With HIV, as with Covid, a transformation of the facts did not necessarily mean a transformation of psychology. Human psyches take time to adjust to new realities; fear and trauma have a habit of outlasting our reason; and stigmas, once imposed, can endure. Camus noted how his citizens in The Plague were oddly resistant to the idea that their pestilence was over, even as the numbers of deaths collapsed. Reactions to the good news were “diverse to the point of incoherence.” But for many, “the terrible months they had lived through had taught them prudence,” or imbued them with “a skepticism so thorough that it was now a second nature.” They had become used to their new routines, and the sense of safety they gave. However bizarre it seems, they became attached to their plague experience.
Sullivan is specifically referring to some people’s resistance to going mask-less outdoors despite the latest science condoning it. But his larger point about the stubbornness of human psychology and becoming emotionally attached to the pandemic experience rang very true for me.
Marveling at masks
Not long before lockdown last year, wearing a mask was still liable to be seen as paranoia even as the specter of the pandemic lurched ever closer. Yet now, long after mask mandates went into effect, it’s not wearing a mask that attracts suspicion and consternation—at least in the Chicago area where I live (obviously it’s a different story in other parts of the country).
And that’s one aspect of pandemic life I’ve become not necessarily attached to, but certainly appreciative of. Anytime I go to a store or other indoor public place, I see every person wearing a mask, even young kids, and think, This is pretty cool.
It’s pretty cool that all of us—whether willingly or begrudgingly—are undertaking collective action to benefit the health of our neighbors and nation. Again, whether you see it that way or not is irrelevant; it’s the fact that it’s happening at all and on such a grand, widespread scale that’s a bit of a marvel to me.
It makes me feel a kind of kinship with my fellow countrymen and women, an esprit de corps that makes the frustrations of pandemic life a little more bearable. Or, as Matt Thomas tweeted:
(Notably this tweet was from before we knew COVID transmission was far more likely through air droplets than direct touch, but the sentiment remains valid.)
To be clear, I’d rather not have to wear a mask. Once mask mandates end and the prevailing, science-based wisdom allows for a more normal life, I’ll celebrate with everyone else. But until then, I consider masking up something to embrace as a small but significant action I can take to nudge this plague in the right direction.
(That and getting the vaccine, which I’ve now done.)
“We’re all in this together” started the pandemic as a motivational motto that even yours truly deployed, but over time kinda curdled into a cheap slogan of hackneyed false optimism due to the decided un-togetherness fostered by a very tumultuous 2020. We all haven’t had the same COVID experience.
I’m one of those people for whom there was very little that was negative about it. I didn’t lose my job. I got to and continue to work from home (saving a bunch of money on commute fuel, among other things). I avoided catching COVID, as did my immediate family and friends (knock on wood). And above all I got so much more time with my wife and 2 year old than I would have otherwise, which was a priceless gift.
For those reasons I’ve very much become “attached to the plague experience.” The new routines it generated will be hard to kick. Slowly, as more people get vaccinated and another summer outdoors approaches in relief, maybe a new mindset will take hold. (I for one eagerly await going to a movie theater once I’m past my post-vaccine waiting period.)
My annual top-10 movie lists begin in 2007, so I thought it would be fun to start going backwards from there and create lists for each year retroactively.
First up is 2006, which is now 15 years ago and a notable year for me in several ways: it’s when I graduated high school, went on tour with my band (RIP Ice Cap Fortune), entered college, and started this blog.
I also have a lot of movie-related memories from that year, including:
seeing Brick at my beloved Hilldale Theatre in Madison not long before it closed permanently
going to my first and last midnight screening (Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest)
suffering through some truly awful movies (X-Men: The Last Stand, Superman Returns, Lady in the Water)
But the abiding memory from 2006 was the day I saw five movies in a row.
My mediocre movie marathon
This may be a common occurrence for film festival-goers or professional critics, but for me it was something I did just to see if I could pull it off—both as a tactical feat of avoiding detection by the theater staff and as a moviegoing stunt.
