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The Atlantic
SNL Skewers Gaslighting … With the Help of Hello Kitty
Earlier this week, Merriam-Webster announced its 2022 word of the year: gaslighting. The dictionary’s selection of the term—defined as “the act or practice of grossly misleading someone, especially for one’s own advantage”—was in part a response to public demand: Searches for gaslighting rose by 1,740 percent over the past 12 months. That interest might reflect the fact that gaslighting describes so much, so efficiently. It emphasizes the emotional consequences of lies, capturing the destabilizing feeling that can set in when someone or something keeps telling you that your perception of reality is wrong.Many recent works of culture have tried to give shape to that feeling. The latest attempt, appropriately, found its articulation through a mouthless cat. Last night’s Saturday Night Live, hosted by Keke Palmer, displayed the show’s usual mix of topical humor (the night’s roastees included Herschel Walker, Mitch McConnell, and Ye) and broad observation. But one sketch, in particular, managed to capture this dizzying political moment by thoroughly conceding to its absurdities. The setting: an employee training at a Sanrio store in New York City. The players: two store managers who were familiarizing four new hires with Sanrio’s “official Hello Kitty story.” Among the facts that the managers insisted on: Hello Kitty is “a human little girl.” She has a boyfriend named Dear Daniel, who actually is a cat. She is in the third grade. She is also, somehow, 48 years old.The sketch was, on its face, a skewering of the ever-expanding Hello Kitty commercial universe, which features many of the clichés of modern marketing: “collabs,” children’s goods sold to adults, ludicrous brand extensions. A good portion of the “facts” the managers shared in the sketch were real claims that Sanrio, Hello Kitty’s parent company, has made: The company really does argue that its flagship bit of IP—whiskered, pointy-eared, and surnamed Kitty—is a human girl. Its website really does insist, earnestly and somewhat militantly, that she was born in the suburbs of London, and that she “lives with her parents and her twin sister Mimmy who is her best friend.”[Read: How Saturday Night Live turned the Big Lie into a big farce]But the real target of the joke is not Hello Kitty herself, thankfully. (A formative ritual of my childhood involved visiting stores’ Hello Kitty sections; the pens and erasers and stationery sets smelled of strawberry and possibility, and I cherished them.) Instead, the satire came at the expense of the managers, played by Cecily Strong and Molly Kearney, who treated their training session as an indoctrination—and who kept insisting, with Kool-Aid-drunk fervor, that the “facts” they were imparting about a fictional feline were inarguable truths. With that upside-down premise, the sketch mocked the speed with which, fandom, today, can turn toxic. It mocked the authors who try to retcon their own canons. And it mocked, above all, the people who think they can retcon reality itself.The sketch aired the day after Elon Musk—a very rich man and a very poor steward of Twitter—advertised new “revelations” about Hunter Biden’s laptop. The “reporting” he teased was neither journalism nor much of a scandal. But, like the Hello Kitty managers, he intimated that he alone had access to the “official” story—that he alone had the authority to determine the facts. The sketch’s two most vocal trainees, played by Palmer and Bowen Yang, captured the emotional stakes of the powerful man’s assumption. Alternately confused and amused and offended, they widened their eyes as more “official facts” were flung their way. They grew even more baffled as the managers revealed that Sanrio’s executives, despite all the details they have claimed for Hello Kitty, have declined to specify her race. (“She has an age, height, pet, and relationship, but she’s raceless?” Yang yells, practically vibrating with confusion.) Their despair was eloquent. When down is up and up is down, it becomes ever more difficult—and exhausting—to stay steady.[Read: Does Dave Chappelle find anything funnier than being canceled?]“Hello Kitty” was a punctuation mark to an episode that suggested how riddled this moment is with category errors. In the cold open, Herschel Walker, played by Kenan Thompson, referred to McConnell as “Mitch McDonalds” and called a revolving door a “merry-go-round,” the mistakes drawing attention to Walker’s woeful miscasting as a politician. Palmer’s monologue culminated in an announcement that she was expecting a child, thus reframing the intimacies of pregnancy as a media event. (“It is bad when people on the internet spread rumors about you, y’all,” she joked, “but it is even worse when they’re correct.”) On “Weekend Update,” Colin Jost discussed “the brain fog of long-haul Kanye”—likening Ye, the human, to Ye, the chronic symptom.A truism of Saturday Night Live, and of satire as a whole, is that its task is made more difficult when a culture already makes fun of itself. There’s a timely logic, then, to SNL’s embrace of absurdity. Gaslighting, before it was applied to American politics, was a term of domestic violence: It emphasized the sense of unreality that can descend when an abuser tries to convince someone that their understanding of the world is mistaken. It is a term of trauma, reclaimed for this political moment—a time of big lies and small, and a time when people who claim authority insist that, though the creature looks like a cat and acts like a cat, she is, in fact, a 48-year-old little girl.
