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Two Weeks' Worth 10 min read

Two Weeks' Worth

Everything from killer whales to COVID-19 turning points and the American South to the Sundance Film Festival.

By Cary Littlejohn
Two Weeks' Worth Post image

After a missed week, Critical Linking is back in your inbox with a handful of some of the most interesting stories I’ve read and saved and continued to think about over the past two weeks.

Ten Worth Your Time

  1. When I was a kid, there was no better comfort movie than Free Willy. I loved the premise and the execution, falling head over heels for Willy (played by the famed whale Keiko) and wishing I could inhabit that world, where my best friend was an orca. The cuddly image of the whale projected by the film was upset when I checked out a National Geographic video on orcas from my local library. It was there that I saw the whales devouring seals in quite vicious attacks, flinging them through the air in the same way a cat might play with a mouse it had caught. Lesson learned: Whales in the wild were not the docile creatures cooped up in SeaWorld. Got it. But it was still incredible to read this New York Times story about a pod of orcas that killed an adult blue whale. Despite various qualifiers that highlighted that it wasn’t the largest blue whale, it contained this line that caused a moment of pause: “A pod of orcas taking down a blue whale is ‘the biggest predation event on Earth, maybe the biggest one since dinosaurs were here,’ said Robert Pitman, a marine ecologist at Oregon State University and an author of the paper.

  2. I can’t just bring up blue whales and then pivot to something else without first mentioning this classic essay by Leslie Jamison about 52 Blue, named for the unnaturally high-pitched call that resonated at 52 hertz (whereas blue whales normally register calls somewhere between 15 and 20 hertz, and known as the loneliest whale in the world.

  3. An interesting episode of the Times podcast The Daily where the author of its morning newsletter, David Leonhardt, walked through the findings of a poll commissioned to gauge Americans’ attitudes on COVID-19. Unsurprisingly, the most telling finding from the whole thing is that political party is one of the biggest factors influencing people’s opinions.  As host Michael Barbaro said, “So if you’re inclined to see this moment — Omicron starting to peak, infections going down — as a pivot point, it feels like what this poll has taught us is that the strength of Americans’ political identifications, and how much that’s bound up in the way they view the pandemic, is a pretty big obstacle to everyone pivoting at the same time or in any way or shape in the same direction.”

  4. The day after that episode of The Daily aired, Politico published a piece that called into question Leonhardt and the massive platform from which  he discusses COVID-19 via his newsletter. “Notable doctors and scientists have written to the Times, individually or in groups, to poke holes in Leonhardt’s coverage of the pandemic. They say that he cherry-picks sources and data, giving too much weight to people who may have medical expertise but not on infectious disease; that he argues strenuously for open schools but downplays the Covid risks for kids as well as their role in spreading the virus; that he held out Britain’s vaccination strategy as a model (right before the U.K. itself reversed course); that he underestimates how many Americans — not all over age 65 — are at elevated risk or live with people at elevated risk. He tends, they say, to look at the virus’ impact on individuals, not the pandemic’s impact on society.”

  5. As both the data from Leonhardt’s survey and the backlash to his ongoing COVID-19 reporting shows, it’s difficult to make headway with people who think differently than you do. This is nothing new, but it’s showing up in all walks of American life, not just over gravely serious topics like COVID-19. Yair Rosenberg, writing in one of The Atlantic’s newsletters, sought to remind readers that the world is not their individualized bubbles.  Rosenberg encouraged people not to assume they know the conventional wisdom on a particular topic just because of what they hear in their bubbles. He cited examples of seemingly widespread criticisms (mostly on Twitter) of things like Hamilton and creator Lin-Manuel Miranda, Parks and Recreation, and Harry Potter and J.K. Rowling, that suggest their time has slipped on by, and they’ve now been relegated to the dustbin of history. Reality tells a vastly different story.

  6. Some bubbles are large and persistent, and I think it can safely be said that, for better and for worse, the American South is a bubble unto itself. It’s often misunderstood by those who’ve always called it home, and it’s often viewed as an unknowable curiosity to those who’ve never been. In my time studying at the University of Missouri, I watched as my professor, mentor, and friend, Berkley Hudson, worked tirelessly to bring a project to life that would shed light on the South through the work of one photographer, O.N. Pruitt, who lived and worked in Hudson’s hometown of Columbus, Mississippi. A traveling exhibition will showcase Pruitt’s photographs, and Hudson has recently published a book called, “O. N. Pruitt’s Possum Town: Photographing Trouble and Resilience in the American South.” Garden and Gun recently ran a slideshow of some of Pruitt’s photographs, which showcased life in a small Mississippi town throughout the early 1900s. For more information, check out the project’s website.

