2016 Unfinished Business – The Best of What I Read

It’s January 22, 2017, but I have some unfinished business from 2016 and I’m taking care of it right here.

I can only remember one resolution I made going into 2016: Keep track of all the media I consumed – movies, articles, books, music, television – that caught my eye. Looking back, I can actually say I did a good job. Not a perfect job, but a job good enough that I’m willing to elaborate on the process.

What I’m sharing here are the online articles I read, though some of them lived in print, too. Some are podcasts. To save everything, I emailed a link to myself and saved it in a designated Gmail folder (I used the Notes app on my phone to save lists of movies, books, and TV). As often as possible, I included some context in my email, as well – mentioning how I found the story, where I was when I read it, particular phrases or paragraphs that stood out, or people with whom I discussed the content.

In the beginning, I felt the weight of every article I added. Was this article “worthy”? Was I setting the right criteria? As time wore on, I realized that was the beauty of the project. There were no hard-and-fast criteria. I could make it my own. Anything interesting, thought-provoking, funny…I could add it all.

At the end of the year, there were 138 items in the folder. I recently went back through all of them, and decided these ones stood out – most of them purely for their overall content, but others because of a specific turn of phrase, or because they came to my attention in an interesting way.

There are a few more thoughts after the linkage, elaborating on the broader themes I noticed and my plans to do things a little differently in 2017, but without further adieu, here are some good reads from the past year, with assorted commentary, great phrasing, etc., included. I know it’s too long, but once I got started, I couldn’t stop. Enjoy.

(The dates listed here are generally the dates I consumed said story. Sometimes they match with the publication date, sometimes not.)

January 11 – The New York Times’ David Bowie obituary 

  • I love the description of Bowie as “infinitely changeable, fiercely forward-looking”

January 18 – WTF with Marc Maron episode 671: Charlie Kaufman

  • Kaufman on deciding to write Adaptation – “so I thought, what I if I write about me being stuck?”

February 8 – WTF with Marc Maron episode 678: Cindy Crawford

  • I love reading or listening to something that completely opens me up to a new person. Of course I knew who Cindy Crawford was, but did I know anything about her? Her interview with Maron was fascinating, because she basically broke down every preconception I had about her, and told really interesting stories about her early days in modeling, her work with artists like Richard Avedon and Mike Nichols, and her marriages.

February 8 – Colm Toibin on Saoirse Ronan’s New York (Spring Fashion cover story for New York magazine)

  • At the time, this was the best story I read all year. It’s still very high up there, I would say. I even wrote a lot about it on this very blog. Better than anything I’ve ever read, maybe, it perfectly captures what it’s like to move away from home and attempt to embody both the new place you live and the old place you live. “Sometimes she tries to fit in, to pretend that she has not changed at all and that being away is no big deal; other times she flaunts her new self. There is one moment when she walks through the small Irish town wearing sunglasses and a brightly colored dress when she seems like a returned Yank, like our neighbor’s sister, ready to gather the poor natives around her to show them the style she has acquired.”
  • My favorite sentence from the story, describing Saoirse Ronan and her own embodiment of both Ireland and New York: “She invites envy, she lives in light, she loves glamour, but she also moves easily into the shadows.”

February 19 – Jesse David Fox in Vulture, on Steve Martin opening for Seinfeld at a Beacon Theater show

  • I actually laughed out loud as I re-read the article a few days ago. There were such specific observations about Martin’s jokes, noting where he got the biggest laughs. The author clearly took so much joy from his experience watching Martin do a quick bit, and the joy passes easily to the reader of this piece.

February 19 – David Edelstein’s review of “Hail Caesar” on NPR’s “Fresh Air”

  • My favorite part of this review has nothing to do with “Hail Ceasar!” itself. It comes when Edelstein compares it to “The Big Lebowski,” and calls the latter film a “glorious stoner gumshoe hodgepodge,” which is probably the most perfect turn of phrase I heard this year. Have four words ever been so perfectly selected, assembled, and used to convey meaning? I now find it unnecessary to use any other words to describe that film.

