April 2023 in media
Happy belated May! I hope you're as excited as I am about the WGA strike. I've been thinking a lot about this comic(?) by avocado_ibroprufen — mostly because I find the final panel so calming, but also because it illustrates perfectly that the only logical end point to the current wave of tech and content acceleration is absolute consumer apathy. I've also been reading about the winding down of the 2010s digital media experiment, the gist of which is essentially the same — join a union, smash the computers.
Anyway! Here's some nonsense about movies.
Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves (2023, dir John Francis Daley, Jonathan M Goldstein) (C)
Air (2023, dir Ben Affleck) (C)
This year’s The Trial of the Chicago 7. Take that however you will (I like it).
Erin Brockovich (1998, dir Steven Soderbergh)
My favourite scene in Erin Brockovich comes near the end, when the case is almost done save for a few last-ditch attempts at evidence gathering. Erin is at a dive bar, getting a signature from the bartender. Completely exhausted, she sits for a second to have a cup of coffee, and a guy who threatened her earlier in the film catches her eye and comes to sit next to her. He tells her he’s been watching her, that there’s something about her, that he likes her. And then, just when you're really worried for her safety, when you've resigned yourself to a scene in which our spunky heroine is made to feel small by some creep making a pass, he looks into her eyes and gives her the last piece they need to win the case.
I saw this in the same week as Michael by Bieke Depoorter, which is the actual best piece of media I consumed this month, and I think they have a lot in common — both works, in their own ways, are exercises in empathy, in the understanding that each person we come across is a galaxy of their own.
Trance (2013, dir Danny Boyle)
Needlessly complicated nonsense, but since it’s Danny Boyle you at least get some beautiful images to go with your incomprehensible plot. Would love it if James McAvoy was in something good sometime this decade.
Dream Lover (1993, dir Nicholas Kazan)
Parts of this terrible movie are so similar to Gone Girl I got extremely distracted fantasising about how great 90s James Spader would've been as Nick Dunne.
Steve Jobs (2015, dir Danny Boyle) (R)
Hate Steve Jobs (man); love Steve Jobs (movie). A damning portrait of the field of marketing made human — someone who failed upwards his entire life by stealing personae and ideas from actual geniuses until he'd persuaded everyone he was one too. The day Aaron Sorkin finally gives up the directing game and allows a real filmmaker to handle his screenwriting again I will celebrate in the streets.
The Last Seduction (1994, dir John Dahl)
Great picture about being insane but if I was married to Bill Pullman I would simply never leave him. Cannot stop thinking about all of Linda Fiorentino’s sexy little 90s suits.
Shanghai Express (1932, dir Josef von Sternberg)
Maybe this is just a series of perfectly lit and composed shots of Marlene Dietrich’s face with a few bits of iffy 1930s international politics thrown in and maybe that's actually fine — good, even. All movies should be set on trains.
Our Hospitality (1923, dir Buster Keaton, John G Blystone)
Buster Keaton also thinks all movies should be set on trains. For this reason I believe that in another life we would be wed.
Godland (2022, dir Hlynur Pálmason) (C)
Too much going on here to discuss, really — religion and language and colonialism, the arrogance of the over-educated, repressed violence, photography as preservation, the harms of distancing oneself from nature. It reminded me a lot of Silence, which is one of Scorsese’s more secret masterpieces.
Nashville (1975, dir Robert Altman) (C, R)
The American movie.
Yesterday (2019, dir Danny Boyle)
Richard Curtis misunderstands The Beatles to such a degree it made me feel like I was completely losing my mind. No one should talk about anything as unwell as this movie as much as my flatmate and I have over the past week.
The last gasp of TV’s golden age, and what a gasp it is. I love you Tom Wambsgans!!!
Mostly pretty dire except for the silly walk part of the Kumail episode and the entire Sharon Stone episode. Jason Bateman is so hot.
Way too early for a show to jump the shark but that shark sure has been jumped! Seems they in fact did not plan out the narrative better than Lindelof & Co did on Lost.
