Stop Filming Us: Interrogating and Inverting the Western Gaze

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Stop Filming Us, a new documentary film by Joris Postema, opens at Film Forum in New York City on May 14, 2021, in theater and in virtual cinema. For more information click here.

The issue of cultural appropriation has been debated hotly and frequently in recent years—in literature, film, television, and visual arts. I’ve personally been in and around this debate for decades, and on some level it gets old and ceases to be productive or even interesting. 

Still, I am a proponent of continuing the conversation when it leads us away from oversimplistic policing of who is “allowed” to portray what, and instead enables us to Get Real about it.  In my experience—as writer, educator, and film programmer—white makers (well-meaning, self-proclaimed progressives) in all media are generally unsure, uncomfortable, and at times, yes, fragile, when writing, filming, portraying BIPOC characters and cultures.  A kind of consciousness-raising has been achieved, and this is good. Even so, if our main accomplishment is putting white makers “on notice,” and creating an eggshells creative environment, I’m not sure we’ve progressed all that much.  

The new documentary Stop Filming Us, by Dutch filmmaker Joris Postema, breathes a bit of fresh air into the stale, stiff debate.  In this age of post-post-post modernism, there is perhaps something earnestly old-fashioned—to a younger generation of cinephiles and post-colonial scholars—about the meta-documentary pivot that Postema makes in crafting his exploration of unconscious Western framing, aka the “Western gaze.” In the case of Stop Filming Us, however, the pivot feels timely and necessary in that Postema uses the meta-mode to demonstrate another earnest yet powerful documentary approach—that of engaging his subjects explicitly, and with humility, to interrogate his own problematic perspectives.

The Millions: What was the idea/vision of your original film—before the artists and your local crew began engaging you in questions about “the Western gaze” and Western imaging of Africans?

Joris Postema: I think the film idea started with the difference I experienced when I was in Goma [in the Democratic Republic of Congo] the first two times. The first time under the wing of a Dutch NGO, I slept in a guarded compound with a personal panic button next to my bed. I could only film out of the back of a van, and they didn’t allow me to walk on the street by myself. The second time I went with Ganza Buroko [one of the film’s subjects, the film’s Congolese producer] and Yolé!Africa [a community organization], and all of a sudden I could film on the street, sleep in a normal hotel, walk across the street and have a beer in a bar. Goma hadn’t changed significantly in the meantime, so it was my perception that changed. In the first Goma I felt like I was in a war zone; in the second Goma people got up, had a cup of coffee, and went to work. I was fascinated by this difference and decided to make a film about that. 

During my first research trip, many things happened that I thought would have been great little scenes. But Ganza and other people were—all the time—correcting me if I did something insensitive or just plain stupid. One time, for example, I asked him if I could wear flip flops to an important meeting, and Ganza just answered, “Would you go in flip flops in The Netherlands?” And of course I wouldn’t. I realized that all these examples—however small they were sometimes—told a bigger story, one of privilege and power inequality, and that I wanted to tell this story. So I decided to stop doing research, started filming, and let the film evolve more organically, with major influence of the crew so I could tell this story of power inequality and privilege by showing it.  Ultimately the film questions my position as a filmmaker and asks the question of who gets to tell which story.

TM: One of the most fascinating/challenging discussions in the film is when you film a man being beaten on the street. Ganza and your cameraman TD Jack Muhindo question why you filmed it, then go on to describe their own relationship to such an event, i.e. for them, it’s not so unusual.  Did that encounter make you think differently about violence in Africa in general? In Goma specifically?  How so?  

JP: This scene made me reflect on so many things. If someone would ask me to show my city (Amsterdam), two places I certainly wouldn’t show are the red light district and the coffee shops where you can buy weed—what Amsterdam is famous for. I hardly ever go there and they have been shown enough, so I would choose other places to show. Mugabo Baritegera [another of the film’s subjects, a photographer] wanted to show a side of Goma people in the West rarely see, that of people laughing and living their lives, with plenty of fish and vegetables on the market, the beautiful lake, the little boy skating on the streets. And then suddenly this fight breaks out and I almost unknowingly take my phone and film it. I guess because it shocked me, but also because this is the image I’m used to when it comes to Northeastern Congo in Western media. So immediately this stereotype of violence is affirmed.

