Another Week Ends

“Bad” Movies, Sex, Britney Spears’ Instagram, Biting Your Tongue, and the Only Safe Addiction

Todd Brewer / 4.8.22

1. Meghan O’Gieblyn’s advice column for Wired is always a must-read. What usually starts off as a seemingly innocent query about technology routinely leads O’Gieblyn to pivot to the deeper philosophical questions that lay behind the scenes. In the latest edition, alias “Nervous Energy” asks whether it’s ok while messaging with someone to ask what they were going to say when those three dots appear and then disappear. They were clearly typing something, right?

It seems to me that your query, far from being a simple matter of digital etiquette, raises a much larger question about whether it’s appropriate for a person, in all cases, to say what’s on their mind—and also whether we have an unqualified right to know what others are thinking and feeling. Your impulse to ask what your interlocutor was about to say reflects, in part, the legacy of psychoanalysis and modern therapeutic culture, which has conditioned us to see reticence as evidence of repression, or self-censorship. Freud believed that hesitation was a form of resistance — an attempt by the unconscious to protect itself — and it’s still largely an unquestioned belief that expression, whatever its content, is a salubrious form of release. We are only as sick as our secrets, as the saying goes. What remains unspoken will fester in darkness. […]

Self-expression has not always been deemed an absolute virtue. The duty to speak the truth does not mean (to paraphrase Voltaire) that every truth should be uttered, and it’s possible, even, that there’s an inverse relationship between maundering and meaning. “Words are like leaves and where they most abound, much fruit of sense beneath is rarely found,” Alexander Pope wrote in his 1709 “Essay on Criticism.” Reticence—the capacity to weigh one’s words and dispatch them sparingly—is a virtue lauded in the Koran, the Torah, the Dhammapada, and other religious literature. Many of these texts describe words as powerful instruments, likening them to swords, or arrows. The author of the Book of James compares the tongue to the bit that steers the horse or the rudder that guides a ship. These technological metaphors are meant to emphasize that the words we utter, like the tools we create, have the power to amplify our virtues and our vices, and must therefore be regarded with caution. […]

I will, however, ask you to consider that the unsent text might be a blessing. No relationship, no matter how robust, can survive the glare of unmitigated frankness, and we should all be grateful for the friend who is willing to pause and reconsider the prudence of their words. In other cases, the dissolving ellipsis may signal a more subtle act of kindness, sparing you the exertion of having to read and respond to yet another half-baked take. Divulging every thought, dispatching every piece of helpful content, is not a moral good at a moment when the demands on our mental engagement are everywhere and unceasing. “Sharing,” once considered a form of generosity, can easily become an expression of greed in information economies, where the scarcest resources are attention and time.

In the latest film series from the Harry Potter world, there is a witch, Queenie, who can read people’s minds with ease. It’s a nice party trick at first. But this gift becomes more like a curse to Queenie’s dating relationship. Debates quickly degrade into fights because it’s impossible for her boyfriend to self-sensor. It’s a good example of how being brutally honest with someone can just end up being brutal. There can be a graciousness in holding your tongue, even lying, because unvarnished truth is often more cruel than it is kind.

2. Ok … let’s talk about sex — a topic that almost too easily generates clicks and controversy. Yet for all of today’s debates over the pushing or pulling of the boundary of what is and is not acceptable, few people seem inclined to try reframing the questions we ask. For example, in a recent article in the New Yorker, the author surveys a number of recent books on the subject, noting (among other things) the correlation between loneliness and low sexual activity. But what pervades the discussion is a view of sex as mere utility, an activity that’s only about conferring benefits to the participants. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the article concludes with a book that advocates having sex with robots. I kid you not.

By contrast, Tara Isabella Burton’s review of Christine Emba’s book Rethinking Sex is a breath of fresh air. “Sex is broken,” Burton writes in City Journal, but the solution requires something more radical than new robotic technology.

What is sex for? Emba is willing to ask, a question that gives rise to another, more fundamental one: What are human beings for?

We have grown accustomed to regarding ourselves as isolated individuals and seeing others as instruments that offer us something — pleasure for an evening, affection for a lifetime. Whether we’re seeking a relationship that will afford us emotional or financial security — as many of Emba’s subjects do, putting up with casual hookups out of fear of appearing prudish or clingy—or ordering up a Tinder date like a pizza, in the manner of a woman Emba profiles, we too often expect our sexual partners to fulfill a personal need. Having sex becomes part of our imagined personal development — independent of the person we have sex with.Our sexual identities — slut, prude, libertine — have become part of our broader exercise of personal branding, a question that boils down to: Who am I? It’s a perspective, Emba makes clear, that doesn’t leave much space for the other person. […]

[Emba] treats the problem of sex as a question about the human condition, rather than about Americans in 2022, and her argument is compelling. No matter how long we’ve been broken, when it comes to sex, we always have the possibility of repair. And the repair that Emba calls for — genuine mutuality, intimacy, a vision of human togetherness that prioritizes a shared life in common over a pursuit of our individual ends — is one that the world needs.