Terrace House, Boys and Girls in the City
I can't recommend this series enough — extremely low-stakes but very compelling reality TV that also forces you to put down your phone and properly watch it, even if only to read the subtitles.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer, S4 (R)
I've never known how to characterise how I feel about this show, which I have watched with careful attention for its entire run but which has never caused a single thought to enter my head. On balance I guess I think it’s good — certainly well-made but perhaps slightly vacant?
The only British television I follow, and maybe the only British television worth making?
The Wire, S2
Everything about this show is so textured, so completely lived-in — all these wonderful layered characters trying to stay afloat amid endless streams of post-industrial corruption that feed off the criminalisation of poverty. Truly the kind of show that could only be created by a former beat reporter — someone who knows and loves every last part of his city. Maybe TV and movies are bad now in large part because journalism is bad now? Worth considering!
The Golden Suicides by Nancy Jo Sales for Vanity Fair
What’s a God to a Machine? by Jeff Weiss for The Ringer
He has the gift of the greats: the ability to not merely suspend time, but to warp it entirely. The evocative images in his songs are full of empty lacunae allowing listeners to project their own values, ideas, and memories onto him and the characters who inhabit them. When he’s at his best, that celestial wail transports you back to where you were when you first heard it, to the romantic partners that faded into a haze of sweat and pixels, to the friends who got stranded and never made it out to the other side.
There is not a single original idea, but it is an immaculate synthesis. They can precisely match the sum of all previous human creativity but cannot provide a note more.
I Really Didn’t Want to Go by Lauren Oyler for Harper’s Magazine
Our genre was calling, and it knew I’d pick up, because I’m addicted to my phone. Bizarre anecdotes would be collected, holistic therapies undertaken, details of my personal life “shared.” Ideally I would cry. As a woman, I cry frequently, so as a feminist I have a duty to destigmatize it by doing so in public—that’s the prevailing philosophy.
I love Europe. I do not want to participate in its destruction. I want to support its economy by filling it with money from American magazines and publishing houses—by being American in a sophisticated, worldly way. I arrived at the Port of Barcelona wearing loose-fitting black clothes and looking unimpressible so that people wouldn’t mistake me for a cruiser but rather recognize me as someone on the side of truth and beauty, someone who prefers to travel unobtrusively, guided by taste in art and literature. On day eight, I intended to see some Caravaggios in Sicily as an act of resistance.
To journalists, a “cruise piece”—in addition to being a free vacation you’re paid to express all your darkest thoughts about—is a career achievement; it carries associations with the great cruise piece of 1996, “Shipping Out,” better known as “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again,” indeed also published in this swanky East Coast magazine. To be able to unite the cruise piece with wellness writing in a single essay promised a glory and quantity of free stuff that would hearken to the heyday of print magazines, back when things mattered. What’s more, during the yearslong squabble over which of us lady writers would become the next Joan Didion, no one had tried to claim the title of David Foster Wallace for girls; his reputation as both a misogynist and an author beloved by misogynists meant it was just sitting right there this whole time, waiting for anyone with grammatical flexibility and the courage to try.
You Have a New Memory by Merritt Tierce for Slate
As soon as I realized what they were, I also realized his mother had probably told him to do that, because it wasn’t a thing he ever would have thought to do, buy me a pre-wedding present. That was 10 years ago; if we were getting married now, the internet would know, and I’m almost sure it would suggest he buy me a pre-wedding present before his mother would. The internet certainly knows me better than his mother did, and maybe better than he did, too.
I liked a person I dated recently because he always asked people things before he asked the internet. I think to the younger generation this has begun to seem exotic. You would ask someone directions, or what was going on somewhere, or where there might be food, only if a catastrophic event had occurred and you had to live in the now, alone in your body.
I don’t ask people first. I always ask the internet first, both because I am afraid of people and because asking one person, or three, is asking one person or three, and asking the internet is asking all the people who have ever lived plus the endless expansion and iteration of their ideas, thanks to metastatic artificial intelligence.