theatlantic.com
‘We Will Never Be Happy’
This is an edition of The Great Game, a newsletter about the 2022 World Cup—and how soccer explains the world. Sign up here.Every now and then, I ask other Argentinians—friends, family, fellow journalists—which World Cup is the first that they remember. Their answers are a reliable reflection of generational differences. Most of my fellow Millennials, for instance, are too young to have experienced the exquisite joy of watching Diego Maradona kiss the trophy in 1986; our formative memory happened 15 years later, when the country’s economy collapsed.In the decades since Maradona’s triumph, watching Argentina play in the tournament has evolved into a kind of national agony. We place a ridiculous degree of hope in the outcome, as though it will erase the economic problems and political corruption that always seem to haunt us.After decades of high inflation, Argentina’s current inflation rate is more than 10 times that of the U.S., and is projected to reach 100 percent before the year’s end. More than 36 percent of the population lives below the poverty line. When asked last month about the government’s plans to address these matters, Labor Minister Kelly Olmos said that Argentina winning the World Cup was a more immediate concern. (She later apologized.)Life is what happens in between World Cups, we say. During the tournament, there is cause for optimism.The players on our national team understand the stakes. Emiliano “Dibu” Martínez tweeted after last Saturday’s win against Mexico that it was easier to play knowing that he had the support of 45 million Argentines behind him. But sometimes, it seems more as though he and his teammates are carrying the weight of an entire country that’s relying on them for some good news, at last.Coach Lionel Scaloni has tried to alleviate his team’s burden. “It’s a football match—I don’t share the feeling that you are playing something more than a game,” he said as his assistant coach openly wept following the Mexico game. Scaloni has become known for reassuring his players that, “win or lose, the sun will rise tomorrow.”But Scaloni’s efforts may be a lost cause. In Argentina, the World Cup is the one month every four years when we are allowed to dream big. The most hard-core of us will watch every single game, no matter how inconsequential it may be.Above all else, international soccer tournaments like the World Cup are what brings my divided country together. When we lose, we collectively mourn. In moments of defeat, it’s become something of a meme among Argentines to tweet “nunca vamos a ser felices”—we will never be happy—in a most tragic tone.We rejoice together, too, gathering to celebrate victories at the obelisk in downtown Buenos Aires. Although I now live in Washington, D.C., that instinct is still within me. When Argentina won the Copa América last year, I marked the occasion the only way I knew how: I went to the Washington Monument in the hope of finding someone else as fanatical as me. Eventually, an Argentinian couple passed by on a scooter, and we chanted together. Perhaps, this World Cup, I will have a reason to repeat the ritual.
