“Reality is diabolical.” — Ingmar Bergman


Bibi Andersson, Liv Ullmann, Ingmar Bergman

It’s Ingmar Bergman’s birthday today.

I saw Persona in college – while studying acting – and was so intimidated by it I thought, “Okay. I can’t ever watch this again.” I needed courage to feel like I still could give a good performance myself, but watching Bibi and Liv made me realize how high the bar had been set. But you need those high bars. You need to know what great acting looks like, feels like, what it can BE. It helps you go deeper in your own work, it helps you ask better questions, strive harder. Last year was Bergman’s centenary and I did a Bergman binge in chronological order (my brief notes here), watching many films I haven’t seen in years: Summer with Monika, Smiles of a Summer Night, Winter Light, Through a Glass Darkly, The Silence. I know Persona, Wild Strawberries, The Seventh Seal and Cries and Whispers very well. Those are the ones I pop in often. I think Shame might be his best, in all honesty. It has a jagged in-your-face style, unique to him, and appropriate to the material. It’s a truly frightening film. You are not allowed any distance from the events onscreen.

Last year, for the centenary, I wrote and narrated three video-essays for Criterion, about Bergman’s actresses. (One has still to launch: all of this was going on as FilmStruck was vanishing.) But I’m very proud of the work I did with these videos, so go check them out!

Liv Ullmann and Bibi Andersson, Sisters in the Art

The Eerie Intensity of Ingrid Thulin

Bergman went places other directors do not go. Even his “failures” are personal. To those of you not really familiar with him, or intimidated at where to start, I would suggest starting with Wild Strawberries, I think it’s a good entry-point. It has the familiar Bergman themes: mortality, the fear of death, etc. Plus ragingly unhappy couples. But it also has sequences of warmth and joy, making it more accessible (horrible word) than, say, Winter Light. (Being “accessible” is not better than being dense or inaccessible. I prefer unhappy films, so take that into consideration. It was when I got to Bergman’s REALLY dark films that I fell in love with him.)

After Wild Strawberries, I’d suggest moving onto The Seventh Seal (it’s always funnier than I remember), Persona (it lives up to the legend) and then Cries and Whispers, his grand excruciating melodrama drenched in red. Smiles of a Summer Night, Bergman’s first international hit, is an ensemble drama/comedy about infidelity, love and sex. It’s “accessible.” You need to see Shame too. It’s a great war film. Because everything with Bergman is personal, if you don’t like him this could be tough going. But I would say he’s one of those artists that anyone who considers themselves a “film fan” really needs to at least check out. He is so imitated you really should know the source. Even people who haven’t seen The Seventh Seal probably recognize the images of this scene:

Bergman’s more difficult work comes in the early 1960s, before PersonaPersona represented a new phase in his career, it ushered in “the Liv Ullmann years.” But before that came his dauntingly great trilogy – which I’ve heard referred to as “the silence of God trilogy” as well as the “spider trilogy” (shivers): Through a Glass Darkly (starring Harriet Andersson), Winter Light and The Silence (both starring Ingrid Thulin, in one of the greatest one-two-punches in cinema history). If you started out your Bergman journey watching an entry in this trilogy, you might never watch another Bergman film. These films are ruthless, they are unblinking examinations of … portrayals of … the lack of God in our world, the bleak landscape of faithlessness, where there is no hope for anything better, and no release possible. The only release is into madness. These are tough tough films, but ESSENTIAL. Without them, Bergman’s work would not be complete. Very few people go AS FAR into their obsessions as Ingmar Bergman did.


Through a Glass Darkly


Winter Light


The Silence

These three films feature towering performances – by Harriet Andersson (Through a Glass Darkly) and Ingrid Thulin (both Winter Light and The Silence – and she is so radically different in each she makes Meryl Streep look like an amateur playing make-believe. This is not hyperbole. Ingrid Thulin is on a level all her own.)

Criterion Collection has come out with a gigantic box-set, complete with 39 of his films. Yes, the price is high, but when you consider what you will be getting (including some films that have been long unavailable), it’s worth it.

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“He’s one of those actors who knows that his face IS the story.” – Sam Shepard on Harry Dean Stanton

It’s Harry Dean Stanton’s birthday today.

