Jordan Peele's The Fabelmans
Don't Look Directly At It
The basic idea of the City Chicken newsletter — which, you’re right, is back in your life, all of a sudden — is that each essay is about two things that are weirdly similar even though they have nothing to do with one another. Or, rather, they secretly DO have a lot to do with one another, and that’s what I’m here to tell you about. Mad Men and She-Ra; HAIM and Paul Thomas Anderson; etc. Hopefully, you can expect more of these in the coming months, but, for now, enjoy a little New Year’s essay — a City Chicken Tender, let’s say — alongside some recommendations and my annual recap.
NOPE x THE FABELMANS
I wrote a book in 2022 (about which more later) (but also, now: pre-order it here for your friends and loved ones and enemies today!) about screen time. Part of the idea I had for the book is that a lot of it would focus on TV shows and films and bits of media where we watch characters onscreen with their eyes on screens. Once you start looking, it’s easy to find scenes of internal screen time like this, and the book is full of them: Wall-E watching Hello, Dolly, Don and Peggy watching the Moon landing, Bluey and Bingo talking to their mom on FaceyTalk, and so on and so forth. And it’s in these scenes where the heart of these texts often beats, or at least the place where it’s easiest to find a pulse. Because this is where the filmmakers are thinking about themselves, about what they’re doing, about the act of creation. About what any of this is even for.
So I was pissed when Jordan Peele’s Nope came out the week I had to turn in my final manuscript. And I was super-pissed when Steven Spielberg’s The Fabelmans came out right as I was finalizing the proofs for the book. Nope and The Fabelmans won’t appear in my book about screen time, but boy are they obsessed with it. The central plot line of Nope is about trying to catch a [redacted] on film. Almost everyone who survives watches what unfolds in the film’s final act through the safety of a surveillance camera or a lens of some sort. And there are more shots of characters looking into cameras or at movie screens or at TVs or into editing bays in The Fabelmans than there are scenes of characters looking at anything else.
But what strikes me about both of these films is less the volume of screen time screenshots available within them than what they both mean. For both of these films, cameras are media for intimacy and estrangement. Both films are about characters who avoid being hurt by the thing that’s right in front of them by only looking at it through a viewfinder or on a screen. The only way the [redacted] will destroy you is if you look directly at it; the only way your parents’ divorce will destroy you is if you look directly at it. Better get it on film.
It makes a lot of sense that these two films would be in this kind of oblique dialogue. For as Hitchcockian as Peele can be as a filmmaker, Nope is a full-length cover version of Jaws. Steven Spielberg has been making movies about his parents’ divorce for his entire career, and when he finally decided to make a film that actually dramatizes his parents’ divorce, it turned out to really be about his movies. It’s not a deflection; it’s just how it works. The Spielberg homages in Peele’s Nope — which is, not incidentally, about a couple of orphans hunting the [redacted] that took away their dad — have the same insight buried in them. Film is family; family is film. You capture what of it you can, and you spend your life trying to either avoid or get better at reenacting it. But, regardless, there’s something in the way, and it’s creating distance but it’s also keeping you connected, the only thing remembering. There’s always a medium.
And film is evidence, too. In these films, it’s evidence of infidelity, evidence of [redacted], evidence of things unseen, unnoticed, avoided. It can make you rich. It can make you insane. And watching this evidence? It puts you back together. It takes everything from you so you don’t have to carry it. Sammy Fabelman is never closer to his mother than when he shows her the footage that will destroy her marriage. The Haywoods are never closer to each other than when they go on the shoot.
But! Maybe screens are bad. MANY PEOPLE ARE SAYING THIS. The [redacted] has a mouth shaped like a flatscreen TV; a lot of people die getting the footage of it; it might make the Haywoods money, but it’s not going to write their family back into cinema history, won’t right the wrongs of a medium that’s been doing racism and using people up from the first frame on; Steven Spielberg has spent his entire career making movies about his parents’ divorce, and he hasn’t figured it out yet; telling people all about a Saturday Night Live sketch you saw once is worse than telling them about your dreams.
But you can’t tell anybody about what you saw at the movies. It doesn’t work. Try explaining Jeanne Dielman to somebody today. Try explaining Avatar. Something happens between you and the screen and the people you’re with that’s not easy to talk about. But we keep trying. We keep trying. Keep trying.
BEST TV OF 2022
Station Eleven (HBO Max)
My Brilliant Friend (HBO)
Reservation Dogs (FX)
The Dropout (hulu)
Bad Sisters (Apple TV +)
I’ll tell anyone who’ll listen that whether or not they’re a basketball fan, they need to read Katie Heindl’s newsletter, “Basketball Feelings.” It’s just some of the best criticism out there right now. You read articles about movies you haven’t seen sometimes; read an essay about a sport you don’t watch.
Speaking of Jeanne Dielman, Corey Atad wrote my favorite thing about what its ascendance to GOAT status means and why you should watch it if you haven’t.
Before they left New Republic, Jo Livingstone wrote one of my favorite essays of the year, about The Lost Daughter and parenthood on film.
Alena Smith — creator of Dickinson — wrote this, and you should read it.
Lauren Michele Jackson wrote my favorite thing about Midnights and Taylor Swift.
Do yourself a favor and pre-order Martin Riker’s incredible novel The Guest Lecture.
If you’re a Smitten Kitchen Head like me, you’ll love the great Meghan O’Connell’s profile of Deb Perelman for Romper.
And, if you’ve been sick constantly like we’ve been sick constantly, allow me to recommend Deb Perelman’s lemon-y chicken (or turkey) soup.
AVIDLY READS SCREEN TIME
I promise I won’t bombard you with too much book promo this year, but, well, I’m going to a little bit. Avidly Reads Screen Time means a lot to me, so anything you post or share about it would mean a lot to me too.
You can buy it here.
You can also follow my new public Instagram account here.
And if you want to read anything else I wrote this year, here it is:
I wrote about STATION ELEVEN and WALL-E and THE RINGS OF POWER and BLUEY and BETTER THINGS and THE GILDED AGE and ELMO AND ROCCO and DAD LIT and CHRIS HEMSWORTH’S QUEST FOR IMMORTALITY.
Thanks for reading, as usual, as always,
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