sad songs

on aimee mann, 'queens of the summer hotel,' and, uh, depression memes

not substack giving me a rude “post too long for email” warning like i don’t know i’m incapable of brevity!!! i’ll just say this: this is a long read about a lot of things but mostly about aimee mann, whose songs are gifts, and her new album. if you are unfamiliar with her work (no judgement but…), there are lots of links. if you are nice to me i will send you the starter kit playlist i made for my mom. :) yes, i should have been working on the book i am contractually obligated to write instead of this. but i sometimes do not get to choose what my brain decides to fixate upon and be moved by and feel compelled to write about, so please read this so i do not regret the detour! if you are my editor or agent please disregard the above everything is great okay thanks sorry love you bye!!!!


Aimee Mann writes sad songs. A wild generalization, of course, a vast, broad strokes oversimplification of work that is far more complex—but I’ll stop short of saying a gross misunderstanding. Because Aimee Mann writes songs about people, and all their complications. Hers is a catalog of songs in the key of the human condition: meditations on the patterns of behavior we’ve inherited; the ways in which we move through life, tactfully or not; the forced limitations of our own stupid brains and bodies; our fuck ups and failures and fumblings. 

And the human condition, when looked at honestly, is inherently sad. You are born into this world and forced to endure traumas big and small, rejections and regrets. People will lie, people will leave, people will hurt you. Sometimes you’ll be the one doing the hurting. The moments of beauty come fast and are few and fleeting. Justice often only exists in theory; awful things will happen to good people, and spoils will go to those who don’t deserve them. As you get older, you’ll have to contend with how little is really black and white, how easy it is for it all to fade out frustratingly to grey matter, lines crossed so many times you don’t even know where the lines are anymore. We are all bruised and broken; some of us just more so than others. Put simply, in Mann’s own words: “It is hard to be a person.”

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Late at night I lie in bed on my phone, opening and closing apps and opening them again, Instagram, then Twitter, then TikTok, one after the other, refreshing feeds long after I told myself I was actually going to go to sleep. Scrolling in the dark, I can’t escape mental illness, both as a concept, and, in a way, my own. This is what I get for priming algorithms to feed me a diet of memes about overanalyzing and dissociating, ADHD and anxiety, trauma and spiraling and self-loathing I consume while obliterating my sleep cycle. Some of it is helpful, but most of it is funny, garish and crude in a way that feels suited to reflect the ugly wrinkles of our brains. 

When I was 20 years old and starving myself, running nearly 50 miles a week, loading myself up on extracurriculars and trying to keep straight A’s with a double major, I would have been terminally mortified if anyone knew I had near-crippling anxiety or an eating disorder. (Everyone knew.) Something wrong? With me? Thank you, but no. Nothing that a little hyper-achievement couldn’t fix. I thought if I just worked hard enough to be better, make myself perfect—a fool’s endeavor—I’d be fine. If people saw who I really am, I would think, stuck in an unending shame spiral. If they realized I’ve just been fooling them the entire time. If they had any idea how stupid and pathetic and gross I really am. I’d just melt out of my skin. If people cared about me, I thought, it was only because they pitied me. Ten years later, I crack jokes online about my perpetual anxieties, about being in therapy, about, well, how hard it is to be a person. Dinners with friends inevitably become roundtable discussions on trauma by the second round of drinks. I write something like this for strangers to read and judge. I am, more or less, a bit more skillful at handling—and far more interested in—the vulnerable, less than perfect parts of reality than I once was. I like to think this growth is a reflection of a lot of work. But if I’m being honest, a lot of it is probably because of the internet. 

For those of us who are extremely online, the subject of mental health has moved out from behind closed doors—way out, fodder for casual conversation with friends and strangers alike. I mean, it’s 2021. Is there anyone out there not going through each day with a constant low level hum of anxiety? While many good things can be said about the internet’s role in breaking down stigmas and opening up conversations, there are downsides to flattening a personal and multifaceted experience, to conflating an appropriate reaction to the dumpster fire state of the world with genuine mental illness. Mental health struggles shouldn’t be an internet subculture, or something to hang your entire personality upon, like your astrological sign or Myers-Briggs type. And critics are fair to point out that the rise of #TherapyTikTok essentially makes unregulated social platforms WebMD 2.0, an easy but perhaps inaccurate resource to self-diagnose an affliction we hope will serve as a concrete explanation—or excuse—for our every behavior. But where does the line fall between how much blame can be placed on social media and how much is the fault of society’s long history of silence? After all, when you keep a lid on a conversation for so long, it’s inevitable that it will boil over. 

Much has been said about Aimee Mann as an uncompromising and brave musical trailblazer, one who flipped a defiant middle finger to major label mistreatment and went independent at the dawn of the mp3 era. But what goes somewhat unspoken is her artistic prescience. Mann has been writing fearlessly honest, wry songs that don’t just skim the surface of human dysfunction, but dive headfirst into it far longer than it’s been popular enough to be appreciated in meme form. For decades, women like Mann were more turned into punchlines by the proverbial “sad songs” label than made cool girls of the internet. In an era where women reclaimed the label and leaned in to the point that it’s now almost a tired trope, it can be easily forgotten that Mann, and many other women—not just a small select few—had to walk before Mitski or Phoebe or Lucy could run.

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There’s a classic meme that resurfaces every so often that, at its core, is about deflecting—or relieving, depending on how you want to look at it—despair with humor. “Me w/ tears in my eyes: Time to make a joke,” a letterboard reads. It’s all too relatable, all too real. Whomst among us has not nearly touched the third rail of our emotions and immediately searched for a funny story to tell about it? Laughter isn’t always joy; it’s very often discomfort. Good humor is based in truth; a lot of humor is used as a denial of it. 

Aimee Mann often writes sad songs, but they are not maudlin or self-serious. In the span of three minutes, she examines her characters with the insight of a veteran therapist and the studied, yet playful, craft of an adept songwriter who can kick the wind out of you with just the turn of a few carefully composed words. Her songs are unsparing regarding the brutality of life, but never without the sense that she or her characters have made it out to the other side. With scars, maybe, but still intact. There are songs that are sad and songs that are about sad subjects, but they are not always same thing. Most people are not morose all the time, and humor is one hell of a coping mechanism. You know this, I’m sure. I think Aimee Mann knows this, too.1 

Life can be sad and hard and messy, but all that inevitably makes it funny sometimes. I mean, it has to be funny. How else would we survive it if it wasn’t? Mann’s oeuvre has its fair share of sad songs that are just plain sad: songs that are bleak (has anyone ever written a better depiction of crippling anxiety and hopelessness than “It’s Not”?), songs that are achingly lonely, songs that are full of shame spirals, self-loathing, and self-destruction. But she has just as many of the about-something-sad-but-not-sad-themselves variety, biting and sardonic, the “me with tears in my eyes: time to make a joke” of sad songs. They are songs about our hapless codependency in toxic relationships, songs about our directionless flailing failing to meet the high expectations we set for ourselves, songs about situations that are just so astonishingly bad that the only thing you can do is wittily twist the knife into those who put you in them.2 “What’s more fun,” she sings on Charmer’s3 intervention banger “Soon Enough,” tongue firmly in cheek, “than other people’s hell?”

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It’s a Saturday night in Brooklyn and I am watching Aimee Mann sing “Save Me” while the wind whips and the East River laps hungrily at the waterfront, unintentional fill in the sparse three-piece acoustic arrangement. Her most well-known track, “Save Me” is a sad song that is just plain sad, no matter which way you look at it. It is crushingly vulnerable in its simplicity, a slim Exacto knife slicing a precise line across a chest to expose a raw and beating heart.

Some would credit a successful marketing campaign behind the Magnolia soundtrack, the result of which was an Oscar nomination for Mann, with its immense popularity—which, sure—but there’s more to it than that. Few songs become that big off a well-soundtracked film alone, especially one as polarizing as Paul Thomas Anderson’s dizzying three hour long psychological epic. And Oscars aren’t a guarantee of a song’s staying power, either. (When is the last time you thought of “You’ll Be In My Heart?”) No, some songs stick around because they cut through the noise and cut to the chase, dancing across the fine line between universal and specific. A song like “Save Me,”  first made popular in 1999, only sustains interest this long4 because it is a song about us. If it came out today, the timeline would be flooded with deflective jokes about it, a Greek chorus of entirely too loud and a personal attack and okay, drag me. We’re in the song, whether we want to be or not. It gets at the heart of the most difficult part of being a person: The dueling desire for someone to see us and the gasping fear that, if they do, they’ll only confirm that the most cruel and awful things we think about ourselves are true, confirm our suspicions that we are inherently unlovable. Some of us are pleading for—daring, even—someone to save us from ourselves. Some of us want to be the person who does the saving. No matter where you land, it’s a little bit sad and a little bit heartbreaking, particularly as the years pass and you realize the song’s inherent youthful naïveté. People cannot save other people, and thinking that they can will only end badly for all parties involved. A song like “Save Me” is a song you’d wish weren’t so perennial if you could get over being so thankful that it is.  

