Parenting During a Pandemic

In July, a friend sent me a link to a BBC article about the division of domestic labor in Indian households: “In millions of middle class homes, the housework is delegated to the hired domestic help…But what happens when the help can’t come to work because there is a nationwide lockdown?” The article goes on the describe the stark imbalance between men and women doing unpaid household work—312 minutes on average a day for women, 29 minutes for men. What the lockdown revealed was that the imbalance has persisted, even in households where both partners have full-time jobs. One woman in Mumbai—who runs a reproductive rights charity—was so fed up, she started a petition (70,000 signatures), imploring the prime minister to publicly admonish men about it.

The article doesn’t address child care specifically, but surely “household labor” includes tending to the needs of children. And it got me thinking about the extent to which the pandemic has impacted family life and parenting here in the U.S.— where patriarchal structures are less prevalent than in more traditional cultures, but affordable child care (either state-provided or in the form of extended family) is typically in short supply.

I am not a parent myself, but mostly everyone around me is. From April to June, I quarantined in suburban Md. with my sister and her two boys, ages nine and 12. My sister already had an equal-time parenting arrangement with her ex-husband—they split the week and alternated weekends. Each of them was working full-time from home and had time “on” and time “off” with my nephews—who are generally homebodies and happy to not go to school. In other words, they had—have—an ideal situation, given the difficult circumstances. But this is more exception than norm.

As summer wore on, and the question of school openings loomed, all the parents I knew grew anxious. They wanted and did not want their children back in school. They wanted real education to resume, but not at the expense of safety. Some parents I sensed did not want to admit how desperate they were to get their non-kid time back, and others were genuinely grateful to be able to spend more quality time with their kids.

Parenting can be isolating; in this moment, much more so. In an attempt to gather voices and struggles of parents during this time, I interviewed three couples—specifically creatives who require significant solitude to do their work—about pandemic parenting over the last eight months. These are all middle-class families with reasonable options, making lemonade out of lemons where they can—and working to be thoughtful about how to steward privileges and cultivate positive transformation during an undeniably wearying, traumatic time for all.

Ed Lin and Cindy Cheung

Ed and Cindy live in Brooklyn. They have a seven-year-old son in school remotely, with the option to go partially in-person later in the year if the school deems it safe. They are Asian American. Ed is a novelist and works full-time by day as a journalist (since March in their bedroom).  Cindy is an actress (stage and TV).

Cindy: “Out in the living room, I attempt to balance acting work with managing my son’s remote schooling and his many, many, many snacks.  There are no other caregivers.”

The biggest change in the structure of their family life is that Cindy is now the full-time school supervisor.

Ed: “Cindy is now basically under house arrest in a second-grade class…There’s no comparison: Cindy has borne the brunt of the changes while I try to dance as hard as I can to satisfactorily perform at the day job.”

Cindy: “From 8 a.m. to 3:45 p.m. I am sort of reliving the second grade through my son’s laptop speakers…I am in the living room all day long acting as my son’s admin assistant, short-order cook, IT manager, teacher, tutor, and playmate. It’s a completely different existence than before.”

In the beginning of the pandemic, this became the new normal, because Cindy’s acting work halted completely (prestige drama watchers, you’ve seen Cindy on Homeland, Billions, House of Cards, 13 Reasons Why, The Affair, et alia). But as online opportunities began to re-open for Cindy, they’ve had to adjust.

Cindy: “Work-wise, I’ve been doing all my auditioning, rehearsing, writing and performing from home…Ed’s lunch hour is one of the few times in the day where I get some time alone and where he and our son hang out. [Also] Ed has taken up my son’s breakfast and bedtime routines, which gives me much-needed time and space at the beginning and end of the day. He also does any dishes that are in the sink from the previous night. I just need to train myself to leave them for him.”

When they talk to other parent-friends, they are aware that people in other parts of the country have more activity options:

Ed: “My brother-in-law’s family in Los Angeles gets in their car and goes to drive-in movies.”

But in general among their peers, they feel everyone is in the same boat:

Cindy: “There are no school situations that are completely satisfying.  So much is up in the air.  I hear the words ‘crazy,’ ‘unpredictable,’ and ‘unknown’ constantly.”

Both of their creative lives have shifted, suffered, but also blossomed.

Ed: “I used to have 40 minutes or so set aside in the middle of the day to desperately write, and some time at night. The commute to and from work used to mark breathers when I could go into day-job mode and then transition into writing mode. That plan’s scrapped almost completely. I’m writing this now while Cindy’s developing a play via Zoom with her friends. We have Bluetooth headphones now, a necessary item for creatives living in close quarters. I’ve been crazy busy this year, doing final edits on my first YA book, and writing the next book in my Taipei-based mystery series.”

Cindy: “The pandemic has created unexpected blocks of time that allow me to meet regularly with two different creative groups to develop new work.  These are made up of artists that I deeply respect and admire and whose company I delight in. Also, they are all usually very busy. Working and being with them has been a surprising gift of this time.”

How have recent acts of racial injustice in the news, protests against police violence, and Black Lives Matter activism affected their parenting?

Ed: “I’ve had a number of Asian-American friends facing racism in the street. My Facebook feed was chock full of incidents…But it also filled with friends protesting for George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery. It’s past time for our community to recognize that Black lives matter, and that Black men and women are on the whole treated worse by law enforcement…Our focus with our kid hasn’t changed, but we have always focused on diverse books and stories…All I can say is educate yourself, challenge yourself, and never be complacent.”

Cindy: “As a parent, I’ve always been very focused on helping my son develop awareness of how his actions impact others…As for what I’d like to say to your readers…may I suggest this general consideration: If you’re white, make some space, and if you’re a BIPOC, take up more space.”

Sarah Sweeney and Paul Benzon 

Sarah and Paul: “We have two kids, a son who is 11 and in sixth grade and a daughter who just turned 17 and is a senior in high school. We live in Saratoga Springs, where we both teach at Skidmore College—Sarah is a digital media artist and professor in the art department and Paul is a professor in the English department. So we both have work schedules that are flexible but full-time. Our kids have been in regular public school since pre-kindergarten, but outside of that, we don’t really have any childcare…Our kids were fully remote last spring, and right now our daughter is fully remote while our son is doing hybrid school, two days a week in person and three days online [they were given a choice, and each chose differently].”

Over the years—really as a result of their work-and-family lives becoming untenable, without the resources for help and without extended family nearby—Sarah and Paul have established an intriguing, and effective, parenting strategy.

Sarah and Paul: “Pre-pandemic, we divided things up very cleanly and carefully: each day of the week, one of us is totally responsible for kids, cooking, activities, the dog, etc. We started dividing things this way when our son was about two and things felt literally, horribly impossible; it was that moment many couples face, when the intensity of exhaustion and resentment threaten the partnership itself, and not everyone makes it through that crucible.

“At this point we have a pretty well-established system, where each of us is either ‘on’ or ‘off’ on a given day. The amazing thing about this is that while you’re around when you’re off, you’re not responsible for anything child-related that happens that day (including cooking or cleaning), and the next day things switch completely. We’ve been able to continue this into the pandemic, and it’s the only reason we’ve both been able to manage and continue our work—it’s relentless for both of us, but it’s equally relentless, and we each have periods of freedom carved out, where we can say to the kids, ‘it’s not my day.’” (Interestingly, Sarah and Paul’s parenting system resembles that of my sister’s “ideal” divorced-parent schedule.)

Sarah and Paul are white, and politically and socially liberal; their upstate college town is largely conservative.

Sarah and Paul: “We’re both confronting these issues [racial injustice] in our workplace and trying to make changes there alongside colleagues and students who are disproportionately impacted…we’re also more conscious of how the absence of a social safety net makes it disproportionately difficult for parents in other social positions to do their work and take care of their kids the way we’re trying to do, even at the basic level of keeping your kids physically safe, whether that’s from contagion or from systemic racialized violence…we’ve spent a lot more time talking with our kids about these issues in the last few months and taking them to demonstrations in town, trying to make sure that they don’t see the issues as isolated or distant.”

While their social circle has shrunk to nil—they’ve chosen to be very cautious, so that they can spend time with elderly family members who are vulnerable—a silver lining for their family has been more weekend family hikes, and Sarah and Paul take daily long walks together. This has improved something that other parents often question about their ‘on/off’ system, which is, when do they spend time together?

Sarah and Paul: “At first it was just to get out of the house, but the walks also allow us to think about joint decisions more and look at the bigger picture of what’s going on in our family and how everyone is doing. We plan to continue that. Having a smaller social circle…has allowed us to connect more and be more mindful of our family unit.

“Beyond our unit, it seems like this moment has done a lot to reveal how much labor goes into parenting, and how unequally the distribution of that labor weighs on women. We’re already seeing changes like widespread wage loss, or career arcs being cut short. (In September, according to an NPR story, 865,000 women—80 percent of the month’s total—left the workforce.) The pandemic has revealed how much of women’s ability to work depends on access to childcare rather than on shared work in the family, and we hope that this moment brings more equality on that front.”

Swati Khurana and Andres Marquez

Swati and Andres have a nine-year-old daughter (and Andres’s 18-year-old daughter lives in South Dakota with her mother). They live in Harlem, but since mid-March they have been sheltering with Swati’s parents upstate. Andres is a public high school teacher, Swati is a visual artist and writer, and she also teaches. They have both been teaching 100 percent remotely, and their daughter, who attends an independent private school, is attending school remotely as well.

Leaving the city was a major change.

Swati: “We miss our life. My kid’s life included playdates after school, Pinkberry treats, riding a scooter home, going to Central park or Riverside Park, and going to her aerial gymnastics studio. I really miss the rhythm of taking my daughter to school, chatting with other parents who have become friends, then doing my own work in cafes or libraries…Not being in our own space has been a great challenge.

Andres: “Additionally, not going into a classroom space and sharing that office camaraderie in the school house has been difficult for me. Sometimes the commute to work or to school would be the few moments of alone/down time that I might get in a week. No longer having the mental stimulation of the drive and the interaction with my students have been really depressing parts of this experience. It feels like Covid’s worst effect has been to cut us all off from one another in such deep and profound ways…Humans are such social animals that not having that means of connection with others has been a terrible circumstance for so many.”

Now living in a multi-generational family situation, the structures of family time have changed, mostly for the better, as household labor is more evenly distributed among more adults.

Swati: “Pre-pandemic, I did the morning and drop-off with the kid. My partner or a babysitter would do pick up and dinner and bedtime. Often, I worked during weeknight dinners. Now, not commuting means that there are times in my evening block of teaching that I can have 30 minutes to an hour of time to eat or at least hang out with my daughter. And with everything shifted, I am around to do much more bedtime rituals than I was prior to the pandemic. Andres is now able to sometimes have lunch with the kid or check in with her during the school day which was impossible before, and after school they play, veg out on TV, and do homework…

“My mother does most of the dinners, and Andres cooks dinner as well sometimes, and other times we get take-out, something that would have been a rarity in both our households prior to Covid. I mostly take care of lunch; sometimes Andres does. This is a huge change from the cafeteria. We are definitely spending a lot more time together.”

Living with extended family has also impacted their activism and their daughter’s engagement with social justice:

Swati: “We are a politically engaged family [Swati has been active in community arts organizations like South Asian Women’s Creative Collective and Asian American Writers’ Workshop]. Being in a non-white multi-racial family and parenting a child who identifies and is identified as Black has been challenging in the post George Floyd murder era…my daughter and her grandfather have been having very important talks about race and the current movement. Perhaps inspired by those talks, my father, an Indian man in his late 60s, went to a Black Lives Matter March in early June, wearing a sign that his grandchild made. And now, as a family we are mailing postcards, letters and doing other efforts to support campaigns for candidates and get out the vote. After sending postcards to young Michigan unregistered voters, the kid double checked the labels on the stamps and asked earnestly, ‘Will this help? Will Trump lose?’ I wish I could’ve said yes. I said, ‘It helps because no matter what happens we know we did our part and we worked hard, and there’s so many people working and doing so much more for the election, so we all have to do our part.”

Like many who are both fortunate and struggling, Swati and Andres are proximal and distant at once to the most difficult pandemic impacts:

Swati: Early in the pandemic, when things were very bad in New York City and hospital beds were scarce, we had a death in the family that we believe was Covid-related, but that was very early on when there were very few tests (in general many death certificates may not specify that deaths are Covid-related). We also had someone in our close circle who was positive for Covid but fortunately showed only mild symptoms, and has recovered. The combination of having both mild and fatal connections to this virus has been illuminating. We have decided…to stay as isolated as possible…

“[B]eing a family that has a foot in both public and private education in New York City, the difference was stark as to how information was relayed, how families and teachers were given opportunities to ask questions and give input. The inequities and disparities have never been starker…From friends, I have heard that many other kids, in schools with much bigger class sizes and less teacher support, had more busywork and less interaction with teachers. From knowing teachers, I heard and saw how much they struggled with helping hundreds of students with their tech support, talking to parents, learning multiple new systems, with very little support.”

In considering whether/how long they will live upstate, Swati and Andres are thankful for options, i.e. they can work remotely or commute to their jobs if necessary.

Swati: “Honestly more than a pandemic, for me, the outcome of the 2020 election, and how neighborhoods and counties outside of New York City vote will make a huge difference and influence any calculation I have around where to live. I am concerned about being around other multi-racial families with Black children, and around non-Black families who believe in #BlackLivesMatter and families who abstain from gun culture.”

Andres makes an interesting, related observation about how “pod-life” has changed his perspective about abstract identity politics versus personal life decisions.

Andres: “It seems easier to take note that narratives around identity and community membership can be limiting in some ways when viewed in juxtaposition to narrative around families of choice, and what it takes to keep that foremost in your decision making. When it comes down to it, the family unit is the most meaningful definer of our identities and public personas that I can imagine.”

In terms of creative work, Swati echoes something Sarah and Paul said about the “constant onslaught of bad news and fear [being] exhausting and distracting in a way that makes it hard to imagine being able to mentally immerse in the way you need to in order to do that work.” (This resonates for me as well—a cumulative fatigue (anxiety, grieving, anger) whose long-term effects I don’t think we can process in real time.)

Swati: “With the pandemic and the trauma of this regime, feeling like the state is failing everywhere around you, I find that I need even more energy for deep reading, writing, and editorial work. One of the biggest challenges is to actually allow myself to rest, to rest my body, my brain, my eyes, my computer battery.”

Andres, on the other hand, is channeling his creative energy productively: according to Swati, he “has started teaching guitar lessons and has been writing music documenting the experience of Covid living” and “has also been writing poetry (about a poem every two days) in the hopes of publishing a short book at some point in the near future.”

So what does the future hold? The changes these families have undergone have been both incremental and drastic; are they permanent? Would they want them to be?

Ed and Cindy think remote learning is gaining a foothold, and possibly for the better.

Cindy: “Parents and students have discovered that remote learning is a much better scenario for them.  We all learn differently, and being in the classroom couldn’t have suited everyone in the first place.”

Ed: “Maybe kids can still ‘attend’ school if they’re mildly sick at home…But because of that flexibility, daycare and sitters will see opportunities shrink.”

In higher education, Sarah, who served on the college’s planning task force over the summer, agrees.

