Culture Gabfest “Station 2022” Edition
S1: I’m Stephen Metcalf, and this is the Culture Gabfest Station 2022 edition, it’s Wednesday, January 5th, 2022. On today’s show, the post-apocalyptic novel Station Eleven has been given a lavish adaptation by HBO and flashes back from a future depopulated by plague. Two hour period now, roughly. We will discuss with June Thomas and then the truly incomparable Joan Didion essayist, AM novelist screenwriter has died. How did so intimate of voice produce? So incomprehensibly vast a legacy? We will try to do both of those justice. And finally, I think it’s really one of the funnier landmarks on the cult gab calendar. I love marking it off the movie club. We discuss a year in movies with Dana Stevens. Joining me today is Julia Turner, deputy managing editor of The L.A. Times. Happy New Year, Julia.
S2: Hello, hello.
S1: Happy New Year! Yeah, great to hear you. And of course, Dana Stevens, the film critic for Slate. Hey, Dana, Hey,
S3: hey, happy new year to you both. May it be a better one.
S1: Yeah, 2022 is the year that a great book about Buster Keaton was published. If I cast my mind back to before times, it was the one book that made it through the sieve of global pandemic, and we all cling to it like a totemic OK, anyway, future
S3: civilization will base their political system. Yeah, my book about Buster Keaton.
S1: You could do worse. Can you give us the title of it?
S3: Absolutely. It is called cameraman Buster Keaton, the dawn of cinema and the invention of the 20th century. And as everyone should be able to recite in chorus now, Steve, after your aggressive marketing efforts, it comes out on January 25th.
S1: All right. Well, the HBO limited series Station Eleven is based on the 2014 novel by Emily St. John Mandel, novel of the same name. I should say it takes off from a depressingly relevant premise that a global pandemic flu has wiped out 99 percent of the human population. The world consequently goes dark. Electricity and running water are bygone relics of the before times in its place are small, subsistence level settlements between which roams a troupe of players actors traveling the perimeter of Lake Michigan performing the works of Shakespeare. The lead actress and knife fighter extraordinaire is Kirsten, who flashes back to the night the pandemic leveled humanity. I think it’s about 20 years in the past and the immediate aftermath of the leveling. She remembers it in vivid detail. Her would be mentor as a child actress was a movie star named Arthur Leander. She was a production of King Lear with them the night the pandemic struck. She also remembers given the stranger who randomly saved her life and shepherds her into the neo medieval era. The show beautifully fills out both the depleted pre-modern world that is the present tense, but also this old world, our world, the lost world of stupid, unconscious abundance and a failure to understand and make real human connection to show stars Mackenzie Davis as present day Kirsten, as well as Lori Petty, Himesh Patel, David Cross’s Then it. It’s a very good cast. She also mention Matilda Lawler plays Young Kirsten and is terrific. Let’s let’s listen to a clip.
S4: Do you know about this group? But the thing in Asia, mostly Europe? Hold on. Do you think I care at all, Sam? Northwestern Pakistan York: upon us. Hi. Hi. OK. I wasn’t supposed to be at work today, but I got called back into the E.R. an hour ago. 16 year old flew in from Moscow last night, presented with symptoms. We’ve never seen a flu like this before. It’s fucking chaos, Jinyoung, and all of a sudden it’s kind of bad. It’s too late to run. You need to get to Frank. Don’t believe a word. The news says the city is going to be fucked. People are walking around already exposed, and they don’t even know it. Avoid contact with anyone. Just you. Just Frank.
S1: OK. Joining us to discuss Station 11 is the, you know, I don’t know, the very friendliest friend of the program in the Earth. FOP you’re the urf June Thomas.
S5: Hey, Steve, thank you for having me.
S1: Yeah, it’s wonderful to have you back. I should say very quickly that Julia, as most listeners know, recuses herself from HBO shows. So that’s why we have June. Lucky us June. This is depressingly apt. As I said in my introduction, it just hits home. I mean, you have this novel that preceded our own pandemic by by six or so years being made into an ultra relevant show. It’s very ruminative. It’s very thoughtful about how we lived pre-pandemic. Lee, what do you what do you make of this?
S5: I I’m torn. I found it very compelling. I really enjoyed being in the minutes of it. It is a feeling show rather than an analysis show for me, even though it is very, you know, it’s a thoughtful show. There is a piece of art. It’s a comic book and it becomes a kind of totemic work of art throughout the season. It’s both a passion. Time, it’s a shibboleth, it almost becomes a book of faith. And yet there’s not a lot to it. And in a sense, that just kind of shows, you know, there is a thought and a kind of philosophy side to this where we can say, Well, you don’t have to be a great work of art to be important. You don’t have to be a great work of art to make a difference in people’s life. But somehow that sort of central idea to the show just felt very apt. Like, what is it really about? Is it about, you know, resilience? Is it about art? What is it about? I don’t know, but I enjoyed watching it. Is that just awfully unsatisfactory as a response?
S1: No. But you are on probation now, is it because for that, let’s turn to a Dana first. I continued, I think you’ve watched the entire show.
S3: I’ve watched all of this available to be watched right now. I did not get an advance screener, so I’ve watched seven of the 10 episodes, which is all that’s aired so far.
S1: So clearly you’re captivated by it.
