Brett Goldstein as Roy Kent in Ted Lasso

 

[SPOILER WARNING: This piece discusses plot points from seasons one and two of Ted Lasso, so if you’re not totally caught up and don’t want spoilers, wait to read this until later! Also, I refer to “soccer” as “football” throughout the piece because the show’s British characters do so, and calling the sport “soccer” in this context felt weird.]

 

When I began watching the first season of Ted Lasso, Apple TV+’s breakout word-of-mouth hit comedy, at the beginning of the summer, I quickly fell in love with Roy Kent (Brett Goldstein). As someone who prefers a man with a hirsute torso, I thoroughly appreciated the positive chest hair representation.* Goldstein’s deliciously terse line readings consistently cracked me up. (The way he spits out the phrase “shape-based jokes” in episode eight might be a season one highlight.) Sure, Roy’s irritable and stoic to a fault, but he’s not mean. He has a good heart, and his tender relationship with his young niece Phoebe confirms it. As the ladies on the romance novel podcast Fated Mates pointed out in a recent episode, Roy is definitely a romance hero. And like many viewers of the show, I felt the warm fuzzies as his cute and genuinely hot romance with Keely (Juno Temple) sparked over the course of ten episodes.

Roy’s not only a romance hero, though. While his relationship with Keely is certainly pivotal to Roy’s character development, he’s not defined by their romance.** More than anything else, Roy Kent is defined by his anger. He speaks in a low growl (not Goldstein’s natural voice), and he’s always scowling. He liberally punctuates many of his sentences with profanity, as if he can’t quite convey his bottomless frustration without swearing. Goldstein delivers every line as if Roy’s angry he has to speak at all; this has, as I mentioned, a wonderful comedic effect, but it’s also a key component of Roy’s characterization. Through season one, it becomes clear that Roy’s anger issues come from an inability to acknowledge, process, and articulate his emotions. He’s angry that he has feelings, he’s angry that he has to face them, and he’s angry that he has to communicate them to other people.

Understanding this character dynamic, when it fully came into focus at the end of the season, sent a disruptive shock of recognition through me. When I was younger, I had anger issues. It took me a long time to realize that all of my furious anger had nothing to do with actually feeling angry. I had lots of other feelings, feelings that I told myself didn’t matter and should be stuffed. Those feelings came out as a misplaced, directionless, seemingly inexplicable rage when I could no longer deny them but still couldn’t properly express them. I thought that being emotional was being weak, and I’d angrily push people away at the moments when I was the most vulnerable. The last scene between Roy and Keely in the season one finale hit me in a profound way. I, too, have said “stay the fuck away from me” when what I meant was “I desperately need you to hold me.” If we’re being honest, I still mentally shout an exasperated “Fuck!”—Roy Kent style—when I’m metaphorically smacked in the face with an emotional epiphany. I’m working on it, but anger remains my instinctual reaction when I have to deal with my feelings.

Reflecting on Ted Lasso’s first season, I realized that I had never before seen my own anger issues depicted with such painful accuracy on screen.*** I saw myself in Roy Kent, in a way I could not or would not see myself in other, harsher characters defined by their misplaced anger. This new awareness complicated my fun, fangirl infatuation with Roy. I found myself wondering if I desired Roy Kent, in the fantasy way one desires fictional characters, or if I had been deeply identifying with him the whole time and misunderstanding what was happening. Like Loki having romantic stirrings for an alternate timeline version of himself, had I fallen in love with an alternate timeline version of myself?

Jason Sudeikis as Ted Lasso and Brett Goldstein as Roy Kent in the show Ted Lasso

Both reactions—finding Roy desirable and recognizing myself in Roy—are only possible because of the way the show treats Roy’s character-defining anger. It’s apparent that his anger issues come from an aversion to being emotionally vulnerable, and it’s true that, culturally, we often code this inability as “masculine.” We could fairly infer that some of Roy’s reluctance to feel his feelings comes from being steeped in a macho sports culture for the majority of his life. But there’s a distinct, purposeful way that the show avoids stating any of this outright. Roy’s trouble with accepting his feelings is never directly tied to the condition of his being a man.

In a recent piece critical of Ted Lasso’s (and Ted Lasso’s) brand of aspirational positive masculinity, Time’s TV critic Judy Berman pushes back against the recent trend of shows that self-consciously try to craft the “perfect man” for male viewers to emulate. She writes that as long as these portrayals of ideal men refuse to meaningfully challenge binary gender norms, they remain one-dimensional “teaching tools” and not depictions of full-blooded people. Berman concludes that these kinds of characters are ultimately not useful to the work of unlearning the behaviors of toxic masculinity. “Isn’t it possible that gender essentialism is exacerbating things?” she asks. “Whether male, female or nonbinary, the characters we need most now may well be ones defined by anything but their gender.” I wholeheartedly agree with Berman’s larger point, but I don’t agree that Ted Lasso is the culprit that she makes it out to be. The discourse around the show certainly perpetuates what Berman talks about, but I contend that there is a way to engage with the text of the show that complicates such surface-level readings.

Roy Kent works as a fascinating case in point. Roy’s anger issues can’t concretely be linked to toxic masculinity because they’re never quite linked to masculinity at all. (Compare what we know of Roy’s history to, say, Jamie’s. Jamie’s relationship with his dad is, I would say, more clearly the “toxic masculinity” storyline of the show if that’s a thread for which we’re looking.) For this, Roy’s character immediately becomes richer, and his journey becomes more complicated. The show takes pains to treat Roy’s character-defining trait with nuance and, quite frankly, ambivalence, in a way that would simply not be possible if Roy’s anger issues were neatly labeled as a harmful result of toxic masculinity. 

By decoupling Roy’s anger from masculinity, Ted Lasso assures viewers that Roy Kent isn’t a “bad man.” This signals two things simultaneously: Roy is a safe character to identify with, and Roy is a safe character to root for in a romance. The moment that Roy’s anger issues become unambiguously linked to gender, the whole thing, in my opinion, would fall apart. There’s too much cultural baggage. His character absolutely works best outside of a pointedly gendered context, particularly given the pop-culture track record regarding men with anger issues like Roy’s. 

It’s rare to find an angry male character who isn’t explicitly a product of toxic masculinity. These types of characters often serve as villains or tragic warnings, men who would rather punch someone than cry, to their own detriment and to the danger of everyone around them. While men don’t have a monopoly on anger as a whole, misdirected anger, specifically, is often popularly associated with masculinity. Women are in touch with their feelings, and men aren’t. Or, perhaps, women are socialized and expected to be in touch with their feelings, and men aren’t. (I’m not a gender essentialist, so you know which one I think it is.) When “being a man” means sucking it up and burying your feelings, it follows that being unable to process emotional responses in a healthy way has become a pervasive problem among men. Denying your emotional responses and developing anger issues can go hand-in-hand. Invalidating your feelings and stuffing them down is like loading a cannon; those feelings are going to explode out in some way eventually, and probably not in the way you mean for them to.

Many pop-culture depictions of displaced anger end up being portraits of abuse and/or abusers, violent men who misguidedly and/or unconsciously overcompensate for their general feelings of hurt by lashing out at people more powerless than themselves. These abusers are the extreme examples of what the unhealthy standards of masculinity can create, and they serve as pop culture’s most common form of toxic-masculinity-related cautionary tale. I find it incredibly telling that Goldstein, in an interview last fall with Esquire UK, described Roy Kent as “Bill Sykes, if Bill Sykes had a heart of gold, and wasn’t a murderer.” Goldstein repeated this comparison in a different interview last month, asserting again that he based Roy on “Bill Sykes if he hadn’t killed Nancy.” The unbearable English-ness of casually referencing Dickens aside, the comparison speaks to the strong connection in our cultural imagination between misplaced anger and abuse. 

Brett Goldstein as Roy Kent in Ted Lasso

All of this is subtext to which Ted Lasso remains attuned. I find Roy so compelling precisely because he isn’t Bill Sykes. He isn’t even particularly physically violent. I keep waiting for Roy to punch a wall, even, but he never does. But that is not to say that Roy’s anger isn’t sharp. Roy’s explosive, emphatic swearing has a certain auditory violence to it—which makes a comedic subplot in S02E08, where Roy realizes that he needs to stop swearing in front of Phoebe, metaphorically rich—and often functions as the main indicator of Roy’s fundamentally angry state of being.**** In yet another interview, Goldstein likened Roy’s physicality to a “walking fist.” Even though the Roy we see in the show never acts on any violent impulses, Goldstein’s tightly coiled body language does, indeed, suggest that Roy is always a breath away from starting a brawl. 

Ted Lasso and Brett Goldstein communicate the violence of Roy’s misplaced anger in subtler ways than we might be used to with characters of his kind, but I would argue that Roy’s anger, as presented in the show, still has a definite edge. It’s been curious, then, to see almost no critical discussion of Roy’s anger issues. It’s as though, if we’re assured that his anger won’t result in physical violence, his anger issues aren’t that pressing. Much of the writing I’ve read about Roy Kent doesn’t even use the word “angry.” Softer adjectives like “grumpy,” “gruff,” and “surly” do the work of describing Roy’s brusque manner while sidestepping the point. Roy’s anger isn’t a personality quirk, it’s the core of his character.

This is where we get to the knotty heart of the matter: Roy’s anger is both his biggest strength and his greatest weakness. Anger often serves as the motivating fire in Roy’s belly. Over the course of season one, Ted weaponizes Roy’s anger to, arguably, righteous ends by goading Roy into putting the unbearably cocky Jamie in his place to restore the balance of the team. (Another perfect line delivery from Goldstein: “Vanilla vodka. Such a child.”) In S01E07, when Nate memorably reads the team to filth before a match in Liverpool, Nate tells Roy, “Your speed and your smarts were never what made you who you are. It’s your anger. That’s your superpower.”

Later in that same speech, Nate tells Roy that he needs to let out his anger on the pitch again. “I’m afraid of what [your anger] will do to you if you keep it all for yourself,” Nate finishes weakly as Roy glowers at him, inches from his face. Ted Lasso understands this tension, too, that Roy’s anger can both fuel and destroy him. While Ted largely works to channel Roy’s anger to benefit AFC Richmond (in both seasons one and two), Keely encourages Roy to let his anger go. As their romance develops, Keely gently diffuses Roy’s temper and gets him to open up about his real feelings, those vulnerabilities and hurts that he’s been suppressing because he doesn’t know how to talk about them. She coaxes him into being comfortable expressing his emotions in an honest way instead of angrily denying them.

Through the course of two seasons, Ted Lasso carefully navigates this contradiction at the center of Roy Kent. His anger is an elemental component of his existence, and he has to learn how to deal with it in the healthiest way he can. The show can treat Roy’s anger with a certain amount of ambivalence because the harm of his anger is mostly self-directed. He’s not cruel or irredeemable, as many of pop culture’s angry men are. He’s just a human being who finds his feelings frustrating and annoying and would prefer they didn’t exist. Learning to validate and process one’s emotions isn’t a simple journey, and I would argue that Roy’s season one character arc isn’t simple in the slightest, which is what makes it so powerful. Part of that power is rooted in the way the show stops short of simplistically diagnosing Roy’s misplaced anger as a symptom of the harmful pressure to “be a man.”

Juno Temple as Keely Jones and Brett Goldstein as Roy Kent in Ted Lasso

Positioning Roy as the “heterosexual dream man,” as many discussions of Roy’s character have, re-centers masculinity in the conversation around Roy’s anger. I think this is why, even though the show does position Roy as a romantic lead, I’ve found myself bristling at articles like this recent one from Paste Magazine. I can’t say that the interpretation of Roy as a “dream man” is totally wrong; the show does set up Roy as a romantic lead and asks us to invest in his relationship with Keely. And he is pretty dreamy. But because  I am the Roy Kent in my relationship, I guess I see it from a different point of view. (I’m lucky enough to have found my Keely—now there’s a dream man.) I know firsthand how hard a relationship with someone like me can be. It’s disconcerting to see the work Roy and Keely do together in their relationship simplified to fit a “patient woman trains an emotionally illiterate man” narrative that doesn’t do justice to the complexity of their dynamic.

I was frustrated with Roy’s season two arc for the first four episodes, mainly because it leaned so heavily into the “dream man” characterization. Keely was his sole narrative link to the AFC Richmond orbit proper, and it wasn’t clear if Roy would continue to fit into the show as anything other than Keely’s perfect boyfriend. There are moments, in these first four episodes, that seem designed to generate swoons on Twitter. Some of these moments work as thoughtful character beats, like the one where… well, you know exactly what scene I’m thinking about right now. Others didn’t land so well for me—take, for example, Roy’s outburst in S02E01 where he tells Rebecca not to settle for fine in her love life, that she deserves someone who makes her feel like she’s been “struck by fucking lightning.” (Yes, Roy’s always taken no bullshit, but a relationship pep talk? From a man who repeatedly refuses to join the Diamond Dogs in session?) After retirement, Roy seemed adrift as a character, and I wasn’t sure if the writers were intentionally cultivating this sense or not.

And then, in S02E05 (“Rainbow”), Roy came roaring back. “Rainbow” is an undeniably Roy-centric episode that might best be described, in more ways than one, as “the one where Roy Kent returns.” Anyone with a shred of sense probably knew that Roy was likely going to come back to AFC Richmond as a coach; narratively, it’s the best way to keep Roy in the action without back pedaling his retirement arc, and it’s established in season one that Roy is a natural leader and an effective coach, albeit of small children. The whole episode works as a spin on the romcom formula, but instead of two lovers making their way to each other, Roy finally shows up for his date with coaching destiny.

How fitting that Roy’s big romcom moment is not, after all, with Keely, but with himself. “Rainbow” ingeniously subverts expectations by, once again, refraining from slotting Roy into a heterosexual, gendered role. He embraces his ultimate vulnerability not by committing to a romantic relationship or admitting romantic love (the stereotypical fear of straight men everywhere); instead, he admits that he can’t live without football, a sport that’s broken his heart and will undoubtedly do so again. Instead of angrily rejecting a career as a football coach to protect himself from further pain, as he has been doing up to this point in season two, he commits to the sport that he loves—a sport that, as Nate reminded him before the Liverpool game, requires his full, angry brilliance. 