I walked into Marcus Point Cinema in Madison, WI, for a 12pm showing and reemerged into the darkness just before midnight (paying for only one ticket—yes, I was a teenage scofflaw). It’s not the best lineup, but here’s what I saw:
The Pursuit of Happyness
The Nativity Story (an unplanned addition but it fit perfectly between other showings, and my mom joined me with some contraband McDonald’s)
The Good Shepherd (my dad joined me for this one)
I never did this again and would not recommend it. By Blood Diamond my eyes were getting blurry and my butt hurt, so I don’t think I could fully appreciate that or The Good Shepherd. But it was bucket list cross-off and gave me a story to tell on my blog 15 years later.
Anyway, on to the list…
Top 10 of 2006
I suspect this won’t continue to be the case as I move back in time, but I saw almost all of the films in my top 10 in theaters at the time. By then I was an ardent cinephile with a job and a car, so I was able to see a lot of movies. And there were a lot of great ones. Here are my favorites:
Honorable mentions: The Prestige, Borat, Little Miss Sunshine, Idiocracy, Half Nelson, United 93, Marie Antoinette, Shut Up and Sing, Monster House, Old Joy, This Film is Not Yet Rated, Mission: Impossible III
After writing my paean to Boomtown, the cry of the masses rang out from sea to shining sea with a resounding message: “More Boomtown content!!!”
I live to serve.
During my latest rewatch, I took note of the moments that have stuck with me in the almost 20 years since the series debuted. I considered including them in that post but figured I’d give them some space of their own.
This list is, of course, inexhaustive. Though I’d derive much pleasure from an episode-by-episode review of the show, I also want people to read this blog.
There will be spoilers. I include quotes from each moment, but they’re best experienced through the original show in the provided YouTube links.
“I don’t have any prayers, but I do have a story.”
(Episode 1, “Pilot”)
In a scene that bookends the episode, a man is dumping the ashes of his grandson into the Los Angeles River with detectives Joel and Bobby “Fearless” by his side. He asks if either of them have a prayer. “I’m fresh out,” says Joel, for reasons we’ll learn later. But Fearless offers a story—the first of many times he’s good for a wise and timely one—and tells what serves as a riverside eulogy:
There was this wave, way out on the ocean. And he was just racing along having a great time—and just sunlight glinting, spray just flying—until one day he looked ahead, and he saw wave after wave in front of him crashing on the beach, and he got scared. And this older wave in front of him said, “I know exactly what your problem is. You’ve been having so much fun being a wave, that you forgot you’re really just part of the ocean.”
It’s a fitting preamble to a show that follows the perspective of several waves, so to speak, and watches how they blend into a narrative ocean.
“Don’t help the police.”
(Episode 2, “Possession”)
The husband of a dancer at a private club is dead and the cops are questioning the business owner, who refuses to reveal his clientele. Enter Neal McDonough as the razor-sharp deputy district attorney David McNorris in a two-minute scene that sets up so much about him: his charisma, his love of boxing, his tortured relationship with his father, his ruthless cunning. He begins on the ropes, lying to his wife on the phone about his whereabouts, but then comes out swinging—literally and figuratively:
*David punches a wall*
So the favor I’m gonna ask is really quite simple. Don’t help the police. Don’t tell them who was at your party last night. Don’t help them stop a guy from killing his wife. Just don’t. ‘Cause let me tell ya, I’m not in a good mood today, and there is nothing I’d rather do than beat that supercilious look off of your face. You get me?
Needless to say, he got him.
“I just don’t understand how you can let someone go.”
(Episode 11, “Monster’s Brawl”)
Sam Anderson (a.k.a. Bernard from LOST) shines in a guest spot as Scott Dawson, the father of a homeless addict named Bradley who’d been mistakenly considered killed. After talking about his wayward son’s struggles with sobriety and having to let him go emotionally, he overhears Joel wonder aloud how a parent could let their child go and confronts him in an exchange that touches on the joys and anguish of parenthood:
BERNARD: Do you have any children?
JOEL: A boy.
– How old?
– Magic age. You can play catch but you can still chase him and tickle him. You ever just watch him? Without him knowing—just watch him, the back of his head, his hair. You look at that and you just can’t believe it because you never thought you could love somebody so much, or be so loved. OK, now jump forward 20 years, and that same little perfect boy is now a hopeless drunk. You have tried everything you can think of to help him and nothing works. And every time the phone rings you think, This is it, he’s dead. And then one day the call does come, and you come down to a police station and you look at a jacket and you think, My boy died in that jacket. Can you imagine how that feels, detective?
