Covid sucks. And now, on to the media things.
I’ve seen far fewer movies this year than is normal for me. I miss movie theaters so much; it’s just not the same to turn on my TV every night and stream something. But still, a few movies have worked their way into my brain, mostly in a good way.
Emma [I REFUSE to add the period]
At some point I planned to write a piece comparing the two Austen adaptations I watched this year, Sanditon and Emma. And then the global pandemic hit and I lost my will to do anything. But I do want to say a word about Emma, a valuable screen adaptation of my third favorite Jane Austen novel. Self-delusion — myopic selfishness — is an important subject in all of Austen’s novels, but it is key to Emma, a work in which the main character (often accompanied by the audience) congratulates herself on her superiority until her confidence gets (appropriately) ripped away from her during a series of increasingly arrogant errors in judgment.
It’s clear this blindness was a serious point of consideration from director Autumn de Wilde, who has thought about what this must look like — not just what the situations are which demonstrate this, as Austen has given us, nor just what the words of conceit sound like, supplied by a mixture of Austen and screenwriter Eleanor Catton, but what the visual choreography is of people who are so rich they can no longer see the ridiculousness of their positions: their footmen scurrying like Georgian Things 1 and 2, the ornamental ball dangling from a stick stabbed into a coiffure, servants removing every article of their employers’ clothing, and putting every article back on. It is the breadth of this vision that brings something fresh to a famous and frequently adapted story. De Wilde has presented neither a subservient hagiographic adaptation, nor a condescending revision of the perceived deficiencies of Austen, even though, upon finding something a little wanting in a redemptive arc, she has shaped it herself. Her adaptation is warm, wise and funny — a piece of loving criticism joining a rare group of literary screen adaptations that are thoughtful about the adaptation process itself.
This is in contrast to Sanditon, a work in which Andrew Davies decided his habit of just adding (mostly implied) sex to Jane Austen was not a sufficient addressing of her flaws, and threw in some incest (lo, the incestuous ones⤵️)
Another movie that has lingered for me this year is Bad Education. As a public school teacher, I recognized the setting of this movie in my bones. This may be a rich school populated by rich people — a population entirely dissimilar from my own rural school — but schools function with a dreadful sameness, and this movie recreates that atmosphere with unsettling verisimilitude. Alison Janney and Hugh Jackman both deliver defining performances of ordinary con artists, but the subtle indictment of their victims is the element that most distinguishes this move: after four years of our Con Artist in Chief, one thing we’ve learned is that it can be as great a sin to be conned as it is to con.
First-Time Watches (this year or not!)
Some of the other best movies I saw for the first time this year are these: Dark Victory — almost nothing is as good as a Bette Davis melodrama; Dark Waters — because I will love your corporation-causing-environmental-chaos movies, but I must affirm the wife part SUCKS; Mad Max — genuinely unsettling; Written on the Wind — not a Bette Davis melodrama, but a Lauren Bacall Douglas Sirk one!; Desperately Seeking Susan — not quite After Hours, but pretty good nonetheless; Key Largo — hurricanes! Bogie and Bacall!; Blue Velvet — horrifying, yet unforgettable; Eve’s Bayou — maybe the best movie I saw this year; This is My Life — a perfect Nora Ephron movie, but a bittersweet reminder that we don’t have Nora Ephron movies anymore because there was only one Nora Ephron; Aliens — exquisite; Purple Noon — yes, I do want to watch a mystery about a narcissistic predator, starring the HOTTEST FRENCH PEOPLE IN THE WORLD; Chariots of Fire — I’m sorry, but it’s Actually Good; Let Them All Talk — may the listening faces of Lucas Hedges live forever; and Promising Young Woman, one of the few movies I was able to see in theaters this year.
Books have saved my life this year. I have been in every kind of reading rut this year — an all nonfiction rut, an all romance or mystery rut, an all audiobook rut, an all rereading rut — but books themselves have not failed me.
Why Does He Do That? (Lundy Bancroft)
The two most important books I read this year were both works of nonfiction, (surely the only year of my life I’ve said that). Lundy Bancroft has worked with men who commit domestic violence: his book functions as an important recalibration of how we think about abusive men, based on his years of research. A main finding of Bancroft is that an abusive man’s behavior stems from his value system, his beliefs, his entitlement, rather than from his feelings, his anger, his reactions, his childhood, or any other commonly understood cause.
This is not rocket science — nothing in this book is unfamiliar to someone who has spent time and energy attempting to understand domestic violence — but it is such a precise and careful unveiling of his research that the book can be almost overwhelmingly accurate. The ramifications of his findings need to be understood by everyone: men, women, children, anyone in a romantic relationship, anyone in a parental relationship, anyone who has standing in a community, anyone who is someday going to discover that some man they knew socially is abusive. I’ll be recommending this book for the rest of my life.