  7. Speaking of the American South, I recently read an essay by a young woman who worked hard to shed her southern accent. The practice can hardly be considered a rarity, but what’s special about the telling of her story is how she came to regret the effort she put into purging the sound of her hometown, state, and region. Anyone who’s cringed at hearing a recording of himself or herself can relate on some level, but, in her words, I saw various moments in my own past where I’d felt the same. It just so happened that the author was from close to home; our schools would have played each other in high school sports. And though I’ve never met her or spoken with her, I read those words in my natural voice, which has to share some of the same vocal DNA to that voice she worked so hard to shed.

  8. The young woman is a journalist, and she'll soon be publishing a book. That's the kind of thing I say, absentmindedly and without the proper degree of seriousness required for such a task: “I should write a book." I'd like to, but it will take a great deal more discipline from me. I know from being in such close proximity with Hudson just how much work it took to make the book and exhibit happen. He was nonstop with it, seemingly taking up enough time and effort that he would scarcely notice that he was retiring. It’s axiomatic that big things take a lot of work and (sometimes) lots of time. But I couldn’t help but laugh at a recent piece of humor writing from The New Yorker that so often sums up how I feel when it comes to creating anything. The piece, entitled, “I’ll Start This New Project Just as Soon as All Conditions in My Life Are Perfect” begins thusly: “All right, today’s the day. Time to end this weird, stagnant phase of my life and start writing my first novel. I’ve been putting it off for months, but I won’t tolerate another excuse or wait a moment longer to get creative! Now I’m sitting at my desk, firing up the ol’ Mac, and—whoa, hang on. My snake plant looks droopy. Does it need water? More sunlight? Hmm. A quick search reveals that, as some sort of sick joke, God has made the signs of under-watering identical to the signs of over-watering. Ha, good one, God! I can’t possibly start a new project surrounded by dying plants. I must buy and read “The Houseplant Handbook: The Complete Guide to Palms, Bulbs, Ferns, Cacti, Succulents, Flowering Plants, and More.” I’ll master plant care before I get too absorbed in my writing. Then I’ll start my novel.”

  9. Speaking of great creative pursuits, the Sundance Film Festival just concluded (which I’ll write more about below), and since it’s too early to see any of the films that just screened, I thought it would be worthwhile to share a former Sundance award-winner that just came back across my radar. Feels Good Man premiered at Sundance in 2020, and I saw it at True/False a few months later. It tells the story of Matt Furie, who was the creator of a simple drawing of a cartoon frog named Pepe that grew into an Internet meme and eventually the preferred iconography of white supremacists and MAGA Trump supporters. The film is currently streaming on MUBI (which should try out if you’re interested in highly curated film selections you’re not like to find elsewhere) or for rent on VOD (Amazon or iTunes).

  10. At this year’s Sundance, The Worst Person in the World, a film I was desperate to see, was screening even though it had already premiered at Cannes in 2021. I felt confident it wouldn’t be coming to Wyoming any time soon, so I selected it as part of my ticket package. I ended up getting a chance to screen it earlier than that, so the Sundance viewing made the second time I’d seen it. A beautiful film, one of my favorite of 2021, and hopefully it will come to a theater near you when it opens wide. One of the main characters in the film is Anders Danielsen Lie, a Norwegian actor who’s also one of the stars of another of this year’s indie darlings, Bergman Island (now available on Hulu). Oh, when he’s not busy starring in critically acclaimed films, he’s a doctor, treating COVID-19 patients in Oslo. Read a little bit more about him here.

Culture Diary

As I mentioned above, the 10 days of the Sundance Film Festival just concluded for 2022. It was my second year to catch screenings at home, which is unquestionably great, but it was bittersweet this year because I had standing plans to go for the festival in person. I had been dreading an email announcing that the cancellation of the festival, and sure enough, it came less than two weeks before it was to start.

I didn’t cancel my plans to miss work, but instead of traveling, I had a staycation, which was actually a welcome thing at the time because I was feeling under the weather for many of the days prior to that (negative for COVID-19, though).

I can’t praise the online process more highly. It worked without a hitch, and there is undeniably a democratizing and egalitarian quality to being able to access these films at home. Packages to attend the festival in person are very expensive, travel to Utah and lodging is likewise expensive, and to the extent that Sundance is interested in bringing in the most viewers possible, I hope the virtual option remains in effect long after COVID-19 has released its grasp on the world.

