The evolution of public shaming

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In a piece for Vanity Fair this week, Monica Lewinsky opened up about why she decided to participate in a docuseries called The Clinton Affair:

Filming the documentary forced me to acknowledge to myself past behavior that I still regret and feel ashamed of. There were many, many moments when I questioned not just the decision to participate, but my sanity itself. Despite all of the ways I tried to protect my mental health, it was still challenging. During one therapy session, I told my therapist I was feeling especially depressed. She suggested that sometimes what we experience as depression is actually grief.

Grief. Yes, it was Grief. The process of this docuseries led me to new rooms of shame that I still needed to explore, and delivered me to Grief’s doorstep. Grief for the pain I caused others. Grief for the broken young woman I had been before and during my time in D.C., and the shame I still felt around that. Grief for having been betrayed first by someone I thought was my friend, and then by a man I thought had cared for me. Grief for the years and years lost, being seen only as “That Woman”—saddled, as a young woman, with the false narrative that my mouth was merely a receptacle for a powerful man’s desire. (You can imagine how those constructs impacted my personal and professional life.) Grief for a relationship that had no normal closure, and instead was slowly dismantled by two decades of Bill Clinton’s behavior that eventually (eventually!) helped me understand how, at 22, I took the small, narrow sliver of the man I knew and mistook it for the whole.

Lewinsky has made a few public statements about her experiences in the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal and I’ve found them all to be insightful and moving (see: her TED talk on the price of shame). Lewinsky continues:

Throughout history, women have been traduced and silenced. Now, it’s our time to tell our own stories in our own words. Muriel Rukeyser famously wrote: “What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? The world would split open.” Blair Foster, the Emmy-winning director of the series, is testing that idea in myriad ways […] I may not like everything that has been put in the series or left out, but I like that the perspective is being shaped by women. Yes, the process of filming has been exceedingly painful. But I hope that by participating, by telling the truth about a time in my life—a time in our history—I can help ensure that what happened to me never happens to another young person in our country again.

The Clinton-Lewinsky scandal happened while I was a teenager, but I think I’m still coming to terms with how our society and the media completely annihilated everyone involved. Weeks of newspaper headlines and endless jokes on late night TV served to normalize mockery of this young woman who was caught in a vortex of circumstances that any normal person would barely be able to comprehend (This representative clip from David Letterman is absolutely cringe-inducing to watch today).

I had a similar thought when I watched Asif Kapadia’s excellent documentary about Amy Winehouse, Amy. Winehouse was ridiculed endlessly for her background and drug problems, and the documentary implies that the public scrutiny drove her to the substance abuse that ultimately took her life.

The notion that society and the media prey upon celebrities (often women) until they have extracted all they can from them is not a new idea. South Park made an episode about it. The Onion satirized it. People like simple narratives, but what these instances reveal is that by reducing individuals down to an idea, a catchphrase, a single act, we perform a kind of psychic violence upon them. We strip them of their individuality and their complex fullness. We make them into punchlines.

The difference now is that there finally seems to be a stronger willingness to reflect on the decisions we’ve made in how we think about and discuss these things. In doing so, hopefully we can finally reckon with who we were and who we should become.

Also: For a thorough and engrossing rundown of the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal, check out the second season of Slate’s “Slow Burn” podcast.

A eulogy for the old 13″ Macbook Air

Apple yesterday announced a new Macbook Air, a new Mac Mini, and a new iPad Pro. I was hoping that we’d see a Macbook Air that kept many of the best characteristics of its old laptop, but it seems as though Apple is hell bent on following through with some of its controversial design decisions from the past few years.

In the above video blog, I express some of my frustrations and lament the impending death of one of the greatest laptops of all time.

Common ground is overrated

It’s been a tough week. All this happened in the last seven days:

I’ve been making more blog posts/newsletter entries because I wanted to be disciplined about giving updates on my life and sharing some considered thoughts on film and pop culture. But on a week like this one, all that ephemera can seem completely insignificant compared to the tragedies we are now weekly faced with. if you’re like me, it can be difficult to know how to balance the desire to stay engaged with the need for self-care. I wish you all the best in finding the right balance for yourselves.

In the meantime, I did want to share this article by Tayari Jones for Time entitled, “There’s Nothing Virtuous About Finding Common Ground”:

I find myself annoyed by the hand-wringing about how we need to find common ground. People ask how might we “meet in the middle,” as though this represents a safe, neutral and civilized space. This American fetishization of the moral middle is a misguided and dangerous cultural impulse. The middle is a point equidistant from two poles. That’s it. There is nothing inherently virtuous about being neither here nor there. Buried in this is a false equivalency of ideas, what you might call the “good people on both sides” phenomenon. When we revisit our shameful past, ask yourself, Where was the middle? Rather than chattel slavery, perhaps we could agree on a nice program of indentured servitude? Instead of subjecting Japanese-American citizens to indefinite detention during WW II, what if we had agreed to give them actual sentences and perhaps provided a receipt for them to reclaim their things when they were released? What is halfway between moral and immoral?

Jones concludes by saying, “Compromise is not valuable in its own right, and justice seldom dwells in the middle.” I hope these are words we can all keep in mind as the U.S. mid-term elections are 9 days away and rapidly approaching.

Vote. Do what you can to create a future you believe in. And remember that there’s nothing inherently valuable about making sure everyone agrees with you.

A few things I read and appreciated this week:

An Evening at the Alamo

This past weekend was very special. A few weeks ago, the Alamo Drafthouse in Winchester, Virginia invited Stephen Tobolowsky and I to a special “movie club” screening of The Primary Instinct, the storytelling film I directed starring Stephen. It’s pretty cool when any decent movie theater decides to screen your movie, so Stephen and I both traveled across the country to be there. We introduced the film, took a group photo with them, and did a Q&A and signing afterwards.

The screening went great. We sold out one of their larger theaters (We couldn’t get the largest one on Venom/A Star Is Born weekend, unfortunately). People laughed and cried. The person sitting next to me noticeably teared up multiple times. Afterwards, a huge line formed in the lobby and people bought DVDs and took selfies. They even asked for my autograph.

A woman came up to Stephen and I to thank us for the film. She told us about her parents were suffering from health issues (a topic which the film covers) and she said, “It is truly a gift to be able to hear your story from another person’s perspective.” I’ll never forget that.

While Stephen and I were very proud of The Primary Instinct, it wasn’t a movie that lit the world on fire in terms of attention or response. But sometimes, movies can take years before they find the people who will get a lot out of them. That’s part of what makes them amazing — they can still have that impact years, or even decades later.

Really grateful to all the folks who came to the screening, to Andy and the folks at Alamo Drafthouse Winchester for making the invitation, to all the people at who made the film possible, and to Stephen, who remains one of my best collaborators.

A few more stray observations from the week:

  • We don’t have Alamo Drafthouses in Seattle, so I was excited to take advantage of their presence in Virginia. Prior to our Primary Instinct screening, I went to the Alamo Drafthouse in Charlottesville two nights in a row to see A Star Is Born and Venom. While I wasn’t a big fan of either film, I loved the filmgoing experience. The Alamo has interesting video essays that play before each movie. They famously and religiously guard against talking and texting during the movie. And they serve decent food that’s presented in a thoughtful way (waitstaff skillfully duck and jog through the aisles so as to minimize any impact on your movie enjoyment). Overall, I’m a big fan and wish I had access to one near me.
  • Speaking of A Star Is Born, I appreciated Alison Willmore’s essay about the film. As usual, she is thoughtful and articulate about what the film conveys about the pleasures and pitfalls of fame. That said, I feel like I saw a completely different film, which didn’t have any nuance or anything interesting to say in how it presented these concepts at all.
  • The Bill Simmons podcast has a fascinating, in-depth interview with Matt Damon. While Damon is a mega-superstar now, it’s easy to forget that not that long ago he was barely scraping by as an actor and desperately trying to get Good Will Hunting made with him Affleck in the lead roles. I was particularly interested in his thoughts on how mid-budget dramas have become nearly extinct at the box office these days, largely due to the decline of DVD sales.

