Read Lately: “Personal History”

This Memorial Day (in New York City, at least) was one of my favorite kinds of days: A day off, but not one where it’s warm and sunny and I’m filled with guilt about not being outside. It’s cloudy, a little rainy, and I’m sitting on my bed in a mood to write about nothing in particular.

Right now my mind is on Rome. I’ll be there in a week and I’m ready. Well, ready in the sense that I have planned a lot of outfits, acquired lots of miscellaneous toiletry items, and formed a basic outline of what to do each day. But the fact that I’ll actually be walking around Rome in a week hasn’t quite sunk in.

I’m going with my roommate, and my sister will fly down from Germany to meet us. The three of us tackled Munich, Salzburg, and Prague last summer, and while that was a great trip, I’m excited to keep our travels to a tighter range this year; after Rome, we’re just going down to the Amalfi coast. Most of my prep so far has concentrated on Rome, and I’ve been poring over Rick Steves’ Italy guide (if this trip is anything like last year’s, Rick will essentially be our fourth travel companion; we took his book everywhere and had a lot of “well, what does Rick say we should do?” moments). Also consulted: This post from one of my favorite bloggers, and this Conde Nast Traveler article.

In preparation for this trip, though, I had one major task: Finish a book I’d been reading for way too long (it would have been embarrassing to take it on another plane ride). Last weekend, I finally wrapped up Katharine Graham’s memoir, Personal History. It’s a tremendous book, so filled with detail and vulnerability. The specificity with which she remembered events that were 60 or almost 70 years in the past is impressive. I’ll admit there were times it felt like a slog (a section about the Washington Post’s battle with striking press operators made me feel like I was re-reading A People’s History of the United States). But I’d recommend this book in a heartbeat, because I learned a lot from the way she shared a thoughtful lesson from every experience in life, whether it was her privileged upbringing, the deep personal tragedy of her husband’s suicide, or her learn-as-you-go experience as publisher of the Post.

A few favorite moments, or interesting ideas the book presented to me:

  • Katharine Graham was born in 1917, and was a pioneer as far as women in the publishing world. She talks at length about issues related to this, and openly discusses how she and other women at the Post endured sexism in big and small ways (I remember her talking about how Meg Greenfield, a leader on the Post’s editorial page, was treated with great respect in many senses by her male counterpart, in that he valued her ideas, but she was still the one expected to type up notes from their meetings). But she also talks a lot about how, despite being an industry pioneer, she still came of age in an era where it was ingrained in women that they couldn’t do what men did. And she had a hard time overcoming that. She spent nearly an entire chapter talking about how she came to understand what “feminism” really meant – Gloria Steinem helped educate her – and admitting she didn’t do enough to support female talent at Newsweek, overlooking researchers (a traditionally female role) and not promoting them to bigger writing jobs. One such overlooked researcher? Nora Ephron.

 

  • One thought I kept having: Katharine Graham ruled in a journalism era largely untouched by the pressures of the internet, and she died almost a decade before social media precipitated so much change in media. She always seemed able to look back and honestly assess how she and the Post handled various changes in technology and various unstable times in the country’s history, and I kept thinking about how she would have handled all the issues that would have come up today – yes, the internet, but also Facebook, Twitter, and smartphones. She talked about getting a call from Ben Bradlee on the day of Bobby Kennedy’s assassination, discussing whether they should call a print circulation manager and literally stop the presses. What would she have thought about her paper, purchased by her father in 1933, being sold in 2013 to a man whose other company delivers stuff you buy on the internet to your door in two days?

 

  • Watergate is the reason I knew who Katharine Graham was in the first place, so I was excited to read her perspective on the scandal. I don’t want to say I was disappointed in her Watergate chapters, but they weren’t quite as illuminating as I thought, in large part because Mrs. Graham wasn’t making day-to-day reporting and editing decisions the way someone like Ben Bradlee was. She didn’t really have juicy tidbits about how the story was chased. But, her telling of Watergate gave great insight into Bradlee’s personality and working style, and she shared a few choice anecdotes that are especially satisfying for people with at least a working knowledge of the Watergate tale. My favorite: One of Woodward and Bernstein’s biggest breaks came in the fall of 1972, when they printed that John Mitchell had controlled payments from the Nixon re-election committee slush fund while he had been Attorney General. Famously, when Bernstein called Mitchell to tell him about the story, Mitchell threatened that Graham would “get her tit caught in a big fat wringer if that’s published.” Later, a dentist from California fashioned a tiny wringer out of the gold used to fill teeth, and sent it to her. Someone at the paper made a tiny gold breast to go with it, and she sometimes wore them together on a chain around her neck.