And later, we have a conversation about that day, and Ganza
makes this point that violence was brought to Congo by colonizers. Of course
there was violence before that time and I’m not an expert on this matter, but
the corporal punishments the Belgians carried out must have been ingrained in
the people in Congo. So when we look at it now from a European point of view it
might seem barbaric, but as Ganza points out, it’s us Europeans who taught
them. 

TM: One of the things
that is revealed in the film is the inequity of the funding infrastructure for
African filmmakers to tell their own story.  Tell us a little more about
this financial system that perpetuates Western dominance in image making and
documentary filmmaking?

JP: I can only speak for the Dutch system of funding for documentary films. There are two major funding parties: NPO Fund (public broadcasters funding) and the Dutch Film Fund. In general, the accountability (and thus control) needs to be in Dutch hands. So in that way, it makes no difference if you are Congolese or German; Dutch funding is not available. Of course, it’s fantastic that the Dutch government subsidizes films, and does so without any say or control. Dutch filmmakers are free to make films about any topic or subject they want, even if that means being critical of the Dutch government itself. That’s a huge privilege of course. Bernadette Vivuya [another subject of the film, a young filmmaker] doesn’t have access to these kinds of funds in Goma: she needs to fund her own films by making films for foreign NGO’s (often telling stories diametrically opposed to the stories she wants to tell herself) or by institutes like Institut Francais or funding from Europe or the U.S. Often are there all kinds of requirements, ranging from a limited choice of subjects to downright influence concerning the content of the film. 

So there should be some kind of funding system, I think, that
transfers funds to filmmakers in countries where these funds do not exist. But
that’s more difficult than it appears. Because who will judge the film plans?
If these people come from any European country they will have a Western gaze,
and see things from their perspective. And who will decide that a film is good,
that the filmmaker succeeded? The solution might be that the selection process
be done in the countries where the funds are applied for. So not only should Western
countries transfer funding money, but also transfer control over the selection
and creative processes. 

That will take some time I guess, but it is changing slowly.  

TM: Will you continue to make films in Africa and/or
other non-Western places?  If not, why not?  If so, how will you
approach your work differently going forward?

JP: I might make another film somewhere in Africa or Asia, and if I do, I would seek cooperation with filmmakers there. Since the funding system in The Netherlands puts responsibility for a film in Dutch hands, I would have to find a way around this, in order to share responsibility and control. 

When Stop Filming Us was
screening in Goma last summer, the audience asked for the footage so they would
be able to make their own version of the film. Since film funding in Goma is
practically non-existent, we applied together with Ganza for some funds in The
Netherlands.  We’ve almost secured the funding; so, I’m very happy that
there will (very probably) be a Congolese version of the film! A film over
which the Congolese director has full control. That I think is crucial; and for
a next film I would have to find a way to do the same. 

TM: The possibility of a locally produced version of Stop Filming Us is very intriguing.  Any idea who would direct it, and when do you think they might get started on it?

JP: Ganza is in charge of this project. He has asked
Bernadette to direct it. The funding is almost in place, so I think they will
start anytime soon, and I guess it will take a few months. So, hopefully
sometime in autumn.

TM: Stop Filming Us is your fourth
feature documentary.  What drives you as a filmmaker?  How do you
know when you have a subject—and an approach to a subject—that is worth
pursuing and investing into a full-length film?

JP: It starts with fascination. I read or see something that intrigues me or that I don’t understand. For example, the difference of perception of Goma that I experienced the two times I visited. Or the contradiction I felt between apparent calm, everyday life in Kigali, Rwanda, and the stories people told me about the mistrust they still had. When this happens, I dig a little bit further to try and understand. Often that’s where it ends, but sometimes I get even more fascinated and then I start thinking about how I could make a film about it. At that point I believe I have a subject and that it’s just a matter of finding the right way to tell it. So, I don’t really think about all the difficulties of finding a broadcaster (as is the usual first step in The Netherlands) and getting it funded, but instead dive as deep into the story as I possibly can. Together with the producer, we develop a film plan. That can be done quickly, in a few months but it can also take a long time, sometimes even years. But the idea is that when we start shooting, the basic idea of the film is so ingrained in my system that whatever happens during a day of shooting—even when everything turns out different than expected—I can still capture what I need to tell the story.

TM: How do you see Stop Filming Us contributing to the global conversation about Black Lives that intensified last summer when George Floyd was killed by a police officer in Minnesota?  In what ways do you see European and African racial power dynamics resonating with those in America, and in what ways do you see them as divergent/distinct?  Is there something in that lineage of colonialism that you think would be useful for American audiences to reflect on or learn more about?

JP:  I do hope Stop Filming Us contributes to the conversation we also have in The Netherlands—and which intensified after the murder of George Floyd—about institutional racism. I have done quite a lot of Q&As over the last year, and there is always a lot of discussion about this, so I hope I can conclude from that that the film does contribute to this conversation.

But really this is an almost impossible question to answer for me,
as I don’t know a lot about racial power dynamics in America. I don’t
think I can say anything meaningful, since it would be silly to talk about
things I am not that familiar with.

TM: How do you think Bernadette, Ganza, TD Jack, the two photographers Mugabo Baritegera and Ley Uwera, and the Yole!Africa community were impacted by the experience of engaging with you and your filmmaking?

JP: This is a question that should be asked to them, of course. But what they told me, or what they said in interviews, is that, in general, they were happy that some issues were raised in the film that normally aren’t raised in films made in the region. Though they were still critical as you can see at the end of the film.

I don’t think the film had a lot of impact on the people at
Yolé as they are very politically active, intelligent people who understand the
concept of decolonization a whole lot better than I do. And Bernadette’s
film—the one she pitches at Institut Francais [in the film]—is still not
financed for example. What I’m trying to say is that the impact on my community was probably a lot bigger.
As the Congolese audience concludes at the end of the film, it was made for Western
audiences, that’s where there should be impact.

TM: What sorts of
responses have you gotten to the film—from Africans who’ve seen it, and/or from
other filmmakers, both African and Western?

JP: Some people think it’s the worst film ever made; for others it’s an eye-opening film that changes the way they think about development aid or stereotypes, for example. The main concern from a few African filmmakers I spoke to is that some stereotypes are reproduced—the rebel leader with his child soldiers, or the refugee camp scene, for example. And even though I believe I put those scenes in the film for good reasons—to show a context of underlying mechanisms—the danger is that by reproducing these stereotypes, Dutch audiences will just see their image of Congo confirmed. After doing quite a lot of debates and Q&As for the film in The Netherlands and other European countries, that doesn’t seem to be the case, I’m happy (and relieved) to say.

I guess the way people see the film also depends a lot on their knowledge of colonial history. People who are well aware of the legacy of power inequalities and privilege probably think the film is telling a story they already know. For people who are not as aware, I think the film can offer all kinds of insights.

Pandemic Life by the Numbers: The Golden Five

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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.

Five people

Our social worlds have contracted — my inner pod is down to five. We “check in.” We trade links and photos by text. We don’t beat around the bush, we say what we’re feeling & thinking, what’s happening in today’s hanging-in-there news—textable snippets, emojis emojis emojis.
We make phone dates (Zoom & FaceTime feel like “work” now). Some of us are single, some are hunkering down with partners / families. Those of us who live alone feel acutely but do not readily verbalize the painful fact of long stretches without physical touch. Thank goodness for the dog, who is honorary number six.

