Six great journalism movies

By Caitlin Kelly

There’s no way past it. If you’re going to read a blog written by a journalist…

The Devil Wears Prada

I’ve seen this 2006 film so many times I know much of the dialogue off by heart and always look forward to my favorite scenes.

It follows the trajectory of Andrea Sachs, a gormless fresh graduate, who is very serious about journalism, stuck in a first job — at a NYC glossy fashion magazine — she neither wants nor respects. It’s a job.

This one always hits me!

It’s set in Manhattan, with key scenes in buildings and locations holding some great memories in my own writing life.

It’s really about what it takes to pay dues, to go along and get along in a rough and unfamiliar environment.

The price of ambition.

There are some lovely scenes in Paris as well.

Lots of arguments about whether her friends are true friends, or people who have no clue what it really takes to get ahead in this brutally competitive industry.

Plus, Meryl Streep and Stanley Tucci and acres of gorgeous clothes and accessories.

It was made for $35 million — and has earned almost 10 times that since.

Spotlight

I know of no other film that so abundantly makes clear what it takes to do really slow, really detailed, really deep reporting work, aka investigative journalism. It won Best Picture for 2015 and richly deserved it.

It follows a real team of four reporters at the Boston Globe who dug up a rats’ nest of priest’s abuse. There are scenes that should be required viewing in every journalism class, like the one where Sacha Pfeiffer (played by Rachel McAdams) has to coax grim details from a male abuse victim.

No one who hasn’t done this work — and especially those who loathe and insult journalists — can really grasp the emotional intelligence (empathy, compassion, patience) it takes to get victims to share the stories that can, sometimes, create tremendous political and legal change.

I’ve watched this one many times and never tire of it.

It also makes very clear the tremendous pressure often placed on senior newsroom management by powers-that-be eager to shut down some unwanted attention.

And the military chain-of-command that still runs most newsrooms.

And the balls-to-the-wall determination it demands of reporters to keep chasing elusive answers.

Plus, again — Stanley Tucci!

Absence of Malice

This is an older one, from 1981, with Sally Field as a reporter and Paul Newman as the subject of her story.

Nominated for three Academy Awards, and written by a former newspaper editor, it addresses when, how or if a reporter should ever have a romantic relationship with someone they’re writing about it.

It also shows that speaking to “civilians” — regular people who don’t understand how journalism works — can wreak havoc on their lives.

Some of our collection of laminated press credentials….

All The President’s Men

Better known to those who love it as ATPM, this follows the Watergate scandal that brought down former U.S.President Richard Nixon, and the two Washington Post reporters — Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) and Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) — who broke the story after many months of reporting and a lot of internal and external doubt whether the story was true and verifiable.

Jason Robards is terrific as the Post’s patrician editor, Ben Bradlee, with his Gucci-clad feet on every desk.

It’s a total boy-fest, with almost no women involved in the editing or reporting, but still so worth watching.

For an entire generation of would-be journalists, Woodward and Bernstein were the ultimate role models.

The Paper

Hilarious!

Michael Keaton and Marisa Tomei — and Glenn Close — star in this send-up of New York City tabloid journalism. Having worked at the NY Daily News, I get it now!

If you want a glimpse of what newspaper tabloid life is like, this is it.

A Private War

This is a recent film, from 2018, about the legendary American foreign correspondent, Marie Colvin, played by the excellent British actress Rosalind Pike.

Colvin had already lost an eye covering the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka but never stopped worked in dangerous places.

She was killed while on assignment in Homs, Syria, Feb. 12, 2012.

And guess who’s in the cast?

Stanley Tucci!

What word games do you play?

By Caitlin Kelly

I’ve always been proud of my vocabulary and I’ve been writing for a living since university.

But it’s humbling indeed to realize how many words I still don’t know or just don’t use.

I recently began playing the New York Times Spelling Bee and am officially addicted!

It’s shaped like a flower, with seven letters — six around a central letter that must be included in every word of four or more letters.

Its feedback as you play is so New York-ishly competitive….as you make more words and score more points (with more points for longer words) it goes from Nice to Solid (!) to Great to Amazing.