Sarah: “While we’ve seen that remote learning takes a toll on students, it also opens up all sorts of opportunities for them—things like virtual tours, collaborations with artists and students from different institutions, and dialogue between people from different areas and cultures, all of which would be much harder to do in a traditional format.”

Swati: “As someone with a physical disability, I would love a world in which virtual meetings and events can coexist with physical ones. Negotiating how to commute to physical events with my mobility issues was extremely challenging…It’s been nice to gather virtually and not have geography be the determination factor. Perhaps also there’s a recognition of how valuable our time is—so many hours lost in a week to commuting for things that may not be the most important…Mostly, I hope this awakening regarding racial and economic inequities that the pandemic exposed continues, gets even bolder and more imaginative.”
***
At my own workplace, we’ve taken to repeating out loud—mostly as a way of deflecting the stress of uncertainty—No one knows anything. But one thing I think is clear from the above accounts and reflections: in real time we have all become more isolated and atomized, and we are experiencing and coping with the pandemic variously. But in the long run, we will emerge with a deeply shared experience and a universal need for grieving, mutual support, concrete paths to positive change, and hope.

Bonus Links:
On Pandemic and Literature
Playing with Guns: Parenting in the Age of the Active Shooter

Image Credit: Flickr

By Myself but Keeping Company with Lauren Bacall

1.
You could say that pandemic quarantine has compressed our lives from three dimensions into two: we hear voices but don’t see faces; we see faces, but without bodies; we see bodies, but in rectangular frames and on a flat screen, absent the feel or smell or vibrations of them. We scroll through videos, but of course even the most impromptu “reality” iPhone shoots are composed—timed and captured for specific purpose, to tell a particular story. For those of us already at odds with social media—its brevity and pacing, its bent for surface more than depth—human interaction during lockdown can feel like a lot of performance and exhibition: like driving through quarantine country, looking out the passenger window, and every so often murmuring, Isn’t that lovely. Isn’t that awful. Are we there yet?

On the other hand, if you are fortunate to have at-home stability, and a measure of solitude, there is also a lot of time—for peeling back surfaces and investigating depths, making new discoveries.

Who ever knows why or how we fall down certain rabbit holes. Often it starts with a basic need or instinct—in my case, escape into romanticism. Late at night, after full telework-and-family days, I started watching old movies, golden age stuff of the ‘30s and ‘40s—Hitchcock, Stevens, Mankiewicz; Curtiz, Hawks, Huston. It started with Bogie, whose appeal I used to scoff at (in favor of pretty faces like Gregory Peck and Gary Cooper) but now suddenly “got.” I’d seen some greatest hits—The Maltese Falcon, Sabrina, Casablanca—but watched for the first time The Petrified Forest, The African Queen, Beat the Devil, High Sierra. Once I got to To Have and Have Not, I had to pivot to Bogie & Bacall: four films together in five years, that undeniable, intriguing chemistry. (That one off year, 1945, was the year Bogie sorted out his messy, unhappy marriage to Mayo Methot, and Bogie & Bacall got hitched.) I rewatched The Big Sleep, then on to Key Largo and Dark Passage in one sitting.

Finally, it was all about Lauren Bacall.

I sunk in deeply, hours and hours with her lesser known filmography: she appeared in nearly 60 films (you’re welcome, Amazon Prime). Then I began digging into her life, the woman behind the glam and romance, behind that feline allure and femme-fatale voice. With a film, stage, and TV career that spanned nearly 70 active years; three memoirs (the first of which won the National Book Award); and a rich personal and family life, only 12 of which involved Bogie; there was much to discover. My lockdown has been at times lonely, but notably less so with Bacall’s company.

Bacall and Bogart in The Big Sleep

2.
Born Betty Perske in 1924 in the Bronx, you could paint Bacall’s life as charmed and destined from the get-go—no late bloomer when it came to ambition. But the thing about a rapid early rise: what goes up must come down. The road following early success is inevitably a rocky one, if for no other reason than—if you are blessed with good health and many years, as Bacall was—it’s a long one.

As a teen, Betty and a friend would skip school and go to the movies, where Betty fell hard for her first love, the other Bette (Davis). Those mesmerizing afternoons in movie houses made clear to her that she needed to be an actor. Bacall’s mother Natalie (née Natalie Weinstein Bacal) was both pragmatic—a Jewish immigrant from Romania and single mother by the time her daughter was six—and a vicarious dreamer. Thus she fully supported her only child’s ambitions. At 16, Betty enrolled at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, where she immersed herself in the craft of stage acting. “They stressed self-discovery—studying life, as that was what acting was all about,” Bacall wrote in By Myself and then Some. “How to use one’s body to project emotions…My days were full and near perfect that year.” There also she met Kirk Douglass, a few years ahead of her, who became a short-lived beau, then later a colleague and lifelong friend.

At 17, when money for acting school ran out, Betty starting working as a model for agencies in the garment district. She also started selling Actors’ Cue magazine outside Sardi’s, where she met (accosted) influential Broadway folk, including producer Max Gordon, who liked her pluck and kept an open-door policy for her, and actor Paul Lukas, who became a mentor. She then started working as a theater usher on Broadway—anything to be in/near the world of acting, and to have days free to pound the pavement for auditions. By the time she had her first walk-on Broadway role, she had taken her mother’s second name and added an extra “l.” Her first substantial role in the theater (thanks to Max Gordon, who brought her in for an audition) was in George S. Kaufman’s Franklin Street. The play opened in Wilmington to mixed reviews and never made it to Broadway. Betty was still just 17, disappointed but unfazed. “Funny how you get the feeling that once you have a part in a play the work will never stop,” she wrote. “Was that ever a wrong feeling, as I would spend the next 30 years discovering.”

The next year, she went with her mother and her Aunt Rosalie to see Casablanca. Her aunt loved Bogie, thought him sexy and charismatic, but Betty didn’t see it; he was no Leslie Howard, she thought.

At 18, Bacall met an editor at Harper’s Bazaar, who in turn set up a meeting for her with Diana Vreeland. Vreeland asked her to come in for a shoot; she saw something in Betty, a glamor that Betty herself did not see. She appeared in Harper’s several times that year, and in 1943 made the cover. Inquiries came pouring in—David O. Selznick, Columbia Pictures, Howard Hughes—but the most appealing offer came from director Howard Hawks, whose tough-talking wife, Slim, had seen the Harper’s cover and encouraged Hawks to track her down. Bacall’s Uncle Jack, a lawyer for Look magazine, advised and encouraged her move to California for the screen test—six to eight weeks in L.A., with the potential for a personal contract with Hawks, who by then had made Only Angels Have Wings, Bringing Up Baby, and other well-known films. And so she went, across the country alone, at age 19—still starry-eyed, and very much a naïve kid.

From there it was a whirlwind, then a rocket-ship launch to both stardom and one of Hollywood’s greatest love stories: playing an assertive and sexy drifter in the screen adaptation of Hemingway’s To Have and Have Not—a character fashioned after Slim Hawkes and nicknamed Slim by Bogart’s character—Betty Bacall, stage-named Lauren now, dropped her chin, raised her eyes (all this in fact to control the nervous tremble of her head), and suggested to Bogart’s character that he put your lips together and blow. The rest, as they say, is history.

3.
Fast forward now, through the years familiar to most of us: love, marriage, two Bogart children; those three films together after To Have and Have Not; a fabulous Hollywood life, friendships with the likes of Sinatra and John Huston, Katie Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, Vivien Leigh, Dick Powell and June Allyson, novelist Louis Bromfield, the Gershwins; and lots of time sailing on Bogie’s beloved boat Santana. During that decade, Bogie made The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The African Queen (for which he won the Oscar), The Caine Mutiny (nominated for the Oscar), and The Barefoot Contessa, among many other films.

Meanwhile Bacall garnered a reputation in Hollywood for being difficult (i.e., she spoke her mind, then was deemed a bitch for it, even suspended from contracts), as she turned down what she felt were bad scripts or bad fits. She’d become gun shy after her first film following To Have and Have Not, Confidential Agent, bombed—sending her Hollywood stock plummeting in an instant. Still she managed to make Young Man with a Horn (with old friend Kirk Douglass), How to Marry a Millionaire, Written on the Wind, and Designing Woman—dramas and comedies alike. Millionaire and Designing Woman were especially well received, though I myself recommend the less-lauded Young Man with a Horn—in which Bacall plays a lesbian, scripted evasively (the only option in Hollywood in 1950) as a woman who is “sick” in her romantic relationships, “a strange girl” and “complicated.”

Bacall devoted herself during this time to the roles of wife and mother. By her own account, her marriage to Bogie did and did not affect her career: he made her promise to put family before work, which she did willingly. Apart from this commitment to priorities, he neither intervened (she was already contending with being “Mrs. Bogart”) nor interfered with her professional choices. The work-family balance and traditional gender roles fulfilled them both: Bacall was, after all, just 20—still a virgin in fact—when she married Bogie; he was 46, experienced in life, love, and the actor’s vocation: “[F]or twelve and a half years he was, among many other things, my teacher,” she wrote. “He taught me his philosophy of life. He taught me the rules of the Hollywood game…He taught me about standards and the price one must pay to keep those standards high. He taught me about the value of work and the importance of truth and character.”

They had, for the most part, a beautiful life together. They were surrounded by talented, interesting people. “What a good time of life that was,” Bacall wrote, about both work and friendships. “The best people at their best.” In the early 1950s, Bacall also explored a different side of herself by becoming involved in politics—as a member of the anti-HUAC Committee for the First Amendment, and also as an ardent supporter and friend of Adlai Stevenson.

A good time of life. And yet: what goes up must come down. In 1956, it all came to a screeching halt. Bogie was diagnosed with lung cancer. He died in 1957, at age 58. Bacall, age 33, was alone, bereft, mother of two. Her career was middling, stalled to some degree. The fifth Bogie & Bacall film, Melville Goodwin, USA, was never to be.

Bacall and Bogart in To Have and Have Not

4.
This is where Bacall becomes most interesting to me. I love the love story, don’t get me wrong—I came looking for escapist romance after all. But, what did Lauren Bacall do when everything came tumbling down? When the sepia dream came to an end, and she awoke to a harsh new reality?

Well, she made mistakes. Two relationships we know of, the first with Frank Sinatra—a dodged bullet, as she tells it. He was an old friend whom she leaned on for solace and then nearly married (he backed out, in response to unleashed press attention, for which he unjustly blamed her). The second, with then-stage actor Jason Robards, sent up all the red flags—alcoholism, all-night carousing, plus he was married—but she was determined to “save” him from the unhappiness she decided was the source of his drinking. “Having lived through a few relationships, I do know now that I’ve endowed the men in my life with the qualities I wished them to have, rejecting whatever qualities they actually possessed that interfered with my romantic notions…once I found Jason and made up my mind that this was what I had to have, I would not give up. Utter tenacity.” They married in 1961, and quickly had a son, Sam (now an actor). Robards did not change. The relationship remained rocky, though they stayed married eight years.

Professionally, though, Bacall finally began tending to and following her gut ambitions. She’d wandered Europe while recovering from Bogie’s death, and took a good role in J. Lee Thompson’s Flame Over India, which brought her to London and Rajasthan. When that was done, she had decisions to make about the next phase of her life and reconnected with her love for the stage. She got an offer to do George Axelrod’s comedy Goodbye, Charlie on Broadway (basically a bomb, but she herself was well reviewed), and with that moved back to New York, where she lived—solo, after her divorce from Robards—for the rest of her life.

Bacall did two movies during that time—a comedic role in Sex and the Single Girl, opposite Henry Fonda, and a dramatic one in Harper, with Paul Newman. But with the move back to New York, the theater became her new, old flame. Her life was beginning anew, though not exactly with the freshness of her youth: on the heels of separation from Robards, followed by her beloved mother’s serious decline in health, came the opportunity to play Margo Channing—Bette Davis’s star role in All About Eve—in the Broadway musical version of the film, Applause. Bacall was 45 years old.

“I’d always been musical. One of my great frustrations had been my inability to sing…could I do it?” She decided she had to find out. “What the hell. With everything else in my life shaken up, might as well go all the way.” Voice lessons, personal training, dance training—she took it all on, building physical stamina, and terrified; but also with less to lose than she’d ever had. And yet, soon came more loss: her divorce was finalized, her beloved mother died, and her son got married. She was alone now, middle aged, and running out of money.

But what then did she do? How did she respond to loss and instability? She threw herself into work, into becoming a star, like she never had: “It would be the first time distractions would be at a minimum…From the time I fell in love with Bogie I had never been able to forget my personal life and zero in on my career. Now I would do it with a vengeance.” And she did. In March 1970, Applause opened on Broadway, to unanimously rave reviews. She won the Tony that year for Best Performance by an Actress in a Musical.

The magic of the theater is the live performance that cannot be reproduced. But I was able to catch grainy bits of recordings of Applause on YouTube, from 1972, when Bacall was 47—my age now. She bursts with life, and also with the gravitas of life experience. Her opening song takes place in a gay bar, where she’s playing hooky from the opening night party after her character’s own stage triumph. Bacall shimmies, kicks, and gyrates, exuberantly but also humorously—she is “too old” for this, and that’s the joy of it.
I feel groggy and weary and tragic
Punchy and bleary and fresh out of magic
But alive, but alive, but alive!

I feel twitchy and bitchy and manic
Calm and collected and choking with panic
But alive, but alive, but alive!

I’m a thousand different people
Every single one is real
I’ve a million different feelings
OK, but at least I feel!
Clearly—as both character and actor (and woman)—she is having the time of her life.

Bacall and Bogart in Dark Passage

5.
In her 50s, Bacall appeared in a few movies—Sidney Lumet’s Murder on the Orient Express; The Shootist, John Wayne’s last film; and Robert Altman’s political satire HealtH, in which she plays an absurdly youthful 83-year-old narcoleptic virgin (hilarious and worth seeing). At 54 she published By Myself, which won the National Book Award.

In 1981, at age 57, Bacall returned to Broadway, to star in the musical version of Woman of the Year. Her friend Katherine Hepburn had originated the role of reporter Tess Harding in 1942, at age 35, while Bacall’s Tess was an older, successful broadcast journalist fashioned after Barbara Walters. A decade after Applause, Bacall shone just as brightly. “This star’s elegance is no charade,” wrote Frank Rich in The New York Times, “no mere matter of beautiful looks and gorgeous gowns…As hard and well as Miss Bacall works in ‘Woman of the Year,’ she never lets us see any sweat. That’s why this actress is a natural musical-comedy star.” Watching (again, on YouTube) Bacall’s performance at that year’s Tony’s—she won again for Best Actress in a Musical—is indeed to see an actress at ease. She seems to me more comfortable in her body, more relaxed than we’ve ever seen her, on screen or on stage. No more trembling; she holds her head, and her heart, up high.

6.
If you’re still reading, you won’t be daunted by yet another chapter in Bacall’s life. She just. Kept. Working. In her 60s she performed in a Harold Pinter play, Sweet Bird of Youth, and in a British mini-series, A Foreign Field, with Alec Guinness. In her 70s, she reunited with Robert Altman for Prêt-à-Porter (playing another “Slim”), was nominated for the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for Barbara Streisand’s The Mirror Has Two Faces, made one more film with Kirk Douglass (Diamonds), and worked with Lars Von Trier in Dogville as well as its sequel, Manderlay. She also made a bad French film called Day and Night with Alain Delon and Jeanne Moreau, directed by Bernard Henri-Levi, and performed on stage at the Chichester Festival in Friedrich Durrenmatt’s The Visit, which was not a particularly positive experience. At age 83, she played a political wife in Paul Schrader’s critically praised The Walker, which featured a formidable ensemble cast including Kristin Scott Thomas, Woody Harrelson, Lily Tomlin, and Willem Defoe. In these later years, Bacall said yes to working with talented people and always counted these rich and valuable experiences, whether they were hits or flops or somewhere in between.

