Some thoughts on #Barbenheimer
Also, sorry about the unplanned hiatus!
Warning: flashing gif below
Sorry about the unplanned hiatus, folks—I’ve picked up another gig, and am basically working every day from now until the end of time, which has left me less time to write this newsletter (and my books.) By way of announcement, I’m going to be taking the last two weeks of August for a real hiatus, and will resume service in September.
It’s not that I haven’t been thinking of the newsletter. There are two half-baked drafts rolling around, one about my extremely lukewarm reaction to Martha Wells’ novel Witch King and the perils of taking inspiration from established media properties, and the other about Joseph Mitchell’s Up in the Old Hotel and real estate in New York City. (I know, a real barn-burner.) I’m obviously not writing either of those today. Instead, I want to talk about the movies.
I’m sure you’re aware, thorugh cultural osmosis, of the media phenomenon known as #Barbenheimer. Christopher Nolan’s epic three-hour biopic on the father of the atomic bomb versus Greta Gerwig’s brand tie-in for America’s most-debated cultural export? Opening on the same weekend? Holy culture wars, Batman! Never before have two more different movies squared up against one another, the memes seemed to say. (Except they did—when Nolan’s gritty Batman reboot The Dark Knight took on Mamma Mia! at the box office back in 2008.) I’ve now seen both films. One was a lovingly crafted, beautifully shot, deeply moving meditation on identity which gave grace to its characters and posed provocative questions about vocation and society’s influence on the choices we make.
The other was Oppenheimer.
That’s a little flippant, a little reductive—after all, Oppenheimer’s subject ushered in the atomic era and the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Japanese civilians, not to mention the lasting environmental impact of nuclear tests on the landscape of New Mexico, and Barbie is a plastic toy. The films’ simultaneous release places their subjects on an equal footing, however, and though I can acknowledge the obvious dedication to craft that went into Oppenheimer, I came out of it feeling empty and a little bored. But Barbie moved me, in a way I hadn’t expected to be moved.
When I think about what makes one movie better than another, there are a few things I consider. Much like comparing one book to another, it’s an almost impossible task, if you go into it thinking that one thing is better than another because its form or shape is better. It’s better to think about it like this: which movie is better at being itself? Which meets the expectations set out by its premise?
I had typed out close to a thousand words on Oppenheimer before I lost steam and realized I just didn’t care. It’s a good movie, in its way: perfectly serviceable, hits all the notes a big-budget biopic needs. Cillian Murphy and Robert Downey Jr. will undoubtedly get well-deserved nominations for acting.
I’ve stopped thinking about Oppenheimer, though. I think I’d stopped the day after I saw it, whereas I have not been able to stop thinking about Barbie in nearly twenty hours. Barbie was unexpected. I had no expectations, beyond a frothy, pepto-bismol-pink romp in sky-high heels. I like Greta Gerwig’s work, and I expected to like this.
What I didn’t expect was to be genuinely moved by the plight of a plastic doll. Margot Robbie’s Barbie is “Stereotypical Barbie,” the Barbie Prime of Barbieland. One day she begins to experience doubts and fears, completely contrary to her normal life. She has to venture into the real world to find whatever little girl is playing with her and experiencing these terrible feelings and get her to stop. Straightforward, right?
Yes! And no! Barbie goes on a journey of self-discovery! Ken discovers the patriarchy and brings it back to Barbieland! There is a scene involving the seminal Matchbox20 song “Push” that had me absolutely howling with laughter! I thought about death and vocation and my mother!
I’ve been hammering away at this newsletter for what feels like the entire day. There is so much I’d like to say about both these movies, but I feel like I need to see both again to really make a cogent point. (Additionally, I do want to see Oppenheimer in 70mm iMax, if only for the novelty of it.)
Regardless, see both movies—I know which one I want the directors’ cut of.
WHAT I’M READING
I’m reading Mark Galeoti’s The Vory: Russia’s Super Mafia as research (ahem) for the sequel to Marrying In. It’s a bit dry, but otherwise extremely entertaining and informative. I just finished a bunch of books: the omnibus edition of Neon Yang’s Tensorate series (first two of which I liked a lot), Emily Tesh’s Some Desperate Glory (I am absolutely obsessed with it, and which everyone should read right now if you like scifi) and Adam Gopnik’s latest, The Real Work: On The Mystery of Mastery. Next up? No idea! I am reading American Prometheus: the Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer on my phone and am only on page 108 of 1143, so that’ll take me at least two weeks of commutes to get through.
My first novel, Marrying In, is available for purchase on Kindle, Nook, and Kobo, and is coming soon to iBooks. If you’ve read it, consider leaving a review—that helps me and the book in the long run!
I’m available to hire for freelance editing services on Reedsy. You can find me on social media on Twitter, Instagram, the A Faster No Discord, and now TikTok. If you buy any of the books linked in this newsletter I receive a small commission at no cost to you.