The highest level (which I have yet to attain) is Queen Bee.

And I’m such a nerd that when I come up with a word that uses all the letters — that they didn’t include — there is much gnashing of teeth. How dare they!

It teaches me a lot about how I perceive, how I think, how I see (or don’t!) see patterns.

And words I never use or have never heard before.

How could I have missed anime?

I don’t follow it as an art form, even as I know what it is. So my eyes didn’t discern it.

And let’s not forget tontine — an obscure 17th-19th century word for a kind of insurance.

DONEE?!

It’s really interesting to work hard at it for a bit, get tired and frustrated, then go away for a while. Maybe an hour or more.

Almost without fail, the minute I see it anew — boom! –– there’s a word right in front me I hadn’t noticed.

I like that it forces me to take breaks and refresh my brain.

I also play Scrabble with my husband, but more often now solo against the computer at the advanced level. It drives me nuts when it — often — makes obviously French words! Like quai.

I also need to memorize a lot more words using q, j, and z.

He and I play Bananagrams and he’s gotten very good!

What I like most about it, other than it’s easily portable (the tiles come in the cutest little yellow cotton sack that looks like a banana), is it forces players to move fast and be super flexible. If the word patterns you’ve made aren’t allowing for the next letters, break ’em up and move them as needed.

This is huge, this sort of instant destruction. It’s the opposite of Scrabble, where you aim for the highest possible score every time. With Bananagrams, the goal is to use up all the letters as fast as possible then shout “Bananas!” when you win.

It’s a little odd that I work with words and also play with them. But I like that they’re not only my bread and butter but a source of real pleasure and relaxation.

These games are a fun and easy way to stay mentally sharp, to grow my vocabulary, to savor a bit of competition.

Do you play any word games?

Seven pandemic questions

By Caitlin Kelly

I really enjoyed this New York Times special section where they asked a range of artists — 75 in all –these questions:

Some produced nothing.

Some went into overdrive.

Some did a lot of cooking.

Some binged on much older works of art, from the Iliad to old movies.

My replies:

If you’d known you’d be so isolated for so long, what would you have done differently?

I would have rented a house somewhere upstate and fled our apartment. It’s been a challenge with two people home all the time working, between no privacy and noise and endless cooking and cleaning. Even fled overseas or back to Canada.

Did you find a friendship that helped you through this time?

My husband has been the best and most consistent.

What’s one thing you made this year?

My book proposal.

What’s the one moment you’ll remember most?

Two…my last gasps of non-COVID travel, seeing friends in D.C. in early March 2020, and a Degas show there. And the (thank God) defeat of Trump.

What art have you turned to?

I watch way too much television: new shows, older shows, new movies, older movies. Have tried to read books but with less success. My Insta account includes several people who highlight works of art and this has been really sustaining. Music, every day, thanks to my vinyl and global radio and Sirius XM.

What bad idea did you have?

My book proposal — so far proving impossible to sell. Very frustrating.

What do you want to achieve before things return to normal?

Lose more weight. Get really thoughtful about who I will spend time with.

How about you?

How would you answer any or all of these?

Kim Wall’s murder: “The Investigation” on HBO

By Caitlin Kelly

In the summer of 2017, Kim Wall, an adventurous, ambitious 30-year-old Swedish freelance journalist made a last-minute phone call to Peter Madsen, a Danish inventor in Copenhagen. She wanted to ride in his home-made submarine, a potential story.

It’s the sort of thing many freelancers do all the time, without deep concern about the risks, as the rewards are obvious.

It would be her last.

He killed her, dismembered her and threw her into the water.

Now, HBO Europe has released a six-part series about the hunt for her killer, The Investigation, on in the U.S.

The show never once names him, referring to him only as “the accused.”

If you, as I do, loved the Danish show Borgen, this brings back two very familiar faces — Pilou Asbek as the prosecutor (who played the spin doctor in Borgen) and Soren Malling as the chief of Copenhagen police (the TV director in Borgen.)

We never see or hear much about Kim herself except through the characters who play her parents, who were as committed to her independence and freelance life as she was. It’s never an easy life, and one many parents find too worrisome and penurious, so this is an interesting piece of the story.

