara Kinney)Clinton’s polarizing reputation often worked against Burstein’s goal of making a balanced series. Her wish list of interviewees wasn’t limited to Clinton’s childhood friends; her husband, former President Bill Clinton; her daughter; and other political allies such as former President Barack Obama. She also spoke with journalists who covered Clinton closely and the Republican former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist. But Burstein had hoped to have more conservatives go on the record. “I really wanted more Republicans in it, but it was hard to get them to do that,” she told me. In fact, she recalled, the former speaker of the House Newt Gingrich so hated the idea of participating that he responded to her request by saying, “I would rather stick a needle in my eye than talk to you about Hillary Clinton in a documentary.”Burstein laughed after sharing the anecdote. “That was across the board,” she told me, listing other Republicans, including Olympia Snowe, Susan Collins, and Lindsey Graham—who wrote a tribute to Clinton in Time magazine in 2006—as major names she tried hard to recruit. “They all just said no,” Burstein said. “That surprised me.” Then again, she noted, she had been interested in exploring Clinton’s divisiveness. These rejections made for the perfect, albeit unusable, proof.When Clinton agreed to participate in Hillary, she wasn’t quite sure what she was in for. She wasn’t informed of the list of sources Burstein had reached out to, or whether the footage would be turned into a film or a series, or whether anything she said in her 35 hours of interviews—“marathons,” as she put it—would be useful. In fact, she told me that same day in Pasadena, she remembered less about herself than Burstein did.“[Nanette] had really mastered my life,” Clinton marveled, adding that Burstein spent a year studying her before turning the camera on. “She remembered things about my life in a sequence that I didn’t remember! Like, ‘Did that happen then?’ ‘Yes, that happened then.’ ‘Oh, okay!’ … I’m in awe of what they pulled together, because it would be impossible for me to take even the 35 hours of my interview and make sense of it. It was all over the place.”Burstein overprepared for a reason. She’d hoped her extensive research would help Clinton process her past more deeply and openly when the time came for their interviews. This would be the first time in decades, she reasoned, that Clinton would be able to engage in a wide-ranging conversation about herself as a private citizen. “This is the first time she hasn’t had to be careful,” Burstein said.Indeed, even during our conversation, Clinton seemed eager to be able to speak openly about the upcoming presidential election; she sees the candidates facing the same issues that she did in 2016. “As I’ve told every one of the candidates that I’ve talked to, ‘Voter suppression is still going to hurt you. The stealing of your emails and the weaponization of them will hurt you. The fake news propaganda, especially with Facebook not reining in false ads—that will help people who spread false information.’” She added, “So the press has to be more vigilant; voters have to be more vigilant; social media should take more responsibility, which apparently only some will do, not all. And that’s going to be the contest.”Clinton’s bluntness emerges throughout the docuseries. When reflecting on her attempts to reform health care as the first lady, she admits that she made “a mistake.” When talking about her 2016 primary opponent and current presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, she calls him a “career politician” who “got nothing done,” to the consternation of Sanders’s supporters. And when she discusses her loss to Donald Trump, she’s forthright. “I was totally emotionally wrecked. I felt like I let everybody down,” she says in the final episode. “I was the one who didn’t figure it out… I have to take responsibility.” This is a Clinton less guarded, showing her pain—and her pride. “I am the most investigated innocent person in America,” she jokingly laments at one point. These moments provide a stark contrast to the Clinton seen in archival footage, who trained herself to temper her reactions in public after early mishaps drew backlash. Hillary frames the Clinton of yesteryear as a woman who learned that to be taken seriously as a lawmaker, she’d have to wear a mask. She never fully removes it, of course, but in her interviews with Burstein, it occasionally slips.Burstein and Clinton talk behind the scenes. (Jack Berner)Sharing her thoughts out loud for hours on end seems to have been liberating for Clinton. Burstein, heard in a few scenes but never appears on camera, encourages her subject to explain why she’s been asked to answer for the same things year after year and why she’s the topic of such fervent debate—a subject Clinton has thought about endlessly. “It’s just the reality of my life,” Clinton explained to me. “I’m a historic figure because I was a part of history. I’ve tried to make a difference and to promote causes that I believe in.”Today, she’s passionate about changing the judgmental attitudes toward female politicians, to pave the way for the next Hillary Clinton. During our conversation, Clinton grew animated while pointing out the discrepancy in how the male and female presidential candidates have been spoken about in the press. “Look, every person is imperfect, and certainly every political leader isn’t perfect,” she said, “but I don’t think women should be held to a higher standard than their male counterparts, and I don’t think that the press should continue to use gendered stereotypes in describing women … I’ve given thousands of speeches by this time in my life, and I’ve been on platforms with lots of male candidates, and they have shouted, they have beaten the podium, they have gone crazy with their hands and arms, and nobody said a thing.”As she spoke, she waved her arms to demonstrate, her bangles jangling as she mimicked her male opponents. And then she shook her head. “A woman candidate? Her voice rises, and somehow that’s over a line.” An ever-shifting one, apparently.For the record, Clinton does think that perceptions of female candidates have shifted for the better. She points to the 2017 Women’s March as “an emotional high” and considers her own work with Onward Together, a political funding group, as “a very positive continuation of the energy and the rejection of the kind of politics that Trump represents. So many women came to me” after 2016, she said. “They called me, and they told me I had inspired them to run.”The docuseries ends on the same cautiously optimistic note. As Clinton talks about how she saw her loss “as the really historic turning point that lit the fuse” for women, a montage plays, showing clips of notable female politicians (Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Abigail Spanberger, Donna Shalala) and Democratic presidential candidates, including Amy Klobuchar, Kirsten Gillibrand, Elizabeth Warren, and Kamala Harris. It’s supposed to be galvanizing, with shots of the Women’s March meant to encourage viewers to join the movement. Clinton’s no longer alone, the scene declares.But only one woman—Tulsi Gabbard, who doesn’t appear in the montage—remains in the race. As we talked about 2020, Burstein noted that it’s easy for younger generations to perhaps misunderstand the challenge of being a female politician. “I was 21 when [Clinton] became first lady, and recognized how unique it was that she was a first kind of first lady,” she said. “I realize that young women today come from a different mentality.” Clinton grew up in an era when women rarely appeared in politics, she explained, and as much as that’s changed, the women’s movement requires longevity to succeed.In our conversation, Clinton hesitated only once—when she began to speak about the threats to women’s rights. “I hope people see [Hillary], yes, as my story, but as my story embedded in all the changes, particularly for women, that took place in the last half of the 20th century,” she said. “Because none of that is secure. There’s no guarantee that any of these rights that have been won and barriers that have been crossed won’t be pushed back on. I just want everybody to understand that.”Perhaps they will, if they read between the lines. Hillary, in its candid approach, offers a sober rendering of reality and lets the audience fill in the emotional blanks. In trying to cover 70 years of history, the episodes can come off rushed, even messy, as the series hopscotches throughout time, but the strategy ultimately helps the viewer see the big picture: that for all the gains Clinton made in her career and the idealism that kept her going after every setback, her goal—for a woman to make it to the Oval Office—hasn’t been met. No one has shattered the glass ceiling she cracked. The threat to what she considers her legacy might have inspired her to tell her story again.Hillary is a history lesson and a biopic, a celebration of and an elegy for a long political career, and most of all, a warning and an appeal to finish a job. Burstein makes the case that until a female politician can be seen as simply a politician, little will change. Maybe, Hillary hints, the question shouldn’t be whether a woman will ever be elected president. Maybe it should be why we can’t stop asking.
2020-03-07 14:00:00
2021-05-08T11:29:18.000000
1 y
theatlantic.com
What Happened When the Sex Pistols Threw a Christmas Party
By the end of 1977, the Sex Pistols were so drenched in notoriety that, as a band, they could barely function. Punk rock, originally an American import, had activated the imagination of Great Britain at a hysterical, medieval level, and the Pistols—swearing on live TV, getting to Number 1 with the banned single “God Save The Queen” (She ain’t no human being!)—were overnight bogeymen. Pale and twisted, neurally disenfranchised but making a huge, thick, derisive, airwave-jamming noise, they seemed to have limped out of the psychic shadows and seized power. The front man Johnny Rotten would hang off the mic stand like a licentious scarecrow; the new bassist Sid Vicious, his long limbs clanging, was an icon continually in the process of dismantling itself—a human Jean Tinguely sculpture. Their manager, Malcolm McLaren, meanwhile, had an agenda for uproar and no interest whatsoever in the well-being of his charges; for over a year his provocations and imbroglios had kept the band on the front pages of a gratefully disgusted tabloid press.And they had reaped the whirlwind: In June, in two separate attacks, Rotten was slashed with a razor and the drummer Paul Cook was beaten with an iron bar. Now, in the depths of winter, a projected U.K. tour had collapsed as the burghers of one municipality after another—local councilmen and members of Parliament—rose up with quivering jowls to denounce, reject, and foreclose these leering scapegoats. Nowhere to play.Except Huddersfield. On Christmas Day. At a venue called Ivanhoe’s, in a market town in West Yorkshire, the Sex Pistols would play a benefit show for the Fire Brigades Union, which had recently called its members out on strike in pursuit of a 30 percent wage increase. This was a very McLaren-esque piece of business: The Sex Pistols, avatars of sociopathy, would throw an afternoon Christmas party for the families of striking firefighters. Gifts, games, a cake, a performance, T-shirts for the children. What could be nicer? What could be worthier? Then they would play a second set for their fans.[Read: Donald Trump, Sex Pisto]lThe first show, the one for the kids, was extraordinary enough. Thank God we have the footage. Preteens with soft 1970s hair bounce and jive unselfconsciously, and with even a strange solemnity, as the band rips in gusts of joy through “God Save The Queen” and “Anarchy in the U.K.” No future for YEEEEEW! “Bodies”—She was a girl from Birming-HAM-uh / She’d just had an a-BOR-tion-ah!—acquires the pure and vicious resonance of a playground chant. The kids take the mic, sing along to the chorus: Mum-my! I’m not an animal! Johnny Rotten mashes his face into the Christmas cake during “Pretty Vacant.” The kids wave flags. Credit here the unscrupulous McLaren and his nose for the carnivalesque. An event this wholesomely riotous, this innocently lawless and punk-rock-paradoxical, if it happened today … well, it wouldn’t happen. It would be held in an art gallery.But it’s the second set, for the grown-ups, that concerns us here. Sex Pistols: The End Is Near 25.12.77 collects the in-show shots of the photographer Kevin Cummins, who was covering the concert for New Musical Express. That afternoon, at his parents’ house, Cummins had committed small-scale anarchy by getting up and leaving in the middle of Christmas lunch. This meant that he was also skipping the Queen’s televised speech, traditionally watched with boozy fealty by every single person in the country. “My father didn’t speak to me for at least three weeks,” he writes in his introduction.An event this wholesomely riotous, this innocently lawless and punk-rock-paradoxical, if it happened today ... well, it wouldn’t happen. (Kevin Cummins)No one, not even the ferally alert McLaren, knew it at the time, but this was the last show the Sex Pistols would play in England. Days after the Hudderfield show they would leave for a short, fiasco-filled tour of the U.S., a jaunt across the un-punk-rock South (Atlanta, Memphis, San Antonio, Baton Rouge) that was essentially an extended act of incitement. The band, as an entity, would not survive it. In less than three weeks, at San Francisco’s Winterland Ballroom, the Sex Pistols would explode, fall to bits, end. “Oh bollocks. Why should I carry on?” asked Rotten, pertinently, in the middle of a half-hearted assault on the Stooges’ “No Fun.” All of which adds a film of wistful irony to the power of Cummins’s photographs from Ivanhoe’s, because here are the Pistols in their pomp, on their mission, fully charged.[Read: Retro, cool, loud, and in-your-face: the aesthetic of punk]The images, from this distance, have an almost fairy-tale familiarity. Rotten, pint in hand, his hair still matted with cake icing, grins and writhes Uriah Heep-ishly, twisting his body to accommodate the demonic projections of the English unconscious. Steve Jones is slouched red-eyed over his guitar, raffishly infusing his glam-rock mega-chords with Chuck Berry momentum and heavy-metal crunch. Sid Vicious, soon to be infamous, soon to be dead, bass slung super-low, looks like a drawing from the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series: His small scowling features are etched blackly onto an empty white face. He’s there and he’s not there, an accident that might have already happened. (McLaren would later characterize Sid’s aura as a “halo of anarchy.”) The current of the performance never seems to slacken. Cummins’s lens catches the band in no instants of shapelessness or non-Sex-Pistols-ness; their art possesses them at all times. Cook, the band’s thunderous timekeeper, is hardly represented, but maybe that’s appropriate; the drummer should be a kind of nonentity. (What a superbly physical drummer he was, though, Paul Cook. His whole kit would quake like the rib cage of some enormous, panting animal.)Toward the end of the show, the end of the reel, Rotten puts on a beret. It suits him, giving him a ghoulish sort of Parisian presence—he looks arty; he looks Left Bank. And there was this weird French strain to the Sex Pistols’ enterprise. McLaren was, or thought he was, or said he was, a devout reader of Guy Debord: All of his various art acts were somewhere between pop mania and Situationist disruption of the spectacle. But the Pistols were also a rock-and-roll band, a very good one. Left to themselves, who knows what they might have achieved?The die, however, was cast. The great music writer Paul Morley, in the foreword of The End Is Near that appears to have taken him about 10 minutes to write (although 10 minutes of Paul Morley is worth three weeks of [insert name of writer]), makes the point that by late 1977, the Sex Pistols had already become “as much a part of British history as Churchill, the Royal Mail post boxes, Robin Hood, Sherlock Holmes, Shakespeare.” They had become more than a band, less than a band—something else. So look upon these images from Huddersfield, and remember them this way: at the depth of ignominy, at the height of glory, making their music.
2020-03-06 18:43:00
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theatlantic.com
Lena Waithe and When Black Artists Make Mediocre Art
A lot has changed for Lena Waithe—and for Hollywood—since 2013. That was when the writer first shared her semiautobiographical comedy, Twenties, as a series of videos on YouTube. At the time, Waithe was an industry outsider hoping to attract network attention. Now, the 35-year-old has an Emmy Award, which she won for writing a 2017 episode of Netflix’s Master of None based on her own coming-out story. Waithe has also gotten the chance to make Twenties again, this time as a half-hour comedy for BET. The show, which premiered Wednesday, arrives in a very different landscape than its earliest iteration. “This is our world post–my character on Master of None; it’s a world post–Get Out; it’s a world post-Moonlight,” Waithe said in a recent New York Times interview, referring to Hollywood’s shift toward more inclusive storytelling, and noting what her new series brings to the industry: “This is the first time a masculine-of-center black woman has been the center of a show on primetime TV.”[Read: What Lena Waithe wants from Hollywood]Placing such a character at the fore of a cable series is a huge accomplishment. Twenties follows Hattie (played by Jonica “JoJo” T. Gibbs), an aspiring comedy writer based on Waithe herself, and her friends Marie (Christina Elmore) and Nia (Gabrielle Graham) as the three women navigate evictions, dating mishaps, and workplace strife. While the dialogue sometimes veers into cliché, Twenties is sharpest when its characters work through issues rooted in Waithe’s own path to Hollywood power. The show highlights and satirizes the struggles inherent in making entertainment for historically excluded groups: Black auteurs frequently don’t get to just worry about making art that speaks to their own interests. Because of discrimination in Hollywood, creators also shoulder what the Jamaican Canadian director Stella Meghie recently called “the unbearable weight of representation.” That burden also affects viewers, who may feel the need to support some unremarkable work for fear of losing what little black programming exists.Placing a character like Hattie, whom Lena Waithe describes as “a masculine-of-center black woman,”at the fore of Twenties is a huge accomplishment. (BET)In its pilot, Twenties puts those conflicts front and center. The series examines the authenticity of black art most obviously through the charged interactions between Hattie and a high-powered black TV executive named Ida B. (Sophina Brown), who leads a show called My Bae. From their first meeting, the two clash. Hattie’s interview for a job as Ida B.’s assistant begins with straightforward questions: an inquiry about why she wants the gig. A quick check to see what her favorite scene from the show’s last season was. But, suddenly, the showrunner flips the script. Ida B. confronts the 24-year-old with the most terrifying background check of all: years’ worth of Hattie’s inflammatory tweets about the show, including one in which she’d said it’s “basically telling women that they need to find a man who isn’t afraid to tell them what to do, even if that man works at RadioShack.” Sitting in Ida B.’s palatial home and in dire need of some way to pay her bills, Hattie attempts to walk back her critiques of My Bae but fails. Before sending Hattie away, Ida B. tells her to wait a decade or two until she has her own platform—then she can make whatever kind of black art she wants.Their intergenerational exchange is smugly combative and made all the more fascinating by the obvious allusions to the real-life showrunner Mara Brock Akil, the Girlfriends and The Game creator for whom Waithe once worked. The scene is also one of the more self-aware moments on Twenties, an uneven satire that nonetheless conveys some of Waithe’s most nuanced thoughts on the impossible standards that black creators are often held to. Toward the end of her ill-fated interview, for example, Hattie challenges Ida B.’s dated approach to portraying romantic relationships among black people: “You could use your platform to do a lot more than showing a dope black woman falling in love with a fake-ass Billy Dee Williams.”BETTwenties isn’t one-directional in its judgments, though. Hattie’s friends attempt to keep her in check too. The three women spar over whether they each feel the need to watch—or at least refrain from publicly criticizing—certain bad works from black artists for the sake of supporting black art as a whole. Hattie, Nia, and Marie differ in their political and aesthetic priorities, but they all feel some level of protectiveness over shows and movies focused on black characters. In their discussions of the work produced by industry veterans such as Ida B., and black viewers’ mixed responses to it, the women of Twenties also explore, by extension, the strange place that Waithe herself now occupies.The show is debuting at a particularly fraught time in Waithe’s career, one in which she’s much closer to Ida B.’s position than to Hattie’s. The series is airing less than four months after the release of Queen & Slim, the romantic crime drama Waithe wrote. That film, which stars Daniel Kaluuya and Jodie Turner-Smith, follows two young black people who go on the lam together after their first date ends with the accidental killing of a police officer. The Melina Matsoukas–directed feature earned middling reviews from several black critics (myself included) for its clumsy, self-serious exploration of black suffering in America. (In one characteristic sequence, the titular couple’s first and only love scene is choppily interspersed with footage of a protest happening elsewhere, in which a black teenager they’d met earlier that day shoots a police officer in the face.) But some of these writers—such as Vulture’s Angelica Jade Bastién, who argued that “the movie’s anger is never given the complexity it deserves”—were met with backlash from black fans who saw the criticism as some sort of racial betrayal.[Read: The best part of ‘Queen & Slim’ is the soundtrack]Waithe’s own writing was very recently the subject of the same kinds of unimpressed assessments that Hattie—the character based on her—levies in Twenties. Queen & Slim, like any project, was never going to satisfy all viewers or capture the full breadth of black experiences. But Waithe’s work has been especially susceptible to critiques of its messaging about blackness, or about what it means to be black. Queen & Slim, for example, relied on viewers’ presumed frustration with real-world police brutality to fill in the gaps in its script. The Chi, the hour-long drama that Waithe, a Chicago native, produced for Showtime, assumed a level of viewer exhaustion with the myth of “black-on-black crime.” Both works seem to anticipate an audience—in particular a black audience—that would necessarily be sympathetic to their weighty themes, banking on relatability rather than fleshing out developed narratives.For those who have been watching the incremental rise in shows from black creators, the reliance on shorthand and assumed cultural hallmarks may be familiar. Shows such as Dear White People (from the frequent Waithe collaborator Justin Simien) and Spike Lee’s She’s Gotta Have It took similar shortcuts in their characterization of young black people as archetypes rather than as distinct characters. Twenties can be guilty of this tendency at times, even while making fun of it. But the show’s lighter tone makes that impulse far more forgivable on Twenties than in Waithe’s earlier works. Even when jokes on the BET series fall flat, they’re still jokes. Hattie might be opinionated and obnoxious, but she’s clearly young, despite her very Harlem Renaissance–era name. She’s idealistic, too. She believes her boss—and the industry they all work in—can and should be better. In the meantime, the fate of My Bae is not a matter of life and death. And thank goodness for that.
2020-03-06 17:56:12
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theatlantic.com
The Books Briefing: Gender Equality Is Valuable but Vague
Every year on March 8, International Women’s Day promotes gender equality—a term that leaves room for many interpretations, some of them contradictory. For example, the historian Paula J. Giddings describes how America’s early feminist organizations excluded women of color, including the journalist and activist Ida B. Wells, who worked for suffrage and black civil rights. Today, attitudes about what constitutes female empowerment are sometimes split along generational lines, a conflict dramatized in Meg Wolitzer’s most recent novel.The journalists Katty Kay and Claire Shipman attribute gender disparities in pay and power in part to a widespread sense of self-doubt among women. The lawyer and writer Jill Filipovic argues that assessments of gender equality must include not only economic conditions, but also individuals’ experience of fulfillment. Meanwhile, the scholars Patricia Bell-Scott, Akasha Hull, and Barbara Smith call for equality in school curricula, so that girls can grow up learning about women’s achievements—and preparing to accomplish their own. Every Friday in the Books Briefing, we thread together Atlantic stories on books that share similar ideas. Know other book lovers who might like this guide? Forward them this email. What We’re ReadingThe feminist case for happiness“There’s a subtle radicalism to [Jill] Filipovic’s vision of politicized pleasure … She’s proposing a thorough remodeling of the house that white men built.”
2020-03-06 17:30:00
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theatlantic.com
The American President, for the Foreseeable Future, Will Be a Man
*Please see headline.
2020-03-05 23:20:00
2021-05-08T11:29:18.000000
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theatlantic.com
The James Bond Movie Was Unusually Vulnerable to the Coronavirus
Yesterday, the studios and producers behind the latest James Bond film made a surprising announcement: No Time to Die, due for an April release, would be pushed to November “after careful consideration and thorough evaluation of the global theatrical marketplace.” Here’s how last-minute that decision was: When it was made, the sketches for Daniel Craig’s hosting appearance on this week’s Saturday Night Live had already been written. Bond won’t be here for months, but the actor who plays him is still going to have to show up at Studio 8H the day after tomorrow.The decision to postpone the international rollout of a blockbuster isn’t one that any studio would take lightly, but the Bond team’s hand was forced by the reality of the coronavirus outbreak, which continues to spread. The Chinese film industry is a crucial quadrant for Hollywood productions looking to rack up worldwide grosses. But some 70,000 Chinese theaters are currently closed as the country battles the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, with strict stipulations in place for any looking to resume business. With the epidemic also making its way across Europe and the United States, it’s clear MGM and Universal, which are handling distribution of No Time to Die, feared that an April debut would be disastrous for viewership.[Read: You’re likely to get the coronavirus]Halting a release so late is virtually unheard of for a film of this scale (the estimated budget is $250 million). In the past, some smaller movies, such as Universal’s The Hunt, have been shifted on the schedule because of topical events. But a whole promotional machine had been built around No Time to Die opening in April, from the release of Billie Eilish’s title song to Craig’s SNL appearance. The decision to postpone may have been motivated by the somewhat precarious status of MGM, the recently reconstituted studio that weathered a 2010 bankruptcy and began distributing its own films again only in 2018, in partnership with Megan Ellison’s struggling Annapurna Pictures. No Time to Die is MGM’s biggest release of 2020, and the studio needs it to pull in huge worldwide grosses.James Bond is popular everywhere, but international markets are vital to the franchise. Each of Craig’s Bond movies has made more than 70 percent of its money outside the U.S. and Canada, with 2015’s Spectre grossing a staggering $679 million internationally, versus $200 million domestically. The expected decrease in business from closed theaters around the world made the postponement a “purely economic decision” for the studios, according to Deadline. The Chinese film industry is already poised to lose $2 billion this year over its closed theaters; MGM wanted no part of that equation.Another factor may be that Thanksgiving is a more traditional landing place for Bond. Each of the Craig films has come out in November, and the last movie in the series not to do so was 1997’s Tomorrow Never Dies, which debuted in December (it opened at No. 2, behind the first weekend of Titanic). In fact, No Time to Die was originally planned for November 2019, before being pushed to 2020 when the director Danny Boyle dropped out and Cary Fukunaga was hired to replace him. Moving into the franchise’s comfort zone around the holidays likely softened the blow somewhat for the studios.One question now is whether other blockbusters due for similar global rollouts in the coming months will follow suit. MGM decided that worldwide markets wouldn’t be operating at regular capacity a month from now; what does that mean for Disney’s Mulan, due out March 27? The film features the major Chinese stars Liu Yifei, Jet Li, and Gong Li, along with the Hong Kong action legend Donnie Yen, but Chinese viewers will likely have to wait to see the film. According to Variety, Mulan’s release date remains unchanged in America, “but the film will debut in certain foreign markets at a later date.”[Read: The coronavirus is more than just a health crisis]Disney may well be concerned about the box-office prospects of Mulan or its May release Black Widow, the latest film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Paramount’s A Quiet Place Part II and Universal’s Fast & Furious 9 are among the other blockbusters due in the next two months that may see postponements. But those studios have less riding on the fate of any one film than MGM does, and they should all be powered by solid sales domestically. Barring further cinema shutdowns, most major distributors are planning to stay the course, according to the trades. But as one insider noted to Deadline, “We are in uncharted territory.”Studios plan the timing of “tentpole” movies years in advance; if executives do end up pushing more franchise projects further down the calendar, we could see a domino effect in which other future releases get delayed so that cinemas don’t get too crowded. If theaters around the world continue to close, or if audiences simply stay away out of fear of being exposed to large crowds, the entire movie industry may very well have to treat much of 2020 as an unforeseen financial write-off.
2020-03-05 19:35:38
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theatlantic.com
America Punished Elizabeth Warren for Her Competence
In November 2019, as the Democratic presidential candidates prepared for the primaries that had been taking place unofficially for more than a year and that would begin in earnest in February, FiveThirtyEight’s Clare Malone profiled Pete Buttigieg. In the process, Malone spoke with two women at a Buttigieg event in New Hampshire. One liked Joe Biden, but felt he was a bit too old for the presidency. The other liked Buttigieg, without qualification: “I feel he’s well positioned,” she explained. “The country is ready for a more gentle approach.”As for Elizabeth Warren? “When I hear her talk, I want to slap her, even when I agree with her.”A version of that sentiment—Warren inspiring irrational animus among those whom she has sought as constituents—was a common refrain about the candidate, who announced today that she was suspending her campaign after a poor showing on Super Tuesday. This complaint tends to take on not the substance of Warren’s stated positions, but instead the style with which she delivers them. And it has been expressed by pundits as well as voters. Politico, in September, ran an article featuring quotes from Obama-administration officials calling Warren “sanctimonious” and a “narcissist.” The Boston Herald ran a story criticizing Warren’s “self-righteous, abrasive style.” The New York Times columnist Bret Stephens, in October, described Warren as “intensely alienating” and “a know-it-all.” Donny Deutsch, the MSNBC commentator, has dismissed Warren, the person and the candidate, as “unlikable”—and has attributed her failure to ingratiate herself to him as a result, specifically, of her “high-school principal” demeanor. (“This is not a gender thing,” Deutsch insisted, perhaps recognizing that his complaint might read as very much a gender thing. “This is just kind of [a] tone and manner thing.”)The campaigns of those who deviate from the traditional model of the American president—the campaign of anyone who is not white and Christian and male—will always carry more than their share of weight. But Warren had something about her, apparently: something that galled the pundits and the public in a way that led to assessments of her not just as “strident” and “shrill,” but also as “condescending.” The matter is not merely that the candidate is unlikable, these deployments of condescending imply. The matter is instead that her unlikability has a specific source, beyond bias and internalized misogyny. Warren knows a lot, and has accomplished a lot, and is extremely competent, condescending acknowledges, before twisting the knife: It is precisely because of those achievements that she represents a threat. Condescending attempts to rationalize an irrational prejudice. It suggests the lurchings of a zero-sum world—a physics in which the achievements of one person are insulting to everyone else. When I hear her talk, I want to slap her, even when I agree with her. To run for president is to endure a series of controlled humiliations. It is to gnaw on bulky pork products, before an audience at the Iowa State Fair. It is to be asked about one’s skin-care routine, and to be prepared to defend the answer. The accusation of condescension, however, is less about enforced humiliation than it is about enforced humility. It cannot be disentangled from Warren’s gender. The paradox is subtle, but punishing all the same: The harder she works to prove to the public that she is worthy of power—the more evidence she offers of her competence—the more “condescending,” allegedly, she becomes. And the more that other anxious quality, likability, will be called into question. Warren’s “‘my way or the highway’ approach to politics,” Joe Biden argued in November, attempting to turn what might also be called principle into a liability, is “condescending to the millions of Democrats who have a different view.”Late last month, Kelli María Korducki, an editor at Forge, wrote an essay titled “Why High-Achieving Women Pretend Their Lives Are a Mess.” Korducki pointed to 30 Rock’s Liz Lemon as a particularly revealing kind of archetype: the woman who is successful in her career but who is also, in her personal life, a disaster. “She was a striver in the workplace,” Korducki writes of Lemon, “but she also binged on baked goods and watched Real Housewives. She was a singleton on the dating market who was also a raging prude. She was consistently the smartest person in the room. She also sometimes wore plastic Duane Reade shopping bags as underwear.”For Korducki, the trope of the hot mess doubles as an indictment of how American culture perceives feminine ambition and success. She dubbed the phenomenon “Hot Mess Syndrome,” and her essay struck a chord. You can read that syndrome as an answer to a culture that demands too much of women—a culture that has wrought the second shift and “having it all” and the even more generalized assumption that to be a woman is, to some extent, to bear pain. You can also read it, as Korducki does, as a kind of preemptive apology—and as a bid for relatability. To succeed as a woman on the terms set by the current culture, Korducki writes, “you’d best be a little bit of a fuck-up.”Reading Korducki’s essay, I kept thinking of Warren and the curse of condescension. I kept thinking of the ways the most successful woman candidate this cycle, in terms of blunt electoral outcomes, had the logic of the hot mess imposed on her—even when that logic, strictly speaking, made no sense. Warren’s pitch throughout her campaign was specifically about selflessness and service—about the ways she wanted to summon her skills to make life better for people. “All we want,” Warren wrote in her 2014 memoir, A Fighting Chance, “is a country where everyone pays a fair share, a country where we build opportunities for all of us; a country where everyone plays by the same rules and everyone is held accountable. And we have begun to fight for it. I believe in us. I believe in what we can do together, in what we will do together.”It is difficult to read that as “condescending.” What Warren’s words are, though, is unapologetic. Warren, is, very notably, not a hot mess. She has presented herself as omnicompetent, in control, not even “a little bit of a fuck-up”—and, therefore, as an antidote to the political and moral chaos that has been sowed by the presidency of Donald Trump. She is competence incarnate. She has a plan for that, just in general. She is unapologetically—and unavoidably—credentialed. She is a professor at Harvard. She created the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. She embraces those facts as assets. Which is also to say that, on the campaign trail, she has done what campaigning requires candidates to do: She has sung her own praises. She has sold her own story.Such an absence of apology, however, is not something American politics—or, indeed, American culture—is fully accustomed to observing in women. Liz Lemon, that revealing fiction, has a long shadow. In 2017, Boston Magazine ran a profile of Warren, listing her many political accomplishments and calling her “the new face of the Democratic Party and a favorite for the 2020 presidential race.” The story was headlined, “Why Is Elizabeth Warren So Hard to Love?”One of the truisms of the 2020 campaign—just as it was a truism in 2016, and in 2008—is that women candidates are punished, still, for public displays of ambition. (One resonant fact of Hillary Clinton’s political life is that she was much more popular, in opinion polls, during her tenure as secretary of state—a role for which she did not campaign, and in which she served as at the pleasure of the president—than she was when, just a few years after that, she sought the presidency herself.) American culture has maintained a generally awkward relationship with political self-promotion: That George Washington was conscripted into the presidency rather than campaigning for it remains a foundational bit of lore. When women are the ones doing the promoting, the tension gets ratcheted up.Kate Manne, a philosopher at Cornell University, describes misogyny as an ideology that serves, ultimately, to reinforce a patriarchal status quo. “Misogyny is the law-enforcement branch of patriarchy,” Manne argues. It rewards those who uphold the existing order of things; it punishes those who fight against it. It is perhaps the mechanism at play when a woman puts herself forward as a presidential candidate and finds her attributes—her intelligence, her experience, her compassion—understood as threats. It is perhaps that mechanism at play when a woman says, “I believe in us,” and is accused of being “self-righteous.”