3. Upcoming Mbird Conference speaker Anne Helen Petersen wrote in Bustle about Britney Spears’ recent Instagram posts, which collectively feel like “watching someone heal — however gradually, in fits and starts, in ways that are by turns uncomfortable and blissful, from trauma.” Finally freed from her conservatorship, the videos Spears posts are unironic and sincere, a window into an un-curated life. Rather than ridiculing their low production quality or judging Spears’ messy authenticity, Petersen offers something far better:

To follow Britney’s Instagram today, then, feels akin to following any other account that trades in affirmation and self-love. Do I sometimes feel like she’s trying to reproduce a past understanding of self and desirability? Yes! Do I also feel like I want to extend her grace as she figures all of this out? Also yes! For me, the wobbliness of her image only increases its charm. It also forces us to confront the impulse that maybe she should have someone watching out for her — but why? Because her Instagram doesn’t look like Reese Witherspoon’s? Because she’s posting like a 40-year-old mom from Louisiana? We are watching her figure things out. The least we can do, I can do, any of us can do, is extend her grace.

4. What’s your favorite “bad” movie? You know the one. Perhaps you bought the DVD in a Wal-Mart discount bin, but have since buried it in a drawer somewhere. Full disclosure, mine is Lake Placidwhich currently sits at 47% on Rotten Tomatoes. Betty White cursing!

But maybe these “bad” movies are just underappreciated. Maybe these panned films are in fact works of genius. Reviewing Matthew Strohl’s book Why It’s OK to Love Bad Movies Nicholas Whittaker notes that:

when the critical establishment (and even a discerning viewer) deems a movie “good,” or praises it as cinematic “art,” what this really means is that the work satisfies cinematic convention: it looks, sounds, moves, and feels the way a movie is supposed to, according to established norms of filmmaking and taste. Conventions are not intrinsically bad; the convention that an actor uses an accurate accent often results in a more compelling performance. But conventions can limit.

These conventions for cinematic taste can be more than limiting. As CJ Green wrote last year, they can become a suffocating law, particularly for us viewers. Bad films, by contrast,

… ignore the scriptures of Rotten Tomatoes. They break conventions, rather than playing by their rules. Strohl’s critical eye is sharp as well as generous, attentive to the myriad of real aesthetic riches bad movies offer. Bad movies break rules to find out what exciting, interesting kinds of beauty exist outside of the bounds of convention. They dare to imagine what aesthetic pleasures a bad accent might result in. Strohl argues that there is rarely any real difference between the bad movie and the avant-garde masterpiece. Both push past accepted norms to reveal new possibilities of human expression and appreciation.

And FYI, if you enjoyed Jeb Ralston’s latest article on Nicolas Cage, you’ll be delighted to know that Strohl’s book devotes an entire chapter to Cage’s performances.

5. In humor this week, “You Have to Watch This Painfully Bleak Sitcom,” says McSweeneys. And Reductress’sBoyfriend Going to Therapy Wrong” might just become an instant classic:

According to reports, you had imagined that this therapist would sit your boyfriend down to help him see the light, and that they would be explaining to him why you were right all along about everything you’ve ever disagreed on.

Sources say you also assumed that your boyfriend would be spending therapy sessions focusing exclusively on the issues you saw in him and was hoping he would “fix,” such as matching your personal style of expressing emotions, or dealing with conflict in the exact way you like to deal with it. […]

Yesterday, sources said you were stunned into silence when Matt began using therapy jargon to advocate for personal needs which were independent of what you wanted.

And in a story that’s worth reading, Nick Cave recounts when he meet Nick Cage!

Peter Howson, “The Harrowing of Hell”

6. In the Art Way newsletter this week, Willem de Vink penned a fantastic reflection on Peter Howson’s painting, “The Harrowing of Hell” (see above). After a promising start to his art career:

Howson lost himself in drugs and alcohol. At the turn of the century, during a deep crisis, he had an experience of Jesus, who told him: “You are loved, you don’t need alcohol and drugs.” From that time on he paints his faith into his work. You will still meet a ‘complete nutter’ (as he calls himself) in his paintings, an obsessed, restless man. But he is also a changed man. “I’ve been angry for years and drink and drugs were part of that, until I realised that God is the only safe addiction. It took me three or four months to discover how it feels to be loved and to love.” […]

In this painting Howson places Jesus in a hell situated under the streets of a depressing, polluted city. The place is swarming with people. Some are falling from the world above into the depths. Others suppress each other as in a nightmare. They are contorted, demonised figures that should actually be hoping for liberation but react to Jesus in a panic.

There he hangs, naked in a crucified posture but not on a cross. He is impaled on a lance that seems to be handled by Don Quixote. The nobleman from La Mancha made famous by the great Spanish writer Cervantes is here the fool who elevates Jesus. It makes Jesus, hanging like that in a vacuum, even more vulnerable. His deliberate surrender shocks his surroundings. The scene shocks me. I feel the painter is moved and I am amazed at his rendition of what is for me a fairly unknown and fascinating part of the Gospel. Howson penetrates into the deepest darkness of our human existence. At the same time he shows that Jesus is present there too.

“God is the only safe addiction”!


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2 responses to “April 2-8”

  1. DLE says:

    We go from applauding leaving that SMS message untexted to applauding Brittany Spears for working out her healing via Instagram posts. Hmm…

    As for watching bad movies, I would offer that most movies today are bad. I scarcely have time for good movies (which are increasingly rare anyway), so why invest this gone-in-the-blink-of-an-eye life in bad ones?

  2. […] Everything Nick Cave. The man was on an inspired run this year in his Red Hand Files. Easily the most-quoted author this year, we’ve been more than happy to have led the Nick Cave bandwagon. We featured him here, and here, and here, and here, and here, and here, and here, and here. […]

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