S3: Yeah, I mean, I definitely agree with you that it’s a feeling rather than a thinking show. I was reading Laura Miller’s review of the show on Slate. She’s also read the book and was talking about how they differ and was just pointing out some of the big logic holes in the universe that it builds. But none of that really matters when you’re watching it. I found it very addictive episode to episode. I can’t wait to see what happens next. But something to point out is that this is a very a mosaic like show. It covers a lot of different time frames, as you said, and it’s not just skipping back and forth between two different people’s time frames, it’s just all over the place, right? We’ve got flashbacks for various characters. We don’t know how they relate yet. I’m now, you know, seven tenths of the way through. It’s only a 10 part show, and I still don’t quite know how some of these pieces are going to fit together. Or you know why we’re revisiting some of these past scenes that we’re revisiting. But because of that, that also something develops where you who care about certain timeframes and certain characters more than others. And for example, the the timeframe that you mentioned with the child, the little girl played by Matilda Lawler, who grows up to be the Mackenzie Davis character who I guess you’d call the protagonist of the show, I think is fantastic. And in part, it’s just because that kid is great. The character that she’s playing is an actual character like a child with characteristics, which is something that I’m always on about on this podcast, right? Like, I just can’t stand when there’s a child, and all that they represent in a show is a child. Right? Oh, it’s a vulnerable child, but I feel sorry for them. No, this is a very specific and strange little girl. And and I love those parts of the story and the friendship that she forms with this man, played by Himesh Patel, who’s sort of almost by accident, adopts her as the as the flu sweeps through Chicago. As a result, for me, that show sometimes loses energy when it’s in the present day. Mackenzie Davis is also great as the Grown-Up version of that character. I don’t know if you guys feel this way too, but the whole plot about the traveling Shakespeare troop that’s in the current day never really came together for me. I know that we’re supposed to have this feeling of solidarity that they’re keeping Shakespeare alive after the pandemic. I mean, if you had told me, you know, there’s a show about a traveling Shakespeare troupe in a post-apocalyptic dystopia like that sounds amazing. But there’s so many characters in that troupe. I don’t know who they are. There’s not a lot of attention to Shakespeare itself. There’s a couple of scenes where we see them performing Hamlet and other shows, but there’s not really a sense of Shakespeare’s language or spirit infusing that troop. Exactly. And so my partner and I have been watching this show together have come to call those those present day traveling troupe scenes The Burning Man part of the show, because everybody sort of outfitted in crazy, post-apocalyptic costumes and, you know, living this kind of dystopic utopia dream together. And it never quite makes sense to me. Maybe on the page and Emily St. John Mandel’s book, all of that comes together, but I feel like it’s very programmatic
S1: on screen, right? Dana. I think you and I really substantially agree on this one. So this gigantic sieve in the form of a pandemic flu is lowered upon all of humanity through which comes, you know, I mean, only one percent survive, but 50 percent of them are are Bard Theater majors. I mean, I did. That was the one thing I didn’t like about it. It’s like this kind of artsy hippie vibe that’s a little self adoring in a way that I found slightly annoying. Otherwise, I want to make plain I watched five hours of this. I intend to watch all of it, and I’m more or less love it. It’s a lot of things I hate. Done beautifully. Well, the semi. I’m not omniscient, tried, but the wise child, right? The precociously wise child, wonderfully written, wonderfully performed in this. Typically, it’s it’s a horrible genre crutch. It’s not here. I love the relationship between the slightly debauched but but wonderfully seductive and impish movie star. And this this woman that he meets, who’s in one sense, leading a completely. I mean, she’s living an extraordinary life that the show is quite quite clear about that. She’s a woman of remarkable acumen who talks her way into a job in logistics, in the shipping industry. Her relationship to her work is represented so fully and so accurately. It does not fall back on really tired stereotypes about corporate life. She’s in Asia on a very high end sales mission. When the flu kicks in, she has to get out and she’s saddled with this sidekick who’s sort of your. Acid doofus, dockers wearing golf club toting corporate moron, right? You know, failing up white guy and and the show humanizes them. He’s beautifully drawn as a caricature. He’s very funny and very believable, but it humanizes him in this wonderful way. It has a tendency to make relationships, all relationships very full. I agree with you there’s something special about the given relationship, in part because he saves the central characters life. He allows her to pass through the sieve, in part because the performance by Patel is just extraordinary. Shows like this relies very often too much on mood, june and silence in order to make them seem pregnant with meaning when they’re pregnant with gas. Right. And this one seems to me actually pregnant with with meaning. I’m not quite sure exactly what it is, but I don’t mind that because I feel as though I’m actually eavesdropping on real people, which is extremely hard to do. I mean, Arthur Leander, this movie star, he is not capital M Capital s movie star. He’s so humanly portrayed. I’m a fan of the show. I almost at this point, don’t care where it goes. I just want to hang out with it for three more hours.
S5: I just want to kind of pick up on some things that you said, Steve, because I agree it is a hang shot. I’m six hours in. I want to know I want to piece the jigsaw together. So in that sense, there is that investment. But you know, you use things like eavesdropping or so. The truth is, there are very few words. There are these almost biblical or, you know, holy book type sentences that get repeated. But there’s very little dialogue. So it is it’s an odd show in that regard. That for a show that is it’s a clever show. It’s a philosophical show. And yet the words are so sparse and yet Dana.
S1: I agree with you and completely. And yet the show’s a hit right. It’s pregnant, ruminative, very often brooding and silent, but it is a big hit for HBO. People are responding to something. I mean,
S3: a huge part of it must be this is very elephant in the room to come so late in the conversation. But the pandemic, right? I mean, I think it’s a question whether obviously this is the source material preceded the pandemic, right? But not the concept of pandemics and the idea that one might be coming. You know, we keep on talking on this show about the attempt to capture what’s happening right now in art. And it maybe it’s too early and it hasn’t really happened yet. I’m flashing back to lockdown, that very early pandemic movie with Chiwetel Ejiofor and Anne Hathaway, which I think I liked better than you and Julia. But it was kind of a failure. It was sort of an interesting failure, you know, an attempt to tell a story from within this moment that’s happening. Obviously, this is a much more ambitious and camera pulled much further out kind of version of the same thing. And I wonder whether you think it speaks to our moment in particular. It certainly is not straining to be contemporary and timely, which I appreciate. It’s not trying to throw in references to the Trump administration or anything to do with the actual conditions of the pandemic that we’re in. But but do you do you all feel that it arrives in a timely way and maybe that’s why people are responding to it?
S5: I don’t know. Obviously, as you said, it’s about a pandemic. We can’t ignore that. On the other hand, the way this pandemic has played out. Yes, 20 years later, but even a few months later is so different that it’s still, to me, feels it’s like watching a zombie movie. Sure. Maybe you can, you know, kind of see it as an allegory, but it’s not our world, either. I find it to separate from our own conditions or I mean, I’m sufficiently able to deny the connection, but it doesn’t feel, you know, it isn’t kind of pulling strings of, Oh, this is referring to the current moment to me at all.
S3: I appreciate that it’s not. And that’s that’s because it makes it more relevant, right? I mean, it’s asking questions that you would ask about any kind of extinction level event, which is what’s going to matter afterward.
S1: Yes. And like be mindful of what abundance glutted fools we are and how we tune each other out when we’re like that, you know, sort of people rediscovering in retrospect these relationships that made them who they were more than electricity and running water did anyway. I it’s I think it’s really worth checking out. I think we all agree with that. At Station Eleven, it’s on HBO Max June. You are the Earth up. It’s always great to hear your voice. Happy New Year and thank you so much for coming back on the show. Thank you, Steve. The writer Joan Didion, died two weeks ago at the age of 87. I mean, one is sort of overwhelmed by superlatives and deep feelings when one discusses a writer’s formative, probably each one of us in our own way as Joan Didion. I hear some of mine. I think that Orwell, James Baldwin and Didion may be in a class by themselves among essayists in English. In the 20th century, she was a nonfiction daddy. She was a great novelist, a terrific novelist and an accomplished screenwriter as well. I think the essay was her primary form collected in the nonfiction classics Slouching Towards Bethlehem and the White Album in some ways, respectively, a definitive take on the 1960s and a definitive take on the 1970s. We spent years, I believe, waste. Our breath on whether or not Philip Roth would win the Nobel Prize every single year, I wondered why we weren’t talking about Didion possibly winning it. She certainly deserved it. One more personal reminiscence. I taught a very, very good class on creative nonfiction at the University of Pennsylvania and course included Didion and then Tom Wolfe, multiple others. And at the end of the class, I was just curious as if you could write like one. If you could have the talent of any one of the people that we read this semester, who would it be? Virtually everyone, said Didion. And I had to agree. I mean, she’s just inside of us as a sensibility and as a as a talent. And to the extent that you self formulate as a writer in the English language at this point in time, it’s very hard not to have had Didion be part of what you’re doing it. I think that her own personality entered so deeply into her own sentences, as well as the character of the country as a whole. She was capable of assessing both quite coolly, but they also inhabited her in the most personal way. She was a kind of by her own telling, a kind of California princess who came a little bit too late for the 60s. She understood them, therefore better than either her elders or her youngers. And she was able subsequently to have a kind of 20 year plus nervous breakdown just as the country was having it, while also observing both so dispassionately. I will end this not brief introduction by saying that there were many things I loved about Joan Didion, but I have to point to the Central Park jogger essay. If you just want to pick one thing that you may not have read, or if you’ve read it to reread it, I would point to that only because it’s so repulsive, irrelevant to us now. And it’s also, to my mind, the single most astonishing Real-Time intervention of a critical intelligence into the culture. At the very moment that the culture needed to hear it. I also would say her essays on Newt, Gingrich and Reagan: are better than anything else I’ve ever read on either one. And of course, the White Album in Slouching are indispensable. I’m now going to turn it over to you guys. Dana. I mean, now tell me that you’re not influenced or don’t care about Joan Didion at all. I mean, please feel free to throw my introduction back in my face. I don’t mean to speak for you at all, but I mean an astonishing influence to evade as well as grapple with. What did you think when we heard Didion was gone?
S3: Yeah, I mean, I guess no. Nobody working in journalism now could say that they’re completely free from her influence, but I probably don’t know all the ways in which I’m influenced by her because unlike you, I’m not super super widely read in her. And when I think about the Didion that I’ve read, it’s mainly the late autobiographical Didion The Year of Magical Thinking. The book about her husband’s death blue nights, the book about her daughter’s death where I was from, which is a great sort of memoir of about her, her childhood and early life. Obviously, you know her big essays and essay collections I’m familiar with, but for example, her fiction have never read a word of it and, you know, really kind of don’t really know my way around the vast Joan Didion of in the way that you do. But I think something that really struck me in reading, you know, this outpouring of feeling about her after her death. Not all positive feeling either, right? I mean, she’s someone who who was very divisive and I think who a lot of journalists have defined themselves in opposition to as much as, you know, in imitation of. But there’s something about her personality, the bigness of of her inside of her writing that is is very interesting, a paradoxical because it seems like the opposite of what she wanted to do. Right? She feels like somebody who wants to have a very ironic, often cold sort of detached tone. Mm hmm. There’s a quote from Didion that’s in Parul Sehgal great tribute to her in the Times, The New York Times, where she says I’m not much interested in spontaneity. I’m not an inspirational writer. What concerns me is total control. And it seems like her writing is often about trying to walk that edge between having control and not having control. Rickie writes about chaotic situations in a very tightly controlled way. She’s she’s just she’s a writer who has so much tension on the page, right? And I feel like that that tension and also expresses itself in the way that people read her. And there was a lot of talk after her death last week, a lot of writing about what sort of style influence she is on young women, both in writing style and in personal style, because she’s someone who just had a huge personality that she brought to her work, even though she seemed to be trying to restrain it all the time. So that’s a very equivocal answer. But that’s what I sense in her writing in a way, is that, you know, she’s a star literary superstar who’s her ness is all over her writing. And at the same time, she always seemed as if she was trying to erase herself and remove herself from that writing and make it something objective and outside Julia.
S1: You’re a woman in journalism. Didion What did she mean to you?
S2: I’ve been rereading various essays of hers since she died, and you know, I will say I spoke earlier on the show about my new masterpieces only reading policy, which I don’t always follow. But it was nice to settle into her extremely controlled and delectable prose and be like, Oh, well, one way I could execute this is just reading Joan Didion for the next year. There’s plenty of it. There’s plenty of it I haven’t read and it’s all interesting. And you know, one thing that’s that’s particularly interesting to me is her takes on California as a subject and as someone who’s. From California spent her youth in New York as famously captured in her essay about leaving New York as a 20 year old woman, although of course, then after spending a long time in California, she went back to New York. So her thoughts on these two places that have been made to mean places of adulthood have been really interesting to grapple with. And one thing that has struck me in that reading is the way she writes about place. And there’s a, I think, part of what is so beguiling and difficult about her as a role model for the modern journalist is that she’s almost a travel writer in the present, and she’s doing a kind of travel writing that is out of fashion at the moment. Like she makes grand pronouncements about the mood of the time. She makes big assumptions about what it means to be, you know, from California or to have grown up in the aerospace boom. Or, you know, to be a young woman going to literary parties in New York like she has this kind of incantatory like ability to attribute quite specific experiences to like collectives that she’s conjuring. And she pulls it off.
S1: Yes, exactly.
S2: Like, that’s the thing. Everything she’s doing like shouldn’t work is an extremely high risk like triple gainer of a of a literary maneuver. And yet it works. And so I think lots of people sort of fall under her spell. But if you try to imitate her, you just look like you’re dead. No doubt. And that’s part of what’s so attractive about reading her. Is there like, how the fuck did she do this right?
S1: And you’re like the spirit medium, you know, in a science that involves every frayed nerve of the country at once, somehow. And yet you’re this also highly individuated, idiosyncratic person? Would you guys permit me just to read a little bit of Didion before we go further? Sure. So everyone knows that famous opening sentence. I mean, it’s up there with Call Me Ishmael to the White Album. We tell ourselves stories in order to live. Let me just remind people of what she says next, because that’s become one of those things we can no longer see or hear for its profundity. You know, it’s just a cliché now. The princess is caged in the consulate. The man with the candy will lead the children into the sea, the naked woman on the ledge outside the window on the 16th floor as a victim of act, or the naked woman is an exhibitionist. And it would be interesting to know which we tell ourselves that it makes some difference whether the naked woman is about to commit a mortal sin or is about to register. A political protest was about to be the arrow Stefanik view snatched back to the human condition by the fireman in priest’s clothing, just visible in the window beneath her, the one smiling at the telephoto lens. We look for the sermon in the suicide for the social or moral lesson in the murder of five. We interpret what we see. Select the most workable of the multiple choices we live entirely, especially if we are writers by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the ideas with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria, which is our actual experience, or at least we do for a while. I am talking here about a time when I began to doubt the premises of all the stories I had ever told myself. So what we forget about that refrigerator magnet sentence is that she repudiates it, and the book that follows the White Album is about how the country has lost its ability to tell itself a cogent story about itself. And so has she. And she’s unable to, as I interpret it, unable to find the story as the culture is, and it’s in that horrible unison between her own actual, I think, physical and nervous mental breakdown and the country’s collective one that she produces this total masterpiece. And it’s a rejection of narrative patterns that actually loads that sentence with its meaning. And I think maybe we’ve forgotten that a little bit.
S2: I get what some of the detractors say, which is if you read a lot in a row, there can be kind of a similar schtick of like the American Dream is, dying is dying. Slash never existed in the first place, and through me, you can see through the bullshit. Like there’s sort of a there’s a sense that when you look at the world through her eyes, you are joining her club of knowing cynics. It’s a powerful drug, though. I mean, it doesn’t feel like an inaccurate way to look at America in the 20th and early 21st centuries. And in some ways it seems like the most accurate way. Like maybe part of what makes her feel so important is that her view, her fundamental view, was correct and feels right. But I was struck by how it came back around.