More than twenty years after its debut, Mann is older and wearier, her voice tired beyond the pull of jet lag, a tired that feels like the kind that comes at a certain point in life and never goes away, no matter how much sleep you get. Lived in and warm, but not without a bit of an edge. It’s the nuanced sound of experience, of someone who has doggedly worked to survive that which tries to destroy us when the easier option to fold in on yourself is always right there. Hers is a voice that has at times been described as limited in range, but I’ve always perceived it as something different. Even at its most tender and sentimental, it still seems to emerge from behind a steely set of armor, eschewing bullshit and giving it to you straight. The most lilting of notes come from a place of control, pulling taut a leash that’s anchored in a shallow pool of grief. Now it’s saturated in years spent facing the kinds of hardships and heartbreaks life deals all of us, the kinds we never anticipate but must choose to persevere through anyway. “Save Me” will always threaten to break your heart, but now, as we emerge from an isolating infinite present of forced individualism, the song—particularly this version, slower and more elegiac—seems poised to shatter it entirely. Mann is not the only one who is tired. 

The weather was beginning to turn. Earlier that evening, Mann, dressed in jeans and a denim shirt, her signature neck scarf a cheerful sunny yellow, shivered while in conversation with The New Yorker’s Atul Gawande. Mann has a history of being refreshingly forthcoming and eloquently straightforward about difficult subject material, be it early record industry struggles or her own mental health and past trauma. But no matter how comfortable you get with the uncomfortable, there is a distinct difference between candid conversations in private—where a certain intimacy is afforded a subject and their interviewer, and the combination of time and medium puts distance between yourself and the audience—and in public, where an audience is watching—consuming—you in real time. When Gawande, who is a fine writer and surgeon, but can be an awkward interviewer, bluntly asked Mann about her tumultuous childhood, she gave him a brief anecdote5 before chuckling nervously. “So that was fun. That was great. That probably didn’t fuck my life up at all,” she said, a tersely deflective joke no one could bear to laugh too hard at. By then a stagehand had appeared from the shadows to offer her a plaid throw and she wrapped herself in it, giving her interview from underneath its protection.

The lush green summer was dying all around us: air chilled, sky grey, leaves turning. Fall is a time for dying; we are used to this, unfazed by the annual tradition. It is temporary, we tell ourselves as we unpack our SAD lamps. Relief will come. Life will begin again in six months, give or take. I pushed back the knowledge that the only reason we were sitting outside in the cold to begin with was because we have spent the past 20 months swallowed whole by the constant presence of death, treading water with no island to rest in sight.

Some sad songs are just sad. Sometimes there’s no irony to point out, no joke to be wrestled out that’s funny enough to distract us from the brutal wreckage. Sometimes sad songs are just blankets, and all you can do is accept their warmth. 

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I’ve buried the lede here. This is all a long-winded way of saying that Aimee Mann has a new album out, and it is full of sad songs—both kinds. An adaptation of Girl, Interrupted, Susanna Kaysen’s 1993 memoir about her stay at McLean Hospital in the late 1960s, the sad situation part takes care of itself. With source material like that, you can choose to exploit the sadness, to wallow in its potential for melodrama, which is what plenty have done. Kaysen herself has been vocal about her disappointment with the ways in which audiences have misunderstood her work. She meant to be “an anthropologist in the loony bin,” not the patron saint of the sad sick girl memoir boom. The other option is to see it for the complicated thing it really is, write tragedy and comedy in the same breath. You can sweeten the poison pill a little, make use of the gallows humor Kaysen deploys in her novel with sharp toothed lines like “every window in Alcatraz has a view of San Francisco,” which is exactly what Mann does. 

The joke is that only Aimee Mann could score a Broadway show about women confined to a mental institution. It’s a joke that Mann—who literally beat everyone to the punchline once before when titling her 2017 Grammy-winning album Mental Illness—is in on. Queens of the Summer Hotel, comprised of music written for the currently on-hold Girl, Interrupted show, is, in a sense, a continuation of Mental Illness, both musically—moving away from a vintage soft rock soundscape of acoustic guitars and mellotrons and towards lush woodwind and string arrangements backing piano driven tracks—and thematically, addressing the most harrowing parts of sanity head on.  

Queens of the Summer Hotel is an album full of trouble, crises and compulsions, suicide and self-harm; troubles encountered in the real world and the troubles suffered at the hands of those who are supposed to protect you. Across its fifteen tracks, she masterfully weaves small tales about desperation and dissociation and depression, about shame and trauma and the realization that some girls are just born happy and some are not. It’s the kind of subject matter she handles best: navigating a path through the dark, thorny brambles of being alive. All the while, the gravity of the situation hangs thick in the air, impossible to ignore, sometimes indulged in, but just as often given a blunt, deadpan acknowledgement

It’s not an easy album to love. At its most stunning, it occupies elegant Bacharach/David territory, but, periodically, it can get slightly stuck on the way there in the theatricality of it all.6 It’s not an original cast album—the show’s development is still up in the air—but it doesn’t entirely work as an independent concept album, either. Without the context of character development or visuals likely established in the show’s book or staging, a few of the tracks, while pleasant to listen to and beautifully orchestrated, don’t quite stand on their own outside of an unknown theatrical universe. Songs like “Give Me Fifteen,” “Home By Now,” and “In Mexico” are sharply written, but can feel slightly burdened by their intended on-stage expository responsibilities; the hypnotic interlude “Checks” and its reprise, which struck me as an allusion to OCD,7 are actually meant to be the soundscape of hospital rounds. But the through-line is Mann’s singular storytelling ability. Queens may be difficult for more pop/rock purists to view as a purely canonical album unless you happen to exist in the intersection on a Venn diagram of Aimee Mann fans and musical theater fans; its sound is an acquired taste.8 But it is the kind of unique and unconventional album she has the freedom to make and release as a truly independent artist. And in the end, it nets out strongly on the side of studied craftsmanship and exquisite world building by someone who clearly respects and appreciates musical theater’s lineage. Mann has always had a talent for putting herself in others’ shoes, at making personal the stories of addicts and hoarders and burnout teens9 alike, and her deeply empathetic understanding of the cast of characters at McLean is felt. She fully inhabits each and every one of them, be it the sexually abused bulimic or the dismissively sinister male psychiatrist, with conviction, gentleness, and generosity. 

When I say Queens is not an easy album to love, I don’t mean that it isn’t very good, or that it doesn’t endear itself to you the more time you spend with it, the more you work to understand it and meet it on its own terms. Repeated listenings become more rewarding. There’s a notion that we shouldn’t have to make any effort to enjoy art, that if something is good, we will have an immediate reaction of appreciation. It’s an embarrassingly lazy and incorrect assumption, one fueled by the high speed collision of art and capitalism. In an economy driven by hot takes and short attention spans, there can be no room to think in detail. There’s always something new to listen to, another new release eclipsing last week’s darling. Time is a luxury few of us have anymore.

The irony is that for all the wishing I’ve done that I was free of any difficulty myself, I love when a piece of art or music challenges me, when it isn’t an easy, pleasant swallow but instead gets lodged somewhere in the back of my throat. No one is easy to love, so why should an album be? There’s something special about art that is intriguing and compelling enough to make me want to swim around in its world for awhile to figure out what I think about it, piecing it together like a puzzle whose edges will reveal themselves to me in their own time. In a way, this matter of consumption feels fitting for the subject: Look beyond the veneer of a girl, past her charming first impression. Invest a little time and get to know her knotty inner workings. 

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There’s a lot of watching in Queens of the Summer Hotel. Women watching other women; men watching women; women floating outside their own bodies, watching themselves—and Aimee Mann, our storyteller, watching them all. Throughout the album, Mann deftly flits out of the second person and into the first and back again, sometimes within the same song. It’s a clever framing device, often used to convey the protagonist’s dissociation from herself, but it does something else, something even larger. Though the lack of stage context can occasionally hinder Queens, it can just as often unexpectedly benefit it, unlocking a new way to interpret the material, if you tilt your head just right. Consider: Floating above the traditional protagonist-as-narrator structure is something more metatextual. There’s implicitly another person, an omniscient, all-knowing narrator, the architect of this narrative, observing these disparate stories, stitching them together and presenting them to us, at times chiming in. 

