Volume 3, Issue 28: Tell Your Friends

"Don't forget to tell your friends. This is going to end."

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The 1996 film Schizopolis is a movie about, and a movie made by, a man having a nervous breakdown. It is written by, directed by and stars Steven Soderbergh during a period of his life when everything was falling apart. His career, so promising after Sex, Lies and Videotape transformed the world of independent film, had slid off into a ditch with a series of poorly received flops, and his marriage, to actress Betsy Brantley, was collapsing. Soderbergh responded to this chaos in his life by making a purposefully ludicrous film, one in which the “story” keeps reversing and moving sideways, characters start randomly speaking in different languages, there is repeated nonsensical dialogue (“Nose army. Beef diaper?”), and one scene culminates with the picture of a tree with a sign on it that says, “IDEA MISSING.” The movie so baffled the audience at its first screening at the Cannes Film Festival that Soderbergh, for general release, added a scene at the beginning of the film in which he shows up and amusingly explains, “In the event that you find certain sequences or ideas confusing, please bear in mind that this is your fault, not ours. You will need to see the picture again and again until you understand everything."

I always think about one scene in the film in particular. In it, Soderbergh’s character Fletcher and his wife, played by Brantley, the very ex-wife whose separation from him inspired this psychic meltdown (casting her, and her agreeing to play the part, has always seemed particularly masochistic), have a banal conversation in the kitchen.

Fletcher: Generic greeting.
Wife: Generic greeting returned.
Fletcher: Imminent sustenance.
Wife: Overly dramatic statement regarding upcoming meal.
Fletcher: Oooh, false reaction indicating hunger and excitement!

Later, Fletcher has a conversation with a friend.

Friend: Generic greeting.
Fletcher: Generic greeting. Obligatory question about the evening's activities.
Friend: Oh, qualified, vaguely positive reply. Uninspired description of movie and subsequent conversation with girlfriend.
Fletcher: Ooh, really well-rehearsed speech about workload and stress.
Friend: Genuine sorrow.
Fletcher: Um, truthful-sounding promises of future satisfaction? Enticement to agree?
Friend: Accepted.
Fletcher: Gratitude.

The joke here, of course, is that the way humans talk to each other is mostly empty of meaning, using default words to convey only half-felt emotions and thoughts. Soderbergh, in a period where he’s analyzing his life and trying to figure out where it all went wrong, attempts to zone in on the meaning of all our daily interactions in order to gather the pieces of his life and somehow reconstruct them. He finds them rote, obligatory … and ultimately harmless. We don’t say what we mean, and we don’t even mean that much anyway. Most of our experiences with others, Soderbergh appears to be arguing, are nods and shuffles, two people on their own private journeys who happen to brush by each other briefly and then feel relieved that they did the minimum required to survive the experience. The device makes every conversation feel both banal and weirdly honest. Sure, we’re not saying anything. But we’re not killing each other either. We’re all just trying to get through the day, and we wish you well on your voyage to do the same. Our default words may not be meaningful, but in a way, they are meant to comfort, and even to be comforted. Deep down: We are all just being nice. There are far worse defaults.

I have thought about this movie every time I have had some sort of variation on this exchange.

Will: Hey, how’s it going?
Person Will Has Mostly Positive Thoughts Toward But No Particularly Powerful Feelings About One Way or the Other: Good, good. Hanging in.
Will: Keeping busy?
Person: Yeah, can’t complain. Same old, same old.
Will: Nothing wrong with that. Good to see you!
Person: You too!

I have never missed these pleasantly empty conversations more in my life than I do right now. Been a while since someone said “same old, same old, can’t complain.”

***************

The thing about right now is that no one is fine.