S3: Yeah, this is kind of what I was trying to get at earlier with. Talking about her as an icon of style and writing in style in personal presentation is that there’s a kind of cult of Didion and, you know, that can express itself in in imitation and also in, yeah, kind of fetishization of the class signifiers in her work, which I’ve also seen a lot of. Push back about in the past couple of weeks of writing about her that she is somebody who in a way lived a life of privilege and that, you know, the signifiers of that privilege kind of pop up in her writing in a way that that seemed to be sometimes out of her, the tight control that she liked to hold over everything. I mean, I can easily see, although I don’t feel it myself, especially because I know her through, as I said, that late personal writing in which I think she’s very different than she had been throughout her career as an essayist, much more self exposing and much more candid and more vulnerable. I maybe don’t identify with this criticism, but I can see the criticism of Joan Didion that has to do with her, you know, holding herself apart in a way from the reader of having a certain maybe snide ness or condescension toward her own reader. Because, you know, her intellect is so huge and her ability to synthesize and analyze huge strains of, you know, American experience is so big that there’s a side to her that sometimes feels like she’s holding herself above the reader and an almost denigrating the reader. There’s almost a masochism to the love of Joan Didion because, you know, there’s something a little bit self-aggrandizing, perhaps in her self-presentation.
S1: I don’t disagree at all. Dana And you know, the Didion that I liked least was the Hollywood Didion, the screenwriter Didion, who I just found easy to dislike. You know, she could be an upper bourgeois bohemian namedrop or a Hollywood inside dope. Or she was married, obviously for decades to John Gregory Dunne, also a novelist and her co-screenwriter. And, you know, but they both wrote fairly a lot about what it was like to collaborate and deal with the Hollywood beast that brought out, I think those exactly those worst qualities that you’re pointing to slightly imperious and above it all. But at the end of the day, powerful is the drug is Julia. I’m going to say that she was a pair of eyeglasses when when her work work really work to you, it wasn’t this fake slightly, you know, overinflated, visionary bullshit that a lot of us would be oracles of culture or burden the English language with. I thought it actually there was a total clarity to her best work. The Reagan: essay The West Wing of Oz. I mean, I as a person struggling to write a book about the 80s, I read everything about Ronald Reagan. There’s remarkably little that’s good because he was so in some ways, vacuous. She found a way to write about him. That was totally original, and you really saw what you know. And by the way, also she was a child of the Cold War, the sense of disbelief about the extent of the federal super state and its sense of of of, you know, missionary zeal abroad, you know, culminating in the disaster in Vietnam. And how much that lingered in Central America. That was a huge preoccupation of hers in the 80s and beyond. You know that that we were still in our own kind of perverse way colonialists, especially in our own sphere. And also just, I will say, just something about a Mario great American writer that that emanates from California and the heat and the subtropical heat of this country of comfort. She seemed very at home in my imagination in Southern California and Florida to places that are inimical to a lot of, you know, so much of American writing descends from puritanical America has a puritanical strain to it. She didn’t have that found that fascinating. Anyway, I could go on and on and on and on. But Julia, why don’t you please take the last word?
S2: Yeah, I mean, one thing I would point to if you’re still hankering to read more about Joan Didion is Gustavo. Arellano had a wonderful column for the paper about teaching her in his community college journalism class, and I think found a similar experience to what you described, Steve of, you know, his students who largely came from backgrounds very different than her own. Still finding her voice to be the one that was most intriguing, most beguiling, most it felt like it had its finger on something. And I think for all that, you can argue with the specificity of her view or the kind of bag of tricks that she used, like the there’s just undeniable power in the work, and I’m excited to dig further into the stuff I haven’t read.
S1: OK, maybe what we’ll try to do is post links to some of the Didion pieces that we most admire. A link to goodbye at all that you know the Reagan: one, the Gingrich one on and on and on. But we’d also love to hear from our listeners. You know what your feelings are about Didion and this immense legacy. She may have meant nothing to you, or she may have deeply offended you. We’d love to hear that, too. OK, well, some things are so fun that they induce me a grammar snob to use the words funner and funnest. I regard Dana the movie club as one of those. I love it. When it rolls around, it’s all the things I love. I actually love how much you hate. Top 10 list I love. I love the kind of fertility, you know, creative fertility and critical fertility you get out of resisting. You always produce an interesting one and a defensible one. I love for a critic how much you hate levying critical judgments. It’s just it’s just like a Dana Stevens palooza that I really enjoy. It’s also, of course, a little annual dipstick, a little state of the art. Of movies and the business of movies, which every year it seems like that question gets more and more acute, will it survive as a medium? Why isn’t it as culturally central now as streaming TV? And what were the good ones or what were the ones that blow past that stale paradigm and are just fresh and had to be told in the two hour format and seen in a theater anyway? All the above. So I’m going to let you take it away. Tell me where you want to start. What struck you about this year’s movie club that maybe coalesced for you? Set of feelings you might have been having about 2021 is a year in movies.
S3: I mean, I’m very curious to hear how this movie club hit with you guys because it felt different to me than anyone I’ve ever done in my, however many years now, 15 years at Slate. And I think that largely is because of the timing of it, right? I mean, it’s always written between Christmas and New Year’s or somewhere right there at the height of the holiday week, which is part of the fun of writing. It is that it’s this period when you know the world is shut down and everything feels sort of quiet. And it’s sort of like the years chaos of movies is over, right? The voting for awards in the making of lists, in the rushing around, cramming all the movies into your eyeballs, and you get to actually sit down and revisit movies, right? I mean, talk about some that you didn’t get the chance to talk about during the year, rewatch things and kind of chew them over in this atmosphere of collegiality with fellow critics. And that part of it is always true and always fun. But this year, because of both the pandemic and the particular fact that Omicron hit on the exact week and sort of created all this chaos in the exact week we were writing made this year’s movie club, to me, really feel like a port in a storm. And it was really, really great to be able to be in communication with with colleagues during that week and felt to me like a true exchange of of letters among us also, as has been true for the past two years. Movie culture is so dispersed and scattered when there aren’t movie theaters or when movie theaters aren’t a big part of our lives. And so that also changes, you know, the festival schedule are those happening. You know, the release schedule is constantly changing and being held up. You know, there was this bottleneck of movies in 2021 that was had been held up because of either distribution or production problems related to the pandemic. And so as a result, there was just this rush of titles to talk about this year and a very widely dispersed rush of titles where it wasn’t like we had all been marching to the theater to see the same things and coming home to write about them as the movie year is usually structured. So as a result, it really felt to me like that. I use this image at one point, and when one of my posts like this cornucopia, like we were all just having titles poured on our laps and, you know, getting to to sort through them. So I guess that’s that’s the sort of watchword of how it felt to me this year was profusion, and I wonder if that came across in the reading of the club as well.