– No sir, I can’t.
– Well, try. You go home to your wife and your little boy, and you try to imagine exactly that.
In another great moment at the end of the episode, Joel shares with Fearless that his wife Kelly, suffering from postpartum depression, had tried to kill herself after their baby died mysteriously (more on this later), which is why Scott’s words had struck him so deeply:
For Bradley’s dad, it’s coming home, hearing the phone ring, and thinking it’s going to be news that his son’s dead. But for me it’s coming home, finding a knife out in the kitchen, thinking I’m going to see Kelly in all that blood again.
Dark, for sure, but also a reminder that people’s motivations and inner battles are often unknowable.
“Will Andrea Little be covering this story?”
(Episode 15, “Storm Watch”)
Officer Ray Heckler is often portrayed as just an affable chatterbox, but he’s also sneakily smart and a reservoir of veteran savvy. That comes in handy during this riveting two-episode arc (along with Episode 14, “Execution”) where a dirty cop in the LAPD facilitates the killing of three fellow officers, and suspects abound. Ray is already tainted by a corruption investigation involving his ex-partner, and McNorris tries to use that as leverage against him to spill on his fellow cops. But Ray has some leverage of his own:
RAY: Oh, I’ll talk. I just gotta ask you a question first. Will Andrea Little be covering this story?
DAVID: How would I know that?
– If she is, I suppose she’ll be banging out the first draft over there at Fulham’s on Eighth. She’s got a back booth reserved there. She’s there all the time—it’s where she writes her stories. And sometimes she’s joined by this guy. Between swapping spit with him and knocking back the Jamesons, it’s a wonder she ever gets anything done. So you do what you gotta do.
– Nice try, Ray. FYI, though, in the future, if you’re going to blackmail someone, make sure you have a little leverage. My marriage is over.
– Oh no, I wouldn’t think of bringing up a tawdry little subject like sex. I’m talking politics! I’m talking about a deputy district attorney wrapping up with a crusading reporter who’s supposed to be covering his office. Not exactly going to help your credibility in certain circles, is it?
Not only does his maneuver keep McNorris at bay, he also got information earlier in the scene that he uses to identify the crooked cop. It’s one of many times in the show that Ray cracks a case, pleasantly surprising his colleagues and viewers.
“You knew it wasn’t my brother.”
(Episode 16, “Fearless”)
In a mirror version of the previous Joel/Fearless scene, Fearless is now the one confessing a secret shame to his partner in an episode that follows his personal reckoning with being a sexual abuse survivor. He was able to track down his abuser and get an opportunity to exact the vengeance he’s long sought, but decides against it. Then Joel arrives:
FEARLESS: I didn’t do it.
JOEL: I know.
– But what if I had?
– You wouldn’t do that.
– But what if I had?
– It’s not who you are.
– But what if I had?
– I brought a shovel. You’re my partner, Fearless. Of all the people I’ve met, I’ve never respected anyone as much as I respect you. If you’d have done it, then he’d have deserved it.
– You knew it wasn’t my brother.
– You knew my wife didn’t break our shower door.
This is an amazing exchange for several reasons. Joel shows up for Fearless in a crucial moment, ready to sacrifice everything for the sake of his colleague and brother-in-arms. Then they mutually confess to the fictions they’d perpetuated with each other out of fear (even for “Fearless”): that it was Fearless’s brother who was sexually abused and that Kelly’s arm cuts were from accidentally breaking the shower door.
It was in the store. There was a father walking with his son. And out of the blue he just bent over and kissed the top of his head. I knew it was innocent, but I couldn’t help but have a moment of suspicion. I mean, I’m cursing myself that I should even question this loving gesture. I guess I’m still a prisoner of something that happened a long time ago.
As someone who loves being affectionate with my son all day, every day, I can only grieve for the people whose instinctual response to such a loving gesture would be poisoned by their traumatic history.
“You don’t have to do this alone.”