Herein lies Bacall’s “secret” to a full and meaningful life; to aging well—something I think about often, as a woman in my own “third act.” She was always in it for the love, the experience, the richness; the aliveness of the here and now, the people who animate the work. The dedication for her second book, Now, reads: “To friendship, the relationship I value above all others” (by this time she’d been living alone for more than 30 years). She wanted to do the work she loved, to learn from wonderful and talented people, more than she wanted fame or the glamorous life.

It can’t be denied that Betty Perske was extraordinarily lucky. But what is luck, other than a discipline of openness, willingness, alertness to one’s desires, gifts, and limitations. Things can, and do, fall into all of our laps; but we aren’t always paying attention or ready for these miracles. Neither young Betty Perske nor the mature Lauren Bacall took anything for granted—money, her looks, friendships, jobs, support from influential people. When opportunities came her way, she stepped forward, sometimes off a ledge. She worked hard, pushed herself. In her later years, with so much life and success behind her, she still approached her work with humility—deferring to younger actresses like Barbara Streisand and Nicole Kidman, throwing herself into comedic roles where she could easily have made a fool of herself, submitting herself to the risky artistry of directors like Lars von Trier (twice), playing minor roles in all-star ensemble casts.

Bacall and Marilyn Monroe in How to Marry a Millionaire

7.
Was Lauren Bacall a little polyannish? Did she acknowledge only the good stuff and either conceal or deny the messier realities? Some believe that Bogie carried on an affair with his hairdresser, Verita Bouvaire-Thompson, throughout their marriage; some claim Bacall had started her romantic relationship with Frank Sinatra while Bogie was still alive. And what about her old friend Kirk Douglass’s womanizing and alleged rape of Natalie Wood? Did Bacall not care about other people’s bad behavior? Did she keep her nose clean by turning the other way?

I have no idea. Maybe. It makes a difference, but not a big one. People—even celebrities—are entitled to their private failures and inner conflicts. It seems to me undeniable that she and Bogie had a great love. If extramarital relationships were part of that, so be it. People are complicated. Our lovers, friends, family. Bacall ultimately lived many lives and surely was no exception to these human complexities.  She seemed only and always to speak positively in public about people she loved and worked closely with, even those we know behaved badly. Maybe she should have denounced the rampant sexism, racism, and homophobia she surely experienced or witnessed in Hollywood. But she chose to keep things close, the most private things private. In her time and place, she would have understood this as both classy and shrewd.

During this strange, upending time, I’ve enjoyed getting to know this elegant, tough, passionate, and vulnerable woman; it’s helped me get to know myself. In the end—or the middle-end, at 60, 70, 80—I hope am able to claim what Bacall wrote in the final words of By Myself:
I have learned that I am a valuable person. I’ve made mistakes, so many mistakes. And will make more, big ones. But I pay. They’re my own…I remain as vulnerable, romantic, and idealistic as I was at 15…I’m not ashamed of what I am, of how I’ve passed through this life. What I am has given me strength to do it…I have a contribution to make. I am not just taking up space in this life. I can add something to the lives I touch. I don’t like everything I know about myself, and I’ll never be satisfied, but nobody’s perfect. I have no idea where the next years will take me, what they will hold, but I’m open to suggestions.
Image Credits: Wikimedia Commons, Pixabay, Needpix.

Bon Courage: ‘The Good Wife’ Qua Middlebrow Novel

1.

For this year’s Year in Reading, I wrote about my 2019 reading grump—a restless disinterest in many of the novels that literary and social media were excited about. As readers we all go through these ruts. For whatever reasons, we are fickle—impossible to please, hungry for work that will stimulate and nourish our intellect, emotions, and spirits just so.

Enter the dramatic TV series.

Backing up: One of the reasons I feel disconnected from contemporary literary fiction is that it’s become a largely middlebrow medium. This assessment is admittedly vague, subjective, and not necessarily a wholesale critique. I really don’t expect anyone to agree with me, nor do I feel impelled to convince readers who love/admire the books in question that they should feel or think otherwise. Generally speaking I embrace subjectivity in relation to art: let’s disagree, let’s have varying experiences—all for the greater Good and pursuit of Beauty.

But what do I mean by “middlebrow?” I mean this: The story is centered around familiar types of modern people dealing with modern problems, including something related to race and/or social inequity and/or complicated romantic and familial relations; the protagonist(s) is (are) both earnest and flawed; pathos and wit co-mingle in good measure; the prose “flows,” i.e. is “well-written” and propulsive such that the reader does not trip over it, is guided along from sentence to sentence as if by a kindly butler or gentle ocean wave; there is a balance of interior (thought, reflection) and exterior (dialogue, action) drama; there are no more than two or three high-conflict scenes, which may be vividly unpleasant though tolerably so.

Another way of putting it is that a middlebrow novel need only be read once, perhaps in three or four sittings, and the reader will be satisfied by this experience, which is relatively passive while also still engaging. Yet another way of putting it—more grumpy—is that there is no strangeness or disturbing difficulty at the heart of the narrative or the characters, nor in the language or structure used to form them. The reader is not inclined to pause in mid-scene or mid-sentence—to take a moment to metabolize or review or recover—because these novels are meant to be smoother and more manageable than life, and thus no such slowing-down in response to unsettledness or confusion or wonder or alarm is demanded.

I have nothing against this experience of propulsive absorbedness. I enjoy and seek out this experience regularly. I just think: This isn’t what literature as an art form is/does/should do. Literature is not about smoothing out prickly spots or sharp corners or the essential misshapenness of existence; in a word, literature should be, at minimum, more courageous than life.

If this seems snobby, let me offer an analogy, which may seem equally snobby, but hopefully at least clarifying: I am not someone who wants my candidate for president to be primarily someone I can “have a beer with.” I want that person to be smarter and better than me—much smarter and better—a little intimidating, someone who will lead, challenge, and enlist me to participate actively in the greater good.

And so, these days, I am passing on middlebrow, aka “relatable,” novels. I think: For satisfying manageable engagement, why not watch good serial TV instead?

Prestige showrunners like David Simon (The Wire) and Matthew Weiner (Mad Men) have both spoken of their multi-season series as having been conceived “as a novel.” Each might be understood as a Great American Social Novel—the former roving through multiple sectors of urban life in a major city (Baltimore), season by season; the latter spanning socio-cultural transformation between 1960 and 1970 via New York City’s advertising world. In centering its many storylines around Don Draper and Peggy Olsen, Mad Men is perhaps more character-driven than The Wire, whose real main character (despite a richly complex ensemble cast) is the city of Baltimore itself. Yet neither is protagonist-driven, strictly speaking.

As someone interested primarily in the mystery and complexity of human personality—as reader, viewer, and writer—the series that has me thinking most about TV drama-qua-novel then, is The Good Wife.

2.

For seven seasons (2009-2016), viewers followed the eponymous wife, Alicia Florrick (played by Julianna Margulies), through her mid-life coming-of-age—her journey the very model of an adult bildungsroman. In the pilot, we meet Alicia in high crisis: Her husband, Illinois State’s Attorney General Peter Florrick (Chris Noth), has just been convicted of corruption, while simultaneously exposed as a philanderer. With Peter serving prison time, stay-at-home mom Alicia is not only humiliated, but must now earn a living for herself and their two teens. Trained as a lawyer, Alicia sets off to interview at corporate firms for associate positions usually reserved for recent law-school grads. Between her resume gap and public profile, her prospects are grim, until by chance she runs into an old flame from college, Will Gardner (Josh Charles). Will is dashing, confident, a partner in his own firm. He says, “Call me sometime,” and when Alicia becomes desperate for a job, she does. Will gives her the break she needs, hiring her as an associate at Stern, Lockhardt & Gardner, where she thrives and advances quickly. In the midst of disaster, Alicia begins to not only find her footing, but also her latent talents and ambitions.

Alicia is both Hillary and not-Hillary: She stands by her man, but her public image could not be more different. Nicknamed by the press “Saint Alicia,” she eschews public attention, is temperamentally calm, deferent, laconic—feminine in the ways a “good wife” should be—slender and smoky-eyed to boot. Building each episode’s plot around a court case (or two), the strength of the series is in interrogating, challenging, redefining over and over this notion of “good” as it applies to “wife”—and to woman more generally—along with professional ethics. Through the vicissitudes of Alicia’s life over seven years, we come to know—or think we know and then realize there’s yet still more to know—the conflicted, hungering inner life of a character whose defining external traits are self-denial, quiet intelligence, and caution.

Series finales are high-stakes balancing acts: writers must satisfy audience, art, and network (CBS, in this case). To their great credit, The Good Wife writers stuck that ending (see in your mind Simone Biles, feet planted and arms stretched to the sky after her floor routine). They hit that surprising-but-inevitable sweet spot in a way that sent me right back to rewatch earlier episodes—not all of them, but particular ones that sent up pricks and sparks of resonance as the series’s final moments rippled back through the seven-year narrative like an electric current.

The upshot: Alicia, now truly free of Peter, arrived and confident (professionally, sexually, emotionally) at the same time she is thoroughly battle-scarred—is less “good” than we thought she was. More importantly, she is less good than she thought she was. Her relationships to the law, ambition, colleagues, money, friends, lovers, children—all these have both deepened and darkened, grown more complicated and more simple in thought-provoking ways.

This is true of our relationship to Alicia as well. After seven seasons of rooting for her, we find she is not so exceptionally sympathetic after all. She is—has either always been, or has become, or both—as self-serving and transactional as anyone. What we are left with then is the essential question of how we feel about that.

Is it more or less “good” to be (a) sober-eyed, seasoned, willing to claim your success and take your pleasure or (b) naive, soft-hearted and deferent, ever-longing after but unsullied by the triumphant sumptuousness of the big-bad world? This either/or proposition—how to be “good”—is a woman’s question; certainly it has been. (Perhaps, hopefully, this is changing). A woman cannot—in 2016 in Chicago, in 2020 anywhere in America—mindlessly, without cost, inhabit and manifest her Alpha dog, her Nietzschean mensch. The question is urgent, difficult, infuriating, and real.

But the incarnation of the how-to-be-good conundrum at the end of The Good Wife, open-ended and unsmooth, is to my mind comforting in its courage.  This was network TV, mind you, the very breeding ground for middlebrow, redefining a “good woman” as a complete woman, a full person—neither relative object nor idealized vessel, but multidimensional Subject. She may or may not be likable; she is as disappointing as she is inspiring. She is no saint, and even publicly rejects religion (despite the entreaties of her earnest daughter and a straight-shooting African-American minister). In the finale’s final seconds, after her moral character and physical body are at once dealt a stunning blow, Alicia smooths down her pencil skirt, then lifts her chin. But that ending leaves a rough taste in our mouths: the messes Alicia leaves behind her and now faces before her are what lingers. As novelistic vision, this for me rises above middlebrow. It’s unmanageable. And true.

3.

Serial format is inherently populist and thus fraternal with middlebrow: The serial novel, popular in the 19th and early 20th centuries à la Dickens, George Eliot, Wilkie Collins, Thackeray, Dostoevsky, et alia, made novels accessible to poor people (a periodical or installment was less expensive than a bound book) and even those who couldn’t read (excited readers would gather to read the latest installment aloud). Serialization has been good for creators and producers alike, generating communal conversation about the most recent installment and anticipatory predictions/hopes for what comes next, all of which bolsters interest and sales.

This phenomenon, of episodic buzzy chatter, has clearly energized today’s TV-viewing and the economics thereof. It also, interestingly, has the effect of making serial TV more novelistic: In slowing down the series’ central narrative tension—in the case of The Good Wife, the romantic-sexual-professional relationship between Alicia and Will—we experience the arc of that central narrative more completely. The Alicia+Will connection underwent intensity and diffusion, intimacy and distance; it was a slow, patient burn. Even after Will abruptly and dramatically exited Alicia’s life and the series in season 5, Alicia continued for two years to metabolize—more profoundly than she had when he was present—what had happened and not happened between them. As would be in life, it took the whole seven years.

Meanwhile, each episode, with its bite-sized court case, delivered its smooth, manageable dose of rising action, conflict, crisis, and (generally too-easy) resolution—replete with delightful and entertaining supporting characters and cameos (some of them well developed in themselves, others narrowly typed)—to satisfy the need for passive engagement and propulsion. Even marathon-watching the entire series in a few weeks delivered these shorter- and longer-term satisfactions.

4.

In lieu of the proliferating middlebrow literary novel, might we bring back the serial narrative? Nonfiction has done so, with wild success, via podcast. On the upside, long-form fiction could, like serial TV, hook readers installment by installment and generate a wider base of word-of-mouth consumers (good for authors); on the downside, books with weak, unsatisfying arcs/endings would exploit reader addiction and anticipation (bad for readers and for art). In 2015, Washington Post book critic Hillary Kelly, recognizing that the serial form favors plot-driven work—for example fantasy fiction and YA, both forms currently producing serial publications actively—and/or “literature that’s heavy on cliffhangers and light on subtlety,” nonetheless made a strong case for reviving the serial novel, across all genres:

[Serialization] requires the same characteristic any worthy novelist already seeks: momentum…While the plot of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall trilogy is nearly as bloody and scheming as a Game of Thrones book, we all know that Anne Boleyn loses her head; it’s the inner workings of Thomas Cromwell’s mind that keep readers delighted and critics astounded…Imagine a Stephen King novella terrifying the readers of Time, a new Jeffrey Eugenides epic unfurling through the pages of the New Yorker or Jennifer Weiner’s curious, energized female protagonists occupying a prominent section in Elle. Imagine if HarperCollins had slowly unveiled Harper Lee’s much-anticipated second novel over a period of six months. Novels wouldn’t be bulks to trudge through or badges of honor to pin to pedants’ chests. They’d be conversation notes, watercooler chatter, Twitter fodder. A part of the zeitgeist, perhaps, instead of a slowly fading pastime.

Perhaps the revived literary-fiction serial could, like the hit podcast Serial and its progeny, be in audio form. Or some other interactive hybrid that incorporates visuals, hyperlinks, choose-your-own adventure? I don’t know. Perhaps the novel is doing just fine, and I’m the grumpy defector here. I’m just saying: As both writer and reader, I’m rooting for literature and books; but for now serial TV has effectively replaced middlebrow fiction for me. Both the pleasures and substance of long-form TV drama are richer and ultimately more resonant than those of the sort-of-but-not-quite literary novel. Form and content are better matched; there is an integrity between the two. The literary novel, on the other hand, respects and optimizes its raison d’etre in respecting and optimizing language; its eggs are all—should be, more than it currently is—in that basket.