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theatlantic.com
The American Soccer Bar Wakes Up
This is an edition of The Great Game, a newsletter about the 2022 World Cup—and how soccer explains the world. Sign up here.When the Polish team captain Robert Lewandowski stole the ball from Abdulelah Al-Malki in last Saturday’s World Cup match between Poland and Saudi Arabia, and went on to score his first goal ever in the tournament, the Poland fans at Cleos Bar and Grill in Chicago erupted in cheers.“Oh, that’s it! That’s it!”“Lewangoalski!”Fans ordered shots to celebrate. It wasn’t yet 9 a.m.Two hours earlier, just before the sun had fully risen, I joined the 20 to 30 soccer fans already settled at the pub’s bar and high-top tables, watching the teams warm up on numerous TV screens as they nursed water, coffee, and Bloody Marys. As one might expect, the early-morning crowd cared deeply about the tournament and their chosen teams. What struck me most was that virtually everyone was either a first- or second-generation American.The world’s game has been infamously slow to come into its own, stateside. But America’s taste for the sport is growing. Regular-season MLS viewership is up 16 percent over last year and, over its past two seasons, the Premier League increased its American audience by an even greater margin. And this World Cup already has one of the largest U.S. audiences in FIFA’s broadcast history—more than 15 million viewers watched the U.S.-England game on November 25.Dedicated soccer bars are nonetheless relatively uncommon in American cities. People come from all over the Chicago area, and beyond, to catch games at Cleos. The pub offers a rare midwestern window into a global sport obsession. It also attracts a breadth of immigrant cultures that infrequently come together in one place. Majed Al Turki and Fawaz Al Wael, a pair of Indiana University students from Saudi Arabia, were there on Saturday morning with rolling suitcases in tow. Following the Saudi team’s triumph over Argentina in one of the biggest upsets of World Cup history, the duo rescheduled their bus tickets back to Bloomington so they could watch their country’s next game among fellow soccer fanatics. Although I was surprised that they were the sole Saudi Arabia supporters in the house, it made sense to find most people rooting for Poland. Illinois accounts for nearly one-third of the total Polish-immigrant population in the entire United States.Greg Gaczoi, one of the many Poland fans I talked with at Cleos, characterized his ilk as “pessimistic, loud, and proud.” The description matched the energy in the bar that morning—arms were thrown in the air after missed shots and fans were yelling at the flatscreens in front of them. But Gaczoi was happy to be watching the game at Cleos, rather than a bar in his native Poland, because of how its crowds reflect the city’s dynamic immigrant mix. The matchup between Poland and Mexico was a perfect case in point: Chicago has one of the largest Mexican populations in the U.S., including more than 200,000 Mexico-born residents.“What’s great is that there’s so many Polish and Mexican people in Chicago that it [created] this incredibly diverse, but weird, dynamic,” Gaczoi said of that match. “Before the game actually happened, there were jokes going on about how the city is going to burn down.”Joanna Szczudlo also watched Poland, her team of choice, play Mexico in a packed—and divided—Cleos. Though she was still lamenting Lewandowski’s saved penalty kick in that game, which was blocked by the goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa, she couldn’t help but cheer for the great play. “If Mexico goes further, it’s kind of like a part of our city is going further,” Szczudlo told me. (On Wednesday, Poland advanced to the next round of matches and Mexico was eliminated.)Alex Lopez, who arrived at Cleos at 9 a.m. to secure a comfortable spot for the afternoon’s Mexico-Argentina match, attributes the swell in support to the diversification of America’s top players. He told me that it finally seems as though the United States team “represents the country we live in—a country built off immigrants.” According to a survey conducted by Morning Consult, soccer’s U.S. fan base is similarly more diverse—and younger—than that of any other American sport.For some, the global element of soccer is part of the game’s appeal. “Seeing the Mexico fans crying in the stands of happiness after Lewandowski missed that free kick is just something you can’t, as a U.S. fan of sports, relate to,” Mark Wojtowicz, a second-generation Polish American who’s cheering for Poland and the U.S, told me. “You might see meathead, drunk college fans crying because they’ve been tailgating since seven in the morning, but not, We saved the free kick. I’m so happy that I’m bawling. That’s what I’m here for, to catch a slice of that.”