(Episode 17, “Blackout”)
Andrea and David began the series in an affair, but by now they’ve drifted so far apart that Andrea is grasping at David while he descends toward rock bottom as a philandering, self-destructive, and reckless alcoholic. With experience as the daughter of an alcoholic and as a savvy reporter, Andrea cuts through David’s bullshit:
ANDREA: David, you don’t have to do this alone. There are people that can help.
DAVID: See, now therein lies the problem. The lie.
– What lie?
– That somehow we’re not alone, that we’ll be somehow there for each other.
– And what’s the truth, David?
– The truth is that we’re born alone and we’re gonna die alone. And sometimes there are these sweet little moments that we have this illusion that we’re connected.
– You just don’t get it, do you? It’s all right there in front of you and you can’t even reach for it. All we have is each other, David. That connection. All the rest—the careers, the homes, the cars, the money—that’s the illusion.
– Can you really see me unfolding chairs in a church basement singing “Kumbaya” with a bunch of drunks?
– No, you’re right. You’re so much better off going on like this…
Season 1 does find David in a better place, heading off to rehab with a newfound humility and gratefulness. (Again, haven’t seen season 2, so don’t know if that stuck…)
“You haven’t read this? You should have.”
(Episode 18, “Lost Child”)
This is the payoff the entire season was building toward, at least in Joel’s arc. He and Kelly are at their psychiatrist’s office after Joel gets tangled in an investigation on the mysterious death of their infant child Emma. They requested a second coroner’s report but haven’t read it, not wanting to confront the awful possibility that Kelly might have inadvertently caused the death while having a bad reaction to sleeping pills.
Joel and Kelly finally lay it out to each other: she thinks she somehow killed the baby; he knows she didn’t because he was watching her that night instead of the baby. Meanwhile, the psychiatrist has been reading the report and delivers the news:
You haven’t read this? You should have. According to this, Emma had a brain aneurysm. It was bound to go off—then, or in grade school, or as a young mother with three children herself. There was nothing you could have done, even if she was in your arms. Your little girl got dealt a bad card, and so did you.
This moment is so cathartic—for Joel and Kelly, but also the viewer, who’s been piecing together this story arc throughout the season. The fact that they’d avoided reading the report out of a fear for what it could reveal illustrates the power of guilt to forestall any attempts at healing and finding closure.
Based on the ongoing series, here are the books, movies, and music my two year old is into recently.
So. Many. Books. We have shelves stuffed with board and picture books in four different rooms of our house, plus a stash of library books, so he’s never lacking literature. Some current favorites: Sandra Boynton’s Pookie series, Tap Tap Bang Bang, There’s a Mouse About the House!, and really anything related to trucks.
So. Much. Music. He’s a big fan of the Super Simple Songs catalog, which introduces him to childhood staples like “BINGO” and “Old McDonald”. But it’s very important to me that he gets exposed to quality music for adults too. The last few weeks we’ve listened and/or danced to pop and rock (The Beatles, Paul Simon, HAIM), soul (Aretha Franklin, Sam Cooke, Ben E. King), classical (Mozart, Haydn, Handel), country/folk (Willie Nelson, Uncle Earl, Joe Pug), hip hop (Jay Z, The Roots), and jazz (Stan Getz, Oscar Peterson). Cue The Onion.
Peppa Pig. Might be my favorite of his things to watch. It’s the go-to for when we (or he) need a break. The delightful British silliness has made me laugh a few times.
Caitie’s Classroom. Part of the aforementioned Super Simple universe, this YouTube show is also very Mister Rogers-esque, with the cheerful Caitie leading crafts, songs, and field trips that he’s learned a lot from already.
(Haven’t done this since before the end-of-year list-o-mania, so check out my favorite books and films of 2020 for a fuller “Media of the Moment” experience.)
Ted Lasso. Throughout the whole 10-episode first season I kept thinking, “How is this show real?” Can’t wait for season two.
Down from Basswood by Lynn Maria Laitala. Went long on this short, wondrous book.
Palm Springs. I love when comedic actors, like Andy Samberg in this instance, stretch into drama. Also love when a movie manages to mix so many genres well—in this case comedy, romance, sci-fi, drama, and even philosophy.