2020-03-05 18:50:00
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theatlantic.com
The Director Whose Movies Make Bong Joon Ho Jealous
When Bong Joon Ho won the coveted Palme d’Or at last year’s Cannes Film Festival for his film Parasite, one person’s vote on the jury held special meaning for him: that of the director Kelly Reichardt. A pillar of American independent cinema, Reichardt favors quiet, minimalistic storytelling, often focused on the margins of society. As she once put it, “My films are just glimpses of people passing through.” Bong has spoken frequently of his appreciation for her work; he called the opening shot of her 2008 film, Wendy and Lucy, “one of the most beautiful opening scenes in the history of the movies.”Reichardt’s other films include Old Joy, a touching exploration of male friendship; Meek’s Cutoff, a dramatization of a journey on the Oregon Trail; and Certain Women, her phenomenal 2016 triptych about life in contemporary Montana. Her newest work is First Cow, a loose adaptation of Jonathan Raymond’s novel The Half-Life. Set during the 1820s in what is now Oregon, the film follows Cookie Figowitz (played by John Magaro), a baker from Boston, and King Lu (Orion Lee), a Chinese immigrant, who team up to sell baked goods made with stolen milk from a local land baron’s cow. The cow, championed as the first of its kind to be brought to the region, is a funny symbol of encroaching wealth—a striking but superfluous creature that becomes the focus of the drama.Bong, who saw First Cow when it premiered at the 2019 Telluride Film Festival, is one of its biggest fans. Ahead of the film’s release, Reichardt, Bong, and I spoke via a four-way Skype call (Bong’s translator, Sharon Choi, was also on hand), with Reichardt dialing in from Los Angeles and Bong from Seoul. If Bong has been changed by winning four Oscars for Parasite (including a landmark Best Picture trophy), it doesn’t show. Sitting in front of a wall of DVDs in his home and tugging at the sleeves of his sweater, he peppered Reichardt with questions and showered her work with praise. For her part, Reichardt invited Bong to visit Portland, Oregon, after we discussed their writing processes, aspect ratios, how their works critique capitalism, and more. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.Kelly Reichardt: I’m very intimidated! Where do we start, Bong, my goodness! Congratulations!Bong Joon Ho: Thank you!Reichardt: Are you able to do any work now that you’ve stopped going around with Parasite?Bong: Now that I finally have time, I’m trying to get back on it, but I’m so exhausted, mentally and physically. I’m just a shell of a human.How about you? We last met at Telluride, and I saw First Cow there. It was completely packed; I felt like I could hear everyone breathing as they watched the movie.David Sims: Is that when you first met?Bong: We first met at Cannes. On the awards stage. And I confessed, “Oh, I’m a huge fan!”Reichardt: Which was very nice! I was on the Cannes jury with Yorgos [Lanthimos, the director of The Favourite], and wherever we walked, people were asking Yorgos for his autograph. And he would go, “Oh, excuse me, Kelly, I have to go give my autograph.” So when Bong won and he told me he liked my films in front of Yorgos, it was a very big moment for me.Bong: At Cannes, they always talk about how directors in competition should never say hello to people on the jury, but since it was after the awards ceremony, I felt more comfortable.Reichardt: It was perfect timing. Can I ask, Bong, if it hadn’t been for the Oscars, how would you usually write? Do you work by yourself?Bong: Even when I have a co-writer, I don’t really discuss things with them. I let them do their own drafts, and then I take over and spend five to six months producing the final draft on my own. I have an iPad and a wireless keyboard that I always take to coffee shops, and I just hide in a corner and write by myself. I have to be at a coffee shop with noise around me; I always end up sleeping if I write at home.Reichardt: Oh, I understand. But you can’t go sit in a coffee shop now! You’re too famous! You blew it!Bong: There’s always corners where I can hide!Sims: Did you follow your usual writing process for Parasite and First Cow?Reichardt: I write often with my friend Jonathan Raymond. Usually he does the first draft, and then, like [Bong], I take it and break it apart. But I like to start scouting while I’m writing. Do you know your locations when you’re going to shoot?Bong: Like Oregon is to you, I’m very familiar with Seoul as a city, and a lot of my films feature Seoul. Parasite was such an interior story, taking place inside homes and buildings, so the rich house was a mix of soundstages and a set we built outdoors, and we built the entire poor neighborhood in a water tank.[Read: How Bong Joon Ho created the weird world of ‘Parasite’]Reichardt: First Cow is based on a novel by Jonathan called The Half-Life. It was the first thing I read of his. The novel spans four decades and includes a ship ride to China, and I’m making small-budget films, so for many years we were trying to figure out how we could make it. The cow is not in John’s novel—we came up with it as a way to tell the story while keeping it small enough.Bong: You basically re-created the premise of the novel.Reichardt: The presence of the cow gave us a simple plot structure, and it allowed a lot of the themes Jonathan had in his novel about the beaver trade in 1820s Oregon to come into play.Bong: [The cow] is part of a very primitive state of capitalism and commerce.Reichardt: It’s this early seed of capitalism—can capitalism work with the natural world? There’s this hubris, the idea that these natural elements will be endless. In fact the beaver trade collapsed very quickly.Bong: In First Cow, we see [the film’s main character] Cookie picking mushrooms, and it would be best if he managed to find the milk he eventually needs naturally. But the milk is already possessed by someone. When we learn about Marxism, we learn about who owns the modes of production, and that’s where the drama unfolds. It’s very interesting—you’re seeing the birth of U.S. capitalism.Sims: I know both of you have worked with animals before, though I suppose Okja was a fantasy animal.Bong: How did you find the cow? I’m sure it was a fierce competition!Reichardt: It was! I picked the kind of cow I wanted, a Jersey cow, and then they’d send me videos of the cows, and I saw this one and I loved her. We trained her to ride on a ferry, because cows don’t swim. But it was very superficial casting—I was looking for the prettiest cow.a24Bong: With Okja, because we didn’t have an actual animal on set, the director of photography and I were quite lonely. So we actually created a stuffy that was the size of Okja so that the actors could touch and interact with it. With First Cow,I’m sure it was more comfortable. [Raises an image of the Okja puppet on his iPad.]Reichardt: It’s so big! She’s still so beautiful!Bong, do you always work with the same cinematographer?Bong: With Mother, Snowpiercer, and Parasite,it was one cinematographer; his name is Hong Kyung-pyo. With Okja, I worked with Darius Khondji. I think any foreign productions I do now will be with Darius, and any Korean films will be with Hong. Do you work with the same cinematographer?Reichardt: It was different every time, and then from Meek’s Cutoff on, always with Christopher Blauvelt. I like working with him so much—you’re not starting from the beginning every time.Sims: Director Bong, I know you’re developing two projects right now—one English-language and one Korean. Can you work on multiple scripts at the same time?Bong: Only in the very early stages. Once I start writing, I can only work on one project, and the same goes for preproduction. I’m always jealous of directors who can do projects in between TV shows. How about you, Kelly?Reichardt: One project for me, too. I teach in the fall every year, and I make my class somehow wrap around all the things I want to research for the film I’m making. For this, I was showing them Ugetsu and The Apu Trilogy and Woman in the Dunes, because I wanted to look at [films] where people are [living in hutches and] on dirt floors.Bong: Whenever I watch your films, I always want to visit Oregon, but I’ve never been able to. I’m curious what that place means to you in your body of work.Reichardt: Please come visit! We’ll show you everything! You know, I started going there because my friend Todd Haynes [the director of films such as Carol and Dark Waters] moved there. I’m from Miami, Florida, which is very flat and white with blue oceans, and [Oregon] was so different for me. It’s a very [geographically] diverse state—it has a desert, an ocean, an old-growth forest—and it’s not like California, where so much has been filmed. You can be a little bit off the radar.Bong: Where is the forest that you shot First Cow in?Reichardt: Everything is a one-hour radius from Portland. You can go a very short way and be in the forest.A24Sims: Did you shoot in an Academy aspect ratio [which is very square] because of the forest?Reichardt: I really like the square. There’s room up top and on the bottom for the trees, and for the close-ups, it’s so nice. And the economy of it: It’s not capturing grand landscapes, but people who have very small lives.Bong: Even when you see the forest, it feels very personal and intimate. I can’t imagine [the film] where you see more of what’s left and right in the image. The relationship these two men share [in First Cow] is so uniquely subtle and beautiful, and I think the aspect ratio really helped in establishing that.Sims: That’s noticeable when we’re first introduced to King Lu: It’s very dark, and he’s naked in the forest, and the mood and the situation feels very enclosed.Reichardt: This was, on a practical basis, the hardest scene, because of the darkness. I was trying to shoot day-for-night and not have it look too hokey, because it’s tricky to light that, but then it actually became night—the final product is a mix—and so I found it really challenging. We also shot it early on, and these actors didn’t really know each other yet, and we’re in the forest and it’s cold. So Orion [who plays King] is very vulnerable—he’s surrounded by this crew and he’s sitting there naked! In the story, they’re just meeting each other, so maybe the awkwardness works.Bong: That first encounter between the two men is so subtle and delicate. Although the character is naked, you can’t really see his skin color, so it’s almost like the two characters have the same skin color.Reichardt: Because of the way we shot it, they both look kind of green! Everybody in Oregon then was an immigrant, besides the indigenous people. This moment is so dark in America, you know, with the fierceness against immigration and the false narrative that we’ve [been] some white nation for forever. So I didn’t want [the message] to be too pointed, but it’s there.[Read: The quiet feminism of Kelly Reichardt’s ‘Certain Women’]Bong: How did you find Orion? I assume it’s the first time you’ve worked with him.Reichardt: It was a very long search. I was Skyping with actors in China who didn’t speak any English, wondering if they could learn the lines in time, as well as learning a Native American language. Orion finally came to us and read maybe four times over a month or two, and he just kept coming back to my mind. We didn’t really have any references to connect over, with film or music. He loves Shrek, you know; we’re not on the same wavelength! But he was so game, and always interesting.Bong: The chemistry between the two men is amazing. They both feel so vulnerable.Reichardt: When we were shooting, we had them go into the woods for three or four nights with a survivalist. They learned how to build a fire without matches and to trap, and it was cold and rainy. We did this instead of rehearsing—this is how they bonded.Sims: Do either of you favor rehearsals before you start filming?Bong: I don’t really like rehearsals, but my films often involve a lot of complicated camera movements, so for those we will have physical rehearsals where we coordinate the blocking. But I try to keep that as short as possible. I really like shooting when it feels like people aren’t ready and things aren’t meticulously set up. I want to capture the awkwardness you find in those moments on the camera. It produces a strange sense of reality, though it’s not always easy.Reichardt: I can’t afford to have [rehearsals]! In Meek’s Cutoff, which was a Western, we had a pioneer camp so [the actors] could learn to walk oxen and things like that. But I’m not into rehearsing—just having people learn how to do chores.Bong, I have to go, but I wanted to thank you! I really appreciate your voice. I’ve been going through your list of new filmmakers you like, and it’s turning me on to new things. It’s so inclusive.Bong: Some films are more poetic and more beautiful when you go into them not knowing anything about them, and I think your films are always like that. With First Cow, it’s something that a filmmaker like me could never imitate—so I’m very jealous.Reichardt: [Waves hand dismissively.] Oh, come on. Come to Portland, Bong! Come to Oregon! There’s no show business there, we can just go out to eat, and Todd Haynes and I will just take you out into the woods.