S2: I mean, I have an answer to that, which is like, this is my first year discussing the movie club, having not podcast it for half the year. And so I have just watched many, many, many fewer movies than I typically would have. You know, usually I’d be caught up and have opinions about everything. I would have already talked to you guys about a bunch of them. So for me, I think I meant it the way a more casual moviegoer would meet it. And I know this is familiar, but none of the movies seemed important, like you guys seemed engaged with them. I enjoyed reading about them. But like just the feeling of the lack of central, the urgency of film as a genre in terms of dealing with what we’re dealing with. And some of this is like the lag time, obviously. You know, I mean, as I think you guys discussed with Station 11, we’re just barely getting to seeing film art that’s grappling with our particular moment. But like, you know, even the conversations that you guys had about, like, I may destroy you, like, I don’t know, like it’s the year of the musical or musical musicals relevant. Like, You know what, Steven Spielberg’s deal? And as I’m saying this, I’m hearing myself. And of course, it’s not true. There are all these interesting debates about race and representation and these big Hollywood musical productions around Latinos and all work like, I don’t know, I just the kind of floating off into space ness of movies like the sense of like our movies, becoming jazz just felt permeated. Like, that’s like, I can’t tell if that’s just my unplug Adonis or not.
S1: It’s not. I’m going to come in right behind you, Julia. You really took the words out of my mouth. This time I began feeling before I read the movie club. Six months ago or so, I really started to feel it in my bones that that that the loss of central city of movies to American culture, which has been coming. You could argue for 50 years, you could argue for five years, you could argue for a year. You can pick your timeline, but I feel like it’s here and it’s here because so much of the juice came from so much of the the electricity and the God. You’re just the tension regardless for or against right in revulsion or fascination or a brandy or lost or whatever poured upon American cinema on Hollywood because Hollywood brought together, you know, industrial production idiosyncratic. Artistic vision, social relevance, eccentricity, stardom, you know, and the conscious and unconscious desires of the culture. You know, since the great golden age of the 1930s, you know it just it just had been a magnet for our own like ID, ego and superego. Like kind of every part of our own personality was bound up in the fate of the movies. And I was like, Oh, no, no, not at six months ago, I was like, Oh, it’s definitively over. Well, it’s just definitively over. I don’t think this nostalgia on my part, I don’t think it’s decline ism. It’s just if you don’t have the juice, you don’t have the juice and a big part of it also Dana, I would say. So your list is provocative. It’s wonderful. You left peer Goffe and I’ll forgive you for it. But you know, what I will say is that is the end. There’ll be great movies in the same way that there’s great jazz, but it just novels on TV have supplanted it A and B, you know, when Hollywood and they may have had to do it. But when Hollywood went all in on IP, on the treasure trove of Star Wars and Marvel and Harry Potter and fill in the blank. They they downgraded the power of the movie star. Right? The movie stars no longer quite an acting, has never been more wonderful. I mean, I applaud every time I see something on virtually every time I see even mediocre things in theaters or at home. Actors are wonderful. They really have never been better. I mean, that is an art form that’s fully come into its own, but that is independent of of stardom and the old draws of stardom and somehow that displacement of, you know, Marvel characters for the actors at some level, the actors, the primacy of the actors playing them, it just somehow the glamour. Is that the word I’m looking for? When Hollywood loses its glamour, the movie is no longer occupy the their traditional place in American life, and I was selling this. I mean, this
S3: is something that we get into in the club in the very first, first post. Actually, I was writing on the morning after Spider-Man’s opening weekend, Spider-Man No Way Home, the new Marvel installment, and it had just made this absolute killing at the box office. I mean, not just for the pandemic, but, you know, in absolute terms, I think it was. I’m going to get the numbers wrong. I’m sure if I say them, but I think was $260 million, you know, it was one of the highest grossing movies in years, pandemic or no? And so we were beginning under the shadow of that. And and I sort of kicked off by talking about that about, you know, what’s if this is the tentpole? You know, what else is under the tent? What’s being sheltered by the tent, what’s getting stuck out in the rain outside of the tent? And I guess that’s what we were writing about. I admit that I feel some deflation hearing from both of you that the thing that I spent 12000 words writing about with fellow critics and that is my only means of making a living no longer matters to anyone.
S2: Sorry, yeah. Sorry about that. And obviously, you guys are grappling with that in the piece. And then I think as make sense like you then jump into the actual films because there still is so many. So are so many interesting things to talk about interesting works and interesting projects. But the I don’t it just feel it feels more sealed off from. How we are processing the world as a culture, and I guess I wonder if you agree with that or would make a the quite sensible counter argument of like won’t just give them a few years, like the amount of time it takes to make films, especially at this particular moment, is such that we had a weird experience of having a very vivid. Set of years that are quite specific in their cultural experience, and we ended up like watching all of these, you know, ships and bottles washing up on shore to mix metaphors like all these little dispatches from another world. Do you do you think some of our response might have to do with the accident of like the release calendar this year versus the reality of this year?
S3: Yeah, I mean, I think it’s hard to make big sweeping pronouncements about the future of movies at a moment when theaters are in peril for a reason, it has nothing to do with movies and the same reason that all kinds of public institutions are in peril right now. Obviously, these problems preceded and we’ve been talking about them on the show for years, right? The monoculture of Marvel sort of sucking the industry dry and not creating any space for mid-sized or smaller movies. We’ve talked about all of that for years, and the pandemic has obviously exacerbated and put it into more relief. I do think it’s kind of too early to make those pronouncements. I thought that in relation to West Side Story, in all of these chin stroking think pieces about what it means that that movie didn’t do well at the box office. I mean, I think a huge part of what it means is that the demographic that would have gone to that movie, which is older people aren’t going to anyplace in public right now. So maybe we should hold off on some of those grand pronouncements until we’re through this period. But yeah, I mean, what’s going on is not good. There is no question that the art form that I’m writing about is one that’s in a really intense period of transformation that is not all to the good. And I guess part of what this year’s movie club felt like in a way. I mean, this harks back to Station 11 and Shakespeare after the apocalypse or something. The, you know, just the idea that maybe we’re like monks copying out manuscripts and trying to keep some kind of culture alive. And maybe that seems really irrelevant and useless, but I’m sort of proud to be a ascribing monk.
S1: Okay. I’ve enjoyed it enormously. It’s my fault. We’ve gone incredibly meta here, where it’s 70000 feet Dana. You do produce a list. It does have utility to listeners and readers. When you were making the list, were there a couple of movies that you thought, Listen this, including it? I’m remembering now how much I loved it, how central it was to my experience of movies in 2021 and how much I don’t want people to miss it for it to fall through the cracks. You’ve a couple of titles.
S3: Yeah, I can name a few titles that fall into that category of things that I hope didn’t pass people by. One of them is one of the first movies we talked about in 2021, back at the beginning of the year, The Disciple, that fantastic Indian film about the classical musician trying to to succeed, and it’s really a film about mentorship and teaching, which is something that I’ve always a complete sucker for. And just a great, beautiful film that was horribly under promoted by Netflix. I mean, you had to literally search it by title in order to find that movie. There was no promotion whatsoever. So I hope that that emerges into people’s lives and that they also keep an eye out for that. Director Chaitanya Tamhane is his name and his previous film Court, which I write about a bit in movie club, is also fantastic. OK, as long as we’re doing under the radar, here’s another foreign film a hero by Asghar Farhadi who made a separation, a movie that I think we all loved that we talked about a few years ago when it won an Oscar back in the year, it came out a foreign film Oscar, but this one went a little bit under the radar this year, and it’s just great. It’s a little bit similar to a separation in the sense that it’s this sort of social realist document that’s also made with a great deal of lyricism and poetry. It’s about a man in Tehran who is in debtors prison, which is something I didn’t realize existed in Iran. And this movie is also in a sort of underhanded way, a critique of the legal system there and who has two days off from from jail, in which he finds this purse full of money. And it becomes a sort of moral fable about what he’s going to do with this money. Incredible movie. Some of the titles that I mentioned, like like Power of the Dog and West Side Story, are movies that we’ve already talked about here on the show, and people know that I love them. But here’s one we haven’t talked about that. Maybe we’ll get to because this may be up for a foreign film Oscar. It’s Almodovar’s Parallel Mothers, which is just one of these late Almodovar’s that’s so novelistic and huge and has this enormous historic sweep. It’s just fantastic, and it has Penelope Cruz, who’s one of his muses, of course, in one of the best performances I’ve ever seen her in. So Almodovar’s Parallel Mothers is one of them.
