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This week, I’ve been accidentally observing Epiphany season by following a strict regimen of anxiety-producing activities. This was not my intention. But if you, too, would like to induce a nice bout of depression-anxiety, I have a proven and effective plan for you.
Naturally, one can begin by attending to this week’s news and dealing with the observances—or nightmarish rehashings?—of events on January 6, 2021. These recollections serve to lay down a nice, thick underlayer of dismay to build on. In fact, I think I might be more traumatized by the whole thing this year than I was last year, primarily because so much has not changed. (See Tim Van Deelen’s post for a helpful top-up if your dismay has somehow faded.)
Next, I managed to choose this week of the year to undergo that humbling procedure your doctor makes you do once you’ve turned 50. You know what I mean—the one that produces a steady revenue stream both for insurance companies and gastroenterologists. Thankfully, the screening revealed that my guts are healthy and normal. However, I also discovered that I would fail miserably as a member of a monastic order. I hate fasting, so I spent the required 24 hours without food whining and pouting (mostly quietly, so as to spare the spouse) and feeling anxious, not about the procedure (that’s easy!) but about the prep process. And indeed, if you ever doubt human depravity, just swallow some of that utterly disgusting potion they make you drink to, uh, clean you out. You will be assured once again, that humans are capable of great evil. On the up side, I did enjoy a very nice, sedation-induced nap during the procedure.
Duly flushed and humiliated, we now move on to the next ingredient in our anxiety cocktail: disaster-centered “entertainment.” Years ago, I read the excellent 2014 novel Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. The premise of the novel is that a global pandemic wipes out 99 percent of the human population in just a few days. You’ve got to hand it to Mandel for coming up with that plot five years ahead of Covid, eh? Great timing, ma’am.
Anyway, the novel moves backward and forward across “Year Zero,” intertwining the stories of survivors who camp out in an airport—in Michigan!—and of others who travel about performing Shakespeare and playing music. Michigan, Shakespeare, and an orchestra—apocalyptic literature formulated just for me!
Well, I was chuffed to discover that Patrick Somerville has created a miniseries based on the novel, with episodes now streaming on HBO Max. I’m nine episodes in, and I can confidently report that the series is totally compelling, beautifully acted, impeccably produced, and, of course, a reliable way to stir up deep unease in the viewer. I would say the show has a similar vibe to Lost, except without the over-the-top shock bombs that Lost liked to lob.
HBO is spooling out Station Eleven in two-episode chunks, probably to avoid overwhelming viewers with terror. As I watch, I keep saying to myself: I don’t remember the novel being quite this dark… Well, it was a simpler time; maybe in my pre-pandemic innocence the darkness simply didn’t register. These days, Station Eleven feels about right: potent doses of slow-release dread.
Now to add something lighter to our mix: a “satirical disaster comedy,” as ScreenRant calls it. I decided to watch the new Netflix release Don’t Look Up while working out on my treadmill. I figured the endorphins might offset the less salutary effects of watching a sardonic romp in which a couple of scientists (from Michigan State!) discover a huge, extinction-causing comet hurtling toward earth, so they struggle to convince the US government and the media that, yes, this is really happening. My clever, endorphin-laced prophylactic plan, however, did not work. After each of the three exercise sessions it took me to get through the movie, I stepped off the treadmill more depressed than when I stepped on.
Don’t Look Up is currently the number 3 most popular Netflix film ever streamed. Even director Adam McKay (whom you might know from Talledega Nights) is surprised by this. The movie is heavy-handed, obvious, and indulgent. No one will wonder for a second who is being satirized by Meryl Streep’s gender-swapped send-up of the former president. No one will miss that the comet is an obvious metaphor for climate change. No one will wonder why the media are caricatured as a bunch of shallow, self-serving sensationalists with no grip on reality and no conscience.
And yet, it is funny. Delicious performances from Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Lawrence, Meryl Streep, Cate Blanchett, Timothée Chalamet, Mark Rylance, Ariana Grande, Tyler Perry, Himesh Patel (what a list, right?) save the movie even if they can’t quite save the planet. The sense that these actors are having a marvelous time together makes the humor work, despite the exaggerated plot and blunt-instrument satire.
I think Danielle Kurtzleben and Glen Weldon of NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour are right in their assessment that the jokes in the movie take easy shots at obvious targets without exploring issues much. In fact, critics in general are not impressed: Rotten Tomatoes critic ratings hover around 55 percent fresh. To other legitimate critical complaints, I would add my observation that, while the movie skewers climate denial, it makes little mention of climate denial’s most egregious engineers: the fossil fuel industry and their puppets in Congress. Instead, the movie aims its poisoned darts at the Oval Office, a compliant military, the media, and a shallow, short-attention-span public. Fair enough targets, but still.
Interestingly, climate geeks have been greeting the movie with deep appreciation. Tragically funny depictions of scientists trying to convey serious information only to be completely stymied by the media circus—this part rings painfully true. Bill McKibben wrote a helpful analysis this week on why the news industry is not well suited to covering something ongoing and maddeningly complex like climate change. He also observed that anyone working on climate knows that “there’s nothing like a publicity tour to educate you about the vacuity of tv news.”
A number of climate folk have been tweeting that they feel seen for the first time (sorry for f-bomb in this one):
And then there’s this sort of tweet:
And this one, about what it would sound like if the US government told the truth. (Warning: full of f-bombs and not for the faint of heart.)
I admit, a few scenes in the movie felt deeply satisfying to me, too. Like the one where a certain president is whumping up a rally crowd, getting them to engage in group comet denial by chanting “Don’t look up!” In the midst of the frenzy, one guy in the crowd actually looks up and sees the comet. Horrified, he starts yelling and pointing: “They lied to us!” The crowd looks up, too, and within seconds they have redirected their ire toward the goober on the podium and… yeah. Heavy-handed, but I felt a wicked sense of relief—for a few seconds anyway.
Actually, my favorite scene in the movie is at the end. Without spoiling the details, let’s just say that things do not turn out well. Not knowing how else to deal with the inevitable, our scientist protagonists and their pals gather around a table in a modest home in Lansing, Michigan, for what could aptly be described as a Eucharistic feast. They murmur that someone ought to say a prayer or something, but none of them know quite how. Timothée Chalamet’s character— the ever-broody Timothée Chalamet, I tell you!—offers to give it a try. He proceeds to deliver perhaps one of the most genuinely decent prayers in all cinema:
So there you have it: my perfect brew of dismay, dread, and dark humor to get that depression-anxiety fully activated—topped off with a model for Prayer at the World’s End.
I can’t think of a single way any of this fits properly with Epiphany, except perhaps for the emphasis on unusual astronomical phenomena. In fact, I think I’ve succeeded in a kind of anti-Epiphany observance. So I suppose my next strategy is to pack my spiritual bags, load up my metaphorical camels, pack up my Timothee Chalamet prayer candles, and find some way to journey back toward the light.