Five pounds

In the beginning, I moved in with my sister. Together we cooked creative meals to stay sane, to feel warm and nourished and connected. We ate well. In the evenings we watched “Kim’s Convenience Store” with my nephews and ate large portions of sweets or bowls-full of crunchy salty things. We ate badly. Then my nephews went to sleep, and out came the wine and whiskey. We drank too much.

We talked late into the night about how grateful we were, how anxious we were, how hard life was even before pandemic (dredging up our childhood as the wine flowed); how a totally different kind of weirdness and uncertainty had replaced the former difficulty, and how life was always stressful and frightening, pandemic or no pandemic … so hey, let’s drink some more. We put on weight.

In the middle, I moved back to my own apartment. Subscribed to a vegetable delivery service and cooked a lot and did yoga and turned over a healthier leaf. Summer came, and the endless heat wave sucked away my appetite. I went back to work. I rode my bike from uptown to downtown and back again. Outdoor activity made everything seem just a little normal, intermittently pleasurable. Most of the weight came off.

In part two of the middle, election season took over, and everything went to shit again. Night-snacking, drinking, over-eating hangover, more anxiety-snacking, more drinking; rinse and repeat. The stakes (political, existential) were enormous; the possibility of compounded disaster utterly real. Heaviness—of body and spirit—returned.

In part three of the middle, the election came and went, and I began to sleep better. That particular anxiety—considering seriously leaving the country, starting a new life away from the daily tyranny of the idiot monster—quieted. But with the change of seasons and raging infections, venturing outside and the simplest tasks became again nerve-wracking. Keep your distance; move briskly; avert your face; wash wash wash your hands.

In the end, now—part one of the end—it’s those five pounds. I feel them all the time, weighing me down physically and mentally. They are the pounds that keep you from feeling ready and energized when you wake; in-the-zone while you work; relaxed in your clothes and in your soul. You know what I mean. I’m pretty sure you do. We won’t be feeling fully energized or relaxed again for some time.

Five minutes

For many of us, life has slowed down. No more rush-hour commuting, running from work to gym to kids’ soccer practice to the nursing home to a meal with friends. We’re doing less because less is do-able. Our stresses are more about isolation, destabilization, reorientation; less about time…

…if we lean into it, that is. We could, certainly, fill up that time with other multi-tasking, time-crunching activities. I’ve found myself opting for “five more minutes.” Slow it down, pause, take a moment. It’s just five minutes, but you begin to see—the meaningfulness of small increments.

Five minutes earlier means sitting with a cup of coffee, savoring it, and thinking of nothing at all before starting on a day of brain-squeezing work. Five more minutes allows for a slow stroll to and from the subway, on which non-mission-critical thoughts can occur (I miss her, I wonder how she’s doing), neighborhood storefronts, new and old, get noticed (order takeout this weekend, they look like they need business), and notes for an essay or story can be written in a notebook (Five Minutes; The Golden Five?). Five more minutes means biking up the hill, working up a good sweat and burn, then cruising down the other side with the wind in your face, instead of avoiding the hill altogether; or it means not running that red light, not nearly slamming into a pedestrian or, worse, a car. Five more minutes gives the dog five more minutes of gleeful sniffing and one or two more doggie encounters—the value of which could be, who knows, infinitely greater than what five minutes of comparable pleasure means to us.

Sometimes it’s not about what you do or don’t do in those five minutes; it’s about gentle transitions from one thing to the next. If you do yoga, you’ve heard this, about the signals you send to your self when you jerk your body around, from standing to sitting, from sitting to kneeling, from left to right. With five more minutes, you can finish doing X; take a breath; move calmly, maybe even gracefully, into Y.  It makes a difference. It makes all the difference.

Five dollars

Many of us have less work and less money. We are also spending less and/or differently. In NYC, the loss of bar & restaurant life is (I know, cry me a river, in the grand scheme of things it probably sounds melodramatic) tragic. Certainly it’s tragic for restaurant owners and workers, and for the city’s economy. For consumers, refraining from gathering in bars & restaurants in NYC is like… living on the coast and having no access to the ocean.

