I watched The Curious Case of Benjamin Button earlier this week, simply because I never had. It’s a weird movie, but not an unpleasant way to spent almost three hours. I was struck by a line from a woman whose name couldn’t even be remembered by Benjamin despite all that she’d taught him.
She taught him to play the piano. And as he picked out the notes, she said:
It’s not about how well you play. It’s about how you feel about what you’re playing.
She suggests another bit of music for him to try, and then said:
You can’t help putting yourself in the music.
Those words struck me then and have stuck with me now. I’m a firm believer in the value of making something, of creating. The pandemic and the isolation that came from it have prompted many a fad: some took up crocheting, others made delicious sourdough, some tried to stream their video game sessions, others picked up photography.
It feels good to make something, and it’s important that we heed the words of Benjamin Button’s piano teacher. It’s not always about the quality of what we produce; it’s about the act of producing.
Three friends and I went to our local library this week to take advantage of its investment in a new sound lab, a space with microphones and audio software and the walls lined with noise-dampening foam. We were going to record a podcast. There’s no doubt about the fact that we recorded something. But the quality of it, both the conversation itself and the technical quality with which it was recorded, won’t see it rise to the top of any Apple Podcasts charts any time soon.
But I’m here to tell you this: It was fun. We enjoyed ourselves, and the fact that few, if any at all, would want to listen to our rambling is inconsequential. We did something. We put a marker down, dipped our toes in the water. If we go back next week, we’ll be a week smarter, a week more prepared, and even that small revelation feels good.
I write for a living, but I also like to write for pleasure. Sometimes it’s hard to find the motivation to do the latter after a long week of doing the former. I think the excuse I too often use to absolve myself is that I just don’t think I was going to be writing down anything of importance, anything of which I would be proud.
But that’s the big lie, isn’t it? Rare is the breed of people who can pick up a saxophone for the first time and not squawk like a wounded goose when they blow into it. Or the guitar. Or a paintbrush. Or don a chef’s hat and apron to attempt macarons for the first time. These things reward time and investment, and if we let the big lie persist, we’re always at that very first square.
But it’s never a waste of one’s time to dabble, to take those early first steps, to step out of a comfort zone and be bad at something. I’m just really thankful that we, as humans, have so many avenues by which to express ourselves. I hope you’ll persevere through whatever creative outlet you may have started during the pandemic, or returned to for the first time in many years, or have diligently been toiling away at for decades now. Whatever your particular circumstance, I’m happy to know you’re making something, too. And if you’re, I’d encourage you to join us. You can’t help putting a little bit of yourself into every time you do it. That’s a beautiful thing.
Ten Worth Your Time
Online mobs screamed loud enough and long enough for Warner Bros. executives to give Zack Snyder $70 million to reshoot a movie that wasn’t ever likely to be very good. The circumstances surrounding his abrupt departure from the original production of the film couldn’t be more tragic: His daughter committed suicide. He’s a nice and likable guy, according to the cast and crew, so it’s hard to hate this opportunity for him. But it’s also hard not to see this as just another instance of online inanity by a subset of comic book fans who treat the rivalry between Marvel and DC comics as some sort of blood feud. They seem loathe to admit that Marvel struck upon a winning strategy and did it first, and Snyder’s original Justice League had to clear a high bar that none of his previous comic book movies indicated was likely. Then tragedy struck and Joss Whedon came in and rewrote and reshot as much as a third of the film. And who knows who’s to blame, but the end result was a terrible film. Now, on March 18, the world gets four hours of Snyder’s vision, fully realized. This Vanity Fair article tells the backstory of how all of it came to be. All because people shouted online loud enough and long enough. It’s almost as if we, as Americans, think this is how to solve perceived problems in our world today, from reviving movies that didn’t really merit a second chance to presidential campaigns that really didn’t either.
Two weeks ago, I wrote about the New York Times’s documentary on Britney Spears. This past week, Mara Wilson, famously a child star in the Miracle on 34th Street, Matilda and Mrs. Doubtfire, penned an article in the Times about Hollywood and media and how they treat young women. It’s a powerful essay that gets at the heart of one of the biggest and most persistent critiques of the Times’s documentary of Spears: It focused too little on the media’s role in Spears’s life. Wilson said in her essay:
Hollywood has resolved to tackle harassment in the industry, but I was never sexually harassed on a film set. My sexual harassment always came at the hands of the media and the public.
Over the course of a very long 24 hours this past week, I was worried about one of my favorite athletes of all time, Tiger Woods. At first, I was worried that he’d died, as news alerts pinged my phone with vague but bad news, and it made me think of the day Kobe Bryant died all over again. After it became clear he’d live, I became nervous about the exact nature of his injuries. And when the details came out, I reflexively winced at the pain and graphic nature of the injuries and repairs, and selfishly, my heart sank at the thought of this hero of mine, now aged 45 years, never playing golf again. But, in retrospect, it’s simply great news that he’s alive and was able to be patched up by talented surgeons. Life goes on, and no matter what the future holds for Tiger, it surely won’t be wasted or taken for granted. Not long after the crash, a dear friend of mine from journalism school, Megan Dollar, published a story she’d been working on for some time about Tiger and Johnny Morris, of Bass Pro Shops fame, teaming up to build a beautiful golf course in Branson, Missouri.
