‘Long Shot’ is a short Netflix doc about chance and happenstance

To explain the premise of Long Shot is to basically give away the entire plot. With that in mind, here is what the movie is about: Long Shot is a new Netflix documentary about the trial of Juan Catalan, who was wrongly accused of murder in 2003. Catalan was at a Dodgers game around the time the murder was said to have taken place, but had few ways of definitively proving his whereabouts. Desperate to solidify his alibi, his lawyer turns to an unconventional place: footage from an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm that just happened to be shooting at Dodgers Stadium that night.

Long Shot is that rare Netflix property that doesn’t overstay its welcome. The film, directed by Jacob LaMendola, is well shot and efficient with its interviews and b-roll. With a documentary this short (39 minutes, in this case), it can be challenging to have a broader takeaway from this story of near-catastrophe. But I did get one idea from this film that I haven’t been able to shake, and that is that we are all just one random decision away from complete and utter catastrophe befalling us.

What if Catalan had decided to watch the game at home that night? What if Curb decided to shoot only one take that night? What if the production assistant had chosen a different section of the stadium to shoot in? If any of these things had happened, Catalan might be serving a life sentence today.

It’s a mind-boggling idea to consider, and elevates this doc from “true crime” trifle to something more thought provoking.

Art is a flat circle

One of the greatest honors of my life is to be able to enjoy great art, then hear from people who helped create that art that I, in an EXTREMELY tiny and minor way, was somehow, weirdly, part of that creation process.

The other day I saw Hamilton at the Pantages and was blown away by the brilliance of its concept and execution. I mentioned this in a few blog posts. Shortly after, I got the below email from a listener named Ben.

May we all have small, invisible connections.

Hey Dave,

I saw on your site that you recently saw and were surprisingly moved by Hamilton.

I actually work in a costume shop that makes a lot of the pieces you saw on stage. Hamilton costumes in particular are among the most complicated and labor intense projects we produce. Today for example I spent eight hours just CUTTING one short jacket haha.

I’m telling you this because it was these demanding pieces that made me first start listening to podcasts about two years ago. The first pod I ever listened to was the /Filmcast, and I’ve been a Dave Chen loyalist ever since. Even when my brain turns to mush and my hands ache, I can always turn on a Cast of Kings, /Filmcast, or Gen Pop (RIP) and push through my work. You make the tedious tolerable, and you’ve helped me get through more giant dresses than I can count.

So really I just wanted to thank you for producing such great pods, encourage you to keep going, and maybe surprise you with your own small, invisible connection to a show you’ve come to love.
Cheers,

Ben from NYC

Seeing ‘Hamilton’

Lin Manuel-Miranda’s “Hamilton” debuted in New York years ago, but when I saw it at the Pantages theater in Los Angeles last night, I have to admit that it affected me in ways I could not have anticipated. The story of Alexander Hamilton’s life, with people of color playing nearly all the central roles, takes on a special significance in our current times. Seeing people of color advocating and dying for the founding principles of this country — it was all very moving, especially in an age where the President and the majority of the white-dominated political party in power refuse to unequivocally denounce actual Nazis. 

This country always had greatness, but even at its founding, it’s greatness was predicated on a group of people who were willing to stand up for what was right, even when that meant deep sacrifice. I feel like history is again calling us to do the right thing, and not throw away our shot.

Anyway, “Hamilton” is an amazing experience and you should consider making major life sacrifices to see it.

Auditioning for Magic Castle

I’m really enjoying how /Film editor-in-chief Peter Sciretta is carving his way through life these days. Check out his piece on how he auditioned for LA’s Magic Castle:

As happy as this experience has made me, I’m very regretful of not trying out for the Magic Castle earlier. I feel embarrassed and dumb. It really sucks that I let fear own my decisions. If I hadn’t, who knows? I may have had seven years of fun in the Castle as a member at this point. Who knows what I missed in that time.

I’m not a motivational speech kinda guy, but I hope anyone reading this takes something away from this experience. Sure, you might not be into magic or have interest in joining The Magic Castle. But I’m sure you have things in your life that you have pushed off or away because of your fears and anxieties. Maybe there is a woman (or man) you want to ask out, but are afraid to make a move. Maybe you have always wanted to try taking an improv comedy class, but didn’t want to deal with the possible failure in front of a crowd. Maybe it’s something much simpler. Whatever the case, don’t let your fears get the best of your possible happiness. Don’t be in regret years later. Go, do it.

See also: Peter’s forbidden journey.

The beauty of adoption

Rene Denfield has written a piece for The New York Times’ Modern Love column that really destroyed me, emotionally:

To be a parent is to step into a great unknown, a magical universe where we choose to love over and over. It is an act of courage no matter what.

“Didn’t you want your own?” people would ask.

“They are my own,” I would say, softly.

By adopting from foster care, I became the mother I had needed and rewrote my own story. I got to have a childhood all over again, the right one, filled with cuddles and perseverance, safety and love. If there is such a thing as a cycle of abuse, I broke it over the wheel of my own desire.

What’s the point of life if the universe will one day end?

In David Lowery’s recent film, A Ghost Story, one of the characters goes on an extended soliloquy about the nature of humanity and how one could easily interpret the whole of human existence as a pointless of exercise. One day, everything as we know it will be gone — even, most likely, the universe. So what’s the point of it all? A24 released a short excerpt of the speech on YouTube above. (You can also watch my Periscope review of the film).

This week, the YouTube channel Kurzgesagt released a new video that tackles this very issue.

From the video:

If the universe ends in heat death, every humiliation you suffer in life will be forgotten. Every mistake will not matter in the end. Every bad thing will be voided. If our life is all we get to experience, then it’s the only thing that matters. If the universe has no principles, the only principles relevant are the ones we decide on. If the universe has no purpose, then we get to dictate what its purpose is.

Humans will most certainly cease to exist at some point. But before we do, we get to explore ourselves and the world around us. We get to experience feelings. We get to experience food, books, sunrises, and being with each other. The fact that we’re able to think about these things is already kind of incredible.

Obviously, there’s no one answer for this eternal question, but I appreciate them taking a shot at it.

In short: in the grand scheme of the universe, our time on earth is but a blink of an eye. We might as well enjoy it and try to help others enjoy it while we can.

For more ruminations on making the most of life, see Wait But Why’s post on Life in Weeks.

A Conversation with Aditi Natasha Kini about ‘The Big Sick’

The desire to see yourself represented onscreen can be a powerful one. I’ve felt it for most of my life, and I was sympathetic when Aditi Natasha Kini wrote a piece about it for Jezebel, as viewed through the lens of shows like Master of None and films like The Big Sick.

While many people in the comments and around the web supported Kini’s post, it also attracted criticism from liberals, conservatives, and film Twitter (and me, to some extent!). Kini had chosen an autobiographical film that many folks loved and seemed to be criticizing the details of the writer’s (Kumail Nanjiani) own life.

I reached out to Kini to see if she’d be willing to chat with me about the piece. She graciously agreed. What follows below is a transcription of parts of our conversation. It has been edited for clarity and brevity. This conversation contains some plot details from The Big Sick.

[Also: You can listen to my podcast review of The Big Sick over on the /Filmcast]

David: Before we begin, can you re-iterate again the main thrust of your article?

Aditi: The question that I’m asking is why liberals are lauding TV shows and movies like Master of None and The Big Sick for being a gold standard for progress despite the erasure and invisibility of believable women of color in them.

I think that the gist of my piece is we can still enjoy things and hold them to higher standards. And what the brown guys of Hollywood are doing is they’re othering women of color, especially women in their communities, by making this a platform for them to assimilate in white culture.

What motivated you to write this piece?

It’s been kind of a build-up, a cumulative frustration, but it started with Master of None. I had a lot of discussions with people who thought it was it was an amazing show. It’s a good show but I had some issues with it obviously, and I had to bear the emotional labor of explaining that to non-women of color. And then I saw The Big Sick at a preview screening in New York. I didn’t laugh at some parts that a lot of the audience members laughed at. For instance, in the trailer they show the Pakistani woman who says who makes that X-Files joke. It’s not a joke; she just says The X-Files tagline. But it’s with an accent, and people laugh. I liked the movie but I walked away feeling a little uneasy.

I started writing my thoughts down. It started out as a personal essay. Then I started talking about it in some Asian activist Facebook groups and with friends who are from similar backgrounds. They felt like I did. The impetus to write it became more of giving a voice to people who are being marginalized. After going through approximately 11 drafts, the essay became more grounded in race theory and the history of the US as time went on.

I’ve seen a lot of right wing blogs that have picked this piece up and have claimed that you are anti-interracial relationships. What’s your reaction to that?

It’s very curious that like white supremacists and centrist liberals are united in hatred of the piece. They’ve denounced me as racist. A lot of people took it very personally or took it to mean that I am this new face of the overly politically correct, progressive left, and that like white nationalists, we also don’t want mixing or whatever the phrase is.

There’s a whole vein of critique that is accusing me of being salty and ugly, and that this article just reeks of “intra-sexual competition.” That’s one of the reasons many women of color don’t write about these things or talk about it that much, because they can easily be written off as bitter. I have color and caste privilege in South Asian communities, so I was more empowered to write this essay.

When white women are the main characters, the meatiest roles, in these depictions, and you have women of color as foils—as anti-attractive foils—it simply furthers a deep history of colonization.

This is not a new thing. Media representation includes books that represent white women and POC relations, especially cishet men-of-color relations, through the ages. And theorists have reacted to these representations for decades, centuries because the white woman is still held as the pure ideal in the US.

When we work within the framework of white supremacy by saying, “Why can’t love be love?” and defending it as the artist’s “personal experience,” you have to question why they’re choosing to make fictional shows still working within that framework.

In my opinion, the right seized on your piece as a means of destroying liberals’ moral high ground. And liberals saw you taking a piece of art that was valuable and denigrating it.

I think movies and shows like The Big Sick and Master of None give liberals an opportunity to congratulate themselves on being liberal and progressive. So watching and liking these movies makes them feel like you’re in a world that is progressing and being more open. And if I call it out I sound like I’m being unnecessarily difficult. I have got a lot of hate mail and a lot of it’s coming from people in interracial relationships.

I’ve also gotten a lot of thank you’s. A lot women of color, even in interracial relationships, understand where the piece is coming from, a place of wanting to understand why Kumail Nanjiani and Aziz Ansari are doing the same things to women in their community that were done to them by the white person.

I think there is this idea that I’ve violated a perception of liberals, their perception that the world is improving. I’ve had people reach out asking “Why can’t we just have a good thing for once? Why do you have to make it so unfun?” I hope I haven’t ruined someone’s experience of the movie, because it is a fun movie. It’s possible to like something and still be critical of it.

I think one thing a lot of people have struggled with regarding your piece, and that I struggle with, is what exactly is the counterfactual in this case? Given that the movie was about Kumail Nanjiani’s life, what other movie would you have wanted him to make?

He didn’t have to make all these women of color the butt of every joke like he did. It’s highly unlikely that every scene with brown people was 100% autobiographical.

I don’t actually agree with you that they are all butts of jokes. Yes, there is that one woman who says the X-Files line. Agreed, that’s a bit of a joke. But there are several other women of color who he meets who are not portrayed as the butt of any joke whatsoever. There is one woman who he rejects, but that rejection makes Kumail look like kind of a jerk!

The phrase that I used to describe that specific woman in the film was pitiable spectacle. The woman you are talking about is heartbroken over someone she barely knows because her future happiness depended on him or something. The counter-factual is that this movie could’ve been one that didn’t “other” these woman and instead conceive of women as full-bodied characters in non-sister and non-mother roles.

What you’re describing is a problem that’s widespread in Hollywood films. I think part of the reason people are reacting poorly to your piece is that The Big Sick is a movie that does many progressive things really well, but there are thousands of other movies that have exactly the same problem that you’re describing. So why are you picking on this particular movie?

A lot of people asked, “Why aren’t you talking about The Mindy Project?” I did not watch most of The Mindy Project. I got tired after one episode. The reason that I’m holding The Big Sick and Master of None to these excessively high standards is because I like them and there’s potential in these artists to make a lot more. They’re trying. These are the role models that people are going to grow up watching. Second- and third- generation South Asian and Asian immigrants can aspire to this level of craft because there is quality there.

I see potential in Aziz Ansari who tells minoritized story so well, like the Thanksgiving episode and the New York episode of Master of None. Those are exceptional episodes.

And the same with The Big Sick.. I’m really impressed by how comedic it was. I was enthralled and I walked away feeling uneasy because I liked it, not because I didn’t like it.

Thanks so much for your time today, Aditi.

Absolutely.

What it’s like to win a medal, eight years later

The New York Times has the story of Chaunté Lowe, who won a bronze model eight years after she competed in the Olympic high jump:

She read a news report: Three Olympians — two Russians and a Ukrainian — who had finished in front of her in the 2008 Olympics in Beijing failed retroactive doping tests. She had moved from sixth to third place.

She had become an Olympic bronze medalist. It was her first medal. She felt herself beginning to dance.

“I screamed like someone was in my house trying to take away my cookies,” she said. “I was excited and relieved at the same time. ‘Oh my gosh, oh my gosh, you are not a failure’!”