Structure helps. A plan. The eating-out budget is diminished, but I want these restaurants to make it. So it’s all about 5-dollar takeout lunches, a couple times a week. Mamoun’s falafel. Bahn-mi from Saigon Shack. Tofu shrimp in garlic sauce (the 1/2 portion) from my local Chinese takeout. Lebanese Zaatar. Curry beef or roast pork pastry from Fay Da bakery. Two cheese slices with can of soda from pretty much any pizza joint. A whole wheat everything bagel with a shmear of lox cream cheese from Bo’s. For a healthy option, a green protein smoothie from the smoothie place run by Big Russ’s barber shop. And yes, even occasionally steam table oxtails and collard greens (well-managed, socially distanced, sanitized setup) from Jacob’s Soul Food.

Five more months

Who’s to say — though the real-science people have been basically right all along. Five more months seems likely. Buckle in. Mask up. Take a breath, or two, or five. Check in with your single friends. Check in with your partnered friends. Spend your stimulus money on restaurants if you can. Don’t give away or let out your clothes yet: we’ll all find our better selves and our energy again on the other side.

Image credit: Pexels/cottonbro; Photos courtesy of the author.

A Year in Reading: Sonya Chung

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The books that stuck with me this year happen to fall under
a theme: romance. But not the escapist kind: no froofy happy-ever-afters.  I found myself drawn to earnest stories of love
and longing that take place in realistically complex and sometimes unforgiving
contexts.  In these worlds, the crash-collision
of the deep human desire for intimacy, the courage to pursue that desire, and
the facts of life more often than not lead to heartache and heartbreak.  Still, if you’re like me—a romantic through
and through—you don’t regret spending the time or investing yourself in these
journeys; because you believe the characters don’t either.

 

In Akhil Sharma’s 2017 story collection, A Life of Adventure and Delight, the protagonists—mostly Indian American men—look for love, or what they think love might be, and find themselves involved, yes; but also perplexed, and for the most part inadequate and unsatisfied.  The stories are full of failures—of action, thought, and personal character—but those failures, insomuch as they are earnest (while also aggravating and pathetic), touch us in that inner place of recognition, a blurry emotional region where pity meets revulsion meets empathy.  I have read reviews of the collection that deem it “dark,” that judge the characters as clueless misogynists, and that read the title ironically.  I myself take the characters, and their murky longings for what they may well not deserve, at face value. Don’t we all, ultimately, long for things we don’t really deserve?

In the title story, the eponymous phrase appears in a scene
where Gautama, a young and lonely Indian immigrant, engaged to a woman from a
similar background who he does not like very much, has called a prostitute to
his room.  Before she arrives, he
resolves to send her home immediately. But then, “amazed by her beauty,” he instead
asks her, a Black woman whose hair is braided and beaded, to take off her
clothes, and he says, “May I hold your breasts, while you jump?” She agrees,
smiling. “She started jumping; her hair flew up, the beads clicked. Her feet
made soft thuds when she landed.  His
hands on her breasts, he became happier and happier.  He knew that tomorrow he would feel guilt and
shame, but he did not care.  The girl
jumped, and he had the sense that nobody else, anywhere, could be leading a
life of such adventure and delight.” Pity, revulsion, empathy.  Perhaps not in that order.  But the story is on the side of desire, and
life; Gautama thinks these thoughts as truthfully as he has ever thought
anything.  It is Sharma’s great
accomplishment that, while reading this strange and surprising scene, I feel as
truthfully lonely and as desperately hopeful as Gautama does.

I was initially drawn to Paule Marshall’s The Fisher King because of its child’s point-of-view: eight year-old Sonny—grandson of world-famed jazz pianist Sonny-Rett Payne, and great grandson of feuding matriarchs Ulene Payne and Florence McCullum Jones—travels to Brooklyn from Paris to meet his blood kin for the first time.  Sonny’s great uncle Edgar, a Bed-Stuy bigwig, is organizing a memorial concert to honor his late brother and decides it’s time to bring young Sonny home, into the family fold. Sonny does not understand why he has not met his family until now; the conflicts and grudges of the past unfold in both omniscient flashback and through the eyes of the boy as he meets each relative.