“I know what you think: ‘This happens to other girls,’” she sings on gorgeously harmonic album opener “You Fall” over a driving piano riff. It’s the sound of striving striving striving, attempting to bury your feelings with busyness, but by the end, it slows. All that running is a treadmill; you’re bound to wear yourself out. And then what? “You’re strong, but, lord, who’s really that tough?” Mann asks. “You’re not made of such unbreakable stuff.” It’s a line too insightful to be a protagonist’s self-observation; very few of us possess the astute self-awareness needed to have such a clear perception of ourselves or our situations while in the moment, especially when the moment is a breakdown. No, it’s the kind of observation only an outsider is capable of making, the voice of someone trying to talk some sense into you, catch you before you go too far. It’s the tell, the nod that Mann is the one telling this story before stepping into the background, where she lets everyone else’s stories take center stage, refraining from offering her own commentary until the album’s twin endings.

“When nothing keeps you together, when nothing is holding you in, you’re a balloon, and all the world’s a pin,” Mann sings on the penultimate “You’re Lost.” We fracture ourselves so easily these days. As public life becomes increasingly public, our personal lives become material for the slow serotonin drip of external validation. When your sense of self is reliant upon an audience, the slightest misapprehension may knock you off your axis. So we keep going until we’re unsure if who we are is who we think we are, or just the performative version. Sometimes a person doesn’t break in one fall; sometimes it’s the cumulation of a series of small fractures spiderwebbing out, ledges on the way to rock bottom. “No scaffold or frame or structure, no bones beneath your skin. Where do you end and where does she begin?” she prods, gently, but with a gnawing knowingness that forces a person to look at their life honestly. It is the simultaneously wanted and dreaded response of “no you’re not” from someone who knows your “I’m fine” is a lie, one Mann carries into the devastating, illustrative finale “I See You.”

Stepping out from behind the curtain, she is no longer embodying a character in Girl, Interrupted’s world, no longer acting as its architect or light commentator, but firmly inserting herself into the narrative: “There is a girl out with the tide, empty as the sky—I see you. Dead to the world, frozen inside, drier than an eye—I see you.” Her voice is direct and humane at once, an outstretched hand to reach for, a lighthouse in the inkiest of night skies. She has been one of those girls, or close enough, has known girls like that. The sharpest edges of our interior worlds are not as rare as we believe them to be.

“You want to disappear and just not be, but I can see,” she sings. And isn’t that what we want most of all? Some sort of acknowledgement of our reality, some sort of human connection? How we work for it, all those hours reading and watching and listening for a shared experience, all that time spent searching for ourselves in others. How we long for some sort of human X-ray, someone who can see who we are better than we can, spot the things we keep buried beneath our shiny facades; a corroborating witness to experiences others dismiss. It’s why we love the wrong people, why we impose too much emotional responsibility on friends who were never meant for it, why we cling too long to relationships even as they begin to sour. We make so many jokes about the mortifying ordeal of being known, but is it all just a shallow defense? Wanting to be seen is a humiliating, dangerous desire, a trust fall off a cliff. Better to pretend we don’t want it at all. With recognition comes the possibility of rejection, the chance that the things someone else sees in us won’t be good like we hoped they would be. The inevitably of betrayal waits for us at every turn. 

But Mann’s perceptiveness is one of compassionate acceptance, almost urgent in its asking you to trust in its wisdom. She insinuates that things can get better, but she doesn’t promise it, doesn’t tell us that it will all be okay in the end. That would be a lie. Life does not resolve itself like a narrative, all loose ends cleanly tied up with a happy ending. But she does tell us whatever it is we’re going through, someone else will acutely understand; we don’t have to weather it alone. In some ways, it’s a sister song to “Save Me,” a role reversal, if you will, someone singing from the vantage point of the other side. It’s the kind of assurance I spent so much of my twenties searching for.

There’s another kind of sad song: The kind of song that is not explicitly sad, but can move you to tears anyway. Maybe it’s because it’s hopeful or comforting, some sort of unconditional acceptance we aren’t capable of extending to ourselves, the kind of solidarity we can only take from a total stranger. 

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“Music, to me, is such an intimate [thing]. Somebody’s talking to you in this very intimate way, and I want to feel that that person could possibly understand complicated feelings that I have,” Mann said in 2017. “And I want people to listen to my stuff to feel that way about me, that I could be somebody who would understand their complicated feelings.”

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i love how up top i said you had to be nice to me to get this; that’s a lie. here’s an aimee mann starter kit for you all to enjoy if you made it this far. for the real “if you’re nice to me” treat, i’ll send you my favorite tracks by aimee’s early 80s post-punk band—we contain multitudes!!—the young snakes

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okay that's it that's the end thanks bye

1

I cannot stress enough that even though she writes some dark shit, Aimee Mann, truly, is so very funny. Please log onto YouTube and see for yourselves.

2

See also: “Julie, Julie.” Written for Difficult People, it isn’t technically canon, but further proves her grim sense of humor. You can’t really beat lines like: “Julie, to follow your bliss just remember that this is a journey / I’d rather ride on a gurney”

3

If you want Mann at her most pitch black, bone dry comedic, start here.

4

On Spotify alone, “Save Me” has more than 23 million plays, while the rest of Mann’s discography averages in the mid-high six figures.

5

Mann’s parents split up when she was three. Subsequently, her mother and her new boyfriend kidnapped Mann and took her to England, where she lived for nearly a year until she was reunited with her father. She did not see her mother again until her teens.

6

Though a preview of the tracks’ live acoustic arrangements strikes a more familiar (and intimate) musical sensibility.

7

Where my anxious lock checking party people at???

8

Acquire some taste, as the meme says.

9

I am so sorry for this, my most gratuitous footnote, but I am legally obligated (no) to say: Personally, I would be so fucking embarrassed if I were Jimmy Iovine or any other record exec who listened to Bachelor No. 2 and told Aimee Mann she didn’t have a single when “Ghost World” was RIGHT THERE.

an interview with jenny lester and juliana jurenas

about their great feature debut, what she said

Theydies and gentlethem, welcome to a special edition of bed crumbs!!

Today’s newsletter is not an essay (ur welcome) but an “interview” with Jenny Lester and Juliana Jurenas about their very very very good new film What She Said. I used quotations around interview because (a) we are friends and (b) this was just more of a long (long), rich conversation over pizza and wine about their movie and how hard it is to make shit where I (c) did a not do much “interviewing” because all i really had to do was throw out broad thought starters and sit back and reveled in the way they just finish each other’s sentences in the best kind of brilliant shared brain way. There was also a lot of talk about Bad Art Friend (we all agree that everything is copy!) and trauma (much to say about big T and little T varieties but a big concern: there has GOT to be a better name for them; little t sounds too “oh this cute little trauma”), and the act of questioning whether or not you are the right person to tell a certain story (it’s complicated!) that did not make the cut because this is already very long, but maybe you’ll get them as a bonus part 2. I don’t know!! Be nice to me and we’ll see!!!

Anyway! To the important things: Jenny and Julie wrote and produced their first feature, a wonderful ensemble drama (with some fucking great comedic levity, I feel compelled to point out) called What She Said, that is centered on a young woman who contemplates dropping the charges against her rapist and her friends and siblings who gather to stage a Thanksgiving intervention to get her to change her mind. I know I said up top that we are friends but, truly, even if I didn’t know them, this would be extremely my shit and I would yell at all of you to watch it. Its script is lived in and natural, and it feels studied in the best ensemble pieces that have come before—respectful of the territory and in conversation with them rather than blatantly ripping them off. Too often you watch a movie like this and say, “Jesus Christ, they already made The Big Chill, give it up!” Even though this also has a bat scene (purely coincidental!!!), this is not that!

You can watch the trailer for What She Said here. You can buy or rent it on Amazon Prime, Apple TV, and YouTube; and you can follow Shallow Graves Productions, Jenny, and Julie, at these links!

okay thanks sorry love u bye!!!


Carrie: I love the voice of your film so much. How did that come about? Just gonna start this off with the biggest, broadest question, I know.

Jenny: Well, the initial initial idea was to make something that was a ensemble piece came from our love of indie dramas and ensemble plays. We've seen them all 50 times, except for—the funny thing is that we've seen all the ones that want to be like The Big Chill, but we had never seen The Big Chill until we were like halfway through the writing process. And then someone was like, "You should really watch it." And we did and were like "Ohhhh, okay. We get it, we get it." There's even a bat scene! And I was like, "WAIT!" I was so mad. It was like, “that came out of my family!"

Julie: We were just like hitting each other.

Jenny: Julie's cousin, Amy [Northup], directed it. It's her family's farm and she grew up going to Christmas and Thanksgiving there. I visited for Christmas in 2015 and I was like, "We should make a movie here." We had that conversation and started writing down ideas of, like, couples—

Julie: Couples having marital problems! [laughs] We were, like, 22—

Jenny: —and like, "We could do that! We could pull that off!" [laughs] Yeah, and then we put it away—

Julie: Thank god we didn't make that movie.