I’m pretty sure my introduction to Harry Dean Stanton – whose birthday it is today – was as Molly Ringwald’s sad dad in Pretty in Pink (he made a huge impression on me). It wouldn’t be long after that – in a fit of Paul Newman obsession – that I saw Cool Hand Luke – realized it was the same guy as the one in Pretty in Pink, and then began a life time of catching up on his capacious body of work. Even he didn’t know how many movies he was in. He worked right up to the end and Lucky – his final film – came out after he died, a clear sign he was already living forever.

Here’s the tribute piece I wrote to Harry Dean Stanton over at Ebert when he died.

I hadn’t seen Lucky when I wrote the tribute, so I’m sad I couldn’t include it, but I did get to write about his performance in Twin Peaks: The Return, especially the astonishing moment where he looks up at the trees. It takes a lifetime to be that relaxed (in front of the camera or anywhere else.)

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Review: National Anthem (2024)

I really liked Luke Gilford’s feature film directorial debut, National Anthem, about queer rodeo riders, a sub-culture he already documented in his photography book of the same name. It’s beautiful. I reviewed for Ebert.

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R.I.P. Shelley Duvall

I wrote about Shelley Duvall on my Substack.

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“I think there is a little of Beckett in everything I have done.” — Monte Hellman

Today is the birthday of the one-of-a-kind American-B-movie-but-also-French-existentialist film director Monte Hellman, who died last year.

For a really good roundup-overview of this iconoclastic American director, check out David Hudson’s “Monte Hellman’s Sly Humor and Existential Dread” over on Criterion – ostensibly a roundup of all of the pieces written about Hellman in the wake of his death last year, but also provides a chronology and background of this outlaw-director who got his start, as so many did, on Roger Corman’s B-movies.

I’ll never be “over” Monte Hellman, and I will never stop being surprised by films like Ride In the Whirwind or The Shooting or the road movie to end all road movies, Two-Lane Blacktop. There is something uncapturable in their sense of existential space, the space fraught with the tension of waiting for some indefinable event that may never come. Hellman was Beckettian in sensibility and outlook.

The month after his death, I wrote a tribute on Monte Hellman for Film Comment.


Monte Hellman and James Taylor during the filming of “Two-Lane Blacktop”.

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“Nothing can prevent me from making films.” — Jafar Panahi

panahi-540x304

It’s his birthday today.

Jafar Panahi should need no introduction, but just in case

Jafar Panahi is an Iranian director with an international reputation, and a daunting list of films, many of which were made under terrible conditions (The White Balloon, The Mirror, The Circle, Offside, Crimson Gold, This Is Not a Film, Taxi, Closed Curtain). Harassed and persecuted for years (Panahi’s films were openly critical of the regime, in particular its barbaric treatment of women), Panahi was finally arrested and imprisoned. Tortured. He went on hunger strike. The situation made international news in 2009/10/11. Released from prison, Panahi was placed on house arrest until the verdict. When the verdict finally came in, it was devastating: 6 years in prison, as well as a 20-year ban on making films. No travel, no interviews. Panahi is in his 50s. This is a lifetime ban.

HOWEVER:

More after the jump.

Continue reading

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Happy Birthday, Thomas Mitchell

Interesting that Thomas Mitchell and Bruce McGill were born on the same day (scroll down). I said in the piece about Bruce McGill that McGill is in “the Thomas Mitchell tradition” and the “Thomas Mitchell tradition” is quickly vanishing from the face of the earth. This is due to multiple factors, but mainly it’s the loss of the character actor tradition. Now of course there are still character actors, but it’s just different now. There’s more work (ironically) but less chance for these people to really shine, unless they’re cast in prestige television that everyone watches. Like Sopranos or Six Feet Under – which didn’t cast glorified hotties overall in smaller roles, but honest to goodness character actors who have been around since the 70s and 80s. People like Thomas Mitchell, back in the Golden Age, would show up in things – often playing variations on a theme – and people would feel comfortable, happy, like he was their uncle up onscreen.

What is striking about Thomas Mitchell is the variety of his roles, the breadth of “people” he had in him! His gift was astonishing, and it never seemed like he was just mimicking someone else. He could be genuinely lovable and also genuinely NOT lovable. Both seemed natural. He could be competent and damn near romantic (Mr. Smith Goes to Washington) and he could be incompetent and eccentric (It’s a Wonderful Life).