Yet on balance, I sense that I might have had as many moments of feeling without the internet, and fewer negative feelings, and I would have made do without the convenience because I wouldn’t have known it was possible. (In addition to which I feel strongly aligned with W.S. Merwin’s position on convenience, though I’m sure I know that poem, that position that allows me to understand how I feel about the internet, because of and via the internet.) Without the internet, I might also have cultivated or held on to a stronger sense of self. I impute no absolute value to a stronger sense of self, but I suspect that a weaker sense of self has, if nothing else, crippled my ability to be worth something to the other humans.
When you stop using your phone for a bit, for a few hours or a day, you do not revert to the state you were formerly in. I mean generationally formerly, before the phone. You do not go back to the Analog Pre-Screen Age. Instead, what you experience is being not-with your phone, in an alternate but cotemporal universe that is probably better for your neck, which is holding up the head that observes mostly other people looking at their phones. Other people looking at the internet.
The relationship with the real man is still in my mind, and my mind is still in it, and it causes feelings in my body even though I’m not in contact with him, in the way that I fantasize about not being in contact with the internet. A total disconnection. But I look at his WhatsApp last seen status all the time. What does that do? Occasionally the word online appears under his name and I feel something. Maybe you know what I mean.
Why Is Everything So Ugly? by Mark Krotov for n+1
Writing a century ago, H. L. Mencken bemoaned America’s “libido for the ugly.” There exists, he wrote, a “love of ugliness for its own sake, the lust to make the world intolerable. Its habitat is the United States.”
If The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit once offered a warning about conformity, he is now an inspiration, although the outfit has gotten an upgrade. Today he is The Man in the Gray Bonobos, or The Man in the Gray Buck Mason Crew Neck, or The Man in the Gray Mack Weldon Sweatpants — all delivered via gray Amazon van. The imagined color of life under communism, gray has revealed itself to be the actual hue of globalized capital. “The distinct national colors of the imperialist map of the world have merged and blended in the imperial global rainbow,” wrote Hardt and Negri. What color does a blended rainbow produce? Greige, evidently.
The Crown and the Crown by Luke McKernan
Simple Passion by Annie Ernaux
I wish I'd read this in one sitting, rather than in two sittings about three weeks apart — much better, with this in particular, to be completely absorbed and then be jolted away before you're ready, leaving you to think about it for days afterwards.
I behaved exactly the same way as before but without the long-standing familiarity of these actions I would have found it impossible to do so, except at the cost of a tremendous effort. It was when I spoke that I realized I was acting instinctively. Words, sentences, and even my laugh, formed on my lips without my actually thinking about it or wanting it. In fact I have only vague memories of the things I did, the films I saw, the people I met. I behaved in an artificial manner.
Now I was only time flowing through myself.
I would count the number of times we had made love. I felt that each time something new had been added to our relationship but that somehow this very accumulation of touching and pleasure would eventually draw us apart. We were burning up a capital of desire. What we gained in physical intensity we lost in time.
As in the past, when the longer I waited after taking an exam the more I became convinced I had failed, so now, as the days went by without him ringing, I was certain he had left me.
(It is a mistake therefore to compare someone writing about his own life to an exhibitionist, since the latter has only one desire: to show himself and to be seen at the same time.)
The sight of him driving towards the park in Sceaux or the wood in Vincennes, with the windows down and the radio at full volume, haunted me.
My condition was such that not even the sound of his voice could make me happy. It was all infinite emptiness, except when we were together making love. And even then I dreaded the moments to come, when he would be gone. I experienced pleasure like a future pain.
I reflected that there was very little difference between this reconstruction and a hallucination, between memory and madness.
I would relive moments of that period, insignificant in themselves—I am standing in the archive room at La Sorbonne, I am walking along Boulevard Voltaire, I am trying on a skirt in a Benetton shop—with such vivid detail that I wondered why it wasn’t possible to slip into that particular day or moment as easily as one slips into another room.