There’s an exciting realization that you’re seeing something before almost anybody else, that you can’t google the film and find lots of details. Those write-ups don’t exist yet. You’re on the cutting edge. But if you’re the type of person who likes to research and read reviews before giving your money for a ticket, this experience might not be your cup of tea. As a result, there were some duds, some films that didn’t rise to the level of prestige one wants to attach to a Sundance film. Likewise, there were missed opportunities, which strangely felt an in-person film festival, where physical limitations and conflicts restrict what all a person could see. Theoretically, those limitations didn’t exist this year, though I was still unable to get some tickets because they’d sold out. I missed out on some darlings, and I’m looking forward to them being distributed hopefully soon.

On the fiction side of things, my favorite film was Happening, which was a French film about a headstrong young girl who found out she was pregnant and was seeking out an abortion when French law didn’t permit it. It was a quiet film, an isolating film that put the viewers in the place of young girl, who hid her pregnancy from everyone, and grew increasingly desperate as the weeks marched on.

Another strong showing was 892, set in Atlanta and based on a true story of a down-on-his-luck veteran of the U.S. military who’d been screwed over by the VA and resorted to taking a bank and its employees hostage, threatening violence with a homemade bomb. John Boyega gave a committed performance as the troubled veteran, and Michael K. Williams was empathetic and all too human in his last film role before his death last year.

On the documentary side, the two strongest I saw were Fire of Love, the story of married volcanologists who chased and studied volcanic eruptions and committed their excursions to film, and Navalny, the behind-the-scenes account of Alexei Navalny’s presidential campaign, poisoning by the Russian government, subsequent recovery and investigation into his poisoning, and his eventual jailing.

Between the many days of not feeling well and isolation and subsequent COVID-19 testing and awaiting results, coupled with days off and film festivals and a skipped week of publishing this newsletter, my culture diary of the past 20 days has a lot of entries.

Remember: The legend for my list was stolen from Mr. Soderbergh, where ALL CAPS represents a movie, and Sentence Case is a TV show. A number in parentheses after a TV shows 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.

1/12: The Book of Boba Fett (Disney+); THE EYES OF TAMMY FAYE (HBO Max); South Side (2) (HBO Max)
1/13: Station Eleven (3) (HBO Max); South Side (2) (HBO Max)
1/14: South Side (2) (HBO Max); Station Eleven (5) (HBO Max)
1/15: Station Eleven (2) (HBO Max); South Side (5) (HBO Max)
BERGMAN ISLAND (Hulu); MLK/FBI (VOD); ANNETTE (Amazon Prime Video); South Side (3) (HBO Max); Gilmore Girls(1) (Netflix)
1/16: RIDERS OF JUSTICE (Hulu); ZOLA (Showtime); South Side (4) (HBO Max); FREE GUY (VOD); Gilmore Girls (1) (Netflix)
1/17: Yellowjackets (2) (Showtime);  DO THE RIGHT THING (Criterion Collection); CYRANO (Screener); THE SOUVENIR (Showtime); GRIZZLY MAN (MUBI)
1/18: Yellowjackets (1) (Showtime); THE WORST PERSON IN THE WORLD (Screener); THE SOUVENIR, PART II (A24 Screening Room); A BRIEF HISTORY OF TIME (Criterion Channel)
1/19: Yellowjackets (2) (Showtime); The Book of Boba Fett (Disney+); BROTHER’S KEEPER (Criterion Channel); MARGOT AT THE WEDDING (Criterion Channel)
1/21:  A HERO (Amazon Prime Video); 892 (Sundance); DOWNFALL: THE CASE AGAINST BOEING (Sundance); CALL JANE (Sundance); BARB AND STAR GO TO VISTA DEL MAR (Hulu)
1/22: FIRE OF LOVE (Sundance); WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT COSBY (Sundance); SHARP STICK (Sundance); HAPPENING (Sundance)
1/23: NOBODY (HBO Max); ROPE (Criterion Channel); ALICE (Sundance); Yellowjackets (2) (Showtime)
1/24: Yellowjackets (3) (Showtime); TITANE (VOD)
1/25: Mayor of Kingstown (1) (Paramount+); THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH (1934) (Criterion Channel); SHADOW OF A DOUBT (Criterion Channel)
1/26: The Book of Boba Fett (Disney+); TOPSPIN (Criterion Channel); FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT (Criterion Channel)
1/27: Abbott Elementary (2) (Hulu); FLEE (VOD)
1/28: NIGHTMARE ALLEY (2021) (Theater)
1/29: Abbott Elementary (2) (Hulu); DRIVE MY CAR (Theater)
1/30:  NAVALNY (Sundance); Abbott Elementary (1); AFC Championship Game; NFC Championship Game; FEELS GOOD MAN*

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