Call me a traditionalist or a dinosaur or whatever: I’m a Gen Xer who came to reading and writing for the richness and poetry of language. I’d be happy to see literary novels become less prosaic in both senses of the word—braver, more language rich and structurally inventive—shaping and challenging more than reflecting existence as we know it. I get excited about the ambitious structuring of a novel like As Lie Is to Grin by Simeon Marsalis, who both creates his own and channels his literary forebears’ language and polyphonic structure (specifically Jean Toomer and Paul Laurence Dunbar). As one reviewer puts it, “as a kind of vellum onto which this novel has been written…” Or the weird, dense sentences, and equally weird, lightly absurdist characters of stories and novels by Joy Williams, all of which invariably add up to something mysterious, vibrant, and sad. Or the precise, mesmerizing narrative voices of Yoko Ogawa and James Salter; the muscular, whirling, linguistic and philosophical energy of Sergio de la Pava.

I want these works too to be widely read, to generate buzzy chatter, to re-energize novel-reading. But I don’t know how that happens. Is there only one way to generate so-called “momentum” in a book? Is it always “what happens next?” Or “relatability” or manageable smoothness? Why not intensity, or depth, or unsolvable mystery—a more vertically-oriented driving energy?

We’re all figuring these things out. The golden age of TV, its captivation of our emotional devotion and resources, has yet to run its course, if ever it will. In the meantime, I wish you all bon courage—good luck and best wishes—but also the Good and the Courageous literally, in choosing your satisfactions.

She Cared Enough to Take It As Far as She Could: The Millions Interviews Rob Garver

This post was produced in partnership with Bloom, a literary site that features authors whose first books were published when they were 40 or older. 

Pauline Kael was the most renowned film critic of the 20th century. It’s a strong statement, but inarguable: You may not have loved or agreed with or even respected Kael’s criticism, but you could not deny its robustness, passion, or significance. For Kael, movies were both high art and utterly relevant to our daily human existence; and movie reviews thus mattered accordingly.

What She Said, a new documentary about Kael’s work as a critic and cultural force, had its theatrical premiere at the Nuart Theater in Los Angeles on December 13 and will open at Film Forum in New York City on December 25. It was a pleasure to interview New York-based filmmaker Rob Garver about the film—what it is, what it isn’t, and, of course, “what she said.” 

The Millions: Let’s start with the film’s title: In The Hollywood Reporter’s review, Todd McCarthy suggests that film criticism as an “art” (versus a “craft”) is up for debate. We learn in the film that Kael had originally hoped to be a playwright, but that she was rather bad at it. She also tried again to be involved in moviemaking later in her career, when she attempted to co-produce a film with Warren Beatty (she ultimately withdrew from the project). Tell us why you think Pauline Kael was an art maker.

Rob Garver: She was an artist because she had a gift and she cared enough to take it as far as she could go. Pauline was really not a film critic; she was a writer whose subject was the movies. She gave all of herself to it—all her knowledge, experience, and talent. Not to mention humor, wisdom, honesty. Even if you felt she was wrong about a movie, she was always enlightening—or funny, or maybe rude, or all three at once. And she believed that at his best, a critic could be an artist too. She wrote about that.

TM: I couldn’t help thinking of Susan Sontag: She too is better known for her criticism, while she aspired to be a great novelist, and also attempted to make a film (which was not well received). Both women were passionate about the art of filmmaking but had almost polar opposite tastes. (They also had a common nemesis in Normal Mailer!) To your knowledge did they ever encounter each other?

RG: They were both California girls—as was Joan Didion—but I don’t know if they ever spent any real time together. I believe I did find a note from Sontag to Pauline (as I did from Didion) in Pauline’s archives at the Lilly Library. A friendly note, about one of their books.

TM: How much time did you spend researching Kael’s archives, and what were some of the most engaging or surprising things you found there?

RG: One of the first things I did was to hire a great researcher named Rich Remsberg, and together we spent two weeks in the archives. One of the great things we found were the letters from celebrities, some of which made it into the film. Some that didn’t were a series of letters from the famous producer Ray Stark—about five or six letters written over a period of about 10 years. Funny and interesting because they were initially friendly, but then, over time, become more and more frustrated, because Pauline is obviously not giving his movies the love he feels they deserve.

The best part of her archives, though, are the many letters she wrote to a couple of her close friends when she was in her early 20s—as a college student at UC-Berkeley and then in New York after college. It’s Pauline at her most vulnerable and emotionally naked, and most intellectually voracious. She was interested in everything. She was a young person who very much knew herself, but who also struggled with acceptance I think, because of her strong opinions, even at that age. She also seems to have understood how the world worked already.     

TM: You convened quite an all-star cast: Greil Marcus, Camille Paglia, Quentin Tarantino, Paul Schrader, David Edelstein, Joe Morgenstern, Alec Baldwin, David O. Russell, Sarah Jessica Parker as the voice of Pauline Kael, and others. Was there anyone you’d really hoped to include who refused or was otherwise unavailable? Did you consider enlisting today’s prominent critics (e.g. Manohla Dargis and A.O. Scott, David Denby and Anthony Lane), or younger critics? Do you think the new generation of filmmakers, actors, and critics know how central Kael was to film culture during her time?

RG: I would have loved to talk to Woody Allen and Warren Beatty, but I don’t think they wanted to talk to me. I tried. Spielberg I tried, DePalma I tried. David Lynch I tried. Armond White I tried. Michael Moore I tried (he can’t stand Pauline), Manohla Dargis declined, A.O. Scott didn’t respond (but he wrote a lovely obit in The New York Times when Pauline died). Denby I didn’t approach as I already had several critics, but they were friends, and I think they had a falling out. Some people just don’t like to go on camera, and I respect that.

Not sure about current critics knowing Pauline. Some do. Eric Kohn at IndieWire teaches a class in criticism at NYU, and Pauline is part of his lesson plan. Others have told me the same thing.  But I think unless a critic is steeped in film history—and they should be—they don’t know her, or don’t know her well anyway. I think Pauline’s first five books are just fantastic, great reading for anybody, critic or not. But if you’re a critic who hasn’t read at least one or two of Pauline’s early books, I think you probably need to.

TM: In the film, Molly Haskell says about Kael, “No male critic had as much testosterone as Pauline.” Kael was notorious for championing violent films like Bonnie & Clyde, Scorsese’s early film Mean Streets, the films of Brian de Palma and Francis Ford Coppola, as well as sexually controversial films like Last Tango in Paris. She was a feminist by example—speaking her mind, pursuing her ambitions, never compromising in order to be “nice.” But I wonder how/if Kael would engage today’s feminisms and/or the #MeToo conversations. Any thoughts?

RG: You can never say for sure, but one thing about Pauline that seems to hold up pretty well: She didn’t like messages in movies, she didn’t belong to groups, and she was never called a word with an “ist” at the end. I think, yes, she was a feminist by example, but she wouldn’t like to be called one. She did it on her own, in her own way.

She also loved the bad boys—Sam Peckinpah and James Toback, the guys who often shot from the hip, even if people like Toback missed more than they hit, creatively.

As for #MeToo, it’s hard to guess. Toback made a fool of himself and got caught, and I think she would not be on his side in that case, despite her friendship with him. And Harvey Weinstein she might see as a clueless narcissist in the vein of some of our current leaders. Of course, she was a woman, and a very sensitive person, and probably one who in her personal life didn‘t take any shit from men. But I think she was more the aggressor in sex. She did not have many long romantic relationships with men, I don’t think, but most of her friends were men.

I could imagine/hear her often taking the side of the men in the #MeToo debate (she was supposedly a champion debater in high school). I can hear her telling women to wise up—that if a guy is telling you to come back to his hotel room to audition, it’s a bad idea! I can hear her saying that men are naturally predatory when it comes to women—so watch your back! I think she would probably be on the side of men more than women in some of these cases. That’s just my guess. I think she might be on Woody Allen’s side, since she knew him and he didn’t have a pattern as others did. But who knows? Mostly, she didn’t take sides in her life, publicly, on public issues. She does write about the rape in the movie Straw Dogs in an unusual way, expressing feelings of both eroticism and revulsion. That’s a great example of her honesty coming through. And I think if she wrote that review today, she might be plundered.

TM: I’ve read that your interest in making this film began with your own admiration for and enjoyment of Kael’s reviews. But the film doesn’t shy away from giving voice to her detractors, showing the ways in which her sharpness, at the height of her powers, could injure filmmakers and their careers—David Lean did not make a film for 14 years after being eviscerated by Kael both in a review and publicly at a luncheon—not to mention ruffle the feathers of mainstream moviegoers. Would you say that the central tension or conflict of Kael’s legacy is the question of motives?

RG: Not in my book. I know there are many who think she was out to “get” people, but if you read her books, which are made up of her published reviews and essays, they are almost entirely thoughtful, honest, insightful. Hardly ever personal, although she could go there. I think maybe a more central “tension” might be her “rightness” on some of the big movies of her era. Many still get upset about her review of their favorite movie from 40 or 50 years ago. That speaks to who she was, and the power of her pen. I don’t think anyone gets upset about Rex Reed’s review from 50 years ago, or even Vincent Canby’s review from 20 or 30 years ago.

TM: Her supporters describe her as courageous and generous, her enemies as cruel and narcissistic. Her own daughter, Gina James, spoke to what she believed made her mother tick: “She truly believed that what she did was for everyone else’s good, and that because she meant well she had no negative effects. This lack of introspection, self-awareness, restraint, or hesitation gave Pauline supreme freedom to speak up, to speak her mind, to find her honest voice.” Does the film lean one way or another on the question of Kael’s essential character?

RG: Oh I love Pauline, despite her flaws, because I’m similar to her in some ways. If I love a movie, I’m all in; if I don’t, it’s hard to accept that people don’t see what I see. I’d make a terrible critic. So I can see where she came from, and I can feel for her because I know it wasn’t easy for her. (She also said she couldn’t be friends with someone who disagreed with her on a movie.) She had to avoid people in restaurants, at parties, in the streets. A price she paid. And she was a very outgoing, generous, and magnanimous person. But, I think she believed she was right, always. She believed she knew best and that people should listen to her.

TM: Kael’s unapologetic subjectivity seems to be a point of controversy in any assessment of her criticism: She could forgive one film for the very same flaw that made her love another. She critiqued “auteurism” for its emphasis on the filmmaker’s mark, but then became enamored of de Palma and to some degree Godard. Where do you think we stand now on the spectrum of subjectivity and objectivity in film criticism? Is the “I” of the film critic anywhere near as present in today’s film criticism as it was in Kael’s work? If not, are we better for it or worse?

RG: More than critiquing auteurism in particular she critiqued “isms.” She critiqued belonging to a cabal of thought. She believed in coming to a movie—or a painting or a piece of music or a book or play—with everything you are, with all your experience, and being open to it, not simply looking at it through the lens of a theory. That’s what makes her so fun to read: her windows are open, not half-closed. And she was never “all in” for any one filmmaker. She liked some of DePalma, some of Altman, some of Scorsese. Her job was to criticize, not to be a fan.

I think film criticism is probably much more subjective overall now, partly due to Pauline’s influence, but mostly due to the digital age, where everyone can publish their opinions. Bloggers can be very personal in their “reviews,” and I think this has probably bled over to professional criticism.

TM: Bio-documentaries often explore an interesting or important figure beginning with their childhood and background. What She Said doesn’t linger much on Kael before she became a well-known critic—which is to say there doesn’t seem to be much interest in psychologizing her. Was this your preference/decision, or was it more your sense of what her preference would have been?

RG: That would have been a different movie, much more narrow, and specialized. I wanted to make a film that was an expression. Not an analysis or comparison, or an effort to figure out why she was who she was, and why she wrote those things. I mean, I do think some of that comes through, but I was more interested in showing her work, and how it became part of the culture. My film is just what the title says it is—it’s “what she said,” not “why she said.” I’d be very happy to watch that movie if someone else made it though.

I wasn’t making it for Pauline, or making as I thought she would like it. The movie is my impulses and expression. I guess I’m channeling her, but I’m doing it in a way that pleases me. I just wanted to make her come alive.

TM: Do you think or hope What She Said might bring renewed attention to some of the landmark and classic films of Kael’s time? I know for me, it made me want to rewatch Bonnie & Clyde and all of Altman’s and David Lean’s films, and to watch Christopher Strong and Casualties of War for the first time.

RG: That would be nice. There are so many remakes these days that if you’re really interested in movies, you should know where they came from. Pauline mentioned that a few times—that what seemed new to audiences didn’t seem new to her, partly because she was, one, so well read and knew the great literature before she ever started writing about movies, and, two, knew movies and had seen so much.

One of the many things I found in the research that I learned about Pauline was that she was a voracious reader who went through all the works of so many novelists and poets in her 20s—not just one book, but she would read everything by that author and then move on to another author—and it formed a bedrock for her writing about movies later on.

And it is very fun to watch a movie after reading one of her reviews. She wrote a great review of the Fellini movie Satyricon and wrote about how she thought Fellini was really the good Catholic school boy who loves sex and sin, but who feels guilty about it all at the end of the day. Funny, and she makes you see her view.

TM: This is your first feature film. Tell us a bit about your own career trajectory.

RG: Many false starts, and a lot of plugging away without results. I’ve made my own short films since I was a teenager, and have done other things to make a living—but always working on my own projects and trying to break through with one of them. Writing scripts, developing ideas. This is my first one to break through. I want to make a fiction film that I’ve been working on since before the Pauline movie, and I’m writing a second script that is an out-and-out comedy, which is what I like most.

TM: Any theories on why this one broke through?

RG: I always felt very strongly that this could be a special movie, and I felt completely driven to make it. And I love the movie. That’s probably why it broke through. But also because Pauline is such a compelling figure: complicated, strong, powerful, flawed, but without the brazenness of so many in the movie business. She was like a buddha, in a way, in her certainty. A buddha who loved to drink and smoke and swear and live like a bohemian.

TM: Was it important for you that the film have a theatrical release, given Kael’s strong attachment to seeing movies in theaters, with audiences?

RG: Definitely! That’s what I told my sales agent when they signed on—that I wanted to get a theatrical release because my movie is primarily a “theatrical” movie, in that I tried very hard to make it visual and cinematic. Also because it’s a movie that stirs up a lot of feelings and ideas, and so when people see it in a group, there is always a lot of conversation afterward. But now we’re set to open in 30-plus cities theatrically this winter in the U.S. and Canada, and in more markets internationally. So thank fully my wish came true.

A Year in Reading: Sonya Chung

The fact is I’ve been a grumpy reader this year: as someone who’s been at this books thing “professionally” for a while, and who is also an avid film and TV consumer, I confess I really, really need books to prove to me why they need to exist. A lot of what I come across these days strikes me as basically middlebrow, and I’ve lost interest in anything that counts language a mere vehicle for narrative and/or seems unconcerned with its own lack of urgency. Perhaps it’s no surprise that the two books that stood out to me this year are both experimental in form—nonfiction books by writers who work in non-narrative genres, photography and poetry respectively.

1.Emmanuel Iduma’s A Stranger’s Pose places photographs—some of which Iduma took and others he admires—in conversation with text, carefully curating a sensory, intellectual, and emotional experience that is at once meditative and evocative. As travel writer, memoirist, and visual artist, Iduma, who is Nigerian, reinvents the travelogue: For one, he is a black African traveling throughout Africa (finally, an introspective travel essay framed by a sensibility other than the White Western adventurer’s). In addition, the arrangement of vignettes and images that make up the whole is more intuitive and associative than chronological or thematic. The result is a compellingly impressionistic work that demands your full attention and mesmerizes at once.

