The stories we tell ourselves

I’m always a fan of a good Heather Havrilesky advice column:

Shame creates imaginary worlds inside your head. This haunted house you’re creating is forged from your shame. No one else can see it, so you keep trying to describe it to them. You find ways to say, “You don’t want any part of this mess. I’m mediocre, aging rapidly, and poor. Do yourself a favor and leave me behind.” You want to be left behind, though. That way, no one bears witness to what you’ve become.

It’s time to come out of hiding. It’s time to step into the light and be seen, shame and wrinkles and failures and fears and all.

I found this column to be very powerful because of its emphasis on the narratives we tell ourselves about our own lives. Anything can be viewed differently in hindsight. In fact, it often should be.

When Charles Barkley is your friend

Love this story by Shirley Wang about her dad’s unlikely friendship with Charles Barkley:

When Charles Barkley’s mother, Charcey Glenn, passed away in June 2015, Barkley’s hometown of Leeds, Alabama, came to the funeral to pay respects. But there was also an unexpected guest.

Barkley’s friends couldn’t quite place him. He wasn’t a basketball player, he wasn’t a sports figure, and he wasn’t from Barkley’s hometown. Here’s what I can tell you about him: He wore striped, red polo shirts tucked into khaki shorts and got really excited about two-for-one deals. He was a commuter. He worked as a cat litter scientist in Muscatine, Iowa. In short, he was everyone’s suburban dad. More specifically, he was my dad.

I was deeply moved, as it reminded all the unlikely relationships we can form and how special they can be, especially as immigrants.

Be sure to listen to the audio version.

The glory of ‘Roma’

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“None of those people is an extra. They’re all the leads of their own stories. They have to be given their due.”

Those words were spoken by Philip Seymour Hoffman, playing the role of Caden Cotard in Synecdoche, New York. I found Synecdoche to be maddening and inaccessible but I also felt it contained insights that were worth trying to get to (I tried to do this awhile back in this video essay with Amy Nicholson).

Despite my confusion, these lines stood out as a fundamental message of the film. We experience our lives in a much different way than those around us experience them. Everyone is the main character in the story of their lives. And it can be difficult to let other people in — to acknowledge that their lives have fullness and arcs of their own. It’s difficult not because their lives are dull, but because we barely have the capacity to process our own stories. How can we be expected to understand what others are going through?

This thought came to mind while watching Alfonso Cuarón’s newest film Roma, out on Netflix today. Roma is a semiautobiographical story of Cuarón’s childhood and of his family’s live-in housekeeper, Cleo. Throughout the film, we witness Cleo’s experiences, from the mundanity of her daily tasks to her loving care of the household’s children. At the periphery, we see snippets of external events — the family she’s employed by begins to fall apart, and political unrest spills into the streets — but as with real life, these events are just tangential to the story. They aren’t the story itself.

Roma is a technical masterwork. The camera work is masterful and intricate. Its seeming passivity as it glides and pans its way through each scene seems to be the film’s way of saying “This is real. This happened. You’re just lucky to get a glimpse at it through this tiny window. ”

The movie invites us to take a look at this person who would be a side character in another film and to experience her life in all its fullness. The result is a wonderful celebration of how we shape the lives of those around us, and how they shape us too.


A few more thoughts for the week:

My favorite Instant Pot recipes: a constantly updated list

My wife gifted me an Instant Pot a year ago after I’d gotten excited via the hype, but I initially found using it to be a pretty off-putting experience. The device was well made and easily maintained (virtually every component is dishwasher safe) but the problem was that most of the food I made in it came out pretty mediocre. There were tons of Instant Pot recipes all over the web and in cookbooks, but I found that quite a few of them didn’t generate results any better than just using a nice stovetop skillet.

Eventually I read this NYTimes piece by Melissa Clark and it really helped me to put the device in perspective:

After using the machine consistently for nearly a year, I can say that if you stick to what it does best — stewing, braising, simmering, steaming — you’ll be amply rewarded. Just don’t attempt to cook anything crunchy or golden, because it probably won’t end well. No matter how many multicooker roast chicken recipes you may stumble across on the internet, don’t believe them. I’ve tried it several times: The skin ends up soft and flabby instead of crisp and salty, and the meat turns stringy.

If you play to the multicooker’s many strengths and remain aware of its weaknesses, you won’t be disappointed.

Essentially, if you use the Instant Pot for a rather narrow, specific set of tasks, you’ll find it excels.

The following are recipes that I think make particularly good use of the Instant Pot. My condition for listing these here are they use the Instant Pot to achieve a result that would be much more difficult or impossible to achieve with any other cooking implement. I will continue to update this list and may bring it to the top of this blog on occasion.