I love the way Ted Lasso explores the paradox of the anger at Roy Kent’s core and his complicated anger issues. It only works so well because it does just what Judy Berman calls for: it explores a man’s emotional reeducation beyond the framework of the gender binary.

 

 

 

 

*While the fastidiously waxed Jamie Tartt (Phil Dunster) makes some cracks about Roy’s chest hair, the camera frequently and admiringly lingers on Brett Goldstein’s shirtless body in the locker room scenes. Unfortunately, the now retired Roy is more frequently clothed in season two.

**Refreshingly, Keely isn’t defined by this romance, either, at least not in season one. While season two has, so far, mostly focused on Roy and Keely as a happy couple, I hope that future episodes will complicate their dynamic a little bit. In a recent interview with Vanity Fair, Goldstein said of Roy’s post-footballer season two arc: “[Roy’s] not going to kill himself, it’s not the end of the world. But I think we can already see there’s a danger in how much he’s investing in his relationship with Keeley versus the rest of his life.

***One of my good friends got the rough draft/seed-of-an-idea version of this essay via text when she unsuspectingly messaged me about Ted Lasso a few days after I finished season one. She was like, I just started watching Ted Lasso, it’s so good. Roy Kent is the best! I replied with a casual, Oh cool, I might identify with Roy Kent to an unhealthy degree because I’ve never seen a character with anger issues like mine who isn’t an asshole abuser, and it’s making me really emotional! As Rebecca said in S02E02, “That’s why you have friends, isn’t it? To burden them with your issues and anxieties, right?”

****Ted Lasso is a smartly written show, and I really don’t think I’m giving the writers too much credit here. So much of what makes Ted Lasso work operates in the subtext. I love this choice partially because the series is a comedy and exists, first and foremost, to be funny, but I also love it because it’s tiresome to be constantly hit over the head with Important Themes and Lessons.

 

Still from Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter

 

I don’t make it a point of pride to hate actors. If I don’t like someone’s acting, I generally keep it to myself. I much prefer to talk about things I love, and I always want to be surprised by things I thought I didn’t or wouldn’t like. But, until a few weeks ago, I was pretty sure that British actor Dominic Cooper was never going to surprise me. I had entirely written him off as not my cup of tea, and I was fine with that.

My sister and I used to call Dominic Cooper “Frog Man.” We first saw him as Willoughby in the 2008 miniseries adaptation of Sense and Sensibility, and we immediately hated him. In all fairness, by the end of Sense and Sensibility you’re supposed to hate Willoughby, but my sister and I specifically hated Dominic Cooper as Willoughby. We were teenagers, and we were judgemental. “Who would swoon over that baby-faced, bug-eyed guy?” we wondered. My mom, who watched the miniseries with us, agreed that he was no Greg Wise.* We incredulously marveled at the awfulness of Cooper’s shallow bad boy act.

 

Still from Sense and Sensibility (2008): close up of Dominic Cooper as Willoughby
Dominic Cooper as Willoughby in “Sense and Sensibility” (2008)

That was in the spring, and by the end of the year, my sister and I had been subjected to two more films where it was clear that we were supposed to find Dominic Cooper hot and sexy. Summer brought Mama Mia!, in which Cooper’s main number finds him cavorting shirtless around the beach. For the sake of transparency, I’ll admit that I viscerally disliked all of Mama Mia!, but Cooper failed to impress once again.** In the fall, Frog Man showed up in The Duchess, this time as Keira Knightley’s one-true-lover. I don’t recall him setting the screen on fire in that one, either. I haven’t seen The Duchess since it came out, but the fact that Roger Ebert’s very positive review of the film doesn’t mention Dominic Cooper by name in the main text at all seems to reaffirm my initial opinion.

2008 set the tone, and Cooper never recovered in my estimation. Until a few weeks ago, I had yet to see Cooper in a film where I was picking up the sexual charisma that he was ostensibly putting down. And it seems that he’s always cast in roles where he’s supposed to be sexy. There’s clearly something about the man; in real life, he’s dated two of his gorgeous co-stars (Amanda Seyfried and Ruth Negga), and he’s currently reportedly linked with Gemma Chan. Until a few weeks ago, I just never saw that something on screen. Until a few weeks ago, I still thought about him as Frog Man, wannabe sex symbol and sometime Howard Stark.

A few weeks ago, I watched Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter on a whim.

 

still from Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter
Young, shirtless Abe Lincoln doesn’t know what he stumbled into, and neither do I.

The 2012 action/horror film, based on Seth Grahame-Smith’s popular novel of the same name, pits our nation’s sixteenth president against the slave-owning vampire ring that runs the antebellum American South. I mean, it’s all there in the title. The film got mostly bad reviews and did poorly at the summer box office, and I, too, skipped it when it was in theaters. I’m going to be honest with you, I had pretty much forgotten that this movie existed until it popped up on the HBO Max homepage a couple of months ago.

I vaguely remembered that the film had briefly been on my radar because of Benjamin Walker. Fresh off of the unsuccessful Broadway run of the rock musical Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, in which he played the titular role, Walker signed on to play the lead in Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. If it’s possible to be typecast as something so particular, it seemed for a time that Walker might make a career out of portraying outrageous versions of nineteenth-century American presidents. The actor brought Andrew Jackson to life on-stage as a hot, emo rock star—to, it should be said, scathingly satirical effect—so, naturally, Walker seemed like a fun fit for a cool, vamp-slaying version of Abe Lincoln.

I realize that I throw around the word “obsessed” very liberally on this blog, but I am well and truly obsessed with Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson. If you aren’t familiar with the show, this song will give you a taste of what the whole thing entails. (Popula-jizz-m!)*** I could absolutely talk about this musical for far too long if you let me, but I’ll spare you. I only mention it to say that when I decided to watch Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter last month, I did so mostly out of affection for Ben. And, of course, an urgent desire to turn off my brain for a couple of hours.

In truth, the cast of this ridiculous movie is stacked with charismatic actors. In addition to Walker, we’ve got Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Anthony Mackie, Jimmi Simpson, and Rufus Sewell—none of them A-list stars, but all of them reliable scene-stealers. Not one of them shines in this film, though. The odd but, I would argue, ultimately successful tone of the movie requires everyone involved to play it straight as can be, almost to the point of being deadpan.

I admire director Timur Bekmambetov’s instinct to forgo a self-aware tone and easy jokes in favor of poker-faced seriousness. (Based on his filmography, I’m not sure that Bekmambetov is capable of making anything that doesn’t take itself seriously. But I suppose this inability is what made him the right choice for Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.) There are few things worse than a film that transparently wants to be a cult-classic midnight-movie and winks at you about it every five minutes. Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter works best when the ludicrous premise plays out in the most straightforward manner. For instance, the final action set piece, where Abe Lincoln simply kills a bunch of vampires on top of a train, plays like gangbusters.

In a way, Walker has the easiest job. To make good on the juicy promise of the film’s title and get a reaction out of the audience, all he has to do is be tall, look grave, and axe murder vampires while wearing a top hat. The bizarre visual of Abe Lincoln’s iconic physique engaged in battle with a bloodsucking monster doesn’t need embellishment. Weirdly, it helps that the totally freaky prosthetics Walker sports in the back half of the movie make it look like the actor is literally wearing Lincoln’s dead face as a mask. Most of the supporting characters, however, aren’t given material outlandish enough for the juxtaposition between affectless performance and fantastical action to work nearly as well. This movie is Lincoln-sploitation, and for the most part it doesn’t know what to do with the characters who aren’t Lincoln.****

 

Still from Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, close up of Benjamin Walker as Abraham Lincoln
Big difference from young, shirtless Abe.

But one actor in the film operates in a slightly different register from the rest of the cast and stands out for it: Dominic Cooper, the one and only. I had no idea that he was in Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter when I put on the film, so it was a genuine surprise when he popped up. About ten minutes into the movie, young Abe decides that he’s going to get revenge on the man/vampire who killed his mother when he was a child. Abe goes to a bar for some liquid courage, and Dominic sidles up to him as he’s drinking. “A boy only gets that drunk when he wants to kiss a girl or kill a man,” Dominic quips before slapping Abe on the back, knocking a gun out of his coat and confirming which it is. With that, we’ve been introduced to Henry Sturges, the mysterious man who eventually educates Abe about the world of vampires and trains him in the art of slaying the undead. 

Here I must note that Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is vampire-sploitation as much as it is Lincoln-sploitation; we all remember the years when every publisher and every producer was trying to replicate the lightning-in-a-bottle success of Twilight. Just as Seth Grahame-Smith’s previous book, the wildly successful Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, was a mashup, so is Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter (the source novel). It’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer meets Dear America—or any other diary-format historical fiction, take your pick. Lincoln is the vampire slayer, obviously, and the Southern vamps are the unequivocally monstrous enemies that Lincoln must vanquish. [Light spoilers follow, if you’re worried about that sort of thing.] Henry Sturges is our Angel, our Edward Cullen, our sexy, good-guy vampire that the genre requires.

 

Still of Henry Sturges (Dominic Cooper) swinging an axe in Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter
Henry Sturges (Dominic Cooper) shows Abe how to swing an axe to murderous effect.

I was startled when Frog Man showed up in the film and didn’t immediately prompt an eye roll. I was flat out shocked when he single handedly stole the whole show. Dominic Cooper, it turns out, was born to play a sexy, good-guy vampire. 

Cooper’s screen persona is intensely tied to an artificial sort of over-the-top sensuality which I have previously found uncompelling. In calling the actor’s allure artificial, I mean to say that the come-on is clearly put on; he’s laboring to seduce you. That’s not necessarily a bad thing in and of itself, I want to clarify. Glamour and performative desirability are often part and parcel of being a movie star. But I had always felt that Cooper lays it on too thick, to a “dost-thou-protest-too-much” effect. That is, he works so hard to convince everyone of his hotness that I just had to assume he’s not actually that hot.

Unexpectedly, everything that normally registers as “too much” about Cooper’s mannered approach to exuding sex appeal—the pouty lips, the intense stares, the carefully mussed hair, the insistence on appearing shirtless in every one of his films—hits precisely the right note in Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. It all comes together flawlessly. It only took a film where Cooper plays a vampire for me to finally understand his appeal.

 

Abraham Lincoln (Benjamin Walker) and Henry Sturges (Dominic Cooper) sit at a bar in Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter
The dynamic duo in action.

Henry Sturges is Cooper “playing it straight,” in so far as Cooper always acts like a vampire. (Aha! A revelation.) In this way, the casting is brilliant. Cooper doesn’t ham it up in a way that contradicts the self-serious tone of the film, but his usual modus operandi is already rather exaggerated. I don’t think he could be legitimately deadpan if he tried, and that turns out to be for the best. The dynamics of this film only work if, as previously discussed, stony Abe has something spectacular to contrast with. In the action scenes, that’s the horrible Southern vampires. For the rest of the film, it’s Sturges’s sexy, good-guy vampire bit. 

 

Close up of Henry Sturges (Dominic Cooper) In Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter
“He smolders over the top of teeny-tiny sunglasses.”

And Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter really fires on all cylinders during the scenes shared by Abe and Henry, because in the context of this otherwise icy affair, Cooper’s charisma is indeed spectacular. While it’s not revealed until partway through the movie that Sturges is a vampire himself, Cooper’s performance should tip off any observant viewer. He prowls around in the shadows, he entertains lady friends in an empty bathtub (in the middle of his living room in his clearly haunted house), he smolders over the top of teeny-tiny sunglasses. And there’s something so, well, vampire-y about the way Cooper strives to be seductive in all of his roles. He’s trying so hard it’s like he wants something from you (your blood). Cooper’s not menacing enough to be a villainous vampire, but the sexy, good-guy vampire is such a natural fit for him that I can’t believe he played a human in Dracula Untold. What a waste.

 

Still from Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter
I just…

I have to admit that willingness to be seduced may have a lot to do with what works for me about Henry Sturges. I love sci-fi/fantasy fiction, and I’m a sucker for sexy vampire tropes. While I normally find Cooper’s style excessive and off-putting, it’s perfect when he’s a vampire. Sexy vampires are excessive, verging on obscene, and, honestly, a little silly. I dig it. Where vampires are concerned, the more licentious, the better; and Cooper’s performance as Sturges hints at so much that the script leaves untouched. Sturges might only rip the throats out of bad men, Dexter-style, but I guarantee you that he’s into some convoluted sex stuff. (It’s implied that Sturges got turned into a vampire instead of simply dying because his soul isn’t pure, which raises so many questions, seeing as Sturges doesn’t seem all that evil. What is he into? I want to know.) Cooper’s giving me so much as Sturges, and I want it all

So, I never thought I’d say it, but I finally watched a film that made me think, “Wow, Dominic Cooper is HOT.” Surprises await you around every corner in this life if you keep your mind open. Stay curious, my friends, and you, too, might find that your frog was a sexy vampire all along.

 

Close up of Henry Sturges (Dominic Cooper) in Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter

 

 

*Now there’s a dashing Willoughby. All three of us agreed that, on the whole, the men in Ang Lee’s 1995 film version were vastly superior to the men in the 2008 TV version—with one exception. I remember that we were all rather charmed by a pre-Downton Abbey Dan Stevens as Edward Ferrars.

**If you search Cooper’s name on Twitter, you will find many people who disagree with me on this. Maybe I just missed the point, but I’ve watched the “Lay All Your Love on Me” clip five times over the course of writing this piece and still don’t get it.

***I came to the musical first through the original cast recording (in high school, a friend burned me a copy—yes, I know, my theater kid is showing), but I did get to see the full show on stage when the Salt Lake Acting Company mounted it in 2012. I made my sister come with me, and they did not like it as much as I did, to put it mildly. Your own mileage may vary.

****2009 marked the bicentennial of Lincoln’s birth, and in the ensuing years several projects, both scholarly and popular, set out to capitalize on the small flurry of renewed interest in the man and his historical legacy. Grahame-Smith’s novel was published in 2010, hot on the heels of the bicentennial. In 2012, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter famously wasn’t the only Lincoln-related film release. That fall, Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, for which Daniel Day-Lewis won the Best Actor Oscar, came out to almost universal acclaim.

 

Selfie of Leah and Keith sitting in a dark movie theater

 

After I booked my first COVID-19 vaccination appointment, I started to let myself look forward to exactly two things. These activities, while certainly not equivalent in importance, were the two most discrete things I had been missing since last March, when the pandemic struck New York. The first thing, of course, was being able to safely travel to see my parents and my sister. I bought a plane ticket to Seattle as soon as I knew the date I’d be inoculated; I practically levitated off the ground with happiness when I finalized the purchase, knowing that I wouldn’t cancel this trip out of safety concerns at the last minute like I had done twice before.

The second activity? Going to the movie theater, naturally. Movie theaters in the city reopened at reduced capacity in early March, after an entire year of closure for public safety. I wanted to wait until I was vaccinated before treating myself to a movie on the big screen, so I could revel in the experience without worry, guilt, or fear. And so, two weeks ago, the day before I left for Seattle, Keith and I went out to see a movie. We saw Riders of Justice. We both enjoyed it. But investing something that was once so regular for us with such a symbolic sense of special occasion—Things will finally feel a little normal again when I can go to the movies, I had thought to myself more than once—made the whole outing a bit overwhelming. 

Going to the movies again undoubtedly filled me with joy. I had missed the immersive experience of sitting in the dark and totally losing myself in a film. I had missed hearing strangers’ audible reactions to sharp jokes and shocking acts of violence, and Riders of Justice provided plenty of both. I had missed complaining about the odd, small screens at the Angelika like the provincial New Yorker I aspire to become. Walking out of the theater, putting together my thoughts on the film so that Keith and I could chat about it on the way home, it did somehow feel like I’d taken a big step towards reassembling my life after spending a year in limbo. It was unspeakably sweet to fall back into a well-loved, old habit.

Simultaneously, going back to the movies at last also felt like no big deal—almost a letdown. It didn’t actually mark much at all. I hadn’t suddenly found my “new normal” and discovered a clear way forward out of one of the weirdest years I’ve ever lived through. It didn’t heal anything. This strange, double feeling of elation and deflation kept recurring over the next couple of weeks, as I did several formerly commonplace activities again for the first time since the pandemic started last spring.

It’s nice to feel like things are returning to normal (as sick as I am of that phrase and the underlying assumption that “normal” was good for everyone before the pandemic hit), and I’m eager to come out of my suspended state of semi-solitude. Seeing my family again, in person, replenished my spirit in ways I can’t fully articulate; for now, suffice it to say that there’s absolutely no replacement in the world for a hug. I love walking outside without a mask on because it means I can smile at all of the cute dogs I see when I’m out in the neighborhood. Going to a friend’s house for dinner, inside and unmasked, brought on a kind of giddiness. The cautious optimism prompted by the rising vaccination rate and dropping infection rate in the U.S. feels, pardon my French, fucking great.

I’m not sure that I’m entirely ready to return to “normal” life, though. I first suspected that the transition might be more difficult than I wanted to admit when I read the March 4th edition of Anne Helen Petersen’s newsletter, Culture Study. The short piece was called “No I’m Not Ready,” and it resonated so deeply that I immediately had to re-read it. In the newsletter, Petersen confesses her personal feelings of hesitancy about jumping head-first into post-pandemic life. She writes about how it will be a long, complicated, and perhaps non-linear path for each of us to get back to “normal.” She writes:

 

Here’s where I remind you that we have endured nearly a year — a year! — of sustained, slow-motion collective trauma. … And you have had to make it survivable in some way. The brain and the body do not simply bounce back from sustained labor. Going to a bunch of weddings and getting toasted might be part of a strategy [to bounce back], but it is not the strategy.

 

Okay, wow. So, going out to the movies again might be part of a strategy, but it is not the strategy. Doing “normal” things again will help me feel normal in the short run, but it won’t help me process the grief, loss, and trauma of the last year. As much as I’d love to pretend last year didn’t happen (wouldn’t we all?), it looks like I’m going to have to face the last fourteen months.

I don’t have much of a desire to reflect for too long on the past year; I want to look forward, towards the good things presumably coming. I want to think about seeing In The Heights on the big screen and paying too much for movie theater popcorn, to keep it film-related. This post was supposed to be about the pleasure of returning to the movie theater, a little light-hearted and tossed-off missive from the front lines of the reopening. I wanted to look forward.

It turned out to be sort of ironic, then, that the film I chose for my first foray back to the cinema should be Riders of Justice. Anders Thomas Jensen’s dark comedy sells itself as a revenge flick, the sort of thing that would sit alongside Taken or any number of other slick actioners about a middle-aged man with special skills who avenges a wronged or murdered family member. The actual film is anything but that, however. Riders of Justice is, at its heart, a story about the necessity and difficulty of acknowledging the senseless nature of loss and trauma directly. It is, among other things, an exploration of the ways that people avoid dealing with their grief, to the detriment of their own mental health.*

 

 

The losses I’ve sustained over the past year are surely an order of magnitude smaller than those endured by the characters in Riders of Justice. I’m not presuming to make a one-to-one comparison; we’re talking about thematic echoes here. But I found it slightly unsettling to be confronted with such a film when I have been so determined not to face my own grief over everything lost, collectively and personally, during the pandemic. Especially when going back to the movie theater was supposed to signify that I was moving on from all of that.

I feel like a whiner when I try to talk about it. I’ve been so fortunate, all things considered. I tell myself that the losses I suffered aren’t big enough, important enough, to merit grieving, for God’s sake. (I don’t apply this ridiculous standard to anyone else, of course, only to myself.) I push forward, forward, always forward. I focus on what I think I can control. Then I sit down to write a quick, breezy blog post about what was a mostly nice afternoon, and it turns into… this.

I’m trying to sit with my feelings rather than brush them away. I’m trying to heed the advice I read again and again: I’m trying to accept my own emotional responses and be forgiving towards myself when I can’t effortlessly “bounce back.” I’m going to publish this somewhat sad, rather uncertain, and decidedly unpolished version of what I probably could have turned into a pat anecdote about the euphoria of emerging from my pandemic cocoon. Yes, the euphoria is real, but so is the lingering gloom. Recognizing that gloom, and recognizing that simply doing “normal” activities again isn’t going to dispel it, is the only way I can think of right now to start truly recovering. I’m not hoping to make sense of it or fix it. All I can do is honor that strange double feeling and give it space, here and elsewhere.

Near the end of her essay, Petersen writes that figuring out post-pandemic life as we process our grief is “going to feel periodically awful in new ways, and it’s going to be a continuing struggle, but it’s also going to be amazing.” Yep. That’s pretty much exactly how I’ve felt for the past month. Going back to the movies was no exception.

 

 

*In his four-star review of the film for rogerebert.com, critic Matt Zoller Seitz sums it up like this: “‘Did a therapist write this?’ is not a sentence one expects to see in one’s notes on a movie where Mads Mikkelsen guns men down with an assault rifle.”

 

 

About half an hour into Danton, Andrzej Wajda’s 1983 film about the period of the French Revolution known as the Reign of Terror, the movie’s two main players finally come face to face. Georges Danton (Gérard Depardieu) has invited Maximilien Robespierre (Wojciech Pszoniak) to a private meeting over dinner. Danton, the latest target of Robespierre’s Committee of Public Safety, hopes to smooth things over with his one-time ally before Robespierre signs any arrest warrants. This tête-à-tête may be one of the film’s most famous scenes, and it’s one of my favorite parts of the movie. The scene deftly operates on multiple levels, suggesting the contours of the pair’s knotty personal relationship while simultaneously illuminating the stakes of their political disagreements. 

In outlining the men’s political differences, the scene clearly sets out the central historical analogy that defined Danton’s reception upon release and has continued to guide twenty-first-century audiences’ understanding of the film. It’s not much of a stretch to understand Danton as a critique of the communist government that was still in power in Poland in the early 1980s. In this reading, the liberal Danton and his allies (played by French actors) stand in for the Polish Solidarity movement and democratic Western Europe more broadly; the authoritarian Robespierre and his Committee for Public Safety (played by Polish actors, with French dialogue dubbed in) correlate with the repressive communist regime that Solidarity resisted.* It’s nearly impossible to read anything about Danton without running into a discussion of how and why the film links these two points of political change and unrest across two centuries.

The dinner scene functions as a key to the film because it’s the scene that most legibly articulates the historical parallels the Polish director seems so eager to make. The scene fascinates me for the way that it exemplifies the film’s nuanced approach to presenting these connections. It’s here that I suppose I should admit that I’ve been a bit obsessed with Danton since I first watched it last month. As I struggled to figure out what, exactly, has so thoroughly captured my attention about this film, I kept returning to the proposed historical parallel at its center. I think I find Danton so compelling because I appreciate how Wajda draws parallels that actively destabilize certain historical narratives, which were themselves destabilizations of earlier historical narratives. By making what was at the time a somewhat subversive analogy, Wajda’s film obliquely asks the audience to consider the malleability of historical narrative.

The film’s script is based in part on Polish writer Stanisława Przybyszewska’s 1929 play, The Danton Case, which was significantly more admiring of Robespierre (whom the leftist playwright idolized and imagined as a proto-Marxist) and critical of Danton. Wajda’s adaptation takes the events described in the play but gives the material an ideological twist; the director’s formal choices align the audience with Danton. The dinner scene works as a potent example of how Wajda transforms an episode that shouldn’t, on its face, reflect well on Danton into an argument for the vital importance of Danton’s humanity.

 

 

Depardieu and Pszoniak are, by all rights, co-leads in the film. Both actors receive roughly the same amount of screen time, and both actors give riveting performances.** One can imagine a version of Danton that treats Robespierre, rather than Danton, as the hero. In this version, Robespierre’s cool, detached fanaticism is a commendable commitment to principle, and Danton is a mess, too beholden to worldly concerns to uphold the pure values of the Revolution. And one can easily envision a rendition of the dinner scene, specifically, that is dismissive of Danton. In the scene as it is, both men are allowed room to state their positions openly and rather equally. Danton doesn’t outreason Robespierre and win the argument. In fact, the meeting ends when Danton drunkenly falls asleep on Robespierre’s chest. Danton is a bit of a mess here.

 

 

As embodied by Depardieu, however, Danton is such a glorious mess, and Wajda’s camera is in love with him. The scene begins with Danton as he prepares for the meeting before Robespierre shows up. Danton anxiously tastes all of the food, frets about the flowers, and compulsively fusses with his outfit. A sense of doom hangs over the proceedings from the start. Danton is plainly aware that his life hangs in the balance, that this meeting must go well if he’s to save his own head. Danton goes from giving directions in a hushed whisper to shouting at his companions at the drop of a hat. He’s nervous, and the camera never quite settles, fluidly following Danton as he bustles around readying the room for Robespierre. 

As the minute of Robespierre’s arrival approaches, Danton suddenly has a moment of paranoia and demands that one of his associates forcibly remove everyone from the adjoining rooms in the hotel where he’s set the meeting.*** Danton’s man Bourdon violently and rudely clears the floor, disrupting a group of aristocratically-dressed people in one room who appear to be gambling, a private party of men watching a woman sensuously dance, and another gathering that looks to be a séance. The aristocrats get the worst manhandling, of course. The medium at the séance, however, gets an almost reverential treatment. Bourdon gently guides her out of her room, and she never seems to surface from her trance. She walks straight towards the camera, which is positioned just outside of the doorway, with her hands outstretched, humming. She turns into the hall at the last second, pitching her hum sharply upward, and the camera cuts back to Danton, inside the meeting room.

It’s a striking interlude that teases what Wajda mostly leaves out of the film. Bourdon’s rough manner acknowledges one of the major criticisms of Danton—that he and his cronies were thugs. Wajda sets up Danton and his opposition to the Terror as an analog for non-violent movements like Polish Solidarity, so he necessarily elides Danton’s involvement in violent actions earlier in the Revolution (like the insurrection of 1792 that led to the abolishment of the monarchy and the execution of Louis XVI). But Wajda does not totally sanitize Danton’s Cordeliers or change their character to make his argument. Instead, he makes Bourdon’s incivility more interesting to watch. Bourdon’s direct dealings with those in his way stands in stark contrast to the detachment of Robespierre’s Committee of Public Safety, whose members sign orders of execution regularly without ever getting their own hands dirty. None of the members of the Committee ever look as good on camera as Bourdon does after he gets the order from Danton to clear the adjoining rooms. He grins like a fox, then he saunters down the hallway, casually smoking, anticipating violence with the cool eagerness of a Hollywood gangster.

 

 

When we return to Danton, Robespierre is just entering the meeting room. As the meeting commences, the camera finally starts to come to a rest. The camera slowly follows Danton as the pair make their way from the doorway to the table. From the beginning, Robespierre is still while Danton continues to be a flurry of motion. He offers up various dishes and platters. He almost chokes after he tears into a quail breast to show Robespierre it isn’t poisoned. When Robespierre repeatedly refuses food, Danton dumps all of the dishes off the table and onto the floor. He compulsively pours himself glasses of wine. He gesticulates with his hands as he speaks. Danton stands up, looming over the still sitting Robespierre, and physically assaults his adversary. Danton switches seats. He takes off his wig and offers up his neck to Robespierre’s guillotine. Through all of this, Robespierre hardly moves. He’s coiled up, intense but tightly contained.

 

 

Wajda’s framing of Robespierre is also rather static. While the distance of the shots varies slightly, Robespierre is almost exclusively shown from the same perspective: a portrait-like three-quarters angle. When the camera moves to show a side view of the table, Robespierre’s severe profile takes over the foreground while Danton carries on behind him. Robespierre’s almost inhuman immobility and composure stands out all the more in comparison to Danton’s restlessness.

 

 

When Danton moves, the camera follows him, but, for the most part, the camera stays still. The two men’s conversation is mostly composed of over-the-shoulder shots, switching between each man as he speaks. While Robespierre is framed very similarly in each of these shots, Wajda frames Danton in as many different ways as possible in the confined space. Danton can’t be defined by one type of shot; the camera must consider him from all different angles. Depardieu’s performance is the opposite of contained. Danton’s energy threatens to overflow the frame, and the camera constantly adjusts to try to capture it.