Jenny: I know. Well, we knew, inherently, there's nothing there. That's not a movie. We needed more to it. But it was really [seeing high profile stories about sexual assault in 2016]. I read them and was like, "What the fuck." I couldn't get it out of my head. I was just like, "Who is this person who has that experience and is speaking about it in in a way that’s touching so many people?" [Some were] anonymous, so I sketched in all the details about who she must have been.

Julie: There were so many coming out at the time that we were passing back and forth and finding in the deep dive.

Jenny: And then there was the idea to make her a linguist because of the language of consent. There was this one article that came out about the language of consent that we flipped out over, talking about what words are used when we talk to women on the stand and what words are used for men. The words for women were just devastating.

Julie: They were all incriminating questions you can't answer—which we have in the brief moment where Sam is questioned. It's like "So you do like vodka? You did drink vodka, right?" For a man, it like, "What are your goals for your future?"

Jenny: More and more was coming out and we were raising money for the film—the script wasn't even done, but we were still raising money—and the Dr. Blasey Ford trial was happening while we were in the midst of our money raising campaign. And we were just glued to the television watching her.

Julie: But it also helped our campaign because it was so topical that we were like, "People will notice us right now if we are actively participating and having opinions about what's going on.” And I think that really, honestly, affected our campaign. Which is weird, to describe it that way.

Carrie: No, I get it, being uncomfortable about that aspect. But I think the movie ends up contributing to the conversation thoughtfully in a way that doesn't feel like a slimy co-op. I feel like we got so many pieces of media that seemed like they were coming out because the topic was trendy, versus, “this is a good story; the timing just happens to be right now.”

Julie: Right, because this topic will always be relevant.

Jenny: I think a lot of the trendier stuff was trauma porn. Or, the other version of this story, which is a revenge fantasy. The impetus, for us, was more like "Who is this woman? Who was she before? Who are her friends? And like...maybe she sucks." We don't know anything about her. Maybe she's fucking annoying, dramatic, and sort of self-obsessed. Perfect victimhood was such an interesting idea—

Julie: That we wanted to flip on its head.

Carrie: At what point were you like, "This should be a movie."

Julie: I think from the beginning. It didn't have any other forms.

Jenny: I think when reading victim impact statements, Me Too kind of stories or whatever, in the back of my mind, I was like "the farm movie." At a certain point, I think I was in a yoga class or something, and I came out and I was like, "Julie. This is the farm movie." Because it was like, we have this idea of all these people in a cabin. But why are they there? Who are they? We abandoned all of the original written down couples things and then it just spiraled from there. I talked to a lot of survivors, where their stories were just so varied and so traumatic. Traumatic, but the women I was talking to were good humored and kind, were whole beings who were funny and lovely. But the thing that came across from all of the interview was that they were always worried about the people who were trying to take care of them. They were managing other people's feelings in addition to trying to navigate that.

Also, so many people asked, "Why a feature? Why not a short for your first thing?" And we're like, "Because how many good shorts do you see or get seen?"

Julie: I mean, every once in awhile you see a good short but then you look it up and it's by someone famous's grandkid who was given a million dollars.

Jenny: I think we also had this idea, I don't know where it came from, this sort of understanding that—we had never asked for any money for any projects. So we were like, "Let's go big once." We crowdfunded almost $40,000—

Julie: And a part of us was like, "Is this because we've never asked anyone for anything before?"

Jenny: And we still are learning how to ask for help in general. But that was a huge thing. We were like, "We have one trick pony, so let's fucking go all the way."

Julie: Because yeah a lot of people do crowdfund for their short and you get to make it but it's really so much harder to get that to go somewhere. And at the same time, we only made enough money in our campaign to probably make a good short. And then we were like, "This is enough! We can start on this!"

Jenny: And we were like, "We didn't go to film school. We know plays. And we have an ensemble piece that's long." I don't know how to make something pretty for 10 minutes. That's not something I have any idea how to do. I know how to write a lot of people in a house screaming at each other. That's Chekov, baby!

Carrie: I feel like this is a table of people who are whole-ass people who cannot half-ass anything.

Jenny: We are whole ass people.

Julie: Two whole asses right here.

[they high five]

Carrie: I'm fascinated by how you both work together. What is that process like?

Julie: I feel like we've worked together in the past where it was a little bit easier to focus on our collaboration and what we wanted it to look like. This was so much bigger than anything either of us have ever done before that we were both buried in logistical stuff.

Jenny: It was a lot of like, "You good?" "Yeah. You good?"

Julie: We were both in the same room tackling different things, but at the same speed. We hype each other up to get stuff done, which makes us very productive, but also hard for anyone on the outside to get in there.

Jenny: Yeah, we definitely speak in a short hand that people are like, "What's happening?" But it would seesaw, too. Sometimes one of us would be like, "We took on too much. I'm gonna die. Let's run away." And the other person would be like, "No, we got this!" And then within mere hours, it would flip.

Julie: It wasn't until post-production, really, where we could be like, "oh, let's collaborate."

Jenny: And then it was 18 hours a day of us sitting next to each other. She does all the technical editing, but I was in the room almost the entire time. We learned a lot. Like, "Oh, you actually do need to capture that b-roll for a reason." Shooting we were like, "Eh, we don't need it."

Julie: And then in post, we'd be like, "Yeah, we need that."

Jenny: So there was a lot of that. And then sometimes there would not be a solve, it would be like 2 A.M., and she would say, "I'm done. I gotta go to bed." And I'd be like, "I think I can crack it." And she would say, "Good luck!" She would make a copy of the scene so that I wouldn't fuck with the original. And then in the morning she would see what I had done and be like, "What the fuck."

Julie: As if it turned into an art house film. Jenny got really into using YouTube sounds. She was like, "If we don't have something to show, we can find a YouTube sound that will show it!” 

Jenny: Honestly, fifty percent of our sounds—we thought they were placeholders and our sound editor would come in and replace them. But Julie's so good and such a perfectionist and she manipulated them so well that by the time we sent them to our sound designer, he was like, "That's pretty good." We were like, "We ripped that off of YouTube! YouTube to mp3 dot com, that's how we got that sound!"

Julie: But then [collaboration] would happen in other ways, like times where I would forget to eat and just go, go, go. Like, as soon as I wake up until like 6:00 PM and then Jenny would just like, come over, dry shampoo my hair, and put a glass of wine in front of me.

Jenny: And we had just insane amounts of support as far as like—we didn't have any, like, financially or from anyone who could help our careers—but our friends would just sometimes drop off groceries. There were small things that would send us over the edge and we would be crying. People probably don't realize how much of a difference that made.

Julie: Seriously, it takes a village to make anything, especially when you don't have money. It was really intense for the two of us to take on. Which, cool, we did that. But we struggled. It will be so fun to collaborate in the future when we have more resources and more support.

Carrie: I keep thinking about that guy who tweeted something the other week that blew up where he was like—I think it was somehow related to the new iPhone cameras—"SEE? ANYONE can make a movie. There's no excuse."

Jenny: Fuck off. That's what I have to say to that.

Carrie: Right? "You have an iPhone, go make a movie." He obviously got dumped on and then deleted it but I feel like ever since Steven Soderbergh made his little iPhone movies and Tangerine blew up, people are like, "You can make a movie with nothing!"

Jenny: Yeah, but it will suck!

Carrie: Exactly! It will suck! People don't realize how much goes into it! Which, speaking of, what was your set experience like?

Jenny: We had an almost entirely female crew. Most of us came off bigger productions that were not that, and the theater, which is mostly run by old white dudes or whatever. But it was crazy being on a set of all women. When things go wrong, my experience has always been like, "Whose fault is this? How did we let this happen? What's happening!?" And when something went wrong—and shout out to Eden Martinez [What She Said’s line producer], who is amazing—it was "What are we doing? How do we fix this?" It was solution oriented.

Julie: And it was like that across the board. It was calm oriented. We were treating each other with respect, even when everyone was going into closets and crying because it was overwhelming. When we were doing the film, at the end of our five days of shooting—we’d shoot five days, have one day off, and it's a really stressful day on the last day before you take a break—immediately, we were like, "Okay, party, everyone! Move the furniture! We're blasting music and dancing!" It's the only way that a group can recover.

But [next time], I definitely want to build time to enjoy it and take it in. Because I just had my blinders on of “the next thing, next thing, next thing.” And I tried the best I could to look around, but then I would look around and be like, "Oh, I need to fix that." I want to allow myself time and space to also enjoy it and not just make sure other people are enjoying it, which I feel like is something that a producer often does.