In the other dreams, I lost my way, mislaid my handbag, found myself unable to pack my suitcase in time to catch a train leaving minutes later. I caught sight of A, surrounded by other people. He wasn’t looking at me.
I wondered what the difference was between this past reality and literature, perhaps just a feeling of disbelief that I had actually been there one day, something I wouldn’t have felt in the case of a fictional character.
Sometimes I wonder if the purpose of my writing is to f ind out whether other people have done or felt the same things or, if not, for them to consider experiencing such things as normal.
Of the living text, this book is only the remainder, a minortrace. One day it will mean nothing to me, just like its living counterpart.
At this point, sitting in front of the pages covered in my indecipherable scrawlings, which only I can interpret, I can still believe this is something private, almost childish, of no consequence whatsoever—like the declarations of love and the obscene expressions I used to write on the back of my exercise books in class, or anything else one may write calmly, in all impunity, when there is no risk of it being read. Once I start typing out the text, once it appears before me in public characters, I shall be through with innocence.
Whether or not he was “worth it” is of no consequence. And the fact that all this is gradually slipping away from me, as if it concerned another woman, does not change this one truth: thanks to him, I was able to approach the frontier separating me from others, to the extent of actually believing that I could sometimes cross over it.
I measured time differently, with all my body.
I discovered what people are capable of, in other words, anything: sublime or deadly desires, lack of dignity, attitudes and beliefs I had found absurd in others until I myself turned to them. Without knowing it, he brought me closer to the world.
When I was a child, luxury was fur coats, evening dresses, and villas by the sea. Later on, I thought it meant leading the life of an intellectual. Now I feel that it is also being able to live out a passion for a man or a woman.
Vladimir by Julia May Jonas
Quietly a lot less subversive than Jonas seems to think it is — for all the (often valid) raging against identity politics and cancel culture it still ends with punishment for adulterers and a victory for sexless heterosexual marriage. Most attempts to moralise in the text of a novel fail — the plot suffers from too much philosophy and the philosophy suffers from too much plot. It can be done, of course, although maybe not under the frenetic conditions of a first-time novel. Vladimir really sings when it engages with female desire, but there's so much other stuff going on it eventually feels almost like an afterthought. Promising creative people should not be allowed to use Twitter.
old men are composed of desire. Everything about them is wanting. They have appetites for food, boats, vacations, entertainment. They want to be stimulated. They want to sleep. They are guided by desire—their world is made up of their desires.
I am naturally a busy host, and I like busy hosts, though some do not. When someone comes into my house, for a good portion of time I do not stop moving—tidying, making coffee, cleaning. My mother never sat still unless she was reading, typing, paying bills, or asleep, and I share this quality. When I go into someone’s house and they are doing many chores, and their attention is divided, and they are packing a suitcase or mopping their floors while I linger about, I feel distinctly at ease. I have always liked the feeling of hanging around, and a host who gives me too much of their attention makes me feel unnerved.
In the days and nights that followed, it was that image of him in the black glass of the window that haunted and warmed me. His arm extended across the sofa cushion, the cross of his leg revealing the stripe of his sock, his head turned over his shoulder, the gesture of his eyes casting down, like an old-fashioned stage actress looking bashfully at a bouquet.
I decided to embrace abstinence, to pull myself from the game. I would focus on my work, my home, my writing. The distraction of my colleague, as intriguing as it was, had made me feel ridiculous and undignified; desperate, weak, and grasping. I would pursue dignity, elegance, erudition. I abandoned lust and desire. I authored several essays on form and structure. I published my second novel.
People said this crop of youth was weak, but we knew differently. We knew they were so strong—so much stronger than us, and equipped with better weapons, more effective tactics. They brought us to our knees with their softness, their consistent demand for the consideration of their feelings—the way they could change all we thought would stay the same for the rest of our lives, be it stripping naked for male directors in undergraduate productions of The Bacchae, ignoring racist statements in supposedly great works of literature, or working for less when others were paid more. They had changed all that when we hadn’t been able to, and our only defense was to call them soft.