He is one of my favorite actors of all time. I’d put him toe to toe with any of the great leading man actors any day of the week. Thomas Mitchell made OTHER people look good. He won an Oscar for his performance in Stagecoach and was nominated in the same category (Best Supporting) for Hurricane. Let’s talk about his other awards. He won the New York Film Critics Circle Best Actor award for Long Voyage Home, and since I am now a member of that illustrious group I feel pride. He was nominated three times for an Emmy, winning once. He also won a Best Actor in a Musical Tony Award, bringing him into the rarified category of people who have won Oscars, Emmys and Tonys. If he came out with an album and it won a Grammy, he’d reach EGOT status.

I was thrilled to pay tribute to him in the March-April 2018 issue of Film Comment, focusing on his terrifying performance in Moontide, definitely one of his lesser-known films, but filled with fascination. Mitchell is truly scary in it and he’s doing so much with it, including playing the gay subtext consciously. He knew exactly where that character was coming from and did not try to hide it. The piece isn’t online, although you can purchase it. It meant a lot to me to pay tribute to him, and put that performance into the context of the rest of his illustrious career. He never really played another role like it.

Well, WE all did.

 
 
Thank you so much for stopping by. If you like what I do, and if you feel inclined to support my work, here’s a link to my Venmo account. And I’ve launched a Substack, Sheila Variations 2.0, if you’d like to subscribe.

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Happy Birthday, Bruce McGill

Bruce McGill is one of those actors who would have fit in perfectly with the old studio system: a first-rate support player, a guy who can do anything: drama, comedy, farce, who can fit into any context. He’s in the rarified Thomas Mitchell tradition. Thomas Mitchell was as good as any A-lister ever was. Better. And so is McGill. He can come from any region of the country. He can be sentimental, he can be sincere, funny, broad. He can be tragic, naturalistic, or stylized. There’s nothing the guy can’t do. He is, like most character actors, a far better actor than most established movie stars, in terms of scope and versatility, and any project he is in is better because of his presence.

I have a special fondness for his performances in two episodes of Quantum Leap, episodes which bookend the series: first and last.

In the final episode of Quantum Leap, McGill plays the bartender who, in a mysterious knowing way, shows that he is the key to the entire experiment. He has been there all along. The way he plays his scenes with Scott Bakula is with just the right amount of kindness mixed with opacity, seasoned with a sort of individualistic tough love, smiling at Bakula’s bafflement, but not cruelly. Never cruelly. He gives his scene partner space to figure it out for himself. It’s a wonderful piece of acting (and just gets better with repeated viewings).

He makes other actors better, just by being in a scene with them.

Al Pacino, in The Insider, does some terrific work, not as self-involved and egomaniacal as some of his more recent performances have been. His movie-star persona fits nicely with Lowell Bergman in The Insider: Pacino can play to his strengths. He is a speech-maker, bombastic, and Pacino does his schtick where he talks quietly and deliberately and then suddenly explodes on one or two words … While I have been tired of that Pacino schtick for a decade or more now, in The Insider it works, it is in service to the story. It is not just Pacino trying to “make something happen in the scene” by being randomly loud and then equally as randomly quiet.

But let me tell you: Nothing Pacino does in The Insider, nothing Russell Crowe does in The Insider, can come close to the power and electricity from Bruce McGill’s one big moment in that courtroom in Mississippi: “Wipe that smirk off your face!

Pacino and Crowe have other concerns. I don’t mean to make an unfair comparison. They carry the picture, they have to modulate and gradate their performances in scene after scene, showing the slow transformations of their two characters. They do stellar jobs. But in a movie such as this, with so many elements, so many different sections, you need power-hitters in the smaller parts. You need someone who can come up big when you need him to. A Big Papi of character actors. In giant ensemble pictures, with mega-watt movie stars in lead roles, it is essential to fill in the second-and-third-tiers with talented and sometimes-anonymous character actors. The old studio system knew this well. The new Hollywood doesn’t always realize this. They have forgotten. Character actors are there to provide reality and depth, to ground the movie stars in a world that we, the audience, can recognize. Character actors look like us. They help us think this story is happening in the real world.