Ain’t I a Woman? (bell hooks)
The focus of this small volume is black women — how they have been the target of racism and sexism, historic and current, in America. Like Bancroft, bell hooks draws upon depths of research to correct the language and the stereotypes that have so often comprised our faulty understanding of race and gender. Much of Ain’t I a Woman? is bell hooks drawing attention to carelessness in generalizations that have led to inaccurate understanding of history: how labeling enslaved black women as prostitutes covered up the barbarity of white men, how writing that the most cruel effect of slavery being the dehumanization of black men ignores the masculinization of female slaves, while simultaneously establishing that society’s worst fear for men is that they become forced to endure the status of women. How white women tolerated the abuse of black women as a self-protective measure, and sometimes just because it would have been more embarrassing if their husbands had slaked their lust on white women. hooks critiques white feminism, and (unlike the kind of criticism feminism typically receives) her words are both accurate and necessary. The first two chapters that deal with slavery are essential reading for every American, and although the focus narrows in the last three chapters, they’re still full of trenchant cultural observations.
Almost everything I listened to on Audible was a reread, as I find that an easier way to listen. Here’s a few thoughts I had about a few I heard: Samira Wiley reads The Color Purple so perfectly that I wish all my students could hear it, so they could hear the rhythm of the voices and the sentences, so they could hear the alteration in tone and vocabulary and spirit from Celie to Nettie, so they could feel just how big this domestic story is. Jeremy Irons does a great reading of Brideshead Revisited; Rebecca Hall has great fun with Room With a View, while Thandie Newton’s reading of Jane Eyre was the fresh approach I needed to revisit a book so familiar to me.
Hugh Fraser should be the narrator of every Agatha Christie book — choose other narrators (even Richards Armitage and E. Grant) at your own risk. I had to rewind Casino Royale to double check if Dan Stevens had just uttered the words “the sweet tang of rape” and yes, those are words that Ian Fleming wrote. Dan Stevens is a wonderful narrator, but if I wanted that much misogyny with no personal or literary benefit, I would have stayed in fundamentalism.* To my great regret, Audible has only a hodgepodge of indifferently recorded Peter Wimsey books – no Murder Must Advertise or Gaudy Night— but I’m assuming the number of people who care about this cannot be great.
*I wouldn’t have; there were other considerations.
Other books that I have subjectively determined were worth my time this year: Thick and Other Essays (Tressie McMillan Cottom), Midnight at Chernobyl (Adam Higginbotham), The Price of Salt (Patricia Highsmith), Jack (Marilynne Robinson), Call Me By Your Name (André Aciman), Normal People (Sally Rooney), Real Life (Brandon Taylor), plus my favorite romance of the year, Love Lettering (Kate Clayborn). On a more negative note, two books that I can belatedly assure any book club members are not worth your time: Water for Elephants and The Goldfinch.
I barely recall most of the TV I watched this year: at some point near the end of the spring, I watched an entire 6-season BBC show a friend recommended, and a couple months later I couldn’t even remember the title (Scott & Bailey – had to look up the Scott part again). Of the ones I can remember, the two shows I enjoyed the most are both comedies about people trying really hard to be better people: Never Have I Ever and Ted Lasso.
The worst show I watched this year was The Morning Show, but Run was a close second. I liked Perry Mason, Normal People, The Flight Attendant, and The Baby-Sitters Club, as well as the second seasons of Succession, Sex Education, and My Brilliant Friend. I’m also in the midst of a group watch of Crash Landing on You, my first k-drama, and that has been one of the more rewarding watching experiences of the year! I mean, look at that villain/secondary love interest’s Dorian Gray costume. He wears clothes this good every episode (well, maybe almost as good; these two pieces of knitwear may be the greatest looks of the show).
I actually got back into sudoku last year during the stretch of eleven snow days in January-March 2019. Ever since then, I’d play a casual game here on my Sudoku.com app, often a daily challenge, etc. I found the Expert puzzles nearly impossible, though, and although I knew better techniques for solving them existed, I never looked into them. That changed when about five people I follow shared Cracking the Cryptic’s Miracle Sudoku, a 25 minute video of a man doing sudoku that turned out to be my favorite video of the year (WATCH IT IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN IT YET; IT IS GLORIOUS AND LIFE-AFFIRMING.)
I began watching Cracking the Cryptic’s videos about advanced sudoku, and I’m now thrilled to tell you that I’m pretty good! Just switching to Snyder notation made a world of difference, but I’m also getting better at incorporating X-wings and other kinds of special tricks for solving difficult puzzles. I’m unhealthily obsessed with expert puzzles on my sudoku app or with shaving off a few seconds on my easy puzzles (1.31 is my current best time).
In a year where we’ve watched the world we inherited fall to pieces, it’s been comforting to stare at numbers until I can determine how to fit them into a tidy grid. I do not have the slightest grasp of what we can do— what I can do — to solve the problems that have exploded beyond our control, I don’t know what to do about the crisis of misinformation, of deceit, of corruption that has destroyed the wisdom and morality of nearly every person I grew up with: all I can attempt is to be firm in my own, limited orbit, learning all I can, trying to infuse wisdom and morality into my decisions and my thoughts, all while reading some good books, watching some good movies, and improving my Games Without Mistakes percentage.
Happy New Year. I really hope this one will be better.