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A Respite From The Heat 11 min read

A Respite From The Heat

A paean to that indoor life (specifically the movies) plus COVID origin stories, art deals of the rich and famous, more A.I. in journalism, the joys of short fiction, and more.

By Cary Littlejohn

The movies are having a moment.

A friend and I, partially aping a podcast I know we both listen to and partially just using words closely associated with this summer’s box office offerings, are constantly saying to each other, “We’re back, baby!”

“We” being movie sickos like us, Letterboxd-lovers and Criterion Collection collectors, and “back” representing some distant past where movies and film felt like the center of popular culture. Summers dedicated to popcorn and Blockbusters; autumns to festivals; winters to awards-bait; springs notoriously fallow and slow to allow the industry and the wider culture to catch our breaths.

That’s been eroding for quite some time. Peak TV helped it along, as did the twin arrival of streaming. A few times of year there might be a story to break through, a film that captures the attention, and if we’re lucky, it won’t be superhero fare. But mostly it’s out there for those of us really interested in it, in our select avenues of discourse and entertainment (Film Twitter, podcasts, certain newsletters, etc.).

So, naturally, I’ve been loving the past couple of weeks, with a new Mission Impossible, Barbie, and Oppenheimer (the current writers’ and actors’ strike notwithstanding).

But last night I was reminded of the power of story told through moving pictures. Right from the comfort of my couch.

My girlfriend wasn’t feeling well, and I’d turned over control of the remote control to her. She first picked a romcom on Netflix about which I couldn’t tell you one single fact; chances are slim that she could either. But once it finished, she went in search of other cinematic comfort foods.

She landed on Titanic.

I applauded the choice, and I assumed I’d pay little attention, having seen it a few times since the first time in theaters back in 1997. I was instead going to write this newsletter.

But the movie started, and before long, eyes cutting away from my laptop screen gave way to having to drag a lazy finger across the trackpad to wake it up gave way to closing it completely and not even pretending I was writing.

Titanic, in case you needed a reminder, remains a fan-damn-tastic film. No notes (except for the longstanding “There was definitely room on that door, Rose” note.) James Cameron is a masterful visual storyteller (and was responsible for the last big event at theaters before Barbenheimer stormed into our lives with his Avatar sequel).

I thought a lot of The Ringer’s podcast, The Rewatchables, namely because that podcast, and its central conceit, stemmed from the very experience I’m describing. It’s filtered through folks a generation older than I, so the notion is “the films you couldn’t pass up when you scrolled by them on cable,” an experience for which I’m probably one of the last generations old enough to remember. It’s that feeling that comes with it not mattering so much that you know how the movie ends; it’s the journey, not the destination. You watch precisely because you know what happens. You love what happens; you can’t wait to see what happens.

I, like most my age and younger, don’t flip channels anymore. At this very moment, I don’t have cable. I don’t find movies midway in progress anymore, and I don’t revisit films without intentionally setting out to do so.

Last night was different. The film found me. And I wasn’t particularly attentive; I just affirmed my girlfriend’s good taste in film and moved on. I had forgotten what it feels like to get sucked into a film, without sitting down with the express intent of watching it. I have to say: It felt great.

Probably like the same way people go on a camping trip up into the mountains, too high and remote for cell service, and they come back feeling so refreshed and alive before they slip into their habits of social media and constant digital immersion. It just feels good in a way that takes me back to a simpler time.

I don’t really have a message or a point to this. My intention isn’t that you go out and subscribe to cable or its nearest digital replacement. It’s not to get you to listen to The Rewatchables or watch Titanic (though you could and should do both things, if time permits).

It’s mostly just to express a thankfulness for this moment we’re having right now. I walked out of both Barbie and Oppenheimer absolutely thrilled and stunned by what I’d seen. For completely different reasons. Wholly unrelated, in most respects. But I respected directors doing their thing. I respected the visions. I respected a thoughtful final product.

We used to get a lot more of that. It used to be something we took for granted. Movies used to be our predominate form of culture. It’s not now, and that’s OK (though sickos like me and my friend wish otherwise).

But if there is some loosely connected message that can be wrought from my watching a film, from my couch, that I first saw in a theater more than 25 years ago: It’s a reminder that a trip to the cinema can be a wonderful experience. The world is roasting outside; it’s not safe in many areas to be out and about in it. So, as you’re keeping cool and away from the heat, consider seeing what all the fuss is about with one or both of these new films. It’s hard to say when the theaters will be this exciting again.