2.Why have I not known of Anne Boyer’s work before now? This is the question one always asks upon meeting a mind, voice, soul, and talent that the world needs utterly. Boyer is a poet, essayist, activist, cancer survivor, and all around integrated soul, as far as I can tell. Her book of short essays A Handbook of Disappointed Fate is both all protein and all glistening jewels; an anti-capitalistic rant that is also a sumptuous love song.

Poetry is sometimes a no. Its relative silence is the negative’s underhanded form of singing. Its flights into a wide-ranged interior are, in the world of fervid external motion, sometimes a method of standing still. Poetry is semi-popular with teenagers and revolutionaries and good at going against, saying whatever is the opposite of something else, providing nonsense for sense and sense despite the world’s alarming nonsense. …poetry is made up of ideas and figurations and tropes and syntaxes as much as it is made up of words. We can make a poetry without language because language as the rehearsal material of poetry has made the way for another poetry, that of objects, actions, environments and their arrangement. This is not saying to be a poet means you can only rehearse turning over the world: now try putting the chair on your head.

These essays are very short and yet each will take you a lifetime to really truly read. Run don’t walk.

More from A Year in Reading 2019

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An American in Afghanistan: The Millions Interviews James Longley

James Longley makes films and photographs.

Such is the extent of the bio on his website. When you watch Longley’s films or take in his photographs, or when you hear him speak about his work, you begin to understand that “less is more” traces through his life, art, and career. The bio’s compression belies one of the deepest and widest commitments to visual documentary—to capturing the complex dimensions and layers of an entire society, distilling them meaningfully into a two-hour film or single image—I’ve ever encountered. What’s more, Longley approaches his vocation with a simplicity that reminds us how radical a singular focus and commitment can be, in a world increasingly driven by sanctioned impatience and velocity for its own sake.

Longley’s 2006 film Iraq in Fragments was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature and an Emmy for Best Cinematography. The film was also honored with awards at the Sundance Film Festival for Best Documentary Directing, Editing, and Cinematography. His 2002 film Gaza Strip was described by J. Hoberman as “A documentary to make the stones weep.” Longley’s short films include Ejaz’s Story, Sari’s Mother, and Humankind—four short films made for Save the Children about refugee families living at Tempelhof Airport in Berlin.

Angels Are Made of Light, Longley’s newest documentary, shot during a three year period, is an intimate portrait of students, teachers, and their families in an old neighborhood of present-day Kabul. The film opens at Film Forum in New York City on July 24th. 

The Millions: Your films Iraq in Fragments (2006) and Angels Are Made of Light (2019) both bring the viewer into the viewpoint of children in war zones—Iraq and Afghanistan. What are the particular questions (and potential answers) you feel you are able to explore through the experiences and voices of children?

James Longley: I will add my short documentary, Sari’s Mother (2007), to the list.

In an ideal world what I want to show is family life. I would like to have an internal family view of the world. As best I can, I try to approximate family; and even though it seems like my films are all about children, you will also see their parents and teachers as characters in my films. (I have noticed a tendency among filmgoers to forget the adult characters and identify with the kids.) I’m making films about real people in the real world, and this is Iraq and Afghanistan we’re talking about. The society at large—everyone around where I’m working—must approve of my filming inside their close-knit communities.

In a more conservative, religious society there is a separation between genders, and also more strict social ideas about modesty. Filming inside houses is almost always out of the question, for example. In practical terms, this generally means that filming women and girls is more difficult for an outsider, particularly if the outsider is a man. In other words, what you get when you combine an American male filmmaker with a conservative religious society is a situation wherein the most practical people to film are usually old men and boys.

Because I wanted to create a well-rounded view of Afghanistan, I took pains to include the voices of women and girls as well, but this material was much more difficult for me to film and record.

All this is to say that, in observational documentaries like mine, the choice to focus on particular people in the film, or a particular age group, is primarily a practical one about filming access. I make the filming process appear so easy on the screen, it’s possible to forget the months of work that went into achieving the access, and the practical limitations thereof.

Happily, children can be magnificent subjects for films. The social memes and ideas of the wider world get caught and simplified into their essence by children. This can help make complex subjects more approachable for the audience. In this case, I’m trying to make Afghan society more approachable by seeing it through the eyes of children.

TM: I would imagine that such practical considerations often shape your process. What are other examples of ways in which constraints have yielded gems or welcome surprises in your work?

JL: In 2003, I was in Mahmudiya, Iraq, filming the material that became my short film, Sari’s Mother. It was a project I was working on alongside the subjects that became Iraq in Fragments. We were filming with a farming family south of Baghdad whose child, Sari, had contracted HIV-AIDS through a blood transfusion during the previous Saddam regime. Because of our filming, his case was brought before the deputy health minister—although I think they did little for the family in the end. Our filming was brought to a halt when masked gunmen arrived at the farm one evening and started to motion me into the back of a pickup truck. Fatima, the eponymous mother of Sari, and her oldest daughter, emerged from their house some 50 meters distant and came running toward us across the field. They were calling out to the masked men that I was a “good man” and that they shouldn’t take me. Everyone knew what it meant if they were to have taken me. She was a woman who had emerged from the safety of her home with her daughter to vouch for me, it was a social signal that the masked men were ashamed to defy. I was saved by the bravery of Fatima, but from that day we were to never visit the family at their farm again. We saw them only later, at the hospital in Baghdad. With filming halted, the material we had collected wound up being perfect for a 21-minute short film that fit exactly on a 35mm cinema reel. When I had started filming their story, I had probably imagined the film as something grander in scope, but the film at that shorter length succeeds in a way that I wasn’t expecting. If you watch it, it’s like a feature documentary’s worth of experience and emotion, but in 21 minutes. That’s economy!

TM: You’ve talked about feeling “relieved” about positive feedback from Afghan viewers to Angels Are Made of Light: “Getting it right is a struggle.” Tell us a bit about what you mean. What are some fears/challenges when it comes to getting it wrong? What has been your journey (lessons learned, and how so) over your career—as an outsider, and a Western person, making films in non-Western places?

JL: I have been very pleased by the reaction of Afghans to my film. It’s easy to become buried in the minutia of the filmmaking process and lose track of whether you managed to make something that is true to the subject; and so the positive reaction I have received from Afghans is a welcome affirmation that we succeeded. The fear, of course, is that you might wind up with a film that Afghans don’t like. I mean, if your film is supposed to transmit Afghan reality and Afghan people don’t think you got it right—that means you failed. I am trying to avoid failure and use my powers for good.

With my films I am trying to solve problems of perception. An Afghan documentary filmmaker (and I know a few of them) is more likely to think about the problems internal to their own country, and how to talk about those problems in a film. By contrast, I am not casting a critical eye on Afghan society. I may be physically filming in Afghanistan, but the real problem I am trying to solve is the misconceptions of my intended audience, Americans, about Afghanistan. I consciously work to create a film that will help to fill in those misconceptions with an accurate picture. My goal is to transmit Afghan reality to the non-Afghan viewer, as much as cinematically possible, in two hours. Arguably, I am better equipped to make this kind of film as an outsider who simultaneously knows the American audience like the back of my hand and sees the Afghan subject with the newness of a child.

TM: Have you always been so clear about both your audience and your goals as a filmmaker? Does the process of reaching this clarity vary from film to film, or is it typically there from the inception?

JL: I’m not particular about my actual audience. I am overjoyed to hear that anyone watches my films, whether they are in Iceland or China or wherever. However, I like to imagine an American audience when I’m making films because I have some practical experience with Americans as filmgoers. I worked for a while as a projectionist in my hometown movie theater, and I got into the habit of watching the audiences watch the films I projected. And I watched many films while seated among American audiences. So it must be that I feel the pressure of an imagined American audience—their levels of tolerance, their interests, their cultural knowledge.

In practice, of course, I’m not doing something that is often done: I’m rebuilding a piece of the world using the film medium. I’m not catering to the ordinary documentary film expectations of my imagined American audience, but rather being mindful of their limits. I’m determined to give viewers the “world”—in this case the Kabul neighborhood of Angels Are Made of Light—in as much detail, and on as many different levels, and from as many viewpoints, as I think they can absorb in one film. I don’t want to lose them in the process. I need the audience to assimilate my prototypical Kabul neighborhood in order for it to fulfill its extrapolative function in their imaginations.

TM: It’s clear that documentary filmmaking requires a lot of patience.  (Our literary audience appreciates this, given how long it can take to write a book-length work.)  You’ve been trying to make a version of Angels since 2007, filming in Iran and Pakistan, for over a year in each case, only to be permanently interrupted by political turmoil.  You spent months scouting in Afghanistan, meeting with locals and filming in various sites, before landing at the Daqiqi Balkhi school.  I guess my question is: where does that patience and commitment come from?  It’s a kind of faith, no?

JL: There is a lot of naiveté that goes into making this kind of film. For one thing it requires a childlike innocence regarding subjects such as financial and retirement planning, and health insurance. You must be ready to pretend that nothing else in the world matters besides making the finest film possible. I have this particular religion, and I take it up anew each time I start a new picture.

TM: Related to that, given your interest in “urgent” subjects—war-torn countries, the West’s involvement/engagement—how do those things go together: urgency and patience?

JL: I feel a sense of urgency to start a film. But once I’m actually looking at the world through my lens, I want to stay that way forever, building a more and more detailed, grand and beautiful cinematic recreation of the subject. Eventually, I run out of money, and that provides the stopping point. If I had unlimited funds, I would not stop filming.

TM: Angels follows three school-age brothers, along with other children, teachers, and administrators, observationally—through a period of three years, when their school in Kabul closed down due to disrepair and they moved to a new school. You recorded 500 hours of picture, and the “text” of the film is made up of unscripted audio interviews—over 8,000 pages of transcript. Talk about patience! Tell us about the editing process, and specifically what was difficult to leave on the cutting floor.

JL: I film observational documentary material in the mode of a storyboard artist laying out scenes. Consequently, it is very easy to edit the material I come back with—at least at the scene level. The first part of editing was simply plowing through scenes: I think with the young Finnish editor, Waltteri Vanhanen, we cut something on the order of 90 or 100 scenes over six or seven months. Then the process became one of arrangement and honing. We had all the scenes on index cards, tacked up to an enormous cork board. For most of the editing, it was going on in the same apartment where I lived. So I would roll out of bed and into the editing suite.

We cut out a lot of good characters whom I liked a lot. In particular there were these two kids who went to the school where we were filming, and they had jobs selling things on the streets of Kabul. So the material following them is really wonderful—all moving camera shots, swooping through the markets. And they were both very sympathetic, interesting characters. Lots of excellent scenes were cut or greatly shortened. But this is the way films get made, I guess.

TM: How do you decide on film format? Iraq in Fragments and Angels Are Made of Light (to the amateur eye) seem to be shot in different formats, and I’m wondering how you negotiate the chicken-and-egg conundrum—discovering/developing the visual language as you go along, and committing to a format.

JL: I want the film to look like I made it in 30 days on a Hollywood backlot with unionized labor. But I have a two-person crew and I’m filming in Afghanistan. So I tend to shoot everything very consistently and I don’t switch the camera in the middle of production. In both Iraq in Fragments and Angels Are Made of Light I used one type of camera/lens the whole way through. In Angels Are Made of Light I even used the same camera to record the 35mm archival material off the flatbed ground glass—so that means the whole film feels like it’s sewn together from one big piece of cloth.

I decided to use 2.39:1 widescreen for Angels for a lot of reasons: I love the way it looks, and because it’s so easy to frame crowd scenes in widescreen. Afghanistan is a country where much activity happens in groups, and so the wide screen actually winds up giving a more precise sense of the group dynamics.

TM: How has the time you’ve spent in Afghanistan influenced/changed your opinions about American policy—or global policies—in Afghanistan? Are there ways in which you hope your films “activate” viewers politically?

JL: I don’t know the answer to Afghanistan’s problems; or even what the United States’ policy should be in Afghanistan. I have my own opinions, but that’s not what I think I can best contribute to the world. Instead, I am trying to give an American audience the foundation of perception and experience through my film that will allow those who view it to imagine Afghanistan and to more accurately calibrate their internal worldview. I focus my films on civilian populations because I think that these are the people who should be foremost in our minds whenever we consider other countries or our own. What will happen to these most vulnerable people if X or Y happens? That’s the question I want to be on the minds of viewers after watching the film. I want my audience to understand the real stakes involved in making decisions in the world, and I want them to see the world as it is. This is the unreachable goal toward which I am working.

TM: The motivation of an “unreachable goal” could be both energizing and depleting. For you it sounds as if it’s mostly a fruitful energy. When/how did you begin to clearly understand that your vocation would orient you toward this unreachability? Or was this something you simply recognized from, say, a young age?

JL: I remember when I was about six or seven my father remarking that “the map is not the territory.” That’s when I understood that it was hopeless. Human beings will never be able to perceive our wider world with true clarity. We’re just not built for it. Nonetheless, it’s a fascinating problem to work on. I get excited just creating these small artifacts, these films, that I think of as little perception capsules. Little time capsules of experience. Like the talking rings of HG Wells’s The Time Machine (1960). Even this activity would be enough to keep me occupied for a lifetime, but I hope to live to see a sea change in the way we think about documentary films; the way they are made, and the way we experience them.

It is enjoyable to think of possible futures of documentary film—new forms that I may yet experience and create—perhaps as something like the artificial reality training modules of The Matrix (1999) or the memory implants of Blade Runner (1982). The function of documentary—at least when I make one—is to augment our vision, understanding, and knowledge of the real world. I look at documentary films in that way—as enhancements, as extensions to human perception. The toolset I use is evolving, but my ultimate goals remain the same.