Japanese Chicken Curry – This recipe from Just One Cookbook does a great job of incorporating the instant pot into a standard curry recipe. The use of the instant pot results in chicken that’s fairly tender and onions that basically liquefy, leading to a rich flavor. 
Suggested modifications: I use store-bought curry for convenience, and I also use water instead of chicken broth, as the broth makes it a bit too rich for me.

Navy bean, bacon, and spinach soup – A vegetable-heavy soup that’s loaded with flavor. The bacon is essential and gives the soup some great texture. The navy beans become suitably soft, while still retaining a lovely chewiness. 
Suggested modifications: I’d use a little bit less broth to give soup a bit more thickness. Plus, more bacon. You can always use more bacon. 

Turkey cheeseburger soup – The concept of a “turkey cheeseburger soup” sounded pretty unappealing to me out of context, but something drew me to this recipe and I’m really grateful I tried it. This recipe is straight up delicious and fairly healthy to boot. The pureed cauliflower really gives the soup a richness that I couldn’t have predicted. One of my favorite recipes, and a regular go-to for me.
Suggested modifications: I don’t really alter this recipe in any major way, but I do play around with the ratio of carrots/potatoes, depending on how I’m feeling on the day.

Chicken chili verde – A flavorful and hearty green chili recipe that really shows what’s possible with the power of the Instant Pot (plus an immersion blender). The addition of fish sauce is a particularly brilliant touch. 
Suggested modifications: None, although fair warning that eating solely this for a main course might be a bit intense. (Potentially better as an appetizer or side dish)

Beef stew – I tried numerous beef stew recipes in the Instant Pot but few of them had the heartiness that I desired. Additionally, it was difficult to find a recipe that would cook the meat to the point where it would be tender, as I knew the Pot was capable of doing. This recipe hits all those requirements. The stew is suitably thick and the beef chunks become soft and easy to chew after being pressurized for 35 minutes.
Suggested modifications: Depending on your love of peas, you may want to take it down a notch from what this recipe recommends. 

 

 

Mission: Impossible – Fallout 4K Ultra HD Blu-Ray Review

The Mission: Impossible – Fallout 4K Blu-Ray is a great home video package. Included in the box are three discs: A 4K UHD version of the film, which includes some of the special features like the commentaries, a Blu-Ray version of the film, and a separate Blu-ray disc that contains the rest of the special features. The biggest downside of this release is that it doesn’t match the box art for Paramount’s recently released 4K Mission: Impossible set. Really makes you wonder who Paramount is making those sets for, because in general, anyone who’s going to buy a 4K box set of all these films is probably going to watch those discs to match. Just going out on a limb there.

In terms how the feature presentation looks, it’s great. The movie’s shot and lit beautifully and loses very little in its journey to the small screen. Of course, Fallout was shot on a a mix of film and digital and this does make for an occasionally jarring viewing experience, but this is something that was present in the theatrical presentation as well. The sound mix is also great and it’s a particularly great way to experience composer Lorne Balfe’s score, which is one of my favorites of the franchise.

When it comes to special features, the highlight is the feature length commentary featuring Tom Cruise and Christopher McQuarrie. McQuarrie is an extremely generous filmmaker. Even before this disc was released, I’ve probably listened to about 8-10 hours of interview with him, but even so, I still Learned a few things about the production of this film listening to this commentary. And if you’re a fan of Tom Cruise, it’s great to hear his enthusiasm for the storytelling and the stunts of this film. He seems genuinely excited about the movie and grateful to his cast and crew to have the chance to make it.

On the special features disc there are a few cool things worth noting. First of all, instead of “deleted scenes” there’s a Deleted Scenes Montage. It’s a bunch of deleted scenes cut together with finished color grading and visual effects set to music. The objective of including this was just to give you a sense of all the hard work put into this film that you didn’t see. I personally would’ve preferred to see all the complete deleted scenes here, as it would’ve been fascinating to get more insight into how they decided to structure the final story. But my sense is that director Christopher McQuarrie wants us all to think of the final film as the definitive version (the “Director’s Cut” as it were) and putting in completed scenes might’ve muddied the waters a bit.

There’s also a ton of featurettes about the making of virtually ever major set piece in the film, where you learn really cool tidbits about production, like how they did hundreds of jumps prepping for the halo jump sequence, or how they needed five helicopters for that chase sequence at the end, or how they needed to airlift 150 crew onto the site for the final fight that they shot at Pulpit Rock. It’s all fascinating stuff and reminds me of the heyday of Blu-Rays when discs were just loaded with content.

