For the past four years, the cacophonous American presidency has seemed to drown out quieter, more harmonious human endeavors, which is to say all human endeavors.
When was the last time that an album or movie or novel stayed top of mind for more than an hour? The last movie I saw in a theater, just before they all closed in March 2020, was Kelly Reichardt's First Cow. Set almost entirely in 1820, the film chronicles the friendship of prospectors in the Oregon Territory, shy baker Cookie and resourceful killer King-Lu, who together set up shop selling biscuits made with milk stolen from a rich man's cow, whose udders they drain under cover of night. It's strange as hell. It also has soul-stirring silent passages, and loose or dead ends, and plot turns without exposition. It's about as far from the bleat of partisan cable news as a pastured cow is from Godzilla. But I forgot it the second I emerged from the theater into a night almost audibly buzzing with anxiety and pathogens. My mind had slipped off cultural works this way since 2016. I leafed through novels, watched Netflix as escapism, and determined not to let any sensory-emotional experience get its hooks too deep in me. Why? The government swamped my circuitry, I guess; there was also activism, journalism, the shielding of the kids, the management of fear, the tempering of hope.
But now I'm ready to look back. And so I watched First Cow again, which is why it's fresh in my mind, and then I went back to other works: a short story, a movie, a play, and a stand-up performance. As Daveed Diggs' Thomas Jefferson put it in Hamilton: “What'd I miss?” Easy: the details. Or maybe: the whole experience. For example, I dimly remember admiring “Cat Person” by Kristen Roupenian, which appeared in The New Yorker in December 2017. But it evaporated from memory with the presidential inauguration a few weeks later. Until I reread it, I retained only the last word—“Whore”—and maybe that it centered on a vexed, slow-burn romance. Relishing it just now, I was struck by how precisely Roupenian captures the cadences of an affair conducted over SMS, including the studied use of emoji as an ambiguous placeholder. Even the heart-eyes emoji can be a dodge.
Maybe, she thought, her texting “lol r u serious” had hurt him. That's the train of thought of Margot, the heroine, while with Robert in person. She can't see or hear embodied Robert because of the intrusion of this other, ethereal relationship between their two phones. And because Margot can't see Robert, she mentally writes over his studied negging, designating it “hurt,” which strikes her as sexy. By the time the push-pull between the two of them slackens, and Robert with nothing left to lose texts her that final word, reality comes to reside only in text messages. Life seems only a simulation of phone-on-phone intimacy.
Another artifact I missed in its full glory is Parasite, directed by Bong Joon-ho. Having won the Oscar for Best Picture of 2019, Parasite didn't exactly fly below the radar. But at the time I watched it as a diversion from American life and politics, not as a masterwork sure to outlast breaking news. It will. Parasite begins as a class comedy about the picturesque ingenuity of a poor family of hustlers in Seoul, and then shockingly becomes a slasher flick. It seems more like an assault on the sensibility of the Academy Awards than a capitulation to it.
A neck-snapping backward fall down a set of stairs becomes a reproof to anyone who was in this thing for the offbeat laughs at South Korean folkways. And then it's blow after blow until all pieties about class and Korea and the West seem to be slashed to ribbons at a rich child's al fresco birthday party, where the film's climactic bloodbath is set.
Fairview, a Pulitzer-winning 2018 play by Jackie Sibblies Drury, also pulls off whiplash. Holy shit. I remembered being viscerally thrown by the play when I saw it that year in a small Manhattan theater, but only by watching bits and pieces of it on YouTube, and reading the script, did I get the full effect. Like Parasite, Fairview starts out sweet and whimsical, essentially a Black sitcom, before sharply changing course; the second act serves to subvert and undermine the first one, and to satirize the audience's programmed response to the opening. At the start, I laughed heartily at jokes that might have featured in The Jeffersons, taking comfort in knowing Drury is Black, and thus wouldn't resort to racialized clichés. Oh, but she had.
In the second act, white characters offer commentary on the first, and then a half-reenactment of it, but aslant, as if a starry-eyed tribute band in uncanny semi-blackface. A white woman imagines she's, by rights, a sexy Black torch singer in Montreux. Another white woman dreams of usurping a Black mother she sees as too religious by raising her daughter with would-be “progressive” values. A young white man does his best to emulate a caricatured Black man, rapping in basketball attire.
All of this made white people in the audience observably uncomfortable. But that was nothing compared to the agony of having one character break the fourth wall and fully segregate the audience by race, inviting everyone who considered themselves white to come on stage, while performing the rest of the play for Black viewers only. By pulling off this feat of intellectual derring-do better than any essay or lecture, Fairview set a sky-high bar for the inquiry into white supremacy that came two summers later.
And then there's Nanette. The same year that Fairview was first produced, 2018, Hannah Gadsby's Nanette came to Netflix. Its structure—an opening act that's pleasantly paced like a sitcom followed by a scathing critique—is so like Fairview that they might be companion pieces. In Nanette, Gadsby first jokes about herself, and in particular herself as a lesbian, playing self-savagery for laughs.
Then she retells some of the first act's stories, teasing out the horror in them. At last she renounces feminine self-effacement altogether as the obsequious valet to patriarchal effacement. If everyone is erasing women, including women themselves, the job gets done. Nanette, which started out so courteously, ends up an enraged call to arms.
In retrospect, the first acts of these works—Margot and Robert's SMS repartee, the sitcoms of Parasite and Fairview, and the endearing self-hatred of Hannah Gadsby's performance—all seem as gentle as the Obama years. Misogyny and white supremacy were elegantly repressed, sublimated, compartmentalized, and the arc of history seemed to bend toward … well, you know the rest.
The arc of history meets a surface-to-air missile in the second acts of these works, just as it did in the United States. When the curtain falls, we're left with false starts and dead ends and the promise of King-Lu in First Cow: “We'll tell our stories later.” There's no clear trajectory for history, just as there's anything but clarity now, as the credits roll on 2020 and the new year could hold just about anything.
This article appears in the December/January 2020/2021 issue. Subscribe now.