If You Haven’t Seen ‘Billions’ Yet, You Should

1.The Showtime series Billions finished its fourth season last month. I’ve been watching since the 2016 premiere, but I’ve been a staff writer for The Millions since 2009, so…there was no way that, in my household, we wouldn’t be referring to the show as THE Billions. The Millions founder C. Max Magee said in an interview a few years ago, “I thought the site should be about all the millions of uncountable interesting things out there.” In good keeping, and despite recent news that could easily turn you off a show about the wheelings and dealings of the one percent (i.e. the indictment of billionaire hedge fund manager Jeffery Epstein on charges of sex trafficking of minors), I’m here to count Billions among such interesting things, and to encourage you to do so as well.
In broad strokes, the show is about two warring groups: absurdly rich venture capitalists and the public officials hell-bent on taking them down. Chief among these tribes are rags-to-riches venture capitalist ace Bobby “Axe” Axelrod, played by Damian Lewis; and U.S. District Attorney Chuck Rhoades, a Yalie, son of a Yalie, and Brooklyn Heights townhouse-dweller, played by Paul Giamatti. Tempering the testosterone are some tough ladies: Chuck’s wife, Wendy (Maggie Siff), who somewhat absurdly also works for Axe as consiglieri (i.e. a high-paid, high-heeled performance coach/guru); and Lara (Malin Akerman), Bobby’s fair-haired high school sweetheart from their blue-collar ’hood whose kill-or-be-killed instincts are as merciless as her husband’s. The symmetry is complete with lieutenants and foot soldiers. On the Axe Capital side, there’s Mike “Wags” Wagner (the brilliant David Constabile, previously of The Wire and Breaking Bad) as Bobby’s right hand and court jester, along with a couple of fixer/heavy types, and a gaggle of front-line traders. And on the bureaucratic-politico side are Chief Assistant U.S. Attorney Bryan Connerty (Toby Leonard Moore), an ambitious boy scout; and Assistant District Attorney Kate Sacker (Condola Rashad).
During season one, I found myself defending the series to my bookish friends: why would I—novelist, Asian American female, middle class and cash poor—care about any of these one-percenters, or find their relentless pissing contests entertaining or compelling? How did co-creators Brian Koppelman and David Levien manage to hook me? I wasn’t sure, but I worried the reasons might be less than honorable. When season two came around, I tuned in faithfully, but kept my growing fandom to myself.
2.By the end of season two, Chuck and Axe have called on every resource and strategy to destroy each other. It’s a fierce game of chess, each player anticipating moves, besting the other’s intricate calculations. No one is off limits—friends, family, bystanders—when it comes to conscripting pawns and patsies. “It’s no different than emergency triage after a mass casualty event,” says one unsuspecting victim, a doctor who aids Axe in executing nefarious deeds, then lands in prison after missing one of Chuck’s Machiavellian moves. “You save who you can and force the fate of the rest out of your mind.”
Both Chuck and Axe rack up high-stakes wins and losses, the most important of which, we come to understand, are not financial. These men want to conquer; each covets the crown of potency, the scepter of cunning. Ascension—up and up, more and more—drives them at times into the heat of recklessness; yet each claims the cost-benefit “worth it.” In the meantime, Wendy—the de facto highest of high stakes for both men—somehow maintains both her autonomy and her neutrality, even while struggling to serve two masters (or, as the Governor character says, “having the two actually serve you”). Lara, on the other hand, loses her taste for the game (and for Bobby) and quits while she’s ahead, taking the children with her.
The wards of each team valiantly, a little buffoonishly, go to battle on behalf of their leaders, eager for the victory they will share if they demonstrate radical loyalty. The formula, despite the rarefied scenario, thus materializes as familiar. Think Jimmy McNulty and Avon Barksdale; the DEA and Walter White; the FBI and Tony Soprano. The formula works: we care equally about the good guys as we do the bad guys, as it becomes harder and harder to tell them apart and as each character shape-shifts according to the moral conflict/survival imperative du jour.

3.But there’s more to Billions than the least common denominators of the prestige drama: Over time, Billions has demonstrated a robust adaptability—the creative energy of a live organism evolving with our times. It could be argued that the series found its footing and got better. Or maybe I’m giving the writers too much credit? TV-land professionals in the know might say the focus groups spoke, the advertisers named their target audiences, and—in an interestingly meta sort of way—these interests were heeded.
In any case, in season three, the simplicity of dueling primal energies—the head-to-head white-maleness of the show’s power struggle—deconstructs and complicates. We saw shades of it in season two with the arrival at Axe Capital of Taylor Mason (played by the mesmerizing Asia Kate Dillon), a petite, doe-eyed mathematics prodigy, who also happens to be gender non-binary. Taylor’s increasing role in the company—their rise in the hierarchy based on virtuosic merit—coupled with the surprisingly elegant reconciliation of the Chuck-Wendy-Axe triangle in the season finale, effectively gives depth to characterizations that had been on the cusp of cartoonish. In other words, Taylor brings a non-binary presence explicitly into the scenario, demanding that both the characters and the viewer shift from easy contrasts and dualities to more nuanced personalities and conflicts. But Taylor doesn’t function simply as a token character with a ghettoized storyline. Rather, the entire world of the series makes this shift as well.
For example, the central triangle strained credulity in season one: how the hell does Wendy go to work every day to Axe, who butters her bread extravagantly and trusts her more than anyone, only to come home at night to Chuck, who has spent every minute of his day trying to destroy Axe? By the end of season two, though, we begin to recognize these multiple vectors of intimacy and loyalty as a grown-up treatment of partnerships of various kinds. Each character lives and loves and works simultaneously in more than one register, driven by and toward a complex set of desires, instincts, and values. In the midst of power wars, Wendy and Chuck each do what they have to do, aware of the impact on the other while also adhering to their own imperatives and ambitions. Every episode, for me, thus became a kind of fascinating profile of a modern, complicated monogamy between ambitious people. In the final scene of the season two finale, after Chuck has succeeded in toppling Axe, Wendy and Chuck meet on the steps of their house at the end of the day and look each other in the eye: Wendy’s look says, Well played, while Chuck’s says, I’m sorry, and thank you, and boy I’m tired. They walk together into the house.
In season three, the major frame-shift that happens is in some ways classic, but also of a piece with the series playing faster and looser with facile dualities: Axe and Chuck, having found in each other a worthy nemesis, now find they have common interests. Out of necessity, and braced by sufficient respect, they join forces—to both save Wendy from multiple catastrophes and to undermine mutual foes. This solid if reluctant alliance continues into season four, as the battle map is again redrawn, troops realign across the board, and Axe and Taylor—now the rebellious, prodigal protégé—draw and aim their weapons at each other.
4.So with season four now concluded, I will once again speak forth my praise. Billions has come into its own as a progressive contemporary drama set in an utterly unprogressive world. As Daniel K. Isaac, who plays one of Axe’s loyal soldiers said in an interview with Nancy, “it’s—you know—it’s middle-aged white guys and, like, suits [who are] like, “Yo, Billions! Love that show, man.” (Isaac is Korean American and gay.) This, in my opinion, is among the most interesting things out there in TV. We see more people of color, women, and queer people in positions of hard and soft power than in most actual financial institutions and corporations—let alone mainstream movies and TV. More importantly, we see them develop and act as whole human beings: While Isaac is a secondary player, for example, be sure to see him in season three’s episode 10, “Redemption”—a breakout moment if ever there was one.
Taylor and Wendy in particular steal the show in the fourth season, as each maneuvers through intense moral decisions that call into question competing desires and core values. For Taylor, the conflicts are rooted in their identities as an idealistic millennial and organizational leader more than (or at least as much as) a gender non-conforming person. Wendy’s central moral dilemma centers around her ethics as a medical professional and loyalties as a spousal partner more than as a woman per se. In other words, the characters are neither essentialized nor tokenized, and we viewers can immerse in an evolved, integrated world where it isn’t “a thing” for a woman or a gender non-binary person to both wield power in a man’s world and manifest intersectional human complexity. Both characters are flawed—Taylor’s somewhat ironic attachment to precision and measurement feels precariously rigid, and Wendy’s penchant for saving and being saved by powerful men is at times unsettling. Thus, even as these two find themselves facing off, on some level they recognize each other’s vulnerabilities and root for each other to find footing in their power roles.
Overall the series has evolved to concern itself seriously with the relationships between power and moral codes, self-preservation of the individual and the good of the whole. The gray areas feel genuinely gray, the writing at once nuanced and sharply entertaining, and the stakes meaningful: loyalty, friendship, vocation, integrity, self-knowledge. Many of the characters are self-made, and so we can recognize—if not excuse—the primal survival-of-the-fittest drive that undergirds much of the “bro” energy among the Axe pack. At the same time, a millennial character like Taylor brings to the fore a compelling alternative philosophy to the rags-to-riches figure: “A new kind of organization,” they say, when wooing a coworker to jump Axe’s ship and come with them to their startup. “Top down but not imperious or impetuous. Integrated.”
All along, Taylor’s moral center has been piquing our interest and admiration, poking holes in the 35- to 50-something white-male zeitgeist:

I think you’re trying to bully me, and a bully is devastated when you try to stand up to him. —Season three, Taylor calling a bluff at a blackjack table
The individual sacrificing their self for the whole can be the most beautiful thing there is. But not if it’s done under duress or for the wrong reasons. —Season three, Taylor to a colleague who is being asked by Axe to lie under oath
There are things they were comfortable with at Axe Cap that we will never do here [at Mason Cap]…they turned us all into Starship Troopers, sent us to Klendathu and some of us got our brains eaten. And it wasn’t until the end of our time in that we realized we were the bad guys all along. It’s not like that here. —Season four, Taylor to their new team, largely poached from Axe

Taylor is thoroughly, methodically moral: The reasons always matter, the means as much as the ends. They believe deeply that one can be both successful and good. Contrast this with their mentor, Bobby, who says things like, “I felt guilty once…When you do something that puts yourself back in charge, remind yourself that you are not less but more powerful for what you’ve come through, that’s when you’ll feel better,” and his mother who says to him, “Maybe I shoulda told you not to talk like that when you were a kid…you woulda had a little voice inside your head that told you not to. Do you have that voice…at all?” Bobby isn’t a villain, or if he is, it’s in the Don Draper mold—despicable and admirable in equal measure. But he is a white male, rags-to-riches or not—someone to whom the Russian oligarch Grigor Andalov (played fabulously and insanely by the inimitable John Malkovich) can say about Taylor, “But she is your property, not mine.” It is the only moment a character intentionally uses the “she” pronoun in reference to Taylor, and the effect is brilliantly chilling.
Many of you may already be die-hard Billions fans. If not—if it seems too one-percenty, or too bro-ey, or too ridiculous (all of which it is, to some degree, don’t get me wrong)—I still say give it a try: As Taylor would say, the reasons matter, so don’t miss out for the wrong ones.

Feelin’ Good: What ‘Green Book’ Got Wrong and ‘Period’ Gets Right

1.
We’re back to this. Or, more accurately, we never left it. Who is “allowed” to tell what story? Back in 2016, when the novelist Lionel Shriver delivered an address at the Brisbane Writers Festival wearing a sombrero, a heated debate ensued about cultural appropriation. Shriver is white and wore the sombrero as a dig at students of color at Bowdoin who’d taken issue with a tequila-themed party where students donned miniature sombreros. Shriver said: “The moral of the sombrero scandals is clear: you’re not supposed to try on other people’s hats.”

Both “supposed to” and “allowed” miss the point rather spectacularly (not to mention Shriver’s omission that the miniature sombreros in question were vaunted on Instagram). Many have written/spoken about this in the years since Brisbane, myself included. Shriver’s and others’ fear-mongering pivot to the so-called tyranny of political correctness diverts attention from poorly executed portrayals of a culture or character of color, pointing instead to oversensitivity and intellectual inferiority when anyone questions the moral and/or aesthetic quality of these portrayals. In the end, I’ve found that the debate comes down to something rather ugly: a battle over who’s really being oversensitive and intellectually simple-minded.

With the controversy over Green Book’s Best Picture Oscar win, it’s tempting to say, Here we go again. The director, Peter Farrelly, is white, as is screenwriter Nick Vallelonga, son of Tony Vallelonga, on whom the main white character is based. The film has had a polarizing effect, with fans lauding its feel-good interracial friendship as the message of hope we need, and detractors criticizing its reduction of racism to a matter of moderately wonky individual attitudes requiring a few key adjustments—nothing a little quality time with an exceptional black man like the composer and pianist Don Shirley can’t fix. Further fueling the controversy is the fact that Shirley’s family spoke out strongly against inaccuracies in Shirley’s portrayal.

2.
But are we back to Brisbane? I think yes and no. Green Book evidences for me a different problem that’s emerged in recent years—both before and after Shriver-gate: white storytellers, recognizing that white-centricism is under scrutiny, rarely now write stories featuring all-white characters. In other words, the market for stories about white people who have no intersections or collisions with people of color has narrowed. While this may be a positive evolution generally speaking, a result is that the instinct to “just add color,” a thinly layered splash here or there, has pervaded many books and films.

Case in point: I recently served on a literary awards committee and was required to read some 60 to 70 debut novels. A significant number of books by white authors either took place in non-white countries and/or featured non-white primary or secondary characters. Most of these novels did not impress me: I found it was not difficult to distinguish between a story about significant relationships between people of different races and a story to which an author had “added color.” In some cases one could almost feel the anxiety motivating the story’s setup—I’ve got to have nonwhite characters—along with the inadequate if well-intentioned response—and here they are!

A crucial question is, why have you “got to?” I’ll defer (as I’ve done previously in interviews and conversations) to Chimimanda Ngozie Adichie, who points us to the fundamental element of motive: whatever is driving your inclination to write or investigate outside of your own culture or experience—anxiety or curiosity, commercial or moral interests, guilt or authentic engagement with power dynamics, savior complex or humility—it will show. The other thing that shows is the creator’s actual lived human relationships to/with the culture and/or character being depicted. To paraphrase the writer Danielle Evans, who tweeted eloquently on this subject in the aftermath of Brisbane, if you are white, who are the people of color in your life, and what is the quality/nature of those relationships? Start there, before imagining you can write well in this vein.

3.
No one but Tony Vallelonga and Don Shirley will ever know the true nature of their relationship. Which is why, in my opinion, Green Book is not the story of “a true friendship,” as advertised. Rather it’s the story of a white working-class family man’s exposure to a new (new to him) sort of black person—erudite, fastidious, a genius musical talent. Don Shirley is so unlike the black people that Tony knows that he is both surprised and miffed when whites in the South physically and verbally harass Shirley and enforce racial segregation. Tony’s oddball role as Shirley’s driver and de facto bodyguard during his concert tour through the deep south becomes a personal journey of reorienting his passive racism—the racism of Italian-American cultural provincialism—toward a more noble awareness of the indignities black Americans face and his obligation to act in the face of such indignities.

A film about “a true friendship” would have co-protagonists. Green Book has a lead and a supporting role. Here I disagree with Octavia Spencer’s assessment of the Don Shirley that Green Book presents—not a “person of color with agency” (per her statement as to why she executive produced the film) but rather a differently objectified figure. A non-stereotype, yet still an underdeveloped, alt-version of the “magical negro,” and mainly a vehicle for loveable, plain-spoken Tony to confront blind spots and work out, in attitude and action, his individual moral development.

The specifics of Don Shirley’s family’s objections to the depiction—as estranged from his family, a lone and pathologized figure—are thus utterly relevant: Why is Shirley embarking on this tour of the deep south if, as one of his trio’s musicians says, he doesn’t have to? What does he really want from his driver, and why does he pursue Tony of all people? The complexities of Shirley’s context, background, and motivations are unexplored and distractingly thin. All we know—all that matters in the film—is that Shirley becomes dependent on Tony to save him, repeatedly, in brutal and humiliating situations. The “friendship,” from Shirley’s side, thus becomes based on gratitude (granted, Tony is also grateful, for Shirley’s assistance in writing love letters to his wife; but the exchange is hardly one of equal stakes). At the very end of the film, Shirley’s gratitude reaches its climax when Tony and his loving Italian-American family “save” Shirley from his loneliness on Christmas eve: They welcome him to the family dinner, doing the heroic work of refraining from racial slurs and everything.

In short: Green Book is a white-framed story, by and about white people, that gives white people an opportunity to feel good about themselves in relation to white-on-black racism, and to which some interesting color has been added. The fact that Mahershela Ali brings his virtuosic talent to playing the colorful character adds gravitas and an illusion of depth and complexity.