S1: I mean, and Dana, it needs to be said right for all of the, I don’t know, kind of doom saying the Julia and I indulged in, it needs to be said that that film, traditionally conceived like basically a two hour feature movie, is a director’s medium. So as soon as you begin talking about Farhadi and Almodovar are two of the truly great living masters of the forum, you’re like, You can’t do that. I mean, the TV’s I love TV right now. It’s like you can do all kinds of things which you have 10 12 hours to work with. But but you can’t do that right.
S3: And also the visual spectacle that’s that’s inherent in seeing a movie in the theater. We talk about Dune in the movie club, which, as you guys know from having discussed it on our show, I was not crazy about Dune. But Dune, to me, unquestionably is an experience that to get anything out of it at all, you have to be in the biggest, loudest movie theater possible, right? You have to, as I say in the in the movie club, get Dune too. You know, it’s an experience that happens to you, and I can only imagine seeing that on the small screen, how boring I would have found it, given that it was already pretty dull. But then there are movies that that blow you away in the theater like Power of the Dog, which if I had to rank my list, which I never do. Power of the dog might have been the number one movie. And again, that is completely because it’s something that happens to you in a movie theater. And I remember the feeling of seeing it in the minute the credits started to roll thinking, I must see that again. How can I see it again? And it was in that period before a movie opens. And, you know, I didn’t have any way to see it again. And it was sort of like this physical longing to be back in the theater, seeing power of the dog to see how it was all put together. And again, that’s something that only movies can do as soon as it’s something streaming where you can just go back and rewind. I mean, it’s a different experience.
S1: You know, the ravish meant nothing is like a road of seeing Lawrence of Arabia on the big screen or Star Wars as a kid. All right. Well, this is this one is just calling out for people to send in what was left off of lists. What’s on people’s lists. You know, love for the movie pig the masterpiece of the year.
S3: Can I say one more thing about movie clip to you? Because we haven’t really mentioned it. It’s just it’s such a great conversation among critics, and that’s really one of my favorite things about it is that it’s not reviews. It’s not a bunch of people posting reviews, right? It’s a chance to be playful. So there’s there’s a song parody in there by Jodi Henderson, the great critic who is one of the three I’m discussing movies with. It’s also Bill Gabourey, Alison Willmore, all of them just bringing, you know, their sense of humor, their sense of playfulness. I end on a sonnet. It’s just it’s goofy and fun, and I really hope that people will will just read their way through it at their own leisure.
S1: Yes, a wonderful conversation, and people should check it out. All right, now is the moment in our podcast when we endorsed Dana. What do you have?
S3: Steve, I have the most amazing endorsement this week. I really hope people will follow up on it. It’s something that’s been haunting me all week long. This is the work of an animator, a Swedish stop-motion animator named Niki Lindroth von Bahr, who my family discovered on the Criterion Channel this week. Because four of her animation shorts, which are ranging from five minutes to 20 or so minutes long, are are bundled together on Criterion. Right now, you can also watch one of them, I think maybe the best one, which is called the burden on Amazon Prime if you don’t have the Criterion Channel but make a note of this animator. If you’re interested in stop motion in sort of animation in general and just in beautiful, melancholy, completely idiosyncratic filmmaking, Niki Lindroth von Bahr is very worth checking out. I don’t know anything about her other than these four shorts that are currently on criterion, but how can I describe her style? The figures that she animates look, maybe a little bit like the figures from Fantastic Mr. Fox, which is possibly my favorite with Anderson movie. I love that, that look, that kind of toy like dollhouse look of the creatures. But it’s a much, much different world, a very, very Nordic Steve that is very up your alley, but a very sort of lonely, melancholy world. There’s a sort of a critique of capitalism in the way that she shows these these bleak urban, modern spaces, but it’s all very subtle and understated and funny, incredibly incredibly funny. I just wish I could describe what it’s like to see to come across like little fish, sardines in bathrobes, sticking their heads out of hotel rooms, just sing in unison about their loneliness. It’s just so beautiful and touching, and these songs in Swedish have gotten stuck in our heads so that my family and I are are going around all week singing little bits of Swedish fish songs to each other because they’re so haunting.
S2: Oh my god, this is an all time Dana and or it really the sardines and bathrobes.
S1: Every word of it is made up.
S3: Oh yes, you have no idea. No, it is very me. But it’s also my kid also completely fell for the sardines in bathrobes and the, you know, foxes standing in the midst of big box stores singing about their sorrows. And they’re just a strange, lonely, little beautiful worlds that you can’t believe got made like the level of detail. I don’t know what scale these miniatures are built at. They must be fairly big miniatures in order to have the level of detail she has. But you know, every product on the shelf has its own little label. It just feels like you’re inside this sort of haunted dollhouse, and it’s really incredible. So I’m going to explore more. But for now, you can watch for Niki Lindroth von Bahr films on The Criterion Channel, I think, until the end of this month.
S1: We got some really good Dana Stevens. Seems like today was just like, Yeah, it’s like dry. January is going to be much easier after that. Yeah, on the Dana pipe, on the Dana hookah
S3: or denes in bathrobes that did it for you.
S1: Oh man, my head swimming with them. Julia What do you have?
S2: I have a recipe today. I’m like brimming with things to endorse, but I’ll build them out one week at a time. But we canceled our travel plans thanks to Omicron, and so we hunkered at home and had a really cozy Kelly Christmas, which like I took a photo of my children eating snow cones in the Christmas tree. You know, the discount last day Christmas tree lot after we canceled our flight with like palm trees behind them and I’m like, Oh, I guess I’m really in California now. But we did a ton of baking projects, one of which was to make rainbow cookies. You know those little cookies you can get in an Italian pastry shop? Mm hmm. Yeah, they’re like the little stack. Stacked cakes, it’s like a little little Italian flag with chocolate on top and below, and some jam between the layers, and it’s one of those cookies that’s actually a cake. Well, like black and white cookies, where you make three thin little sponges and then you glue them together with orange marmalade and then you put chocolate on top and bottom. But anyway, it was like one of those baking projects that’s like an elaborate construction process. And I don’t even really like rainbow cookies. That much, I thought was the recipe my son picked out. So we did it, and it was like one of those really fun magic trick baking projects that seems like it shouldn’t work. And then you end up producing something that seems like it could sit in a little plastic tree. And then I also like, got Stockholm Syndrome for the rainbow cookies and decided that in fact, I love them, and they’re one of those things that like the stealer they get, the more the jam permeates the almond layers and, you know, like the on the on the seventh day as they were like just beginning to get too dry to be tolerable, they still felt better than on day one. I don’t know. All I did was make and then eat like a thousand rainbow cookies. And the recipe we used is the recipe of the from Torrisi, the restaurant that I’m sure I have endorsed. You know, the guys who run Torrisi have gone on to launch a ton of restaurants all over the world, including Carbone and others. But they got their start at Torrisi, and they used to always serve little morsels of rainbow cookies with the check. They published the recipe in a few places. If you make it in New York magazine, you will make it into full size sheet pans and have like 200 rainbow cookies, which is too much. We found that Bon Appétit had also adapted the recipe slightly and lets you make it in a quarter sheet pans and you only make about 100 rainbow cookies. And that is what I would recommend because it was quite a lot of rainbow cookies, so we’ll we’ll share the link. But rainbow cookies, they seem like the kind of thing you couldn’t make, but you can make them, and it’s super fun.