2020-03-04 17:39:40
2021-05-08T11:29:18.000000
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theatlantic.com
The Teen Dramas That Reject Modernity
I Am Not Okay With This, Netflix’s quirky new dramedy about an angsty 17-year-old with strange powers, looks and feels uncannily familiar. It isn’t just the show’s plot elements, although those seem appropriated whole hog from existing works, too: Sydney (played by Sophia Lillis) has cropped hair, telekinetic powers, and anger-management issues just like Stranger Things’ Eleven, and in the opening scene of the show, she stalks through town in a white gown that’s been doused with blood, like a postmillennial Carrie. (The cross-pollination gets knottier still when you realize that Lillis played a young Beverly Marsh in the recent film adaptations of Stephen King’s It.)Rather, it’s that I Am Not Okay has the particular aesthetic that has come to define Netflix’s best shows about teenagers. Like Sex Education, it appears to exist in an odd retro hinterland with analog technology and modern mores, where teenagers talk fluently about body positivity and vaping and pansexuality but don’t seem to have heard of the internet. Every home is a ’70s torment in varying shades of brown. The moment is—probably—now, but it’s a version of now that’s sanitized, stripped of contemporary anxiety, and filtered through John Hughes movies. (Both Sex Education’s second season, which debuted in January, and I Am Not Okay feature episode-long homages to The Breakfast Club.) The characters might be Gen Z, but the music they listen to is pure, synth-saturated Gen X: Prefab Sprout, T. Rex, Roxy Music, Frankie Goes to Hollywood. Modernity has been thoroughly rejected. “The shitty texture is key to the experience,” one character in I Am Not Okay tells Syd as he shows her his substantial VHS collection. “I can’t with laser disc ... don’t even get me started.”Stranger Things is one of several shows that exists in an odd retro hinterland with analog technology and modern mores. (Netflix)If you were a postmodernist, you might call this trend pastiche. Starting with Stranger Things in 2016, then cycling through The End of the F***ing World, Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, Sex Education, and now I Am Not Okay, some of the most distinctive original series of the past few years—all on Netflix—have occupied a strange stylistic space, mashing up old classics into shows about teenagers who aren’t old enough to have experienced the originals. In 2019, according to one poll, the most popular Netflix show among Gen Zers and Millennials was Stranger Things 3, meaning two generations who hadn’t been born yet when the original Red Dawn was in movie theaters avidly streamed a television series that aped its entire plot. This isn’t just a nostalgia play. More and more Netflix originals are defined by their idealized depiction of the past, even when they exist in the present. In a world where Sesame Street is confronting homelessness, mass incarceration, and the opioid epidemic, viewers can load up Netflix and be soothed by a cultural landscape where kids still freewheel through small towns, main streets still have diners, and people still interact face-to-face, unmediated by screens.Nostalgia, the literary theorist Fredric Jameson wrote, is “an alarming and pathological symptom of a society that has become incapable of dealing with time and history.” Historically, when viewers indulged in movies and TV shows that evoked the wistful past, they did so sparingly, with a half-hour episode of Happy Days, or a treasured annual viewing of A Christmas Story. What Netflix appears to be doing is different. (A representative for the streaming service didn’t respond to questions about strategy.) It’s creating a space where the past never dies—where beloved shows aren’t just repeated endlessly but also fully resuscitated (Fuller House, Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life), and where new shows are consciously formed out of pieces of relics, liberated from the burden of having to say much that’s new at all.I Am Not Okay With This, like The End of the F***ing World, was adapted by the director Jonathan Entwistle from a graphic novel by Charles Forsman. When The End arrived quietly on Netflix in January 2018, after a little-watched debut on the U.K.’s Channel 4, it felt like nothing that had ever been on television before: The eight-part series about a teenage wannabe psychopath and a truculent loner who go on the run together was unmistakably British, but it was inflected with stylistic elements from classic American movies like Natural Born Killers and Fargo. The two main characters stop in diners and motels; they disguise themselves in vivid Hawaiian shirts and babydoll dresses, and drive aimlessly through tree-strewn landscapes to a soundtrack of Brenda Lee and the Buzzcocks. The series was strange, and strangely touching. It was also notably tight for a Netflix show, with most episodes running around 22 minutes.[Read: ‘The End of the F***ing World’ is pitch-black perfection]The striking originality of that series seemed to encourage a wave of similar projects. First came Sex Education, another Netflix show set on an Anglo-American alternative plane where the slang and accents are comically British but the characters wear varsity jackets and scorn the glee club. The End scored a sequel of sorts late last year—a starkly mournful, melancholic story in which the two teenagers, Alyssa and James, try to process the traumatic events of the first season. Then came I Am Not Okay, a show produced by Shawn Levy, who also executive produced Stranger Things. The elevator pitch was reportedly very simple: It’s The End of the F***ing World meets Stranger Things. There were other influences, too, none of them particularly contemporary (Lady Bird, Greta Gerwig’s 2002-set coming-of-age movie, was one, as was the X-Men franchise).Sex Education portrays a version of teen life that’s sanitized, stripped of contemporary anxiety, and filtered through John Hughes movies. (Netflix)I Am Not Okay contains a mishmash of themes that have proved successful in other shows. Set near Pittsburgh, the show is narrated by Syd, “a boring 17-year-old white girl,” in her words, who also tends to telekinetically smash things when she can’t control her emotions. As the show unfolds, Syd goes through a by-the-book superhero origin story, complicated slightly by her uncertain sexuality and her friendship with the small-time pot dealer Stanley. Plot isn’t really the point. The show is much more interested in world-building, and in the texture of the story being told: the out-of-joint music, Syd’s penchant for bulky polyester knits, Stanley’s teal-corduroy suits and lovable dance breaks, the color-coded Breakfast Club outfits that the characters wear during a detention caper, the lights that glimmer in the gymnasium for the homecoming dance. What happens over seven short episodes isn’t nearly as important as how the show feels—the emotions it evokes, both consciously and beneath the surface.To watch a lot of shows about teenagers on Netflix these days is to experience a world about as aesthetically and topically removed from modern teenagedom as possible. There’s no YouTube, no influencers, no political advocacy or climate-change awareness. Technology is sparse. (I Am Not Okay contains a lone reference to Instagram, and one subplot involves a USB drive, but its classrooms are devoid of computers.) When smartphones do pop up, as on the teen mystery series The Society or the Danish dystopian drama The Rain, they’re rendered unusable by unseen forces. On 13 Reasons Why, entire seasons revolve around analog technology like audio tapes and Polaroid cameras. These choices are made, at least in part, out of practical necessity: Face-to-face conversations still carry more dramatic impact than text threads flitting across the screen.[Read: The thoughtful raunch of ‘Sex Education’]But something else seems to be happening, too. At this point, Netflix’s commissioning of shows that eschew modernity—and are set in unspecified eras defined by throwback stylistic elements—is a feature, not a bug. Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, like the CW shows Riverdale (streaming on Netflix) and Katy Keene, combines the 1960s visual qualities of Archie comics with the gender politics of Teen Vogue. On the recent Ryan Murphy Netflix drama The Politician, teenage characters styled themselves like 1950s housewives and talked girlishly of “reducing” for prom. The worlds that Sex Education and I Am Not Okay occupy are selectively topical enough to feel relevant (sex positivity, sexuality, and inclusivity all feature), but retro enough to be escapist, sidestepping the burden of considering real life.As the debate over art versus algorithm rages on, it’s hard to say whether Netflix is deliberately positioning itself as a home for nostalgic content or is simply giving viewers more of what they’ve proved they want. Another question is whether shows like Sex Education and I Am Not Okay are actually aimed at teenagers at all. (In 2019, Stranger Things 3 was also the most popular Netflix series among viewers aged 25 to 37.) Netflix rarely releases data about which of its target demographics are watching what, but the service gained popularity in part as a place for viewers to comfort-watch classic series: Friends, The Office, Frasier. For Gen Z viewers, who missed them the first time around, the thrill has come from discovery.More recently, as the streaming wars have caused these shows’ original networks to claim them back, Netflix has compensated by giving more of its own series a nostalgic bent. In its earliest days, the company built its reputation on dramatic series that were informed by current issues and topical themes, such as Orange Is the New Black, Master of None, and One Day at a Time. As those shows have concluded, though, the defining trend among Netflix scripted originals is escapism: highly stylized worlds that have the luxury of ignoring cultural flashpoints. (Gentefied, which debuted in February, is a notable exception.)The defining trend among scripted originals such as The End of the F***ing Worldis escapism: highly stylized worlds that have the luxury of ignoring cultural flashpoints. (Netflix)That’s not to say that nostalgia is specifically new. TV viewers during the ’80s watched The Wonder Years and Happy Days with the same wistfulness with which Millennials and Gen Xers watch Stranger Things now. But rarely has a whole entertainment platform targeting prime demographics—as opposed to, say, Cozi TV or Nick at Nite—seemed to define itself as a place where the realities of the present can be so efficiently soothed. The fealty of TV creators to the ’80s in particular is noteworthy. Cultural products during that decade were defined by futurism; they looked forward exuberantly to a 21st century with flying cars, space wars, paranormal revelations, and groundbreaking scientific discoveries. Now the reality of late capitalism makes it harder and harder to imagine a future for humanity at all, let alone one with the potential for progress. When looking forward isn’t an option, looking back can be a comfort. When television panders to nostalgia—which comes from the Greek words nostos, meaning “to go home,” and algos, meaning “pain”—it isn’t just evoking bygone cultural products. It’s evoking a time when hope came more easily.We’re living in a moment of abundant options. And yet we’re compelled, apparently, to seek out entertainment that quiets the present moment rather than interrogating it. Art, Aaron Bady wrote in an essay on Stranger Things for the Los Angeles Review of Books, “is that which moves the conversation forward, which tells us something new, which has something new to say.” At least on Netflix, TV is leaning away from the modernist imperative to make it new and toward the postmodernist fog of reassuring familiarity, which keeps both the past and the present tantalizingly out of reach.
2020-03-04 16:05:00
2021-05-08T11:29:18.000000
1 y
theatlantic.com
Hilary Mantel Takes Thomas Cromwell Down
Aaron MarinIn the first two novels of her trilogy about Thomas Cromwell, Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, Hilary Mantel sings, as it were, the poem of his rise. This is Cromwell as epic hero. The son of a blacksmith and brewer from the hamlet of Putney, Cromwell has become both chief minister to King Henry VIII and the most powerful man in England aside from the king; some say he is more powerful than the king. Mantel’s Cromwell is omniscient—he has spies everywhere—and omnicompetent. He excels at ironwork, the culinary arts, the cloth trade, finance, civil engineering, legislation, and diplomacy. His wit is quick and endearing, except when it’s cutting. Above all, he plays Henry’s court with consummate dexterity, always several moves ahead of potential opponents.In The Mirror & the Light, which closes the trilogy, we witness Cromwell’s fall. This is not a spoiler. You can Google his fate in eight seconds. Mantel’s job is to make the inevitable suspenseful, which she does by turning her protagonist into a tragic hero. In tragedy, the hero is blind to how he brings about his own doom, either because of hubris or because the gods have willed his ignorance, or both. Cromwell has become almost cocky. He has taken risks before, but he always exhibited near-perfect self-mastery. His profession requires dealing with “grandees who, if they could, would destroy him with one vindictive swipe,” Mantel writes in the middle novel. “Knowing this, he is distinguished by his courtesy [and] calmness.” Now he allows himself treasonous thoughts: “It is I who tell [the king] who he can marry and unmarry and who he can marry next, and who and how to kill.” And he records too-candid observations in a volume of advice for his protégés, “The Book Called Henry.” Mantel makes us wonder: Does Cromwell have himself fully in hand? If not, why not? What strange forces drive him; does he understand them; and, most important, can he control them in time?When we leave Cromwell at the end of Bring Up the Bodies, he has just destroyed a queen, doing maximal damage in the process. The king, having tired of his second wife, Anne Boleyn, and fallen in love with Jane Seymour, told Cromwell to deal with the situation. Cromwell did—he always does—but his methods were extreme. He choreographed the trials and convictions of Anne and her alleged lovers on either trumped-up or wildly exaggerated charges of adultery and incest. The public was treated to scenes of what can only be characterized as royal pornography, all of which turned on the theme of the king’s sexual inadequacy. Five men, including Anne’s brother, were beheaded. Cromwell plucked four of them out of the swirl of court gossip not because he thought they were guilty but to avenge his beloved late master, Cardinal Wolsey, who fell from power seven years earlier and whom the young men ridiculed for the court’s amusement.[From March 2010: Christopher Hitchens’s review of ‘Wolf Hall’]As The Mirror & the Light opens, Cromwell is back at the scene of the execution. Anne’s body “swims in a pool of fluid crimson,” and he seems his usual hearty self, thinking about his second breakfast. In the background, however, Mantel is darkening the mood. In the previous novel, Anne’s attendants, veiled so as not to be tainted by association with her death, used their bodies to block the men approaching the corpse. “We do not want men to handle her,” they said. Now the shrouded women are silent, stylized; they force the men back with palms upturned. They could be dancers in a Greek chorus, or the Furies.Beneath his bluster, Cromwell feels uneasy. When Anne had climbed the scaffold a few moments earlier, he’d found himself admiring her poise. But now other men make crude remarks. These offend him—he who planted the filthy thoughts in their head. “I’d have put her on a dunghill,” says Charles Brandon, the Duke of Suffolk. “And the brother underneath her.” Cromwell berates Brandon for lacking mercy. “By God,” says the duke, a rival. “You read me a lesson? I? A peer of the realm? And you, from the place where you come from?” Cromwell spits out: “I stand just where the king has put me.” Then he asks himself, “Cromwell, what are you doing?” But he waves away his disquiet: “If you cannot speak truth at a beheading, when can you speak it?”Thomas Cromwell, speaking truth to a man who could harm him? We weren’t expecting that, and as will become clear, now is not the moment to be imprudent. The Mirror & the Light covers four years of Cromwell’s life, from 1536 to 1540. He is at the peak of his career. The king has made him a baron and appointed him the lord keeper of the privy seal, an office that gives him even more access to the king. Henry has also let him hold on to the titles of master secretary and vicegerent, a powerful new position in the English Church. “It is a thing never seen before,” says Queen Jane. “Lord Cromwell is the government, and the church as well.” Cromwell does what he did earlier, a manic whirl of endeavors that include filling the king’s coffers with revenue from monasteries confiscated from the Vatican and trying to reinforce England’s independence from the pope. His “cause,” as he calls it, is to publish a translation of the Bible. Everyone in the king’s realm should be able to read the Bible in English—if only to see what isn’t in it: popes, monks, counterfeit relics used by priests to fleece the poor.Cromwell’s main duty, as ever, is to keep the king happy. That entails managing Henry’s volatile emotions: anxiety about begetting a legitimate male heir, shame at growing old and obese, eruptions of self-pity. For once, the king has no qualms about his queen, but Jane’s tenure is, for Henry and his people, heartbreakingly brief. Cromwell soon has to scour Europe for a bride who both suits Henry’s tastes and is willing to marry an aging, bloated monarch who cast off one queen and killed another. This is as difficult as it sounds.Cromwell has other problems. A large rebellion has broken out in the north, but the casus belli is not Henry. It’s him, Cromwell, with his low birth, anti-papistry, and suspiciously Jewish-seeming aptitude for making money. The depth of the public’s hatred makes him vulnerable. Is the king annoyed? Are his friends still his friends? Has the king understood Cromwell’s commitment to the new evangelicalism (i.e., Protestantism)?Another, more serious source of strain in the minister-king relationship is in danger of becoming apparent: Henry has grown bloodthirsty. Cromwell pleads for lives, but when he fails, he gets the blame. “The king never does an unpleasant thing,” notes Queen Jane. “Lord Cromwell does it for him.” Worse, he’s having a hard time suppressing his disgust for Henry. Cromwell rehearses the catechism of sacred kingship, but elevated thoughts all too quickly turn gross. Contemplating the king as the embodiment of the state, which makes his very “piss and stool … the property of all England,” Cromwell envisions Henry’s doctors carrying away the bedpan of royal shit every morning. Cromwell’s dislike bursts into the open when it seems possible that the king will return to the Church. “Even if Henry does turn, I will not turn,” he tells a woman he considers an ally. “I am not too old to take a sword in my hand.” This is the most disloyal statement Cromwell ever makes, and it will not be forgotten.Mantel has been praised for upending a centuries-old consensus that Cromwell was a man driven only by greed and lust for power. Partial credit for her revisionism goes to a historian named Geoffrey Elton, from whom Mantel takes her cues. Younger scholars have chipped away at Elton’s reassessment, but Mantel stands by her source. Their Cromwell is a true evangelical, a great statesman, and an advocate of good governance. He laid the groundwork for the English Reformation, created the bureaucratic state, empowered Parliament, and fought for hospitals, poor laws, and a census, among other admirable causes.[Read: With ‘Wolf Hall,’ PBS finds a drama worthy of the word ‘masterpiece’]But that’s Cromwell the public figure. Mantel’s challenge is to give him an inner life. In a Paris Review interview in 2015, six years after Wolf Hall was published, she described the moment he came into focus. She sat down to write, and out flowed the first paragraphs of the series. The boy Cromwell is being beaten nearly to death by his crazed father. The ferocity of the assault is conveyed by a detailed sketch of footwear: “The stitching of his father’s boot is unraveling. The twine has sprung clear of the leather, and a hard knot in it has caught his eyebrow and opened another cut.” Then Mantel stopped writing and asked herself, “Where am I?” The answer, of course, is behind Cromwell’s eyes, which lie inches from the ground. “At that point,” she said, “all the decisions about the book were made, about how to tell the story.”The one-person perspective gives the books their grip, because Cromwell’s charisma is never allowed to dissipate. At the same time, Mantel has plenty of room for invention. The Cromwell record has large holes in it, probably because as soon as he got into trouble, his supporters burned or carted away as many papers as they could. Mantel works hard to root her imagination in the material and psychological realities of the period. “I’m very concerned about not pretending they’re like us,” she told The Paris Review. “That’s the whole fascination—they’re just not. It’s the gap that’s so interesting.”And yet, Cromwell is like us. At least, it feels that way. His angle of vision on his late-medieval world is oddly familiar, even if his Tudor mores are alien. We can identify. He’s an early-modern globalist, Homo economicus. He understands that the age of the brave and noble knight is being brought to an end by capitalism. In Wolf Hall, the profligate Harry Percy, Earl of Northumberland, informs Cromwell that he, Percy, is immune from financial ruin and loss of title by “ancient rights,” and because “bankers have no armies.” Cromwell muses,How can he explain to him? The world is not run from where he thinks … Not from castle walls, but from countinghouses, not by the call of the bugle but by the click of the abacus, not by the grate and click of the mechanism of the gun but by the scrape of the pen on the page of the promissory note that pays for the gun and the gunsmith and the powder and shot.The paradox of Mantel’s historical trilogy is that Cromwell’s anachronisms strengthen his credibility as a character. He has a more highly developed class-consciousness than a man of his era ought to have. But we are willing to suspend disbelief, because his uncanny powers of observation have been so well established that he transcends his world, immersed in it as he is. It would be going too far to call Cromwell a feminist, but he does have a rare ability to see past kings to queens—to their miserable lot and uncredited importance. In The Mirror & the Light, a diplomat advises Cromwell not to “pull the women into it.” “The women are already in it,” he replies. “It’s all about women. What else is it about?” In 2013, Mantel published an essay in the London Review of Books titled “Royal Bodies,” which begins with Kate Middleton (the Duchess of Cambridge), then moves on to the grim existence of princesses and queens, especially in the Tudor era. “Women, their bodies, their reproductive capacities, their animal nature, are central to the story,” Mantel wrote. Like his author, Cromwell understands that the royal enterprise rests on women’s backs, their opened legs, their wombs.