I learned a lot from Personal History. There was something alluring about Katharine Graham’s proximity to so many powerful people, her front-row seat to Washington society and practically all the important political events of the second half of the 20th century. She seemed to be unlike anyone else I’d encountered, in real life or in a book, and I enjoyed getting to know her through this work.

For vacation, I have a couple titles ready to go: Senator Ben Sasse’s new book, The Vanishing American Adult, and Tender is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald. I’m notorious for biting off more than I can chew, reading-wise, on trips, so we’ll see how it goes. I’ll report back.

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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.

Is this thing on?

Not a lot to say here, other than…it’s been awhile.

Why, exactly?

I don’t really know.

I’ve actually come here to write several times in the past few months, but nothing happened. I have a few drafts saved that recount all my summer adventures, from my college friends’ visit in June to my July trip to visit my sister in Germany. But it all felt a little forced. Everything seemed to follow a steady pattern of “Thing A happened to me, and I learned Lesson B.” Even what I’m writing right now feels a little forced, but I’m chalking it up to transition and putting it out there anyway.

Last weekend, I was on a retreat in New Jersey and spent some time talking to friends I hadn’t had a meaningful chat with in awhile. One is a dancer who’s great at encouraging others in their artistic pursuits, and she asked me about writing. Had I been writing? My answer was no, and what struck me most about our brief conversation was that it made me realize…I didn’t even notice I wasn’t writing. I’ve actually done a decent job this year of journaling privately, and keeping track of articles/stories/movies/media I consume. But in terms of writing here on my blog, or sitting down to flesh out little story ideas that come into my mind? I haven’t made any time for that.

I wish I could say that conversation last weekend prompted me to create an intentional schedule where I carve out tons of time for writing and reflection. That’s not exactly the case. But it did put the thought in my mind. If this is purportedly so important to me, why am I not doing more of it? What do I want to write about? What stories do I want to tell? What’s happening in my story – my life in New York City, my relationships, my aspirations?

So, more to come. The next thing I post here could be an essay about four years in New York and that moment you realize you’re not “new” at this anymore…or it could be 1,000 words about how much I love Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. But it will be written, and right now, that’s what I find most important.

Spring Things

I haven’t posted anything here in awhile, and quite honestly, I’m not posting this because I’m brimming with inspiration, but I had a good conversation with a friend last night about having to do creative-ish things – or at least indulge your creative habits – even when you don’t feel like it.

There’s not a whole lot of creativity going on here, either. Just a few podcasts and documentaries and articles that have made me think lately. It’s for the exercise.

Sleepless in Seattle is on TV right now, and it has me thinking about the Nora Ephron documentary, Everything is Copy, which premiered on HBO in March. I’ve watched it once in full, and probably 3/4 of the way through it again, and I know it’s going to be one of those works I keep coming back to. Not even because it is so brilliant (though it was extremely well-done) but because it tells me truths I know I’ll need to remind myself of down the road.

I didn’t really know who Nora Ephron was when I first watched When Harry Met Sally my freshman year of college, but as soon as Sally said, “The story of my life? The story of my life won’t even get me out of Chicago. I mean, nothing’s happened to me yet. That’s why I’m going to New York,” I knew Nora Ephron was for me. The person who made characters who said things like that must get me. That deep connection to those words, though, did not turn me into an expert on the entire Ephron catalogue. I have seen all her Meg Ryan movies, plus Julie and Julia; I’ve read I Feel Bad About My Neck and saw Lucky Guy on Broadway; I know I’ve read assorted other works by her and about her (actually, earlier this year, apropos of nothing, the New Yorker posted this Ephron essay from 2010 to their Facebook page; I’d never heard of it but it was a delight to read).

It was not until Everything is Copy that I felt I had a complete sense of her. The documentary reminded me of her sensibility, and how badly I want to be her. She was a writer, she was funny, she chased adventure, she had an interesting life, she herself was interesting, she was an adult in New York.

I never realized until the documentary how much the subject matter of films like When Harry Met Sally and You’ve Got Mail was a departure from her journalism of the 1970s. I loved hearing David Remnick explain how Nora and the “wised-up, New York comic seriousness” of her Esquire pieces taught him, as a teenager in New Jersey, about feminism. I loved watching Meg Ryan remember her fondly. And even though their marriage didn’t end well, I loved learning about how she met and fell in love with Carl Bernstein.

There are lines I want to remember, yes, in the context of Nora Ephron, but also just as generally great writing advice, or as ideals I want to aspire to as a writer and a New Yorker:

Nora saying, “writers are cannibals,” always stealing from their friends’ and families’ lives and experiences.

Mike Nichols on Nora writing Heartburn following her divorce from Bernstein: “She wrote it funny, and in writing it funny, she won.”

And this is not so much advice but rather a line a want to steal: Nora calling Julie Nixon “a chocolate-covered spider.”

Other items on my mind:

Marc Maron celebrated 700 episodes of his tremendous WTF podcast last month with what he deemed a two-part episode, but was really two full-length WTF interviews, one with Julia Louis-Dreyfus, and the other with Louis C.K. I picked more specific takeaways out of the JLD episode, but listening to Maron and Louis C.K. talk about comedy and life is a treat, too. Both episodes were masterclasses about how TV and the entertainment industry operate.

What I loved about the Julia Louis-Dreyfus episode was not just her own stories, though they were great (I never noticed that was her in Hannah and Her Sisters!); what I really loved about it was its function as a testament to Maron’s skill as an interviewer. At one point, she told a story about something she did with her teeth as a kid, when she would be out in public, because she thought it made her seem older and more adult to others around her. It was something of an afterthought, but she explained the full story. At the end, she said a little wistfully, “I’ve never told anyone that story before.” I think that’s a testament to Maron’s power. The conversation and the atmosphere naturally guided her to something of a revelation.

I was just about to type, “that’s it,” but I thought of one more recent, fantastic Maron interview. Rob Reiner did WTF just a couple weeks ago and the conversation is exactly what any fan of movies, comedy and showbiz wants it to be. He talks about his dad’s friendship with Mel Brooks, his own friendship with Albert Brooks (“Three generations of Reiners and Brookses, and all of the Reiners were Reiners but none of the Brookses were Brookses”), growing up in Hollywood, making movies, and more. It’s a warm and funny 90 minutes.

Ok. That’s really it. I think there’s some inspiration cooking now. Thanks for reading.

“The End of the Tour,” “Trainwreck,” and a great summer for movies

This summer movie season is on point. Last year, I don’t think I saw a movie in the theaters between June and October. In 2015, I can’t keep myself away. And what’s better – everything I’ve seen has been terrific. Two movies I saw this weekend, The End of the Tour and Trainwreck, were especially satisfying, and they both inspired a lot of thoughts, so I’m just going to lay it all out. (Plus, one of the resolutions I made for my 25th year, which began last month, was to write about every new movie I see in that year. This post is relegated to movies I’ve seen in theaters, but I do need to get around to some new-to-me films I’ve seen recently.)

I remember thinking “oh yeah, that makes perfect sense” when I first heard Jason Segel was playing David Foster Wallace in a movie. Because it does make sense. Segel is not a dead ringer for Wallace, but he’s pretty darn reminiscent of him. Especially with the bandana. I was stoked for this movie from the get-go.

My first experience with David Foster Wallace came in college, when I was assigned part of A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again in a class on travel writing. I distinctly remember reading a couple pages and then skimming only as much as would get me through the class discussion. I’m not proud of that now, but the class at least put his name in my brain. Pastors at my church reference a passage from his 2005 Kenyon College commencement speech with some frequency (“Because here’s something else that’s true. In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship….”). Most recently, Vulture re-published a short story Wallace originally wrote for Playboy in 1988, in which he writes from the perspective of a middle-aged actress appearing on Late Night with David Letterman. I fell in love with the piece and reading it marked the start of a few-week span where I seemed to hear mention of Wallace everywhere I went. This was around the time I first saw a trailer for The End of the Tour, so I’ve been anticipating the movie for a couple of months now.

Primarily because of Segel’s performance, I cannot recommend this film highly enough. That is not to say it is only good because of Segel, but that his performance is the best element of the film. You watch it and think, oh, he can do *that.* Not just How I Met Your Mother. (Marc Maron interviewed Segel for one of his episodes last week, and I wouldn’t have anticipated the thoughtfulness he revealed in that conversation, either.) David Foster Wallace in the film is a lovable dude, someone you’d love to chat with about life, writing and the expectations you set for both. The only thing about the film that kind of disappointed me was I felt the truest or deepest, especially David Foster Wallace-y observations were already revealed in the trailers (“What’s so American about what I’m doing”-type stuff). But as I write this, I realize I probably didn’t need more of that from the movie, anyway. I needed to see him play with his dogs, or devour junk food en route to the Mall of America, or explain why he decided to go by “David Foster Wallce” instead of just Dave Wallace. And that’s what the movie gives you.