S1: Oh my god, that is two great endorsements. OK, let me see if I can if I can rise to the occasion. I have two things very quickly. The first is that, you know, I’m making this monster playlist for old friends of mine on on Spotify. I think it’s available publicly. I’ll post a link to it, but it’s up to about. I think it’s not quite 900 songs. I think I’ll probably get it to about a thousand and then knock off. But you know, the criterion is my friend wanted music that was relatively mellow. Her nerves were tired as all of ours have been. And but anyway, and you know, the other criterion was like, I kind of wanted it to be stuff I was, you know, either you’d sort of forgotten the song or you didn’t know the song or over familiarity was definitely a principle of exclusion in this anyway. You know, I kind of the other day, I was thinking about a song came into my head, living it up, living it up, and I was like, What is that that haunting melody I used? I remembered, you know, Rickie Lee Jones back in the 70s broke really big. I mean, I don’t know if people really remember this about her, but she had a huge hit with Chucky’s and love and was a gigantic success. She had an iconic performance on Saturday Night Live, went quite well. She was on the cover of Rolling Stone. She really broke huge and I think she produced what maybe at the time was regarded as an ambitious but sophomore slump album called Pirates. Well, Pirates is one of my favorite records of all time. In 1981, when it came out, I thought, This is a you people are crazy. This is a stone masterpiece. What are you saying? It’s beautiful. And she, you know, Chucky’s in love. She plays. I think it’s an acoustic guitar with a very jazzy style. She’s got a jazz great kind of wonderfully sleepy, you know, kind of beatnik jazz vocal style can play guitar quite well, but she’s, I think, playing piano. Her first album was a real guitar album. Pirates is different. It’s a real piano album you can really tell. It was written on piano. She’s playing piano on it. It is tremendous record. I pound the table on it, that melody that came back to me hauntingly. The other it is from the second song on it, living it up, which is the one thing that I approached being a hit on the record. It is such a great song. How do people not curl up with this song in bed and demand to be buried with it when their time is up? I mean, is a please listen to this song. I love the song. I love her work from every era that she’s she’s put out, you know, music. She’s still going. She’s still wonderful. But, but, you know, maybe start there if you haven’t heard her in a while or go back to the album Pirates, it’s great. And then with equal enthusiasm, I’ve only, I’m embarrassed to say, just discovered the art criticism of Susan Tallman Tallman, who writes very often for the New York review of books via her, I think, tour de Force essay on Jasper Johns, the occasion of which is the big exhibit in New York, up in New York right now. It’s just got zest, seriousness, playfulness in lively. It’s just a lively, critical intelligence of the highest order brought me back back to a Philip Guston piece that she wrote a while ago that I’d forgotten was by her. It’s just a marvelous piece of writing. You know, I’d love painting. I love modern. Hitting a little the story of modern painting, I try as a critic to engage with it, but I’m not really an art critic and I’m just always way in way over my head. She’s writing what I wish I could so badly so I could write, you know, just that, that that just electric engagement with what’s on the canvas, plus an ability to tell the story that lies behind the artist and what they produced visually so. Susan Tallman will post links to it. Start with the Jasper Johns Reagan:. It’s obviously relevant now, but then start clicking through. You won’t be disappointed. Here we go. I’m out of breath. Dana Thank you so much.
S3: Thanks, Steve. Was a pleasure.
S1: Yeah, real pleasure. Julia This is a good one. Thanks, guys. You will find links to some of the things we talked about at our show page that Slate.com Sehgal Culturefest and you can email us as always. And we demanded. In fact, we love it at Culturefest at Slate.com. Our introductory music is by the wonderful composer Nick Patel. Our producer this week is Asha Saluja, and our production assistant is Nadira Goffe with something of an assist from John Thomas, as I understand it. Thank you so much for joining us, and we will see you soon.
S2: Hello, and welcome to this slat plus section. The Slate Culture Gabfest, today we convene to discuss a text very traditional format for us. We were all intrigued by Parul Sehgal as interesting New Yorker essay The Case Against the Trauma Plot, so we’ve all read it and plan to discuss Dana. Why don’t you dive in here? What about this idea? Intrigues you, challenges you? Would you like to push back against, and could you maybe just briefly summarize what she articulates in the asset to start?
S3: All right. Well, summarizing this article is a tall task because Parul Sehgal covers a lot of ground here historically and just in terms of the ideas that she’s juggling. You came to the wrong place if you’re asking for a Parul Sehgal takedown because I think she’s brilliant. She’s one of the best book critics working right now, and I’m not quite familiar enough with all of the trends in contemporary fiction to know how much of an impression this broadside is going to make. But I have a feeling that this is something of a brave piece to write right now in what she’s essentially doing is critiquing the place that trauma specifically sort of flashback style origin story. Trauma is how I think of it, almost like retelling the story of Batman watching his parents get killed in an alley right to put it in in pop movie terms, the extent to which that kind of narrative has overtaken contemporary fiction, and she starts off with a contrast with, you know, older modes of fiction. Jane Austen is one author that she mentions one of your favorites, Julia or Virginia Woolf. Other great novelists who create characters who just exist in the present who don’t have to be explained by some sort of dark origin story from their past. And, you know, essentially she’s sort of mourning that mode of writing and regretting the way that, you know, in her mind, a lot of contemporary fiction frames characters only to exist as repositories of past trauma, if that makes sense. And what she’s objecting to is the way that a lot of contemporary fiction in her mind frames characters in the present only as repositories for past trauma. As she puts it, you know, contemporary fiction has kind of become this this PTSD manual or a sort of DSM four, you know, in which characters become bundles of symptoms. One of the books she cites in this respect, which I haven’t read and maybe one of you has and can speak to it is Hanya Yanagihara is a little life, which is apparently the story of a protagonist who is very much formed by, you know, a vast succession of past dramas who Parul Sehgal regards as the kind of cipher who exists only to excite feelings of empathy in the reader. Yeah, I
S2: mean, I think that’s you’re right that it’s an essay that’s hard to summarize, but essentially she’s challenging this what she sees as a significant trend in the construction of fictional selves that she thinks basically is boring and a problem. Steve, what intrigued you about this essay? And do you think she has a point?