Run. The latest thriller from Aneesh Chaganty (whose debut film Searching was one of my favorites of 2017) puts Sarah Paulson right where she shines, in a role that cloaks a dark edge with a sunny surface. Kudos to her co-star Kiera Allen for an impressive debut.
The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz by Erik Larson. Listened to the audiobook and enjoyed when the British narrator adopted Winston Churchill’s distinctive even-more-British accent when quoting him. Remember to be brief.
The Dig. Like The Splendid and the Vile, a stately story set in World War II Britain that was just OK—though Carey Mulligan and Ralph Fiennes were, as always, the best part of it).
Jimmy Carter: Rock & Roll President. Documentary about the influence of music and musicians on Carter and his 1976 presidential campaign. Had no idea he was best friends with Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson. Perhaps I’ll make him my next presidential biography…
Contagion. Finally dove into this Steven Soderbergh joint that was eerily prescient about pandemic life, though thankfully more extreme than what COVID-19 hath wrought.
Wings. This 1927 silent film was the first winner of the Academy Award for Best Picture (technically “Outstanding Picture”). About 30 minutes too long but strikingly style-forward for its time, as this stunning tracking shot demonstrates.
Ghosts of the Abyss. Went on a Titanic kick a while back and stumbled upon this documentary from James Cameron on his 2001 expedition to the Titanic wreck, which captured some incredible footage.
Only Lovers Left Alive. Between this, Broken Flowers, and Patterson, I have yet to be let down by Jim Jarmusch.
At least once a week something makes me think of Boomtown, one of my favorite TV shows of all time.
Not to be confused with the excellent book Boom Town (my favorite of 2018), Boomtown was a one-season wonder that aired on NBC from 2002-2003 when I was a freshman in high school.
(To be clear, there technically was a second season of six episodes before it was axed, but I’ve never seen it because of everything I heard about how bad it is, and I’d like to preserve the memory of its one beautiful, special season in my heart, thank you very much.)
The show was a Rashomon-esque crime drama set in Los Angeles that told the story of a crime each episode from multiple points of view—primarily the beat cops, detectives, the assistant district attorney, a reporter, and a paramedic. They all interact with the crime and with each other, and through each of their perspectives we learn more and more about the case.
If the Paul Thomas Anderson of Magnolia, the David O. Russell of Three Kings, and the Doug Liman of Go had gotten together to produce a weekly cop show, it would have looked something like this. Out-of-sequence storylines, vertiginous plot twists, imaginative camera effects, clever dialogue—Boomtown had it all, and sometimes too much of it. The best episodes were brilliant television; even the worst usually failed in interesting ways. Its audacity was refreshing, the kind of envelope-pushing we’ve come to expect from cable but is still rare on network TV.
It was written and produced by Graham Yost (Band of Brothers, Speed), who talked about his inspiration for Boomtown coming from researching a battle for Band of Brothers:
Each veteran I talked to described a different battle because that’s all they knew. One of them told me, ‘All you know is the 12 feet around you in battle.’ That’s where the divergent narratives thing came from.
That inspiration also relates to one of the show’s key themes, which is the fungibility of memory. Very often we watch a scene play out the first time, then see it again through another character’s point of view but slightly different than the first time—whether with a modified line reading or a change to sepia or black-and-white. Each iteration cleverly reveals new information for the viewer, in the way that viewpoint’s character learns of it.
The result is that Boomtown is more like a prism than a puzzle. There’s only one way to put together a puzzle, but a prism refracts light into many different colors and directions, changing its appearance as you move it.
To illustrate how a show like this got on network TV at all and why it didn’t last, it helps to understand the television landscape at the time, which Yost talked about:
NBC was the only place that would put that on the air. They were coming from a position of great strength, so they were willing to take a chance. They had kind of put out to the community, “If you’re thinking of taking something to HBO, bring it here first.” Boomtown was perhaps, in retrospect, better suited for HBO or FX. But at that time, HBO had The Wire, and FX had The Shield. So NBC was really the only place for it, and they embraced the Rashomon structure and were excited by that.
But then when the ratings weren’t spectacular, what happens is everyone questions everything. “Maybe that’s the problem. Maybe it’s the music. Maybe it’s this. Maybe it’s that.” And the doubt becomes corrosive.