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theatlantic.com
Elon Musk and Tucker Carlson Don’t Understand the First Amendment
Last night, Matt Taibbi, an independent journalist, wrote a lengthy Twitter thread he called “THE TWITTER FILES.” The thread purported to expose how Twitter made the decision to dramatically suppress discussion of the contents of a hard drive from Hunter Biden’s laptop. But it inadvertently did something else entirely: It exposed the new Twitter owner Elon Musk’s profound misunderstandings about the First Amendment.Taibbi’s documents provided further evidence demonstrating what Twitter’s critics (including me) have long argued—that the decision to suppress the information was both incoherent and inconsistent. Twitter suppressed the information based on its so-called hacked-materials policy, but the application of that policy was hardly clear in this instance, especially given that the platform had, at the time, just permitted widespread sharing of New York Times stories about Donald Trump’s leaked tax information.I agree with the attorney and election analyst Jeffrey Blehar about Taibbi’s thread. Writing in National Review after last night’s release, Blehar said the thread contained “few, if any, explosive revelations” for those who’ve followed the story closely. But don’t tell that to Musk. He seemed particularly outraged that one of Taibbi’s tweets described how the “Biden team” asked Twitter to delete a series of tweets, including ones that contained nude pictures of Hunter Biden.Responding to a document where a Twitter employee indicated that Twitter had “handled” those posts, Musk tweeted, “If this isn’t a violation of the Constitution’s First Amendment, what is?” He followed up moments later with a slightly longer statement: “Twitter acting by itself to suppress free speech is not a 1st amendment violation, but acting under orders from the government to suppress free speech, with no judicial review, is.”[Read: The far right is getting what it asked for]Last night, on Fox News, Tucker Carlson also picked up the claim about the First Amendment. With characteristic breathless hyperbole, Carlson declared that the documents “show a systemic violation of the First Amendment, the largest example of that in modern history.”Musk and Carlson are both profoundly wrong; the documents released so far show no such thing. In October 2020, when the laptop story broke, Joe Biden was not president. The Democratic National Committee (which also asked for Twitter to review tweets) is not an arm of the government. It’s a private political party. Twitter is not an arm of the government; it is a private company.This matters for a simple but profoundly important reason. The First Amendment regulates government conduct. It does not regulate private actors. The text of the amendment itself says that “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech.” That restraint on Congress has since been extended to apply to the U.S. government at all levels—local, state, and federal.Activists have tried to argue that large social-media companies essentially function as the government, citing a line of cases that treat private parties as government actors when the private parties perform functions that are “traditionally and exclusively governmental.” Examples include running elections, private prisons, and so-called company towns. But, as the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals recently explained, “hosting speech on a private platform … is hardly ‘an activity that only governmental entities have traditionally performed.’” Social-media companies are not the government.This means the First Amendment protects Twitter, the Biden campaign team, and the Democratic National Committee. The “TWITTER FILES” released so far do not describe a violation of the First Amendment. Instead, they detail the exercise of First Amendment rights by independent, private actors.One can certainly agree or disagree with the way in which they exercised those rights. Twitter’s decision to delete pornographic pictures of Hunter Biden was entirely justified and appropriate. Its actions to suppress the New York Post story about Hunter’s laptop were far less defensible. But they were Twitter’s decisions to make, and no amount of misguided rhetoric can transform a Twitter story into a government scandal.The distinction is crucial. Twitter is but one participant in a marketplace of ideas. Twitter couldn’t truly suppress the Hunter Biden–laptop story. Instead, its censorship launched a national debate that’s still not over. It fueled countless stories across the length and breadth of both mainstream and right-wing media. Arguably, Twitter’s suppression gave the laptop story more attention than it otherwise would have received.But if the government were involved, the story would change dramatically. As powerful as Twitter is, it cannot match the reach and strength of the federal government, and if the government does coerce a private company into doing its bidding, then the First Amendment is implicated. But finding coercion is key. The government can ask private corporations to take action without implicating the First Amendment. In fact, Taibbi last night said that Twitter “received” and “honored” deletion requests from the Trump White House.But there’s no evidence of any such coercion (at least so far) in the Hunter Biden story, and unless and until there is, the story of Hunter Biden’s laptop is the story of private individuals making decisions they were entitled to make. It is not the story of a government run amok.