[Read: Hilary Mantel vs. Kate Middleton]Mantel doesn’t use Cromwell’s insights about women to preach, however. On the contrary: His empathy contributes to his undoing. Over 50 and widowed, Cromwell is lonelier than he realizes, and lack of self-knowledge is perilous for a man in his position. Acting out of pity, or so he tells himself, as well as an oath to her mother and the desire to restrain his “cannibal king,” he steps in to help the Lady Mary, Henry’s spurned first daughter, who has enraged the king and risks execution. The intensity of his efforts gives rise to rumors that he presumes to woo her, which could arouse the king’s wrath against him. But he ignores warnings, and his enemies will make use of a friendship that does have undertones of deeper feeling.More personally devastating evidence of Cromwell’s emotional purblindness comes to light when he arranges a match between his son, Gregory, and Bess, Queen Jane’s sister. During negotiations with Bess’s brother, Cromwell somehow forgets to say which Cromwell is getting engaged, father or son. Mantel has already suggested that Thomas Cromwell is attracted to Bess, who is witty and perceptive. Eventually the comedy of errors sorts itself out, but at the wedding, Cromwell’s mild-mannered son sharply requests that his father stay away from his wife.It was a mistake, Cromwell protests. Then he promises to avoid Bess. “I am a man of my word,” he adds. “So many words,” Gregory says.So many words and oaths and deeds that when folk read of them in time to come they will hardly believe such a man as Lord Cromwell walked the earth. You do everything. You have everything. You are everything. So I beg you, grant me an inch of your broad earth, Father, and leave my wife to me.Cromwell is stunned. What should he make of it, “that a son can think evil of his father, as if he is a stranger and you cannot tell what he might do”?Our problem, as readers, is what to make of Cromwell’s lapses. Does he know what he’s doing? Does he know why? Or does he know and not know, like an analysand in a state of disavowal? A self so divided gives Cromwell a depth at once Shakespearean and modernist. He could be Hamlet, or the title character of one of Freud’s case studies. The hero of Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies was a man of action. “I think it was Faulkner who says, Write down what they say and write down what they do,” Mantel said in The Paris Review interview. “I don’t have pages and pages in which I say Cromwell thought. I tell you what he says, I tell you what he does, and you read between the lines.”This is not quite true. Cromwell thinks a great deal in those novels, but mostly about the business at hand. The Cromwell of The Mirror & the Light, though, is just as likely to be found ruminating and soliloquizing. His subjects include the past; his revered fellow reformer William Tyndale, the great Bible translator burned as a heretic; himself. Mostly, though, he thinks about the dead, especially those whose deaths he is responsible for. Cromwell dreams of Anne Boleyn as a Christ figure: Her severed head leaves its bloody imprint on the linen it’s wrapped in, as if the cloth were the Shroud of Turin. George Boleyn, Anne’s late brother, weighs on Cromwell, literally. When Cromwell interrogates a prisoner in the Tower, George’s spirit intercepts and grabs onto Cromwell, “head heavy on his shoulder, tears seeping into his linen and leaving a residual salt damp that lasts till he can change his shirt.” People in the 16th century believed in ghosts, but they are so real to him, it’s as if he has crossed over into their world. I take this to be the figurative expression of a death wish—an appropriate affliction, given the atrocities he has committed.Mantel changes her prose style to accommodate her more haunted Cromwell. In the earlier novels, the sentences were blunt and propulsive; in this one, she slows them down, unlaces them. The language is more elegiac, almost mystical, though as precise as ever. It now has to trace the wavering edges of a once well-defined self. The dissolution of Cromwell coincides with his unmooring in time. Past and future flow into the present. Cromwell flows with them. One moment he is sucked into his childhood; the next, he is hurled into the sphere of the angels. Indeed, the afterlife occasions some of the loveliest writing in this beautifully written book. Cromwell wonders how he’ll recognize his own lost loved ones on the day of his judgment, but just when he needs to, he knows:He sees how they are visible, and how they shine. They are distilled into a spark, into an instant. There is air between their ribs, their flesh is honeycombed with light, and the marrow of their bones is molten with God’s grace.As Mantel brings her series to a close, she makes it almost obsessively reflective—a word that is impossible to avoid. Mirrors are not just in the title of this novel; they’re all over the place. Cromwell tells the king that he’s the “mirror and the light of other kings” (he’s lying, of course). Henry owns more than 100 looking glasses, peering into them in an attempt to catch a glimpse of the handsome prince he used to be. Doubling is one of the dominant themes of the novel. Cromwell serves as the king’s alter ego, but that’s one refraction among many. Cromwell’s present begins to echo his past; old figures reappear in new guises. Henry, for instance, becomes a version of Cromwell’s abusive father. Oddly but aptly, in this novel, Cromwell’s doubles are feline. One is especially disturbing: a starving, caged leopard anonymously deposited in his courtyard. And Mantel has a double too, of course—Cromwell.Mantel doesn’t indulge in overt self-reflexivity, but one scene midway through the novel could be read as catching her in the act of, well, reflecting on the process of creation. The setting is eerie. Dusk has arrived in the countryside, “when earth and sky melt” and “the eyes of cats shine in the dark.” Inside, where Cromwell sits, “colour bleeds from sleeve and gown into the darkening air.” The imagery turns bookish, then dreamlike: “The page grows dim and letter forms elide and slip into other conformations, so that as the page is turned the old story slides from sight and a strange and slippery confluence of ink begins to flow.” Cromwell recommences his incessant dialogue with his selves, the present and the half-remembered, the imagined and the unbounded. His train of thought reminds the reader that Cromwell is also his own author, having fashioned a high minister out of the unlikely material of a ruffian from the streets.With a novelist’s wonderment at a character who defies understanding, Cromwell sees that he can’t solve the riddle of himself. “You look back into your past and say, is this story mine?,” he thinks, and Mantel could be brooding alongside him:Is that flitting figure mine, that shape easing itself through alleys, evader of the curfew, fugitive from the day? Is this my life, or my neighbour’s conflated with mine, or a life I have dreamed and prayed for; is this my essence, twisting into a taper’s flame, or have I slipped the limits of myself—slipped into eternity, like honey from a spoon? Have I dreamt myself, undone myself, have I forgotten too well?Yes to all of the above. By the end of these three books, we have been with Cromwell as he lived or revisited most of his life, and we haven’t exhausted his mystery. Nor, obviously, has he. It is a testament to Mantel’s demiurgic imagination, her ability to multiply ambiguities, that by the time Cromwell achieves something like self-knowledge, there is more to him than it is possible to know.
2020-03-02 15:00:00
2021-05-08T11:29:18.000000
1 y
theatlantic.com
The ‘Airport Sushi’ Musical Is an Instant SNL Classic
Nearly two years ago, Saturday Night Live aired “Diner Lobster,” a musical fantasia starring the host John Mulaney about the absurdity of ordering lobster at a New York City diner. Kenan Thompson dressed as a crustacean Jean Valjean and sang a song inspired by Les Misérables’ “Who Am I?” It was the sketch of the night, a wonderful reminder of the inventiveness the show had when Mulaney was on its writing staff, from 2008 to 2012. When the comedian returned to host a 2019 episode, there was a sequel, “Bodega Bathroom,” and on last night’s episode, the trilogy of musical medleys about unsanitary New York dining was completed with “Airport Sushi.”No matter what your opinion of SNL’s recent quality, the episodes hosted by Mulaney have become a sort of annual tradition to look forward to, one that the producer Lorne Michaels should keep alive. As Mulaney himself said during his opening monologue, he didn’t have any projects to publicize—“I have nothing coming up; I’m here to promote the month of March,” he deadpanned. But as Mike Shoemaker, a longtime SNL producer who now works on Late Night With Seth Meyers, put it on Twitter, Mulaney hosting is like Steve Martin hosting in the ’70s—“you knew the whole show was going to be better.” And it was, with one particularly standout sketch.“Airport Sushi” followed the same format as the prior musical numbers, with Chris Redd and Pete Davidson playing befuddled customers at an equally beloved and reviled New York institution—this time, LaGuardia Airport. When Davidson’s character opts to buy some packaged sushi, he inadvertently summons the “Phantom of LaGuardia,” a tortured-looking goose played by Thompson. “In dreams it’s haunting you, that fish you ate / The expiration date ends in 18,” he crowed, eventually revealing himself to be one of the birds “that took down Sully’s plane.”Befitting the third entry in a trilogy, “Airport Sushi” was even more extravagant than Mulaney’s other two musical parodies. “Diner Lobster” was originally written by Mulaney with the now–SNL head writer Colin Jost in 2010, and the former insisted on reviving it for his first appearance as a host. Watching the mythos around these sketches build year after year has been delightful, and their zaniness seemed to feed into Mulaney’s recent Netflix special, John Mulaney & the Sack Lunch Bunch, a kid-focused spectacular with plenty of musical numbers.Some of the special guests from that show dropped by for “Airport Sushi.” There was Jake Gyllenhaal, suspended on wires and dressed in pajamas, singing an ode to getting attention from the TSA (to the tune of Wicked’s “Defying Gravity”). There was David Byrne as a baggage handler parodying his own Talking Heads song “Road to Nowhere” with a group ditty called “Plane to Nowhere.” Byrne also performed as the night’s musical guest, showing off two incredible numbers from his American Utopia show.[Read: Consider the “diner lobster”]It was the best Saturday Night Live has been this season, and further evidence that Mulaney’s presence inspires some of the oddest and most ambitious sketch writing from the current staff. His appearances always have more of a niche comedy-nerd appeal, but Mulaney’s strength is that his persona isn’t cynical or cliquish—his observations just have an intense specificity to them, making their insights feel either deeply trenchant or completely irrelevant. That same magic makes The Sack Lunch Bunch such a charming watch (that special includes an ode to “a plain plate of noodles with a little bit of butter” and a song that asks whether flowers exist at night).Will Mulaney call it quits upon the completion of his trilogy, or try to keep his musical hot streak going? With any luck, he’ll at least keep returning to the show. I still hold out hope that he’ll return full-time at some point, perhaps to take up head-writing or Weekend Update–hosting duties whenever Jost has had enough of the gig. But Mulaney seems to be having too much fun as a comic jack-of-all-trades who can make children’s specials, do surprising voice work in major blockbusters, and continue his thriving stand-up career, rather than being shackled to one show. As he noted in his monologue, this was SNL’s first episode on a Leap Day; apparently there has never been a show that fell on February 29 during the program’s 45-year history. So think of last night’s episode, and “Airport Sushi,” as an unexpected gift of sorts, a freebie for 2020’s extra day and a sign that the longest-running show on TV can still do something new.
2020-03-01 18:14:51
2021-05-08T11:29:18.000000
1 y
theatlantic.com
Why West Side Story Abandoned Its Queer Narrative
Shortly before West Side Story opened on Broadway in the fall of 1957, the lyricist Stephen Sondheim received an angry letter from a doctor. One of the musical’s standout numbers in its Washington, D.C., tryout had been “America,” a playful debate between Rosalia, who longs to return to Puerto Rico, the “island of tropical breezes,” and Anita, a stateside enthusiast who mocks Rosalia’s nostalgia for an “island of tropic diseases.” As Sondheim recalled in his annotated collection of lyrics, Finishing the Hat, Dr. Howard Rusk, the founder of a New York medical center, complained that the song misrepresented Puerto Rico, which had, in fact, a very low instance of tropic diseases and a lower mortality rate than the continental United States. “I’m sure his outrage was justified,” Sondheim conceded, “but I wasn’t about to sacrifice the line that sets the tone for the whole lyric.” Although editors from New York’s Spanish-language newspaper La Prensa threatened to picket West Side Story for portraying Puerto Ricans as a public-health threat, and Rusk wrote an article for The New York Times headlined “The Facts Don’t Rhyme,” the show proceeded with Anita’s jab intact.More than 60 years later, the latest revival has opened on Broadway amid urgent debates about Puerto Rico’s relationship to the U.S., renewing questions about the tension between rhyme and facts, between artistic coherence and authentic representation. While West Side Story’s feuding, leaping, singing Sharks and Jets have long been lauded for lofting musical theater to the lyrical heights of Shakespearean tragedy, the show has also been criticized for promoting stereotypes of Puerto Ricans in the states as exoticized, eroticized gangbangers. Those stereotypes were popularized by the 1961 film, in which the only Puerto Rican star in the cast, Rita Moreno (who won an Oscar for playing Anita), was forced to darken her skin with brown makeup: a caricatured, cosmetic distortion of Puerto Rican identity. (A remake of the film, directed by Steven Spielberg, is set to be released in December.)“I think West Side Story for the Latino community has been our greatest blessing and our greatest curse,” Lin-Manuel Miranda told The Washington Post in 2009. Miranda was cast as Bernardo, the Sharks’ leader, in a sixth-grade performance, and was thrilled, as a Nuyorican who spent summers on the island, to see the question of whether to return to Puerto Rico staged in “America.” He directed West Side Story at his high school in 1998, bringing in his dad to teach his Upper East Side classmates how to act Latino. That same year, Paul Simon’s short-lived musical The Capeman ran on Broadway, dramatizing the mid-century story of a Puerto Rican teenager convicted of stabbing a white boy to death. “It was us as gang members in the ’50s, again,” Miranda explained to Grantland. “We should be able to be onstage without a knife in our hand. Once.” In college, Miranda wrote his own musical, In the Heights, which celebrated the daily struggles of Puerto Rican, Cuban, and Dominican New Yorkers—no knives involved. It became a 2008 Tony-winning hit, and Sondheim and Arthur Laurents, who wrote the script for West Side Story, hired him to translate some of the Sharks’ lyrics into Spanish for the previous Broadway revival, in 2009.The Belgian director Ivo van Hove, known for his radical revisions of American classics—stripped-down, often brutally violent stagings with dynamic video projections—thought he could create a West Side Story that represents America today. He told me that he got the idea for his production during Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and the rise of Black Lives Matter. “I thought, There’s a story that has been telling these things about America, an America that we had forgotten that it still existed.” He picked up the script of West Side Story, which he’d seen on television as a teenager in Flanders, and was amazed that its dialogue about rival gangs still spoke to the present. “It touches on poverty, it touches on racism, it touches on prejudice, it touches on violence,” van Hove said. He proposed a new vision of the show to the producer Scott Rudin: “a West Side Story for the 21st century.”There’s no mistaking van Hove’s version for the one you grew up with. Instead of brownface, the Sharks reflect the youthful diversity of Latinidad, tattooed with the word tiburón (Spanish for “shark”). Instead of all-white American boys in high-waisted pants, the Jets include black men and women in sweats, hoodies, and sports bras. There’s no more finger-snapping ballet; instead of Jerome Robbins’s original choreography, van Hove tapped Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker—known for angular moves that Beyoncé lifted for her “Countdown” music video—to channel hip-hop and club styles. (At the cast’s request, De Keersmaeker told me, Latinx choreographers were also hired to make the Sharks’ dances more authentic.)Instead of brownface, the Sharks reflect the youthful diversity of Latinidad, tattooed with the word tiburón (Spanish for “shark”). (Jan Versweyveld)Isaac Powell’s Tony looks fresh and rough, with a scar on his cheek and “Jets for Life” tattooed on his neck. Shereen Pimentel’s Maria is powerful and ardent, no dainty ingenue. Perhaps most striking, there’s no visible set, just an exposed stage painted black with giant video projections along the back wall—now a close-up on Tony’s face; now a scene in Maria’s bedroom, performed offstage; now an extension of the deserted street where the gangs roam; now a shot of a white police officer pointing a gun at an unarmed black man.You won’t hear tropic diseases in this production; van Hove, intent on bringing out the musical’s contemporary politics, chose lyrics from the film version of “America,” which pits Anita’s disdain for Puerto Rico against Bernardo’s experience of American racism. (“Life is all right in America.” “If you’re all-white in America.”) When Anita disparages her birth island—“always the hurricanes blowing, always the population growing”—the audience sees news footage of Hurricane Maria devastating San Juan. At the end of the song, a long aerial tracking shot shows the border wall with Mexico. “It’s the sociological story, the political dimension of the story that interests me most,” van Hove said.And that’s where the challenge comes in. Grafting sociological precision onto a musical that, from its start, traded facts for rhyme is tough. Unlike Mexico, of course, Puerto Rico isn’t separated from the U.S. by a border wall; Puerto Ricans have been U.S. citizens since 1917. When van Hove defended his choice to add more instances of the insult spic to his script, he told me that it is a motif that runs throughout the show: “It’s the insult they use for Mexicans; it’s the word that makes Bernardo explode.” Was he confusing Mexicans with the show’s Puerto Rican characters? Or was he making a case for a pan-Latinx experience of migration and discrimination? The problem with treating the musical’s stylized representations as documentary realism is that it presents ethnic caricatures as news footage.When van Hove leans into West Side Story’s purported sociology, he leaves you feeling a little American Dirt-y: You’re being served up sensationalized Latinx stereotypes as though they were dispatches from the border. As the Sharks sing, “Immigrant goes to America,” the Broadway Theatre back wall displays video footage of Mexican immigrants splashing across the Rio Grande. True, some immigrants do get to the United States that way; West Side Story is capacious enough to resonate in many cultural contexts. But to accept the musical as an account of contemporary migrant trauma is to verge on parody. West Side Story has always been about what it means to become American. But it’s never really been about what it means to be Puerto Rican. As a Latinx musical, West Side Story is incoherent and insulting. As the mid-century fantasy of queer Jewish artists, however, it’s surprisingly compelling.The musical’s origin story is one of displaced ethnicity. When Robbins first approached Laurents and the composer Leonard Bernstein in 1949 with an idea for a modern Romeo and Juliet, he proposed Jews and Catholics sparring during the week of Passover and Easter on New York’s Lower East Side. (Early newspaper accounts of their collaboration referred to the project as East Side Story.) They drafted an outline: When the Jewish Dorrie runs into the Catholic Tonio at a Mulberry Street dance festival, her Tante—her Yiddish-speaking aunt—calls Tonio a “shane