No matter how much things are changing in the entertainment world with more and more streaming services and our insatiable desire to binge entire seasons in very short amounts of time, there remains an undeniably effective narrative device that keeps viewers coming back for more: the cliffhanger ending. It’s often now seen most notably in the between-season variety, since a lot of what we watch now is dumped on us seasons at a time, not doled out episode by episode. I saw a tweet from someone feeling absurdly old when one of their kids called the one-episode-per-week model the “Disney+ model,” because of how they’ve refrained from dumping all of the Mandalorian and WandaVision in single batches. Kids these days don’t even seem to know that’s just how TV was made until Netflix dropped all of House of Cards in our laps back in 2013. This fun piece from New York magazine interviews writers from all sorts of TV shows about the art of the cliffhanger.
One of my big disappointments a year ago at the True/False Film Fest, aka the last event of any size or importance I attended before COVID-19 gut-punched the next 12 months, was I couldn’t squeeze in a screening of the Romanian documentary Collective. It’s now on the short-list for two separate categories at the upcoming Academy Awards, and The Ringer’s Bryan Curtis has written a great piece about the film’s protagonist. He describes the film like this:
In 2015, a fire at a Bucharest nightclub called Colectiv killed 26 people. Thirty-eight more died later, many in Romanian hospitals, thanks to a lethal blend of corruption and incompetence. [Catalin] Tolontan’s newspaper is about to report that a local manufacturer sold hospitals diluted disinfectant. “This isn’t killing bacteria,” a source tells the paper. “It’s killing people.”
You can rent it on Amazon Prime and iTunes.
I love the small joy of opening social media or emails from various publications and seeing the bylines of people I know. I love the randomness and surprise of it all. I love how small it makes the world seem. This will undoubtedly be trend that will only increase as colleagues and former classmates continue to establish themselves as professional journalists. This week, I opened an email from the fine folks at The Bitter Southerner to see a great big story from former classmate Jennifer Mosbrucker, who’d spent months in the Mississippi Delta reporting on rural healthcare. This hit me doubly, not only because I know the journalist but because I know so many of the areas from which she reported due to my time with Teach for America.
Has it been a while since you’ve been able to travel? That’s the case for many of us, but a clever podcast called Passport will give you a dose of different places with interesting avenues of exploration. For example, this episode came to my attention via The Browser’s weekly podcast email, and it’s so good. It’s all about London’s relationship with espionage and spies. It looks at the city’s history in literature and film, as well as the historical reality of espionage from a British perspective. I recently wrote about finding joy in reading the fictional tales of former British spymaster John le Carré, and I anxiously await the final decision on how the latest James Bond film, No Day to Die, will be released. This podcast was right up my alley, and if you like any of these topics, you'll think so, too. Then dive into the archives and visit other places via the Passport podcast. Listen at: Spotify| Apple| Pocket Casts
Today marks the end of an era in the world of journalism, and that is the Marty Baron Era. The longtime newsman will step down as The Washington Post’s executive editor became a name known to those outside the world of journalism with the hit 2015 movie Spotlight, in which Baron, then the incoming editor at The Boston Globe and overseer of its exposé of the Catholic Church’s sexual abuse scandal, was played by Liev Schriber. Now, like so many others, Baron celebrated his departure in the most 2021 way possible: in a virtual online gathering. The Post’s movie critic, Ann Hornaday, wrote a brief essay about how Spotlight made Baron a star, and in turn, her friend.
Here’s a profoundly gross WIRED story from start to finish. It chronicles the career of Kevin Blatt, a celebrity fixer who peddles in sex tapes and would-be scandals. I suppose in a lot of ways it’s not all that different from the careers of Olivia Pope in Scandal or Ray Donovan in Ray Donovan, but it just reads as a sad and exploitative in a profoundly depressing way.
Martin Scorsese recently took to the pages of Harper’s to praise the work and influence of Federico Fellini, but before he can celebrate the Italian director’s massive contribution to cinema, he first takes aim at the concept of “content.” The rise of content happens alongside the decline of cinema. It’s not a new argument from Scorsese; I even tried to write about his arguments in the last piece I ever published for Vox Magazine. But I loved this line from his essay:
Curating isn’t undemocratic or “elitist,” a term that is now used so often that it’s become meaningless. It’s an act of generosity—you’re sharing what you love and what has inspired you.
This newsletter hopes to be seen as just such an act of generosity.
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