In a film such as The Insider, with so many terrific moments from the lead actors, it is heartening to see how much time and weight is given to these secondary characters. The film is cast brilliantly, and the casting is really WHY the film works. (Any director worth his/her salt knows that 90% of their job is casting well.) The contributions of the three leads – Pacino, Crowe, and Christopher Plummer – are substantial. But without Debi Mazar, Lindsay Crouse, Philip Baker Hall, Colm Feore, and the spectacular Bruce McGill, our beautiful movie stars would be acting in a vacuum.

Bruce McGill’s contributions to a film like The Insider are not, in general, pointed out or celebrated. They are taken for granted. They’re appreciated, but in an invisible way. This is the blessing and the curse of the character actor. McGill wouldn’t be nominated for an Oscar for The Insider. The part is too small. But if you want to see an actor tap into what my acting teacher in college called “the pulse of the playwright”, if you want to see an actor easily illuminate every single thematic element of the movie as a whole – without being didactic or obvious, if you want to see an actor who understands that every element of a film is like a fractal (what is happening in the top tiers has to be happening in the lowest tiers too), if you want to see an actor enter a film and, with only one or two moments, remind us of the stakes, so urgently, so ferociously, that he makes all else pale before him, if you want to see a guy stroll away with the entire picture – watch Bruce McGill in The Insider.

What Bruce McGill doesn’t know about acting probably isn’t worth knowing.

 
 
Thank you so much for stopping by. If you like what I do, and if you feel inclined to support my work, here’s a link to my Venmo account. And I’ve launched a Substack, Sheila Variations 2.0, if you’d like to subscribe.

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“They are holding every Jew in Germany as a hostage. Therefore, we who are not Jews must speak, speak our sorrow and indignation and disgust in so many voices that they will be heard.” — journalist Dorothy Thompson, radio broadcast, 1938


Dorothy Thompson, 1939: testifying in Congress to repeal the Neutrality Act.

American journalist Dorothy Thompson, whose birthday it is today, wangled and manipulated her way into an interview with Adolf Hitler in 1931. Before he even became Chancellor. Thompson had been keeping a close eye on him ever since the “beer hall putsch” in 1923, which launched him into national prominence. He was no longer a “Nobody” (to quote J.P. Stern’s excellent book, Hitler: The Fuhrer and the People – which I just wrote about here).

Thompson was one of the few American journalists – hell, European journalists, ANY journalist – who recognized the threat of him instantly, and devoted her career to warning people about him in her regular radio broadcasts, and devoting columns to him.

Her interview with Hitler is absolutely fascinating, and was published in a 1932 issue of Cosmopolitan. It caused a firestorm of horror and revulsion, as well as envy from other journalists. It was a major SCOOP. Her article was eventually published in book form.

“[Hitler] is formless, almost faceless, a man whose countenance is a caricature, a man whose framework seems cartilaginous, without bones. He is inconsequent and voluble, ill-poised, insecure. He is the very prototype of the Little Man. A lock of lank hair falls over an insignificant and slightly retreating forehead. . . .The nose is large, but badly shaped and without character. His movements are awkward, almost undignified and most un-martial…The eyes alone are notable. Dark gray and hyperthyroid—-they have the peculiar shine which often distinguishes geniuses, alcoholics, and hysterics…There is something irritatingly refined about him. I bet he crooks his little finger when he drinks a cup of tea.” — Dorothy Thompson, “I Saw Hitler”, 1932

She posed as a Red Cross worker and infiltrated the German High Command, getting interviews with high-ranked generals. She peppered Hitler with requests for an interview until finally he granted her one, probably assuming he could snow her because she was a woman. He underestimated her. Her article has generated criticisms that she underestimated him. He seemed like such a nonentity to her, such a Nobody, no way could he do a lot of damage. This criticism seems to me to ignore the deeper psychological insights her interview provided. What she was seeing, what she saw, was a nobody, a Little Man, not a powerful intimidating warrior at all but … a little prissy guy with a bad haircut who put on airs. There have been many many scholars since the 30s who have examined Hitler as a Nobody, a Little Man, an uneducated and easily-swayed nonentity, who had a “revelation” about Germany’s destiny in the trenches of World War I (which AH describes in Mein Kampf), and then set about bringing his “idealistic” prophetic “vision” to completion. This is a deep topic, and goes far beyond the scope of this “birthday post” but what I want to point out is: Thompson didn’t say “I don’t think he can do much damage.” She knew he and his rhetoric were ALREADY damaging: she perceived it earlier than most people did (journalists, anyway: the populations Hitler targeted felt it immediately). Her perception of him as a man prone to “hysterics”, and her perception that his “refinement” was imposed and bogus … it’s a hit piece on his psychology, it’s a hit piece on him PERSONALLY, it’s saying to him: “I see through your facade, you bully.” It’s particularly damning: women, because they have been trained to sit back and let the men do the work, sometimes have deeper insights into men’s behavior, their facades, their bullshit. Men buy each other’s bullshit. Women don’t. A lot of people took Hitler at face value. Thompson refused to. She got up close, saw the Emperor had no clothes, still perceived the dangerous sway he had over Germany, and called it all out. After the article came out, Hitler was, of course, apoplectic.

Thompson was bureau chief in Berlin. She was considered so dangerous she was expelled from Germany, the first foreign journalist to get that “honor.” She came back to America, continuing to sound the alarm, to urge Americans to take the threat seriously. She testified before Congress in 1939, asking them to repeal the Neutrality Act (see photo above).

Also in 1939, a terrible year, maybe the worst in the 20th century, Thompson attended the Nazi rally at Madison Square Garden organized by the German American Bund Society. 20,000 people were there, arm bands ON, Sieg Heils at the ready. Terrifying. An almost forgotten moment in US history.

Dorothy Thompson was there as a journalist. Journalists are supposed to be objective, right? Put their “biases” aside, right? Well, Thompson had different ideas. She saw her job as a truth-teller and she knew the Nazis were dangerous and if the Nazis won millions would die. So she sat there in the press area, and loudly heckled the speakers. She burst out in derisive laughter at their statements. She caused a scene.


At the 1939 Nazi rally at Madison Square Garden: Dorothy Thompson heckles the speakers.

The Nazis around her were so furious at how she was raining on their fascist parade, a ruckus ensued. She kept heckling. The people around her heckled her. The situation was about to spin out of control when the police intervened and escorted Thompson out of the arena. Just like she was expelled from Germany for speaking out. So think about that: in the land of the free and the brave, she was criticized for speaking the truth, too.

She was married to Sinclair Lewis. Her writings on fascism inspired him to write his spooky prophetic novel It Can’t Happen Here (his point being it most certainly CAN happen here). He predicts the kind of man who could swerve America away from democracy. He senses our vulnerabilities, the cracks in our system through which tyranny could slip. And he was right on the money.

Along those prophetic lines, Thompson wrote a fascinating piece for Harper’s Bazaar called “Who Goes Nazi?” – which actually came up here recently in the comments section. In the article, she looks around a hypothetical dinner party filled with a diverse group of Americans, and guesses which ones will “go Nazi” and which ones would be immune. She may be “off” in some of her assessments (if you look at it through today’s current events), but overall she is eerily on target with the kinds of people for whom fascism or tyranny appeals. Democracy is fragile. Liberty is fragile. What can we do to protect it?

This brave smart woman was on the right side of history. To quote reality television “stars”: Thompson wasn’t “here to make friends.” But she was right about the Nazis and she knew she was right. Let’s be like her. In situations where peer pressure acts as a silencer – where consensus is stifling – think WWDTD? (What Would Dorothy Thompson Do?) Journalists especially should ask themselves that question. They should have asked it during 45’s campaign.

Dorothy Thompson is a role model and a hero to me.

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“This is what it is the business of the artist to do. Art is theft, art is armed robbery, art is not pleasing your mother.” — Janet Malcolm

It’s her birthday today. She died in 2021.