But it’s not all perfect. One downside is that a lot of the special features are edited in a really distractingly frenetic way. It felt like the person making these didn’t trust they could hold the audience’s attention throughout literally an entire sentence, so you end up with sequences where they are cutting mid-sentence and you have like 4-5 people contributing to that same sentence? After awhile of watching this, it got pretty distracting. I wanted to say to the creators of this disc, “Hey, what you’re showing me is already pretty impressive. Please don’t edit this to ribbons, thanks!”

The second thing is that everything on this disc and these special features is meant to convince you that Tom Cruise risked his life to make this movie. I have no doubt that people put themselves in danger, but the special features do a lot to downplay all the safety precautions that were taken. It’s never about “Here are the 15 things we did to make sure Tom Cruise didn’t die,” it’s always about “Here are all the ways things could’ve gone wrong for Tom Cruise.”

I’m not sure if we should be celebrating the fact that Tom Cruise almost died making Mission: Impossible – Fallout? On the one hand, yes, we’re living in an age where advancements in CG have made audience skeptical of virtually anything they see on screen. And it genuinely is impressive that Tom Cruise did a lot of this stuff practically. But it’s also true that a lot of it was augmented with visual effects, and the special features barely talk about any of that at all. For me, I would’ve been much more interested in how they were able to combine both the practical and the digital, and how the director made those calls. But fundamentally, that’s not the story these features are interested in telling.

In a time where stunt people have actually died while making movies quite recently, the idea that this billionaire risked his life for us just feels like a weird message to hammer home in this piece of mass market entertainment.

Those minor issues aside, if you’re a big fan of Mission: Impossible – Fallout like I am, I think you’ll find this disc is worth your money. I just wish they had made the box art match.

Here is a list of all the special features included in this disc:

  • Behind the Fallout (Featurettes)
    • Light the Fuse
    • Top of the World
    • The Big Swing: Deleted Scene Breakdown
    • Rendezvous in Paris
    • The Fall
    • The Hunt is On
    • Cliffside Clash
  • Deleted Scenes Montage with Optional Commentary by director Christopher McQuarrie and editor Eddie Hamilton
  • Foot Chase Musical Breakdown
  • The Ultimate Mission
  • Storyboards
  • Theatrical Trailer
  • Commentary by director Christopher McQuarrie and Tom Cruise
  • Commentary by director Christopher McQuarrie and editor Eddie Hamilton
  • Commentary by composer Lorne Balfe
  • Isolated Score Track

The Content Cycle

Max Read, writing for New York, has a good overview on how cable news, social media, and blogs have a symbiotic relationship with each other:

The Content Cycle, a phrase I did not just come up with right now, describes how content arises from the internet, is absorbed into cable television, and then gets redistributed back into the internet for the cycle to begin anew. Like the water cycle, the Content Cycle provides sustenance and habitation to a multitude of organisms, and in many ways it exists independently of human thought. Let’s walk through Problematic Rudolph as our emblematic example of the Content Cycle.

That time David Edelstein said something dumb

From the AP:

NPR’s “Fresh Air” has parted ways with contributor David Edelstein after the film critic made a joke about the rape scene in “Last Tango in Paris” on his Facebook page following Monday’s death of director Bernardo Bertolucci.

In a statement Tuesday, “Fresh Air” said the post was “offensive and unacceptable” because of what actress Maria Schneider experienced filming the scene. Schneider said in a 2007 interview that the simulated sex scene was unscripted and that she felt bullied by Bertolucci and unsupported by her co-star Marlon Brando. “I was crying real tears,” said Schneider, who died in 2011.

Edelstein later apologized and said he wasn’t aware of Schneider’s remarks. I find that unlikely given that heard about them at the time and I feel much less plugged into the film scene than Edelstein is. Still, even if he hadn’t heard about them, the joke was inarguably in poor taste.

One common mistake I see people make when news like this drops about a public figure is to assume they understand the totality of the circumstances. There are many potential reasons that NPR might want to show Edelstein the door that go beyond this tweet. But the tweet can often be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.

Edelstein’s views on cinema have been…pretty interesting in recent days (like when he longed for a time when everything, “even racism,” seemed simpler). But Edelstein has decades of work to stand on. Should one mistake cost him his job?

One thing that has really swung into focus for me recently is what a powerful responsibility it is to be able to express yourself to thousands of people so quickly and easily. Twitter and Facebook make it super easy to dash off a latent thought or an ill-considered jokes, but ultimately, they are public forums. They entice you into thinking you’re speaking to a small group of friends, when in fact, you’re broadcasting for the world to hear.

Ultimately, our words come with stakes attached, even if you write them on your smartphone while half awake in the morning, or after an all-night binge. We should all proceed accordingly.