 

 

Danton’s argument in this scene boils down to a defense of individuality and praise of exceptional men. Danton accuses Robespierre of “chop[ping] off any head above the rest” and asserts that “all exceptional men are above the masses.” Wajda’s camera treats Danton as an exceptional individual, captivating in all of his unruliness and folly. (And drunkenness.) “You want men to act like the heroes of novels,” Danton admonishes Robespierre. “You forget we’re made of flesh and blood.” Robespierre might act more dignified in this instance, and he is even, perhaps, more articulate in defending his course of political action. But Danton is more relatable. 

Relatability is a key factor at work when formulating a historical parallel. History educators in a variety of contexts are enamored of the idea that if they can come up with the right example, then history will “come alive” for the people learning about it in the here and now. Frankly, it’s simply good pedagogical practice to assume that people aren’t interested in learning anything unless it relates to their lives directly. The majority of historical parallels make the past more knowable by making it more familiar—more relatable

When historical parallels are used to make us comfortable with what’s happening in the present, however, we get into the territory of myth-making. This happened with the French Revolution, particularly in France, but also in other European countries that undertook their own revolutionary actions in later decades and centuries. The French Revolution became an inspiration and a model, a warning and a failure. As each new generation sought to position the French Revolution to suit their own ends, the history underwent reinterpretation. Both Robespierre and Danton only rose in historical estimation in the later part of the nineteenth century, as various political factions reevaluated the legacy of the French Revolution and found new heroes to support their own agendas.

Robespierre’s reputation, in particular, was massively rehabilitated with the emergence of leftist, working-class political movements in the latter half of the nineteenth century. The eighteenth-century Jacobin’s commitment to principles of egalitarianism became a historical precedent for the kind of socialist thought that was gaining currency. As Robespierre’s intellectual contributions were rediscovered and newly appreciated by the European left, his status as the premiere “villain” of the French Revolution shifted. The Danton Case, the play on which Danton is partially based, is a product of this shift.

 

 

So Wajda took what was a popular historical parallel in leftist circles—a parallel that was used to give leftist governments an acceptable, Enlightenment-era intellectual heritage—and flipped it to make it uncomfortable. I find Danton so intriguing not because of the historical parallel it makes but because of how it makes that parallel. Danton and Robespierre used to be friends and allies, and their trajectories in the Revolution only diverged at the very end. Wajda understands that only a slight adjustment needs to be made to mount the case against Robespierre—who, it should be noted, is not necessarily vilified in the film. Danton is a variation on a theme, not a rewriting of the story. The dinner scene expertly illustrates Wajda’s approach. On some level, I think the film is designed to force the audience to think about historical parallels and how they work to reinforce national and political identities. It’s all about the framing, quite literally.

 

 

 

*Wajda denied on record that he was trying to make any such pointed connections, but these denials only came after the socialist French government (which had partially financed the film) reacted badly to the film’s perceived anti-leftist attitude. Robert Darton’s essay Danton and Double Entendre” provides the definitive overview of the reasons for the film’s cool reception in France at the time of its release. See: Robert Darnton, “Danton and Double Entendre.” The Kiss of Lamourette (New York: W.W. Norton, 1990).

**This is all the more remarkable in Pszoniak’s case, since, as previously mentioned, his dialogue is dubbed in by a French actor.

***I’m not sure what, exactly, to call the place where Danton and Robespierre meet. Their room is private, but the building is not. I’ve seen the location referred to as a “hotel” in other pieces about the film, so that’s what I’m going with. If any historians who specialize in eighteenth-century France are reading this, please correct me if you know a better or more accurate term.

POST SCRIPT: If you are interested in fiction about the Reign of Terror, I would highly recommend Hilary Mantel’s A Place of Greater Safety. Mantel’s novel follows Danton, Robespierre, and Desmoulins from cradle to guillotine; and the book gorgeously evokes the atmosphere of the French Revolution through its many twists and turns. The events covered at the end of A Place of Greater Safety and the events of Danton overlap, but the characterizations of each main player differ significantly enough to make the film and the novel quite interesting to compare.

 

 

First things first: If you didn’t watch a single new film in 2020, I wouldn’t blame you. Last year, I had entire months where I found it very difficult to focus on anything new, let alone anything challenging. The allure of the Comfort Watch pulled strongly at all of us, and I was certainly not immune to the siren song of the familiar. Frankly, sometimes watching something that required full engagement felt like work for which I didn’t have the mental capacity.

Watching films entirely at home for the majority of the year presented another hurdle. I’m a devotee of the movie theater for many reasons, but I love going out to the cinema first and foremost because, when I’m in the theater, I am forced to pay attention to what’s on screen. It’s immersive, and the rules of the place forbid me from taking out my phone to absentmindedly scroll Twitter or take pictures of my cats. It’s also, to be blunt, hard as hell to keep track of new releases when everything goes straight to streaming. If I wanted to see a new movie before, all I had to do was check what was playing at the cinema—multiplex or arthouse. Finding the latest releases on streaming and VOD can feel like the Wild West in comparison. While critics like Alissa Wilkinson at Vox have been compiling wonderful weekly lists of new streaming releases since March, I still put in more effort last year to keep track of what was out and where to watch it than I ever had to before. If this is the future of movie-going, we’d all better brush up on our spreadsheet skills.

Despite these unusual circumstances, I managed to experience new films that charmed, confronted, edified, unsettled, moved, enraged, and electrified me. As people more knowledgeable than I have noted, the general lack of tentpole releases dominating the cultural landscape left room for a greater variety of films to reach a wider audience. The cultural conversation felt less mandated (very rarely this year was everyone talking about the same movie at the same time) and more passionate and idiosyncratic. Cinephiles of all stripes found room to vocally advocate for their favorite smaller new releases—which now, because of the pandemic-accelerated streaming revolution, more people than ever could actually watch. I found much value this year, even more so than usual, in recommendations shared by film critics and friends. My hope is that you might find similar value in this list. I put this list together in the spirit of sharing, and, as such, I would love for the sharing to go both ways! I encourage you to add your favorite films of the year in the comments and start a conversation.

So, without further ado, here are my 14 favorite films of 2020 (plus a guest pick by Keith), listed in alphabetical order because I avoid ranking things whenever possible.*

 

Still from the film Another Round, profile of a man drinking from a champagne bottle with a crowd of young people behind him

 

Another Round 

The premise of this Danish film sounds like the set up for a raunchy, The Hangover-esque comedy of escalating disasters: a quartet of middle-aged men, dissatisfied with the ways they’ve settled as they’ve gotten older, decide to conduct an experiment in which they keep themselves day drunk every day of the week. They want to see if maintaining a buzz will improve their lives. What follows is a remarkably humane, non-moralistic exploration of male friendship, midlife crisis, and the role that alcohol occupies in the fabric of social life. Director Thomas Vinterberg pulls off an astonishing tonal balancing act and makes it look easy with the aid of his leading actors. Vinterberg’s frequent collaborator Mads Mikkelsen has received deserved praise for his work in the film—the movie’s final scene, all Mikkelsen’s, is sublime—but the film’s three other leading men turn in equally sensitive and fully-realized performances. / Where to watch: Another Round is available for digital rental.

The Assistant

Documentarian Kitty Green brings an observational style to her first narrative film, about a single day in the life of an executive assistant named Jane (Julia Garner) who works for a lightly-fictionalized—and never shown or named—version of Harvey Weinstein. When Jane finds potential evidence of her boss’s sexual misconduct, the abusive and complicit office culture discourages her from taking any meaningful action based on her suspicions. This quiet film depicts the crushing environment of a truly toxic workplace with devastating accuracy, but any woman who has worked an office job will recognize, to some degree, the power dynamics at play. The film takes an understated approach to the material, recognizing the way that, in real life, these power dynamics are so insidious because they are always understood but never spoken. / Where to watch: The Assistant is available to stream on Hulu or for digital rental.**

Dick Johnson Is Dead

This unconventional documentary poses the question, “How do you prepare yourself for the death of someone you love?” With Dick Johnson Is Dead, filmmaker Kirsten Johnson attempts to face the imminent loss of her elderly father by repeatedly staging and filming his death by horrific accident. If that sounds weird and maybe a little uncomfortable, that’s because it is. The film inevitably deals with heavy subject matter, as Dick’s slow decline due to Alzheimer’s disease sits at the tragic heart of the project; but Johnson, by and large, treats these “death” scenes (and the accompanying “afterlife” scenes) playfully, positioning them as surreal imaginative exercises. Ultimately, the film works as an experimental and heartfelt corrective to our cultural taboos around discussing death and as a celebration of its subject’s life. / Where to watch: Dick Johnson Is Dead is a Netflix exclusive.

Driveways

Andrew Ahn’s delicate drama knocked me out when I watched it last May. The film starts when Kathy (Hong Chau) takes her young son Cody (an outstanding Lucas Jaye) with her to clean out her sister’s house after her sister’s unexpected death. Kathy’s sister, it turns out, was a hoarder, and getting the house ready to sell will take more work than Kathy anticipated. Cody, trying to find a way to fill his time while his mom cleans, ends up befriending his new neighbor, a Korean War vet named Del (Brian Dennehy, in his final performance). Driveways deals with loss, loneliness, and alienation; but the film is mostly about the balm of finding community where you least expect to find it. This one is a must see. / Where to watch: Driveways is available for digital rental.

 

Still from the song Eurovision Song Contest, a man dressed in a Viking costume walking toward the camera with a woman in a white dress behind him

 

Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga

At last, a comedy! Lars (Will Ferrell) has desperately wanted to compete in the Eurovision Song Contest since he was child. Sigrit (Rachel McAdams) is less ambitious, but she makes music with Lars because she loves to sing (and because she loves Lars). Through a mounting series of mishaps, the Icelandic duo finally manages to fail their way into competing at Eurovision, where the majority of the film’s action takes place. The movie functions as more of an homage to the real Eurovision than a satire of it, and this enthusiastic and sincere appreciation of the song contest’s bombastic absurdity is the film’s greatest strength. Pop producer Savan Kotecha put together a soundtrack of ridiculously catchy, legit-sounding Eurovision-style bangers for the film; I dare you to watch it without getting at least one of the songs stuck in your head. Bonus: Dan Stevens delivers one of his best performances to date as the scene-stealing Russian contestant, Alexander Lemtov. / Where to watch: Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga is a Netflix exclusive.***

First Cow

In the Pacific Northwest of the 1820s, two very different men (played by John Magaro and Orion Lee) cross paths as they seek to make their fortunes on the frontier. They have no startup capital and no resources to their names, so they band together and engage in a harmless act of theft to get their business going: they clandestinely milk a rich landowner’s dairy cow every night. With the milk, they make “oily cakes” to sell in town. The oily cakes are a hit, and the men’s fortunes start to look up until the landowner starts to suspect them of dairy theft. Kelly Reichardt directs this quiet but stealthily powerful reexamination of prevailing myths about the wide-open economic opportunities of the American frontier. / Where to watch: First Cow is available for digital rental.

The Forty-Year-Old Version

Writer, director, producer, and star Radha Blank broke through in a big way at last year’s Sundance Film Festival with The Forty-Year-Old Version, her semi-autobiographical debut film. This sharp comedy follows “Radha,” a mid-career playwright, as she struggles to maintain her artistic voice and integrity in the face of market demands as well as her own fears of wasted potential. When “Radha” gets one of her plays produced, a piece about gentrification in her Harlem neighborhood, she finds herself artistically unfulfilled as she realizes what kind of script the (white) producers actually want. “Radha” starts writing raps, casually at first, until she realizes that rapping might be more personally rewarding than the play she’s working on. The film, shot in beautiful black and while, looks gorgeous, and Blank gives a charismatic, winning lead performance. The Forty-Year-Old version provides a meta-answer to “Radha’s” conundrum, standing as an assured and delightful example of what results when an artist refuses to filter her own viewpoint into something less singular and personal. / Where to watch: The Forty-Year-Old Version is a Netflix exclusive.

 

Still from the film Kajillionaire, a woman in a white jacket pushes a shopping cart and another woman walks beside her both facing the camera

 

Kajillionaire

Multi-hyphenate artist Miranda July strikes again with Kajillionaire, her latest film. Evan Rachel Wood stars as Old Dolio, a twenty-something woman who has spent her entire life running bizarre, small-scale cons on behalf of her parents (Debra Winger and Richard Jenkins). When Old Dolio’s parents rope a charming stranger, Melaine (a sparkling Gina Rodriguez), into their scheming, Old Dolio starts to become jealous of the way they treat the newcomer. To say more would be to spoil too much. Kajillionaire operates in July’s usual whimsical, off-kilter register, but the film is far from twee. July creates a dreamscape in which to explore what it means to accept your biological family, even if you might not exactly love them, and what it feels like to discover your own found family. / Where to watch: Kajillionaire is available for digital rental.

Lovers Rock

Lovers Rock is the second installment in Steve McQueen’s Small Axe anthology of films, which focuses on the lives of West Indian immigrants in London from the 1960s to the 1980s. Some of the films in the anthology are based on historical events, while others, like Lovers Rock, focus on everyday lived experience. Lovers Rock depicts a house party, tracing the energy of the evening. That’s it. It’s simple, universal, and humming with the promise of sex; it’s complex, particular, and humming with the threat of violence. An unforgettable, euphoric sing along scene serves as the film’s centerpiece. Clocking in at just 68 minutes, Lovers Rock is a perfect little gem. / Where to watch: Lovers Rock is an Amazon Prime exclusive.

The Old Guard

Birds of Prey and The Old Guard kept swapping places on my list and in my  honorable mentions. They’re both hugely entertaining, and they both play with superhero movie genre conventions in exciting ways. The Old Guard won out for two reasons. 1) I watched Gina Prince-Bythewood’s film multiple times this year, but I have yet to revisit Birds of Prey. The Old Guard has a soulful melancholy at its core that I found irresistible. I mean, any good movie about immortals has to be at least a bit moody. 2) It has my favorite on-screen kiss of the year. / Where to watch: The Old Guard is a Netflix exclusive.