For me, these family dysfunctions took backseat to the story
of Sonny-Rett, his wife Cherisse Jones, and Cherisse’s best friend Hattie, who
went on the road with the couple throughout Europe in the 1950s and 60s to
manage Sonny-Rett’s performance career. 
We learn early on in the novel that the child Sonny lives with the
spinster Hattie in Paris; only much later does the full story unfold—of Cherisse’s
restlessness and the polyamory among Sonny-Rett, Cherisse, and Hattie; of
Hattie’s involvement in the life of Sonny-Rett’s and Cherisse’s wayward
daughter and of how her child came to be in Hattie’s care.  

It’s a wonderfully polyphonic novel—multiple musical lines,
in true jazz form—but Hattie for me is the heart.  The Romantic. 
She fell in love with Sonny-Rett, the brilliant, sensual artist; she
loved him in the moment, as messy and unexpected as it was.  She loved Cherisse too, and there was enough
of everyone to go around.  It wasn’t complicated really; because that
was how love presented itself to Hattie, the only love that would ever be.  In the end, Hattie suffers, and it isn’t
pretty, but she suffers purely and (one hopes but isn’t sure) without regret:
she suffered for the cause she chose, which was love.

Jacqueline Woodson’s If You Come Softly was originally published in 1998; but reading it this year, it felt like it could have been ripped from the headlines.  Ellie and Jeremiah are 15 and go to the same Manhattan private school.  Ellie is white and Jewish and lives on the Upper West Side; Jeremiah is Black and lives somewhere in brownstone Brooklyn.  When the two literally run into each other at school, it’s love at first sight. In an interesting twist—for Ellie, and also for fictional interracial stories—it’s Jeremiah who comes from the “fancy” family, i.e. his father is a famous filmmaker (something like a cross between Lee Daniels and Spike Lee), and his mother a well-known novelist.  While the racial difference between Jeremiah and Ellie does come up—in conversations with their friends and family, and via external comments and interactions—this question of Jeremiah wanting to be seen for who he is and not for who his parents are becomes the more interesting tension between them.

The two spend time together mostly in Central Park after
school, but Jeremiah does bring Ellie home to meet his mother.  He escorts Ellie back to Manhattan, and on
his way back to Brooklyn he begins to daydream about Ellie, then breaks into a
run: he runs for joy.  The reader both
does and doesn’t remember—like Jeremiah—that earlier he had recalled his father
warning him, “Don’t ever run in a white neighborhood” (the slightly less
familiar version, to non-Black people, of “keep your hands where they can see
them”).  Herein lies Jeremiah’s “crime”:  dreaming, letting his guard down, indulging
elation in a hostile context.  He does
not realize that the police are at that moment on the hunt for a Black man who
fled the scene of a crime.  You can guess
the tragic ending.

Woodson has talked explicitly about the novel as her version of Romeo & Juliet, for young readers.  If You Come Softly is indeed a story of doomed young love; except it isn’t their families who obstruct them (Ellie’s sister warns her to “be careful,” but no one is declaring gang war), but rather an unjust world.  For a long time, I bristled against YA literature, mostly because it seemed a negative trend that more and more adults were regressing, reading YA instead of adult books.  But what I appreciate about this novel, along with all of Woodson’s work, is that it does not shy away from the truth of the world we live in, does not sepia-fy reality, even in a love story for teens.  This book teaches young people to be ready for joy and for pain, and that hope is not the same as optimism; rather, as Dr. Cornel West says (my paraphrase), optimism says things will get better, whereas hope is what you claim when things may very well not get better.

I wonder if Dr. West would call himself a Romantic.

Parenting During a Pandemic

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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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Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2018, 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

An American in Afghanistan: The Millions Interviews James Longley

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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

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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.