I have caught myself, on multiple occasions both online and in-person, asking that default, “How’s it going?” and startling myself, mid-word, by the absurdity of the question. This never-ending moment—yesterday marked the six-month anniversary of the night that the NBA froze its season, Trump sniffled in alarm from the Oval Office and Tom Hanks announced he had COVID-19, March 11, the night I consider the official start of the American experience of this crisis—hits everyone differently, at different times, under different circumstances. Some people are worried about their parents; some people are worried about their children; some people are worried about themselves. The economy is collapsing and no help is coming, the horrible man trailing in a pandemic election is flailing about and willing to do whatever is necessary to hold onto power (and also is starting to look like maybe he was actively trying to hurt people?), the entire American West is on fire, the kids are starting first grade on freaking iPads, there isn’t a decision you can make in your life that everyone you know (and most people you don’t) doesn’t have incredibly strong opinions about that they’re likely to judge you for, for the rest of your life. Everyone’s aging in accelerated time—my hair is going grey right now like Keanu Reeves in Dracula—everyone’s weight is fluctuating, everyone’s just trying to keep their heads above water. Everyone is pedaling as fast as they can, and still getting nowhere.

There’s an old line my mom told me nurses in the emergency room always say to each other when they’re dealing with a particularly difficult family member of a patient: Every day, you’re seeing someone on the worst day of their life. The anniversary of September 11 was Friday—I wrote a couple of years ago about how uncomfortable it is to watch the requisite Never Forget performative social media dances every year, and this year was no different, this year was probably worse—and the trauma everyone went through that day continues to echo through our daily lives still today. But that was a sudden shock that had reverberations that followed, a clear event that you could get your arms around and attempt to deal with. This is a series of rolling blackouts that feel like they’re going to go on forever. Back then you had to try to find a way to recover. Now you’re just hoping that eventually you get the chance. Every day brings a new challenge, for every single person on the planet … and certainly every single person stuck in this country, with these people in charge, right now. We’re all doing our best. But it’s so hard.

But it has, no question, shaken us out of our default interactions. Who has the energy to be blandly pleasant anymore?

Both of my sons are running cross country this fall, the one sport we felt comfortable bringing them back to play in the midst of all this. They had a practice meet the other night, and all the parents, most of whom haven’t seen each other in months, all had masked, socially distanced conversations in a field waiting for the kids to emerge from the woods so we could cheer them on.

What was remarkable about these conversations were how substantial they were. No one was having the empty conversations of the past—finally cooling off, it might rain this weekend, how ‘bout them Dawgs. We were all so eager to talk to someone about all of this, and all so raw and tired, that you couldn’t help but have a meaningful connection with everyone you ran into. One guy, someone I’d met at a party a few years ago and had run out of topics after about 30 seconds of a 15-minute conversation, began to tell me about his ailing mother, and how much he mourned not being able to see her, knowing she’s alone. One woman fretted about the new private religious school she sent her daughter to; she didn’t want her to spend the third grade staring at a computer screen, but she doesn’t have any friends at the new school and Mom'’s not sure she agrees with everything they’re teaching anyway. One guy, one I’m pretty sure had a KEMP sticker on his truck a couple of years ago, loudly berated our president and openly mused about moving to Canada if this goes the wrong way this November. The conversations were all so real. No one had the patience for idle chit-chat. If I’d have asked one of them, “hey, how’s it going?” they would have looked at me as if I’d asked that question at the precise moment they were attacked by a bear. How do you think it’s going?

And I told them my stories too. How could I not? We were all talking too fast, and too openly, and too desperately. And I loved it. I’d needed it. For years, I’d dreaded children’s birthday parties, not because of the children, but because of the parents; the forced conversation, the rote stories, the manufactured “oh that’s wonderful” when the kid gets the same presents every other kid gets at every other party. It wasn’t the other parents’ fault: They didn’t want to be there talking to me either. But the pandemic, the enormity of this moment, has changed the whole calculus of this experience. I wasn’t dreading having to talk to other parents, other humans. I was grateful. I wanted to share this unprecedented life experience with them. And I wanted them to share it with me. Those other parents are different than me, and from each other, in every possible vector: Financially, socially, politically, emotionally. But they’re going through this, right now, just like I am. And we all felt it … and we felt relief at having someone else to share it with. It was a reminder, as divisive and polarized as this moment is, that we really are all, truly, in the purest sense, in this together. Whether we want to be or not. You don’t choose who you’re stranded at sea with. You just all grab an oar and get rowing.

There was no banality to our conversations. There was only urgency. We burned through the pleasantries and got right to the heart of all of our matters. And we’re better off for it. It is so easy to feel isolated at this moment, to feel alone. But we aren’t. Everyone is experiencing this in their own way. But they are experiencing it. Just like you. Reaching out to them, and letting them reach out to you, is the best thing you can do. I went from spending conversations at parties bobbing back and forth on my feet and looking for the bar, to, now, having fevered, yearning heart-to-hearts about everything in the world that’s important to me—with those very same people. This is because of the pandemic. But this is also what it could have always been, before. These connections are always in front of us. We just haven’t been looking.

After Schizopolis, Soderbergh, having gotten his psychic break out of the way, returned to filmmaking with a renewed focus and vision. His next film was Out of Sight, his best film, and he followed that with an incredible run of hits: The Limey, Erin Brockovich, Traffic, Ocean’s Eleven. He needed to have that breakdown, that demolition, so that he could build himself back up. He needed to burn through the banalities and get to the core truth. It is through trauma and strife that we find our true selves. And we find out that the help we needed may have been around us all along.

Right after I send this newsletter, I’m heading out to another of the boys’ cross country meets. I cannot wait. I honestly cannot wait to go.

Here is a numerical breakdown of all the things I wrote this week, in order of what I believe to be their quality.

  1. Is the NFL Really Ready For This? New York. The presumption that the NFL will just power through the pandemic sure feels similar to the presumption that the United States would.

  2. Adam Wainwright, Somehow As Good As Ever, MLB.com. Considering how bad it looked two years ago, every Adam Wainwright start is now a blessing. (Even if last night didn’t quite work out.)

  3. This Week in Genre History: Contagion, SYFY Wire. As you might suspect, watching this movie in this particular moment is quite a trip.

  4. Why Your Team Sucks: Arizona Cardinals, Defector. I was delighted to get to make my annual appearance in Drew Magary’s column this year, now of course at a brand spanking new site.

  5. Leonardo DiCaprio Movies, Ranked and Updated, Vulture. We hadn’t updated this list in a while: He has only made one movie in five years!

  6. How Are All the Free Agents From Last Year Doing So Far? MLB.com. The Nationals kept the wrong free agent. The wrong kid died!

  7. The Thirty: Every Team’s Top Free Agent Next Year, MLB.com. Yadi wouldn’t actually leave, would he?

  8. Playoffs If The Season Ended Today, MLB.com. Just a few more of these left.

PODCASTS

Grierson & Leitch, I saw “Tenet,” but Grierson didn’t. We also discussed “Mulan” and Charlie Kaufman’s “I’m Thinking of Ending Things.”

Waitin' Since Last Saturday, no show, taping next week.

LONG STORY YOU SHOULD READ THIS MORNING … OF THE WEEK

“How We Got Here,” Tom Ley, Defector. The old crew is back, and Tom Ley, the EIC of the new venture, wrote a terrific We’re Back post. It’s about Defector, and Deadspin, but it’s really about how awful digital media has become and how we might crawl our way out of it. You owe it to yourself, and all of us, to subscribe.

ARBITRARY THINGS RANKED, WITHOUT COMMENT, FOR NO PARTICULAR REASON

St. Louis Cardinals Starting Pitchers I Feel Comfortable Will Get My Team a Win That Day at This Exact Moment

  1. Jack Flaherty

  2. Adam Wainwright

  3. Kwang Hyun Kim

  4. Dakota Hudson

  5. Austin Gomber

  6. Johan Oviedo

  7. Carlos Martinez

  8. Daniel Ponce de Leon

ONGOING LETTER-WRITING PROJECT!

Still the highlight of my Mondays: Writing all you people back.

Will Leitch
P.O. Box 48
Athens GA 30603

CURRENTLY LISTENING TO

“Paradise City,” Guns ‘N Roses. My son William has gotten obsessed with this song, in a not entirely dissimilar way that I got obsessed with it when I was 13. “Daddy, I was whispering this song to myself during class the other day,” he told me yesterday. “I love it so much.” Hoping to have a hair metal kid.

Also, this song still rules.

Remember to listen to The Official Will Leitch Newsletter Spotify Playlist, featuring every song ever mentioned in this section.

In honor of the Defector launch, here is a picture of me on the actual day that Deadspin launched, on September 8, 2005. I worked 16 hours and then went to some Gawker Media party where everyone was having more fun than I was. What a time, 2005.

I was never that young, and neither were you.

Be safe, all.

Best,
Will Leitch