Ten Worth Your Time

1. “Are we still talking about this?” some might ask. Well, yes, we are, and likely will be for the rest of our lives. It will be yet another by which we (my generation especially) demarcate the decades: 2000s were 9/11; 2010s were the Great Recession; and 2020s will be COVID-19. There remain so many unanswered questions, and when an event this massive, this catastrophic, eludes our understanding, we cannot rest. David Quammen wrote one of the most comprehensive pieces to date for the New York Times Magazine, recounting what we know about the various theories for where COVID-19 originated. It’s a nuanced and thorough approach, and I especially appreciated his honest effort to place his cards on the table to acknowledge that it seems to be the case that many of us defaulted to our first conceptions (or, in the case of those with expertise, what they’d studied and observed before). For Quammen, who wrote the 2012 book Spillover (which I bought some five, six, seven years before COVID-19), that meant an inclination toward the natural spillover theory. As do I, but the evidence for the lab-leak theory can’t be ignored. It was easier to do back when, if like me, you were disgusted by President Trump’s characterization of the pandemic and the politicization of science that followed.

2. An incredibly long but always readable piece by Patrick Radden Keefe in The New Yorker about mega art dealer Larry Gagosian. There’s a mustache-twirling quality to Keefe’s portrayal of Gagosian, who’s truly an interesting figure, but it’s a bit lost on me why he’s worth such a long story. The most interesting parts, to me, were the philosophical musings on the nature of art and commerce. I definitely felt myself getting sucked into a Succession-esque machinations that define so much of Keefe’s thorough reporting; the stories of how the “industry” works are wild, and the price tags are even wilder.

3. Two brilliant pieces of reporting brought to mind last week’s issue of Caitlin Dewey’s wonderful (and perfectly named) newsletter, Links I Would Gchat You If We Were Friends, in which she disclosed (confessed?) her strategy for using A.I. in her reporting process. It’s a thoughtful bit of transparency (which she doesn’t owe us, her newsletter readers, because we don’t come to the newsletter with the same news expectations that we might if we were reading her reporting work), and I find them to be eminently reasonable uses of the technology. I still feel a reflexive dislike of A.I.’s intrusion into this particular corner of the world (that of the journalist), but I feel like openness about how journalists are using it are helpful baby steps down the stairs into the shallow end for unwilling holdouts like me.

4. The fellas of The Press Box podcast had a great conversation that addressed the A.I. issue. Here’s the link to the New York Times article that prompted the discussion: Google Tests A.I. Tool That Is Able to Write News Articles More interesting to me was the comparison of this content to the click-baity dreck that was viewed as the necessary evil that would allow XYZ publication to do the stuff they really cared about. Here’s another link on the (should have been) failed experiment from G/O Media on Gizmodo’s website where an A.I. bot would write a listicle of the Star Wars films in chronological order—that the bot promptly fumbled and got wrong. But the most concerning point might be that, while it should have been, it was not a failed experiment: G/O Media will continue on with A.I.-generated content.

5. Another Luddite-adjacent piece I read lately and loved was by Will Blythe in Esquire in which he wrote about the sad but inevitable (further) decline of literary fiction as a cultural touchpoint in this technological age. He speaks largely of our (the readers’) capability to sit, alone with a book and our thoughts of its narrative, without being inundated by the outside world, but he also talks about technology’s deleterious effect on writers and their creativity, by placing “too much of an ethical demand in fiction.”

6. In his essay, Blythe talked of the glory days at Esquire, when he and famed fiction editor Rust Hills would have boozy lunches and talk long about fiction. Hill’s name is likely unknown, as would the names of many other great editors, as they stand just off-stage while the audience cheers their writers. Hills is the name a lot of writers of a certain age know (probably those who remember Esquire as a great engine for fiction). He has a book, Writing in General and the Short Story in Particular, in which he distills a lifetime’s worth of knowledge into an informal guide. I love books with introductions or prefaces, and Hill’s is a gem. His self-deprecation would be enough to discourage a reader who’d picked up the book in a bookstore and perused the introduction, were it not so charming. He dismisses the cliché of “you can’t teach creative writing (“Everybody seems to know that, even those thousands all across the country sitting in creative writing workshops right this minute, either being paid to do the impossible or paying to have it done to them.”) His is a knowledge made from experience, and he concludes his introduction thusly:

But granted that, and if you want to know how short stories work, what the particular dynamics of short fiction are, then I think maybe my book can help you. I really do. I’m amazed at it myself. But I’ve been messing around with other people’s fiction for so long—working on short stories and novel sections and getting them into magazines, tinkering with work by established authors and trying to bring work by new writers into focus, and living with fiction all this long long—that I really do know something about it now. All you have to have is originality of perception and utterance; and if you’ve actually got that, you’re the kind of person who could possibly really use this book, without probably really needing it in the first place, if you see what I mean.”

7. Speaking of Esquire’s fiction, it recently relaunched a (quite frankly) brilliant idea it had many years ago: Send out 250 cocktail napkins to writers across the country and see what works of short fiction could be confined to such a small space. That was 2007, but just a few weeks ago, they brought it back with 10 writers and 10 new stories. (As a complete aside, I love checking out all the different handwriting samples.)

8. It’s the end of an era (a good one, at that): Ed Yong has filed his final story for The Atlantic. It’s a great piece on fatigue, especially as it relates to long COVID. But it’s more than that: It’s about the uncertain nature of fatigue in general. I know one of the biggest fears or hang-ups when it came to my internal debate was “Is this something normal? Am I just not coping with a totally regular amount of fatigue, especially as I get older? Or is this something different?” That uncertainty makes the story relatable, even if you don’t suffer from long COVID:

Between long COVID, ME/CFS, and other energy-limiting chronic illnesses, millions of people in the U.S. alone experience debilitating fatigue. But American society tends to equate inactivity with immorality, and productivity with worth. Faced with a condition that simply doesn’t allow people to move—even one whose deficits can be measured and explained—many doctors and loved ones default to disbelief. When Soares tells others about her illness, they usually say, “Oh yeah, I’m tired too.” When she was bedbound for days, people told her, “I need a weekend like that.” Soares’s problems are very real, and although researchers have started to figure out why so many people like her are suffering, they don’t yet know how to stop it.

9. I’ll admit it: I’m 100% a mark for this type of column, especially after the events of this year so far. But this final column from Heather Knight for the San Francisco Chronicle is such a beautiful sign-off and ode to her father, a longtime Chronicle reader, who recently passed away.

10. Still riding high on the appeal of Barbenheimer, I was struck by the always incisive Leslie Jamison in The New Yorker writing about Barbie and mothers and daughters. The essay does a lot, but one of my favorite bits was how Jamison’s understanding of “imagined perfection” grew from the doll of her youth to the “popular girls” of her adolescence, the descriptions seemingly lifted from other films, like Mean Girls and Sophia Coppola’s The Bling Ring:

Even after I grew out of playing with Barbies, I found a surrogate to embody the same fraught double helix of adoration and resentment: the popular girl. As a figure, the popular girl was at once supernatural—larger than life—and many-headed all around me. At my prep school in Los Angeles, popular girls were everywhere, spritzing themselves with the Gap perfume called Heaven and presumably all gathering at the same Beverly Hills mansion to snort coke, get waxed, and act aloof around the same boys who only ever spoke to me if they were asking to borrow my TI-82 graphing calculator. It only got worse when I became friendly with two of these popular girls—we ran cross-country together—and found them wickedly funny, and (worse) genuinely nice. It all seemed like a cosmic clerical error, a lopsided allocation of assets. The story that was helping me survive my own adolescence—that the popular girls were hopelessly vapid and morally bankrupt—had collapsed; now I had a more robust vision of their superiority, validated and verified, to wear like a hair shirt. Turns out that Barbie was just the first name I gave to the lifelong project of punishing myself with the imagined perfection of others.

More From Me

Over on my blog , I’ve been writing about various topics of interest to me.

Iconic Brands, Reimagined. But Stupid.

Twitter: My Next Ex?

'Oppenheimer' Conjures Comparisons to Stone's 'JFK'

Culture Diary

Here’s a collection of what I’ve been consuming in the past week.

The legend for my list was stolen from Steven Soderbergh, where ALL CAPS represents a movie, Sentence Case is a TV show, ALL CAPS ITALICS is a short film, Italics is a book, and bold is a live performance or show. A number in parentheses after a TV show highlights how many episodes I watched. An asterisk after an entry means it’s a rewatch. The source of the movie or show, whether streaming service, physical media, or in theaters, is shown in parentheses as well.

7/24: Top Chef, S8 (2); SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK
7/25: The Righteous Gemstones, S3 (3)
7/26: JFK
7/27: Top Chef, S9 (2)
7/28: Top Chef, S9 (6)
7/29: HEARTS AND MINDS*; The Righteous Gemstones,S3; Top Chef, S9 (4); BOOK CLUB: THE NEXT CHAPTER; Hijack (2)
7/30: Hijack (2); Top Chef, S9 (4); TITANIC