Jenny: I think the main lesson we'll take with us is to treat the crew and the people you're making it with well—but include yourself in that. Keep everyone wildly happy because people are happy to make art and do the thing that they love when they feel taken care of, when they feel safe, when they feel unafraid to fail.

Julie: We did figure that out as we were doing it, but it wasn't something that we went in knowing. And, I did learn like, oh, there are other ways you can make people happy that aren't just money. Like, we called the local farmer and he brought his animals to set and people were happy.

Jenny: To have facilitated a sort of family atmosphere, even though it broke us and we were in a closet crying sometimes, that was special. It also felt, at the end, like, "This is it! We did it!" We had no idea because we were doing this on audacity alone and a little at a time—we didn't know each step was coming. We were sort of like, "we'll deal with that later." So at the production stage, we felt like, "We're just going to whip this thing into a movie and it'll come out in six weeks!" We had no idea how many years after it would take.

Julie: I remember I was very hot-headed and over-confident when we started pre-production and production to like actually shoot. I was like, "We just had our campaign. This is so early. Everybody says it takes five years to make a movie. We are moving so much faster, we're so capable, we're doing it." And then it still took five years.

[this interview has been edited and condensed]

###

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been down one time, been down two times

on lindsey buckingham, "bad men," and revisionist history

hey, hi, hello. it’s me again.

i wrote most of this in my notes app last night at 1 a.m. after a very generous and expensive sippy cup of wine at the lindsey buckingham concert. it was my second concert in close to two years, but the first one where i was truly back in my element: lowering the median age and making impulse merch purchases. but anyway! the reason you’re getting this is because it was also the first time that i felt compelled to write about music in months, and the millionth time i’ve felt compelled to write, once again, about two of its best messy bitches for whom i have a long and complicated love, like a kid caught in between feuding divorced parents. who knows if it works! that sippy cup of wine got to me!

okay great, another very welcoming and promising intro, carrie, way to go!!!

okay thanks sorry love u bye


Lindsey Buckingham is drawing out every syllable of “Never Going Back Again” so much he practically doubles the song’s original jaunty length. On a stage in New York, promoting a new album in 2021 by singing a song first made popular in 1977, he begins the opening licks in a manner that is so slow and decided and cautious they would be unrecognizable at first to most casual fans. And when the crowd erupts in loud cheers—easily the most deafening of the evening thus far—he looks upwards, and I can’t tell if it’s looking for the grace to sing something painful or if it’s an annoyed eye roll caught midway, letting his displeasure show that this is the song they scream loudest for. Lindsey Buckingham has promoted several solo albums in the shadow of Fleetwood Mac, but this might be the one time it looms so large it cannot be ignored. 

“Never Going Back Again” is a sad song that thinks it’s a happy one, which is maybe the most tragic kind of sad song. Maybe in 1977 Buckingham truly believed in the naive rebound lyrics he wrote. Maybe he really believed if he made his fingerpicking delicate enough, made his voice pretty enough, he really was over and done with repeating the same mistakes he’d made before with his (very famous) ex and onto something as bright and promising as the melody he was playing. But songs are just a moment’s feelings captured and preserved in acetate forever. Like any good songwriter still lucky enough to be playing their decades-old work today, Buckingham knows what happened after, not just in the immediate but in the forty years that followed. He knows all the feelings, the endless cycle of fights and reconciliations that have followed, and he does little to hide it.

The “Never Going Back Again” of today is not a pop-y song of triumph, of pulling yourself up and out of a low period and setting out on a new path once and for all, not even close. It’s a song laced with the weight of regrets and faults. Buckingham drags “where I’ve been” to agonizing lengths, lets his voice fade out like a whisper—only for it to rise with righteous anger as he shouts “been down one time, been down two times.” He’s been down several more times than twice, certainly, and there are no happy memories there. Or maybe there are, and that’s why it stings all the more. Every other line then follows softly, sadly, until the resigned sigh of “I’m never going back again.” He has, and would, go back in a heartbeat if asked, and he knows that. It’s almost too bleak for me to watch; it feels wrong to clap at the end. The audience gives it a standing ovation. Buckingham has been on stage for at least an hour. It’s the first of the night.  

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To be a Lindsey Buckingham fan is to hold credible allegations of his being a Bad Man in one hand with the Maybe Not Bad Man he is today in the other. In recent years, I have made easy decisions about artists I’ve disliked and difficult ones about artists I have loved. I’ve welcomed this look back at the past, at the women who have been hurt or harmed to varying degrees by the misogynistic mechanisms of rock and roll. I’ve played a part in it, even. For years now, I have asked myself to revisit and reconsider all the men whose voices fill my headphones—not just the ones undergoing public scrutiny—bracing myself to be heartbroken or angry about their depictions of women, or their stealing from Black artists, or their political views. So why has Lindsey Buckingham escaped the cancel culture of my brain?

Maybe I’m looking for something more, something so damning and unforgivable that could justify breaking my attachment, could give me the unequivocal sign to walk away. When I say I believe women, does that mean I am a hypocrite for still having questions, for finding plot holes in the remembrances of drug-hazy fights? When I say I believe women, why do I half-write off backstage altercations where everyone was high out of their minds as “not okay, but just how it was back then”? Is it wrong for me to question the accuracy of unauthorized biographies written by men with no stake in the game, men who know that salaciousness sells? Memories are not immune to warping facts, but the feelings often remain true; salaciousness is never 100 percent fiction; and drugs aren’t ever an excuse for an adult’s harmful behavior. I know this. I believe women, and I believe in holding people accountable for their actions. But I also have to believe in redemption.

I’m so tired of talking about cancel culture. The thread has slipped away so that even the parts of it that can be good have become muddied, the intention seemingly lost. We’re so quick to cancel these days—which, hey, I get! It’s easy, it’s clean, it feels good. But what gets lost is the more complicated and difficult matter of how we decide who is held accountable for their actions and ultimately forgiven, who is allowed a second chance, and what that looks like.

We make so many exceptions for men we call geniuses, don’t we? They are ones that, most of the time, come with people (often other men) imploring us to separate the art from the artist, to use a brilliant or prolific artistic output as a means to justify looking past personal behavior. I am not one of those people. I don’t believe you can separate art from artist, particularly when it comes to something as deeply personal as songwriting. The clues are right there in the text. Which is why I like to think Buckingham is one of the Better Guys, one of the men who have atoned for their past sins, grown up and gotten themselves on the path to betterhood. I do not think he is guilt-free of any wrongdoings, nor do I think he is a new man; I do not think any person, particularly one with the ego required to become and maintain a stature of celebrity, is capable of fully ridding themselves of their asshole past. (You don’t have to look much further than this press circuit at things he’s said unkindly or unskillfully; even if the petty little passive aggressive digs that come from a place of hurt are not as savage as they would have been in the past, they still leave a bad taste.) There are limitations to being a critic, of course, to not knowing personally all the parties involved; I’ll never know the full story. But I like to think, from the psychobabble he sprinkles in between songs on stage and in interviews and the lyrics of the songs themselves—which in recent years have become full of longings and regrets, vulnerabilities and apologies—that he is one of the few who has done the work. All of which could be performative in some aspect, of course. Maybe Buckingham, like many artists, finds it easier to be vulnerable in public settings, offering up apologies to a room full of strangers instead of privately, directly to the people they are met for. Maybe some smart publicist gave him self help talking points worth repeating in public. Maybe we’re all just suckers for a narrative that has been written long ago and only further committed to as time has moved on.

Maybe Lindsey Buckingham does not deserve my forgiveness. He would not be the first person I offered it to who was not worthy of it. Maybe it is not even my place to offer it to begin with.

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Lindsey Buckingham is promoting a new solo album—a very good one, at that—but there’s still that pesky bit about his famous firing from Fleetwood Mac to address in nearly every interview. It’s been three and a half years, but the aftershocks linger. The joke is that no matter how rapidly and drastically the world changes, the one constant you can count on is that, at any given moment, two members of Fleetwood Mac hate each other. It used to be a lot funnier. Now it’s just—like the two members most often at war—old, and a little bit sad. 

“It’s unfortunate that Lindsey has chosen to tell a revisionist history of what transpired in 2018 with Fleetwood Mac,” Stevie Nicks said in a press statement responding to Buckingham’s recent slate of interviews. “His version of events is factually inaccurate, and while I’ve never spoken publicly on the matter, preferring to not air dirty laundry, certainly it feels the time has come to shine a light on the truth.” 

