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Alone Together 9 min read

Alone Together

The magic of the movies, plus violence in Israeli settlements, the NYT looks for a leaker, social media and the First Amendment, political tribalism, Christianity and politics, and more.

By Cary Littlejohn

It would be a fool’s errand to attempt to unite the films of a film festival as diverse as True/False, but if I had to try to find a through line in the films I saw it would be something along the lines of being alone together. 

Take, for instance, the first film I saw of the entire festival: Spermworld, a Hulu/FX/New York Times production that dives into the unregulated and delightfully weird world of private sperm donation. It follows a variety of donors and recipients who seek to expand their families (or help others do so), and the main subjects all have different backstories, different goals, but they each, to the last very last one, are profoundly lonely. For some, it’s text; for others, it’s subtext. But it’s unavoidably true. The man who endeavored to spread his seed far and wide, with at least 138 children all over the country, didn’t even have a permanent address; he just used what would be rent money or a mortgage to travel to the various homes of his various kids and crash on their moms’ couches and guest rooms. The 65-year-old from Tennessee who just liked to help people was navigating post-divorce life in his own way, but his empty living room and spare time spent driving for Lyft made it all the more poignant when he developed a friendship with his recipient, herself painfully alone and the only person in the world who seemed to believe it was a good idea for someone in health as poor as hers should have a baby. Or the fiancé of a donor so selfless that it began to look selfish as she yearned for a child of her own and had to pencil time into her man’s schedule for them to attempt to get pregnant. 

Another film, Daughters, showed the painfully sweet reunion of many inmates with their young daughters for a father-daughter dance. These men, caged and confined to a small community of necessity, struggled through the same isolation and guilt and pain associated with their absence in their daughters’ lives. Likewise, the families all had each other, but for many of the girls, there was no replacing their fathers; it was a gap that could not be filled.

Ibelin, a remarkable and innovative film, follows a young man with a form of muscular dystrophy, gradually losing control of his muscles and turning, seemingly, inward to the World of Warcraft video game. After his passing, his parents post a message on his blog; in their minds, it was just cast out into the void. They expected few people to see it, because their greatest fear about all of his gaming was that he would miss out on in the real world. But suddenly they were inundated by messages from people who’d gamed with him for years, and they learned about the robust and meaningful life they all lived through this game and the degree to which their son had quietly, solitarily, touched so many people’s lives.

Look Into My Eyes shows a group of New York City psychics and their clients, and it’s hard to decide which were lonelier. The yearning for connection surpassed all; skeptics and believers alike could come together and feel like something was, for just a moment, alleviating that suffocating isolation that can beset people living in one of the most populous cities in America. The audience’s own loneliness and aches could also be salved by the communal experience of watching the film in a crowded film festival screening. 

I could probably assess the other films I saw through this same lens, but it seems unnecessary. The point is, I think, what a miracle the art of film is; it can convey truly complex themes and emotions in the course two hours. It can speak to us as a crowd, as a whole, but it can speak to our individual hearts, meeting us exactly where we are. In my own little world, lost in the dancing images and surrounded by countless strangers, it was the best possible contradiction: so alone but so together. 

Ten Worth Your Time

  1. I’ve resisted trying to keep up with the ever-changing developments of the war in Gaza. It's just too constantly evolving, too much content, too breaking; this newsletter can't possibly keep up with it all. But that’s not to suggest I haven’t been reading and consuming lots of media from the war, and this recent piece by Shane Bauer for The New Yorker is fully of his customary sharp observations and so-close-you-can-almost-feel-it style.
  2. Margaret Sullivan never misses an opportunity to decry the lack of public editors at today’s biggest newspapers, and in this newsletter, she highlights why it’s a tragic missing component by looking at the ongoing leak investigation at The New York Times as the paper searches for members of its own staff who spoke with other outlets. She summed up the background of the investigation like this:

The front-page story revealed a pattern of rape, mutilation and extreme brutality against Israeli women and said that Hamas had “weaponized sexual violence” as part of the attack.

But the family of one woman who was killed in the Oct. 7 attack, and whom the story reported apparently had been raped, questioned aspects of the reporting. And a freelancer who helped report the story was found to have shown her approval, on social media, of the idea of turning the Gaza strip into “a slaughterhouse.”

Both The Intercept and the Daily Beast reported on this, noting that some members of the Times’s own staff had questioned aspects of the story, and that the popular Times podcast, The Daily, had decided to shelve an episode based on the sexual-violence story.