They could critique only based on representation, they missed the formal elements of a story. Of course Rebecca is, in many ways, a story that is erected in misogyny, demonizing women, demonizing the other, but I was not interested in that for them. I wanted them to see how suspense was created, how symbols were utilized, how repetition made the ghost of Rebecca rise from the page. Again and again I told them, you need to see these things, these forms. Oh, they drove me crazy, being so completely obsessed with whether or not people were represented well, wanting every piece of literature to be some utopian screed of fairness.
Could it be because we simply weren’t sentimental, or we were too intelligent or too sensitive or too watchful? Was that mere self-flattery? What made us sad, and guilty of our sadness, what pit us in this battle against ourselves? And why couldn’t we release the way some did, and say, yes, well, depression is a medical condition, I’m just wired a little poorly, I’ve got an illness I need to take care of, as all my students said. (Which is not to say that Cynthia Tong didn’t take antidepressants—I’m sure she did.) Perhaps it was this idea of self-expression and this thought that if we were fully to release this sadness, or if we were to alter it too much—if we were to give up all the obsessions and anxieties that caused us pain—then we would become a kind of person we disdained, someone content with an abstract idea of the littleness of their lives.
You have to be willfully ignorant of certain truths to be successful, you just have to, and she seemed to me like the kind of woman who could not be ignorant of anything. The kind of mind that could paralyze itself.
In truth, when I got to the real imagining of the act, I found myself repulsed by the idea of actual physical contact. I only wanted to think about him, framed by my darkened window.
I saw how speed wore on my students—sending some into a brittle and constant state of worry, some into torpor, others into paralysis. If something was not dealt with in a few days, it felt to them like a completely forsaken cause. They viewed lives, roles, opinions, stations as things that got taken from them if they didn’t act fast enough. Where was the time for thinking? For consideration? For not thinking? For failure? When I was in college the way to waste time was movies and friends and alcohol and drugs and sex and music. Activities that for the most part we agree now are essentially enriching. They waste time on their little boxes. And they don’t want to, they hate themselves for it. But the boxes are there and they are their schoolwork and their social life and their entertainment and their sin and their virtue all in one. God help them.
Some of my students, when they read Victorian or Edwardian novels, would become so angry at all these heroes and heroines whose lives are ruined because they are afraid of embarrassment, but I did not know of any emotion more powerful, more permeating, more upending than that. You could die seemingly pointlessly or loveless to avoid shame, but shame could also make you feel as though you wanted to die
Like many beautiful-ish women, she was obsessed with the idea of men sexually trespassing. To hear her speak, she had never had an encounter with any man that had not resulted in some form of the man expressing his longing for her or taking advantage of her.
As a teacher, I’ve found that strictness is often an effective way of diverting from one’s own laziness.
I wondered if The Apartment was the first film that ended by depicting love as a kind of jovial camaraderie rather than passion. MacLaine and Lemmon didn’t even kiss at the end of the film. It seemed as though all films now, unless they had titles like Desire written in red letters against black backgrounds, portrayed true love as the coming together of two fun friends. No wonder that I perceived, mostly from their short stories, that my students found nothing more romantic than lusting after a platonic member of their social group.
(It definitely wasn't — Jonas seems to have forgotten about the three decades of the production code and the entire screwball comedy genre.)
I believed that art was not a moral enterprise. That morality in art was what happened when the church or the state got involved. That if you insisted on infusing art with morality you would insist on lies and limits. Truth could be found only outside the confines of morality. Art needed to be taken and rejected on its own terms. Art was not the artist.
Awkward around most women, I had trained myself to notice something on their person I could compliment. Compliments made you supplicant, equal, and master all at once.
“Would you like some eggs?” I asked hesitantly.
“I will eat whatever you give me,” he said.
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