It certainly caught my attention, this accusation of revising history, of spinning the narrative this way, as if they haven’t both been doing that for the past 50 years, as if she hasn’t been guilty herself of doing the same thing. I could (and almost did) write a book about the ways in which their stories have changed and become increasingly sanitized over the past decade. This is not unusual; almost every boomer rock star is doing it in some way. Theirs is the first generation of musicians to contend with and craft their own legacies while they are still living.1 In the quest to self-mythologize, there is a tendency to gloss over the ugliest parts of rock history, all the sex and drugs part of it that grew to be more gore than glamour, to paint yourself as someone who has overcome struggle without detailing the struggle too deeply, because what matters more is that you are now reformed and, above all else, palatable for a wide range of audiences. In the era of standom in which we deify celebrities just as often as we cancel them, we have forgotten that it is possible to be both a fan and a critic, to love someone enough to respectfully disagree with them. If Stevie Nicks and her PR team want to stop airing dirty laundry in favor of fashioning her as the Disney princess of rock and roll, that’s her business. I can’t say it doesn’t make me sad—I find the roughest and most unfiltered parts of her life, the ones she now seeks to minimize to an anecdote or airbrush over, the most compelling and humanizing—but I understand why she wouldn’t want to revisit them in detail, and why we are not entitled to her pain or her shame. We are not even entitled to seeing her truly candid and unpolished. But I can’t help but feel like something gets lost in the revisionist history meant to preserve her legacy in a very specific, controlled light.

Stevie Nicks has every right to falsify her own life, but she has no right to falsify history, which is what happens when the narrative gets revised. It gets easier to fashion yourself as the triumphant survivor, to conveniently leave out parts of stories that don’t fit anymore, the ones that do not absolve you of some bad behavior yourself, to set the scene with a clear villain and a clear victim-turned-hero. But history is not black and white. History is grey matter. History is two people with dueling egos behaving badly, two people finding redemption, and two people (and Irv Azoff) in the trenches of the aftermath together, pulling the puppet strings of public persona with white knuckled grips.

+

It’s a Thursday night in New York and the weather is hovering at such a perfect 72 degree mark that when I get off the short train ride home I walk for another half an hour. I am playing a live version of Buckingham’s “Shut Us Down” on repeat and walking aimlessly, circling blocks, thinking about agency and about legacy. 

Loving Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks is exhausting, and I am so tired of making jokes equating being a fan of theirs to being a trapped child of divorce. I’m tired of asking myself if I forgive him, tired of asking myself if I agree with the persona and narrative Stevie Nicks now perpetuates. I’m tired of the teenage dramatics of two people who have known each other since they were teenagers but now in their seventh decade still unable to stop pushing buttons, still unable to bury the hatchet and let their history and the things they love outweigh those which they hate. I wish I could just listen to their music free of any backstory, but no one has ever been able to do that. Not when it was first made, and certainly not now.

They know that they are never going to stop going back again, never going to stop poking at the ashes of their relationship, the still-burning embers of which grow fewer and fewer each time they return. And I will follow them, curious to find out what happens next. We’ll go down one time, two times, and many more, and each time will be a challenge to reassess and readjust what I think. The records will never change, at least not technically, but they will, and so will I. The actions might be repetitive, the narrative might twist, but at least it will never be boring. 

###

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1

(There was a great piece about this awhile back that I can’t find now; if anyone recalls it and can send it my way, that would be great!)

thoughts you have on big walks through central park while listening to nora ephron audiobooks

"this is about the person who got hit by the bus. it is not about the bus."

hey, hi, hello. it’s me again in your inbox. thanks to those subscribers who have stuck around even as this grows more and more infrequent. for those of you who are new, i ask: “did you even look at the archives to see how inconsistent these are??? these are but one-offs! why are you here? i am going to disappoint you!” but welcome. i am trying my best :’)

okay great intro carrie very encouraging! very welcoming to readers about to get another fucking essay about big walk thoughts that they did not ask for!

okay thanks sorry love u bye


The blue nights are here to tell us that summer is beginning to fade. The longest day of the year has come and gone and taken the dazzling orange sherbet sunsets of June and early July with it. In the evenings now, the sky is holding a shade of blue I’m sure would look great as a pair of jeans—deep and rich, blue but not blue blue, undercut with a hint of grey—that only ever occurs somewhere in late summer’s elongated liminal space between day and night. I’m walking through Central Park, cutting across at the reservoir, going against the signed direction of traffic even though I hate when other people do that, and when Nora Ephron says “Whenever someone says the words ‘Our friendship is more important than this,’ watch out, because it almost never is,” I draw in a sharp breath and stop in my tracks. I’ve been listening to Nora Ephron audiobooks for a week straight now; I should know well enough how to manage my reactions to her musings in ways that don’t inconvenience others, ways that don’t draw attention to myself, but I still somehow find myself bowled over by even the most simple of remarks. 

I’ve found myself looking to Nora Ephron a lot this year, especially this summer, returning to her books and essays, playing her films and old interviews on YouTube on repeat, either in desperate search of an explanation or a desperate need of reassurance. Nora was so unfaltering, so set in her opinions about the way the world should operate but very often doesn’t, and her works are like big hugs; even when they’re catty or mean, they still feel comforting. In Nora Ephron’s world, it seemed as if every problem had, if a not a solution, then at least the promise that it could be spun into a funny story. 

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The first thought I had when my best friend revealed, without remorse, that she had been sleeping with a mutual friend, whom she knew I had long harbored feelings for, behind my back and lying to me about it was: “How could she?”

My second thought was: “At least I won’t have to pretend to think his movie looks good anymore.”

When Nora’s life famously fell apart, it took her six months to find the funny. Not to get too competitive about it, but when mine fell apart, it took me about six minutes to start cracking jokes. Maybe six months from now I will feel differently, maybe I’ll even be able to write something far funnier than this about it, but in the immediacy of it, the only way I could survive was to put my head down and charge through it, and the only way I could do that was if I laughed first. I mean, what else are you supposed to do when a man tells you he doesn’t want to ruin your friendship by acting on his feelings for you, only to act on them with your other friend instead? You have to admit that’s kind of funny. 

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I don’t recommend moving twice in the span of four months, much less giving yourself less than two weeks to do it the second time. But I had to find funny the way I looked, hunched over under the weight of Ikea bags I shuttled from one place to another in Ubers, the blue vinyl straining to hold a haphazard assortment of belongings that just months before had been transported by professionals in meticulously organized boxes. I had to find funny going all the way to East Harlem for a U-Haul I had reserved online, only to be told by the man behind the counter, between huffs from a bottle of rubbing alcohol, that they had no vehicles in stock that day. I had to find funny that nothing was going according to plan.

This was not the way things were supposed to work, I thought, and then I laughed. How could I have been so stupid, I thought. I’ve lived my entire life guided by the belief that the moment I let my guard down, the other shoe would drop. I should have known that things were too good, that too many loose ends had tied themselves up in my favor. Life was returning to normal after an unspeakably brutal year, and I felt happy, happy in that way where one day you’re walking around town minding your own business when suddenly you notice that you’re not sad anymore. Or maybe you’re not sad—maybe you were never sad so much as stuck—so much as you feel truly content with your life, and the things that used to keep you up at night no longer upset you so much. The past year has been proof enough that “this is going to be my year” is a cursed statement, but I thought it anyway. I had never felt so sure of it. I stopped looking up. The shoe dropped.

Of course the shoe dropped. The shoe is always going to drop; it cannot stay in the air forever and you cannot plan for when it will come down. There was no new learning there, just a reminder of what I had foolishly forgotten. What I learned instead was that it doesn’t matter whether or not the shoe drops, what matters is how we choose to react when it does. What I learned instead was that you shouldn’t ignore the signs that something is souring until it is fully rotted. What I learned instead was that I was never the supporting character in the fascinating story of someone else’s life. I was the main character of my own story all along. 

But what I was not expecting to learn was that, once the dust settled and the shock wore off, I would get lonely. Not lonely lonely; I made more social plans than ever before, and besides, I have always been good—maybe too good—with my own company. Lonely in a sense that I could now pass an entire day without having a speaking conversation with someone. Lonely in the sense that I was aware of the absence of someone else in the house, someone in a room just down the hall if I needed, or on the other side of the couch. Lonely in the sense that I had come into this newfound loneliness by surprise, and was left with a phantom limb while trying to get my sea legs. Nora was right that a building could rescue you at your lowest moment, but she didn’t mention this.

There’s a meme that goes around every so often that, at its core, is about the fear of abandonment. “Not to be annoying, but could you please confirm that you still like me and have not decided to randomly hate me,” one version of it says. It’s funny because it’s a fear many of us have had, but it’s irrational, implausible, exaggerated. Our friends and loved ones do not simply decide one day to not only no longer like us, but to actively hate us instead. But it’s stickier than that. People may not choose to randomly hate you, but they can choose to not respect you. They can choose to love themselves more. “I’m afraid I care more about other people than they do about me,” I said often to my friend. “I’m afraid if I let anyone get close, they will hurt me.” She always told me it wasn’t true. Then she proved me right. 