Then, as a result of all this negative publicity, The Times launched an internal newsroom investigation into who had talked to outside journalists — a story that Vanity Fair’s Charlotte Klein broke.

  1. I loved the beginning of this Slate TBD podcast, where legal correspondent Mark Joseph Stern quoted one of the internet’s favorite memes—Heartbreaking: The Worst Person You Know Just Made a Great Point. He was talking about Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s comments during recent oral arguments in cases dealing with content moderation by social media companies. The states argue that such moderation is a violation of the First Amendment because — wait for it — conservative viewpoints are being deplatformed or “shadowbanned.” If you’re anything like me, you’re probably saying, “What internet are they on in these states?! Because my feeds are swamped in conservative content, some of it quite nasty. But here we are, with this case, and these shoddily written laws of nonsensical conservative outrage, taking up the time of the highest court on the land. (If you’re wondering, Kavanaugh’s point was so basic as to not really deserve praise, and yet there he was, the only one saying it. “In your opening remarks, you said ‘the design of the First Amendment is to prevent the suppression of speech.’ End quote. And you left out, what I understand to be three key words … to describe the First Amendment: by the government.” Which, touché, Your Honor. “Look at the big brain on Brett!”)
  2. I’m listening to the audiobook of Steve Kornacki’s The Red and the Blue, on the 1990s and the birth of political tribalism, so when I saw this story in New York magazine about the return of the Clintons, both of them, to the political battlefield, I immediately dove in.
  3. In addition to Kornacki’s book, I’m reading The Kingdom, The Power, and The Glory by Tim Alberta, all about American evangelicals in the age of extremism. These two books feel particularly resonant right now, during an election year, and after last night’s Super Tuesday results seemed to confirm what we already knew: We’re barreling toward another Biden vs. Trump contest. The book, which I picked up in great condition from Columbia’s used bookstore downtown as I patronized all sorts of businesses during the film festival, has its first chapter or so repurposed as an article in The Atlantic. It’s particularly resonant for me in this moment.
  4. This Texas Monthly look at billionaire Tim Dunn’s outsized influence in shaping Texas politics, in the magazine’s words, he’s a bully who wants to turn Texas into a Christian theocracy, is yet another example of the very thing Alberta is writing about in his book. It’s not a good look for either Christianity or democracy.
  5. You’re reading this newsletter as sent to you by the fine folks at Ghost. If you’ve been a subscriber for a long time, you know those emails used to come from Substack. But long before the current newsletter boom, there was TinyLetter, which I also believe I created but did not use regularly. I remember getting a handful of newsletter from the service and its distinctive and simple style was a great case for a minimalist design aesthetic. The service is now officially dead, and Kevin Nguyen at The Verge wrote its eulogy.
  6. If you just read the headline for this BBC article—“How to fix a runway in Antarctica”—I’m counting on the fact that you responded like I did, with the natural reaction of “OMG, I’ve never before given a single thought to this but now I must know.” If that weren’t enough for you (seriously, though? Really?), the display text wisely promises appearances by some penguins. What more could you possibly need? You have to click on it now.
  7. I still get excited whenever I see stories pop up having to do with Christopher Hitchens and will always click to see what’s being said. (Same goes for David Foster Wallace; I cannot pass it up.) This piece in the Los Angeles Review of Books was an extra treat because it wasn’t just a new piece of writing about him but a review of a previous unreleased collection of essays, which I can’t wait to get my hands on. Why Hitch Still Matters: On Christopher Hitchens’s “A Hitch in Time” | Los Angeles Review of Books
  8. A long overdue fortuitous discovery: Rhiannon Giddens’ most recent album, You’re the One. I was recently scrolling through The New Yorker’s app on my phone, and it circulated a story by John Jeremiah Sullivan (a living writer whose work I likewise cannot pass up). I assumed it was a new story, so I saved it and had plans to share it in this newsletter last week. It turned out the article was years old, but it served as my introduction to Giddens and wow, what have I been missing? (I know I piqued your interest about that article, so here it is.) She’s fantastic in just about every way imaginable. If you haven’t listened to this album, check it out.

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.

2/29: MCU, Joanna Robinson, Dave Gonzales, and Gavin Edwards; SPERMWORLD (True/False); SEEKING MAVIS BEACON (True/False)
3/1: DAUGHTERS (True/False); YINTAH (True/False); LOOK INTO MY EYES (True/False)
3/2: IBELIN (True/False); UNION (True/False)
3/3: TOKYO STORY (35mm) (True/False); GIRLS STATE (True/False); AS THE TIDE COMES IN (True/False); THE OTHER PROFILE (True/False)