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theatlantic.com
America, the Naive
This is an edition of The Great Game, a newsletter about the 2022 World Cup—and how soccer explains the world. Sign up here.One of Gregg Berhalter’s charms is that he can’t be bothered. Unshaven, attired in the uniform of Team Schlub, he loped along the sideline as if it were still the height of the pandemic and he was enjoying his newfound freedom from showering.Standing in the technical area opposite him was the Dutch coach, Louis van Gaal, looking very much like an uptight high-school principal eager to reprimand Berhalter for his aggressive indifference. Van Gaal is one of the most experienced and meticulous coaches in the game, wise to the ways of tournament soccer and a shrewd pragmatist.As a young man, Berhalter played soccer in Holland, and he has molded his team to classic principles of Dutch soccer—where dominance comes in the form of short passing and players arraying themselves in tidy triangles. For decades, the United States lacked an identity, and Berhalter has imposed one on the team. He’s picked an attractive, aggressive style, which suits the youth and athleticism of his rosters. It’s an aesthetic that has made the U.S. irresistibly likable, even to the eyes of neutrals who have historically sneered at American soccer.Confronting one of the greatest soccer-playing nations on the planet, Berhalter stuck to his principles. He did nothing to bend to his opponent. And for the first 10 minutes of the game, it was exhilarating. The United States attacked without fear, and it supplied the match’s hinge moment, when Christian Pulisic scuffed a shot that the goalkeeper Andries Noppert buried in his arms. What if … what if … what if …Where the United States made no concessions to the Dutch, Louis van Gaal understood how a few tweaks in his team could neutralize his opponent and exploit its weaknesses. All tournament long, the America midfield had been a whirling display of energy and ingenuity. But by tightly marking Yunus Musah, Tyler Adams, and Weston McKennie, the Dutch rendered the American attack inert.Van Gaal also saw how the fullback Antonee Robinson would bombard up the field without sufficient attention to the space he vacated. In the past, Robinson’s pace had allowed him to compensate for the moments he found himself marooned in the wrong part of the pitch. But today, the Dutch brutally picked on him. On each of the three goals, the Dutch ruthlessly exploited Robinson’s tactical indiscipline. Because the dynamic was so apparent to the viewer at home, it became painful to watch. And in the end, the Dutch scored classic team goals, swinging the ball from wingback to wingback, elegantly leaving it for runners arriving late in the box.This iteration of the U.S. men’s team was indeed its most gifted. Many of the components for a team that can go deep in a World Cup are in place—and young players will measurably mature. But the leap in collective quality also revealed the areas where the United States has failed to nurture talent of the caliber to compete with the likes of the Netherlands. For some mysterious reason, the United States hasn’t been able to produce a world-class striker. (My humble suggestion: Recruit this guy.) Our central defenders are lovably gritty, but not quite fast enough to keep up. American success in the 2026 World Cup will hinge on whether talent emerges in those positions. It will also hinge on the tactical evolution of Gregg Berhalter. It’s always fun when a nation’s soccer style channels clichés about the country’s essential identity. (For example: Holland, the nation of Mondrian, landscape painting, and canals, are masters at rearranging space.) The wrap on the United States is that its exuberant faith in its own values makes it hopelessly naive, dangerously idealistic. That’s how the team played today. To take its next step forward, it will have to add a touch of old-world sophistication and realism to its approach, the maturity that comes from being dented and battered.
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theatlantic.com
How Vast Are the Cosmos, Really?
This is an edition of The Wonder Reader, a newsletter in which our editors recommend a set of stories to spark your curiosity and fill you with delight. Sign up here to get it every Saturday morning.There are billions of planets in our galaxy, and billions of galaxies in the observable universe. Those numbers are impossible to picture, but NASA’s newest space telescope is helping us see the universe’s depths in unprecedented detail. Still, there’s one big mystery that humans might never be able to solve: How vast are the cosmos, really, and what do they contain?If humans were to find evidence of life elsewhere in the universe, it would be a scientific marvel, but also an emotional and spiritual one, the physicist Alan Lightman noted in an essay earlier this fall. Our questions would multiply: “Where did we living things come from? Is there some kind of cosmic community?”Lightman explains why life in the universe is likely really, really rare. “We living things are a very special arrangement of atoms and molecules,” he writes. But these questions aren’t just about other planets and galaxies; they’re also about us, here on Earth, and why we may want to