In my weekly blog series (and stealth newsletter), I discuss what I've been watching, what I've been working on lately, what's coming up that I'm excited about, and any other thoughts that seem worth sharing. If you would like to receive these posts by email as a weekly newsletter, please email newsletter@unaffiliatedcritic.
A few days ago, I saw a couple of tweets from the very good writer Imani Gandy, about how she doesn't even understand the concept of rough drafts or outlines. She was actually responding to a discussion about OCD and ADHD—neither of which I have, as far as I know—but nonetheless I felt, as the kids say, "seen." I've considered myself a writer since I was about seven years old, and yet I have never used rough drafts or outlines, because I have never—not once in my life—gone into a single piece of writing having more than the vaguest notion of where it was going to go.
The truth is, I'm a staggeringly disorganized writer. I think I sort of remember being taught some principles of outlining in school—all that thesis-sentence/supporting-argument/conclusion crap—but I do not remember ever actually using them. Nor, I think, have I ever consciously written a "rough draft" of anything. No matter the medium—essays (in school), fiction (I used to try to write novels), reviews (on my website), or blog posts (including this one)—my approach has always been exactly the same: Just start writing—hopefully with a few tentative, desperately inarticulate ideas in mind—and then keep following whatever thoughts occur, wherever they may lead, until I hopefully reach what feels like a good stopping point. And then the thing—apart from double-checking my atrocious spelling—is more or less done.
One of the reasons I write this way, of course, is that I am an incorrigible procrastinator, and always have been. ("Rough drafts" and "outlines" imply the sort of foresight, organization, advanced planning, and allowances for revision that are characteristic of a completely different kind of writer than I am. I've always been more of the Oh-shit-this-thing-is-due-tomorrow-and-I-haven't-even-thought-about-it-and-it's-midnight-so-I-better-pound-down-some-caffeine variety.)
But the real reason—or, at least, the way I romanticize and justify my bad habits—is that this sort of desperate uncertainty is what makes writing not only fun for me, but worth doing at all. I've always agreed with the line (usually attributed to Flannery O'Connor): "I write because I don't know what I think until I read what I say." I don't really understand the point of writing something if you already know what you're going to say: Where's the fun in that? Writing is a process, not a product: If I knew what I thought about something before I wrote about it, I wouldn't need to write about it at all.
The metaphor I used to use for the process of writing—and I honestly have no idea whether I made this up or stole it—is of Tarzan swinging through the jungle. There is no way Tarzan has a precise map in his head of where all the vines in the jungle are: He just swings out on one vine, lets go, and somehow trusts that there will be another vine he can grab before he falls to his death. That's how writing has always felt to me. When it works, you're just swinging through the trees intuitively: You chase a thought, you swing out on it as far as it can take you, and at the last second you see another one you can grab to keep the momentum going. Eventually—with a little luck—you get roughly where you had hoped to go.
(When it doesn't work, of course, you crash into an inconvenient tree, or fall into quicksand, or land in a bloody heap on the jungle floor to get eaten by ravenous lions or trampled by stampeding elephants. But hey, that's all fun, too.)
There are other, more earthbound analogies we could use, of course. One of the movies I watched this week is The Dig (2021), about the self-trained archeologist Basil Brown's excavation of sixth-century Anglo-Saxon burial sites at Sutton Hoo. I'll talk about the movie below (I liked it), but it occurs to me that the endeavor makes a pretty good metaphor for the writing process: I mean, he just starts digging, without having the slightest idea of how long it will take, or what he's going to uncover, or how large it may be, or what (if anything) it will turn out to be worth. He just patiently moves a metric shit-ton of dirt out of the way, and he tries to see the shape of whatever might be hidden there, and he tries to get the thing out without fucking it up too badly or getting himself buried alive. That sort of patient, plodding work isn't quite as much fun as swinging through the trees, but it's respectable and rewarding nonetheless.
But here—if you'll bear with me a little longer—is one more terrestrial metaphor: spelunking. I am thinking, specifically, about the sort of spelunking practiced by the characters in Neil Marshall's The Descent (2005), who decide to explore an elaborate underground system of caves, have the entrance collapse behind them, and then have to keep going further into the darkness, on the thin chance that there is some kind of way out at the other end. And, well, I don't want to spoil the movie for those who haven't seen it, but…it doesn't go well. Sure, sometimes, if you keep descending into the cave, you may find it eventually leads back up to the light. But sometimes, there's just more dark, and more down, and—quite possibly—a bunch of hungry, blind, albino, cannibalistic cave-dwellers who are eager to eat your face.
I'm not 100 percent sure why I'm talking about all of this—See?—but I think what I'm really doing is offering pathetically elaborate excuses for why my stuff is as erratic (and frequently late) as it is. Sometimes, writing is fun, and I fly right along because the vines are exactly where I need them to be. Sometimes, it's slow and painstaking work, which turns out to be bigger and dirtier and more precarious than I had expected. And sometimes—not often, mind you, but occasionally—I find myself fumbling uselessly in the dark, and rapidly running out of air.