No matter the subject, I would read her. If a piece had her byline? I’m clearing the deck to read it. Her books? I started out with The Silent Woman, her book on the challenges of writing about Sylvia Plath, particularly in lieu of the draconian estate, run – Shakespearean-ly – by Ted Hughes’ sister Olwyn. It’s a fascinating and very troubling book about the issues of legacy, of narrative, of who gets to tell whose story, of who “holds” the story, and also the upsetting fact that through all of this melodrama, Sylvia Plath has been “silenced”. Many of Malcolm’s books are about the art of writing itself. She appeared to be quite ambivalent on the subject. Similar to Susan Sontag’s famous ambivalence in re: photography, Malcolm seemed to wonder if writing served any purpose at all. Isn’t it all just lies and deflections? Malcolm’s eye is unsparing. She interviews people, and they crucify themselves by their own words, and also by Malcolm’s perceptions of them.

All writers should read The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes. Her writing was so dominating and so convincing that Malcolm often got into trouble: there were numerous controversies in re: her quotations, her interpretations. On more than one occasion, Malcolm had to produce her original notes in order to prove that such-and-such conversation took place. On more than one occasion, Malcolm could not locate said notes. She was often “in trouble”. Her book on “the Freud archives” is a real banger – and kind of a continuation on her earlier book on Psychiatry: she was fascinated – and repelled – by the whole thing.

Malcolm is probably most well-known for her book The Journalist and the Murderer: her most well-known book and her most brutal. Malcolm was incensed by Joe McGinniss’ best-selling smash-hit “true” crime book Fatal Vision, about family annihilator and Green Beret Jeffrey MacDonald. What angered Malcolm was the trickery McGinniss used in his interviews with MacDonald: McGinniss pretended to be MacDonald’s friend and supporter in order to gain the accused murderer’s trust, he pretended that the book he was writing about the case would be a defense of MacDonald, when in actuality it was going to be an indictment. Very unethical behavior. Malcolm didn’t care about MacDonald’s case, but she went after Joe McGinniss, and she went after him hard. As a writer, she was appalled, and you can feel her emotion in the prose. The book started out as an article, which made a sensation – she went totally against the grain of the almost universal accolades Fatal Vision received – and she elaborated into this short yet fiery polemic. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that Malcolm destroyed McGinniss’ reputation. He never recovered. He’s still defending himself from Malcolm’s assault on his integrity. To Malcolm, McGinniss was just a symptom of a larger issue: Malcolm’s real interest was journalism itself, in the way The Silent Woman is really about the challenges of literary biography. Malcolm was not afraid to go after the entire profession of journalists, calling them ALL out in these unforgettable blazing words:

Every journalist who is not too stupid or full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible. He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people’s vanity, ignorance, or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse.

Malcolm was not “here to make friends.” Malcolm’s book is about ethical behavior and journalistic responsibility. The Journalist and the Murderer was so influential it’s on the curriculum in Journalism programs across the United States.

Malcolm was a tough unsentimental writer and constitutionally resistant to being swept away by emotion or consensus-driven pressure. It’s a great lesson, one I try to take to heart. The pressure to conform is intense. Twitter is a wild exaggeration of what already exists. Try going against the grain on Twitter. It’s just “not done”. There’s a reason I don’t go on there anymore. I haven’t experienced such peer pressure since high school. I never was susceptible to peer pressure, for some reason, but I sure FELT it. Malcolm’s example says: Resist the crowd. Doing this is essential for clarity, and crucial for writers. Don’t concern yourself with the general agreement of The Crowd. The Crowd is so often wrong.

I trusted Malcolm because of her standing-back-ness. What was great was how transparent she was about how she thought, not just WHAT she thought. Her book about Plath is really an investigation into the situation, and her own grappling with what she discovered. She thinks out loud in her writing. At the same time, she was a rigorous researcher (some might wish she were more rigorous and kept better notes, a fair point). And while her writing is crystal-clear, often what she’s doing is leading you down a maze of possibilities, where clarity vanishes (see the Plath book: there are no clear-cut answers there, no one villain, and everyone has a different story).

Janet Malcolm was – and still is – a role model for me as a writer.

I miss coming across a Janet Malcolm byline, in The New Yorker, or in the New York Review of Books, and setting everything aside to dive on in.

 
 
Thank you so much for stopping by. If you like what I do, and if you feel inclined to support my work, here’s a link to my Venmo account. And I’ve launched a Substack, Sheila Variations 2.0, if you’d like to subscribe.

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