believe that our lives and our stories are one of a kind. What follows is a reading list on why things are the way they are—from life on Earth down to creepy coincidences at the coffee shop—and how we deal with the unknowable.The Cosmic Dice Erik Carter / The Atlantic; Getty Life Is an Accident of Space and TimeBy Alan LightmanEven if life existed on every planet that could support it, living matter in the universe would amount to only a few grains of sand in the Gobi Desert. Zoë van Dijk Why Earth’s History Appears So MiraculousBy Peter BrannenThe strange, cosmic reason our evolutionary path will look ever luckier the longer we surviv Hein Nouwens / Shutterstock / Kara Gordon / The Atlantic Coincidences and the Meaning of LifeBy Julie BeckThe surprising chances of our lives can seem like they’re hinting at hidden truths, but they’re really revealing the human mind at work.Still Curious? Don’t be afraid of the multiverse: A scientist gets quizzed on the idea that different realms of the universe have different properties of physics. (From 2018) Shifting beliefs in fate and chance: Ancient dice were often visibly biased, but to gamblers who believed in divine intervention, that might not have mattered. (From 2018) Other Diversions A pocket-size time machine Dolphins might have elite spice tolerance. The mobster who bought his son a hockey team (From 2018) P.S.I’ll leave you with an interesting tidbit from Julie Beck’s article on coincidences: Beck cites research showing that certain personality traits are linked to a greater likelihood of experiencing coincidences. People who self-describe as religious and people who seek meaning, for instance, are especially prone to finding coincidences in their daily lives.(One group that might not see as many coincidences? Residents of the U.K, according to one professor Beck spoke with. “Coincidences never happen to me at all, because I never notice anything,” he said. “I never talk to anybody on trains. If I’m with a stranger, I don’t try to find a connection with them, because I’m English.”)— Isabel
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theatlantic.com
The Truth in a Violent Santa
Sparkly tinsel, fresh-fallen snow, a nutcracker, a Christmas-tree sculpture, a tree-topping star: These are some of the objects used as weapons in the most heartwarming holiday film of the year. Violent Night, the dark comedy that premieres this week, features David Harbour as a Santa Claus who has stopped believing in himself—and who, on Christmas Eve, happens to be on the scene when a group of military-grade thieves takes a wealthy family hostage. Thankfully for the Lightstones, this new version of the jolly old elf knows his way around a war zone. Like John McClane swathed in blood-spattered furs, the St. Nick of Violent Night yippee-ki-yays his way across the Lightstone property, fighting greedy foes at every turn. “Ho, ho, ho-ly shit!” he exclaims gleefully while picking off the people on his “naughty” list.They say that monsters are culture-wide fears cast screenward. Frankenstein’s creation gave shape to panic about technological anarchy; Godzilla’s breath of fire captured the terror of atomic weapons; poltergeists and other formless demons suggest the dangers of a digitizing world. Holiday movies can do the same kind of work, but from the other direction: They reflect what people most fear by making claims about what they most value. It’s a Wonderful Life, premiering in the 1940s, considered both economic and achingly personal depression—and argued that each could be dissolved through the heady warmth of community. Home Alone’s story of a boy abandoned and then lovingly reclaimed by his family arrived during a time when “latchkey kids” were media bogeymen. More recently, an era of loneliness and unpredictability and cynicism has brought the ascendance of the Hallmark-style rom-com: a genre that centralizes love, fetishizes formula, and refuses to apologize for its sugar-sprinkled earnestness.[Read: The mournful heart of It’s a Wonderful Life]How fitting, then, that 2022 has reached into its bag and delivered a Santa who slays. Violent Night’s title is not joking around: Its characters meet their ends by way of burnings, beheadings, grindings, impalings. Its scenes depict the varied viscera of the human body so graphically that they could be taught in medical school. And the agent of all the killing is typically St. Nick himself. Before Santa was merry, the film reveals, he was militant. In a flashback, we see him clad in a metal helmet, wielding a hammer named Skullcrusher, covered in other people’s blood.Made jolly through unclear means, the Santa of the present day blends elfin magic (he’ll tap his nose and whirl up chimneys) with the scars of human war. That fusion differentiates him from other subversive renditions of Claus: The gore here is not an exception to all the seasonal cheer. It is, instead, integral to the film’s definition of holiday spirit. In a moment when violence infuses American politics and culture, here is a Santa whose capabilities as a killer help him believe in himself again.Claus, at the start of the film, is disillusioned and indignant and suffering from a centuries-long case of burnout. We see him trudging from house to house, greeted with gift requests that say CASH and Amazon