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The joys of Carole Lombard, Zadie Smith, and high-school movies

The joys of Carole Lombard, Zadie Smith, and high-school movies

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Welcome back to The Daily’s Sunday culture edition, in which one Atlantic writer reveals what’s keeping them entertained. Today’s special guest is Jennifer Senior, a staff writer at The Atlantic and the winner of the 2022 Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing. She has written for The Atlantic about one family’s search for meaning in the aftermath of 9/11, the singular heartbreak of adult friendships, and the aunt she barely knew.

Jennifer was stunned by Daniel Radcliffe in the revival of Merrily We Roll Along, knows most of the theme song to Phineas and Ferb by heart, and is a sucker for a movie or TV show about high school—“especially if it involves nerds.”

First, here are three Sunday reads from The Atlantic:

The Culture Survey: Jennifer Senior

The entertainment product my friends are talking about most right now: The revival of Stephen Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along. Jonathan Groff and Lindsay Mendez blew our doors off, which came as no surprise (they’re old pros, practically made of charisma—all that). It was Daniel Radcliffe who stunned everyone, making us forget after maybe 15 seconds that we were staring at Harry Potter and convincing us that we were staring at an angry, long-suffering writer instead. He has impeccable comic timing and a mordant way about him that works painfully (and all too familiarly) well.

The upcoming event I’m most looking forward to: Here We Are, the final and not-quite-complete Sondheim musical, staged posthumously at the Shed.

The television show I’m most enjoying right now: Ramy, which is old, but I never watched it (its secret: It isn’t a comedy), and Never Have I Ever, because I’m a sucker for anything set in high school, especially if it involves nerds. [Related: Ramy meditates on the pitfalls of self-righteousness.]

An actor I would watch in anything: No longer living: Carole Lombard. Still with us: David Strathairn, Wendell Pierce, Sarah Lancashire. (Sorry, that’s four, but c’mon. One actor?)

My favorite blockbuster and favorite art movie: I’m changing the terms and naming my favorite movie in black-and-white and my favorite movie in color, respectively: Ernst Lubitsch’s To Be or Not to Be (see? Carole Lombard!) and Amy Heckerling’s Clueless (see? high school!). Or, okay, fine—any of the first two Godfathers.

Best novel I’ve recently read, and the best work of nonfiction: Fiction: Paul Beatty’s The Sellout. I’m eight years late to it, but now I’m positively evangelical. Nonfiction: Inside Story, which Martin Amis coyly billed as a novel, but isn’t—or isn’t exactly, isn’t consistently, isn’t generally. Like lots of people, I have a love-hate relationship with Amis, who could do magic tricks with words but put them in the mouths of repellent misanthropes. Yet he wrote with real tenderness here, about both his family and his loved ones (Christopher Hitchens in particular—I’m obsessed with their friendship), and he articulated a lot of my own inchoate thoughts about writing. One particularly vindicating remark, which I think explains my overreliance on colons: “Most sentences have a burden, something to impart or get across: put that bit last.” [Related: A world without Martin Amis]

An author I will read anything by: Again: one? Seriously? I’m getting around this problem by naming an author whose works I hope to complete when I retire: Anthony Trollope. (I know. Hopeless. More realistically: Graham Greene.)

A quiet song that I love, and a loud song that I love: “Angel From Montgomery,” Bonnie Raitt’s version (though John Prine’s is also melancholy-beautiful, probably because he wrote it); “Superman,” by R.E.M., which may not be the loudest song, but it’s loud enough, and it’s a great psych-up tune if you play it on full blast.

The last museum or gallery show that I loved: When we were in Spain this spring (which I did in spite of my long COVID; it’s a miracle what steroids can do), I saw the Lucian Freud show at the Thyssen. Freud, Schiele, Bacon—I don’t know why I’m so responsive to their pathos and darkness (a certain frankness, maybe? A willingness to look hard at the unlovely?), but I am.

Something I recently revisited: I am always rereading Kenneth Tynan—not just his criticism and profiles but his diaries. His April 4 entry from 1974 may be my favorite line about writing and productivity of all time: “I have now been working non-start since January.”

My favorite way of wasting time on my phone: The puzzles of The New York Times will be responsible for my undoing. Wordle. Connections. And, of course, the Spelling Bee. When my friend Shaila told me about the “Hints” link, I lost another half hour each day, because now I’m maniacally determined to find every word unless there are, like, 80 of them.

Something delightful introduced to me by a kid in my life: My almost-16-year-old son has long since aged out of it, but Phineas and Ferb is easily as inspired as The Simpsons, which is saying something. I can still sing the theme song in its entirety. “Like maybe / Building a rocket or fighting a mummy / Or climbing up the Eiffel Tower …”

The last debate I had about culture: Me asking my friend Steve Metcalf, one of the hosts of Slate’s Culture Gabfest podcast, to explain all the fuss about Rachel Cusk. I’ve tried and tried and tried to love her, and I can’t. (This wasn’t a debate, I realize, so much as a confession and a cry for help.)

A good recommendation I recently received: The audio version of Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, which features four different readers. Like a radio play you never want to end. Perfect marriage of material and narrators—all sophisticated, witty, capable of speaking in multiple registers.

The last thing that made me cry: See: Merrily We Roll Along. One of the finest works ever about friendship and time, right up there with Wallace Stegner’s Crossing to Safety.

The last thing that made me snort with laughter: Bottoms. Have I mentioned I’m a sucker for any movie or television show about high school?

The Week Ahead

  1. Saltburn, a film by the director Emerald Fennell, follows an Oxford student who spends a dark summer with a classmate, played by Jacob Elordi (in theaters now).
  2. The Fabulist tells the outrageous tale of George Santos—and is written by a Long Island reporter who has been following him since 2019 (on sale Tuesday).
  3. South to Black Power, a documentary featuring the New York Times columnist Charles M. Blow, calls for a “reverse Great Migration” of Black Americans (premieres Tuesday on HBO).


Joaquin Phoenix in “Napoleon”
Apple TV+

An Enjoyable Extravaganza About … Napoleon?

By David Sims

When it comes to battle tactics, Napoleon Bonaparte (as played by Joaquin Phoenix) is very gun forward. There are few conflicts he marches into that don’t involve the firing of many cannons, an instinct befitting his status as an artillery commander in the French military—the organization he quickly transcended to become the leader of his country by the age of 30. But it also mirrors his rash, preening, sometimes awkward charm in Ridley Scott’s new film, Napoleon, a biography that fast-forwards through the major events of Napoleon’s life and presents him as equal parts confident and arrogant, making for a roller coaster of the ego that’s surprisingly full of laughs.

Making a movie about Napoleon is the kind of consuming effort that drives even the greatest filmmakers to ruin. Stanley Kubrick spent half of his career trying to make a Napoleon and never succeeded; the best-regarded biopic remains a 1927 silent epic that runs more than five hours and ends well before Napoleon becomes the ruler of France.

Read the full article.

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Autumn trees in the Canadian Rockies (Adam Gibbs / Natural Landscape Photography Awards)

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Katherine Hu contributed to this newsletter.

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