Anyway, I'm sorry this blog/newsletter is late, and I'm sorry I didn't get one out at all last week, and I'm sorry I'm running late on pretty much everything else. I could offer legitimate excuses: I had a big external deadline to meet (which I actually can't talk about yet), and I had massive website problems to deal with (which would make me murderous to talk about). Both of these things have set me behind schedule.
But the real problem—if I'm honest—is that, more and more lately, I just keep getting lost in the goddamned caves.
On February 2, Nakea and I posted a new episode of The Unenthusiastic Critic Podcast, in which—for reasons that must have seemed persuasive (to me) at the time—we watched the silly John Woo identity-swapping thriller Face/Off (1997). It would be a considerable stretch to say she liked it—she most assuredly did not—but she did declare it "a good bad movie." (Honestly, I think she might have appreciated it more than I did: I wanted it to be much sillier than it was.) You can listen to the episode here, and subscribe to the podcast here.
On February 7, I published my latest Deadwood review, on the first season's penultimate episode, 1×11, "Jewel's Boot is Made for Walking." When I describe writing above as flying through the trees on associations and realizations, this is what I'm talking about: I am loving writing about this show again, and learning so much as I go, and the only hard part is keeping them at a reasonable length, because there's just so much to talk about. (Honestly, I really can't remember why I spent 10 years writing about anything else. I mean, Game of Thrones, fine, but I wrote about an entire season of American Horror Story, when I could have been writing about Deadwood. What the hell was I thinking?) Anyway, you can catch up on all my Deadwood pieces here.
On the other hand, when I talk about being lost in the caves—constantly hitting dead ends, and possibly pursued by ravenous albinos—I'm referring to my Independent Study in World Cinema, in which I've been hopelessly stuck on Roberto Rossellini's Rome, Open City (1945). I'm going to take one more concentrated stab at it this week, with an aim towards publishing something on it by February 14. If not, I may just skip it and move on to the next, which would be Jean Cocteau's Beauty and the Beast (1946).
The next Deadwood piece will be on the first season finale, Episode 1×12, "Sold Under Sin." That should drop more or less on-time, which would be February 12.
For our Valentine's Day (Week) episode of The Unenthusiastic Critic Podcast, we'll be watching the 1985 Merchant and Ivory romance A Room with a View (1985). I actually really like that film, but Nakea's response to the announcement was "You know I don't like petticoat movies." So we'll see how that goes. The episode should drop February 16.
Movie viewing was a mixed bag this week. The best of the bunch was the aforementioned The Dig (2021, Netflix), Simon Stone's quiet but compelling film about Basil Brown (Ralph Fiennes, reminding us what a subtle and understated actor he can be), who is hired by the wealthy widow Edith Pretty (Carey Mulligan, in her second fabulous performance this year), to excavate a British field on the eve of the Second World War. It's definitely one of those gentile British historical dramas—if you're in the mood for that sort of thing—but I found it strangely moving and profound. It is far less formulaic than it feels, and it evokes (more than pontificates upon) powerful themes about the value of the past in the face of an uncertain future. I liked it.
Worst of the bunch was the calamitous misfire Malcolm & Marie (2021, Netflix), Sam Levinson's stagey two-hander about the titular feuding couple: Malcolm (John David Washington), a film director who has just premiered his new movie; and Marie (Zendaya), his girlfriend, upon whom Malcolm's film is—at least partially—based. They return home after the movie's premiere, and fight, and screw, and eat some mac and cheese, and fight some more. A deliberately minimalistic, black-and-white, shot-during-pandemic project, what Malcolm & Marie desperately wants to be is a millennial John Cassavetes film, or an updated version of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf. What it turns out to be, alas, is a slick-looking but painfully self-conscious production of an embarrassingly amateurish screenplay. Both actors are fine—Zendaya has some very nice moments—but they have been turned into mouthpieces for Levinson's sophomoric relationship observations, angry rants about the industry, and the sort of awkwardly deliberate dialogue that no human being has ever spoken. I am actually a fan of Levinson's HBO series Euphoria, and I think Zendaya (who also stars in that series) is a huge talent, but Malcolm & Marie feels like it was written by a 19-year-old film student who has never had a real job or an actual relationship with another human being. (At one point Marie tells Malcolm he's going to end up making "fake movies, about fake people, with fake emotions," and that about sums up this film.)