Shirley

Shirley doesn’t give author Shirley Jackson the biopic treatment. Almost nothing about Shirley is factually accurate to the author’s life; instead, director Josephine Decker pays homage to the real Jackson by artfully evoking the atmosphere of her horror stories and placing a fictional Jackson (a deliciously scenery-chewing Elisabeth Moss) inside of it. When Jackson’s husband invites one of his graduate students and his wife to stay at the Jackson home, Shirley starts playing mind games with the wife. Like Moss’s Shirley, this film is wickedly smart, wildly unpredictable, and just menacing enough to keep you on edge the whole time. / Where to watch: Shirley is available to stream on Hulu or for digital rental.

 

Still from the film Sorry We Missed You, a man sits in the back of a delivery truck with a young girl

 

Sorry We Missed You

Ken Loach’s latest takes a hard look at the social cost of the unchecked rise of the gig economy. The film tracks Ricky, the patriarch of a working class family in northern England, as he takes a contract job as a delivery man for a thinly-veiled Amazon-like corporation. (If you’ve ever wondered how Amazon Prime one-day delivery works, this is it.) The mounting indignities of working a contract job eventually overwhelm Ricky and his economically precarious family. This angry, bleak movie succeeds both as tough social commentary and as an intimate family drama. It’s a tough watch, but it should be required viewing as more laws like California’s Prop 22 show up on ballots in states nationwide. / Where to watch: Sorry We Missed You is available to stream on the Criterion Channel or for digital rental.

Sound of Metal

Riz Ahmed absolutely dazzles as Ruben Stone, a heavy metal drummer who suddenly loses his hearing. Darius Marder’s film, made with the input and involvement of members of the deaf community, sensitively shows Ruben’s journey as he tries to come to terms with being deaf. The film also treats its lead character’s sobriety with unusual care; this is a rare film about sobriety, not addiction or relapse. Although the star turn belongs to Ahmed, the supporting cast also does uniformly excellent work, particularly character actor Paul Raci (in what I hope turns out to be a breakout role). I also must mention the exemplary sound design, which throws the viewer into Ruben’s new auditory world to disorienting and anxiety-inducing effect. Anticipate some deserved love for this film in the below-the line Oscar categories, as well a Best Actor nom for Ahmed. / Where to watch: Sound of Metal is an Amazon Prime exclusive.

Sylvie’s Love

I would say, “They don’t make ‘em like this anymore,” but the truth is that they never made ‘em like this. First-time director Eugene Ashe’s Sylvie’s Love takes the mid-century romantic melodrama and reimagines it with two Black leads and a mostly Black supporting cast. The movie feels decidedly old-fashioned, but in the best way; Ashe’s decision to center a Black couple in this type of movie, without totally deconstructing the genre, is quietly radical. Well-bred Sylvie (Tessa Thompson) and jazz musician Robert (Nnamdi Asomugha) meet when he applies for a job at her father’s record shop in Harlem. The film follows their relationship and chance encounters over several years, from the late 1950s to the mid-’60s. This sweeping romance works on the strength of the leads and the impeccable production design, with an assist from the lush jazz soundtrack. / Where to watch: Sylvie’s Love is an Amazon Prime exclusive.

 

Still from the film The Vast of Night, close up of a teenage girl at a telephone operator switchboard

 

The Vast of Night (Keith’s Guest Pick)

Set in 1950’s New Mexico, the movie opens as a small town is setting up for the big high school basketball game. That night, while everyone else is at the event, a call containing a mysterious signal interrupts what would otherwise be a quiet night for the switchboard operator, Fay Crocker (Sierra McCormick). A puzzled Fay calls the local disc jockey and audio guru Everett Sloan (Jake Horowitz) for help. Everett plays the signal on the air, hoping to get more information from anyone listening. Channeling classics like The Twilight Zone, this throwback sci-fi follows Fay and Everett as they attempt to understand and decode what they’ve heard. This film is an exciting journey of discovery that gradually leads Fay and Everett further toward the paranormal and keeps the audience guessing in unexpected ways. One of my favorite parts of this character-driven film is how skillfully it shifts in pace and tone, and some of the witnesses that our main characters find have some truly engrossing tales to tell. — contributed by Keith Downie / Where to watch: The Vast of Night is an Amazon Prime exclusive.

 

 

*All provided information about streaming availability is specific to the U.S. and up to date at the time of posting. If a film is only available on a specific streaming service, I have noted it as “exclusive” (i.e. “Netflix exclusive”). “Digital rental” means that the film is available for on-demand digital rental through the major services like iTunes, Google Play, and Amazon Prime. “Amazon Prime exclusive” means that the film is only available to stream with an Amazon Prime Video subscription; these titles are not available to rent via Amazon Prime. I know, I know. Like I said, it’s the Wild West.

**The Assistant was the last film I saw in a movie theater before everything shut down in March. I went to a screening at the Angelika in Manhattan, and there was a Q&A with the director afterwards. My kingdom to be able to do this kind of thing again soon!

***I think Eurovision is my most-watched movie of the year, at three viewings since June. That’s how much joy it brought me. I also learned to play “Ja Ja Ding Dong” on the ukulele “as a bit.”

 

Four men in a 1930s recording studio, still from O Brother Where Art Thou

 

I don’t remember precisely the first time I watched O Brother, Where Art Thou?. I may have caught some of it as a kid one afternoon, as my mom watched it, thinking my sister and I were busy. My mom may have let me watch the whole thing when I was still too juvenile to appreciate its picaresque rhythms. I know that I saw at least part of the movie when I was pretty young, because I do remember two things clearly:

  1. I had never seen the white, hooded robes of the KKK before I saw the cross burning scene in O Brother, Where Art Thou?. I don’t think I really knew about the KKK at all before I saw this scene.
  2. I had never heard the word “miscegenation” until I heard it in O Brother, Where Art Thou?. I vaguely remember my mom explaining to me what it meant, but maybe I just put it together later.

(It bears mentioning that the film, despite being set in the Jim Crow South, doesn’t substantively engage with anti-Black racism. But, then again, neither did my education up to that point.)

I can recall the first time I took pleasure in watching the movie. In my freshman year of highschool, I had English class with a “cool” teacher. He was young and a real hipster, which, in 2007, was still cool to a bunch of fourteen-year-olds. In retrospect, he tried very hard.* (I should say that, at the time, I liked this teacher and thought his assignments were fun. Although, to this day, I’m not sure if I remember his class because he was a good teacher or because his class was the only one I shared with the boy on whom I had a raging crush that year.) After we read The Odyssey, this teacher showed us O Brother, Where Art Thou?, and we had to write about how the film worked as an adaptation. I think he skipped the cross burning scene entirely to avoid getting into any potential trouble with the school.

This English class viewing finally unlocked the film’s humor for me. For months, I couldn’t stop quoting the movie. I made my mom and sister watch it with me again at home fairly soon after I saw it in class. Particular favorite quotes included:

  • “R-U-N-N-O-F-T”
  • “Damn, we’re in a tight spot!” (x3, naturally)
  • “Well ain’t this place a geographical oddity? Two weeks from everywhere!”
  • “They loved him up and turned him into a… a horny toad!” 
  • “I’m the damn paterfamilias!”

Each subsequent viewing of the film has opened up new avenues of enjoyment and frameworks for interpretation. Nothing about the movie changes, of course, but every time I rewatch it, something new reveals itself. O Brother, Where Art Thou? is the rare movie that I appreciate not just in different ways but that I appreciate more every time I watch it. I couldn’t Revisit, with a capital R, the film for the twentieth anniversary because I revisit it—casually, like an old friend, with a lowercase r—whenever the fancy takes me. I seem to come back to the film every few years or so. It’s not a well-worn old favorite, exactly, but these repeated viewings over such a long period of time have made the film feel foundational to me in some way.

 

View of the back of three musicians facing an audience, still from O Brother Where Art Thou

 

The film’s influences include Greek myth and epic poetry (specifically, The Odyssey), Depression-era South Americana, and 1930’s Hollywood screwball comedies (notably, the film’s title comes from Preston Sturges’ 1941 Depression-set comedy Sullivan’s Travels**). The film isn’t necessarily interested in recreating any of these things faithfully; rather, the Coen Brothers take these influences, remix them, and present them in sepia-filtered digital photography that looks like the forerunner of the faux-vintage early Instagram aesthetic. O Brother is sort of a satire, sort of an homage, and sort of confounding.

Critics sometimes consider O Brother to be minor Coen Brothers. In a recent ranking of the directors’ films for The Ringer, Sean Fennessey called it, not unkindly, “a vibe more than a movie.” If you’re into that sort of thing, rankings of the Coens’ filmography rather consistently place O Brother somewhere in the lower middle. A consensus appears to have formed that the success of the movie’s Grammy-winning soundtrack, assembled by producer T Bone Burnett, transcended the film. Indeed, most of the pieces published so far for the twentieth anniversary of the film’s release have been about the soundtrack album, not the movie itself.

As chronicled in an anniversary deep dive for Pitchfork published earlier this year, the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack had lasting reverberations in the music industry. Music critics widely credit the popular soundtrack for reviving mainstream interest in Appalachian folk and bluegrass music and, perhaps indirectly, leading to the indie folk revival of the late aughts and early ‘10s. Considering the soundtrack in isolation, as an album divorced from the context of the film, is certainly possible and occasionally interesting

I like the soundtrack album, which my mom bought after it won Album of the Year at the Grammys in 2002. She would play it in the car, where the new CDs usually got put on rotation, and, after a while, in the house when the mood struck her. The soundtrack, along with The Chicks’ album Home (also from 2002), unquestionably served as my introduction to bluegrass and instilled in me a love of the genre. In some ways, my relationship with the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack follows the narrative traced by music and entertainment journalists alike.

My memories of the music and the film aren’t necessarily separate, though. I have a hard time thinking of them independently of one another. I can’t hear “I Am Man of Constant Sorrow” without seeing George Clooney’s Everett launching into the song in front of a tin can microphone, wide-eyed and looking side to side as he searches for Delmar (Tim Blake Nelson) and Pete (John Tuturro) to come back him up.*** I can’t hear “Didn’t Leave Nobody but the Baby” and not remember the sirens, in their wet, white cotton dresses, sitting in the river and sexily doing laundry. “O Death,” of course, conjures the cross burning scene.

 

Three women in white dresses stand in a river, still from O Brother Where Art Thou

 

As I watched the film most recently, it occurred to me how much the music bolsters the structure of the movie. O Brother, Where Art Thou? is a loosely plotted collection of vignettes, ostensibly about Everett returning home after escaping a hard labor sentence. Delmar and Pete come along because, well, all three of them are chained together when Everett makes his escape. This trio’s misadventures constitute the majority of the film, which ultimately doesn’t build a strong narrative arc out of these episodes. If each episode were a Lego brick, the movie would look like… a line of Legos. That is to say, the parts don’t seem to make anything exceptionally interesting when looked at all together.

I don’t feel like the parts necessarily need to add up to anything. The Odyssey is also highly episodic. Do you remember how you read it in class? The teacher would pick the most famous “books”—Circe’s island, the cyclops, Scylla and Carybdis, Odysseus disguising himself as an old man to trick Penelope’s suitors—and you’d read those. The narrative arc of The Odyssey is quite simple, and the excitement comes from the smaller stories within the larger epic.

The music in O Brother complements and reinforces the film’s anecdotal structure. Each vignette (with a smattering of exceptions, because nothing about this film is regular) features a song either sung diegetically in the scene or played non-diegetically over it. I realized that the songs work as markers; I remember the scene by the song or the song by the scene. If pressed, I could probably recount the incidents in the film sequentially because I know the order of the songs. The music organizes the film’s episodes in my memory, and the consistency of the musical style creates a tonal throughline.

Scholars know that ancient epic Greek poetry, including Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, was sung. Epic poetry was an oral tradition before the stories got written down, and bards would use established systems of meter and melody to semi-improvise the performance of a tale. The bard would know the scenarios and motifs of a story and fit them into the schematic song as he performed. I know film is a fixed medium—what’s depicted on screen doesn’t vary—but watching O Brother, Where Art Thou? after a few years feels like this: I know the music, and the plot details and themes fit with it differently every time I reȅxperience the story.

As my observations and musings about the film pile up with each new viewing, I wonder if any of my thoughts about it will ever cohere into a unifying theory. I don’t subscribe to the idea that any piece of art is a puzzle to be solved, but repeatedly searching for new meaning in a work can sometimes lead to a sense of holistic understanding. But the more I watch O Brother, the more I am convinced that the film is designed to resist comprehensive interpretation. The ideas I’ve laid out here about the integral role of the soundtrack won’t “crack” the film. They’re just my latest reflections on it, prompted by my twentieth anniversary rewatch.

Perhaps the next time I come back to O Brother, and I notice something new, I’ll return to this blog post and add my thoughts. The discursive nature of the movie inspires digressive discussion. I’m never sure what fresh train of thought the movie will elicit or what old memories it will resurface. Only one thing about watching the film remains inevitable. “Man of Constant Sorrow” will be stuck in my head on a loop by the time I get to the end credits.

 

Three men hold onto a coffin as they float in a flooded valley, still from O Brother Where Art Thou

 

 

*A peek into my writing process: Did I Google this teacher while I was writing this, starting down a procrastination rabbit hole? Yes. Is this teacher pretty much exactly how I remembered him, based on his Twitter and his LinkedIn? Yes.

**In Sullivan’s Travels, the main character is a film director who wants to make a serious, social-issues drama called, you guessed it, O Brother, Where Art Thou. The studio heads want him to make an escapist comedy instead, “with a little sex in it,” because they think it will sell better.

***Can we take one moment to pause and appreciate how well George Clooney lip syncs for his life?? Masterclass. Also, for the purpose of this blog post, all song titles refer to the soundtrack versions of the songs.

Conner4Real (Andy Samberg) sings the Mona Lisa song onstage in the movie Popstar

 

Where The Fuck Are Mona Lisa’s Eyebrows: In Conversation with Keith About the Dumbest Song on the Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping Soundtrack

 

If you’ve met either me or my husband Keith, you likely know that we’re obsessed with The Lonely Island mockumentary Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping (2016). The film spoofs the kind of concert documentaries that were ubiquitous in the early part of the decade—movies like Justin Bieber’s Never Say Never (2011), Katy Perry: Part of Me (2012), and One Direction: This Is Us (2013) that mixed arena concert tour footage with behind the scenes material to ostensibly give viewers a peek into the artists’ real lives. Keith and I unquestionably formed part of the Popstar vanguard; we saw the film in the theater together, and we immediately knew it would be a cult classic. Popstar bombed theatrically, but it has indeed gained quite the following in the four years since it was released. Last year, for example, the Alamo Drafthouse chain of theaters scheduled Sing-Along showings of the movie, complete with props. (I’m jealous I didn’t get to attend one of these screenings, I have to say.)