See also: Terry Rossio and Paul Schrader.

Too viral to check

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On November 16, Thrillist published an article by Kevin Alexander in which he tried to come to terms with his role in the closing of a restaurant named Stanich’s after naming its burger “the best burger in America.” Apparently, Stanich’s couldn’t handle the increased attention and influx of tourists:

For the past year, the story of Stanich’s has haunted me. For most of that time, I’d been away from Thrillist, as I worked on a book that frequently took me to Portland. Each time I was there, my story would somehow find a way into conversation, like the one with my Lyft driver who asked if I liked burgers. Yes, I said tentatively. “Well, we had a great one here,” he said, as we drove over the Burnside Bridge. “But then some asshole from California ruined it.” Or the time, while sitting at the bar at Clyde Common, the bartender came up to me and in a soft, friendly voice inquired if I’d planned on closing any more burger restaurants while I was in town.

This self-reflective deep dive went even more viral than than the initial burger rankings. According to BuzzSumo, this article was shared more than 9K times on Twitter and had over 37K Facebook engagements (compared to less than 1K Twitter shares and 32K FB engagements on the original piece). Self-flagellation in the publishing industry not only makes for compelling reading; it also pays pretty well too.

The headline was exquisite, promising a piece that would not only reveal some insights about the aftermath of being named in these type of listicles, but also serve as an indictment for the viral systems many of us are complicit in every day. I was happy to see Alexander’s piece was creating a lot of soul-searching in the online publishing community. But I had my doubts about the actual premise of the article (much smarter folks like Nate Silver did too). One passage from the piece stood out, in which Alexander describes the events leading up to the restaurant’s closing: “I can say that there were personal problems, the type of serious things that can happen with any family, and would’ve happened regardless of how crowded Stanich’s was, and that real life is always more complicated and messier than we want it to be.”

Now, new reporting has come to light that makes clear Alexander left some major parts out of his original piece. Here’s Matthew Singer, writing for Willamette Week, detailing those personal problems:

On April 18, 2014, Stanich was arrested for choking his then-wife in front of their then-teenage son at their home in Northeast Portland. Documents show his wife, then 57, had been a manager at Stanich’s for 19 years before being diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer. Stanich pleaded no contest to charges of misdemeanor harassment and strangulation, and was sentenced to four years of probation. He was prohibited from owning a gun or contacting his wife. He was required to undergo treatment for his drinking, barred from consuming alcohol and, in a stiff prohibition for a bar owner, prohibited from entering establishments that primarily serve alcohol, except for work. For the past four years, the only bar he was allowed to set foot in was his own.

The information undercuts Alexander’s piece in several important ways. The first is that, obviously, there were probably greater forces at work creating trouble for the restaurant beyond the Thrillist burger ranking. Only Stanich’s family know the real story behind these events, but it’s safe to say that the restaurant could’ve easily shut down even if the Thrillist article had never been written. Right off the bat, the entire premise of Alexander’s piece is shot.

But in a more significant way, the piece also upends the way Alexander positions himself as a commentator on journalistic quality and ethics. Before he wrote about how he helped cause Stanich’s demise, Alexander explains:

[G]ood, sturdy, reliable lists requiring on the ground knowledge and reporting were actually hard/expensive to make, and few places wanted to pay for that sort of reporting, so most lists just ended up plagiarizing off of the few good ones. And, as these lists increased in frequency while simultaneously decreasing in quality, you watched the collective trust in any one list diminish. Comment sections turned cynical, “this is clickbait!” being the most common refrain, then outright ugly and hostile as discourse on the internet has devolved into a garbage fire inside a waste processing plant atop a landfill built on a massive skunk burial ground.

Alexander explicitly positions his own writing as being a force for good in this mixed up, Facebook-algorithm-driven world:

From a content perspective, my final list overachieved. It got the proper number of engagements, and shares, and clicks, and all the other analytics boss folks use in the Billy Beane Moneyball era of journalism, and the video with Steve Stanich joyfully weeping got millions of views and I got to go on podcasts and radio shows and be interviewed by local newspapers. People could disagree with my picks (and they did!), but they couldn’t call what I’d done clickbait. I’d done the work. I’d made a good list.

But with Alexander’s new piece commenting on the matter, he unwittingly created that thing that he sought to avoid: A clickbait piece whose headline couldn’t deliver on the premise, and whose lack of context (conveniently ignored in service of a story that was too viral to check) ended up bringing more attention to Stanich’s problems. It’s a cautionary tale about cautionary tales.

If the narrative feels too convenient to be true, it frequently is.


Some things that might be worth your time: