Our most precious resource, beyond health, is time.
So…when you’re reading or watching a film or television show filled with unlikable characters, do you stick with it?
I get it — conflict and drama are essential to almost all compelling narratives, in whatever form. Without it, it’s all puppies and rainbows.
Baddies add spice and darkness and intrigue.
But how much of it can you take?
I’m prompted to ask this after watching four recent TV series here in the U.S.:
Succession, Sharp Objects, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel and Insecure.
The first, on HBO, follows the fortunes and chicanery of the media mogul Roy family (pretty clearly modeled on Rupert Murdoch), with three weird adult sons and a serious bitch of a daughter; when one’s nickname is Con (Conor) and another Shiv (Siobhan), there’s a clue! The plot line focuses on the four adult children and their endless maneuvring for power, attention and approval from their terrifying father, Logan Roy, who manages to spit “Fuck off!” to each of them fairly regularly. And to anyone within range.
These are not people you’d want to have lunch with, that’s for sure. They alternate between spoiled, wealthy, entitled charm and knives-out ambition, manipulating those around them as need be. So, why watch? I stuck it out to the end, and, yes, it’s worth it!
Even as horrible as most of these characters are, you can also gin up some sympathy for them with the brute of a father they’ve all also endured.
Sharp Objects is based on the book by Gillian Flynn, and follows an alcoholic female reporter sent back to her small Missouri hometown to cover murders of local teen girls. The direction and cinematography and dark and moody, and the characters challenging — the reporter Camille Preaker is a cutter who slurps vodka all day from a water bottle while her mother swans about in pastel nightgowns and her teen half-sister swings between wildness and demure behavior.
I’m glad I read the book because the series’ slow pace is losing me, given the consistent ugliness of the people involved.
The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel came highly praised and, in some ways, appears easy to like — a feel-good story about a wealthy 1950s NYC housewife, at 26 mother of two young children, determined to make it as a stand-up comedian after her husband has an affair. It’s fun to guess which New York City locations were used, and all the 50’s fashions and all the old cars, but the very premise seems bizarre to me, and the more I watched it, wanting to like it, the less I enjoyed the characters — whose wealth insulates them from tedious realities (like taking the subway or finding and paying a babysitter. When she loses her enormous apartment, Mrs. Maisel simply moves upstairs into her parents’ enormous apartment.)
Her mother is anxious, her father a semi-tyrant, her husband thoroughly unattractive — and Mrs. Maisel? She’s not that funny and her “journey” through some really bad evenings with audiences who hate her? How could she possibly fail? They all feel too entitled for me at this point.
Insecure, the creation of Issa Rae, is heading into its third season and I’m trying to like it. Rae is charming and funny and totally relatable. And yet, at 30, her character is still making disastrous choices in her life.
Her passivity annoys the hell out of me.
I may just be too old (or too white) to appreciate what a great show this is.
Have you seen (and enjoyed) any of these shows? What am I missing?!
I’m also obsessive about watching opening and closing credits, for television and for film.
The opening credits — and carefully chosen music — carefully set a tone for the show that follows. Anyone remember the joyful opening hat-toss of the late Mary Tyler Moore in The Mary Tyler Moore Show?
And its girl-power theme song: “You’re going to make it after all.”
I’ve been watching three dark and powerful TV series this summer — Happy Valley, set in Yorkshire and Succession and Sharp Objects on HBO. In all three, the opening credits, for me, are part of the pleasure, physically and emotionally setting us up for what happens next.
I even got a story out of this obsession once, after watching the final credits for The Namesake, a lovely 2006 film about an East Indian family living in the U.S. The credits revealed that the movie had been shot on location in a town about 10 minutes’ drive from where I live, in a suburban area north of New York City.
I sold a story about the making of the film to The New York Times, and learned all sorts of movie-making arcana, like how difficult it was to find the right hanging dishrack for the kitchen and why so many films and TV shows are made in or close to New York City — thanks to union rules, (and the high cost of paying overtime), if it takes more than an hour to reach a shooting location, door to door (or close to it), it’s deemed too costly.
My father, now retired, is an award-winning documentary film-maker — here’s his Wikipedia entry — so watching movies and TV shows was a normal part of our lives.
I got another story idea when I noticed how many recent films had long lists of Hungarian (!?) names in the credits — and discovered that one of the newest and largest film studios is just outside of Budapest.
Variety, which covers the business side of Hollywood, wanted me to do some reporting when I was there in July 2017 but the pay was poor for way too much work, so I just had a good time with my friends instead. (If you’ve seen “BladeRunner 2049”, one pivotal scene is shot inside the city’s former stock exchange and many others were shot on their sound stage there, as was “The Martian.”)
I’m mad for movies, and usually see at least one or two every week, sometimes more — old ones, new ones, watching loved ones over and over. (Just re-watched “The Post” last weekend for the third or fourth time. And, every time I do, I pick up a few more details I missed before.)
I watched “It” on TV recently and was hooting with laughter within the first few frames at a quaint street scene set in a fictional American town — which was in fact Port Hope, Ontario, whose landscape I know very well since my father lived there for four years and we had visited often.
I recently saw a feature film — made by British director Andrew Haigh — called “Lean on Pete”, which is the name of the horse who’s central to the story. It was shot in Portland, Oregon and tells the story of Charley, a young man (played by Charlie Plummer) who’s initially stuck with a deadbeat father, absent mother and MIA aunt.
It’s a powerful and moving story of how a young man somehow manages to walk, drive and run away from a solo life of misery back to a place of safety and comfort.
I won’t give away all the details, but it’s a searing portrait of what it means to be young, broke, desperate and unconnected to anyone who cares for you. It’s also beautifully filmed and Plummer is fantastic.
There are very few films made today about what it’s like to be poor and alone in the United States — the last one I saw (and I admit, I didn’t enjoy it) was The Florida Project, starring Willem Dafoe as the manager of a Florida motel housing a number of women-led families of very young children.
I found it impossible to like or sympathize with its main female character, while Charlie — maybe being a teenager? maybe being someone doing his best? — was someone I could stick with, even as his trajectory becomes so grim.
LOP cost $8 million to make — and has so far only earned back $222,816 — a terrible return.
I’m not surprised. It’s not a funny, cute, perky escape and box-office catnip.
Last summer, traveling alone through Europe with multiple 12-hour train journeys, I dove into another harrowing story, A Little Life, written (!) in 18 months on top of the author’s full-time job at The New York Times.
It won five awards, including being short-listed for the 2015 Man Booker prize.
It, too, is an emotionally tough slog and it’s a doorstop of 814 pages.
The central character is Jude, and his friendships with a small circle of equally educated and accomplished New Yorkers. Jude was abused and injured as a child, and this trauma plays out throughout his life and the novel. (If you’re up on your saints, you know that Jude is the patron saint of desperate and lost causes.)
While it’s a story with much pain, it’s also one with deep and abiding love and sustaining friendships — the kind that those whose families are absent or useless must find if they are to survive this world, let alone thrive in it.
As someone who has turned many times to strangers and friends to replace absent family, these narratives hit a chord in me.
I don’t believe that great art has to make us happy or smile or feel better.
If it touches the deepest part of our heart, it’s done its job.
As someone who grew up with limited access to television, (spending much of my childhood in boarding school and summer camp), my cultural consumption was books, art and music. (Although every dinner at home in my teens began with the theme music to As It Happens, the nightly CBC radio current events show.)
I do enjoy some television, mostly BBC, PBS, Netflix — original series, not the standard stuff of weekly network shows. Favorites include Wallander (Swedish version), Babylon Berlin, Call The Midwife, Victoria.
I confess — I’m also a fan of Lifetime’s Project Runway, now heading into its 17th season.
My favorite media are radio and film.
I listen to radio daily, (NPR, WFUV. WKCR, TSF Jazz from Paris) and typically watch two to three movies a week, either on TV or in the theater. (Not a fan of horror films, which I avoid; writing a book that included gun violence was quite enough!)
Only in later life did I appreciate what beauty I enjoyed in my parents’ homes, filled with Japanese ukiyo-e prints, Inuit sculpture, mirrored Indian textiles and more. That visual feast much shaped my own tastes — whether a Mexican wooden mask or a vintage photograph.
Today, thanks to the Internet, we all have ready and free access to millions of exquisite images, through the British Museum (37,000 images) and many more. Even if you live very far from a gallery or museum, even just scrolling through Instagram, you can stumble across an incredible array of beauty and history.
I’m not as familiar with, or fond of, contemporary art and design (I try!); I do love the work of Julie Mehretu.
Growing up in Toronto, a large and multi-cultural city with good museums and galleries, also helped me develop my taste. Travel to Paris, Venice, Florence, London, Berlin, Boston, D.C. and San Francisco, (to name a few places), has showed me more amazing art.
Two of our favorite museums focus on Asian design — the Sackler in Washington, D.C. and the Guimet in Paris.
A very rare event for me — I went to this auction and bought two 1920s French prints (Dufy, Vlaminck)
Musically, I feel woefully behind! I haven’t (she says embarassedly) yet tried Spotify, so I need to expand my horizons, although I’m not a fan of rap, hip-hop or country.
Only in the past month have I seen two operas, the first for me in decades, and enjoyed both. I don’t attend as many classical music performances as I could — in New York and environs, there are so many to choose from! — but enjoy it when I do.
As for popular music concerts…sigh. Some of the people I want to see sell out within minutes, generally.
And yet, and yet, the director, Feras Fayyad, was wise to also include much laughter and joy, the men singing and even taking a sunny, if brief, day out in the playground, with a bunch of their delighted little kids, to leaven the brutality.
It’s too easy to think we know this place or to not care about it — but here’s a little girl and her Dad going to six Aleppo pharmacies to try to find vitamins because her hands are now weakened by malnutrition. There are none to be found.
Here’s a couple going to get married, in the middle of death and destruction.
Here’s the men buying a bag full of goldfish, perhaps the most unlikely purchase imaginable in what is basically a war zone, combing the city to find enough water and then filling a fountain with fish and water.
As a journalist in New York, I get invited daily to events meant to promote new products and services, hotels and restaurants. I ignore 99.9 percent of them.
But I’ve long been deeply intrigued by the White Helmets and their work.
Not even sure how I ended up on this press list — as the room was filled with industry folk being asked to vote as Academy members on its merits — but I’m so glad I had the chance to see it, and a brief Q and A in the room with its director, who is now making a second film about a female doctor working there, and having to sneak back into his own country to do so safely.
My father made documentaries for a living, so I’m fascinated — both as a journalist and a lover of film — by how and when these stories are filmed and told.
I’ve read a lot about the war in Syria, and knew of the White Helmets, but never viscerally understood what they do, why they do it and the tremendous physical and emotional toll if takes.
I woke up this morning to a Twitter feed filled with images of a skinny white woman about to marry a billionaire, Pippa Middleton, sister of the Duchess of Cambridge.
This week, 242 people died of cholera in Yemen.
Guess which got the most attention?
To many people, now, both are journalism — and possibly of equal value.
Not in my book. I’ve done it for a living since 1978.
I’m really weary of watching fellow reporters fawning endlessly over the wealthy and powerful and their private jets and their super-yachts and their pretty lives.
What good does any of this voyeurism offer to a broken world filled with growing income inequality but a reminder that 99.9% of us will never live a life even vaguely resembling this.
All this, as the Trumps and his billionaire Cabinet take millions from other plutocrats to craft policy to make them all even richer.
If you haven’t yet seen Spotlight — which won the Oscar for Best Picture in 2015 — or All The President’s Men — a 1976 film was nominated in that category but that won four other Oscars — do it. Soon!
Spotlight tells the story of a team of reporters at the Boston Globe who uncovered a sex abuse scandal within the Catholic church, for which they received American journalism’s highest honor, the Pulitzer Prize, in 2003. The film makes clear, as does ATPM, that real reporting and journalism that can topple powerful, secretive abusers. It takes time, teamwork and tough editors and reporters who simply refuse to give up once they realize the magnitude of the story, even as it looks impossible to get.