Somewhere in between—though still not on the "good" side of the spectrum—is John Lee Hancock's The Little Things (2021, HBOMax). Stop me if you've heard this one: An aging, legendary-but-slightly-disgraced cop (Denzel Washington), teams up with a cocky young detective (Rami Malek), to investigate a serial killer, who may or may not be a randomly-and-diabolically weird suspect (Jared Leto) who enjoys toying with them. It is a problem—though not an insurmountable one—that The Little Things was (and feels like) a leftover screenplay Hancock wrote in 1993. It is a much larger problem that that screenplay seems to have been assembled itself from the leftover parts of other serial killer movies, and would have felt derivative even in the '90s, approximately 347 serial-killer movies ago. (Seriously, not just the tropes, but most of the actual shots, scenes, and lines of dialogue, could be tagged directly to their superior antecedents.) The film takes an interesting turn in the final act, but it gets few points for that since the turn is, itself, ludicrous and unjustified. (As Samuel Johnson might say, "The movie is both good and original: Unfortunately, the parts that are good are not original, and the parts that are original are not good.") And I was simply left trying to decide if there is a better actor than Denzel Washington who consistently makes poorer choices in movies.
Just in time to get angry about its snub at the Golden Globes, I finally caught up with Renaissance-woman Michaela Cole's I May Destroy You (HBO), which is every bit as incredible as you've heard. Inspired by Cole's own experiences, it's the story of a rising young writer named Arabella (Cole) who—while trying to deliver the draft of her new book—realizes that she may have been spiked and sexually assaulted during a hazy night out. When the show first dropped this summer, I more or less consciously decided to postpone watching it because the world seemed quite depressing enough without a brutally frank rape drama. But that was a mistake: It's amazing. Less about the rape itself, and more about Arabella's messy survival, it's a funny, surprising, unflinching story of one woman's partial fragmentation and imperfect reconstruction. (In many ways, it was probably the perfect series for weathering the strange year that was 2020, and the disorienting feeling that the world had shifted unpleasantly on its axis.) It's also just ridiculously well executed: It's beautifully directed (by Cole and Sam Miller); the cast (including Weruche Opia and Paapa Essiedu as Arabella's best friends) is phenomenal; and Cole creates incredibly rounded, complicated, frustrating, remarkably realized characters who never do or say exactly what you think they're going to. If you, like me, weren't feeling up to it this summer, I can't recommend strongly enough that you watch it now.
I also caught up with the latest season of Sally Wainwright's Last Tango in Halifax, which finally dropped on Netflix in January. Wainwright (Happy Valley, Gentleman Jack) is one of my favorite living writers and showrunners. (In common with Cole, she has a gift for the complete human experience of fully-realized characters: The best people are capable of stunning acts of selfishness and thoughtlessness, and even the worst people have moments of surprising kindness and grace.) This fourth season of Halifax—the story of two families brought together when widowed octogenarians Celia (Anne Reid) and Alan (Derek Jacobi) marry—feels like the show may be running out of steam a bit in its plotting, but the plot is not the point anyway. The considerable pleasures come in watching the continued exploration of these characters, embodied by one of the best casts on television. (I am convinced that Wainwright-regulars Nicola Walker and Sarah Lancashire are among our greatest natural resources.)
In my regular weekly TV watching, WandaVision is getting interesting. (I appreciated the mid-season explanation of the mystery, as opposed to drawing the questions out until the end: It actually gives the story somewhere more substantial to go in the back half.) And Dickinson continues to dazzle, dancing nimbly between hilarious comedy, powerful drama, and seductive romance. (The January 29 episode "Split the Lark" was an unadulterated masterpiece, a virtuoso roller-coaster ride literally breathtaking in its earned emotional crests.) Folks, if you're still not watching Dickinson, you're asleep at the wheel: This is the best show on television right now, and it's not even close.
Looking Forward To…
I'm adding this new little section to my weekly round-up, to list the premieres I'm excited about. (These are all things I expect to be discussing next week, assuming I get to watch everything I want to watch this week.)
I'm definitely planning to watch Judas and the Black Messiah (2021), Shaka King's new film about the betrayal of Black Panther leader Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya) by FBI informer William O'Neal (Lakeith Stanfield). (It's dropping on HBOMax February 12.)
I'm also excited for Saint Maud (2021), Rose Glass's horror film from A24, which is one of those movies that critics have been raving about for months, but which has been frustratingly unavailable here in the states. (It's finally going to drop on EPIX on February 12.)
On the TV front, I'll probably check out the Feb. 11 premiere of the new CBS drama Clarice, though my expectations are not high. (It takes a special kind of hubris for a network to think there is anything interesting to do with Thomas Harris's characters after the Grand Guignol beauty of Bryan Fuller's NBC series Hannibal. From the early buzz, Clarice doesn't even try, but I'll attempt to keep an open mind.)
Speaking of bad writing, implausible characters, and lowered expectations, I am finishing this piece up just in time to go watch the second season premiere of American Horror Story: The Impeachment of Donald Trump. It would not surprise me if I have a thing or two to say about that production next week, or—at the very least—if I end up using it as an excuse for falling even further behind on my work. (Fingers crossed for a narratively satisfying finale in which the repulsive bad guy gets what's coming to him—but I wouldn't hold my breath.)