As with any good musical comedy, some of the best laughs in the film come from the songs, and Popstar’s soundtrack is full of bangers. For this month’s blog, I thought it would be fun to do a deep dive with Keith into one of our favorite songs on the soundtrack: the “powerfully stupid” “Mona Lisa.” Below is a transcript of our conversation, edited for length and clarity. (If you really want the raw audio file, complete with cat interruptions and New York sirens, to prove just how much we should NOT start a podcast, I will send it to you.)

 

Leah: The first thing that I wanted to ask you to do is to explain to me how much you love Popstar. Like on a scale of one to ten. How much do you love it?

Keith: Well, clearly, it’s ten. It may be one of my most watched movies.

L: We have watched it a lot. How often do you think we watch the movie together? I think it’s probably at least once a year, but it’s probably more than that?

K: No, it’s probably more like once every six months. It’s on par with how much we watch Walk Hard, I would say.

L: Yeah. I feel like that’d be a good double feature. Walk Hard and Popstar. They’re very complimentary films.

K: Usually watching one gets us to watch the other, too.

L: That’s true. Also, whenever we meet someone who hasn’t ever seen Popstar, then we have to make them watch it.

K: Well, yeah, because no one saw it when it came out; they didn’t advertise at all.

L: We are Popstar evangelists. I think many of the times we’ve seen it have been because we’ve watched it with someone who hasn’t seen it before.

K: If I had a religion, it would be Popstar.

L: So you know this movie inside and out, that’s pretty fair to say.

K: Well, I can probably quote more than I’m proud of.

L: So, if we needed a Popstar expert for court, we could call on you?

K: If Andy Samberg is busy, then I can fill in.

L: (laughs) You can be back up?

K: Uh huh.

L: So, I wanted to talk with you specifically about the song “Mona Lisa” for a few reasons. First, I think it’s probably the song off the soundtrack that we spontaneously sing to each other the most. Would you say that’s accurate?

K: Probably.

L: I mean, “Mona Lisa, you’re an overrated piece of shit” is, like, such an earworm? I think it’s just that part.

K: Yeah, I would agree, that definitely is the one that gets stuck in my head the most.

L: I also wanted to talk to you about this song because you were the one that discovered the full length version of the song on the soundtrack, right?

K: Yeah.

L: I think you showed it to me. You listened to the soundtrack before I did, and then you were like, “There’s a whole full length version of this song.”

K: Yeah. The clip of the song in the actual movie is very short. It’s, like, maybe ten or fifteen seconds.

L: Do you want to tell me a little bit about when you heard the full length version for the first time?

K: It was just when I was going to work. This was probably a couple months after the movie came out on VOD. I had one of the Popstar songs stuck in my head, and I was thinking of something to listen to. None of my podcasts were doing it for me, so I was just surfing around Google Play [Music]. And that song was still in my head, so I just decided to see if it was on Google Play. And they had the whole Popstar soundtrack; so I, of course, naturally, listened to all of it. “Mona Lisa” was one that really stuck out to me because the lyrics are very creative, and most of the song is not in the movie. There are a couple other throwaway songs on the soundtrack that aren’t exciting at all, but “Mona Lisa” seemed like a major song to leave out.

L: So would it be fair to say that “Mona Lisa” was kind of the discovery of the soundtrack?

K: Yeah. Although, I think that that was the song that I had stuck in my head. Either that or “Humble.”

L: Oh, yeah, you know all the words to that one. It’s pretty impressive.

K: Most of the words, yes. Except I can’t rap.

L: I mean… You do an Andy Samberg-level job.

K: (laughs) Yeah, yeah, that’s true.

L: You can do the rap parts, and I can do the Adam Levine parts; that’ll be our karaoke song. (laughs) So, before we listen to “Mona Lisa” again and really get into it, I’d like you to tell me what you like about the song, either in the context of the film or just as a standalone piece of music.

K: I mean, one of the reasons I like the movie in general is that the songs are so whimsical. In the film, Conner4Real has kind of lost inspiration for good songs and came up with a bunch of random throwaway songs for his new album. That whole album tanks because it’s terrible. I think that the awfulness of the Mona Lisa is just such a random topic to be singing about that it perfectly embodies how he just has no material. He’s trying to go solo without his partners and it’s bad. [pause] But it’s also true. The Mona Lisa kinda sucks.

L: (laughs)

K: We’ve been to the Louvre. There was a huge crowd around this tiny painting, and it’s not particularly impressive to look at. The history behind it is another thing, but if you just went into the museum expecting something grand and, like, awe-striking, it’s not that.

L: No, it’s very unassuming.

K: So, I don’t know, the song both fits the context of the movie and is also true. [pause] And is also an earworm. So, it just fits the bill for a perfect comedy song.

L: Yes. For me, it’s one of the songs on the soundtrack where the more I’ve listened to it, the more I’m convinced that it’s secretly brilliant. Like, it’s STUPID, but it’s stupid in a very smart way. And it gets better every time I listen to it. My favorite song the first time we saw the movie was “Finest Girl ([subtitle redacted])”.* But part of the humor of that song is the shock, right? Like, as you’re watching the movie, you’re going, “What? That’s not what I thought you were gonna say!” And so it’s hilarious because it’s the last thing you expect him to sing. When you know the song, and you know what’s gonna happen, it’s still funny; but it’s never going to be as funny as that first time when you just had no idea where it was going.

*I redacted the subtitle for spoiler reasons. Only click the link if you want the surprise spoiled! You’ve been warned. (If you’ve seen the movie and are looking for bonus content, the link leads to the full music video version of the song, not the performance scene from the film.)

K: Yeah, absolutely. The payoff is in the first time you see it.

L: Right, and I feel like “Mona Lisa” is kind of the opposite of that. At first, you hear the clip in the movie and you’re like, “Heh, heh, that’s dumb, that’s funny, yeah, the Mona Lisa sucks.” But then you listen to the full version, and you listen to it more, and you’re like, “This is sublimely stupid. It’s perfect.” (laughs) So, that’s why I thought it would be fun to dig into this song in particular, both because it’s kind of a hidden gem on the soundtrack, and also because it has increasing rewards rather than diminishing ones as you listen to it multiple times. [pause] So, are you ready to listen to the song? Let’s do it.

 

 

L: So, after listening to the song again does anything new strike you?

K: I didn’t really realize that the part that gets stuck in my head the most is actually the part that’s in the movie. But it’s also the part of the song I find the funniest, because it’s got the Garbage Pail Kid line, it’s got the DaVinci sucked a historian’s dick part, that girl who looks like uncooked bread.* I don’t know, there’s not too much new to realize about the song because I’ve heard it so many times.

*The clip in the film actually only has the Garbage Pail Kid line. It’s very short.

L: That’s true. (laughs) What I was struck by listening to it is how you can see the song as one of those unhinged Yelp reviews.

K: (laughs)

L: Like someone who’s just pissed off that this thing they’ve been looking forward to didn’t live up to their expectations, so they go on Yelp or TripAdvisor to rant about it. One kind of person would have this disappointing experience and go on Yelp and write about it—

K: Yeah, one star review.

L: Yeah! And then, you know, Conner4Real writes a song about it.

K: (laughs) Yeah, that’s accurate. Especially ending with “I’m an American man.”

L: Yes, yes, yes. There’s definitely an element of the stupid American.

K: Writing an ignorant review on Yelp.

L: (laughs) And I think that made it funnier for me, thinking about the song like that. And it goes back to what you said before about how Conner4Real is so desperate for material. I can just imagine him sitting around thinking about how much his trip to France sucked and the Mona Lisa was disappointing. And then he’s like, “I’ll write a song about that!”

K: Maybe he actually wrote the review and then, later, turned it into a song because he didn’t have anything better to do.

L: (laughs) I love that. 

 

 

L: Also when I listened to the song this time, I remembered a song by Nat King Cole called “Mona Lisa.” And it’s from 1950, I think? It won the Oscar for Best Original Song that year because he had written it for a movie. [The movie was Captain Carey, U.S.A.] I think the movie was set at the end of  World War II, and it was about these American soldiers in Italy. I don’t know what the song particularly has to do with the movie, other than it’s about this Italian woman who Nat King Cole is comparing to Mona Lisa. Because she’s beautiful and coy, and, you know—

K: You could land a helicopter on her forehead?

L: (laughs) Well, I was thinking about this song because in it, Mona Lisa is standing in for this kind of paragon of beauty and the height of art; so I was thinking about The Lonely Island’s “Mona Lisa” as a kind of riposte to Nat King Cole as well.

 

 

L: The last thing that I want to show you is the cover art for The Lonely Island’s “Mona Lisa.” They released the song as a promotional single, which I found out when I was researching for this. So, this is the cover art. I’m an art historian, and you can’t take that out of me, so when I saw this, I immediately thought of Duchamp. He did a piece called “L.H.O.O.Q.” which, when you say it really quickly, sounds like “She has a hot ass” in French.

K: (laughs)

L: So what Duchamp did is he took a postcard—and he made multiples of these, this was kind of one of his ready mades, so there are many versions of this. He made the first one in 1919, but there are other versions that exist as well. So he took a postcard of the Mona Lisa and drew a mustache on it.

K: (laughs)

L: And put the “L.H.O.O.Q” underneath, and it was very iconoclastic. He was trying to make a commentary upon, you know, the seriousness of art and the canon. Duchamp was associated with the Dada movement for a while, and they were very kind of absurdist—

K: Flippant.

L: Yes, and also very irreverent. So when I saw the cover art for the single, I immediately thought of Duchamp putting a mustache on the Mona Lisa. And I thought, you know what, I think Duchamp would probably have approved of The Lonely Island’s “Mona Lisa.”

K: He probably would get a kick out of that.

L: (*crosses fingers*) Andy Samberg and Duchamp, like that.

K: (laughs)

L: Aright, so, I want to go through the lyrics, just stanza by stanza. We can get as nitty gritty or not as you want.

K: Sure.

 

INTRO

What’s up, y’all? This is Conner4Real

You know I’ve been all around the world, right?

But tonight I’m on my dumb shit

 

L: So, I love the intro because he says, “Tonight I’m on my dumb shit.” Like he just immediately sets up that this is gonna be a dumb ass song, so get ready.

K: (laughs) Right, and that really emphasizes that he just wrote this when he was, like, high one night or something.

 

VERSE 1

I’m landed in Paris at a quarter to noon

So excited to see her, I went straight to the Louvre

I heard she’s exquisite, so I bought my ticket

Pushed my way to the front of the crowd

And I couldn’t believe what I saw

 

L: So, I like that he sets up this narrative. He’s like, “So I’m all excited, I get to Paris, I get to the Louvre, I get there and then—”

K: Right.

L: “And I couldn’t believe what I saw.”

K: When you’re first listening to this, you could maybe think that he is going to like it? He doesn’t really give away in this first part that he’s just gonna shit all over Mona Lisa.

 

CHORUS 1

Mona Lisa, you’re an overrated piece of shit

With your terrible style and your dead shark eyes

And a smirk like you’re hiding a dick

What the fuck is this garbage?

Mona Lisa, the original basic bitch

Traveled thousands of miles to see your beautiful smile

Talk about a bait and switch, you ugly

 

L: Which I think is what makes the first line of the chorus so great. Because he’s like setting up this narrative. He’s like “Okay, I’m excited, I’m excited,” but, what do you know, “Mona Lisa, you’re an overrated piece of shit.” And then you’re like, “Okay, now we know what the song’s gonna be about.” (laughs) Then we get to “with your terrible smile and your dead shark eyes” which is good. I like that he mentions the eyes in particular because, again, everyone talks about her mysterious eyes or little smile, how her eyes follow you, and that’s part of the whole mystique of her. And he just shoots that down.

K: Her eyes are a little dead.

L: (laughs) And then, “And a smirk like you’re hiding a dick.” Which, again, that comes to the smile. So, like, it’s not a mysterious, alluring smile, it’s like—

K: She’s up to something.

L: So then he calls Mona Lisa the original basic bitch. Which… Mona Lisa is the basic bitch of art history. And then he brings up the smile again. “Traveled thousands of miles to see your beautiful smile.” 

K: Yeah.

L: And then he’s like, “But you’re ugly.”

K: (laughs)

 

VERSE 2

I’m landed in Cairo to see the pyramids

But what did I find there? A dirty pile of bricks

There was trash all over and a very foul odor

The smell was that of a camel’s ass

But even that wasn’t as bad as

 

L: So then he continues this travel narrative. “By the way, here’s another thing I saw and was disappointed by.” Which again reminds me of the Yelp review, because they never stay on topic, right? When somebody’s ready to rant, when they hate something, they’re just on a roll, and then they’ll bring in other things they’re pissed about.

K: Right, like going to see the Statue of Liberty, and finding out that it’s not as big as you may have built it up to be in your head or something.

L: There’s something special about the wrath of a disappointed tourist. They’ve put all this effort into doing something on their bucket list or something that they feel they should do, and when it’s disappointing, then they don’t know how to handle it.

K: There’s actually an interesting phenomenon where Japanese tourists will get depressed after they go to Paris. I don’t remember what it was called exactly, but it does remind me of that.

L: I think that’s a very extreme version of what Conner4Real is experiencing with the Mona Lisa.

K: (laughs) Right.

L: So, getting to the end of the verse, he ultimately brings in this other example only to highlight just how bad the Mona Lisa is.

 

CHORUS 2

Mona Lisa, you’re worse than the pyramids

Can someone explain why the whole wide world

Is obsessed with a Garbage Pail Kid?

Looks like a Garbage Pail Kid

And DaVinci must have sucked an art historian’s dick

To get this girl who looked like uncooked bread

At the top of the all-time list of paintings

 

L: Now we get to your favorite part. And I found out, from the annotations on Genius Lyric, that there was actually a “Mona Loser” Garbage Pail Kid

K: Oh, no.