In ATPM, two Washington Post reporters, Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward — two real people of the same names — bring down President Richard Nixon after months of piecing together disparate facts and crimes, all the way met with denials and resistance. In one great scene that every reporter can identify with, the editor in chief, Ben Bradlee, says, “I have to really trust my reporters. And I hate trusting anyone.”
In our business, serious mistakes can end a career.
In both films, weary, rumpled reporters do what most journalists actually do — knock on dozens of strangers’ doors (often met with resistance or hostility) looking for sources to speak to them and confirm what they have so far learned or suspected, read through reams of paper documents to find the ones that matter, meet with scared, reluctant witnesses to, or victims of, the crimes, trying to persuade them to put the facts “on the record”, i.e. make them public.
Much of true journalism is slow, tedious, quiet, behind the scenes. It can involve a lot of frustration as you hit dead end after dead end, source after source who refuses to help or to comment, fearful for their job, reputation, even their life.
It’s the opposite of fawning over the wealthy and powerful, which so many now see as “journalism.”
As Trump and his family, and associates, continue to prompt more and deeper investigation, remember that it’s the reporting by The New York Times and Washington Post that have brought much of their behaviors to light.
Imagine being 13 — and wanting to do something that only men have ever done.
Imagine having to climb a terrifyingly steep cliff to capture an eaglet from its nest.
Imagine living in a landscape of such beauty it defies description.
A new documentary, The Eagle Huntress, must be one of the most beautiful films you’ll ever see, filmed in the Altai Mountains of Mongolia and focused on Aisholpan, a young girl — who daubs her nails with purple polish, who lugs cans of fresh milk from her family’s cows, who lives five nights a week in a dormitory at her school.
Her grandfather and father have long been champion golden eagle-hunters, a sport that requires each hunter to find, capture and train a young eagle to hunt on command. An annual competition, complete with scorecards and stopwatch-wielding judges, determines who gets bragging rights as the best. The event draws men of all ages, and she is the only female.
Imagine the pressure!
Aisholpan is a joy to watch, everything you’d expect of a 13-year-old — and much more. She’s calm, determined, easy-going and brave.
No Ipads or cellphones for her; technology for these ger-dwelling nomads consists of a transistor radio and a portable solar panel.
Her quest to find, train and work with her eagle makes a terrific story, and an unlikely but likeable young heroine, with many obstacles along the way. While the film’s main focus is on the annual competition, it also shows her and her father trudging for miles in bitter cold and through snow so deep their rugged horses struggle to move, determined to have her eagle hunt, capture and kill a fox.
The cinematography is astounding, using everything from a GoPro to drones.
I’ve been wanting to visit Mongolia for years, ever since I did some film research on it. Now I’m even more curious.
Shot in Montana, every frame looks like a painting, with gray clouds and snowy mountains and open fields.
This new film, starring Michelle Williams, Laura Dern, Kristen Stewart and lesser-known Amy Gladstone, is slow, sad, powerful.
The director, a woman, Kelly Reichardt — who also wrote the screenplay from stories by Maile Meloy — made another film I enjoyed, Wendy and Lucy, which also starred Michelle Williams, about a young woman alone on the road.
The budget was $2 million, pocket change for any Hollywood blockbuster.
I liked so many things about this film:
— Michelle Williams, a movie star whose presence is always quiet and contemplative
— Amy Gladstone is perfectly cast as a lonely, shy ranch hand
— The Montana landscapes and sense of place and distance made me want to hop a plane there immediately
— This entire film focuses on three women and their complex lives. They’re not skinny/gorgeous/wearing expensive clothing. They’re facing a difficult client (one is a small-town lawyer), a difficult husband, a difficult life, a job that’s not what one had hoped for.
It’s how so many of us feel so often in life, swimming against a ferocious current in the only stream we’ve got.
— The actresses look like real women. Stewart’s hair is a mess, her eyes deeply shadowed with exhaustion. Gladstone’s open, hopeful face signals so much of what we feel when we’re so weary of being alone and can’t bear it any longer and there’s no one to love. Dern looks worn out.
Who among us hasn’t looked or felt like this?
— I love the moment when the rancher slides open the barn door every morning, her routine unvaried, her horses and dog her only companions, ever reliant on her skill and attention. You feel both the security of that routine, and its burden.