I might not recommend this movie to someone who’s never heard of David Foster Wallace, but for everyone with even a basic idea of who he was and what he wrote, I’d say go. The End of the Tour brought him to life for me. It made me want to have finished Infinite Jest by the time I see Jason Segel get his Oscar nomination.

So, The End of the Tour was Friday. Saturday was kind of an aimless day and my roommate and I thought we’d try our hand at the lottery for a couple of Broadway shows. We struck out there and with rush tickets, so we wound up seeing Trainwreck, Amy Schumer’s new movie. By virtue of appreciating Amy Schumer, knew I would like Trainwreck, but I wasn’t sure if I would just like that it existed, or if I’d legitimately like the movie. I’m happy to report my feelings definitely fall in the latter category.

Amy Schumer is a gift to us as a culture. She’s hilarious and smart. Seems lovely and genuine. And now she made a terrific comedy that is packed with spot-on cultural references and finds delightful cameo roles for SNL stars. Not sure what’s not to love there. I know Trainwreck isn’t a perfect movie. It’s a little too long and sometimes makes awkward jumps. But that’s not the point. The point is that she shouts things like “You’re losing us the right to vote!” at basketball dancers, and makes an homage to Manhattan but with a serious bite, and describes her fear of someone seeing a “crime-scene tampon.” It all adds up to a comedy unlike one I’d ever seen before, and I loved it. I can’t wait to see what Amy Schumer does next.

Bill Hader deserves praise, too, for playing the doctor Amy reluctantly falls in love with. Give this man more leading movie roles! The review on Roger Ebert’s site makes a comparison between Hader in this film and a young Jack Lemmon. Thinking back on the film, that comparison is spot-on.

I’ve been seeing new stuff at a pretty good clip this summer (at least by my standards), and The End of the Tour and Trainwreck are more than worth seeing. Now, if you’ll excuse me – I still need to unpack my copy of Infinite Jest. 

The Brady Bunch is Messing with My Head

I am an idiot.

I read this whole story and never figured out on my own what it was really about.

(Spoilers ahead, which aren’t necessarily dramatic, but will rob the story of its full effect if you haven’t read it.)

“Here’s the Story,” by David Gilbert, is in this week’s New Yorker, its summer fiction issue. It’s a Brady Bunch prequel, but I never realized that until the author told me it was. I think this is partly stupidity and partly because I was so swept up in enjoying it at face value that seemingly obvious Brady-related hints seemed nothing more than colorful elements in the story.

It tells the story of Ted Martin and Emma Brady, the first spouses of Carol and Mike, respectively: How they met and ultimately how they died.

Brief synopsis: Ted and Emma meet by chance during one of the “love-ins” at Elysian Park in Los Angeles in 1967. Ted wanders over after attending a Dodger game; Emma takes her youngest son Bobby (!) to the park while dad and the two older boys are on a camping trip. Both feel trapped in life and in marriage. They recognize each other from being parents at the same school, and share a moment of mutual understanding and solace in the park. Nothing happens between them until a couple months later, when they’re unknowingly on the same flight the Monday before Thanksgiving. Neither had been able to keep the other out of his or her head since the park encounter, and they share an intimate conversation – even ponder running off together after landing in Cincinnati – on the plane before it hits some tree branches on descent and crashes.

Even without the Brady element, I was drawn to Ted and Emma’s plight. I’m always intrigued with stories about people who feel like their lives are stuck but who find brief solace in another person or experience. I found myself rooting for Ted and Emma, who seemed stuck with partners who didn’t truly appreciate them. I think that was also part of my shock when the ending was finally revealed – I’d just spent nine pages rooting against wonderful Mike and Carol Brady!

I also loved how the story moved and how specifically it described the true intention behind characters’ actions. One of my favorite lines described Ted imagining the disapproving comments his wife would offer about him walking through the love-in: “Much of the pleasure of being here was walking with the spectre of his wife, defining himself in opposition to her attitude.”