In my initial considerations of the film, I intended to interrogate in a broader sense the “feel-good” value of art and entertainment—to propose that it’s natural to want to feel good, but that we need to weigh that desire against the consequences of comfy passivity. Now, I’m actually hoping anyone who felt good at the end of Green Book (I’m looking at you, Academy, along with millions of moviegoers who “liked” Green Book, in their hearts and on social media) will interrogate that they felt good—about a film that calls itself a “true” friendship story when, in fact, it “protagonizes” the white character and makes a prop of the black character, thus shrinking systemic racism into a tiny individualized package. What’s more, Green Book manages to both propose an over-simplified solution to racism, i.e., adjustments to personal prejudice, and distance the majority of white people from even that bit of work by virtue of its 1962 deep south setting: oh those bigots, weren’t they awful?.

But enough about Green Book. 

4.
For comparison, let’s look at the winning film for Best Documentary Short, Period. End of Sentence, through a similar lens. Who made the film, what is the frame, who are the protagonists, what is supposed to “feel good” and why?

Frankly, when Melissa Berton, a white woman who co-produced Period—a 26-minute documentary about the taboo and health risks around menstruation in rural India—stepped up to the mic on stage at the Oscars and exclaimed,
This film began because high school students here, and our great partners at Action India, wanted to make a difference, a human rights difference—
my skepticism antenna went up. Behind Berton stood four of those high school students (now college students)—white women who graduated from the Oakwood School, a private school in North Hollywood with a $40,000 annual price tag. Who will be portrayed as leading actors here, and who the supporting roles, I wondered.

In 2013, girls from Oakwood involved with Girls Learn International, with Berton as their faculty advisor, attended the United Nations’ annual Commission on the Status of Women and became aware that the majority of females in rural India had no access to sanitary napkins and thus suffered embarrassment, ostracization, and health risks while managing blood flow. Also, many girls dropped out of school shortly after they began menstruating. The Oakwood girls were appalled and wanted to “do something.” At the same time, they’d learned about a social entrepreneur in India named Arunachalam Muruganantham, who’d invented a sanitary-napkin making machine that could be operated by village women themselves. Berton and the Oakwood students raised money for the machine, materials, and—because they wanted their project to reach beyond the village itself—a documentary film. Working with the grassroots feminist organization Action India, they identified a village—Kathikhera, in northern India—where the machine could be put to use.

The optics at the Oscars and in relation to Berton and Oakwood concerned me, in large part due to memories of the 2005 Oscars, when British photographer and filmmaker Zana Briski’s Born Into Brothels—about Briski’s project of teaching photography to daughters of sex workers in Calcutta’s red-light district and trying to place the girls in European boarding schools—won for Best Documentary. The controversy around that film—its making, its aftermath, and its success—are best summed up by feminist/queer theorist and English professor Frann Michel, who wrote in 2005:
“Born Into Brothels” might seem to suggest that the residents of Sonagachi are without resources or collective organization, and that escape from the neighborhood is the only possibility for saving the children. In the film, Briski even describes the children as “doomed” in their home environment.
Michel goes on to detail the longstanding local activist efforts—establishing significant social, education, and health services—of the sex workers themselves, notable Indian artists, academics, and government officials, and local NGOs. And she concludes:
[T]o the extent that the film implies that Briski worked alone, without the assistance of local activists, it overestimates the powers of the crusading individual.

Moreover, the film’s emphasis on “good”—that is, boarding school—education exacerbates its focus on individual rather than communal solutions. Even if all eight of the children profiled in the film had been “rescued” by such education, the lives of other Sonagachi residents would not be improved… “Born Into Brothels” is a powerful film in its ability to tug at the heartstrings of westerners. But to the extent it suggests that the only solutions lie in individual outsiders rescuing individual children, it presents a misleading story and indeed an unnecessarily despairing picture of possibilities for change.
It would seem that the next generation of documentary filmmakers (and socially engaged white American girls) learned something from the conversation generated by Brothels’ success—a conversation that existed long before Brothels but came to the fore in 2005.  The Oakwood girls partnered with a 40-year-old local organization—the aforementioned Action India—and recognized that lasting change would only happen if the women of Kathikhera took ownership of the project and its development—making, packaging, and selling the sanitary napkins, and braving difficult conversations about what they are doing and why.
They don’t just want to donate money and buy the girls a pad machine. They want to go there. They want to speak with the women… They want to install this machine and make sure that we’re giving the power entirely to them to create these pads and to become empowered and independent.
Enter Rayka Zehtabchi (her words above), an Iranian American and recent USC film school graduate, who directed Period. When it came time to bring on a filmmaker, a film industry veteran and Oakwood parent named Garrett Schiff contacted cinematographer/editor Sam Davis, who in turn recommended Zehtabchi, his close friend and USC classmate. It would seem then a fortuitous accident that not only is Zehtabchi female (Schiff was explicit in expressing this requirement) but also a person of color. In a short video for the 2015 Kickstarter campaign for her narrative short Mataran—about an Iranian mother deciding whether to pardon, or approve capital punishment for, her son’s murderer—Zehtabchi said this:
I’m an Iranian American, and I’m very much aware of the Western viewpoint on Iran.  A lot of the negativity that is associated with that comes as a result of the political situation in Iran [which] has the second highest rate of executions in the world, behind China. And their method of execution is hanging.
While, by her own admission, Zehtabchi knew nothing about menstrual hygiene or cultural taboos around menstruation in India, she did know that acute awareness of “the Western viewpoint” (from a non-Western viewpoint) was crucial to any project made by Westerners about a non-Western culture. Specifically, Zehtabchi understood that certain non-Western cultural practices (in this case, the taboo around menstruation and managing periods with unsanitary cloths) would incite in Westerners a negative response—repulsion, condemnation, pity; and it was crucial that the film depict these realities and their contexts through the subjects’ points-of-view, not the Western gaze.

Period is also executive produced by Indian film industry veteran Guneet Monga, with interviews assistance from one of her company’s junior producers, Mandakini Kakar, and Action India. Whoever initiated these recruitment efforts, which would crucially determine who was “in the room” as key aspects of the project developed, should be commended.

And here in an interview from MoveableFeast, Zehtabshi, explains precisely why:
Before going to India, there was this idea of making a totally different film about the group of high school girls in Los Angeles who are starting this whole movement and working with a group of women in India [to] help start this sanitary pad business. Melissa Berton…got all the high school girls involved in this whole mission and got us communicating with…the inventor of the pad machine…when I went to India…to start shooting, the machine [had been] installed and it became very clear that the focus and the center of the story was specifically the women in this one village because it was so powerful to see how much this one machine was affecting all the people…
And once again we are back to white framing as default; primary and supporting roles; and the power and privilege to “protagonize.” Whose idea was it to make the girls the main characters?  To whom did it become “very clear” that the village women should instead be the focus? Were there some who needed convincing or enlightening? Who was in the room when that conversation occurred, and would this shift have been possible without Zehtabchi, Monga, Action India, etc. as prominent voices? We may never know the answers to these questions, but I dare say I have a reasonable idea; even as I hope I’m more wrong than right.

5.
Maybe in the end I am indeed interrogating the vital implications of “feel-good” when it comes to films engaging with social issues. As Americans, what we have historically and continually failed to recognize is the feel-good power of humility. There is an important distinction, for would-be liberal do-gooders, between self-congratulation—Look what we did! Isn’t it inspiring?—and self-evolution—Look at what the rest of the world has to teach us. The hard pill for many to swallow is that, in 2019, white Westerners with the best of progressive politics and intentions are as susceptible to the pitfall of privileged protagonizing as are 1960s bigots of yore, or even MAGA Trumpians. [Side note: while a comprehensive analysis of another 2019 Oscar contender for best short documentary, Lifeboat, is not the focus here, I encourage you to watch it for yourself and examine the ways in which the esteemed, experienced director hews uncomfortably close to white-savior/huddled masses tropes and images in this film about the global refugee crisis.]

I appreciate Zehtabchi’s artistic talents, but without her evident essential humility, her talents and good intentions could easily, unwittingly effect more harm than good. When asked in an interview with Ms. Magazine, “What was the most shocking or surprising thing that you learned throughout the filmmaking process?” Zehtabchi said:
I think it really taught me a lot about myself. I grew up sort of thinking I was always mature and worldly in a lot of ways. And I think I realized when I went to India—when I was exposed to this whole issue—that I really don’t know anything about the world…
A foregrounded humility is especially crucial as Period’s influence on mainstream conversations about global issues for women and girls increases. “The Pad Project”—the nonprofit that grew out of the Oakwood student’s efforts—promotes their mission with the tagline, A period should end a sentence—not a girl’s education. It’s a catchy, motivating slogan that elicits applause and makes us all feel good; but in fact the relationship between lack of menstrual hygiene and dropping out of school is more associative and anecdotal than rigorously evidenced. And this distinction matters. In an interview with NPR, researcher Marni Sommer said that hard research has yet to be funded or conducted on menstrual hygiene’s impact on education; in small focus groups, girls around the world identified menstruation as “‘one of many issues that makes engaging in and participating regularly in school problematic.” This, surmises the NPR reporter, is “a far cry from proving that the barriers to menstrual hygiene are causing educational harm.” Likely, multiple converging factors end a girl’s education and make managing periods difficult—including, for example, lack of running water to wash your hands and toilets with privacy locks on the doors. Says Sommer, “The studies out there are not looking at toilets…no one finds toilets sexy,” and the suggestion that a pad-making project will solve the problem worries her.

A final frustration with the tagline is the implication that addressing menstrual hygiene is urgent only insofar as it impacts education. Sommer feels strongly that being able to hygienically and unashamedly manage your period is a human right: “We shouldn’t have to justify that girls are deserving of an environment where they can just meet their basic bodily needs.”

6.
No one is suggesting the film shouldn’t have been made or that it hasn’t had a net positive influence. “The benefit of this movie,” says Sommer, “is that it opens the conversation.” And again, here, I appreciate Zehtabchi’s humility: the filmmaker herself, as far as I’ve seen, has not touted the tagline, and instead said of the film’s value:
it’s always been a wonderful conversation starter and we have a lot of interest from schools and universities and organizations that would love to eventually screen the film. That was the goal of the whole project in the first place—let’s start conversations about periods.
In this vein, I am happy to protagonize the girls, The Pad Project, the faculty advisor, the filmmaker, the producers, the parents who contributed money, everyone involved: Look at what they did: they started a conversation about a complex, ongoing issue. And yet, first and foremost, look at the women and girls of Kathikhera—Sneha, Rekha, Preeti, Shushma, Roksana, Preeti, Gouri, Shabana, Sulekha, Ajeya, Suman, Shashi, Usha, Sushila, Anita—protagonists in their own stories, their families, their communities, their economies, their complex and evolving lives—from whom the rest of us have much to learn.

Does Size Matter? A Conversation with Three Filmmakers

Lately I’ve been thinking about the size of art—specifically short forms across the genres. In literature, compression and brevity—aesthetic experiences as “bursts” of meaning, capsules of experience—have always excited me: The writers I most admire all work masterfully in the short form. Every word, every phrase, every image counts; every moment does “triple duty” in working to resonate layers of meaning.

As writers, we are always immersing ourselves in other art forms for nourishment. For me, film in particular has been a mainstay. As both viewer and fellow storyteller, I learn enormously from films—about narrative structure, emotional texture, visual and aural detail, dialogue, characterization, et alia. Here at The Millions, you’ll be hearing more from me about film and TV, starting with this conversation with three accomplished filmmakers—a documentarian, an animator, and a fictionist—about the short form.

The Millions: As both makers and viewers of short films, what do you think the short form can do better/more compellingly than (or perhaps just differently from) the long form?

Cecilia Aldarondo: Great shorts are these little gems that can sometimes make their mark on us precisely because of their concision. As maker and viewer, I am attracted to shorts because they enable us to dip our toes into an idea without having the burden of too much elaboration. As a filmmaker, I can treat a short like a game. There’s a low-stakes lightness to the process. With a feature, the pressures of fundraising and distribution can really tax the creative process. With a short, I don’t even have to worry if anyone sees it. I feel the luxury of experimentation. I also like to treat shorts as opportunities for collaboration—I can say to a busy friend, hey, let’s make this thing over a weekend or a week or whatever, and this low-pressure situation enables me to remember that art-making is supposed to involve play, failure, and elasticity, and how rewarding it can be to be new at something.

Sometimes, though, I do find the short form too slight, or too simple, for me to really tackle something. One of the current documentaries I’m making—a feature exploring the aftermath of Hurricane María in Puerto Rico—began as a short film. Very quickly I realized that I couldn’t do justice to the seismic nature of this disaster in a short form. It just didn’t work; the short was cacophonous and didn’t hang together. I also think sometimes filmmakers are more susceptible to triteness in a short; I feel like I’ve seen a lot of shorts fall back on cheap tropes that reinforce unhealthy stereotypes. I actually think it can be harder to be original in a short.

George Griffin: “Does Size Matter?” What is it, this short form, besides length?

My position is temperamental: I worship the letter, analogous to the drawing, the frame, the most elemental piece of motion picture film. Look at the letter G. It contains hints of an unjoined circle, itself hinged by a straight line. It exists alone, on a plinth, glanced at or holding my focus while I wander around it, close up or from across the room. Maybe it’s a clean Swiss font, or there are scratchy marks, drop shadows, curlicues. I draw it a certain way, maybe after numerous stylistic revisions, erasures, alternating colors.

Letters build words, which could arrange themselves into sentences, often leading to paragraphs clumped atop each other into stories. And that’s it. I can’t see anything longer through the fog: too far away. Well, not quite. Just as a longer form can contain more than one story, there can be a dialectic of story and counter-story. I have made both cartoons and what I’ve called “anti-cartoons,” and on two occasions have combined them into a single, somewhat longer film.

Just as early cartoons often arose from comic strips, perhaps the size/length issue will continue to be affected by the graphic novel. And maybe the cliché “poetic,” so often used to describe short film, can evolve into a real dialogue.

TM: George, how then do you think about “story?”  There is certainly a sense of narrative in your more recent films “You’re Outta Here” and “It Pains Me to Say This.” Do you tend to begin with characters and narrative, or does image or shape or color come first?  Is it different with each film?

GG: Since the ’80s, when I lost interest in “self-referential” art, I’ve returned to cartoons (even abstractions) which are drenched in narrative or at least memoirish detritus. “Outta Here” was a commissioned film/music video, for the singer/lyricist Lorraine Feather. I think it came out of her confusion/anger over a break-up. Maybe relief too. So, maybe a story can grow out of deep feelings; nothing new there, nor is humorizing the pain.

Another recent film, “Coal Creek,” has two stories loosely woven together. One is a fanciful documentary about John Kasper, a follower of Ezra Pound who left his bookshop in the West Village to fight against school integration in the ’50s. The other is a memoir of my liberal teenage years growing up near the specific school that Kasper targeted in Tennessee. The only on-camera narrator is the school’s janitor who had bravely walked to the all-white school as a kid. He says, “I saw Kasper. Oh, he looked a little like you!” My research also led to Kasper’s black girlfriend whom he had left behind 60 years before (she didn’t want to be part of the film). Imagine, “Coal Creek” could have been a mixed-form, anti-doc feature, not a 10-minute short.