The show moves slowly, with many setbacks and confusion and a lot of frustration — just as much detective work actually unfolds in real life. Madsen was not tried and convicted until April 2018.

I found the show emotionally hard to watch — (I didn’t know Kim)– as it could easily have been me or many other freelancers. Our lives are full of such crazy adventures — many quite risky — we undertake in order to find and tell compelling stories.

And we go alone.

At 25, for a story about the many challenges of trucking goods across the EU, I climbed into an 18-wheeler French truck, met its driver, Pierre Boue, and set off from Perpignan to Istanbul (eight days.) We had never met or spoken. We were both single and he was 35. We. slept on tiny bunks in the truck cab, with no privacy possible. There was no Internet then or cell phones.

It proved one of the best weeks of my life and my career.

But it looked risky as hell.

Here’s a story about it from Vox:

The 2017 murder of Swedish journalist Kim Wall is one of the most haunting true crime cases in recent memory. If you worked in New York media four years ago, there was a high chance you knew someone who had worked with Wall. She was a vibrant, award-winning freelancer who reported complex investigations all over the world, often fearlessly navigating unfamiliar regions.

That facet of her life served to heighten the irony around her death: Two days before she was about to move across the world to begin yet another adventure, she arranged a last-minute interview in Copenhagen with a man who should have been an easy subject: Peter Madsen, a high-powered tech guru and inventor. Madsen was part of Wall’s home region. He was a renowned public figure; she was a renowned, well-connected journalist. It should have been her safest assignment yet.

This, from IndieWire:

Some audiences may balk at the ways the HBO show (now available in full on HBO Max) removes some of these standard elements of biographical crime stories. In staying as close to its title as possible, though, “The Investigation” managed to address a recent tragedy in a surprisingly clear-headed way.

Much of that stems from the way that “The Investigation” handles the passage of time. Though the season spans months, writer/director Lindholm resists putting down easy markers to wring tension out of breaks in the case. There’s a sameness to the way it unfolds, the kind where a whiteboard sits with words and diagrams written on it that no one’s bothered to erase because there’s nothing new to add, either from detective Jens Møller Jensen (Søren Malling) or prosecutor Jakob Buch-Jepsen (Pilou Asbæk). Finding Wall’s body becomes the overwhelming part of their pursuit — if the show returns to the details of the retrieval process and an item-by-item timeline of everything that happened on the submarine, it underlines how singular their pursuit is.

It’s not an easy show to watch, obviously, and some of the details are very grim.

But what made it most compelling to me was the police’s shared dogged determination to solve this crime and the incredible teamwork it took — including months of diving to find her and her belongings.

Have you watched it?

What did you think?

Living in the past. Long past!

By Caitlin Kelly

Loved this Guardian story about people who choose to live in the 1930s, 40s, 50s, 60s and 70s — estehtically, anyway.

And I recently did a lot of global reporting — speaking to people in Seattle, DC, Ontario, Genoa, L.A., Stockholm, London, Finland and Philadelphia — about a hobby they all share, historical costuming. (The man in Philly does it for a living!)

It means making and wearing clothing of much earlier eras and centuries, finding patterns and appropriate fabric, and wearing the correct undergarments to create the correct silhouette. (No sports bras allowed!)

It’s an amazing obsession, and demands a lot of patience and skill and meticulous attention to detail. It’s mostly enjoyed women, and mostly white women — something they’re well aware of! I did include an Iranian-American.

One of the women I spoke to is a mechanic in Finland. One is an Army wife in Ontario. One is a jewelry appraiser in Stockholm.

All were a joy to speak with! I could have spent hours geeking out with Jenny Tiramani, a legendary costume designer who worked for years at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre — and who founded and runs London’s School of Historical Dress.

Here’s the piece, my first sale to the Styles section of The New York Times, for whom I write fairly often:

Here’s the start:

It’s a world of corsets, stays and chemises. Of weskits, bum rolls, breeches and hoop panniers. For actors, wearing period costume has long meant literally stepping into the past: lacing soft modern flesh into antique shapes and learning how to use the toilet without peeling off multiple layers.

