In my weekly(ish) 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 send your address to newsletter@unaffiliatedcritic.
I have, for the moment, lost my mojo. I know it must be nearby—I mean, I had it recently, and it's not like I've left the house lately—but I'll be damned if I can find it.
Every day I sit down at my desk—which is where I can usually find my mojo—and I look for it. I've tried searching for it methodically, with patience and logic. I've tried searching for it frantically, in a heat of panic and self-abnegation. I've tried downing small quantities of alcohol, and massive quantities of espresso, as if it's one of those pagan gods who requires ritual offerings and a prolonged state of ecstasy to summon. I've even tried banging my head against my desk, on the off chance my mojo somehow got lodged in a crevice from which a judicious application of sudden force might knock it loose. But alas, nothing has worked so far.
Having exhausted all such proactive efforts, I'm currently trying that thing where you look for something you've misplaced by pretending you're not looking for it. You know the theory: Stop searching so hard, let your mind wander, and suddenly you'll remember where you left it, catch a glimpse of it out of the corner of your eye, or accidentally trip over it while you're doing something else. It's like trying to catch a skittish animal: Sometimes the best thing to do is just sit still, and avoid eye contact, and hope that it decides to wander up to you on its own.
It might work. It could work. My mojo is here somewhere, after all. And it's always in the last place you look for it.
In the last month or so, nearly every outlet in America has published at least one article on the "pandemic wall." "America has hit the pandemic wall," the Washington Post informed us, a few weeks ago. "It's Not Just You. A Lot Of Us Are Hitting A Pandemic Wall Right Now," the Huffington Post assures us. In their latest cover story, Scientific American calls it "pandemic fatigue," probably because that sounds slightly more scientific. (I don't know, because I couldn't actually read the article: I hit a Pandemic Wall Paywall.) This week, in The Atlantic, Ellen Cushing spoke to a number of experts who all agree that "Late-Stage Pandemic is Messing With Your Brain." (The confirmation is somehow both alarming and comforting.)
There are various definitions and explanations for the phenomenon, but what everyone seems to agree on is that living for full year with chronic anxiety and uncertainty—under conditions of isolation, boredom, and repetition—is not good for a person's health or productivity. (Who knew?) And the symptoms seem to be fairly universal. In a recent CNN article explaining "Why Kids Are Hitting the Pandemic Wall," a sixth grader provides as good a summary of what it feels like as I've seen anywhere: "I'm tired, I'm stressed, and I feel lazy," she says. "Everything is so awkward now."
Tired, stressed, lazy, and awkward. That about sums it up.
For me, it is manifesting as a frustratingly truncated attention span, and an almost bottomless absence of motivation. Primarily—and most inconveniently—I can't seem to get any writing done. This is a familiar enough occurrence—my longtime readers will testify to the fact that I am prone to what we can charitably call "fallow seasons"—but it feels different this time. It's not that I don't want to write: I do. And it's not that I'm blocked: I'm not. Every day I open up one of my works in progress, and I start picking away at it, but somehow at the end of the day I find I've written about 34 words. I just can't get seem to get any momentum.
Stranger still—and in some ways more troubling—is the realization that I also don't seem to want to do any of the things I usually do to avoid writing. I don't particularly want to veg out in front of movies and TV shows I've seen a million times before. I can't be bothered to read, or take walks, or play video games, or putter around the house. I'm so sick of Twitter—and the internet as a whole—that I fantasize about breaking all my many screens so I never have to look at another one again. Hell, despite feeling tired all the time, even taking a nap usually feels like a pointless thing to do.
If someone else described these symptoms to me, I might say, "It sounds like you're severely depressed." But I don't think I am: I've been depressed, and this isn't that. My mood is fine, actually. I just don't particularly want to do anything. And so I don't. And somehow, entire days and weeks are passing in which I do virtually nothing.
It feels, I've realized, like waiting. It feels like when you're waiting several long hours in an airport, or (more appropriate to the country's general status) in a doctor's office. You can tell yourself that you're going to use that time to get some work done, or catch up on your reading, but it's really hard to be productive that way. Whatever you do feels like shallow, distracted busy-work, because all you're actually doing is waiting for some release from the interminable state of waiting.
I've read all the advice contained in those "pandemic wall" articles, too, and unfortunately it seems to amount to little more than "hang in there." Be nice to yourself, and don't beat yourself up. (I'm bad at this part.) Keep moving forward with the things you are able to do right now (hence this post), and give yourself credit for doing them. (Despite feeling like the biggest slacker on the planet, I counted and realized I've written about 65,000 words—the equivalent of a shortish novel—so far in 2021. That's not bad, surely?)
Personally, I've just been trying to press on—getting a little more done each day—while, at the same time, trying to be better about giving myself guilt-free downtime. One of the conditions of how we are living now is that there is no separation—spatial or temporal—between living and working. Work invades leisure time, and leisure time bleeds into work. This means that even doing nothing is not relaxing or restorative, because it is always ruined by the awareness that I should be doing something. (If I'm going to do nothing anyway, I figure, I may as well enjoy it.)