Julian Kim: Where feature-length films invite people to a world, I think short films invite people to an idea. A short film is like a parable. It packages a simple message that is intended to inspire, provoke, reproach, and move those who watch it. But also, it gives room for the viewers to create their own narrative. Much of what is unspoken—backstory, setting, relationships, motivation—is completely up to the viewer to create. My favorite type of short films are the ones where the story lives on even after the credits roll. When the images flash before you as you lay yourself to sleep, you try to digest what you have watched. There’s an appeal in telling a story with a blank canvas for each viewer to contribute to and finish on their own.

TM:  Julian, who are some of your short-film filmmaking inspirations?

JK: I really enjoyed Martin Rosete’s “Voice Over.” Even though it has been about 5 years since I first saw it, the visuals and concept still resonate. Rosete did an amazing job utilizing one small incident and creatively expanding it into something so large and engaging.

I also found Andrew Ahn’s “Dol” inspiring. I love how he captures Korean-American culture without explicitly spelling it out. He subtly presents us the pain and internal conflicts experienced by the character. The story lingered with me for quite some time.

TM: As filmmakers, you all have a distinct set of economic/pragmatic factors to consider: One needs significantly—often prohibitively—more resources to make a feature-length film. That said, if resources were not a consideration, would you still make short films? Why/why not?

CA: Yes, I think so. The constraints on filmmaking aren’t always monetary—sometimes our biggest hurdles are creative. The stakes are higher with a feature not just because of the money involved, or the stakeholders we might have to answer to, but because of the time, energy, and risk we’ve expended to make it. Features take years, shorts can be made in days. Of course, some shorts require painstaking effort; brevity isn’t always the best measure of the risk, commitment, or suffering a project may ask of us. But in general, I feel that I will likely turn to shorts whenever I want to play or learn something new.

One catch that nobody tells you: It takes just as much work—sometimes more—to distribute a short. The festival applications are the same, the deliverables are the same. It can be a huge amount of work to get a short seen.

GG: I am not forced to make short animated films because of external pressures like economics. It isn’t a pragmatic choice. Again, it’s temperament, perhaps inherent, held aloft by reactions (both negative and positive) from other people. I can’t resist mocking the “why” question by answering, “why not?”

JK: My motivation as a filmmaker is to tell stories that can uplift our community and society. I am first and foremost a storyteller. Short films or feature-length films are just various sizes of a blank canvas.  I believe certain art pieces call for a bigger canvas to be on full display; confident, loud, and tall. On the other hand, certain pieces call for a more-humble canvas—intimate and personal.

It’s hard to pick either/or.  But if budget was not an issue, I’d definitely be motivated to make more short films, because it challenges me as a creative person to constantly think of a new world, a new narrative, and a new message. Short films push me to be more fluid as a storyteller.

TM: Julian, tell us a little about your Flushing Web Series and your recent short film  “Call Taxi”— both your artistic vision, and how you approached distribution/audience building.

JK: My collaborator Peter S. Lee and I started the Flushing Web Series because we wanted to highlight stories that were hidden in our community. While Flushing, Queens, has gained a reputation for diverse food offerings, it was still under-appreciated and overlooked as a major producer of culture and art. Our mission was to tell authentic and relatable stories. Through sharing with the public what growing up in Flushing was like, we were able to define our own identities both as Asian-Americans and as filmmakers.

“Call Taxi” was birthed after a tearful heart-to-heart conversation I had with Peter. I had shared with him my struggles as a son of immigrant parents who were growing old and physically weak. At the end of their “career” of dry cleaning, they had no real retirement plan. Their real retirement plan was to lean on me and I would have to dutifully take on that burden. I felt it unfair, but knowing my parents would not take a cent from me, I was simultaneously met with so much regret.

We posted our series on YouTube because of the breadth and reach of the YouTube community. It was the best way to get viewers. The response was overwhelming, and the community “liked” it and shared it. I remember even the older generations sending links to our film via text to other family members overseas. We were both thrilled and humbled that people were able to connect with the film, and that it stirred up conversations about their respective experiences upon watching it.

TM:  The Millions is a literary site, so here’s a genre-comparison question for you all: The short story is sometimes considered the highest form, associated with perfection of craft; other times it’s treated as the industry stepchild. Is there a similar ambivalence for the short film in your genre? Do you think this has changed/is changing?

Also, true or false: You can buy short story collections and read short stories in magazines; you can download singles from iTunes; you can enjoy/purchase small paintings. It seems harder to find/enjoy a short film as a consumable unit of art in its own right. If you agree, why do you think this is?

CA: I don’t think I can answer this question about a film’s aesthetic value without reminding myself that no matter how radical or formally bold they profess to be, at the end of the day films (like all culture) are commodities, subject to the vagaries of capitalism. Right now the internet is dramatically changing the landscape for shorts and often privileging shorter runtimes over longer ones. The voracious screen culture we live in—and the rapidly shrinking attention spans that come with it—prizes brevity. Traditional media outlets such as The New York Times, the Guardian, The New Yorker, and Condé Nast have all radically expanded the number of short documentaries they produce and acquire. Some documentarians I know welcome this shift and have found themselves making more shorts than before because of it.

But this explosion of content has come with no regulation or standards. Filmmakers are regularly being asked to hand over their films for next to nothing—or nothing at all in exchange for “a wide audience.” There’s no transparency about what filmmakers are actually being paid, and this shift is further contributing to already rampant freelancer precarity. On top of this, media outlets frequently expect filmmakers to surrender creative control, and I feel that I’m constantly resisting the transformation of documentary into mere “content.” These changes have steadily diminished the question of craft, to the point that it seems scarily at risk of extinction.  (One major exception to these trends is Field of Vision and Firelight Media’s  “Our 100 Days” series, which commissioned a documentary I directed last year called “Picket Line.” FoV funds shorts with real budgets, and ensures directors have final cut of their films.)

TM: In the literary world too these days we often say it’s easier to get published, but harder to get paid. Is there any chance this is a positive change, or maybe zero sum—if artists are no longer linking creation with paycheck? We lose time (as we earn money otherwise), and cultural respect (people stop expecting to pay for art); but the capitalist commodification is problematic too, isn’t it?

CA: The union organizer in me is having a moment right now. I’m definitely not saying we should always be monetizing our work (that’s the other dark side to this era, in which we are all becoming brands). I’ve had some incredibly frustrating run-ins with mercenary artists who turn everything into a financial transaction. It’s awful. I’m constantly trying to circumvent the economics, in fact. I love nothing more than to barter favors with friends I like to work with—you scratch my artist’s back, I scratch yours. But the reality is that most creative people lack the ability to make art for its own sake. This is especially true for working-class filmmakers, and filmmakers of color. It’s an incredible privilege to make work without thinking about one’s bills. Part of what I’ve observed is that many organizations will use this “art for art’s sake” rhetoric to justify asking financially vulnerable artists to make work, give time, teach, mentor, all for free. We’re experiencing an unprecedented casualization of creative labor, and that makes me want to hold the line on making sure people who need to get paid get paid.

GG: It’s much harder to find individual or even collections of short films. Maybe we aren’t aware of the many genres of short forms produced by “content providers” that tumble chaotically, incessantly, out of our devices: movie trailers, music videos, advertising and public service spots, pleas for political support, YouTube videos of funny pets. Yes, most viewers see the short film as a stepping stone to feature films, a kind of proving ground, grudgingly honored at the star-studded Oscar awards ceremony. (There is a perennial rumor that the category will be exiled to the technical awards dinner.)

Compared to other short forms, including painting and sculpture, which can be read/viewed/reviewed at one’s own speed, continuously or episodically, all films, short and long, must be viewed exactly as projected on a bright screen in a darkened room. These involuntary, pre-determined conditions are both a strength (exciting tempo, spectacle, illusion, propaganda) and a weakness (boredom), abetted by the sonic envelope of music, lyrics, dialogue, or silence.

Compared to mass entertainment (including gaming), short films live in a cultural niche found in international festivals specializing in documentary, animation, identity affirmation, narrative, even preceding feature films at the local art cinema. Also check out retail sites, museum programs, and public library media sections.

TM: Literary writers too often express that reading literature has become a rarified, niche activity, and serial television is where would-be readers now immerse themselves in complex story and character. George, do you think there is an analogy for short films? You mention gaming: Is this a place where creative talent is finding its audience and industry? Are there other short-film filmmakers you admire who are finding their way into more mainstream outlets?

GG: The world of gaming, television, and serial streaming entertainment is too far off my map to be of much help to this discussion. I do like the dialogue and art direction of “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” yet could never see the characters as really animated; they are already cartoons. Certain animators have moved from shorts to features through the conventional route: directing, animation supervising, designing, storyboarding, all as part of a studio team financed within a mass-market context. The other “road not (often) taken” involves a narrower, more personal, formally experimental journey. The most successful example is Bill Plympton, whose main strength is roughly penciled grotesquerie, wildly irreverent humor, often delivered in short doses. Nina Paley’s mastery of line and character in motion was bound together with the music of Annette Hanshaw in “Sita Sings the Blues.” And Signe Baumann’s “Rocks in My Pockets” described her, and her family’s, history of depression, rendered in a dead-pan pictorial design and monotonous, uninflected narration, all quite informative and mordantly hilarious. All three artists have funded their projects through crowd-sourcing, and as they don’t have (to my knowledge) major distribution, the audience is unfortunately limited to festivals and perhaps specialized tours and cinemas. Baumann’s subject enabled her to find audiences among therapeutic networks: patients, academics, and practitioners. Her current feature project is focused on marriage.

Finding a cinematic analogy to the novel is less likely among animators than live-action/narrative filmmakers. But when we throw in mixtures including documentary, widely-used (and misused) techniques like rotoscoping, glued together with compositing, then one never knows…There are surely many more animators who have brought their features to the festival circuit and moved to wider audiences. Critics like Amid Amidi and historian-artists like John Canemaker would have a deeper, more up-to-date view.

JK: Short films were always considered unprofitable because distribution for them was hard…until the Internet happened! The way we view “films” is changing. We are now in a world where 15-second vertical stories are the way we consume storytelling. I feel like the people of the new generation are on YouTube more than they are in theaters. They watch gamers stream, rather than watch a sketch comedy show. For a traditionalist like myself, I find it unfortunate that an increase in viewership is directly related to a mere strong thumbnail and a compelling first six seconds. It ruins the artistic merit of filmmaking, where pacing is so important. However, I’m sure there is a different side to that, especially to those who embrace this new wave. I think there is a demand for short films in this current market, but I personally do not see most content as the highest form of filmmaking.

I believe great short films as a consumable unit of art exist out there, but I agree that it is harder to find them. I do think content on the web is created specifically to capture the ephemeral attention of the audience so it’s hard to find a calming or powerful short film beyond all the noise of makeup tutorials, vine compilations, and music covers.

TM: Julian, tell us about a great short film you’ve been inspired by, and also how you discovered and encountered it.

JK: Some years ago, I fell upon “Kung Fury” and “POWER/RANGERS” on YouTube and was amazed by the sheer production scale. I also enjoy light-hearted and easily consumable content produced by Wong Fu Productions and Jubilee Projects. Much like how you can find a great novel or good read by spending significant time in a library, taking the time to browse YouTube increases the probability of encountering good video content.

TM: I’ll end with a question—for Cecilia—about a “happy medium” form. Tell us about your documentary “Memories of a Penitent Heart”—about your uncle, a gay man who died of AIDS amidst the disapproval and denials of your Catholic Puerto Rican family—which played on PBS’s POV. What is the nature of this middle length—analogous to the novella, perhaps?

CA:  “Memories”’s theatrical length was 72 minutes long—already lean for a documentary feature. For the TV broadcast, POV asked us to cut the film down to exactly 53 minutes, or what’s known as a broadcast hour. This is another instance of industry forces rubbing up against creative impulse. I had zero desire to cut the film down, but since it was my one shot at a TV broadcast, I basically closed my eyes, handed the film to my editor, and said, “Do your worst.” She’s such a damn good editor that the broadcast hour worked—but in my opinion, we sacrificed breathing room and lyricism. For a film about loss and memory, this is really significant. Hundreds of thousands of people saw it when they otherwise wouldn’t have, and that’s the Faustian bargain a lot of filmmakers make, but my film is a lean and lyrical 72 minutes—and it’s on iTunes!

Image Credit: Unsplash/John Moeses Bauan.

A Year in Reading: Sonya Chung

This year was a year of catch-up reading: I found myself busy with books that I really should have read years ago. But without a doubt, when it comes to adventures in gorgeous and transformative literature, better (much better) late than never.

Top of my list is Fools by Joan Silber. Silber’s first novel, Household Words, won the PEN/Hemingway in 1980, but I—many of us younger writers, I think—didn’t come to know her work until Ideas of Heaven, her fifth book and a finalist for the 2004 National Book Award. The “ring of stories” form rocked my world back then, and Silber’s ability to inhabit first-person narrators of such widely diverging identities, time periods, and voices was a revelation. With Fools, that same form, now sometimes referred to as a “story cycle,” is intricately crafted, and the stories are arguably even more satisfyingly, thematically linked (When is it wise—or not—to be a fool for something?).

For me though, what caused a Silber-reading marathon (Household Words, The Size of the World, Improvement, Lucky Us) is the wisdom embedded in each story, each character’s journey: These are stories about—simply put—the deep and wide messiness of a life’s arc. People are complicated, and life happens to us and at us more than we ever hope/imagine when we set out as young people. There are no cheap seats in life, and even so, it’s all meaningful, and it matters, and those are the echoes I most want vibrating in me when I put down a book.

Two short novels that seem to me under-read specifically because they were ahead of their time: Ed Lin’s Waylaid and James Baldwin’s If Beale Street Could Talk. In the department of literature by and about people of color, the challenges and pitfalls are too often framed in terms of the either/or versus both/and conundrum: Is the book primarily “about race/racial identity” or about human beings living whole human lives inside their skin in a specific American setting? Both these novels so clearly do not concern themselves with this artificial question.

Beale Street, published in 1974, is a love story: Tish and Fonny are a young woman and man whose circumstances and racial identities make it extremely difficult for them to live happily ever after, and the journey toward that possibility is entangling and profound, much larger than just the two of them.

Waylaid (2002) takes place in the ’80s and features a 12-year-old Chinese-American, male protagonist who lives in and manages his parents’ seedy motel on the Jersey Shore: His first and ostensible problem is that he desperately needs to get laid, but really he’s figuring out how—as a big-for-his-age, smart, horny kid and the only Asian-American kid around—he’s going to grow into a manhood that is his own and find hope in humanity while surrounded by sad, lonely adults (his immigrant parents included). Both Waylaid and Beale Street render powerfully this truth: For people of color, racism is everyone else’s problem; we are just trying to live the fully human lives we are entitled to. The freedom to write character-driven stories that engage racial experience as essential but not essentializing may seem basic to us now, but as an Asian American writer-friend said to me recently about Waylaid: “No one was writing Asian Americans like that back then.” And the same could be said about Baldwin/Beale Street in the ’70s. (Note: I’m mad excited about Barry Jenkins’ film adaptation, but I also encourage all to read the book first if you can!)

I’ll close with two poetry collections—The Wilderness by Sandra Lim and There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé by Morgan Parker. I tend to read poetry in a more sensory than cerebral way and am not very good at writing “about” poems or poetry collections. So I’ll just say that both these are provocatively and aptly titled and hope you’ll be thus compelled to immerse mind and senses in the work of these fierce, gifted poets.

More from A Year in Reading 2018

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