L: —trading card. So that is—

K: That’s horrifying. It has the little smirk. (laughs)

L: I like the “Leonardo must have sucked an art historian’s dick” line, too. I don’t think DaVinci sucked an art historian’s dick, but this line is another way that this is a very stupid song but in a really smart way. I think the line points to the ways that the modern myth of the “genius artist” came about in the Renaissance. In the high Renaissance, Vasari wrote his Lives of the Artists, and that’s generally considered the first work of art history.* The book was made up of biographies of artists. And Vasari was Italian, so he highlighted Italian artists, obviously. DaVinci was included in this book, which is part of the reason he’s canonized as a Great Artist. There was this kind of myth making going on that was independent of the work in a lot of ways. (laughs) So, the line in the song is funny, but also, like, now I am imagining DaVinci sucking Vasari’s dick.

K: (laughs)

L: And it’s funny. (laughs)

*Vasari’s Lives of the Artists was published about forty years after DaVinci’s death. Vasari and DaVinci were not contemporaries, like Vasari and Michelangelo were, but the point still stands. Vasari’s entry on DaVinci is very long and full of effusive praise, and it’s safe to say that DaVinci was one of the author’s favorites.

 

BRIDGE

Mona Lisa, I got to know

Where the fuck are your eyebrows, I really wanna know

You could land a helicopter on that big potato forehead

Get this chick some Rogaine

You a bloated corpse, girl

 

L: He goes all in on her here. He just totally goes all in on her looks in this bridge. 

K: Yeah. (laughs) He’s really laying in. 

L: I think musically that fits, because in the bridge there’s a change of tempo and the song slows down a bit. Like he’s taking a breath to really lay it out. And then he lands the punch, “You’re a bloated corpse, girl.”

K: And he’s setting up for the ignorant American take. So, really going all in on being a dick about it makes sense, in terms of the progression of the song.

 

CHORUS 3

I’m an American man, this is my native land

Where no one lies about paintings

But that’s not the case in France

Where the naked ladies dance, and they look like Dennis Franz

You’re so mangy, Mona

Hair part wider than a country road-a

Unless you count cats, she died alone-a

The Mona Lisa sucks, la da da da da

 

L: Yeah, this is where the stupid American really comes in. He really makes it about, like, if Americans were in charge, Mona Lisa wouldn’t be famous! Because we know better! And we can see how ugly she is.

K: We know what real art is.

L: He really sums up the song in the last line. “The Mona Lisa sucks.” (both laugh) He leaves you with the final thought, in case you missed it. The song is about how much the Mona Lisa sucks.

K: Just summing up his entire thesis in four words.

L: Yes. The song’s got a good structure. When you go through the lyrics, you can see how he builds up.

K: Yeah, it’s a well crafted song.

L: As I said, it’s exquisitely stupid. So, I think that’s it, unless you have any concluding thoughts?

K: More people need to see the movie.

L: Yes, that’s a given.

K: It’s genius. (pause) It has Michael Bolton in it.

L: He has a good cameo at the end. That’s another exquisitely stupid song.*

*This song is literally the end of the movie, so don’t click this link if you’re avoiding spoilers.

K: Oh yeah.

L: So, have I totally squelched your love of “Mona Lisa” with my analytical zeal? Or did you have fun?

K: I think that’s pretty impossible to ruin my love for that song. Deconstructing the song just reveals even more genius, so…

L: So the lesson is we have to do this with all of the songs on the Popstar soundtrack at some point? We’ll start a podcast.

K: Yeah (laughs)

L: Well, this was fun. Hopefully this gets some people to watch the movie. Like we said, we’re Popstar evangelists, and we don’t knock on doors Mormon-style yet—

K: —but we might get there. Pass out pamphlets about how humble we are.

L: (laughs) We’ll include this discussion in the pamphlet.

 

Reenactors on a bus in the film Bisbee '17

 

Over the past several months, a peculiar category of personal essay cropped up all over the media landscape: the first-hand narrative of what it feels like to be ill with COVID-19. Although reported pieces about those suffering from COVID-19 and its long term effects also proliferate, the essays I’m thinking of are works of creative nonfiction. I should say upfront that I’m not necessarily a fan of the “pandemic personal essay” as a genre; however, these primary accounts of illness became a sort of exception to the rule.

The authors of these pieces seem more concerned with describing experience than analyzing it. The best of these works possess an immediacy that provokes a visceral reaction by asking the reader to imagine the physical reality of sickness. Envisioning this can be upsetting, which may be why some of these essays lodged themselves in my memory. In late March, reading Jessica Lustig’s piece about taking care of her husband when he was sick with coronavirus triggered my first real anxiety spiral of the pandemic. A small detail about keeping the cat out of the bedroom where the author’s husband lay confined sent me spinning; I obsessed over the heartbreaking thought of keeping one of my cats who is desperately attached to my husband away from him if he fell ill with the virus. Krista Diamond’s reflection about losing her sense of taste after contracting COVID-19 left me unbearably sad. I, too, have been relying on the small joys of food to get through this weird and awful year, and the notion of losing my sense of taste, as Diamond did, filled me with dread. Last month, Patricia Lockwood wrote a fevered “Diary” entry for The London Review of Books about the deleterious effects of a coronavirus infection on her mental state. Lockwood recounts her delusions and delirium with an almost shocking frankness, even if the essay ends on an ostensibly positive note.

Sure, these stories scared me, but, more than anything else, they moved me. These chronicles of sickness struck me differently than other pandemic personal essays—the ruminations on the nature of time in lockdown or the contemplations of the joys of baking bread—because they spark with a sense of urgency. These works ask readers to try to understand what the state of illness feels like on a subjective level. “What if I were sick?” “What if someone I loved were sick?” “How would I feel?” “What would I do?” I saw these essays as pleas for empathy in the face of a largely unempathetic national response to the pandemic.

In the midst of a concerted partisan effort to discourage any empathetic reaction to the situation, how does one provoke empathy in one’s fellow Americans? I’m consumed by this question as I read the news, watch case counts rise in places where my loved ones live, observe extended family members post disinformation on Facebook about the efficacy and safety of wearing masks, see the statistics on how the virus has disproportionately affected non-white and poor communities, and see how this reality only helps comfortable, white people “other” the problem of the pandemic. Obviously, I don’t want everyone in the country to know someone who has contracted COVID-19; it shouldn’t take that kind of experience and that magnitude of potential suffering for us to collectively understand the importance of keeping each other safe. As humans, we should be capable of an empathetic recognition of others’ suffering. To be empathetic is to understand another’s feelings as if we were having them ourselves; therefore, empathy is always an imaginative, interpretive act.* But what sets off our empathetic imaginations?

 

Reenactor in the film Bisbee 17, man standing in front of the Arizona flag
Fernando, reenacting a historical scene in the film Bisbee ’17.

I was already thinking about ways to generate empathy when I sat down to watch Bisbee ‘17 (2018), director Robert Greene’s third feature-length documentary film, for the first time last month. The film follows a handful of residents of Bisbee, Arizona, as they plan a centennial reenactment of the so-called Bisbee Deportation of 1917. As is the case with Greene’s other work, Bisbee ‘17 explicitly investigates the porous boundary between fiction and nonfiction, as well as the line between acting and being. The reenactment forms the backbone of the project. Most of the activity shown on camera relates to planning and executing the reenactment, and filmed, reenacted scenes make up a considerable portion of the movie’s runtime. Greene intersperses the “real” scenes with the reenacted scenes indiscriminately and with little delineation, to slightly disorienting effect.

While labor historians and historians who study the Mexico-United States border are generally well acquainted with the event, Greene’s film presents the Deportation as a sort of tacitly suppressed history among those who live in Bisbee. In 1917, local law enforcement, at the behest of the copper mine owners, kidnapped suspected participants in a planned labor strike supported by the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). Mexican and Eastern European immigrants made up the majority of the strikers, who had organized the action to demand equal pay and better working conditions in the copper mines. The sheriff recruited a large posse of locals, mostly white men, to apprehend nearly two thousand striking miners and community members who supported the miners’ cause. After rounding up the labor activists, the sheriff and his crew loaded the strike supporters into cattle cars and sent them east to the New Mexican desert, where they were left to fend for themselves.**

Some residents of present-day Bisbee, the Bisbee of 2017 that Greene visits, are descendants of those who rounded up the striking miners. Since almost none of the deportees ever returned to Bisbee, no descendents of the victims of the Deportation live in the town. Greene’s film suggests that those who participated in enacting the Deportation—those who stayed in Bisbee and whose children stayed in Bisbee—perhaps had complicated feelings about the action and therefore did not want to discuss it or remember it. The centennial reenactment is thus positioned in the film as a  sort of catharsis, a way for the residents of the town to relive this potentially painful incident in history and face it in a new way.

In a book chapter on the rise of reenactment as a form of historical study in the 1970s, historian M.J. Rymsza-Pawloska writes about the ways that historical reenactments enable participants to identify with historical subjects in affective ways.*** She refers to reenactments as “embodied history” and “experiential history,” and both terms point usefully to the ways that participants relate to historical reenactments. Essentially, historical reenactment gives participants unique insights into historical subjects by setting up the conditions to foster empathy across time. By reliving historical events and embodying historical persons, participants begin to develop a new sense of historical consciousness on the emotional level; this helps participants make connections between the past and the present in interesting and sometimes surprising ways. The framework outlined by Rymsza-Pawloska allows us to see historical reenactments as one form of practicing embodied empathy.

 

Reeenactors in the film Bisbee 17; men loading other men into a cattle car
Reenactors in the film Bisbee ’17.

Bisbee ‘17 documents how walking in the shoes of the 1917 deporters and the deportees allows participants in the reenactment to form new understandings of the Deportation one hundred years later. Some participants end up identifying even more closely with the figure they are tasked with playing; after the reenactment, a man who portrays one of the mine owners who set the Deportation in motion seems firmer in his belief that the Deportation was a justified, necessary action. One young man, a Mexican-American non-actor and resident of Bisbee named Fernando, takes a role as one of the striking miners. Fernando, who knew nothing about the Bisbee Deportation until participating in the film, finds meaningful resonances between the events of 1917 and his own life as he performs in the reenactment project. But some participants find their beliefs challenged over the course of the reenactment. In a stunning moment, one reenactor breaks character (as a member of the Sheriff’s posse) to say to the camera, “This feels wrong,” after herding the reenactors playing captured labor activists into a cattle car. This man previously expressed stronger sympathy with the law enforcement side of the Deportation, characterizing the group as well-meaning, patriotic citizens doing their duty.

Greene’s film makes a compelling case for the power of reenactment to engender experiences of empathy through embodied action. Although Bisbee ‘17 cannot be classified as didactic, this thematic throughline is fairly straightforward; the participants themselves verbally express what they’re feeling. Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal, by contrast, uses visual language to articulate and play with the close, instinctual relationship in our imaginations between reenactment and empathy. In Hannibal, the protagonist’s almost supernatural gift of “pure empathy” manifests on-screen as reenactment.

 

Overhead shot of Will Graham from the TV show Hannibal
Will Graham mentally reenacting a murder (Hannibal S1E9, “Trou Normand”).

Will Graham (Hugh Dancy), the FBI criminal profiler who serves as one of the show’s two leads (the other lead being, of course, Hannibal Lecter, played here by a perfect Mads Mikkelsen), can catch serial killers by precisely recreating their thinking. Graham arrives at a crime scene, surveys the evidence, and slips into the mind of the killer to reconstruct the murder. The show—as well as the novel it’s based upon—describe this ability as a kind of extraordinary empathy, since Graham catches killers by identifying with them so closely that he can divine their motivations and predict their moves.

When Hannibal depicts Graham retroactively piecing together a series of events at a crime scene, the murders are shown as reenactments. Rather than show the murderer acting out the process Graham describes, like a flashback of sorts, the camera shows Graham himself going through the violent motions. As Graham describes what happened at the crime scene, he also assumes the voice of the killer, using the first person “I” to refer to the murderer.

It’s notable that Graham must go back to the scene of the crime to reconstruct it. He gains insight into the crime by seeing the evidence, but it seems important to his process that his body be where the killer’s body was. The significance of his being at the crime scene suggests that Graham is practicing embodied empathy by putting his body in the same conditions as the killer’s. He can only truly reenact the killing in his mind, but the way these scenes are filmed takes us into Graham’s psyche, where we see him “commit” the murders—making these reenactments “real” for the viewer.

As a way of visually communicating Graham’s powers of empathy, the reenactments are extremely effective. The show takes advantage of the audience’s deep-rooted sense of the link between walking in someone else’s shoes and the work of being empathetic; the images of Graham reenacting gruesome murders stand in clearly and plainly for his empathizing with killers. The reenactment scenes function thematically, as well. The show presents Graham’s extreme empathy, especially used to empathize with psychopaths as he does in service of the FBI, as something unbearable. The reenactments make explicit the implication of what it means for Graham to imagine himself as a murderer, and they lay bare for us what repeatedly and closely empathizing with serial killers does to Graham’s mental state. If he keeps imagining himself as a serial killer, how long will it be until he becomes one?

 

Will Graham from the TV show Hannibal imagines murdering a man
Will Graham in the act of imagining a murder (Hannibal S1E9, “Trou Normand”).

Bisbee ‘17 and Hannibal stand out for how they illustrate the potency and sometime unpleasantness of practicing embodied empathy. Locating feelings in the body and trying to understand others by putting or imagining our bodies in the same state as theirs is hard work. It’s vulnerable work. It’s scary work, particularly when one is trying to empathize with someone going through something disturbing. But it’s worthwhile work.

As confirmed COVID-19 cases rise to record high levels in the U.S. this week, I’ve been thinking about the utility of embodied empathy as a way to foster greater levels of compassion. Illness is primarily a physical ordeal. Confinement and quarantine are physical conditions. Working from home is a physical circumstance. Much of so many people’s understanding of the severity of the pandemic is bound up in whether their own physical states have been affected by it. Could practices of embodied empathy, then, be a fruitful place to start when thinking about cultivating more empathy in our pandemic response?