February 26 – Richard Brody’s Oscar picks in The New Yorker

  • If “glorious stoner gumshoe hodgepodge” is my favorite turn of phrase for the year purely from a word economy standpoint, then Richard Brody’s explanation for why “The Revenant” was not Leonardo DiCaprio’s most Oscar-worthy performance wins for the phrase that most succinctly gets to a point: “Anyone can eat the liver.” Brody’s point is that Leo is a fine actor, who could have won the Oscar for parts in which he displayed skills few others have. But “The Revenant” was not such a display. “Anyone can eat the liver.” I actually think about that phrase all the time, and I think it applies to more in life than just the Oscars.

March 2 – New York Times story about Sarah Paulson playing Marcia Clark

  • I caught major “People vs. OJ” fever last year; Sarah Paulson’s performance was probably the best I saw in anything all year. I loved this story about her by Michael Schulman in the Times, which was published at the height of the show’s popularity. In particular, I loved his phrasing as he described how Paulson’s performance redeemed Marcia Clark: “As played by Ms. Paulson, she is recast as a chain-smoking feminist underdog.”

March 8 – Nora Ephron in The New Yorker: “My Life as an Heiress”

  • This story was written in 2010, but for some reason The New Yorker posted this on Facebook in March, 2016. I remember wondering why they’d chosen it; maybe it was just randomly selected from the archives for special attention that day. Of course I read it, because it’s Nora Ephron, and I found it to be a delightful piece of easy reading. You hardly even remember you’re reading when you’re reading something of hers – it just is, it is how people talk, it is a depiction of real life you feel instantly familiar with. She recounts drama ensuing from an inheritance she and her sisters were supposed to receive, and the story ties back to When Harry Met Sally…, the work that first made me an Ephron apologist.

March 24 – “How Tracy Morgan’s Accident Made Him Funnier” 

  • Here’s what I wrote when I first read this article: “I always knew I really liked him but there is something about this that I just love. That makes me love him. I think it runs so deeply with my love for 30 Rock that it is like, he’s my uncle or something. Like I’m so glad we have him. I’m so glad he has sharks.” I loved this story. Tracy Morgan is fascinating, and this story was worthy of him. His best line in it: “Gotta keep my octopus alive. Gotta keep my sharks alive. Those are God’s creatures! I’m needed!”

April 5 – Lin-Manuel Miranda featured in the New York Times’ “By the Book”

  • Having just seen Hamilton a few weeks prior to this story, I was in a full-on fever for the show; in some ways the timing of my personal obsession mirrored that of the national obsession. I read countless Ham-related articles that I could share here, but I’m highlighting this one because 1) I love knowing that Lin-Manuel and I share an affection for Doris Kearns Goodwin, and 2) neither of us could make it through Infinite Jest.

April 6 – Matt Zoller Seitz’s “People vs. OJ” post-mortem

  • Here we are with OJ again. I just re-read my notes about this and, man, this is a perfect assessment of the show. Every word of it has you nodding your head, shouting “yes” in agreement and realizing it gives voice to so many of the thoughts you had but couldn’t fully express. Like this about Sterling K. Brown’s performance as Christopher Darden: “Sterling K. Brown’s Darden has a woodwind voice that makes it sound as if he’s inhaling his own frustration…”

April 29 – Rob Reiner on “WTF with Marc Maron”

  • This was 90 minutes of showbiz story time. He talks about his projects, growing up in the business and in Los Angeles, the people he’s closely connected to. He talks about his father’s friendship with Mel Brooks and his own friendship with Albert Brooks (and about how “all of the Reiners were Reiners, but none of the Brookses were Brookses”).

May 31 – Joe Posnanski on taking his daughter to see Hamilton

  • Joe Posnanski turns the ordinary into the eloquent and sees the beauty in the everyday. That’s why I loved his Hamilton story so much. Hamilton itself is not “everyday,” but he tells us what going to Hamilton is like and helps us understand why such an experience is so special. This is the best piece I’ve read about the actual, magical experience of being in the theater, but it’s more than that – a story about fathers and daughters, the misery of being a teenage, the natural tendency to throw yourself into an obsession because it’s more fun than real life.

