Nora Caplan-Bricker (executive editor): I’ve been thinking about the quietly devastating film Aftersun, directed by Charlotte Wells, ever since I watched it earlier this week. The compulsion to revisit images, replay scenes, feels especially appropriate in this case: The movie starts with the instantly recognizable sound of a VCR player rewinding as the protagonist, Sophie—now an adult—recursively rewatches video footage from a vacation she took as an 11-year-old with her dad. This understated framing device signals the film’s interest in everything that has evaded the camera’s gaze—that hovers, elusive, behind the moments that Sophie keeps returning to.
The enigma Sophie is searching for in these videos is, simply put, her dad, Calum (played exquisitely by Paul Mescal; the young actor who portrays Sophie, Frankie Corio, is also wonderful). If you think that Mescal, who had his break-out performance two years ago as a university-age heart-throb in a Sally Rooney adaptation, seems a bit young to be cast as the parent of a pre-teen, that’s kind of the point: He jokes about the “old” parents of his daughter’s age-mates, but also visibly struggles to live up to his own idea of what a father should be. As the film follows the pair through a few days on the Turkish coast (normally, we gather, Calum lives in London, while Sophie’s home is in Edinburgh with her mom), it captures the tenderness between them—in gorgeous, sometimes wordless scenes washed with the golden glow of summer or the soft lilac light of dusk—as well as the darkness that Calum tries to conceal. After Sophie goes to bed at night, he does Tai Chi, seeking with an excruciating and dancerly grace to banish the cloud that smothers him. That this shadow never falls directly across the camera only makes its presence harder to bear. In one scene, Sophie tries to interview Calum on video (“When you were 11, what did you think you’d be doing now?”), but he makes her stop recording. The viewer watches in the dead mirror of the TV screen as he sits on the bed, facing away from Sophie, and answers one of her questions with a clipped, false cheer.
The film is full of this formally inventive reticence: of camera angles that reach around doors, catch Calum reflected in mirrors, or bore into the back of his neck as he walks away. It withholds, creating in the viewer the very experience that it captures so precisely and painfully—and sending us, like Sophie, poring back over its images of thwarted intimacy, in search of answers they artfully refuse to yield.
David Klion (newsletter editor): A group chat I’m in recently started a weekly film club. Every week, someone takes a turn nominating three films to watch, and we vote on which sounds most interesting, then watch that one and discuss it together. I really recommend doing something like this with your friends. It’s simultaneously a great communal activity and way to discover movies you probably weren’t going watch otherwise.
In the spirit of starting a trend, I want to recommend one of our latest selections, Bob Fosse’s semi-autobiographical 1979 musical All That Jazz, which most of us never would have thought to watch but were blown away by. It’s not a typical musical (not that there’s anything wrong with musicals as a genre, but if they’re not your thing, this isn’t what you’re probably imagining), and no less an authority than Stanley Kubrick called it “[the] best film I think I have ever seen.” It’s a kind of deep dive into the psyche of a successful and charismatic creative who thinks most of what he does is shit and whose lifestyle is rapidly killing him. If that description resonates with you in any way, maybe pitch it to the film club that you formed upon my earlier recommendation.
Dahlia Krutkovich (JC fellow): One of the funnier books I return to every so often is artist Leanne Shapton’s Important Artifacts and Personal Property from the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris, Including Books, Street Fashion, and Jewelry (2009), a graphic novel in the form of an auction catalog detailing items once owned by the titular characters, