Barbara Baig on Deliberate Practice & Why Hard Work Is More Important than Talent

Golden child of popular psychology Malcolm Gladwell once noted in his groundbreaking study of success, Outliers, that practice is “focused training with the intent of getting better.”  Barbara Baig, founding writing instructor at The Divinity School at Harvard and author of the superb Spellbinding Sentences: A Writer’s Guide to Achieving Excellence and Captivating Readers, professes a similar philosophy.  Like a pianist who diligently practices his scales or a spelling bee champ who reliably reviews his vocabulary words, writers must dedicate painstaking hours of practice to their craft.  And here Baig makes a crucial distinction: practice isn’t meandering hours spent writing aimlessly; it’s a deliberate attempt to acquire certain skills:

“Practice demands hard work, but hard work by itself is not enough; you also have to know what to work on.  So deliberate practice, first of all, is highly focused.  As Dr. Ericsson explains, deliberate practice is deliberate because it is ‘specifically designed‘ to improve some aspect of an individual’s target performance.

Second, deliberate practice demands a change of attitude: no lackadaisical, ‘oh-whatever’ approach works here.  People engaged in deliberate practice are giving all their attention and energy-every brain cell, every muscle-to that practice.  As Ericsson points out, ‘For expert performers, there’s always effort.  Improvement is never effortless.’  At the same time, such people are not judging what they do; instead they’re noticing what’s working and what’s not working, and they are attempting to bridge the gap they perceive between what they can do and what they want to do.  They bridge this gap in two ways: by getting a clearer, more detailed understanding of the action, the sound, the kind of word they want; and by taking on even more focused practice.  In other words, they practice, not mindlessly or randomly, but strategically.”

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So what qualifies as practicing strategically?  Practicing strategically is seeking the guidance of “teachers”-our most beloved authors-who can instruct us in the mysterious magic of composition.  Practicing strategically is gathering models to emulate and dissecting stellar sentences to see how they work.  Practicing strategically is possessing a profound respect for how each unit contributes to the whole.  In the same way a mechanic learns how a car functions by examining its component parts, writers deepen their understanding of how a sentence operates by studying its most fundamental units.

The masterful writer, at heart, is nothing more than a diligent craftsman: someone who knows the nuts and bolts of his medium.  Like a medieval pilgrim who travels across many lands to behold an ancient relic, the skilled writer reveres language so much he’ll venture through many pages of Roget’s Thesaurus.  He doesn’t simply sit at his desk, day after day, harboring a vague hope of “getting better”; any time he sits at the page, he has a concrete goal: to write with more specificity and precision, to experiment with different kinds of sentence styles and tones.

For Baig, writing is a skill we learn through application, not a lofty theory confined to the academia of university hall.  In this way, the writer has more in common with the athlete than the philosopher: just as a basketball player refines his long-distance technique by actually shooting 3-pointers, a writer polishes his prose by writing, not much else.  Neither the athlete nor writer is born with exceptional talent: they develop their expertise through love and labor alone.  In fact, much of what we perceive as “talent” is the product of tireless effort.  In this indispensable guide to writing, Baig passionately argues there are no prodigies- just hard workers.

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Brenda Ueland on the Qualities of Good Writing, Grammar School & the Necessity of Unlearning Instruction

Twenty years after William Strunk and E.B. White pleaded wordsmiths to write with nouns and verbs, Brenda Ueland made the case for plain, honest writing in If You Want to Write– that timeless trove of wisdom on the beauty of the imagination, the triumphant ecstasy of creation, and the wondrous glory of human potential.  Though many of us have been taught that writing has to be “literary”-ostentatious and pompous, full of words like “thus” and “ultimately”-Ueland affirms good writing is actually simple- poetic words are short words.  To be good writers, we must-in a sense- unlearn all our years of instruction:

“Though everybody is talented and original, often it does not break through for a long time. People are too scared, too self-conscious, too proud, too shy.  They have been taught too many things about construction, plot, unity, mass, coherence.

 My little brother wrote a composition when he was twelve and almost every third sentence was: “But alas, to no avail!”  That is the sort of thing everybody does for many years.  That is because they have been taught that writing is something special and not just talking on paper.

Another trouble with writers in the first twenty years is an anxiety to be effective, to impress people.  They write pretentiously.  It is hard not to do this.  That was my trouble.

For many years it puzzled me why so many things I wrote were pretentious, lying, high-sounding, and in consequence utterly dull and uninteresting.  It was a regular horror to read them again.  Of course, they did not sell, not one of them.”

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Don’t end a sentence in a preposition!”  

“Never begin a sentence with ‘but’ or ‘and’!”  

“Is that a 3 word sentence I see?  Unacceptable!”

For Ueland, too many promising young writers have internalized the nit-picky perfectionism of grade school composition.  While such advice can serve as useful guidelines to writing, most of us glorify these directions as if they were the words of God rather than the outmoded doctrines of too serious English teachers.  Our teacher’s distaste for certain words became our ten commandments.  “Never use ‘said’!” she admonished, “Choose a livelier, more expressive word!”

10 years later and we still hear this rebuke whenever we reach for a plain mode of expression.  “No, no we can’t say ‘said’!  It’s too simple; better say ‘screech’ or ‘mumble’ or ‘whisper’ instead…”  Not that opting for a more specific word is bad advice (often times we over-rely on empty, generic words like ‘said’); just that guidelines that take the form of prohibitive, inflexible rules usually inhibit our creativity.  Whenever we dutifully change a word because of dogma our teachers preached years ago, Ueland believed we were doubting ourselves rather creating in self-trust, the most unforgivable affront to our creative selves.  In her lovely ode to the writer’s life, she implores us to stop buying into the myth of “real” writing and instead write from ourselves.

As a writing teacher, Ueland’s greatest tragedy was witnessing her most talented students hopelessly doubt themselves.  How many would scribble out ‘is’ and rewrite a sentence in the active voice because forms of ‘to be’-they were told-were ‘lifeless’ and ‘dead’!  “No, we can’t use ‘is’,” they’d explain, “‘is’ is on the banned words list!”  Again, not that this idea is wrong in itself: the active voice is generally more engaging than the passive.  What’s so harmful about this rule and so many other restrictive suggestions like it is that it represses joy and curiosity and wonder, not to mention who we are and our deepest truths.  When we can’t silence the stern inner critic, the uptight grammar school teacher within, we end up stifling ourselves because we’re terrified of breaking the rules.

The strict, unbending rules of humorless English teachers convince us “good” writing is a kind of mathematical equation: plug numbers into a formula and produce moving work.  But we can only produce moving work, when we write honestly in self-trust, when we’re not, as Ueland would so unpretentiously say, “putting on airs.”  Over the years, we’ve learned to discount our own voices, our own distinctive way of seeing and experiencing things and instead have become obsessively preoccupied with pleasing others, each of our teacher’s squiggly red marks an assault on our divine creative impulse.  After one too many criticisms, we retreated: settled for following the “rules” and getting a gold star instead of striving to write plainly from a place of authenticity.  But at the core of If You Want to Write lies the conviction that becoming a writer means resurrecting this abandoned self.

 

Leo Tolstoy on Listlessness, Matrimony & the Need for Novelty

“Nothing,” Chris McCandless once wrote, “is more damaging to the adventurous spirit within a man than a secure future.”  An examination of mankind will reveal security as a fundamental human yearning.  And yet no matter how universal and intense a longing it may be, its attainment often occasions malaise, dissatisfaction and regret.  For Richard Yates, security was represented as the stifling conformity of 1950s suburbia; for scores of women writers, as the restrictive demands of marriage and domesticity.  But nowhere have I encountered a more tragic account of the trade offs of security than in Leo Tolstoy’s masterwork, the 1859 novella Family Happiness — the story of Masha, a beautiful, clever girl who feels constrained by the predictability of her highly regimented existence as wife.  

Since marrying Sergey, Masha finds her world dictated by the seemingly endless humdrum routines of matrimony: breakfast in the mornings, reading in the afternoons, a formal dinner in the evenings with Sergey, his severe, often rigid mother, and their servants, piano practice at sunrise, and maybe a late snack at midnight.  Her life becomes a ceaseless, unvarying stream of schedules and rituals.  No excitement.  No surprise.  No spontaneity.  Eventually Masha begins to yearn for something new, something novel to distinguish each unexceptional day from the next.  She hungers for the thrilling pulse of the city, for each day to unfold before her like the unwrapping of a present, inconceivable and unexpected:

“I wanted movement and not a calm course of existence.  I wanted excitement and the chance to sacrifice myself for my love.  I felt it in myself a superabundance of energy which found no outlet in our quiet life.”

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In what I think is one of the saddest endings in all of literature, Masha ultimately resigns to the boredom of domestic life and accepts that her and Sergey’s love has mutated into a more platonic, less fiery understanding of each other.  Rather than view her husband with any ardor, she begins to see him merely as the father of her children: 

“That day ended the romance of our marriage; the old feeling became a precious irrecoverable remembrance; but a new feeling of love for my children and the father of my children laid the foundation of a new life and a quite different happiness.”

Are we supposed to understand Masha’s resignation to her uninspiring life and loveless marriage as “happiness”?  I think not.  Like Masha, our lives cease when our day to day becomes predictable.  We may need security to feel safe, but-Tolstoy contends-we need novelty if we’re ever going to be transported by rapture.

Murder Can Sometimes Smell Like Honeysuckle: Appearance vs. Reality in “Double Indemnity”

“How could I have known that murder can sometimes smell like honeysuckle?”  

For years when I watched Double Indemnity, Walter Neff’s (Fred MacMurray) iconic lines were merely the work of a clever wordsmith, an unforgettable turn of phrase- nothing more.  However, this evocative image is a metaphor for the paramount theme of the film.  A haunting tale of lust, greed and transgression, this cinematic masterpiece explores the disparity between how things appear to be vs. what is real.  In the end, Double Indemnity proves normalcy often belies the disturbing and bizarre: in its universe, a striking blonde dame can reveal herself a duplicitous murderess while an ordinary neighborhood sales man can turn out to be the killer next door.

Cinematographer John F. Seitz’s juxtaposition of sunny Los Angeles with somber interiors suggests a deadly menace can always lurk…even behind the most innocent facades.  As film critic Imogen Sarah Smith notes, from the outside, the Dietrichson house appears to a visiting salesman “almost as desirable as the platinum-blonde housewife who greets him wrapped in a towel.”  A stately staircase of red brick leads to the gorgeous spanish-style mansion while warm Santa Ana winds carry the hypnotic scent of honeysuckle.  But inside the place reeks of stagnation.  Dark and oppressive, the house’s only light sneaks in through venetian blinds, illuminating the dust in the air.  The living room, Neff observes, is still “stuffy from last night’s cigars.”  Like a prisoner, bewitchingly seductive housewife Phyllis (Barbara Stanwyck) is sentenced to a life of tedious domesticity, condemned to endless nights of wearisome silence and Chinese checkers.

In much the same way her glamorous Los Feliz estate conceals an existence of quiet desperation, Phyllis’s beguiling physical allure masks the fact that she’s “rotten to the core.”  Upon meeting her, Neff is immediately enthralled by her sexuality.  “That’s a honey of an anklet you’re wearing, Mrs. Dietrichson,” he flirts ogling her voluptuous figure, a choice of words that foreshadows the later idea that murder smells like “honeysuckle.”  The fact that Neff refers to her provocative anklet as “honey” suggests her sexuality is as tantalizing as the yellow brown nectar.  But just as murder can smell like honeysuckle, beauty can disguise the malevolent and lethal.  Phyllis perfectly embodies this paradox: like an exquisite but poisonous oleander, she uses her womanly charms to manipulate Neff into committing murder.  Clearly, Mrs. Dietrichson is familiar with the phrase “you catch more bees with honey than with vinegar.”

double indemnity opening sceneA shrewd salesman who can smell fraud, Neff sees through Phyllis’s concerned housewife act and correctly guesses she wants to buy accident insurance for her husband so she can kill him and collect.  When he realizes her plan, he’s initially appalled but eventually consents to committing murder.  But why?  what motivates a rather ordinary and, for all intents and purposes, moral man to such a heinous act as murder?  Neff has no real motive to kill Mr. Dietrichson besides the fact that he feels a visceral lust for his wife; still, a one-night stand doesn’t seem like enough motive to slaughter someone, especially in so brutal and personal a way as strangulation.  So why does he do it?  

“Because,” he confesses in his voiceover, “it was all tied up with something I’d been thinking about for years since long before I ran into Phyllis Dietrichson.  Because you know how it is Keyes, in this business you can’t sleep for trying to figure out all the tricks they can pull on you.  You’re like the guy behind the roulette wheel watching the costumers to make sure they don’t crook the house.  And then one night you get to thinking, you could crook the house yourself and do it smart.”

Neff may seem like your average run-of-the-mill salesman, but he will soon reveal himself a remorseless, sociopathic killer.  Like a veteran cop who becomes convinced he can pull off the perfect crime, Neff begins to think he can outsmart his insurance buddies at Pacific All-Risk and get away with murder.  Despite arguments to the contrary, his decision to slaughter Dietrichson is the result not of lust but of pride, an egotistical longing to pull one over his boss.  Interestingly, it’s Neff- not Phyllis-who gets greedy and pushes for the double indemnity clause, even though accidents covered by this stipulation are incredibly rare and will surely bring the case under closer scrutiny.  Is he enticed by the promise of more money?  No, neither character seems to care much for the 100 grand.  His desire to pull off such a daring plot is purely a matter of ego.  Though many critics interpret Double Indemnity as the archetypal film noir- boy meets alluring but lethal femme fatale, femme fatale leads boy to his doom- Phyllis is the opportunity for the crime-not the motive.  