July 24 – James L. Brooks on “WTF with Marc Maron”

  • This didn’t get to the emotional place that a lot of Maron interviews do (Brooks was never exactly baring his soul), but like the Rob Reiner episode, it was story time. Just the kind of thing TV/movie obsessives like myself can’t get enough of. Brooks also had really nice words for Maron about his work on the podcast, and I love that he called out Maron’s interview with Terry Gross from 2015 as a particular favorite, because that’s the episode that really made me a fan of the show.

September 11 – “The Real Heroes are Dead” 

  • The New Yorker posted this 2002 story to Facebook on the 15th anniversary of 9/11. I remember laying in bed that night, clicking on it mindlessly, then finding I’d read the whole piece. It’s a love story (as its subtitle says)about a couple who found each other later in life; he worked in security for Morgan Stanley, worked in the World Trade Center, and died on September 11, 2001. My perspective on 9/11 – the day itself, not any attendant politics – has changed so much since moving to New York. Of course, as a kid in Oregon, we all knew what was happening and mourned. But New Yorkers – their husbands died. Dust and debris fell in their backyards. I’ve seen firsthand how deeply that day cut for people, and Susan Rescorla, the widow in this New Yorker story, is one such person.

September 13 – Billy Crystal on “WTF with Marc Maron”

  • Am I overdoing it with the Maron episodes here? I don’t care if I am! His show is great, and not that being on my list of must-consume media is some great prize, but I think it’s a testament to the quality of his interviewing skills and his ability to get to the heart of a person. People tell Maron stories they don’t tell anyone else. But anyway, this Billy Crystal interview. I realized how distinctive his voice is – like his actual speaking voice. Maybe I only realized it here because I have never otherwise heard him talk for such an extended period of time. His wit is effortless and unique, his one-liners perfection. And the story he told about watching the televised Vietnam draft (his birthday was never selected) will stay with me.

October 7 – Vulture on the joke density of 30 Rock 

  • This story was published in April, 2016, and I know I read it then, but I apparently didn’t add it to the folder until October. I think about this every time I watch 30 Rock now – how so many of the jokes are there just to be jokes, not to develop character or advance story. The whole point of this story was to compare season two of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt to 30 Rock in that way, but it ended up changing a lot of my perspective on this show I love.

November 13 – Van Jones on race, post-election

  • Whatever your thoughts on the election and its outcome, I think you’ll find something in this article, especially in this from Jones:

I see the rebels on the rise and I see the Establishment on the ropes and I have some sympathy for all the rebels. Whether it’s the Sanders voters and Black Lives Matter or whether it’s the tea party and the Trump voters. I agree that there’s an elite in the country that’s let a whole bunch of us down. What I am desperately trying to do is, if I can, help the rebels understand each other better. We’re not going to agree on much, but the way forward here is for liberals to really do what we accuse the Trump voters of not doing. In other words, to empathize with the pain of their fellow human beings. This idea that Trump voters are all bad and Hillary voters are all good or Hillary voters are all bad, Trump voters are all good — that’s what’s getting us into trouble. On all sides, I see hypocrisy and blind spots and pain.

November 30 – “While We Weren’t Looking, Snapchat Revolutionized Social Networks” 

  • Snapchat became part of my regular social network routine in spring/summer 2015, and I’ve become a bigger and bigger fan of it as time has gone on. This column by Farhad Manjoo solidified my understanding of its larger importance. And I loved how it highlighted Snapchat’s human quality: “And perhaps most important, its model for entertainment and journalism values human editing and curation over stories selected by personalization algorithms — and thus represents a departure from the filtered, viral feeds that dominate much of the rest of the online news environment.”

Nothing from December needed to be urgently added here, so I’m leaving it at that.

A few others I want to highlight but ran out of steam to dissect fully:

As I reflect on the whole experience, I’ve decided the biggest tweak I want to make in 2017 is to diversify – both in sources and in topics. So many of the articles I highlighted here are from New York Magazine, the New York Times, and The New Yorker. Those are all publications I love, and I’ll continue to read and save their stories. And while my overall list (beyond what I highlighted above) included many other sources, like GQ, The Washington Post, other podcasts, The A.V. Club, IndieWire, Vanity Fair, and more, I want to make an active effort to read stories I might not naturally be drawn to, from outlets whose purview is unique from that of what I already read.