So—long-story-short, tl:dr version—I've had a bad few weeks, productivity-wise. I didn't even get this newsletter/blog out the last couple of weeks, partially because I was unmotivated, and partially because I felt like I had no news of which to blog. ("BREAKING NEWS: I've done fuck all. Experts predict more fuck all in the immediate future. Further updates as events warrant.")
Anyway, I'm working on it. If anyone else is feeling this way, and has strategies to deal with it, let me know. If I come up with anything that works, I'll do the same.
In the meantime, I have been watching stuff, and—since I haven't done the newsletter lately—my list of things to discuss is growing unwieldy. So let me see if I can at least get through some of those.
Among all the stuff I've watched recently, my favorite may be Russell T Davies' five-part miniseries It's a Sin (HBOMax, all episodes currently available.) Davies (Queer as Folk, Doctor Who) is a writer with whom I tend to have a complicated relationship: His storytelling can be messy and overwrought at times, but he is a deft hand with characterization, explored through a sort of slightly heightened reality that gets at raw emotional truths. And It's a Sin—the story of a group of London friends (mostly gay) during the first decade of the AIDS epidemic—is not only the best thing Davies has done in years, it may be the best treatment of its subject since Angels in America. It pivots on a dime between broad comedy, heartbreaking tragedy, and scathing political commentary, always located in Davies' warm and joyous love for his characters in all their complicated, flawed, frequently frustrating human glory. The young cast is excellent, and teems with an authenticity aided by Davies' refreshing insistence on casting gay actors to play gay characters. (Particularly good is Lydia West as Jill, the straight woman who becomes the caring center of the storm as all the beautiful boys begin dying around her. West was one of the bright spots of Davies' last series Years and Years, and if there's any justice in the world she's going to be a major star.) Honestly, I sat down to watch the first episode of It's a Sin out of curiosity, and I ended up bingeing the entire series in a single night, engrossed, enraptured, and thoroughly wrecked.
I'm also currently enjoying the second season of For All Mankind (Apple TV+, Fridays). I'm a sucker for fact-based space-race stuff—The Right Stuff, Apollo 13, From the Earth to the Moon, even a middling film like Hidden Figures—but the problem with being a NASA addict is that there is a definite shortage of high-drama stories to tell. (I mean, From the Earth to the Moon did a whole episode about astronauts taking a geology class so they could learn to identify rocks. It was a surprisingly good episode, but you could definitely feel the writers straining to find compelling content about any Apollo mission besides 11 and 13.) With For All Mankind, creator and executive producer Ronald D. Moore (Battlestar Galactica) has solved that problem by creating a realistic series set in an alternate timeline: one in which the Russians beat America to the moon, and therefore the space-race never really ended. The alternate history stuff is smart, and plausible, and fascinating. (This is a world in which Russians and Americans spy on each other's moon bases; electric cars are common by the early 80s; and the prominence of female astronauts helps President Ted Kennedy get the Equal Rights Amendment passed.) But the gimmick of the world-building also becomes a fascinating setting for strong, compelling, character-based drama. This is one of the best shows no one seems to be talking about.
I won't say I'm enjoying Allen v. Farrow (HBO, Sundays), the four-part documentary series by Kirby Dick, Amy Ziering, and Amy Herdy, but it's well-made, persuasive, and suitably harrowing. Despite what its "he-said/she-said" title might imply, Allen v. Farrow is not an even-handed or objective exploration of the allegations that Woody Allen sexually abused his adopted daughter Dylan Farrow—nor does it pretend to be, nor should it be. What it feels like, instead, is a thorough and much-needed corrective to a narrative that has somehow allowed Woody Allen to continue maintaining his innocence and furthering his career. I confess: Until a few years ago I was still an Allen defender, driven by my adoration of his work and a misguided picture of Mia Farrow as manipulative, vindictive, and emotionally unstable. (It took me way too long to realize that this image of Farrow had been created entirely by Allen himself, through his movies and his manipulation of the media.) Hearing Mia Farrow, Dylan, and the rest of the family tell their story now is a powerful, shame-inducing indictment of rape culture and the cult of artistic genius, and it should be the last nail in the mouldering coffin of Allen's legacy.
In our joint relaxation watching, my wife and I are longtime reality competition show addicts. Specifically, we tend to like shows about people making things: an obsession that began with Project Runway, grew with Top Chef, and reached an almost zen-like ecstasy a few years ago with the discovery of The Great British Bake-Off. During the long waits between seasons of these proven, prestige shows, however, we keep trying to watch more obscure entries in the genre, which almost always go down like the pale imitations they are. We've tried pottery shows (The Great Pottery Throw Down), flower-arranging shows (The Big Flower Fight), even (with increasing desperation) a few episodes of a sword-making show (Forged in Fire)—all with mixed and limited success. Our latest attempt was the glass-blowing show Blown Away (Netflix, two seasons available), which was acceptable but unsatisfying. Some of the final constructions were cool, but I've decided these shows live or die by two factors: Can you make me care about the competitors, and can you make the actual making of things interesting? Glass-blowing seems like a fascinating thing to do, but the series is appallingly bad at even explaining the process, let alone engrossing me in it. And, based on the evidence, most people who blow glass recreationally are egotistical dicks. Alas, our search for an acceptable substitute for Bake-Off continues.
In a year in which I have found most critical darlings and awards contenders underwhelming, it was a pleasure to discover that Minari—Lee Isaac Chung's autobiographical story about a Korean family who move to a farm in 1980s Arkansas—is every bit as good as reported. Honestly, this film kind of restored my faith in cinema: It finds realistic and compelling drama in the struggles of everyday life, and its characters are so well-drawn, all of them—even the children—having complex and authentic lives going on beneath their surfaces. (That's the kind of thing that doesn't even seem rare, until you see it done as well as it is here.) The entire cast is phenomenal, in ways that make it seem almost churlish to single any individual out: Crowd-pleasers Youn Yuh-jung (as the grandmother) and newcomer Alan S. Kim (as the youngest child), seem to be getting the most attention, but I was fascinated by the quietly furious performance of Yeri Han as the wife and mother Monica, who is not completely on board with her husband David's (Steven Yeun) dream of farming. Minari was wrongly relegated to the "Best Foreign Film" category at the Golden Globes—due to the majority of its dialogue being in Korean—but it is literally and quintessentially an American film, and it already feels like a new American classic.
I was not quite so enamored with Nomadland, Chloe Zhao's strange hybrid of documentary and drama about vehicle-dwelling itinerant American workers. Based on a non-fiction book by Jessica Bruder, Nomadland explores an interesting and overlooked sub-culture of post-recession 21st century America, largely by allowing the real "nomads" to play themselves: The depiction of this world, and the brief stories we hear from this strange new community of marginal people, are by far the most interesting parts of the film. But Zhao made the problematic decision to not only center her loose narrative on a fictional character, Fern (Frances McDormand), but also to center the emotional themes of the piece on Fern's personal grief rather than economic issues or workforce injustices. It felt to me like a film at odds with itself, a fine but fundamentally phony character-study drawing too much focus away from real people who are used as little more than supporting characters and scenery dressing. I didn't hate the film: McDormand is always good; the direction and cinematography are lovely; and I admired its languid, laconic narrative. But it sat uneasily with me. (I suspect I need to watch this one again, though I confess I have no burning desire to do that.)
More purely entertaining, but ultimately far less substantial, is J Blakeson's pitch-black comedy I Care a Lot. Rosamund Pike plays Marla Grayson, a ruthlessly unscrupulous business woman who has built being a court-appointed guardian for the elderly into a high-profit cottage industry. The first half of I Care a Lot is actually fascinating and infuriating, as we learn how easy it is to manipulate a well-intentioned system to rob senior-citizens of their life savings. Unfortunately, after Marla pulls her scam on the wrong retiree—the brilliant Diane Wiest, as a woman with hidden connections to people you don't want to mess with—I Care a Lot devolves into a formulaic (and increasingly ludicrous) crime thriller. (My suspension of disbelief was itself suspended when Pike's amateur criminal turned out to be preternaturally capable, while the professional criminals who work for mob-boss Peter Dinklage all turned out to be hopelessly inept.) I enjoyed the film well enough while I was watching it, but it eventually left me unsatisfied—intellectually, narratively, and ethically.
Finally, for anyone who might have asked "Do we really need a sequel to Coming to America?", the answer turns out to be a dull but resounding "No." Betraying my generation slightly, I was never a particular fan of the 1988 original, and the confusingly named cash-in Coming 2 America lacks even that film's slight and uneven charms. It is pointless to rail against unnecessary sequels, rebootings, and revivals—it's a profitable trend as old as Hollywood itself—but I do wish more creators would realize that nostalgia itself is insufficient seasoning for tepidly reheated leftovers. If you're going to reassemble this cast, and go to all this effort, you may as well remember to make it funny.
Looking Forward To
There isn't a lot on the immediate horizon that I'm excited to watch. I'll probably check out Isabel, HBO's new three-part series based on the life of Chilean writer Isabel Allende, dropping March 12. I might use this week to catch up with a few Oscar-probable films I've missed, like Sound of Metal. On the superhero front, I suspect I'll probably check out Disney's new Marvel series The Falcon and the Winter Soldier (March 19), but I'm far less certain I'll subject myself to the four-hour "Snyder Cut" of Justice League (March 18). Or, you know, I may actually try to get some work done.
For anyone nervous that I didn't mention any of the things I was supposed to have published by now—including my next Deadwood review, my next Independent Study in World Cinema, and the next episode of our podcast—rest assured that I have not abandoned any of them: They're all in progress, and they're all coming, just as soon as I can break through, or scale, or make my peace with the wall I'm currently banging my head against. (If you knew how long it actually took me to get through this blog post—which was originally titled "Week 9"—you'd have a humiliatingly accurate picture of the situation. Please bear with me.)