Prime boxes clustered around Christmas trees. Even the treats people leave for him have lost their flavor. (“Ugh, skim,” he mutters, as he gazes forlornly at a glass of watery milk.) In his despair, he has turned to drinking. He has taken to calling kids “little shits.” He has considered quitting. After a visit to a pub, he boards his sleigh, drunk and hungover at the same time. He swoops across a city skyline, before a glowing moon—and then vomits onto a woman below.The Santa of Violent Night is not transcendent in his magic. He lives in the world, somehow, rather than above it, and is keenly aware of its politics. The guy whose purpose is to deliver presents growls, at one point, “This whole planet runs on greed.” The question that animates his story—and his movie—is not just the familiar Can Santa save Christmas? It’s also Can Santa himself be saved? The violence is a vehicle for those anxieties. Santa is a reluctant warrior—he happens to be at the Lightstones’ home during the attack because he fell asleep in a massage chair—but once he realizes that his fight for Christmas has become literal, he springs into action. A series of theatrical killings ensue. The film is so deeply devoted to gore that even a wide-eyed 7-year-old takes part in it. Trudy Lightstone, played wonderfully by Leah Brady, finds herself in an attic outfitted with potential weapons (ladders, bowling balls, glue, nails). She repurposes them as booby traps. She is inspired by Home Alone, which she has just seen for the first time; her efforts, though, make Kevin McCallister’s sadisms seem quaint. The girl is justified in her brutality, we’re supposed to think, for the same reason that Santa is. The two are defending themselves, and others—but they’re also defending something bigger than themselves. They’re killing people to save Christmas.One way to read all the carnage is as a metaphor made manifest: The culture wars long ago came for the holiday season, and few things express that better than a Santa who merrily defenestrates his foes. But Violent Night sends the same basic message as Elf, Miracle on 34th Street, and A Christmas Story: It insists that the holidays are meaningful not just commercially, but morally. The phrase ’tis the season reflects the hope that, this month, people might be warmer and kinder and happier than they are in every other. It is a form of magical thinking. Violent Night’s hook-kicking Kringle both questions and endorses all of that aspirational holiday cheer. The mastermind of the attack on the Lightstones, played with deadpan panache by John Leguizamo, calls himself Mr. Scrooge. He is greedy and sadistic. But his primary flaw is that he has stopped believing in the magic of Christmas. “Bah humbug, motherfucker,” he growls at one point, referencing multiple holiday classics with one economical line.[Read: 20 movie families to spend your holidays with]And so Violent Night offers up a timely amalgam: It is torture porn that is also a morality play. It is as self-consciously values-oriented as any saccharine holiday film, but it expresses those values through violence. The movie, if you can tolerate all the blood, can be delightful. In spite of itself, though, it traffics in cynicism. It reflects a culture so thoroughly permeated with violence that brutality is becoming one of Americans’ shared idioms. On social media, anger expresses itself through death threats. In the world of flesh and blood, the phrase political violence is becoming redundant. Amid all this, a Santa who finds purpose through weaponized tree-toppers isn’t as rebellious as Violent Night thinks he is. The stereotypical values of the season—love, joy, peace—cannot exist, in this film, without violence to enforce them. Santa, too, is a reflection of his time. And this version of St. Nick, for all his merry heresies, doles out a series of concessions. Yes, there is a Santa Claus, the film whispers, before presenting another beheading. Every age gets the holiday movie it deserves. Ours features a Santa who, having lobbed a grenade at his enemy, hangs around just to watch the explosion.
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theatlantic.com
The Gorgeous, Graphic Nudity of Netflix’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover
Lady Chatterley’s Lover, D. H. Lawrence’s infamous 1928 novel about an upper-class woman’s extramarital affair with her gamekeeper, was considered so obscene that it was banned in multiple countries for years. But as much pleasure as the author took in describing, well, pleasure, he wasn’t distasteful, just bold for his time. When writing clandestine trysts, Lawrence detailed every motion, thrust, and caress with relish. He especially liked equating desire to a flame—a warmth that guided his titular aristocrat out of her ennui. Lady Constance “Connie” Chatterley’s sexual awakening, he wrote, was like a “curious molten thrilling that spread and spread.”Netflix’s adaptation, which started streaming yesterday, takes a different route to illustrating lust. Unlike many previous onscreen versions, this film eschews the soft glow of Lawrence’s words for a more haunting aura. The director Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre drenches her cast in a blue tone, transforming what could have been another titillating period piece into something more mesmerizing. The naked actors often look like figures from a painting—surreal and sumptuous rather than merely erotic. Seen through shaky-cam shots, Connie (played by Emma Corrin) and her paramour, Oliver Mellors (Jack O’Connell), appear as wild, breathless creatures. The film updates the book’s treatment of sex, presenting the act not just a “molten” force, but a miraculous one.[Read: The soft radicalism of erotic fiction]Connie and Oliver, after all, aren’t merely having an illicit fling. When the former arrives at Wragby Hall, the Midlands estate that her husband, Clifford (Matthew Duckett), has just inherited, she’s begun to fall out of love with him and with her privileged life. Clifford is paralyzed from the waist down after being injured in World War I, and he becomes dependent on her not as a wife, but as a nurse and an audience for his egotistical lectures. Their previous fondness is replaced by a brutal, cold intellectualism. Because he needs to produce an heir, Clifford callously suggests that Connie should find a mate to secretly impregnate her. When she protests, he encourages her to think of such a rendezvous as a “trip to the dentist.” In the face of Clifford’s growing cruelty—toward Connie and toward the workers at his coal mines—Connie grows ill and wary. She wanders the dark halls of Wragby like a living ghost, purposeless until she meets Oliver. In Lawrence’s book, her changed relationship with Clifford proves that the mind alone cannot sustain intimacy between a man and a woman. The movie pushes this idea further: Sex becomes necessary for the survival of Connie’s soul.The approach is provocative, and its effect is perhaps akin to that of the novel’s first release: Readers were scandalized by Connie and Oliver’s untamed escapades in the woods, which blurred class lines and challenged England’s postwar, industrialist attitude. De Clermont-Tonnerre understands that the lovers’ behavior and Lawrence’s social commentary no longer spur much pearl-clutching, so instead, she surprises viewers by adding uncanny elements to her most explicit scenes. Gorgeous tableaus of Connie and Oliver having sex against tree trunks and in grassy fields shock for how dreamlike they appear amid the most grounded settings. At times, the score blends scratchy strings with static, a sound more likely to accompany a horror movie than a costume drama. Even the conventional setups—the pair in bed, legs and fingers tangled together—come with an eerie sheen, saturated in shadows.One frame in particular has lingered in my mind, of Connie and Oliver reclining nude atop a bed of moss. The shot is sideways, so that the couple appear to be vertical, with the sky to the left and the ground to the right. As idyllic as the moment is, this world, the film suggests, is off balance—and tragically so. Connie has limited agency despite her station; though she finds escape with Oliver, he’s still her husband’s employee. Their relationship is impossible, given the rules of English society. Frolicking in the forests with flowers in their hair does not make them free.[From the July 1959 issue: Lady Chatterley in America]But the shot also highlights a message in Lawrence’s work that has been clouded by salaciousness in most other adaptations: The stakes are high, not just because of the class boundaries, but also because of the liaison’s postwar setting. A little hope has blossomed—like a verdant blanket of fresh moss—between two people, despite the surrounding hardships. “Ours is essentially a tragic age, so we refuse to take it tragically,” reads the opening line of the novel, an admirable but painful outlook Lawrence attributes to Connie. These characters are caught in an era of transformation; a grief-struck England was becoming even more mechanical and less pastoral, while dealing with high levels of unemployment and debt. Passion, however pure, could risk throwing off the level-headedness needed in such turbulent times. De Clermont-Tonnerre’s film threatens, in some scenes, to become a tad too romantic. Oliver can be coarse and mocking in the book, but in this version, he’s gracious while servicing Connie until she climaxes, making him the ideal object of her affection. Connie, meanwhile, is playful toward her lover from the start, seducing and teasing him; she’s the opposite of the “quiescent” woman Lawrence describes during the characters’ first encounters. Late in the film, as the plot forces Connie and Oliver apart, a friend observes that what has happened between them “is a love story.” The line is overly saccharine and far too on the nose.Still, the otherwise thoughtful adaptation entranced me. Corrin and O’Connell embrace their liberated, sensual characters with a vitality that contrasts magnificently with the film’s moody atmosphere. The blue-hued images force the eye to adjust, to look more closely at the lovemaking, and to find unexpected insights in those enigmatic tones. These scenes are not just hot, but also sublime for the way they portray the characters’ intense yearning. The film captures the subtle arc Lawrence was tracing beneath his “obscene” scenes: Lady Chatterley’s gentle, gradual enlightenment. His working title for the book was Tenderness. It’s only right that his story should be retold with the same delicate touch.
2 d
theatlantic.com