S1: Yeah, I mean, so many things and I do think she has a point. First of all, I just think it’s always interesting to think about how totally authentic, totally unique individual experience, which is the animating force of all, you know, art as we know it inevitably comes together with totally received inherited forms in order to produce the recognizable object. Right. So there are genre constraints to everything, to movies, to sonnets. The formal and John Rickie expectations go into making everything in some to some extent. And there’s a time element here. At first, it’s quite original to confess something about an awful and perhaps traditionally shameful thing that may have happened to you that made you who you were going to describe in a public forum what is otherwise a highly private fact about yourself in order to tell the story of how you became who you were, which involves not only the initial wound or whatever, and the impress that the wound left upon you, leaving you with your life’s own unique struggle. But how you overcame it, or how you learned through some form of introspection or or whatever, some therapeutic self overcoming that allowed you to be the functional person that you are in the present. I mean, that’s an extremely powerful narrative, but it’s neither universal culturally nor timeless. I mean, it’s highly specific to a time. And over time, what makes each of those narratives unique and living can become overwhelmed by genre familiarity to the point where people are producing narratives for a marketplace because they understand that the marketplace demands it and are shaping their own inner experience or their own experience of their own lives, according to these increasingly still genre dictates. And I think what this essay is essentially saying is not that this is inauthentic or dishonest, but that the genre itself is becoming so pervasive as to be stale. And I would add one thing she makes a really interesting point, which is that trauma was defined clinically as the exceptional experience. In other words, something completely out of the ordinary pains of living, you know, and it was defined by, you know, I mean, if you want to look. Back on it, I mean, was defined by like the experience of being in the world where we’re in trenches or or in the Holocaust and World War Two. I mean, these are the, you know, obviously the 20th century’s defining traumatic, you know, experiences and it’s self cancelling in a weird way for trauma to become normalized. It’s no longer the exceptional experience. It’s the common one because it’s so become the way that we self present and self understand. So I think at least it’s an open and interesting question. What do you do when trauma is itself normalized and pervasive in the culture? Does it? Can it still have meaning in some sense? And I think that that’s a very hard question, because what you never want to imply is that being the victim of a of abuse or neglect, you know, especially on a class, gender, race or orientation or gender identity basis like those are highly, highly traumatic, right? And and you’d never want to say to someone that your experiences in any way unreal. Nonetheless, it’s the job of a literary critic to say I am noticing a trend, and that trend is actually sucking the life out of people’s own ability to experience their own own lives authentically. And I thought that that was that was a very worth engaging with that idea as hard as it is.
S2: I mean, one thing the article reminded me of was actually my response to reading Sally Rooney’s normal people, which I think is it takes a similar look at the construction of the self in our present moment, but handles it more in terms of politics and political and social, social, economic structures, rather than the psychology of trauma. But I think it’s engaged with a similar question, which is to what degree do we believe that selfhood is an, you know, intrinsic specific, not reducible to our circumstances? And to what degree are we the products of the systems that built us? And I think arguably the political move toward understanding how, you know, the experience of someone born into America as a black person is. Indelibly informed and shaped by centuries of racism is good, like we should not be living under the illusion that that history does not shape one’s prospects and opportunities in life. And similarly, I think being more attentive to the experience of victimhood, which may not be the right word or the only word. But you know, we do talk about trauma victims, whatever kind of trauma it is being more sensitive to those who have not had the power to avoid difficult experiences is also good, right? So both of these cultural trends of attending more to people who do not have power and and not suggesting like Buck Up, Kiddo with whatever self you’ve found in your brain when you open up your eyes on your first day living like, good luck. Good luck to you. Enjoy that. Do that like these are all good things, but it’s totally interesting to think about what they do to fiction. So I don’t know if either of you guys saw that echo as well. It’s obviously quite different. But that was to me, the most powerful thing about normal people is its engagement with that question. And I think this raises something kind of similar.
S3: I mean, I think one of the most interesting things about Parul Sehgal article is that she doesn’t create a binary where the oppositional side to the trauma plot is, as you beautifully put it, buck up, kiddo, right? I mean, I think on the contrary, what she’s trying to say is that including the protagonist of stories that that come from, you know, underserved or historically oppressed communities are also harmed by the trauma plot in that their experience is flattened into only consisting of the worst things that happened in their past. And I was going to read a passage that I really love from the end of this essay that I think gets it that really beautifully, she says. The experience of uncertainty and partial knowledge is one of the great, unheralded pleasures of fiction. Why does Hedda Gabler haunt us? Who does Jean Brody think she is? What does Sulla Peace want? And then she goes on about Saluja. The heroine of the Toni Morrison novel of the same name sullies early life is thick with incidents, any one of which could plausibly provide the wound around which personality as understood by the trauma plot, might scab witnessing a small boy drown, witnessing her mother burned to death. But she is not there some from her first proper appearance in the novel with an act of sudden spectacular violence of her own. She has an open destiny and skipping ahead a bit. Sulla doesn’t exist for our approval or judgment, and in herself possession is instead rewarded with something better. Our rapt fascination with her style, her silences and refusals. I just I love that. I love the idea that, you know, a protagonist is made whole and made empathize able and understandable by their their silences and absence is right, and that there isn’t always a flashback that explains everything that seems to me like a terrible disservice to to any kind of protagonist. She also cites two shows that we’ve talked about, and I think all loved on this podcast as as examples of a different way of framing the trauma plot, including for an underserved community of protagonists. I may destroy you, right? Which is in so many ways is about slipping outside the bounds of, you know, therapeutic discourse and finding a different way to process past trauma and reservation dogs. I think one of our favorite shows that we talked about last year which part of what I loved about that show so much, which is about this, you know, group of teenagers on a on a reservation is how much humor it has and how much it is sort of is always undercutting and undermining your expectations of what a narrative about, you know, young Native Americans on a reservation should be, how beautifully put.
S1: I totally agree, and I and I, I don’t want to exit the segment without saying she’s such a wonderful writer. She was just a great daily critic for the Times and is now making the transition to The New Yorker’s The Great Now by them. But she has this one other wonderful thing Dana just around that are tiny, but with one quick thing is that she’s quite right, she says. What Shakespeare did. He took Hamlet and Lear where these totally received. I mean, Shakespeare had no problem ripping off and plagiarizing things that had been, you know, that were a in history and B had been and or B had been already fictionalized and even in some instances, recently fictionalized. And and she exactly what she says is that what he took out of these received stories was some simplistic motivation or perspicacious motivation. And he humanized them in this very modern way, which is the thing that drives you is your own weird, fucking crooked timber, right? This inexplicable part of you. And I think Julia, what she’s getting at here is it’s the formulaic explicar ability of some of these narratives that a insulting to all of human experience, but be especially insulting to people from historically decent steamed, abused or exploited communities because it says that your humanity just, you know or can imply that your humanity is reducible to that part of you that’s been traumatized by the dominant culture. And I thought that this was as much a kind of middle finger to a certain kind of trauma narrative, but also an act of real homage and rescue for the experiences of of suffering people.
S2: Well, I think we would all send our listeners to read this really thought provoking essay. Thank you so much, Slate plus listeners, for supporting Slate in our show. We’ll see you next week.