Of all Wilder’s characters, Neff shows that man has two selves: an outer and an inner.  Outwardly, Neff seems charming, smooth-talking but, inwardly, he fantasizes about outwitting the system and harbors disturbing delusions of his own grandeur.  He doesn’t kill for rational reasons, for love, say, or money, or vengance, nor does he kill in a fury of senseless passion- he kills to simply prove he can, no real reason at all.  What’s more terrifying than the thought of a bored housewife secretly plotting to murder her neglectful husband is the idea that a normal man of sound mind can kill without just cause. double indemnityThe only redeemable character in Double Indemnity is Keyes, Neff’s boss.  In what has to be the most suspenseful scene in cinematic history, Phyllis is on her way over to Neff’s apartment when Keyes unexpectedly shows up.  “Hello Keyes,” Neff mutters nervously, knowing Phyllis will be there any moment, “What’s on your mind?”  Unlike most claims managers who readily accept the official narrative presented to them, Keyes possesses the persistence to sniff out a fraud.  After 26 years of dealing with cons trying to swindle him, Keyes is well aware things are often not what they seem.  Though it seems like Mr. Dietrichson was simply unfortunate enough to fall off a train, Keyes-using his sharp reasoning skills and impressive statistical knowledge- comes to recognize such an accident’s impossibility. What’s the likelihood that someone takes out a $100,000 accident insurance policy only to die a few days later?  and in such a rare way?  One out of billions.  While no one seems to question the plausibility of a man meeting his demise by falling off a slow-moving train, Keyes begins to correctly suspect that the Dietrichson case is not an accident, but a calculated, rather cleverly plotted murder.  

But who’s the killer?  “I always tend to suspect the beneficiary,” he confesses as Phyllis eavesdrops from the hallway, “Yeah, that wide-eyed dame that just didn’t know anything about anything.”  As Neff walks Keyes out, a trepidatious Phyllis hides behind the door.  Here, the mise en scene operates to build a nail-biting, almost intolerable sense of suspense: will Phyllis escape undetected or will Keyes see her and, thus, discover their guilt?  As viewers, we hold a privileged position and can see Phyllis hiding; however, from Keyes’s vantage point, the only thing you can see is Neff holding open the door.  The shot’s composition provides a masterful way to get viewers engrossed in the film, but more than that, it forces them to contemplate the thematic core of the story itself: the necessity of “looking closer.” Just as Neff appears to be standing alone in front of a door when in actuality his accomplice is hiding behind it, appearances can be deceiving.  If we are to locate the facts, Wilder argues, we must be like Keyes: skeptical, questioning, and relentless in our refusal to accept things at face-value. double indemnity close call

Stranger Things 2

hive mind monster

When it debuted in July of 2016, no one had heard of the Duffer brothers; however, their nostalgic sci-fi/thriller Stranger Things soon emerged as the surprise hit of the summer.  Heart-racing and action-packed, the small screen sensation had it all: a mysterious girl with telekinetic powers, a nefarious mad scientist, a government cover up.  The fact that it was also a heart-warming nod to growing up in the 80s only made the show that much more irresistible.

Flash forward and few shows have inspired such ardent adoration.  After a long 15 months eagerly awaiting the second season, fans rejoiced when Netflix released all 9 episodes on October 27th.  Though I, too, fell under its spell of 80s references and mullets, I always wondered how Stranger Things could be sustained over multiple seasons.  And I have to admit: when I initially watched the much-anticipated second season last week, I was less than impressed.  

The first season was masterfully, almost flawlessly constructed: it had a strong central conflict, a clear antagonist, not to mention an overarching mystery so compelling that we had little choice but to hit “play next.”  By contrast, this season felt less plot-driven.  Unlike last season where I literally could not stop watching, this year I was perfectly capable of pausing after a single episode.  Rather than indulge in a binge-watching marathon that left my roommates concerned I hadn’t left my room for 2 days, I watched moderately, pacing myself over the course of a week.  Was my ability to restrain myself irrefutable proof of the show’s declining quality?

Yes and no.  In all fairness, it’s hard to follow up a season as suspenseful and adrenaline-fueled as season 1.  I mean how do you top Jaws?  When a show generates as much buzz as Stranger Things, expectations are bound to be high…it’s possible that no matter what the Duffer brothers had turned out this year, some fans were going to be disappointed.

hopper & pumpkins

Regardless Stranger Things 2 still has some major problems.  For one, the tight, expert story-telling of last year feels meandering and, dare I say, sloppy this time around.  While its debut season had a driving conflict (find the missing Will) and more than one threatening antagonist (a horrifying monster from another dimension, a diabolical mad scientist, a troop of forbidding government agents to name a few), Stranger Things 2 lacks a fundamental problem to propel the plot.  Yes, there is the issue of Will-why does he keep having these disturbing, PTSD-induced flashbacks?  are they really flashbacks at all?-these questions aren’t nearly as compelling as the odd happenings and puzzling mysteries of season 1.  “Who’s the mute, bald-headed girl the boys stumble upon in the woods?” we wondered, “What’s the upside down?  And where in god’s name is Will?”  Last year, these enigmas had us enthralled episode after episode; this year, I didn’t feel as mesmerized by the plot.  Why does Will keep seeing that spider creature?  What’s killing all of Hawkins crops?  What a shocker: it’s yet another petrifying monster from the upside down.  

shadow monster

Which brings us to another failing of Stranger Things’s sophomore season: the way it shamelessly regurgitates many of the same plots.  The first season’s central premise-girl with paranormal abilities unintentionally opens portal to another realm and unleashes otherworldly monster- is recapitulated again here, only this time the monster is a little bigger and a little badder.  The shadow monster, much like its Dungeons & Dragon’s counterpart the mind flayer, is a parasitic beast who traverses dimensions, infecting the minds of others in order to control them and spread itself.  A sinister spider-like creature who menaces over Hawkins in ominous red clouds, the Duffer brother’s invention certainly looks the part of monster.  But though it’s physically colossal, its threat feels less serious and immediate than that posed by the bloodthirsty demogorgan of season 1.  Last season, if you were unlucky enough to cross its path, the demogorgan would surely snatch you and bring you to its lair; this season…I’m not sure what the shadow monster would do.  Much like horror movie franchises, the Stranger Things “sequel” manages to feel less scary though it boasts a more powerful killer.  

There are countless other instances when Stranger Things 2 retraces the same narrative ground: protective mother Joyce once again has to decipher the mystery of what’s happening to her son (which of course involves channeling a paranormal being until her living room looks like a page from Samara’s coloring book), the lovable gang of preteens bickers about whether or not to admit yet another outspoken tough girl into their group, and older high schoolers Jonathan and Nancy rehash the same tired “will they or won’t they” subplot.  Am I asserting good television has to be completely original to be entertaining?  Of course not.  Part of Stranger Things’s charm was the way it could make a story that was at once familiar seem fresh and exciting.  But literally recycling the same exact narratives is just lazy storytelling.  In season 2, instead of paying homage to the past while telling a new story, Stranger Things started paying homage to itself, becoming- as film critic Jess Joho writes- a “self-referential uroboros that couldn’t stop eating its own derivative tail.”  Watching the latest installment, I felt like the Duffer brothers were merely replicating a formula because it had already worked once.  

stranger things gang

And why would you repeat the same stale conflicts and predictable troupes when there’s so many interesting directions this sci fi/thriller could have gone?  As a viewer, it was maddening that the majority of last year’s loose ends were so tidily resolved.  Really?  After our characters discover Hawkins Lab has performed heartless (not to mention illegal) experiments on human subjects, wrenched a hole in the space/time continuum and freaking unleashed a deadly monster onto a sleepy Indiana town, life just resumes as usual?  In real-life, if you uncovered that huge of a government secret, you wouldn’t live to tell the tale.  And what about the rest of Hawkins?  Do they just unquestioningly accept the idiotic explanation that the body found in the quarry was not Will but another boy who drowned?  Hawkins Lab poses another series of problems.  Are we just supposed to forget it was the main human antagonist now that Brenner’s not in charge?  I wish the Duffer brothers had the courage to explore these questions and venture off the beaten path instead of retrace what they’ve already done.

But that’s not to say there’s no novelty in Stranger Things 2.  As is obligatory in television, the second season expands its original cast, adding Max, a skate-boarding redhead, her short-tempered brother Billy, a head-banging bad boy who drives the girls wild in his unimaginably tight Wranglers and Bob, a lovable nerd who acts as romantic interest for Joyce, Will’s mother.  

Though I grew to like many of the new additions to the cast, it bothered me that the majority of new characters were created for purposes of plot.  Max, for example, was obviously created to fill the void left by Eleven.  Oh, Eleven’s going to be wandering off on her own most of the season?  Better toss another tomboy into the plot.  She might not possess psychic powers or the ability to teleport to other planes, but hey, she can skateboard and beat your ass at Dig Dug.  More a plot device than flesh and blood, Max exists to act as a love interest for the younger boys, ignite conflict between Lucas and Dustin, the two lads vying for her affections, and thus advance the plot.  Did I dislike her character?  No, in fact her flirtatious adolescent banter and eventual relationship with Lucas was adorable; I just felt she was designed to fill a very stereotypical part.  

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I had a similar complaint when it came to Sean Astin’s character, Bob.  Almost unbearably sweet, Bob possesses little depth, playing the all too cliched part of nerdy nice guy who’s endlessly considerate.  How is he obnoxiously thoughtful?  Let me count the ways.  For one, he surprises Joyce at work just because he’s so giddy in love (barf).  Later, he stops by the house with brainteasers when he hears poor Will is sick.  And of course he accepts single mother Joyce’s kids, even offering to move them all to his parent’s house in Maine so the troubled Will can get a “fresh start.”  He’s the “perfect boyfriend,” in other words, boring as fuck.  Not only is his character hopelessly dull, he’s pointless since we all know Joyce is going to eventually get with Hopper.  Bob literally only exists so the main characters (the ones we actually care about) can get out of Hawkins Lab alive when a pack of demo-dogs show up.  Constructing such a one-dimensionally kind character only to sacrifice him is like murdering a teddy bear: it’s just wrong.  Winona Ryder agreed.  When she caught word that the Duffer brothers were killing off Bob, she was furious.  “You’re monsters,” she rebuked, “monsters!”

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But the worst additions to Stranger Things 2 have to be Kali and her gang of misfit punks.  In the now infamous 7th episode “The Lost Sister,” the Duffer brothers introduce us to Kali, another gifted child who was kidnapped by Hawkins Lab.  Narratively, Kali acts a foil to her “sister”: while Eleven hides out quietly and bides her time until she can live without fear of being recaptured, Kali vows to take vengeance on the “bad” men who mistreated her.  Once again Kali is a poorly disguised plot device designed to lure Eleven to the dark side and pose a moral dilemma.  But didn’t our favorite telekinetic girl already struggle with this in season 1?  I thought she already definitively decided she would not be a monster?  Besides broadening the universe of the show (and perhaps creating the possibility for a spin off…dear god I hope not), Kali accomplishes nothing but stall the season’s momentum.  Come on, Duffer brothers: do we really need to introduce a needless subplot at the very moment the season starts to pick up?  Kali does, however, remind us of one cinematic truth: the original is always better than the sequel.  The fact that Stranger Things 2 opens with a scene of Kali, at the time a mysterious Indian girl with an “8” etched on her wrist, makes it seem as though she and her rebel band of vigilantes will be a significant part of the story but neither ends up having any real bearing on the larger plot.  Such shoddy craftsmanship would never fly in season 1.  And don’t get me started on those hackneyed Hot Topic “punks.”

kali

Reading this, you might think I detested Stranger Things 2.  But I absolutely did not.  Despite its many flaws, there were certainly things about this season that worked: the budding of an endearing father/daughter dynamic between Hopper and Eleven, Steve’s redemption from rich kid bully to babysitter/love guru/mentor (not to mention learning the secret to his gorgeous, much lusted after locks), the heart-warming school dance where we got to wistfully behold the miracle of our beloved teens growing up.  A nostalgic concoction of slow dances to Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time” and adorable couplings up, the finale was probably the best episode of the season.  I’m not going to lie: I might have gotten misty-eyed when Nancy tried to spare Dustin the humiliation of being rejected and Eleven agreed to dance with Mike.

In the end, was Stranger Things’s newest installment perfect?  Unreservedly not, but in the words of New York Times film critic James Poniewozik, it’s last year’s Halloween candy: repackaged, perhaps, but undeniably sweet.

eleven

mick and eleven

Bad Barrels & Bystanders: Tom McCarthy’s “Spotlight”

Few movies have portrayed journalism with such grounded realism and deep reverence as 2015 Academy Award winner Spotlight.  Though director Tom McCarthy paints a rather unglamorous portrait of the profession (the majority of reporting occurs either in the Boston Globe’s dreary manila beige offices or dimly lit basements haunted by the stench of dead rats), it’s clear he possesses a worshipful esteem for the occupation.  Like so many films consumed with the minutiae of daily journalism, Spotlight is a “tour de force of filing cabinet cinema,” endlessly fascinated with the details of what today has become a dying craft: the poring over records, the digging up leads, the sifting through clips.  But this film is not simply for journalists who wistfully remember the days when newspapers were delivered to your doorstep (or longingly recall the whir of the printing press)- it’s for anyone who believes in the tremendous power of a few individuals to have a far-reaching impact.  “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world.  Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has,” Margaret Mead once said.  This subtly gripping tale proves true this sentiment.

spotlight division

A first-rate newsroom drama based on real life events, Spotlight documents the Boston Globe’s Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation into the widespread sexual abuse of children by Roman Catholic priests.  The year is 2001: the traditional newspaper has only just begun to compete with the internet but local publications like the Boston Globe are struggling to maintain their readership.  To boost sales and make their paper more relevant, the Globe brings in new editor-in-chief Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber), an unmarried man of the Jewish faith.  “What are you reading?” Walter Robinson (Michael Keaton), editor of Spotlight, the paper’s investigative division, asks when they meet for a business meeting over dinner and drinks.  “The Curse of the Bambino but, to be honest,” Baron confesses, “I’m not much of a baseball fan.”  In a predominantly Catholic city that devours peanuts at Red Sox games, Baron is an outsider to say the least.  But it is his status as newcomer that makes him willing to take on Boston’s mightiest, most formidable adversary: the Archdiocese.  After reading that the Archbishop of Boston, Cardinal Law, potentially knew priest John Geoghan was molesting local children, Baron urges Spotlight to investigate.  

An ensemble of fine actors compose the Spotlight team: tough guy Michael Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo) typifies the determined persistence of the classic reporter as he tirelessly tracks down leads, sneaking into offices uninvited and enduring door after door slammed in his face.  Fellow staff writer Sacha Pfeiffer (a warm performance by Rachel McAdams) interviews victims while diligent reporter Matt Carroll (Brian D’Arcy James) discovers whenever a priest was accused of abusing a child, the Archdiocese would officially say he was on “sick leave” and send him to a treatment center only to reassign him to another parish where he would surely resume his predatory ways.

spotlight

As the group of journalists delve deeper, they begin to realize the sheer scope of what they’ve stumbled upon: the systematic abuse of children isn’t just limited to Boston-it goes to the heart of the Vatican itself.  What makes such rampant horror possible?  Creator of the infamous Stanford prison experiment Phillip Zambardo would argue these atrocities weren’t perpetrated by a few “bad apples” but the result of a bad barrel.  Lack of oversight, a complete absence of accountability: the Catholic Church created a precarious situation in which priests faced no repercussions for their actions and could therefore be seduced into abusing their power in the most despicable ways.  “When you’re from a poor family, religion counts for a lot,” survivor and impassioned victims advocate Phil Saviano explains, “When a priest pays attention to you, it’s a big deal.  When he asks you to collect the hymnals, you feel special.  It’s like God asking for your help.”  

What’s chillingly disturbing about the Catholic Church scandal is not only the ways in which so-called “men of God” use the collar to prey on the helpless and vulnerable but the countless legal, political, and social institutions complicit in the cover up.  After all, if the abominable abuse of children was happening on such a grand scale, how did nobody know?  The Boston Globe comes to estimate there are nearly 90 offending priests in Boston alone.  By discreetly settling these abuse cases out of court, lawyers like handsome, smooth-talking Eric MacLeish (Billy Crudup) keep the Church’s disgraceful secrets hidden from public view (not to mention make a small fortune for themselves).  On a larger scale, police departments perpetuate the abuse by releasing offenders like Geoghan back into the hands of the Archdiocese rather than follow standard protocol and press criminal charges.  Even the Globe itself, we learn, is partly responsible.  The paper had been tipped to the existence of a scandal as far back as 1993 but turned down the opportunity to cover the story.  Why?  For the same reason families of victims didn’t speak out- they were afraid of taking on an organization as influential as the Archdiocese. 

The press, lawyers, police: all wittingly and unwittingly contribute to the conspiracy of silence that enables such monstrosities to continue.  Though Spotlight never indulges in the speechifying or grand-standing typical of a Hollywood drama of this material, it unwaveringly maintains a stance that is moral: not only are the perpetrators themselves culpable- loathsome men like Geoghan and their superiors like Cardinal Law- but, through our inaction, we bystanders are equally at fault.  As lawyer Garbedian sharply notes, “If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to abuse one.”

A Shattered Marriage: Trauma & Heartbreak in “The Squid and the Whale”

divorce

The governing philosophy of writer-director Noah Baumbach’s heartfelt, sharp-witted The Squid and the Whale is nicely summed up by the unsparing words of one of his central protagonists Barnard: “people can be very stupid.”  A tender, exquisitely painful look at the aftermath of a messy divorce, The Squid and the Whale is also a portrait of the manifold ways people can be petty and foolish when heartbroken.

Barnard (Jeff Daniels) is perhaps the stupidest of all Baumbach’s characters.  A once acclaimed novelist whose stardom has dimmed, Barnard is an insufferable bastard for most of the film. Haughtily pompous, he speaks with an obnoxious pretension, assuredly telling his teenage son Walt (Jesse Eisenberg) not to bother with A Tale of Two Cities because it’s “minor Dickens.”  So self-important is he that at one point he calls Kafka “one of his predecessors.”  When he’s not bragging about an alluring woman he could’ve slept with at a George Plimpton party, he’s subtly boasting that one of his scenes was a favorite of Norman Mailer’s.  One gets the sense that Barnard drops the names of impressive people and touts sophisticated-sounding opinions to conceal a deep-seated insecurity: though he was once a novelist of some renown, now he can’t get an agent or a book published.  Every time Barnard uttered yet another one of his overblown opinions or self-mythologizing stories, I couldn’t help but roll my eyes.  Needless to say, my eyes were rarely straight ahead for the film’s brief 80 minutes…is it any wonder his wife Joan (Laura Linney) leaves him?  

A literary talent on the rise, Joan is also a writer but-unlike her has-been husband- she actually writes.  In a revealing scene, Barnard is setting up his bed on the coach, a tattered copy of Saul Bellow’s The Victim daring us to analyze its significance on the night stand, when he hears the clatter of typewriter keys in the kitchen. Curious, he follows the sound to find his wife visited by the muses who’ve so long forsaken him.

What are you writing?” he asks obviously jealous, “Did you take my note about the ending?”

Yeah, some of it….” she nods evasively, clearly not wanting to quarrel.

Does he still die?” Barnard presses.

Yes,” she finally admits like a child who’s forced to concede to a bully at school.

Then you didn’t take my note.”

What follows is a sad scene all too familiar to those who grew up in a turbulent home.  As Barnard and Joan holler and shriek, their two sons find their own ways to cope: 12-year-old Frank (Owen Kline) tries to ignore their fighting and hide under the covers; older brother Walt (Jesse Eisenberg) leaves his room to check the commotion, looking painfully vulnerable as he sprawls out on the stairs in his underwear.  Baumbach’s directorial touch here is beautifully subtle: though he never states it outright, it’s undeniable envy plays a central role in their breakup.

unhappy couple

When Barnard and Joan finally break the news of their split, both are startlingly distant; rather than console their sons with loving assurances, all they discuss are the logistics of joint custody.  Yes, after some time Joan hugs a tearful Frank but what should be a heartfelt exchange still seems oddly devoid of emotion.  

Divorce is traumatic.  We hear this over and over.  But never before has a movie so faithfully limned the pain and grief that follows marital dissolution.  After the disintegration of his 17-year marriage, Barnard becomes more angry and bitter, constantly bad-mouthing Joan to his sons, even tactlessly revealing to Walt that his mother had an affair.  Little thought is given as to how such a divulgence will affect the teenager- all Barnard cares about is enlisting recruits on his side of the war.  

Joan isn’t entirely innocent either: unhappy in her loveless marriage to a self-absorbed writer, she finds solace in passionate affairs with several men, including her youngest son’s tennis instructor.  Rather than divorce Barnard, she remains unfaithful for many years.  Much like her ex-husband, in the immediate aftermath of their divorce she behaves selfishly and insensitively, telling Frank when he shows up unexpectedly for a visit that she needs a “break” from him and his brother once in awhile.  

While Joan is romping with a sexy tennis instructor and Barnard is lambasting Joan, their sons are finding their own ways of coping with the devastation of a broken home.  A masterful storyteller (he was once a novelist, after all), Barnard fashions a narrative in which he’s the irreproachable victim.  Walt, who idolizes his father, whole-heartedly believes his versions of events and channels his rage at Joan, at one point accusing her of “running a brothel.”  Outraged by her infidelities, he blames his mother for the divorce and relentlessly defends Barnard.  Yes, Joan was unfaithful but- as more impartial viewers witnessing these events-we possess the context to understand her affairs were most likely a symptom of an already strained marriage, not their cause.

walt & barnard

The stupidest thing Walt does, I think, is side with Barnard.  Not only does he unfairly hold his mother responsible for the divorce, he worships an uppity, self-satisfied snob.  In the cult of novelist Barnard, Walt is his most devoted follower: he reveres his father’s judgement so much that he trusts his assessments of literature without question, often passing over books simply because his father dismisses them.  So ardent is his adoration that he develops the off-putting habit of imitating his father’s elitist opinions, though he’s never actually read the books he so confidently critiques himself.  In a hilarious scene, he tells his love interest that Metamorphosis is very “Kafkaesque,” a bookish adjective he’s undoubtedly heard his father spout around the house.  “Uh, yeah,” Sophie (Halley Feiffer) replies, “it would have to be. It’s by Franz Kafka.”

In the wake of his parents’ acrimonious break up, the most despicable habit Walt adopts from his father is his misogyny.  It is from Barnard that Walt learns women are but a prop for man’s colossal ego- nothing but pretty play things to be assessed by their exteriors alone.  Throughout the film, Walt treats Sophie not as a first love to be courted and wooed but as a placeholder until he finds someone better.  “What do you mean, better?” his mother asks in disbelief, knowing “better” is code for more attractive.  Barnard encourages this detestable attitude toward women, at one point telling him to have sex with Sophie once to see if he “likes” it and on several occasions urging him to “play the field” and “not get tied down.”  After Walt wins the school talent show by passing off Pink Floyd’s “Hey You” as his own, Barnard is more adamant in his recommendation to sidestep commitment: “Things are going to change for you after tonight,” he assures him, hinting Walt will attract more tantalizing, desirable prospects after the evening’s show.  

Despite their failings, film critic Nick Schager has said, The Squid and the Whale “dares not harshly judge its all-too-human characters.”  I would have to agree.  Barnard, Walt, Joan: all are but frail, flawed people trying to navigate heartbreak on their own.