— There’s no tidy resolution to each of these women’s lives. We dip into their worlds for a while, live in it with them and feel compassion for their challenges, but we leave them behind again in the knowledge they’ll likely be just as challenged the next day. What a concept: real life!
It easily passes the Bechdel test — i.e. it’s focused on women and their ideas and relationships.
Made in 1985, it opens and closes with a great tune by Simple Minds, Don’t You (Forget About Me) and was shot in a set in the gym of a high school closed in 1981.
But it’s really about what it feels like to be a teenager — misunderstood or ignored or bullied by your peers and/or teachers. To feel at odds with your parents, whose lofty expectations of success and prowess — you know, living up to your potential— can feel like an elephant sitting on your chest.
The movie was shot within three months for a reputed $1 million, since earning more than $97 million in box-office receipts. I can’t imagine how many residual checks its actors are still receiving, decades later.
It’s also about something that really never changes, no matter where you live or when you grew up — how you can spend four years in high school and walk past the same people for days, weeks and months assuming you have nothing in common, nothing to say to them or vice versa.
The five students are each a “type” — the criminal, the princess, the brain, the recluse and the jock.
I identify most with the brain, the nerdy kid who geeks out over physics and Latin club. Not that I was so smart, but I definitely didn’t fit the other categories.
I arrived at my Toronto high school halfway through Grade 10, a terrible time to arrive — halfway through the second year?! Even worse, I’d chosen a school in a neighborhood so insular that everyone there had been attending the same schools since their first grade. The lines were well-drawn, the cliques established.
I hadn’t even been in a public school, or in a classroom with boys, since Grade Seven. I had pimples and wore the wrong clothes and was far too confident, (having attended single sex schools and camps where I won every award available.)
I was nicknamed Doglin, barked at in the hallways, a dog bone laid on my desk. It was brutal. I cried every day after school and would crawl into bed with all my clothes on when I got home.
My torturers were all male, a gang of three or four, one a redhead with freckles whose 50s-ish nickname (and this long past the 1950s) was Moose.
I made a few dear friends, which kept me sane, and I made the team, two years in a row, for a high school television quiz show and our team did really well.
It finally got better in my senior year when — yay!!!!! — I even got chosen as prom queen, and will regret forever I have no photo of my gorgeous butter yellow chiffon gown, complete with matching scarf. I’m not sure I ever felt so pretty. Even then, a very long time ago, it cost $125, a bloody fortune.
By the time I graduated, I’d had a really cool boyfriend, sold three photos to a magazine for its cover and another to our school library. I’d rounded up my pals to create a school newspaper that fellow students were glad to have once more.
I still don’t know what turned it all around, but am so glad it had a happy ending.
Then, at our 20th. reunion, I re-met one of my closest friends and we re-ignited our friendship, which has continued on for decades more. We’ve visited their lake-side home in Ontario many times, in every season, and our husbands love spending time together.
Neither of us ever had children.
But our friendship is a joy and a pleasure I thought we’d lost.
By now, I’ve seen this 2006 film so many times I know the dialogue and soundtrack pretty much by heart.
It’s the story of a young, ambitious New York City journalist, Andrea Sachs, who ends up working at a fashion magazine, Runway, (a clear stand-in for Vogue), for a brutally demanding boss, Miranda Priestley.
Initially schlubby in dress and grooming, and resentful at her less-than-intellectual position — fetching coffees and selecting skirts — Andy soon wises up, dresses up and wins the day.
I felt different. I no longer expected to be rewarded for my long, uninterrupted workdays with respect, let alone cash. I didn’t expect anyone to celebrate my personal triumphs with me; instead, I braced myself for criticism I could neither anticipate nor diffuse. I was tired but sleepless, dogged by anxiety…I drooled at the thought of a schedule that would leave me time to care for myself.
I realized there would always be someone hungrier willing to race to the bottom of the payroll for a shot at a byline on a viral story. Not long after that revelation, I quit.
The day before what should’ve been my last at the newspaper, an editor I once respected and trusted chose to unleash his frustration with the industry and his colleagues on me. He called me lazy and defiant, held the door open, and told me to get out.