Not once until the final paragraph did the idea of this as a tale of the lost spouses cross my mind. I did actually think once about the show while reading the story, when I thought how Emma’s husband would have been another Mike Brady living in LA in the 1960s. I just never thought to assume they were the same Mike Brady. But there were so many other clues I should have noticed! Ted’s girls skipped going to the Dodgers game because they wanted to work on a Sunflower Girls project. Ted thinks about how his oldest loves Davy Jones. Tiger the dog is mentioned. Emma weasels out of the camping trip. For crying out loud, Bobby is actually a speaking character in the story and we learn Emma has another son named Pete!

(If it isn’t evident already, the Brady Bunch was a big part of my childhood TV routine. I watched plenty of shows made for my era, too, but I have enjoyed my fair share of TV Land and Nick at Nite Brady marathons.)

Aside from the way David Gilbert weaved subtle Brady Bunch clues into this otherwise unrelated story, I was also enamored with the idea of inventing a story for the lost spouses. It’s historical fiction, in a way. Questioning the facts we accept about something – albeit fictional – we thought we already knew. Or at least asking us to wonder why Mike and Carol’s first spouses were gone in the first place.

I love the idea that Ted and Emma’s “mutual demise,” as Gilbert put it in an interesting follow-up interview, is what brought Mike and Carol together, rather than two unrelated events that left them both without a spouse. But no one has to accept that or anything else in this story as fact. That’s what I appreciate about it. “Here’s the Story” hasn’t ruined the show’s premise for me. It’s just given me answers to questions I never thought to ask.

Becoming a Movie Person

Before 2013, I never would have considered myself a “movie person.” I used to say I’d rather watch the same ten movies on repeat than try something new. Movies seemed like such a big time commitment. Two hours?! At least with a TV show, you could quickly move on to something else if you didn’t like it. You had a beginning, middle and end in less than 30 minutes. Movies seemed to drag.

But over the past year and a half, I’ve come to love them. I think a lot of that has to do with Roger Ebert’s reviews, which have become my favorite pieces of writing because they approach movies as agents for unpacking truths about people and how the world works. Sometimes I wonder if Ebert uncovered subtleties in a performance, or nuances to a film’s meaning, that not even its own actors and directors noticed or intended.

The review that sparked my Ebert obsession was his piece on Lost in TranslationAfter seeing it for the first time, I knew I liked it, but didn’t completely understand it. I couldn’t articulate why I liked it. It turns out all the reasons were sitting in that review. I remember reading a sentence about the special bond strangers share and thinking, Yes. This is exactly how real life works: “We all need to talk about metaphysics, but those who know us well want details and specifics; strangers allow us to operate more vaguely on a cosmic scale.” That is a beautiful way to phrase a spot-on observation of the way humans operate. 

His second piece on the film, from 2010 when he named it a “Great Movie,” is even better. It makes the movie make sense. And, it opened my eyes to the brilliance of Bill Murray: “Without [Murray’s acting], the film could be unwatchable. With it, I can’t take my eyes away.” I knew Bill Murray was good, but this piece made me realize how good, and how his performance was essential to the success of Lost in Translation (which I’ve now probably watched about 50 times, and have grown more in awe of with each viewing). 

While I have tons of movies to see before I can reasonably be considered knowledgeable about film, I am consciously trying to become a smarter movie-watcher. Matt Zoller Seitz, the editor-in-chief of RogerEbert.com, wrote a piece a few weeks ago titled “Advice to Young Critics” that I’m now using as a guide for watching films critically and understanding how to write about them.

The article could really be titled “Advice to Writers in General,” but it talks about writing in the context of film criticism. His most convicting piece of advice? “Write for at least two hours a day, even if you don’t publish what you write.” He explains, “If two hours a day sounds like too much time, it means you don’t really want to do this for a living and should do something else instead.” 

The more warm-and-fuzzy advice was to voraciously consume movies and TV (or media of any kind), and to write down any thought you have while watching a movie. You never know what trail of thought it will lead to, or what inspiration it will spark.

My attitude toward movies has changed from “ugh why do I have to watch this can’t I just watch four 30 Rock episodes instead” to “this could be good, maybe great, and at the very least, I’m broadening my pop culture horizons.” At this point, there’s not much rhyme or reason to what I’m watching. My typical movie-watching strategy is to work my way through an actor’s catalogue after I randomly become obsessed with him (right now, the actor is Jack Nicholson), and watch only his works until I develop a new obsession. I should probably conquer some type of “best-ever” list, with Casablanca, Citizen Kane, et al, but right now I’m just trying to take away as much as I can from any films that cross my path.