“Bridgerton,” Shonda Rhimes’s racially diverse Netflix series set in 1813 England, has suddenly ignited new interest in Regency fashions. But a global community of hobbyists has been designing, making and wearing clothing from the 19th century and earlier for many years. Long a private obsession fueled by films like “The Leopard” and “Pride and Prejudice,” social media has widened the conversation, with fans of all ages and backgrounds worldwide now trading notes on how best to trim a sleeve or adjust a straw bonnet.

Pre-pandemic, they gathered in Los Angeles at Costume College, an annual conference, at Venice’s Carnival and the Fêtes Galantes at Versailles. Some lucky Europeans, like Filippa Trozelli, find themselves invited to wear their historical clothing to private parties at ancient local estates.

As someone who loves vintage/historical textiles — and who wore an Edwardian day dress for her first wedding — I totally get the appeal of this obsession. I love the notion of time travel, of swishing through a garden in yards of silk or meeting up in Venice with equally obsessed pals from around the world.

I had long wanted to write about this subculture, as I follow several of the women on Instagram, but never had a “peg” or “hook” — i.e. what relevance would it have now? Thanks to Bridgerton, it does!

The joy of seeing art again

By Caitlin Kelly

I hadn’t been to a museum since early March 2020, after attending a conference, where I saw a show of Degas at the National Gallery, which I loved.

I really miss seeing art face to face!

So when a very good friend got us tickets to to see a show at the Whitney (closing this weekend), and an outdoors lunch afterward (30 degrees be damned!) I eagerly said yes.

I had planned to double-mask but my one mask was so hot and so uncomfortable I couldn’t.

The show is fantastic. I’ve been to Mexico several times and so I knew the work of the big three muralists — Rivera, Siquieros and Orozco. I’d seen some of their work in situ. The scale is astonishing, truly monumental. You really need to step back a good. few feet to really grasp it all.

This show offered insights into how the Mexican muralists inspired American artists between 1925 and 1945, years of economic upheaval.

There’s the Bonus Army.
There are riots and police brutally putting them down with guns and batons.

There’s a powerful shared spirit of rebellion.

The show includes this huge, wall-length black and white photo of an L.A. mural — commissioned to show happy Mexicans — that instead is a powerful, damning repudiation.

Note the rapacious eagle — the symbol of American might and power — hovering above a crucified Mexican.

Of course, the mural, like so many, was quickly destroyed or painted over.

Their rage and honesty are searing and challenged, then as now, corporate and political power.

Today’s many #BlackLivesMatter murals — honoring the many Blacks shot dead by police — seem to be the contemporary equivalent.

These muralists did not mess around!

Rivera was hired to paint a mural at the then-new Rockefeller Center in midtown Manhattan, a hugely prestigious commission — but failed to curb his politics as expected.

From Wikipedia:

The Rockefeller family approved of the mural’s idea: showing the contrast of capitalism as opposed to communism. However, after the New York World-Telegram complained about the piece, calling it “anti-capitalist propaganda”, an image of Vladimir Lenin and a Soviet Russian May Day parade were secretly added in protest. When these were discovered, Nelson Rockefeller – at the time a director of the Rockefeller Center – wanted Rivera to remove the portrait of Lenin,[2] but Rivera was unwilling to do so. In May 1933, Rockefeller ordered the mural to be plastered-over and thereby destroyed before it was finished, resulting in protests and boycotts from other artists.[3] Man at the Crossroads was peeled off in 1934 and replaced by a mural from Josep Maria Sert three years later. Only black-and-white photographs exist of the original incomplete mural, taken when Rivera suspected it might be destroyed. Using the photographs, Rivera repainted the composition in Mexico under the variant title Man, Controller of the Universe.

The controversy over the mural was significant because Rivera’s communist ideals contrasted with the theme of Rockefeller Center, even though the Rockefeller family themselves admired Rivera’s work.

The Whitney show is large, with works by others, like Ben Shahn and Philip Guston. There are works by Canadians and Japanese, also influenced by the muralists and their commitment to social justice.

From the Whitney:

With nearly 200 works by over sixty Mexican and American artists, this exhibition reorients art history by revealing the profound impact the Mexican muralists had on their counterparts in the United States during this period and the ways in which their example inspired American artists both to create epic narratives about American history and everyday life and to use their art to protest economic, social, and racial injustices.

It’s sea shanty time!

By Caitlin Kelly

If you’re a TikTok fan — I confess I enjoy it but don’t follow people — you’ll have noticed a sudden interest in, of all things, sea shanties.

Here’s a nice piece from Vulture (part of NY Magazine) explaining why:

On the surface, it’s a little weird that digital culture in 2021 would become suddenly obsessed with 200-year-old folk songs about men on whaling boats. They sound like prehistoric oddities, which is part of the appeal. Simplistic in structure, they are deliberately repetitive and full of ideas and references that feel very, very far from life right now. Aside from the word Wellerman, they’re full of harpoons and pierheads and the specifics of butchering whales; the most recognizable lyrics are lines about “rounding the Cape” and the love of bonny brown-haired lasses.

Sea shanties are also resiliently uncool. They’re songs about whaling and strong winds…

One of my favorite songs ever, all nine verses, is by the late great Canadian folksinger, Stan Rogers, Barrett’s Privateers. Few things are as lovely for me as when I find a gang of fellow Canadians to belt out the words — some of which of course curse Americans!

Written in September 1976, it even has a detailed and helpful Wikipedia entry!

Here are some of the lyrics:

Oh, the year was 1778
How I wish I was in Sherbrooke now
A letter of marque came from the king
To the scummiest vessel I’ve ever seen
God damn them all! I was told
We’d cruise the seas for American gold
We’d fire no guns, shed no tears

But I’m a broken man on a Halifax pier
The last of Barrett’s Privateers

It’s a good time to sing and sing loudly and sing together.

There’s so much now we just can’t calmly discuss:

Politics

Massively divisive.

Money/income/economic status

Millions in desperate straits, facing eviction, job loss, unemployment — while the wealthy keep scooping up the gold

Race/Religion

Who dares?

Feminism

Same

Here’s a gorgeous, haunting song about heading out to hunt whales, Farewell to Tarwathie, sung by Judy Collins.

Must-see TV: Ted Lasso

By Caitlin Kelly

All my friends kept raving about how great this TV series is and I thought, it can’t be that good.

It is!

It has 10 episodes and has already been renewed for two more seasons.

Ted is an American college football coach hired to coach AFC Richmond, a British soccer league — with no knowledge of the sport — because the team’s owner has walked out on his wife, and she wants to ruin the team by hiring an incompetent foreigner.

You don’t have to like soccer to enjoy this (although why not?). It’s got fun characters, some interesting plot twists and, for those of us landlocked in the U.S. unable to visit our beloved England, a nice way to travel, if only visually.

As someone who also finds many Americans too sentimental and effusive, Lasso is very much this — to the ongoing consternation of his team, his boss and pretty much everyone British he meets. He is absurdly, relentlessly kind and outgoing and supportive, to a point you think — ugggggh, saccharine.

But no.

He also faces some darker moments in his private life, so he’s a character we can identify with and find relatable.

He does have lots of adjusting to do to his adopted home, from different words and meanings for things (relegation?!) to — what is this?! — his immediate dislike of and disdain for tea.

“Hot brown water,” he says. I can’t look at tea the same way now!

There’s a classic WAG, Keeley, whose bubbly exterior conceals a solid heart, the team owner who’s kinder than she first appears and Nathan, the team’s waterboy who’s been utterly overlooked until Ted arrives and starts to offer him chances to show his stuff.

A local pub plays an essential role, and there’s an ongoing conflict between the team’s youngest — Jamie Tartt, who’s 23 and supremely talented and arrogant and team captain Roy Kent who’s probably 35 or so. It all feels pretty realistic, from the many challenges Ted faces of trying to navigate a wholly new culture — being called WANKER! by everyone — while also trying to manage his troubled marriage from across the ocean.

Have you seen it?

What did you think?

Have you seen “Borgen”?

By Caitlin Kelly

I know, I’m very late to this party!

This 30-episode, three-season series, was released in 2010 and so many people had recommended it, I finally bit.

Loved it!

Certainly in a time of relentlessly restricted travel — when the very idea of getting on a plane, let alone crossing the Atlantic — is impossible, it’s been a real treat to visually re-visit Copenhagen with each episode. So many cyclists (none wearing helmets?!) Canals. The fluttering Danish flag.

I was there once, for 10 days, on my amazing European journalism fellowship. I loved it, even though it was so expensive I could barely afford to eat, given the small size of our travel budget and the very high costs of everything.

The series — which sounds dull as dishwater — revolves around two worlds, Christiansborg Palace, or Borgen (The Castle), seat of all Danish politics, and TVI and Expressen, a TV station and a “red-top” (tabloid) newspaper. The key characters include Birgitta Nyborg, who becomes prime minister in the first season; Kasper Juul, a troubled press secretary — which they, without irony, call “spin doctor”, Katrine Fonsmark, a tall, blond TV reporter turned spin doctor, other politicians and Birgitta’s husband and two children.

As a journalist, I sure enjoyed the many newsroom scenes and the bossy news director, Torben Friis. As someone who grew up in Canada, a multi-party political system, I enjoyed the endless horse-trading in an eight-party system to gain and hold power.

The show covers a wide range of political and personal issues — the massive invasion of privacy Birgitta’s teenage daughter faces when she goes away for in-patient psychiatric treatment or Birgitta’s breast cancer/radiation (the exact same as mine), the back-and-forth affair between Kasper and Katrina, and so on. There’s an episode about prostitution and one about pig farming. It’s also, if politics or journalism interest you, an pretty good look behind the scenes of how each product is actually made — lots of arguments!

Have you watched it?

What did you think?

Our scantest resource? Attention

Imagine just lying very still and looking up in silence

By Caitlin Kelly

Every time I post here I wonder how many of the 22,000+ (?!) followers WordPress tells me read Broadside actually finds the time to pay attention to anything I’ve offered.

The highest counts these days are maybe 200 or so views.

I admit to envying fellow Canadian David Kanigan — whose blog and life are very different from mine — and who consistently gets a lot more likes and comments on his blog.

This can now feel like shouting into the wind — a fruitless waste of my time and limited energy trying to capture anyone’s fleeting and overwhelmed and pandemic-weary attention.

But I still enjoy it and I really appreciate those of you who do make time to read, comment and share, so onward!

I thought of this as I recently listened to a Doors song 11 minutes and 48 seconds in length.

And the Arlo Guthrie classic, from 1967, Alice’s Restaurant — 18:34!

I’m a huge fan of music and film and books and it’s fascinating to consume older media that assumed, rightly, a much longer — and much less distracted — attention span.

Different pacing.

Different plot development.

Quieter scenes.

Fewer edits.

For amusement, I once counted every single image in the introductory credits to the HBO series about journalism — The Newsroom.

The difference between its initial 2012 opening credits — with 53 separate images in 1:29 and the 45 images of the 2015 season, in 1:07 — are striking. The second set are super quick jump shots, much more emotional, much more compelling — with Ron Rosen the editor.

His list of credits is very long, and very current.

He’s shaping how we see and how we pay attention.

One of my favorite film directors is American Kelly Reichardt, whose films move slowly and beautifully, often through a rural, timeless Oregon landscape.

I keep re-watching the 1968 film “2001”, also intrigued by how slowly some scenes unfold and how very little dialogue it contains.

It demands our sustained, often mystified attention — and amply rewards it.

No doubt our brains were wired very differently before the ’90s when we all started moving online, let alone the daily deluge now on social media.

I find it more challenging than ever now sit still for hours and just read.

I often wonder what it was like to live in the 18th century where domestic amusements were embroidery — slow! — or reading or playing a musical instrument. When a letter sent, sealed with wax, took days or weeks or even months to reach its reader. Then the reply.

What different brain chemistry they must have had!

Living through a pandemic and the useless political “leadership” that’s killed so many is bad enough — add to this grief and anxiety that absolutely rob us of the ability to stay focused and pay attention and retain a damn thing.

Who has this much time now?

Who reads past the headline?