For me, the answer is yes. Isolated in my own apartment, both my spouse and I so far uninfected and still employed, I’m constantly tempted to ignore what’s going on—to think of no body but my own healthy, housed, and fed body. The personal essays detailing the physical reality of COVID-19 infection are ultimately so forceful for me because they ask me to empathize by requiring me to picture myself in the author’s physical state. They demand that I think about all of the suffering bodies I am so eager to ignore.

Absorbing these essays can be distressing, admittedly. Reading things like coronavirus personal essays, long Twitter threads from “recovered” COVID-19 patients suffering from long-haul symptoms, news stories about mass evictions, and the rest can feel like torturing myself over something I can’t control. Seeing these things as tools for practicing embodied empathy, however, changes the frame. They aren’t scare tactics to be ignored for my own self-preservation, but rather they serve as a critically necessary impetus to look outward—outside of my own body—and find empathy for those who are most adversely affected by the pandemic. From viscerally elicited empathy, positive action can spring.

While practicing embodied empathy can certainly be uncomfortable (as suggested by Bisbee ‘17), even horrifying (as posited by Hannibal), in both Greene’s film and Fuller’s show (at least for the first season), positive action does come from the understanding gained through the practice. Bisbee ‘17 implies that the reenactment of the Deportation might initiate a process of exorcising the town’s ghosts; emotionally engaging with history allows the participants to productively face the town’s violent past and begin to look towards the future. In Hannibal, Graham uses his unique talent to catch serial killers before they strike again. He saves innocent lives.

Perhaps we should cultivate an openness in ourselves, if we can, to practices of embodied empathy and challenge the people in our lives to do the same. Where appeals to logic and reason fail, maybe appeals to the body could prevail. We’re all human. We all have bodies. If we could all be pushed to imagine the experiences of bodies that are not our own, maybe we could collectively conceive of a more empathetic response to the pandemic.


*I would like to note here that real empathy requires a radical openness and a willingness to listen; to be empathetic is to take on another’s feelings as if they were our own, but it is not to project what we think another person’s feelings or experiences might be. Empathy must be based on information and evidence received from the person with whom one empathizes.

**The film implies that the men were left for dead in the desert; however, this is not exactly accurate. While the workers were deserted in a tiny New Mexican town with no provisions, New Mexican officials and the U.S. Army located the party, escorted the deported men to a larger town, and provided them with food and water. Some sources claim that the deportees were deliberately left in close proximity to a U.S. Army base, and evidence suggests that the deportees were meant to be found. For greater context, see Johnson’s introduction to The American Historical Review’s special roundtable on the film (Benjamin H. Johnson, “Introduction,” The American Historical Review, Volume 124, Issue 3, June 2019, pp. 955–958, https://doi.org/10.1093/ahr/rhz590).

***M. J. Rymsza-Pawlowska, “Cultural Logics of Reenactment: Embodied Engagements with the American Past,” in History Comes Alive: Public History and Popular Culture in the 1970s (The University of North Carolina Press, 2017), pp. 118-138.

The HMS Surprise from Master and Commander

 

Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World released in the fall of 2003, at the height of Russell Crowe’s stardom. The film, based on a long-running series of novels by Patrick O’Brian, had franchise potential and a subtitle that promised sequels. Despite a strongly positive critical reception, the movie famously could not attract enough people to the multiplex to make a profit against its generous $150 million budget. The film earned ten Oscar nods, including for Best Picture, but The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King swept the competition at the ceremony.* Having gotten neither the box office receipts nor the awards hardware to justify a sequel, Master and Commander faded into collective memory as a particular kind of middling prestige picture and a failed franchise starter.

Seventeen years later, Peter Weir’s naval epic has its small share of passionate fans who will sing its praises whenever given the opportunity. It would be fair to say, though, that Master and Commander now has a bit of a reputation as a Dad Movie. It’s generally remembered as a solid war film made with impeccable attention to historical detail, even if the specific characters and events depicted are fictional. I’m not here to argue that the film isn’t a Dad Movie, because that would be disingenuous; however, inclusion in the Dad Movie hall of fame does not automatically disqualify the film from consideration as a truly great work. Master and Commander is the best kind of Dad Movie, and the film deserves a broader appreciation.

As the marquee star and the leading man, the film’s marketing positioned Russell Crowe front and center. Crowe, at the time relatively fresh off of three consecutive Oscar nominations for Best Actor and considered a bankable headliner, received a reported $20 million salary up front for the picture. Although he’s continued to work steadily in Hollywood, many accounts of Crowe’s career mark the misstep of Master and Commander (in conjunction with increasing reports of his violent outbursts offscreen) as the beginning of the end of his superstardom. Given this context, reevaluating the film’s place in Crowe’s filmography becomes an excellent place to begin a larger reevaluation of the film’s reputation.

 

Russell Crowe as Captain Jack Aubrey

 

If Master and Commander is a generally underrated film, then it follows that Captain Jack Aubrey never ranked as one of Russell Crowe’s iconic roles. But for those of us who love the movie, Crowe’s magnificent lead performance stands out as one of the best of his career. The actor’s charisma and gravitas have never been put to better use on screen. Crowe gives a lived-in performance that feels effortless; he anchors the film, but he never seems to be working for your attention.

Crowe’s ultra-masculine screen persona has frequently led Hollywood to cast him as men capable of great violence. His imposing physique, coupled with his intense demeanor, lends credibility to his portrayals of brutality. Whether a Crowe character registers as a hero, villain, or antihero often comes down to how the film frames that capacity for violence. Captain Aubrey is of a piece with the rest of Crowe’s decidedly masculine characters; the role is not a pivot or a play against type. But Captain Aubrey epitomizes a masculine ideal rather than the toxic masculinity so often at the root of Crowe’s characters. (Remember, this is a Dad Movie!) As a successful military man, the violence Aubrey enacts is ritualized, justified, and honorable. It is controlled to the utmost degree by both military norms and the captain’s own rigid moral code. The Napoleonic wartime setting rationalizes the necessity of the violence in the film, as the killing occurs in the service of an imagined greater good.

Besides his facility with a bayonet, Aubrey displays another key trait of idealized masculinity: leadership. As Scott Tobias wrote last year in his superb “Revisiting Hours” piece on Master and Commander for Rolling Stone, the film works particularly well “as a study in leadership.”** The film takes a keen interest in what it means for Aubrey to be a worthy leader, and Crowe’s acting choices perfectly complement this thread of the film. Crowe possesses a natural charisma that provides authenticity to his portrait of a respected commander, but he doesn’t coast on this alone. He brings a three-dimensionality to Aubrey by subtly modulating his behavior depending on what image the captain needs to project in any given situation. Crowe reminds us that leadership is an act in both senses of the word—an action and a show. He communicates the way that Aubrey constantly performs leadership without drawing undue attention to his own performance as an actor.

Crowe’s work in the film stands out as some of the most delicate and nuanced acting in his oeuvre. Yes, he delivers stirring speeches with aplomb. (“England is under threat of invasion, and though we be on the far side of the world, this ship is our home. This ship is England,” Aubrey intones to his crew in a particularly rousing moment before the film’s climactic battle sequence.) He fixes his trademark Russell Crowe squint on the horizon as he watches for the enemy ship that Aubrey has been tasked with capturing. Aubrey is, to a degree, another one of Crowe’s serious men. As captain, Aubrey assumes responsibility for everyone on the ship and must bear the burden when men under his command die. But he also cracks jokes—one dinner scene in the captain’s cabin ends with a memorably bad pun about “the lesser of two weevils”—, mentors the younger crewmates, and generally tries to make all of his men feel needed on the ship. Crowe brings an attractive warmth to Aubrey, a quality that rarely shines through in the actor’s other roles. It isn’t all glowering from the deck; leadership also looks like forming honest connections and making people feel special. Crowe takes an understated approach, and this light touch belies the intentionality and thoughtfulness of the performance.

 

Dinner in the Captains Cabin on the HMS Surprise

 

Master and Commander undoubtedly provides a window into an exclusively masculine world. Women are barely alluded to visually or verbally; men comprise the bounded universe of the HMS Surprise. In addition to the military hierarchy of power codified and enforced by the British Royal Navy, a network of homosocial relationships defines life onboard the ship. These relationships are largely positive and entirely platonic; the crew members mostly support each other, with one tragic exception. This isn’t a film about problematic or alienated masculinity. As one would expect of a Dad Movie classic, Master and Commander mostly posits that men are alright. 

The film does not completely gloss over the more unpleasant or even traumatic aspects of British naval service in the Napoleonic Wars. An adolescent midshipman undergoes an arm amputation early in the film; one character offhandedly mentions the practice of impressment, reminding the viewer that some of the men on the ship are likely there involuntarily; and several members of the crew who we have gotten to know rather well are dead by the end of the movie. But the crew members make a home for themselves on the ship, and life there isn’t unbearable. They make friends, they make do. Weir’s film suggests that there is something redemptive, something powerful, about male camaraderie. While this theme isn’t at all unusual for a war film, Master and Commander is especially compelling for the way it treats this idea as more than a truism.

The film takes male homosociality as one of its main subjects, and so, fittingly, the close friendship between Captain Aubrey and Dr. Maturin (an also excellent Paul Bettany) serves as the film’s center.*** Aubrey technically outranks Maturin, so it’s not truly a relationship of equals; but Aubrey treats Maturin as a confidant and sometime advisor. Aubrey and Maturin seem to hold each other in genuine high regard, and their mutual respect forms the foundation of their relationship. In fact, these two men respect each other enough to remain friends even as they almost constantly disagree with one another. Their opposing approaches to life lay out the final thematic preoccupation of the film.

 

Dr. Maturin and Captain Aubrey

 

I love Master and Commander most of all for the way that it captures the rhythm of pursuit. On the one hand, Master and Commander is literally about the thrill of the chase—the HMS Surprise follows the French privateer Acheron for the entirety of the film’s runtime. Aubrey has orders to engage the Acheron and hopefully take her; what little plot the movie has revolves around this objective. Weir stages three confrontations between HMS Surprise and the Acheron, and each encounter thrills in its own distinct way. Watching Aubrey and his men outwit the superior French ship through various clever means proves to be an undeniable pleasure. Most of the film’s budget went into the action set pieces, and the practical effects on display are spectacular. 

But the movie spends just as much time with the crew during the downtime between battles, providing a glimpse into everyday life on the ship. The texture of the film comes from this contrast between the action and the waiting, the forward momentum of the hunt and the stillness of the quiet points when action is impossible. Captain Aubrey and Dr. Maturin each embody one of these two states, to a certain degree. Aubrey always wants to push onward and take every opportunity for a fight that presents itself. He’s driven by duty and motivated by the thought of glory. Maturin thrives in the cessations, enjoying the moments when he can indulge his interests as a naturalist. He sees stalking the Acheron beyond what was explicitly ordered as a doomed exercise, and he repeatedly asks Aubrey to consider giving up on taking the enemy ship.

Aubrey’s desire to unceasingly chase the next goal exists in tension with Maturin’s wish to stand still and find contentment in the observable present; the way that the film doesn’t resolve this tension only strengthens the metaphor. Master and Commander never exactly comes down on the side of one man or the other. The film presents both men as reasonable, capable, and intelligent. Aubrey and Maturin each willingly concede their point to the other at different junctures of the film. We experience the gratification of a successful maneuver against the Acheron, but we also see the human cost of Aubrey’s refusal to call it a job done and leave the Acheron alone. The film makes us privy to the small joys among the crew during the pauses in fighting, but we’re also made to understand how an inability to go after a common objective can lead to discontent and unrest among the men. The film depicts this push and pull with an unusual clarity, resulting in a work that perfectly reflects the core truth of how it feels trying to balance ambition and fulfilment in one’s own life. Seen through this lens, the open ending of the film turns out to be rather perfect. There is no single achievement the attainment of which will satisfy the ambitious person. The pursuit is incessant.

The purity of this metaphor cannot be separated from the masculine milieu of the film. The drive to make one’s name, to leave some mark of one’s existence in a public way, has historically been coded as masculine in the Western tradition. Concepts of gender essentialism used to keep the status quo reinforce the idea that women aren’t naturally ambitious. Films about women’s ambition necessarily have to grapple with (or can be biased by) that complicated reality. On film, as in life, ambitious women face different treatment than ambitious men. Because ambition is often assumed to be an unquestioned positive value for men to possess, Master and Commander can more easily extrapolate its argument to the realm of the abstract.

As a film that deals with ideal masculinity, Master and Commander works so well precisely because of its Dad Movie tendencies. The movie presents an aspirational and positive, but not sugar-coated, vision of what it means to be an admirable man. Russell Crowe’s casting and performance are so perfect here because the actor trades in on his “masculine” reputation to create a paragon in Captain Aubrey. The film posits that these masculine ideals are valuable in and of themselves, in isolation. By sidestepping the subject of women almost entirely, the film never puts its masculine ideals into any oppositional, binary configuration with feminine ideals. Although the film shows a solely male domain, the movie never implies that only men can achieve these ideals. Like the true Dad Movie that it is, Master and Commander instead envisions these positive aspects of masculinity (like good leadership, camaraderie through hardship, and healthy ambition) as universally good values applicable to anyone on the gender spectrum. If you’ve written off Master and Commander as “just a Dad Movie,” it’s worth a second look. The film’s Dad Movie-ness is actually its secret strength.

 

Dr. Maturin and Captain Aubrey playing cello and violin

 

 

*Master and Commander won two Academy Awards, for Best Cinematography and Best Sound Editing. These were the only two categories in which Master and Commander did not compete against Return of the King, which won all eleven awards for which it was nominated (and which still holds the record for highest clean sweep at the Oscars).

**This piece convinced me to revisit Master and Commander myself. Prior to last year, I had not seen the film since I was a preteen. Tobias’s framing of Weir’s film as the anti-Pirates of the Caribbean made me laugh; when I first watched Master and Commander, I disliked it essentially because it wasn’t Pirates, with which I was obsessed at the time.

***While I’m sure someone has written Aubrey/Maturin fanfic and published it somewhere on the internet, there’s no textual evidence in the film that Aubrey and Maturin are more than friends to each other. I would also argue that Crowe and Bettany don’t have enough sexual chemistry to support a ship. (No pun intended.)