boychick” (a good-looking young man), but Dorrie’s brother Bernard tells her to “stick to our side of the street,” by the kosher store and Stronsky’s Bridal Shoppe. The seeds of West Side Story were there—the street festival became the dance at the gym; Tonio became Tony; Dorrie became Maria; Bernard became Bernardo; Tante became Anita; Stronsky’s Bridal Shoppe became the Puerto Rican bridal shop; and “stick to our side of the street” became “stick to your own kind,” Anita’s refrain to Maria in “A Boy Like That.” But how did Yiddish become Spanish?It’s complicated. Robbins, born Jerome Rabinowitz, was deeply conflicted about his Jewish roots and terrified at being outed as gay by the House Un-American Activities Committee. Laurents, born Arthur Levine, was blacklisted during the Joseph McCarthy hearings. Even on the left, as “a Jew and a homosexual, I was, of course, an outsider, if not a pariah, no matter what my achievements,” Laurents wrote in his memoir. That sense of alienation may have shaped his response to Robbins’s initial idea; a sentimental play from the 1920s called Abie’s Irish Rose was about Jewish-Catholic intermarriage and assimilation, and Laurents complained that East Side Story would just be Abie’s Irish Rose set to music.The project stalled for a few years until Laurents ran into Bernstein in Beverly Hills and they noticed a headline in the newspaper: “More Mayhem From Chicano Gangs.” Bernstein, who had written his Harvard thesis on “the absorption of race elements into American music,” began to hear a Latin score. Laurents said he didn’t know any Chicanos, so he suggested shifting the story to the Upper West Side, where cases of juvenile delinquency were being reported, and where Puerto Rican migration was rapidly increasing. “New York and Harlem I knew firsthand,” he wrote, “and Puerto Ricans and Negroes and immigrants who had become Americans.” Laurents’s script defined the change: “The Sharks are Puerto Ricans, the Jets an anthology of what is called ‘American.’” They invited Sondheim, an untested young writer from Westchester, to write lyrics with a youthful feel. “I can’t do this show,” he responded. “I’ve never been that poor and I’ve never even known a Puerto Rican!” But, as Sondheim explained to me in an email, the creators “were much less concerned with the sociological aspects of the story than with the theatrical ones. The ethnic warfare was merely a vehicle to tell the Romeo and Juliet story ... It might just as well have been the Hatfields and the McCoys.”Instead of all-white American boys in high-waisted pants, the Jets include black men and women in sweats, hoodies, and sports bras. (Jan Versweyveld)Robbins wanted to choreograph a street ballet; Bernstein wanted to compose an American opera; Laurents wanted to write a topical drama; Sondheim just wanted a job. These four queer Jewish artists created a thrilling musical about love thwarted by prejudice, sustained by the hope (in the lyrics from “Somewhere”) that “there’s a place for us.” In the film, when Moreno’s Anita asks the Jets to “let me pass,” and they reply, “You’re too dark to pass,” a long, deeply lived history of anxiety about Jewish assimilation, closeted sexuality, and the McCarthy blacklist gets displaced, cosmetically, onto a stereotyped construction of Puerto Rican femininity. And when Anita dreams of getting her own apartment, and George Chakiris’s brownface Bernardo retorts, “Bedder get reed of your ahccent,” the layers of ethnic performance are so thick, it’s hard to remember what’s underneath.The van Hove revival leans so heavily on the spectacle of brown suffering that the show’s origins are almost effaced. That’s particularly palpable in the director’s choice to cut “I Feel Pretty,” Maria’s only featured number (with the other Puerto Rican women in chorus), and as pure an expression of queer joy as Sondheim and Bernstein wrote. Van Hove wanted to trim the show’s running time and sustain the momentum of the tragic plot, which “I Feel Pretty” certainly interrupts. And he claimed authority from Sondheim, who always regretted the song. The reasons Sondheim distanced himself from his own composition, though, are also tricky. Sondheim said another lyricist, Sheldon Harnick, suggested to him that “lines like ‘It’s alarming how charming I feel,’ words like ‘stunning,’ and phrases like ‘an advanced state of shock’ might not belong in the mouths of Maria and her friends.” What sounds like a slight of Puerto Rican women’s capacity for cleverness, though, might also reflect Sondheim’s discomfort with feeling that he had revealed too much of himself in lines such as “I feel pretty and witty and gay” and “I’m in love with a pretty wonderful boy.” He wrote in Finishing the Hat that he knew his wordplay “drew attention to the lyric writer rather than the character,” but he “hoped no one would notice.” Without the song, West Side Story is swifter, but a little less pretty and witty and gay; the cut also reduces Maria’s and her friends’ capacity for celebration and self-expression, shifting the focus to the male gang leaders.If you’re tempted to cast West Side Story as a world in which male bonds override female agency, the casting of Amar Ramasar as Bernardo doesn’t dispel that thought. Rudin and van Hove gave the role to Ramasar, a dancer who was accused of sharing sexually explicit photos of female dancers and subsequently fired from the New York City Ballet in 2018 for having “engaged in inappropriate communications, that while personal, off-hours and off-site, had violated the norms of conduct.” (He was reinstated seven months later after an arbiter ruled that suspension, rather than termination, was the appropriate punishment.) At the time, Ramasar was also starring in Rudin’s production of Carousel on Broadway; his understudy replaced him for one performance after the sexual-misconduct allegations became public in a lawsuit, and then he returned to the cast. Protesters organized an online petition objecting to Ramasar’s casting in West Side Story, and some have gathered nightly outside the Broadway Theatre, holding signs that read Boo Bernardo. When I asked van Hove to comment, he told me that before Ramasar was cast, he had been “acquitted,” which isn’t quite accurate; Rudin clarified on 60 Minutes that there had been “no firing offense.” “I don’t excuse it,” Rudin continued. “I think what he did was really stupid. I mean, am I supposed to replace him in the show? I’m not going to do that.”For a show long charged with representing Latino men as predators, casting Ramasar hardly helps. Even more concerning, however, may be the tradition of West Side Story treating the sexual exploitation of women’s bodies as the condition for artistic achievement. The change Laurents was most proud of, as he adapted Romeo and Juliet for New York gangs, came in the ending: Instead of a coincidental plague stopping the message about Juliet’s fake suicide from reaching Romeo in time, Laurents thought that prejudice had to be the cause of the story’s tragedy. And so he added a racially motivated sexual assault. When Anita tries to reach Tony to tell him that Maria is waiting for him, the Jets block her way (“You’re too dark to pass”). Then they try to rape her. Escaping, enraged, Anita shouts at them to tell Tony that Maria is dead. Hatred has conquered love. Laurents frequently boasted that the scene was “an improvement on Shakespeare.”In some productions, the attempted rape is staged indirectly. But in the new Broadway revival, van Hove, who has a history of staging graphic sexual violence, directs the scene as an explicit sexual assault, visible onstage and projected in an extreme camera close-up. “It’s the ultimate violation, the ultimate insult, the ultimate degrading,” he told me. “That’s what I do here. I really wanted to go at the edge of the situation because otherwise I felt I was betraying Anita.” He assured me that the scene had been carefully choreographed with a fight director and an intimacy director, and that the actor playing Anita, Yesenia Ayala, had consented to each choice. (The production did not grant my request to interview Ayala.) But the inclusion of the scene—as well as Ramasar’s presence in the cast—sends a message that women’s bodies are collateral damage in male artistic success, from Laurents’s “improvement” to Ramasar’s casting, and van Hove’s “ultimate” achievement.When van Hove and De Keersmaeker depart from brutal realism and let in a touch of queer fantasy, West Side Story takes flight. After the gangs’ tension erupts in the show’s climactic rumble scene, with bodies lying dead or battered across the stage, the aching strains of “Somewhere” begin. And somehow, those bodies float up and begin to couple—he and him, she and her, they and them. Arms and legs intertwine in urgent need, a dance of rapture amid death. Then you can see the musical’s displaced longing without the distortion of ethnic appropriation. For a fleeting moment, onstage, there’s “a place for us”—a place, in the late Seamus Heaney’s phrasing, where hope and history rhyme.
2020-03-01 14:00:00
2021-05-08T11:29:18.000000
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theatlantic.com
The Shame of Pete Buttigieg
The latest way that Pete Buttigieg allegedly brought shame upon the queer community was by discussing shame itself. At a CNN town hall in South Carolina, the presidential candidate marveled at meeting children who are openly gay. In contrast to them, Buttigieg said, “I was wrestling with this”—his sexuality—“well into my 20s. If there was a pill, a pill that I could take and not be gay anymore, then I would’ve jumped on it.” He paused for a beat, then went on, saying, “And thank God I didn’t. Because then I would not have the amazing marriage that I have now to Chasten.” The camera cut to Buttigieg’s husband in the audience, giving a slight, pitying smile.The clip of that meant-to-be-humanizing moment quickly became the object of mockery in queer circles online. Some users LOLed at Chasten’s reaction, interpreting him as showing embarrassment rather than empathy. Others acted as though Buttigieg were articulating a self-hating desire to become straight now, at 38, rather than describing how he felt in his closeted earlier years. Twitter critics called his words “the most evil shit” and “vile,” and said his comments were “absolutely going to do damage” to thousands of “vulnerable LGBTQ youth.”Such reactions plainly misrepresented Buttigieg’s meaning or, bizarrely, implied that gay people should never talk about the pain of the closet. Really, though, they shoved the pill-the-gay-away comment into a preexisting narrative: the one that says Buttigieg is basically straight. There’s a hashtag going around, #PetesNotGay, that involves dissections of the mayor’s closed-mouthed kisses with his husband on the campaign trail. Onion articles have imagined Buttigieg revealing a wife and kids, or condemning his own sexuality. The New Republic last year published and then retracted a scathing essay by Dale Peck that blasted Buttigieg as so buttoned-down and assimilated that he undermines a movement based in what is still often termed deviance. In a New Yorker piece titled “The Queer Backlash to Pete Buttigieg Explained,” Masha Gessen ends by calling Buttigieg “a straight politician in a gay man’s body.”These arguments that present Buttigieg as not really gay so obviously flirt with the essentialism queer people fight against that it’s a bit shocking to see them get traction at all. Boring gays are still gay. Gays who love the Dave Matthews Band are still gay. Progressive gays who survey the current political landscape and bet that the way to successfully enact economic and social justice is by triangulating between Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden are—and this is the sticking point—still gay. That mantra of gay is good works as an anti-stigmatizing tool; it’s what, in fact, Buttigieg was invoking by saying he was glad he wasn’t able to medicalize himself straight. Conflating gayness with any particular moral, political, or aesthetic value the observer has deemed good, though, is an act of hijacking—one weirdly similar to the rhetorical move homophobes use when they say gay people are immoral.To be sure, there are plenty of legitimate critiques coming from queer folks. LGBTQ voters tend to be younger and more liberal than other Democrats, so, in large numbers, they support candidates to the left of Buttigieg. His every gaffe and centrist slogan can be spun as a betrayal of the sort of radical queerness that is, in this moment, more visible than ever. Meanwhile, the chatter painting Buttigieg as virtually straight points to something that’s harder to talk about: the ways in which a Democratic front-runner is, in fact, unmissably gay, and how the backlash to him is itself tinged with its own strain of queer shame.This past week wasn’t the first time Buttigieg mentioned having wanted a pill to become straight. He also did so at an LGBTQ Victory Fund event in April, in a speech that is, if you are not on the Buttigieg bus, viscerally painful to watch in the way that so much of his oratory is. There’s a lot to cringe at: his glaring Barack Obama imitations, his slackened pace of speech that suggests computational work being done before each word, his consultant jargon (“laser focused”), his Mr. Smith Goes to Washington pretenses (regarding Mike Pence’s homophobia: “Your quarrel, sir, is with my Creator”), and his squirmy euphemisms (catch the Grindr joke?).But amid the corniness, he edged toward something rawer. First, he told the happy tale of marrying Chasten. Then, he doubled back to earlier in his life, to “another part of the story that even now I have a harder time talking about … even though it’s something that maybe won’t be so surprising.” He went on: When I was younger, I would have done anything to not be gay. When I began to halfway realize what it meant that I felt the way I did about people I saw in the hallway at school or the dining hall at college, it launched in me something I can only describe as a kind of war. And if that war had been settled on the terms I would have wished for when I was 15 or 20 or frankly even 25, I would not be standing here. If you had offered me a pill to make me straight, I would have swallowed it before you had time to give me a sip of water. It’s a hard thing to think about now. It’s hard to face the truth that there were times in my life when, if you had shown me exactly what it was inside me that made me gay, I would have cut it out with a knife. And the reason it’s so awful to think about isn’t just the knowledge that so many young people struggling to come to terms with their sexuality or gender identity do just that—they harm themselves, figuratively or literally. The real reason it’s so hard to do that is that if I had had the chance to do that, I would have never found my way to Chasten. There’s a vividness, a darkness, and—in its attention to subtext—a queerness to this passage that might seem surprising coming from Buttigieg. He’s talking about his own experience of self-loathing using imagery that aligns with actual means of suicide and self-harm. He is drawing a line between his own experience and that of queer youths who do hurt themselves. He’s leaving open the question of how literal or figurative his own desire to cut or medicate himself was.It’s, as far as I’ve seen, the most introspective and specific Buttigieg has ever gotten when discussing his struggles with sexuality. Turn to his memoir, Shortest Way Home, to read Buttigieg’s lengthy dissections of such topics as traffic improvements in South Bend and the features of an Indiana sunrise. Gayness, by contrast, is depicted mostly in glancing terms, and mostly as a career problem he had to solve. Pages are given over to him thinking through how to come out, and to the reaction in local politics, and to the logistics of finding a date while in public office. The wish-for-a-pill phase, the long torment of the closet, goes undiscussed. He mentions being ribbed in gym class, but if the mockery involved homophobic slurs, we don’t hear about it. He describes busy days spent in public service; he doesn’t describe restless nights spent worrying about identity.A queer reader of Buttigieg’s memoir and life story is left to project. Buttigieg’s rise comes off as a breathless accumulation of achievements, including a Rhodes Scholarship, a job at McKinsey, a post in the Navy Reserve, election to public office, proficiency in multiple languages, and a quick stint as a concert pianist, all before turning 30. If he ever pithily sums up the psychological motive underlying all the hustle, I haven’t quite caught it. But I have thought a lot about the stereotypes of gay men as hyper-successful, image-conscious, and wounded. I have revisited Alan Downs’s widely read 2005 book, The Velvet Rage, which diagnosed gay men’s defining motive as shame. Here, the psychologist Downs describes queer children’s impulse toward parent-pleasing: What would you like me to be? A great student? A priest in a church? Mother’s little man? The first-chair violinist? We became dependent on adopting the skin our environment imposed upon us to earn the love and affection we craved. How could we love ourselves when everything around us told us that we were unlovable? Instead, we chased the affection, approval, and attention doled out by others. The “we” there is presumptuous, but the attitudes described are indeed common to many gay lives. Earlier this year, a Twitter thread on this topic from the writer Alexander E. Leon went viral. “Queer people don’t grow up as ourselves,” Leon began. “We grow up playing a version of ourselves that sacrifices authenticity to minimise humiliation & prejudice. The massive task of our adult lives is to unpick which parts of ourselves are truly us & which parts we’ve created to protect us.”Authenticity is, of course, the watchword of modern politics, and it’s a criterion that Buttigieg seems to struggle with. Though he affects a sort of preternatural smoothness and is quick on his feet, he’s still working in the model of a politician who is curated and manicured, equipped with lines to deliver as if by pull-string in his back. Side-by-side comparisons demonstrating the extent to which his speeches resemble Obama’s have been making the rounds online lately. They bolster the sense that Buttigieg has manufactured a character to achieve what he wants.That character is not simply, as some of his critics claim, an evocation of some straight male ideal. Whereas Donald Trump, Bill Clinton, and Bernie Sanders all, in their ways, create “authenticity” with extemporaneous emotionality—they rivet as they ramble—Buttigieg’s performances invite terms such as calculating, cold, and studied. These have a marked resemblance to the terminology often tagged to female politicians, whose affects have inevitably been shaped in response to sexism. The super-rehearsed presentational tics shared by Buttigieg and, say, Hillary Clinton or Kamala Harris remind viewers of the outsize work that’s been required for these people to be taken seriously. They suggest that thriving as someone other than straight, white, and male in America can require making yourself into a politician—and not only in politics.Of course Buttigieg’s persona, to whatever extent it is constructed and to whatever extent his sexuality has influenced that construction, is a blazingly effective one. If he were to win, he would be the youngest ever president, the first openly gay one, and one of the least experienced too. If he doesn’t get to the White House, he has, by winning the Iowa caucus and placing highly in other primaries, gotten impressively close to it. Queerness has to be seen as an asset so far in directing attention and shaping his narrative. As Buttigieg put it to Stephen Colbert, “The very same thing that I thought might mean I would never get to serve in uniform or in office turns out to be—talk about God having a sense of humor—it turns out to be part of how I’ve had a chance to make a difference.”At the same time, as the #PetesNotGay crowd dwells on, he has played down his sexuality in strategic ways. The 2015 op-ed in which he announced his coming-out stressed the theme that he’s just like anyone else. He has parried away personal snooping, such as when he declined to answer a supposedly just-for-fun New York Times inquiry into the celebrity crushes of each candidate. The way he’s presented his marriage and his life story underlines the ways in which a gay life can resemble a straight one. The routine has been so deft that, according to one viral video from the Iowa caucus, people might actually cast ballots for him without realizing he’s gay.A “gayer” candidate—or at least one more consistently inspiring across the LGBTQ spectrum—would be unmistakable. They would help the electorate understand the ways in which a queer life is not like a straight one by forthrightly discussing the feeling of difference, and even shame, that Buttigieg talks around. They might be more idiosyncratic in their style, and more confrontational toward straight voters, and would boast a yet-bolder political agenda. Mostly, though, they would not so glaringly confront LGBTQ voters with the painful reality that even in the most out-and-proud era of queer life in history, repression and self-editing remain imperatives in many arenas. They would not provoke the question Buttigieg constantly does: Is he deflecting from his own identity for reasons of expedience or his own discomfort, or both? They would not make queer viewers think of when they’ve made similar elisions at work, with family, on the street, or even in their own internal narrative.But that “gayer” candidate also might not have the traction Buttigieg has now. On one end of the Buttigieg reaction spectrum is the homophobic voter in Iowa who tried to reclaim her ballot after being told, during the caucus, that the candidate she just cast a vote for is gay. On the other end of the spectrumare queer commentators taking offense at his inoffensiveness. In the middle of those two groups are enough voters to put him in contention for the Democratic nomination. Finding a space between, a path spanning accommodation and authenticity, is what queerness has often meant.