The future of comedy

Jesse David Fox has written a great essay for Vulture on how comedy is evolving, especially in light of new “comedy specials” like Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette:

“Comedy is always changing” was the one thing Federman wanted to make sure I remembered. It reminded me of my favorite line from I’m Dying Up Here, Showtime’s fictionalized drama about the 1970s L.A. comedy scene (talk about comedy being taken seriously!). After bombing at the show’s version of the Comedy Store, a Borscht Belt comedian (played by Judy Gold) a few generations older than the vanguard the show follows, says: “A hundred years from now, people are still gonna be listening to Beethoven and ooh’ing over Michelangelo, reading Shakespeare. But us? Jokes and shoulders, that’s what we are. Jokes for people to laugh at and shoulders for comics down the road to stand on … We’re just a faint echo in a joke told a hundred years from now.” It’s something I noticed working on the two editions of the 100 Jokes that Shaped Modern Comedy — every joke in history both built on what came before it and rendered it not as vital. The good news is, it’s not a zero-sum game. Tomorrow, John Mulaney isn’t going to go into Word, highlight all the punch lines in his act, press delete, and replace them with resigned sighs. And sure, the press materials for Amazon’s Forever say Yang and Hubbard literally told the staff to write fewer jokes, but a lot of those writers also work on The Good Place, and that show has a ton of jokes. There are still one-liner comedians today, 70 years after that fell out of fashion. But the progress will not be stopped. It is the only constant. Jokes and shoulders, that’s what comedy is. Well, maybe not jokes.

The jokes they most regret

Spectacular piece by Erik Abiss for Vulture about the jokes 13 comedians most regret telling:

As the discourse rages on about whether or not political correctness is destroying comedy (spoiler alert: it isn’t), these 13 comedians decided that self-interrogation is ultimately a good thing. They opened up about the material they’ve performed that hasn’t aged particularly well and how owning up to it has helped grow their comedic voices.

I found Emily Heller’s section to be particularly meaningful.

An Oral History of Bob Costas’ Pink Eye

Kelly Conaboy, writing for Vulture:

Bob Costas: I found it odd that some people thought, “Well, he just can’t bear to give up his seat at the Olympics.” I’d done ten Olympics by that time. My honest feeling was: this is my job, and I’m the one who’s prepared to do this job. You know, it’s hard to just — when Matt and Meredith were thrown into it, the researchers wrote stuff for them, and they did a great, professional job. But I’d prepared to do the job; I was the person suited to do the job. And you don’t want to let your colleagues down. They work harder than the hosts do. They’ve spent a year, or a year and a half, traveling the world, doing research, compiling all these research manuals, producing these pieces, and you’re kind of carrying the ball for them. So you don’t want to feel as if you’ve let them down.

I thought this was a ridiculous premise for an oral history piece, but it turned out to be a thought-provoking meditation on what life in the spotlight is like, and the limits of professionalism. Amazing work by Conaboy.

The origin of David S. Pumpkins

This is a great piece by Jesse David Fox at Vulture about how the David S. Pumpkins sketch on SNL came together:

“Haunted Elevator” is a Saturday Night Live sketch about confused people trying to figure out what this guy named David S. Pumpkins’s deal is. The now-classic sketch (more commonly referred to as “David Pumpkins”), starring Tom Hanks as Mr. Pumpkins, was written by similarly confused people trying to figure out what his deal is. The character — his signature wardrobe, orange hair-streak, hand motions, voice, name — became clearer with each step in the SNL process. Exactly one year from the debut of “Haunted Elevator,” and a week away from a new David Pumpkins Halloween special, this is the story of how it came together, told by those who wrote it — Bobby Moynihan, Mikey Day, and Streeter Seidell.

This piece captures the fortuitous circumstances and insane amounts of work required for a sketch like this to come together. Sometimes, something created for sheer entertainment value (and nothing else) can be what endures.