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It’s a few Tuesdays later in July and I am downtown drinking with my friend Carlos when I tell him that this is one of the first nights in several that I have not gone for a walk with Nora. 

For years I had considered myself an Ephron completist; I thought I knew all there was to know, thought I had reached the bottom of the finite content pool and had to make due with what I had, even though I selfishly wanted more. This summer, when the internet developed a brief fixation on the joys of Meryl Streep’s narration of Heartburn so intense it landed a New Yorker write-up, I discovered I had a blind spot: the audiobooks.

I started with the much buzzed-about Heartburn, downloading it to my phone on a whim one night as I headed out on a big walk. “I highly recommend having Meryl Streep play you,” Nora once joked. “She plays all of us better than we play ourselves.” And look, sure, people were right—Meryl doing Heartburn was good! Who knew! But I didn’t want Meryl-as-Nora, good as she may be. I wanted the real deal, wanted Nora’s deadpan, her dry drawl that made every comment exist on some spectrum of slightly to incredibly withering, whether or not it was intended to be. I moved on, downloaded her final two essay collections—2006’s I Feel Bad About My Neck and 2010’s I Remember Nothing—and fell into a new routine.

I tell Carlos how after work every night, I walk loops around Central Park and listen to Nora tell stories I have read before, stories I’ve heard before—sometimes as recently as just the day before. Sometimes I laugh out loud. Sometimes I blink back tears, while others I openly gasp at a simple insight I might have skimmed over on the page but cannot ignore when Nora gives it to me straight. Nora became the perfect company to fill up the empty end of the day. The pieces I love most as a reader— “Journalism: A Love Story,” “My Life as an Heiress,” “Moving On,” “The Story of My Life in 3,500 Words or Less,” “Considering the Alternative”—take on a new life. They’re more somber than I remembered them being, a little world weary, even when they all have moments of levity and an undercurrent of optimism.

Going on big walks with Nora, I explain to Carlos, is the closest I feel like I’ll ever be to, well, walking with Nora. As she tells a funny story straight into my ear, I can imagine that she’s right next to me, or maybe across from me at lunch, leaning in conspiratorially to say something biting and shrewd. It’s only in moments where I want to open my mouth and ask a question or reply to something she just said that I remember the conversation exists only in my headphones, only in my brain. None of what I just heard was shared directly with me; it wasn’t a conversation, it was a performance. This relationship is entirely one-sided, and will never be real.

But would real be any better? Carlos muses that maybe it wouldn’t be, that there’s something nice about how some relationships with our heroes are left only to be fantasies, imaginary friends for people old enough to have long since abandoned them. In this imaginary world, there are no stakes. We never have to worry about fucking it up, about being too needy, too grating, too unlikeable, about saying the wrong thing. And we will never have to engage with the rougher edges of the other person, the messy parts that make them a human capable of hurting us just like anybody else. 

+

I turned 30 this spring, a milestone that feels both unimaginable and somehow right at the same time. I spent so much of my twenties waiting and wishing desperately for someone to take me under their wing, someone to tell me the things I’m supposed to know. I wanted someone who could make being known not such a mortifying ordeal after all, because I wanted so badly to be seen, really seen, by someone who knew enough that I could trust them when they told me it wouldn’t always be like this. I wanted someone to point me in the right direction to become whoever it is I’m supposed to become, and shape me into that person through their seemingly infinite wisdom, experience, and humor. I wanted someone to give me the answers and tell me all the secrets that I was sure everyone else possessed. 

But no one has all the answers, and thinking they do—and hoping they could give them to you—is the idealistic wish of someone impossibly young, or younger than I now feel, at least. At some point in the recent past, I felt like maybe I was doing okay enough on my own to no longer need that, though that didn’t stop me from still thinking of Nora as a reliable constant to be turned to in the moments I still felt like I was floundering a little. Maybe not everyone has all the answers, but Nora seemed to. She was always so sure of herself, so decisive, so absolutely certain of life, I thought, possessing a fix for any problem you had. But there’s a moment in the final piece of I Feel Bad About My Neck that suggests otherwise. 

“Considering the Alternative” is a tough essay to read, a meditation on aging and mortality, a gently prodding look at how we must face not only our own deaths as we grow older, but the deaths of our friends, and of so many things, for we are dying a little bit every day. It isn’t as funny as her other better-known work, and even though it determinedly ends softly on the bright side, it is still greatly lacking in the hopeful-in-spite-of-it-all tone that we’ve come to expect. It’s an even more difficult listen; there’s no room to gloss over the emotion in her voice, or the knowledge that it was written and recorded at a time when she knew her mortality was no longer a hypothetical but a given. Near the end of it, she shows her hand:

“What is to be done?” she asks. “I don’t know. I hope that’s clear.” It’s a small moment, one that is easy to speed past in reading but in listening packs an entirely different punch. Her voice is a resigned sigh, a wistful admission. She lingers in the uncertainty, lets you really know that after all that questioning, all that ruminating, she still isn’t sure she has any answer. She’s just as human as the rest of us. When we deify people like Nora Ephron, it’s sometimes easy to forget that. 

I could listen to her dole out assured advice in “What I Wish I’d Known” over and over—wasn’t that what I had often turned to her for, anyway?—but “Considering the Alternative” kept drawing me back in with its somber not-knowing. Sometimes what you want is for someone to tell you everything will be okay, complete with a five point plan showing how, but sometimes what you need is someone acknowledging the very real truth of the matter. There are some things in life we simply cannot fix, cannot plan or negotiate or quip our way out of. Not everything gets to be a funny story. Sometimes all we can do is admit that shit sucks, and try our best to keep moving until the tide turns again. 

+

It’s August now. I hope the people who hurt me know that they hurt me, but I do not wish them ill. I hope they are both happy, and safe, and making the most of their summer together. Someone new is now living in my old bedroom. I commented “I hope you like it!” on their Venmo payment for my share of the deposit and I meant it. It was a good room, but I do not miss it. I am no longer expecting an apology.

It’s August now and I am by myself and I feel okay. I feel good, maybe even great, like I’ve finally exhaled a breath I didn’t know I’d been holding. It’s August and we should be in bad summer now, but somehow it seems like good summer is only now starting. For months, it’s been grey skies and thunderstorms, thick listless air draped over everything like a weighted blanket impossible to climb out from under. But these past few days have been nothing but clear skies and sun, cool breezes rolling through idyllic temperatures, the imagined platonic ideal of summer days.

The blue nights are already beginning to turn, not yet consistently bursting into end of summer sorbet sunsets but working their way up to it. On another park walk, I stop and take a photo of the dusty lilac sky above the lake, grey clouds hanging so low I swear someone with long arms standing on Bow Bridge could reach out and touch them, but when I stare at the final result on my phone, it doesn’t compare. No filter or edit does the real thing justice. In my ear, Nora says: “‘We can’t do everything.’ I have been given the secret of life. Although it’s probably a little late.” I think I know what she means.

###

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it's always winter in reds

just some disconnected thoughts on warren beatty's hot'n'horny 1981 historical epic

look, maybe this works, maybe it doesn’t. i just felt like i needed to replenish this space with something, so.

It’s always winter in Reds, even when it isn’t. It’s always winter, and someone is always arguing, someone is always plotting, someone is always unhappy—no, someone is always dissatisfied, which is not unlike unhappiness but is not the exact same—someone is always longing, someone is always toiling away against their raging discontent. It’s always winter, and everyone is always in long shirtsleeves, under a shabby jacket or sweater that looks like it could come apart at the seams at any moment or wrapped in a fur coat that has seen better days, lips chapped and eyes tired and skin pale, dull, and dead. 

Reds is, on the most basic level, a movie about history. The passion project of Warren Beatty, who co-wrote, directed, and starred, it is a historical epic about journalist and communist activist John (Jack) Reed, the radical movement in early 20th century America, and his journey to Russia to document the Bolshevik revolution. But it’s also a love story; intertwined is his affair with and marriage to Louise Bryant (Diane Keaton, who is so spectacular in the role that it is infuriating to watch with the knowledge that she is now making movies like Poms), an aspiring—floundering—artist/writer/bohemian who eventually comes to work alongside him as a fellow activist-journalist. Oh, and Jack Nicholson pops in as an incredibly, illegally, hot Eugene O’Neill, just to add a little more drama to the already overflowing pot. 