It doesn’t matter much if you’re entering the field of journalism or any other. There are things you learn in your first full-time paid job that may sear, scare or freak you out.
The world of work is like landing on another planet after the structured, self-selected and nurturing life of high school and college, the attentive concern of your parents, teachers and some professors.
The work rulebook is invisible but essential.
The rules shift, sometimes daily.
Your “best friend” at work might turn out to be your worst enemy. Or your next boss.
No one will hold your hand and a few, sadly, will be thrilled to watch you fail.
It’s worth watching the film just to hear some of Miranda’s drawled bon mots:
Just move at a glacial pace. You know how that thrills me.
Details of your incompetence do not interest me.
Please bore someone else with your questions.
And, much as an entry-level worker might think “She’s soooooo mean!”, anyone who’s had to manage someone lazy, inattentive or generally gormless has longed to say them out loud.
And 10 reasons I still think TDWP is a great primer:
No one really cares about your feelings
Your job is to make your boss happy and make sure her/his needs are met on time, preferably ahead of deadline. It’s tough when no one asks “How’s it going? or “How do you feel about this?”
Well, yes. Your boss only got, and keeps, their job because (ideally) they set a very high bar for themself and for those they work with.
“Trying” has little value here
(Or as Yoda said in Star Wars, Do, or do not. There is no try.) Your boss may have zero to no interest in your difficulty attaining the goals s/he has set for you. It’s highly unlikely that anyone will give you a gold star or pat on the back just for trying (and failing.) Effort is expected — and results are now what matter most.
No one is going to say “Good job!”
Some young workers have been raised by parents, teachers and others who constantly and lavishly praised their efforts, even if they lost every soccer game that season or peppered their copy with typos, (like the blog post above in which she manages to confuse the word defuse with diffuse, not impressive for a NYT writer.) Get used to a world where your paycheck and continued employment are the measure of your value to the team. Expecting more than that marks you as needy and unrealistic.
Dress the part if you want to be taken seriously
You’re broke or have student loan debt or no sense of style? Too bad. Find a decent thrift or consignment shop and invest in the very best quality clothing worn by the senior people in your field. Keep your hair trimmed, clean and tidy. Polish your shoes and keep a fresh manicure. As Andy quickly learns, dressing appropriately for your industry shows respect for those who have attained its highest levels. They played the game and expect you to do likewise. Ignore this at your professional peril.
You have to figure things out really fast
Even if you have no idea, even during a meeting, what people are talking about. Read everything relevant to your industry — blogs, websites, publications, podcasts. Attend every conference possible; (you can often get in cheaper by offering to volunteer there.) Your job is to be smart and helpful, not to clutch desperately at the ankles of others who’ve already mastered the game.
Self-reliance is key
If your boss is older than 40, and some will be, they grew up in a very different world than someone now in their early 20s. They’ve already emotionally and professionally survived three recessions in 20 years and have probably pivoted multiple times along the way. No matter how much help you may consider normal, leave those expectations at the office door each morning.
You need to manage up, down and sideways
The only way Andy survives her job is by relying on the kindness, wisdom and help of others, from the driver who chauffeurs her to her boss’ home to deliver her dry-cleaning to a freelance writer who helps her obtain a manuscript before publication. Cultivate a wide and powerful network of people who know, like and trust you. Help them as often and much as you can so you’ve got a favor bank to call on in times of need.
Your personal life may have to suffer for a while
As Eisenhart discovered in the blog post above, and Andy finds no time for her fed-up live-in boyfriend, work in a new/first job can sometimes consume your life. It shouldn’t forever, but it might for as long as it takes to prove to your boss and co-workers that you’re 100 percent reliable.
Andy’s transformation from whiny baby to organizational whiz is a lesson every new employee needs to learn. Whatever will keep you ahead of the game — apps, multiple alarm clocks, spreadsheets — will also keep you calm, helpful and pro-active, not dodging wildly and panicking when things, as they often will, go awry.
Bonus: flexibility is key
Things change, sometimes with no warning. The most valued workers are those who remain cool, calm and on it, adapting quickly. No whining! No “This sucks!”