2020-02-29 15:00:00
2021-05-08T11:29:18.000000
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theatlantic.com
Love Is Blind Was the Ultimate Reality-TV Paradox
This story contains spoilers for the first season of Love Is Blind.It’s a safe bet that Geoffrey Chaucer didn’t have a reality-dating TV series in mind when he wrote The Canterbury Tales, the 14th-century story collection that first popularized the phrase “love is blind.” In Chaucer’s original chronicle, “The Merchant’s Tale,” an elderly man named January forsakes all reason when he falls for May, a beautiful but philandering young woman. Netflix’s viral hit Love Is Blind, meanwhile, stretches Chaucer’s warning into a “three-week event.” The show, which ended yesterday, billed itself as a corrective to the shallow, app-driven “market” of modern dating, in which singles appraise one another based on superficial qualities.Love Is Blind, for those who haven’t yet been dragged into its vortex, conducts a fiendish experiment: 15 men and 15 women get to know one another by conversing from inside soundproofed pods separated by a wall. The daters can’t see one another, and the only view into the rooms is from above (the camera regularly pans over them to eerie effect). Within days, participants form bonds deep enough to prompt marriage proposals, and the newly engaged couples finally meet in the flesh. The gantlet that begins once the affianced pairs leave their pods is intended to test the lovers’ commitment to each other, and to the show’s central premise. “Everyone wants to be loved for who they are,” the co-host Vanessa Lachey explains in the show’s first episode, channeling all the profundity of a fortune cookie. “Not for their looks, their race, their background, or their income.” Over its 10 episodes, Love Is Blind doled out enthralling train wrecks (and a handful of tender moments). But the show ultimately contradicts its own disingenuous premise—especially in the finale.No matchup captures the Love Is Blind ethos more neatly than the fan favorites, a 28-year-old scientist named Cameron Hamilton, who is white, and a 32-year-old content creator named Lauren Speed, who is black. In the first episode, the two trade easy banter from their pods, their conversations gradually growing more serious. Throughout the season, Lauren, who admits she has never dated a nonblack man, is surprised by how readily she fell for—and agreed to marry—Cameron. When the two exchange vows in the finale, the show positions their union as evidence of love’s ability to triumph over difference. After they proclaim their devotion, the (black) officiant declares, “Lauren and Cameron, today, you guys have definitely proved that love is blind,” prompting an enthusiastic “Amen” from Cameron’s mother. The very last frame of the season shows the two smiling giddily at each other, their happiness all the more potent for having been so unexpected (and, of course, for having been juxtaposed with other couples’ dysfunction earlier in the episode). The newlyweds’ joy consecrates their unorthodox path to each other, and the beliefs that underlie it.[Read: Love in the age of reality television]Lauren and Cameron indeed make an easy couple to root for. From the beginning, they regard each other with respect and humor, and both appear to be even-keeled individuals who don’t court drama with their bombastic castmates. But it’s this same perceived realness that challenges the show’s valorization of their improbable courtship: Though Love Is Blind alternates between attempting to extract drama from the fact of their racial differences and dismissing its significance altogether, Lauren and Cameron most often approach the matter with pragmatism. Cameron, who has dated a black woman before, tells Lauren that he knows their children will be perceived as black and face racism as a result of it. He doesn’t attempt to paper over her concerns about their differences with platitudes about the power of love; he takes Lauren—including the experiences she has because of how the world sees her—seriously.Of course, Love Is Blind is a reality-dating show of negligible gravitas, an amalgamation of lowbrow hits including the Bachelor franchise; the Blind Date game show of yore; The Real World’s many iterations; and Netflix’s own social-media satire, The Circle. But the series does attempt to make philosophical critiques of contemporary dating habits, casting social media and cellphone usage as villains in the fight for human connection. And the idea at the core of its harebrained experiment—that finding love would be easier if we all stopped caring so much about the meaningless labels that keep us apart—is one that remains popular despite the tangible effects that markers such as race and income have on every part of people’s lives. That Love Is Blind, a show on which a woman nonchalantly lets her dog drink out of her wine glass, would adopt a preachy tone about the fracturing of human emotion is a dazzling irony.Love Is Blind participants can’t see each other while they date from inside soundproofed pods separated by a wall, but the show gives viewers an aerial glance. (NETFLIX)Love Is Blind’s tonal incongruity becomes most obvious in its treatment of participants who don’t make shiny poster children for its judgment-free utopia. While Lauren does seem to get her happy ending, for example, the other black participants who make it to the experiment’s second stage do not. One of Love Is Blind’s most explosive early sequences ensued when a man named Carlton told his fiancée, Diamond, that he had also dated men in the past. The revelation came after the two had left their pod-dating phase, when they were meant to be enjoying an engagement-moon in Mexico. But even after scenes in which he’d spoken candidly about how hard it is for black men to feel safe expressing a range of emotions, Love Is Blind’s one openly bisexual participant leaves the show after an acrimonious altercation. Diamond doesn’t have a particularly easy go of things either—during the pod stage, one of the white participants tells her that her name makes her sound like a stripper.[Read: A Netflix show that captures the surrealism of modern romance]Love Is Blind never meaningfully acknowledges one obvious structural flaw in its experiment: Racial markers, and other signifiers of social status, can be picked up during telephone conversations too. Nor does the series grapple with any number of serious issues that present themselves throughout its run—among them biphobia, classism, and substance abuse. That the show makes it all the way to its finale with almost no commentary on one contestant’s clear alcohol problem—and in fact plays her constant drunkenness for shock value—is especially cringeworthy.It’s unlikely that anyone who watches Love Is Blind, which will also air a reunion special on Netflix’s YouTube account next Thursday, is seeking keen insights on human behavior. The show confusingly attempts to both capitalize on the specious psychology that animates its premise and separate itself from the types of series that share its DNA. Making grand pronouncements about the ills of social media—and even showing how an Instagram fixation can lead to fighting within a relationship—doesn’t change the fact that Love Is Blind is a show that teased its finale with footage of that same Instagram-obsessed woman running out of her own wedding and falling in the mud. The series didn’t need a flimsy moral imperative to attract audiences. The prospect of watching strangers humiliate themselves in the pursuit of love, fame, or some combination thereof has always been enough to reel viewers in.
2020-02-28 20:55:11
2021-05-08T11:29:18.000000
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theatlantic.com
Lady Gaga’s ‘Stupid Love’ Is a Glorious Comeback
The title of Lady Gaga’s fantastic new single, “Stupid Love,” riffs on a concept she’s sung about many times before. A “stupid love” sounds like it could be a “bad romance,” diseased and vengeful. It might be the fleeting roar of a-p-p-l-a-u-s-e. “All I ever wanted was love,” she now croons, but listeners know that in the past she’s accepted a perfect illusion, a hit of dope, and the kiss of Judas: a love that leaves.Gaga’s career has, in fact, shown that the best pop can be the neediest kind, the most insistent, and the most superficial. Her early visual aesthetic glinted and changed with the restlessness of a video-slot display, and her whirling synthetic sound matched. It was pop, on some level, about pop, and how its rush resembled and could even replace other sensory rushes. The culture inevitably got a hangover. “We’re far from the shallow now,” Gaga announced on the hit from 2018’s A Star Is Born, culminating her years-long correction into stately jazz, show tunes, and rock.During that same late-2010s period, the Hot 100 became a zone of hauteur, burnout, and paranoia. To the extent that dance pop has survived, it’s been with post-Chainsmokersdivas such as Dua Lipa performing chilly, come-hither coyness. Gaga’s attempts at that sort of affect, as with the 2017 single “The Cure” or the songs of her A Star Is Born character’s sellout phase, rang as parody. She’s just too much of a ham to pull off anything other than big and bold. At some point, she’d either have to retreat from aiming for nightclubs or—as her fans have been rooting for her to do—make a brash last stand for music that interrupts vibe-y playlists rather than fits in with them. So here she is now, red hot and panting, trying to jolt the national mood.The prismatic arpeggios, assertive kick drum, and wait-is-this-Madonna? chord progression of “Stupid Love” will be called a return to form for Gaga. But the song, the first single off her sixth album, is no mere clone. For the first time in her career, Gaga is working with the superproducer Max Martin, the architect of many of the defining smashes of the past three decades. He’s fallen off a bit with regards to chart success in recent years, and so has Gaga, but their sonic matchup makes a ton of sense: Even if each note feels perfectly calibrated for catchiness, Gaga’s voice is so big and personable that a sense of humanity remains intact. Rather than chasing the operatic chaos of “Bad Romance” or Artpop, “Stupid Love” is light, sweet, and orderly, which is to say, it’s ineffably Swedish.It’s clever, too. The producers BloodPop and Tchami help sprinkle the track with small delights: crunchy keyboards defibrillating the verses, chopped-up vocals looped like a chipper GIF, tearful gospel passages from the church of Annie Lennox. The surest sign that the team wasn’t working on autopilot comes in the bridge, when the song tamps down the energy, builds back up, and then roars into its final chorus—but withholds the big drop by crucial microseconds. It’s a fake-out that tricks the ear every time, as superfans who’ve been giddily listening to the song since it leaked in January can attest.The video is B-movie camp, with Gaga in pink Barbarella gear (call her Chromatica, the possible name for her forthcoming album), playing peacemaker during a dance battle. Each warrior faction has a color and fashion theme, though in the place of the haute couture of Gaga’s early videos, these outfits looks crafted and Halloween-y. A generous reading would be that she’s trying to convey a more goofy, humble, and authentic kind of romance—do try this at home!—than she once did. Stupid love, the video suggests, is the kind that can heal the world’s fractures. Pop makes such promises all the time; while you’re dancing, you’re not worried whether they’re true.
2020-02-28 18:22:00
2021-05-08T11:29:18.000000
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theatlantic.com
Books Briefing: The Uncut History of Black Life
The scholar Carter G. Woodson, who’s known as “the father of black history” and the creator of what would become Black History Month, dedicated his life’s work topromotingthe study of black people and their accomplishments. In his seminal book The Mis-Education of the Negro, Woodson makes the argument that African Americans have to learn about their history in order to help heal their inherited trauma.The visual artist Lorna Simpson’s work approaches black identity with an eye toward archival history and everyday life, such as inher collages that showcase the dynamism of black women’s hair. Kiley Reid captures a modern dilemma in her novel about a young black woman whose part-time babysitting gig turns awkward due to her white employer’s attempts to impress her with “wokeness.”Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter From Birmingham Jail,” written in 1963while he was being detained for leading a protest, is as relevant as ever when reflecting on black history and racial politics. The same is true of a poem Nikki Giovanni wrote after King was assassinated, imagining how black people could respond to such an overwhelming loss.​ Every Friday in the Books Briefing, we thread together Atlantic stories on books that share similar ideas. Know other book lovers who might like this guide? Forward them this email. What We’re Reading‘Letter From Birmingham Jail’“[This] eloquent call for ‘constructive, nonviolent tension’ to force an end to unjust laws became a landmark document of the civil-rights movement.”
