"I ain't foolish because I've done everything right"
Two trips to the multiplex, two interconnected White American myths
This is a post for paid subscribers, but with a decently generous free section before the paywall. If you want to keep reading and are in a position to toss in a few bucks, thanks so much. If not, just send me an email and I’ll comp you, no questions asked. (I’m firstname.lastname@example.org).
I am still calling my Congresswoman and Senators daily, asking them to support a ceasefire in Gaza. I appreciated all the responses I received to last week’s piece, including the notes from Jewish readers who felt that it did not properly acknowledge the continued pain they feel in the wake of Hamas’ attacks (just as I’m grateful for Arab friends and readers for their pushes to continue to speak out for Gazans as the death toll there keeps rising). Thank you, all of you, not just for reading, but for welcoming me into your perspectives and feelings. I hope that gratitude shows up in my writing. This past week, I’ve taken inspiration from both Israeli and Palestinian peace activists in the region, whose steadfastness in calling for a ceasefire in the midst of so much personal pain has regrounded my own small solidarity efforts.
Last month, the top five highest grossing films at the U.S. box office included a pair of movies that I am boycotting for extremely principled reasons (they sound scary and I don’t like being scared) as well as a film about cartoon dogs who provide municipal services. The cartoon dogs all ride in vehicles. Apparently they are superheroes now as well. Great work if you can get it. I will not be writing about any of those films but I am sure that they are all either truly frightening and/or pup-tastic.
Instead, I want to discuss the other two movies on the October top five list, both of which live inside my personal Venn diagram of obsessions: pop music and mid-twentieth-century U.S. racial history. Had two more films been released in October covering my other primary interests (“regional American sandwiches” and “particularly iconoclastic former members of the Milwaukee Bucks”), the old Garrett would not be able to come to the phone, because he would still be writing think pieces.
Two big screen obsessions at once are more than enough to keep me satiated, though. Together these films constituted my Barbenheimer, except that they weren’t actually released on the same day and it took me multiple weeks to finally see both of them, on account of pesky details like “parenting responsibilities” and “trying to actually finish final edits on the book that I am actively encouraging you to pre-order.”
I’m talking, of course, about Killers of the Flower Moon and Taylor Swift: The Eras Tour.
Oh jeez what a fascinating one-two punch.
We’ll get there. But first, some scene setting.
I watched Eras in one of those outdoor malls that re-creates the experience of being in an actual downtown except without any of the elements of a downtown that might distract from commerce. This particular outdoor mall died during the early days of Covid and is slowly coming back. It’s funny to root for a mall, but listen, when you live in a mid-sized Rust Belt city, you root for everybody, malls included.
In total, our group featured four parents, two grandparents, and four children, ages six to ten. And you know what? We Swifted the heck out of that theater. We ate so much popcorn and drank so much fountain pop. We danced in our chairs. We danced in the aisles. We shouted at the screen. We shouted at each other. We got particularly loud during the Red songs, at which point my six-year-old informed me that she wanted to hang out in the arcade. And then, well, there were gaps in my particular Eras viewing experience, but I’m pleased to report that my daughter won multiple rubber ducks from the only claw machine in America that is actually easy to win.
My experience watching Killers was, um, different than that. I went alone, to our city’s grand old movie palace, now repurposed into an art house cinema. It’s called The Oriental and, per its website, it features “design elements borrowed from Indian, Moorish, Islamic, and Byzantine architectural styles,” which is basically an Edward Said footnote in movie theater form. I went on Sunday night, after my kids were in bed. That’s my go-to movie viewing time. It has its pros and cons. I love how empty the theaters are but also I frequently fall asleep.
I stayed awake this past Sunday.
So what did I think of both movies? I mean, I honestly can’t stop thinking about either or them. There are so many layers to each, foremost among them layers of Whiteness. Not just Whiteness in the sense that Taylor Swift is a White woman and Martin Scorsese is a White man, but in how each of them speaks to the broader project of White American myth-making.
Before I go any further, I should make it clear that I will be spoiling both Eras and Killers, which is a funny warning since (a). both films have been out for multiple weeks and (b). one of these films covers real-life events from a century ago and the other is a by-the-book presentation of a concert. Are you surprised to learn that Taylor Swift did in fact perform a number of songs to a crowd of adoring fans? I’m joking, but you’ve been forewarned.