Look at these people, Aren’t they eerie?
Look at this party, Isn’t it dreary?
I’m so glad I came
— Sally, ‘Don’t Look at Me” from Follies (1971)
The Friends set is not crumbling. The Russian dressing colored couch in Central Perk is not in tatters, and the moths haven’t eaten at the corners of its upholstery. The foosball table in Joey and Chandler’s apartment isn’t in pieces. The garish purple paint in Monica’s apartment isn’t wilting and weeping off the walls. Everything is as it was, unmoored by time. Well, except its cast. One by one, they tacitly enter the soundstage, walking through time the supertext of the scene. And with pop up clones of the sets that have traveled across the country, the world, Friends doesn’t exist so much as the ghost of 1990s pop culture and its sweeping influence; it is its mummification.
Inever wrote the essay about my sort of-ex that I had intended to, one that started out drawing the ironic comparison between his flawed communication style and inconsistent articulation of his desires with the fascination he had (which he then shared with me) in the flawed communication style and inconsistent articulation of desire, of the women on the Real Housewives of New York. It was intended to be a poisoned lollipop of a personal essay, a mode I generally avoid, vacillating between the mild transgressions of someone who didn’t know what they wanted, the person who got strung along, and the perhaps unusual pop culture artifact that functioned as the bridge between them. But that essay and its banal details — the improprities of a fuckboi are seldom all that interesting — would have been its own green screen backed, ill-lit framed confessional. It would have been both something truthful and attention seeking, not so much inauthentic as necessarily theatrical, and, had it been published, another invitation to flog oneself publicly. It could have all been a grandiosely told lie, but that would not really have mattered; the only thing that did matter was the impulse to narrativize something like heartbreak into something that was consumable.
There’s little else to do with one’s feelings these days. You feel them and then what? If there’s no one to perform them for, did they ever really happen? The question of whether a performance is still a performance if there’s no one there to watch isn’t new, but the ways in which it’s been inverted (if there’s nothing to watch, did anyone perform?) does feel strikingly of a recent moment, a recent condition.
For a brief moment, as it was both truly brief and momentary, The Real Housewives of New York returned to its quasi-anthropological (or at least by Bravo standards)/Lauren Greenfield-esque roots. In the premiere episode of its 13th season, the reality TV show paused to show us a reality that was beyond the grip of producers and could not be manicured or performed or contrived in the way that many of us reductively understand how reality TV functions. It was just about time and space for a second: the relentless streets of New York on March 1, 2020, everyone going about their lives, walking around, talking, the beautiful symphony of chaos that’s come to be associated with the city. The little card on the bottom left taunted as a piece of painful dramatic irony for the viewers, and in a few seconds, the show cut to October, five months later, New York now a ghost town. We’re still not so far removed from that, even if the city is trying to revive itself and approximate an impossible normalcy. But the juxtaposition between the starkness of a New York alive and kicking and the Chantal Akerman-esque emptiness is still close enough to feel, the transition, the feeling of time and space themselves, still tangible. (And didn’t the pandemic feel horribly contrived in its own way, as if produced by a vindictive god to get the most dramatic reaction shots?)
In Sally’s eyes, as played by Imelda Staunton in the 2017 National Theatre revival of James Goldman and Stephen Sondheim’s musical Follies directed by Dominick Cooke, you can see madness, pain, a dream slipping through her fingers, curdling into nightmare. It’s Sally’s folly in the back part of the show, the ghosts of the past not so much stalking her, her pathetic and unfaithful husband Buddy, her former best friend Phyllis, and the object of her desire Ben, so much as creating a phantasmagoric vaudevillian performance space which forces them to confront their ills. This is “Loveland”, as the hoofers tell us, draped in idyllic, too perfect to be true baby blue lighting, silky curtains, and costumes that uncannily resurrect the past. It’s so much sadder than being deranged because reality is just at the edges.
It seems significant that Sally’s number, quiet and rumbling compared to the vivacious pastiches of everyone else’s, including their former selves, is called a “torch song”. Minimalist where the others’ performances are maximalist, she sits by a vanity, her nightgown, her skin, her hair milky and shimmering in a way it hasn’t since she was a showgirl. She’s starlight, but she’s dying. A flame that’s burned eternal, the blue at its base wavering in the wind but still alight. Imelda Staunton’s rendition of “Losing My Mind” simmers at first until she douses herself in kerosene, her continued, desperate and mad pining for Ben, even when he’s once again spurned her, the ultimate kind of self-immolation.
At a fairly pithy 74-minutes, The New York Times Presents: Framing Britney Spears articulates its desire to be about control even in its runtime. It hurriedly attempts to establish the authorship the pop star had in her early career, even within the confines of a misogynistic industry (“industry” here can mean so much), and the ways in which it was wrenched from her in a litany of ways and from a myriad of sources, interpersonal and institutional. Even the documentary’s title bristles with its thematizing, the star wavering between the agency of self-assured diva and object beneath public, and private, thumb. That early in the film, we see her former assistant, Felicia Culotta, take the cameraperson on a tour of the various records kept behind glass, is indicative of both the obviousness of many of the film’s points and the labyrinthine nostalgia the internet has crafted for such public figures to make even the most cynical viewer quiver with sadness.
The impulse for this film is supposedly rooted in a kind of advocacy on the part of the Times; locked in a decade-plus conservatorship by her father, Jamie Spears, Spears’ safety, work, and full autonomy has come into question by many both reading into her cryptic behavior (primarily online) as well as her subtle public acknowledgment of this growing issue (and the people supporting her) regarding her rights as a mother and, perhaps, worker. With an unusual network of power and money possibly fueling the complicated situation, the film poses itself as a contemporary analog to muckraking, on behalf of a celebrity whose ubiquity made it easy to project onto and thus, moreso, manipulate. The film, however, feels more like yellow journalism.