2020-02-28 17:30:00
2021-05-08T11:29:18.000000
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theatlantic.com
Diane Keaton’s Very Different Kind of Memoir
Memoir is a slippery, intimate craft. To trust the memoirist, a reader must believe in the author’s ability to remember with some degree of clarity. But when writing her new book, Brother & Sister, the Oscar-winning actor Diane Keaton rejected the fidelity of her own memory altogether—in part because the story she wanted to tell isn’t solely her own. Keaton’s second memoir examines her strained relationship with her only brother, Randy. Once close, the two grew apart as a young Keaton found success in Hollywood, and as Randy later struggled with mental illness, alcoholism, and social isolation. Because her brother now has dementia, Keaton needed to look elsewhere to reconstruct the past.It helped that her late mother, Dorothy, had meticulously documented her four children’s upbringing in 1950s Southern California via photography. “It was always a visually dominated kind of life,” Keaton told me when we spoke last week. “We just followed the path that Mother laid out.” And after Dorothy died in 2008, Keaton—who uses her mother’s maiden name—inherited a trove of mementos, including hundreds of letters, and dozens of journals, photo albums, and scrapbooks. Though Keaton treats her memory as a starting point for Brother & Sister, she uses these family relics in an almost journalistic way: to corroborate her recollections of Randy, to challenge them, and to fill in the gaps where she never quite knew him at all. Apart from telling a poignant story about two siblings, Brother & Sister is a fascinating exercise in writing a personal and methodical tale about someone who has come to feel, in some sense, like a stranger.At first glance, Randy’s life might not seem like an obvious subject for Keaton’s memoir, a slim volume of 176 pages. The siblings’ paths in the world diverged after they outgrew their childhood bunk beds: Keaton has been a celebrated actor for decades; she’s traveled the world to shoot movies and to hone her skills. Randy, meanwhile, never left the county where he and his siblings were raised and found only periodic employment. Though Randy also found comfort in creative pursuits, most of his work as a poet and collage artist remains unpublished. Keaton admits that she often saw him as a burden, and Brother & Sister seeks, on some level, to atone for her absence or inattention. Keaton attempts this in part by deferring to her brother’s accounts, by interspersing her chronological recollections with Randy’s own words. “It’s hard to be a better sister or family member, because you can’t really put yourself in his shoes unless you really investigate it,” Keaton told me. “And I didn’t really. I was busy with me.”A young Randy and Diane dressed up for Halloween. (Courtesy of Diane Keaton)Searching and rueful in tone, Brother & Sister departs from many celebrity memoirs in its focus. Keaton’s acting career is rarely invoked, and when it is, it’s to contextualize her family’s life at a given time. Neither is the book a neat fit in the category of addiction memoir, as Randy, now 71, can no longer narrate his own experience of alcoholism. While her regret animates many parts of the book, Keaton also writes of Randy’s life with a sense of wonder. After Randy becomes ill, Keaton inherits his belongings, and she marvels at the magnitude and inscrutability of the artistic work he produced. “I became the sole possessor of his two published poetry books, 500 collages, 54 notebooks, and 70 random journals filled with his own brand of cartoons—including my brother’s entire collection of the intimate feelings, fantasies, and disappointments underlying the mystery of his life,” she writes. “I want to understand that mystery. Or at least try to understand the complexity of loving someone so different, so alone, and so hard to place.”[Read: In her memoir, Debbie Harry stares back]Keaton spends much of Brother & Sister appraising Randy’s collages and poems. Here, as in other parts of the book, her prose is meditative but not detached. (Brother & Sister is precise, for example, in its descriptions of the idyllic Southern California bubble that Randy and Diane inhabited as children.) Scrutinizing Randy’s creations, Keaton realized they actually composed her brother’s rare successes in life: “Randy did accomplish much of what he wanted in the sense of his writing and expressing himself,” she said. “And that fed him.” When we spoke, she read aloud a passage in which Randy reflects on a day from their youth: Father is doing a handstand on the beach. His thin, muscular legs dangle backwards over his head. Once, a long time ago I studied the photograph. His face was not where it should be. Even after turning the picture upside down, something was wrong … Father upset nature. At least in my mind he did. The scene captures the unique fear that their father, Jack, inspired in Randy—first as a boy and then as a man who didn’t meet Jack’s rigid expectations of masculinity. But it also gave Keaton insight into the way her brother saw the world around him. Where she experienced family trips to the beach as benign outings, Randy saw a threat. “Think about how he pictured Dad versus me seeing Dad doing the same thing—completely different,” she told me. “And where was I for Randy? I wasn’t really there. I wasn’t there to examine or think of how he pictured the world.”One of Randy’s collages. (Courtesy of Diane Keaton)Keaton tangles with her own guilt throughout Brother & Sister. Still, she doesn’t hesitate to name some of the more unpleasant parts of her family history, especially those which Randy’s journal entries, and their mother’s, have helped her better understand. Some of the book’s most wrenching passages are those in which Keaton grapples with Randy’s destructive, rather than simply eccentric, behavior. She describes a time when their frightened mother wrote to her about Randy’s having disappeared for weeks. Where this memory might have otherwise been lost in a blur of recollections from periods of Randy’s alcoholism, Keaton quotes an entry from his journal that reveals the intensity of her brother’s resentment toward Dorothy: “I have gone to the land of muted rage, spectral skirts, and disembodied voices. I would have preferred a bitch for a mother, someone solid and distasteful—at least there would be a center, a place I could leave.”Lines like these can be difficult to read, especially because recollections of Dorothy’s warmth—and her fear for her son—recur throughout Brother & Sister. The book sometimes reads as a somber companion to parts of Then Again, Keaton’s first memoir, which focused on her relationship with her mother. Published nearly 10 years ago, Then Again also saw Keaton pulling heavily from her mother’s archives, often quoting lengthy excerpts from the letters that the two wrote to one another. But Then Again was a memoir steeped in familiarity; Brother & Sister is an excavation. “It was also an opportunity to look more at what Mom wrote about Randy,” Keaton said of writing her new book. “I think that Randy was really the love of her life, but also the concern of her life. She was just trying to find a path to somehow save Randy.”[Read: The charming candor of Julie Andrews’s memoir]Keaton, on the other hand, doesn’t try to save her brother. Instead, she affirms the sanctity of his imagination, even its darkest corners. After printing a disturbing confession Randy once sent her in a letter, which she’d never revealed to anyone prior, Keaton resists pathologizing her brother: “I felt he had a right to his fantasies,” she writes. “After all, I was someone who played parts, living out fantasies in the safe realm of movies.” The siblings’ respective dreams were quite different, of course, but such unlikely comparisons make up Brother & Sister’s most moving moments. Sibling relationships can be particularly hard to navigate without reliable social scripts. But Keaton seems to have arrived at these connections, and at the complicated tenderness required to conceive of such closeness, in part because she first looked outside herself—and her own memories of Randy—to better see him.
2020-02-28 13:00:00
2021-05-08T11:29:18.000000
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theatlantic.com
This Time, The Invisible Man Is Really About a Woman
The first cinematic adaptation of H. G. Wells’s The Invisible Man came in 1933, when the height of special effects involved props dangling from wires and a special velvet suit. Almost 90 years have passed, and many invisible men (and women) have come and gone, but it’s comforting to see that in Leigh Whannell’s latest take on the horror icon, the simplest bits of camera trickery are still the most effective. This newest iteration of The Invisible Man focuses mostly on a woman being victimized by someone she cannot see. On occasion, a stationary shot of her will pan over to a corner of the room that’s clearly empty—or is it?Whannell’s film is a decidedly contemporary update, a version that owes very little to Wells’s original spooky tale. Though the power of invisibility is usually rendered in these stories as a curse of sorts that drives men to madness, here it’s deployed as an out-and-out weapon: a way for an ex-boyfriend to physically and emotionally torture Cecilia (played by Elisabeth Moss) as she tries to build a new life after leaving him. It’s a supernatural spin on an all-too-realistic scenario—what if the man you feared was stalking you, and yet nobody else could see the evidence? The brutal cleverness of that concept is enough to make The Invisible Man a worthwhile watch.The movie begins with Cecilia fleeing the high-tech home of her boyfriend, Adrian Griffin (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), who has trapped her in an abusive relationship for years. Soon after, it’s reported that Adrian has died by suicide, leaving Cecilia the fortune he amassed as a leader in “the field of optics,” whatever that is. But quickly enough, things start to go bump in the night, and Cecilia realizes that her ex-boyfriend has faked his death and is tormenting her from behind a veil of invisibility. First he pulls spooky pranks in her house, then he starts framing her for acts of brutal violence. Through it all, not even her closest friends or family believe her.The emotional weight of The Invisible Man is anchored in Elisabeth Moss's performance. (Universal)Whannell has been steeped in cutting-edge Hollywood horror for two decades, starting with his innovative scripts for the Saw and Insidious franchises. He’s always had a penchant for plotting that is sensational, grisly, and a little glib, epitomized by the Rube Goldberg torture puzzles at the center of the Saw films. As a director, though, he’s demonstrated some genuine flair, beginning with the third Insidious film (a surprisingly thoughtful prequel), in 2015, and continuing with 2018’s fiendishly fun action-horror Upgrade. So it’s perfectly fitting that Universal has handed him the keys to one of its classic monsters, in a smart shift away from the disastrously ill-fated franchise model behind its expensive 2017 blockbuster The Mummy. The small scale of Whannell’s film makes its bloodiest flourishes and nastiest jumps hit harder.Prior Invisible Man editions were mostly about the invisible men, from Claude Rains’s mad scientist to Kevin Bacon’s homicidal rapist. This film is really all about Cecilia, and that emotional weight is enough to balance some of Whannell’s sillier narrative instincts. The fundamental creepiness of Adrian’s campaign of gaslighting—slowly convincing everyone around Cecilia that she’s going mad—is grounded in Moss’s terrific performance. She’s an actor accustomed to portraying mental breakdowns (think of her splendid work in Queen of Earth and Her Smell) who uses facial tics and broad grimaces to communicate much deeper pain than any hackneyed horror-movie dialogue could.Moss’s creativity in depicting fear is assisted by Whannell’s artful flourishes behind the camera. He wrings real terror from the simplest pans across the screen that suggest someone else might be in the room. As Upgrade showed, he also possesses a real gift for action-heavy set pieces. His favorite visual trick keeps the lens tightly focused on a person’s face even as they crumple to the floor, shuddering back and forth under attack. It’s well deployed in The Invisible Man,as Adrian uses his invisibility to take down whole rooms of people.But within those bigger sequences also lies the bigger problem. The first half of The Invisible Man, dedicated to Adrian’s torment of Cecilia, is tight, grim, and effective. Unfortunately, the story drags on a little too long (a hefty two hours and four minutes) and meanders in confusing directions, including an unnecessarily convoluted last-act twist that can’t be justified without some serious timeline gymnastics. Though Whannell started out as a writer, it’s clear that stylish direction is where his strengths truly lie. Luckily, The Invisible Man has more than enough of that to hold the viewer’s attention.
2020-02-27 20:09:36
2021-05-08T11:29:18.000000
1 y
theatlantic.com
The Most Unadaptable Book in Fiction
There are a few moments, reading Joan Didion’s 1996 novel, The Last Thing He Wanted, when it’s possible to sense why someone saw cinematic potential in this exceptionally interior and evasive story. This is a tale about gunrunning in tropical climes, about beachside murders and political corruption. But its author also wants to deconstruct the prototypical elements of storytelling, such as character, description, and plot. This world is so destabilized that language itself has become untrustworthy, and even the simplest of facts cannot stand. There’s no single truth to rely on. The story is narrated by a magazine writer who may or may not be Didion herself, and who’s parsing how a female reporter got swept up in an arms-dealing scandal in 1984. While the story is fictional, the book is deeply attentive to real government duplicity during the Reagan era, in which “even the most apparently straightforward piece of information could at any time explode.”Dee Rees’s adaptation of The Last Thing He Wanted debuted in January at the Sundance Film Festival to baffled reviews, and has inspired similar confusion since it arrived on Netflix last Friday. The movie is, Stephanie Zacharek wrote for Time, “such an ambitious piece of work that it’s hard to know where to start with it.” In The New York Times, Glenn Kenny concluded that “the big problem with the movie isn’t the muddle, but the strain” of Rees’s attempts to make things make sense. “How does a director as stellar as Dee Rees (Mudbound, Pariah) go so thunderously wrong adapting a 1996 novel by the great Joan Didion, with a cast headed by Anne Hathaway, Ben Affleck, and Willem Dafoe?” Peter Travers asked in his Rolling Stone review, perhaps unwittingly answering his own question. Didion’s prestige as a writer is such that virtually anyone would want to attach themselves to a project with her name on it. But there’s also a good reason only one of her novels has previously been turned into a film or television project: Her work, this movie suggests, is unadaptable.That isn’t a slight on the work itself. Didion’s novels and journalism are defined by a detached lucidity, often a vehicle for her unnerving appraisal of internal turmoil as symptom and statement of an unraveling world. Particularly in her fiction, Didion concerns herself with the dark lie of American identity: a legacy of blood and corruption in Run, River; the perversion of innocence in Play It as It Lays; the fragility of order and peace in Democracy and A Book of Common Prayer. Arms dealers recur in her stories, as do dead and dying parents, sterile society dinners, and heroines paralyzed by anxiety and a nonspecific sense of dread. (My favorite moment in the novel version of The Last Thing He Wanted is when Elena McMahon, in her former life as the wife of a Beverly Hills tycoon, sits glumly “in front of a plate of untouched cassoulet” at an Academy Awards watch party, so disaffected that she can’t even enjoy the show.)But the interiority of Didion’s novels, combined with their experimental structure, tends to defy translation into the framework of film and television. The Last Thing He Wanted, in particular, is a work intended to challenge simple comprehension; even its title contains two possible interpretations. Language, the book suggests, can be distorted until it becomes meaningless. Early on, the unnamed narrator explains her impatience with writing itself, “with the conventions of the craft, with expositions, with transitions, with the development and revelation of ‘character.’” To impose order on a set of circumstances so specifically about evasion—in this case the duplicity and doublespeak of American institutions in the 1980s—seems absurd to her, and so she homes in on the story’s technical elements instead: tactical erdlators, high-capacity deep wells, laterite. Everything else is too uncertain, too changeable, too taxing to try to reckon with.The narrator’s ostensible focus in the book is Elena, a woman who is variously—in the story’s achronological sections—a society wife and mother in California, a reporter covering Reagan’s 1984 reelection campaign, and an accidental-ish gun runner whose mission takes her from Miami to Costa Rica to an island that’s possibly St. Lucia. Readers are first introduced to Elena in the Caribbean, well after she’s been caught up in a shadowy conspiracy involving CIA fixers and a fake passport. Then the novel dances among fragments of her former lives—her employment at a beach resort, her exit from the campaign trail just before the California primary, and, finally, her decision to help her ailing father complete an illegal million-dollar arms sale in Central America.That Elena’s motivations are hard to unravel is a problem with the story even Didion acknowledges. “The facts of Elena McMahon’s life did not quite hang together,” she writes early in the novel. “They lacked coherence. Logical connections were missing, cause and effect.” The first section of the book has a dreamlike quality, in which a sleep-deprived Elena drifts through events in a vertiginous haze. On a flight to Miami she experiences “a brief panic, a sense of being stalled, becalmed, like the first few steps off a moving sidewalk.” Her mother has recently died and her world is folding in on itself in indecipherable layers. Elena appears to be mired in a state of ennui that makes imminent peril seem preferable to suffocating sameness. “What no Didion heroine can entirely reconcile herself to,” Hilton Als wrote in The New Yorker last year, “is the split between what she wants and what a woman is supposed to do.”In the novel, confusion is the reigning state that colors the action; it’s meant to communicate how turbulent and untrustworthy American authorities were at the time, shipping arms to Nicaraguan rebels in off-the-books transactions while denying that such transactions were taking place. “This was a business,” Didion writes, “in which truth and delusion appeared equally doubtful.” When Elena reads the papers one morning over breakfast, news stories convey global destabilization: earthquakes, unusual wind patterns, reef erosions, political protests, even infertile pandas. As she takes on her father’s final sale, she meets people with multiple names and varying nationalities in uncertain geographic locations. “You will have noticed that I am not giving you the name of this island,” Didion writes, explaining obtusely that “the name would get in the way.”The only constant amid this intentional obfuscation is discombobulation, conveyed through Elena’s fractured mental state. The book’s atmospheric uncertainty can make for a frustrating reading experience, even as its immersive qualities build into an Orwellian fever dream. It’s an intoxicating work, skillfully constructed, but it also resists at every point the strictures of mainstream storytelling.Rees, to her credit, seems committed to keeping the spirit of Didion’s original work intact, while restructuring it into a more linear narrative (Rees co-wrote the screenplay with Marco Villalobos). The movie opens with Anne Hathaway’s Elena on assignment in El Salvador in 1982; she’s documenting war crimes alongside a photographer, Alma (Rosie Perez), and barely escaping assassination attempts. Having discarded the book’s narrator, and without the space to communicate Elena’s interiority or how passively she floats toward danger, Rees and Hathaway instead present Elena as a crisis junkie, simultaneously addicted to conflict and compelled to reveal abuses of power around the globe. In one scene, a very Didionesque Elena strides through the newsroom in a jumpsuit, smoking ferociously. In another, she existentially eats an apple.In its first half, the movie is propulsive in a heady-conspiracy-thriller kind of way, and its disorienting events are easier to accept. But as Rees is forced to reckon with the terminal self-obfuscation of the novel in the second half, each plot point gets harder and harder to justify. Ben Affleck’s character, a State Department fixer named Treat Morrison, gets none of the backstory from the book; he’s just a square-jawed suit who shows up in odd places and may or may not be an ally. The British character actor Toby Jones appears, playing a rum-soaked hotel owner who in his own words once ran the only “first-rate gay bathhouse in all of Port-au-Prince.” David Arquette pops up, with even less context and even fewer lines. In the final scene, Rees discards the plot of Didion’s book altogether, changing the ending to make it somehow even less plausible.What’s left is a sticky, indecipherable tangle. But The Last Thing He Wanted is at least an interesting mess, and it seems to illuminate some of the land mines that come with turning novels into works of film and television. It’s notable that the only previous adaptation of one of Didion’s novels, the 1972 drama Play It as It Lays, was done by the author herself. Didion’s own screenplays—which she co-wrote with her late husband, John Gregory Dunne, and which she seemed to view as a starkly commercial undertaking—imply how separately she saw the crafts of fiction and movie writing. Making movies, she wrote in the essay “In Hollywood,” is defined by “a spirit not of collaboration but of armed conflict,” a process in which any artist’s work is going to be tweaked and corrupted. Even writing about film, she observed in the same essay, has long been “a traditional diversion for writers whose actual work is somewhere else.” In other words, to try to reconcile her fiction with an art form that she herself disdained is an undertaking that’s doomed even before it begins.
2020-02-26 21:12:00
2021-05-08T11:29:18.000000
1 y
theatlantic.com