I loved creating something piece-by-piece, day-by-day, not really thinking as the time went on about how I was actually compiling a time capsule of my year. Looking through everything I saved was a reminder of what I read, what held my interest, what made me sad, and what I learned. I’ll report back in 12 months with the next set of findings.

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All My Random Thoughts on House of Cards, Season 3

Where do I start with House of Cards? I finished season three last night – that’s record binge-viewing time for me – and each time I think about it, new theories, thoughts and questions pop into my head. This was such an intriguing season, and it was definitely my favorite of the three so far.

I realized a few episodes in that this was my favorite season of HoC because it’s the season that can be most easily compared to The West Wing. This New York Times Magazine Beau Willimon profile from last year made a perfect connection between the two – that each generation gets the political show representative of its moment – and, yes, even last year as Vice President, Frank entered the realm of the White House. But now he’s really in the White House, and his supporting cast more closely mirrors that of The West Wing.

Throughout the season, I found myself comparing House of Cards characters with their West Wing counterparts. The Underwood-Bartlet comparison doesn’t amount to much, or at least it didn’t to me. The one I found myself thinking about most often was Remy (Underwood’s Chief of Staff) and Josh Lyman (Bartlet’s Deputy Chief of Staff). It actually didn’t dawn on me until right now, as I write this, that Josh is never actually Bartlet’s Chief of Staff – he’s only the deputy in that administration. But I think the comparison holds; Josh and Remy are more comparable than Leo and Remy, age-wise, so maybe that’s why it sprang to mind, but I also think Josh does more Remy-like things than Leo. Anyways.

This is where I couldn’t get it out of my mind: When it’s clear the hurricane has turned and the America Works program will die because Frank’s signed that bill, he leaves the situation room and asks Remy what can be done to stop it and get the AmWorks funding back. Remy doesn’t know what to do, and basically tells Frank it’s hopeless. Faced with the same situation and the same amount of time, Josh Lyman would have gotten the bill back, rescued AmWorks, and given Donna a condescending explanation of whatever Constitutional loophole he used to accomplish the previous feat.

On a more peripheral level, I’m always interested in the way different politically focused shows and movies concentrate on different players. I mean, I get it – each show chooses who they want to tell the story through – but I just wonder how those decisions are made, and why. There is no Toby Ziegler or Sam Seaborn in HoC (or at least no depiction of their counterparts, because the real Sam and Toby would probably flee the country if Frank Underwood was president). In the same way, The West Wing never had (if my memory serves) a U.N. Ambassador present during tense moments in the situation room.

Aside from the ease with which West Wing comparisons can be made, HoC season three was my favorite because for a long time, we don’t know where it’s going. Season one, these characters and this story are brand-new, and we don’t even know what we could assume. Season two, it’s fairly obvious Frank will become President. But season three, Frank is President. So where will it go?

I loved watching Frank struggle with the day-to-day issues of the presidency, rather than make the broad-strokes moves to get there in the first place, which we saw in the first two seasons. You remember he actually has a job to do. But even though that’s why I loved the season as a whole, it’s also why the ending left me dissatisfied. It felt like the finale concentrated on storylines that hadn’t been considered much at all in the previous 12 episodes. Of course Doug has to find Rachel, and of course we have to get some idea of what’s going on with the Underwood marriage (this Vulture piece articulates a lot of frustrations I had with the season’s end, as far as Frank and Claire’s relationship), but I was disappointed we didn’t get a closer look at how Heather Dunbar narrowly lost the Iowa primary, or get some idea where Jackie Sharp’s headed next, now that she’s done campaigning and admitted unhappiness in her marriage.