I’m not a Law & Order junkie or crime show connoisseur, so I can’t tell you how Boomtown compares to its counterparts. But I was blown away by the richness of the characters and smart plot development, both within each episode and stretched across the entire season. And unlike the many shows that take a few episodes (or even a full season) to really hit their stride, Boomtown metaphorically busts down the door right away and keeps up the quality throughout.
This is a credit to Yost and the creative team, for sure, but also to the ensemble. The seven main actors (on the poster at top) were perfectly cast and really hit the sweet spot of being seasoned pros while not being too famous and thus too distracting in their roles. Many shows have a character arc that drags or feels skippable, but the Boomtown gang (mostly) doesn’t let that happen.
Finding the show at the age I did surely made a difference in my admiration for it. As a budding cinephile I strongly responded to its combination of intelligent storytelling and humanist affection for its characters. The occasional action and frequent humor were appealing too, but it’s the small yet profound moments that have stuck with me. The father of an addict lamenting the joys and anguish of parenthood. A riverside eulogy. The reading of an coroner’s report. Even the theme song gives me a warm feeling.
Here’s two quotes I re-encountered while going through my reading notes.
From Lab Girl by Hope Jahren:
My laboratory is like a church because it is where I figure out what I believe. The machines drone a gathering hymn as I enter. I know whom I’ll probably see, and I know how they’ll probably act. I know there’ll be silence; I know there’ll be music, a time to greet my friends, and a time to leave others to their contemplation. There are rituals that I follow, some I understand and some I don’t. Elevated to my best self, I strive to do each task correctly. My lab is a place to go on sacred days, as is a church. On holidays, when the rest of the world is closed, my lab is open. My lab is a refuge and an asylum. It is my retreat from the professional battlefield; it is the place where I coolly examine my wounds and repair my armor. And, just like church, because I grew up in it, it is not something from which I can ever really walk away.
From Underland: A Deep Time Journey by Robert Macfarlane:
My sense is that the search for dark matter has produced an elaborate, delicate edifice of presuppositions, and a network of worship sites, also known as laboratories, all dedicated to the search for an invisible universal entity which refuses to reveal itself. It seems to resemble what we call religion rather more than what we call science.
Thought it’d be fun to start another occasional series, akin to media of the moment and recent views, that will spotlight quotes I’ve gathered in my readings and viewings that struck me for some reason. (See also my quotes tag for posts with longer quotes.)
“You gotta be brave before you can be good.” – Hearts Beat Loud
“It is not enough to have learned, for living is sharing and I must offer what I have for whatever it is worth.” – Louis L’Amour, Education of a Wandering Man
“The real problem of humanity is the following: we have paleolithic emotions, medieval institutions, and godlike technology.” – E.O. Wilson
“A relationship, a feeling, or a glance—it’s the things that don’t fossilize that matter most.” – Claire Cameron, The Last Neaderthal
“Above all the Anthropocene compels us to think forwards in deep time, and to weigh what we will leave behind, as the landscapes we are making now will sink into strata, becoming underlands. What is the history of things to come? What will be our future fossils? As we have amplified our ability to shape the world, so we become more responsible for the long afterlives of that shaping.” – Robert Macfarlane, Underland: A Deep Time Journey
“The time to make your mind up about people is never.” – High Society
“Think lightly of yourself and deeply of the world.” – Miyamoto Musashi
“Only the paradox comes anywhere near to comprehending the fullness of life.” – Carl Jung
“You rarely have time for everything you want in this life, so you need to make choices. And hopefully your choices can come from a deep sense of who you are.” – Fred Rogers
“These are old forces. The magma and the tremors. The famine and the want. The way we love rocks and birds and old boats and brass rings, and the way we survive this world because of the stories we fashion from its shards. We do not just keep and collect things, amass and restore them. We trouble ourselves to repurpose, create, and invent things just to carry, a little easier, those stories we cannot live without.” – A. Kendra Greene, The Museum of Whales You Will Never See
“Time is a language, and it’s the best way to explain how I feel.” – Dawes, “The Way You Laugh”, Nothing is Wrong
“There is an instant drama to an encounter, but remember that beyond the single moment is the long and ornate process of living.” – Craig Childs, The Animal Dialogues