Thursday, November 10, 2016

Social Media Habits, and How the Coen Brothers Saved Election Night

For some reason I feel compelled to explain why this post exists. I’ll keep it brief. A week before the election, I went cold turkey on Facebook and Twitter. I realized that, like the rest of the country, I was going insane, and social media was only accelerating the process. I was checking Twitter constantly for updates and new polling numbers, mainlining everyone else’s fears and hopes at the same time. Conversely, I’d stop by Facebook for a break from the news – Post some photos of your damn cats! – only to get sucked back into the maelstrom.

It finally dawned on me that this was part of the problem.

Time for a sabbatical. I still read the news, but in concentrated doses. (Do the republic and yourself a favor: subscribe to a newspaper. Journalism is important enough to pay for.) By election night I felt calmer, I was sleeping better, and once out of the echo chamber I’d unintentionally built I was even somewhat prepared for the eventual outcome. I also discovered I wasn’t in any hurry to get back to my old habits.

I’ve made some resolutions for the coming years. If anything I’m going to spend more time in bars, because what we all need to do now is talk directly to friends and strangers alike in a congenial atmosphere. Engagement must be the order of the day. (Here’s a segment from WNYC’s The Leonard Lopate Show about the role of the bar as community meeting place on Election Night, featuring the terrific New York Times Magazine writer/bartender Rosie Schaap.)

And I’m going to reduce my social media presence for my own peace of mind. Not eliminate it; the pull’s too strong, and I know how essential it is for promotion. (Did I mention that Rosie Schaap blurbed my book Down The Hatch?) While I am going to scale back, I do still have an overwhelming urge to shoot my mouth off. So I plan on posting here again – I’m aiming for once a week, maybe Thursdays – with recommendations and updates. Why not start with how I spent election night?

No way was I watching returns on television. I gave up TV news, especially the cable variety, a while ago. Instead I tracked the results online and entered the brave new world in the company of Joel and Ethan Coen, who never let me down. I rewatched a trio of their titles that seemed unusually apt, given the circumstances.

Burn After Reading (2008). I have irrational affection for what’s often viewed as a “lesser” Coen film. When it came out, I glibly told people it was about how the United States ended up going to war in Iraq. I never developed the theory in detail; it just felt true to me. This was the Coen movie I thought of the most during the election cycle. Pretty much every character is a self-absorbed idiot, by turns entitled and aggrieved. Empathy ends at their fingertips. They obsess over their own problems and assume the worst about everyone else. The only decent person to be found lacks all conviction, and naturally ends up meeting the cruelest fate.

Plus you have Frances McDormand, looking a little like Hillary Clinton, sobbing about having to build a firewall. So yeah, 2016 in a nutshell.

Miller’s Crossing (1990). The angry man behind the desk is a Coen motif. Sooner or later, their protagonists always have to square off against one. Crossing doubles down on the theme. Gabriel Byrne’s Tom Reagan stands before two such desks – Albert Finney’s and Jon Polito’s – as both advisor and adversary. There are valuable lessons here for the next few years. In a harsh and unpredictable world, the only way to win is to play the long game, even if it means keeping your true motives hidden.

Hail, Caesar! (2016). Fourth viewing of their latest movie. I don’t think it’s a minor work. I think it’s a dense, unconventionally structured masterpiece. (My pal Ethan Iverson likes it, too.) The “man behind the desk” evolves in the Coens’ films – when the figure appears in Burn After Reading in the form of J.K. Simmons’ CIA chief, he’s as befuddled as everyone else – and it’s strangely moving that in Caesar, they’ve finally made him their hero. All you can hope for is that, like Josh Brolin’s Eddie Mannix, he has a soul and is trying in his own way to do the right thing. Slapping some sense into wayward movie star Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), he says, “You’re going to do it because the picture has worth, and you have worth if you serve the picture, and you’re never going to forget that again.” Finding something larger than you and serving it. Good advice for the week.