Slightly disappointing ending aside, though, I still thought this was a fabulous season. These are my other lingering, random thoughts:

  • End of episode two, when Claire cracks those two eggs into a pan. WHAT DOES IT MEAN.
  • Even if there weren’t direct comparisons to all the characters, there were some moments that reminded me of West Wing Frank’s visit to the bishop reminded me of when Toby went to chat with his rabbi. Heather Dunbar’s surprise announcement of her candidacy reminded me of CJ’s surprise when that awful Peter Lillianfield gave a surprise press conference about alleged drug use among White House staffers.
  • I liked Thomas Yates, the author Frank hired. But I will never love a writer on this show as much as I loved Janine Skorsky.
  • This scene – Frank sings a little ditty for guests after the Petrov dinner – is straight out of my fever dream.

frank singing!

  • The dialogue between Claire Underwood and Michael Corrigan, as they negotiate in his prison cell, is insanely good. As is the dialogue between Frank and Claire later that episode, when they’re fighting on the plane.
  • This show reminded me how House of Cards season one really introduced me to the greatness of Kevin Spacey, who is now one of my most beloved actors. I’d seen him in movies before this show, but I remember watching the first season and then wanting to know all of his other stuff. I watched L. A. Confidential not long after finishing season one, and it’s now one of my favorite films. I kind of forgot until this weekend how HoC was responsible for my love of Spacey.

So, I’m sure tons of other thoughts and theories will come to mind as I chew on this season and discuss with others. Here’s to season four.

Feeling Sad About Robin Williams

I didn’t expect to feel like this, but the news of Robin Williams’ death has gutted me. I still can’t exactly put my finger on why. It’s partly because everyone knows him. (At some point in your life, you’ve laughed at something Robin Williams did. And now he’s gone. No new laughs.) It’s partly because someone who made us all laugh was, at the same time, facing such a scary set of demons.

The root of my sadness, though, might be my realization that Robin Williams’ genius and talent was wasted on me. I’ve been reading and watching a lot about Williams in the last 24 hours, and nothing has articulated my feelings better than this Deadspin piece by film critic Tim Grierson – well, maybe it didn’t so much articulate what I felt as it did expose the true reason I was heartbroken.

Grierson’s larger point was that he regretted ever being disappointed in Williams for doing movies like Flubber and Patch Adams, and that he didn’t appreciate until after the actor died how “different audiences loved him for different things.” “Now,” he says, “I realize the greater disappointment: There will be only so many more Robin Williams movies left to come.” Perhaps my personal disappointment stems more from the fact that I never paid Robin Williams much attention at all – though he was one of those actors who always lurk in the back of your mind, who are present enough that you never see them and wonder, “huh, wonder where he’s been for 10 years” – and that now I’m having to come to terms with the fact that there won’t be anything else. I never appreciated the genius at the height of his craft.

But even though I hadn’t seen enough of his movies or watched much of his stand-up, I (and everyone else) knew Robin Williams was a thing. He was famous. He was important. He was not a niche celebrity. The piece I’ve read since his death that best articulates his cultural importance is comedian Chris Gethard’s story about doing improv with Williams one night at UCB. He makes the most perfect illustrations and comparisons to describe what Robin Williams meant to this world.

He talked about how he and his friends would pretend to sleep while their parents watched Williams do stand-up. “…and we laughed even though we didn’t know why he sweated so much or moved so fast or referenced a thing called cocaine so often.”

I know it wasn’t Robin Williams stand-up, but I have a very specific memory of doing the exact same thing once when my parents were watching Letterman – we were in a hotel room on vacation, I was probably ten years old, and had my eyes closed while trying to stifle laughs about jokes I didn’t really get but still knew were hilarious. That illustration made sense to me. Robin Williams was that funny.

This analogy – Robin Williams is to comedy as Chuck Berry is to rock and roll – struck a chord with me, too (pardon the French):

To a crowd that loves improv, Robin Williams is like Chuck Berry. For a lot of them he is a little dated, or a guy their parents liked, or someone that they’ve heard the legend of but maybe never knew at his best — but when you listen to his solos and his spirit and his energy, there is no denying that he is rock and fucking roll.

 

Robin Williams is comedy, but he is also, in his own shy way, rock and fucking roll.

“Heard the legend of but maybe never knew at his best.” I know Robin Williams fifty times better today than I did when I first heard of his death. It all makes me sad. But I’m grateful for the words of others who articulated why losing him hurts so badly.