It is the I hope this email finds you well in these trying times of movies, a movie about people trying to shift the narrative in a positive direction in real time who operate in a state of idealistic denial about just how bad things really are and how much harder they will be to change. But because Reds is a movie not just about history, which is something that has already happened, it is just as much about the way history is remembered. Filtered through the lens of late-70s America where the progressive agenda had failed once again, we already know the outcome of Reds. We have lived through those trying times, have read about those trying times, and have lived through many more that followed. We know that these are real people and not just fictional characters, that the events in the film happened and aren’t just fictional plot points, and yet, we watch anyway, somehow hoping that we’ll get the Hollywood ending we want each time.

The thing about history is that everything is history in some sense, though our present lives are often split into times in which we know we are living through it—it being something big, something monumental, something we know will be chronicled and remembered and studied in the times to come—and the times in which we are willfully ignorant, the times in which we think everything is fine, uneventful, maybe even good. And, of course, this is all a lie, too. Even the perceived good times tell us something about who we are in the ways in which we decide what counts as a good time, the ways in which a good time for one group of people might not be a good time for another. The thing about history—and about Reds, too, as we learn through all the talking heads featured—is that history does not have the benefit of the present tense. It is not the act of standing next to someone and seeing the same thing happen and having a shared understanding of it. History is the past tense, history is memory and interpretation, all the ways in which what we all saw can be misremembered and misconstrued and twisted by each and every one of us, at times in a way that it no longer resembles what we once lived through at all. 

 ---

Reds is like winter in that it is an excessively long movie, stretching across three hours, with no end in sight. We know it will end, of course we do, but we implausibly think it will go on forever. By the time it reaches intermission an hour and 45 minutes in, you wonder how it could possibly wrap up in a succinct second act.

Early in the film, there’s a brief stretch set in summer, but it comes and goes in fiction just as quickly as it does in life, and even then, their white linens aren’t sparkling and crisp so much as dingy and wilting; not even the temporary warmth can solve Jack and Louise’s problems. The little happiness they find while summering on the shore can’t last. It’s fleeting and fading, it won’t even make it through the season, threatened by Jack’s premature departure for political work and the presence of Jack Nicholson’s brooding and bitter Eugene O’Neill. There is no carefree summer fun in Reds, even when it tries at it. The discontent of winter is all consuming. Warren Beatty and Diane Keaton are almost always confined to small, muted spaces, in rooms with low ceilings and too much furniture to feel anything but cramped, working and fighting and fucking with nowhere else to go. Although it was a visual choice by production designer Richard Sylbert intended to show how big their characters were in their world, watching now, I don’t get anything out of it other than claustrophobia. I don’t get any historical symbolism from it, just the cold and unrelenting reflection of present circumstances reflected back.

When I started writing this essay, it was the dead of February, the time of year when it seems like it has always been winter and will always be winter and our bodies will never know warmth or sunlight from any source other than our SAD lamps ever again. It’s now spring, or near spring, at least. The fake March spring is just outside my window, a string of 60º days that make me believe everything is fine and normal again, even though nothing is normal right now, even though I know the warmth is just a fluke, just a tease before cooler, more seasonable temperatures yell “syke!” and make their cruel return. But even when spring comes for real, and summer after, I will still be looking over my shoulder, still reminding myself that it can’t last forever, that winter is always coming, that there’s always a catch to anything good.

---

Let’s just state the obvious: Reds is, objectively speaking, the hottest movie ever made. It’s impossibly horny, absolutely saturated with desire that is only made more horny by the fact that there’s not even that much fucking in it. Really, there are only, like, two sex scenes, maybe three, and it’s a stretch to even call them that, just some dim lighting and suggestive advances before cutting away. Instead, the dial is turned up to the highest possible frequency of sexy without showing actual sex and stays there, often leaving our want completely unfulfilled. It’s the promise of fucking that makes it hot. The threat of it, even, the will-they-or-won’t-they of it all. 

All this, too, is history reimagined, history heightened for dramatic purposes. Hollywood is full of beautiful people pretending to play normal people. Virginia Woolf-ing oneself into Oscar bait wasn’t as much of a thing when Reds was produced, and Reds is full of exceedingly hot people not only portraying average-at-best looking people, but acting as though in real life they, too, were unbearably hot. Beatty once explained that he got Nicholson to play the part by first asking him for advice. “I told him I needed someone to play Eugene O’Neill, but it had to be someone who could convincingly take this woman away from me,” he said. Nicholson immediately replied, “There’s only one actor who could do that—me!” None of them look even remotely like their real life counterparts—hey, that’s showbiz, baby—but if they weren’t aggressively attractive, the love triangle would fall flat. In real life, Jack Reed possessed none of the handsome, playboy good looks of Warren Beatty, who even manages to be hot when (spoiler) dying of typhus. Beatty’s Reed may be the beta version of a Hot DSA Fuckboy, but IRL Reed looked more like Baby-faced DSA Virgin, if I’m being completely honest here. He may have, historically, been a playboy, but it’s the real life Eugene—who radiated hot professor energy—who could take me from Jack in a second. Of course they both need to be hot—ridiculously, superhuman hot—on film for any real tension to occur.

In the film, as in real life, Bryant and O’Neill have an affair when Reed leaves to cover the 1916 election, and things get complicated, as things are wont to do in films. He’s a real person, but he’s also, in the frame of the film, a plot point. It’s more appealing to remember the more salacious and exciting parts of someone’s life, but that often means bending the truth of history to fit our desired portrayal of it. In real life, Bryant and Reed considered themselves to be free love intellectuals; her affair with O’Neill was less of a high stakes love triangle and more of a, um, throuple. History is a lot more entertaining when attractive people talk like this, but it’s not actually real. 

---

I think I saw Reds for the first time as a freshman in college. I say think because I don’t really know for certain. A combination of forces at hand—I was a film major, and had the entire campus library and independent video store’s catalogue full of films unavailable through my then-only suppliers (Blockbuster, TCM, and the county library system) that I’d been longing to see for years at my fingertips—meant I watched a lot of movies that year. So many that the ones I can only really remember truly, wholly, vividly are the films that completely bowled me over or the ones I viciously hated. If I really did see Reds then, it must have been met with too much ambivalence for it to fall clearly into either category. I don’t really know if that is the real truth, or if that narrative is what my brain wants me to believe is the truth. I am just as subjected to the failures of memory as the film itself. 

All I know for certain is that I didn’t truly see Reds until Thanksgiving two years ago, over a long weekend I spent holed up inside my apartment alone and finding that the time by myself wasn’t as relaxing as I thought it would be but was instead rather lonely, so I filled up every conscious waking hour with the television on. The longer the movie, the better; Reds seemed like an obvious choice. I was immediately, for lack of a more eloquent way to put it, obsessed. By the time the weekend ended, I had watched it two times more.

In the year 2020, when it was always winter, even when it wasn’t, and I was always in a state of discontent, I watched Reds at least eight times—or, roughly, once a month—that I logged. I’ve written about this before, but I spent more of the past year on comfort films I didn’t have to pay too much attention to than I did with “good” films in the Criterion Collection or profound new genres that would make me think. Somewhere, Reds became the perfect kind of comfort film in that it didn’t make me feel bad about watching yet another comfort film. I don’t know how anyone could call Reds comforting, least of all me. It’s long, it’s brutal, there’s death and despair and a lot of complicated intellectual and political jargon thrown around. But in between all that, there’s the foundation of a modern boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl, boy-gets-girl-back, boy-and-girl-find-themselves-swept-up-in-the-1917-Revolution plot at play. That Reds is at once about five different movies made it the best kind of in-between film to watch during These Times; I could think or I could not, simple as that. It could be whatever I wanted it, or needed it, to be. 

---

Early in Reds, there are a string of scenes in which Jack’s intellectual friends ask Louise what it is she does for a living. She’s out of place in their bohemian New York crew, no longer a big fish in a small pond like she was in Portland, no longer special, just average, mediocre, even. “I write,” she answers as they immediately turn away or dismissively say “good for you” before moving on to a new subject, only having asked her out of politeness rather than genuine interest. When people care enough to ask her more, she can’t really explain it. She writes about “everything.” What she’s working on now is “impossible to describe.” I have never so fiercely related to a character more.

I’m working on a book right now—which is why these dispatches are and will be so few and far between—that should be easy to describe, but somehow I find even that simple task a challenge. It’s a biography—but not a stuffy one, I’ve been quick to add. It’s cultural criticism. It’s a mystery and detective story. It’s a love story. It’s history. It’s history reinterpreted. It’s everything. It’s impossible to describe. Just like Reds.

###

If you liked this and want to read more about Reds, I highly recommend Peter Biskind’s lengthy, juicy, delicious Vanity Fair piece on it from 2006, which I have to reread at least once a month to replenish my serotonin levels.

If you have not seen, you can stream Reds on pretty much every major platform.

###

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okay that's it that's the end thanks bye

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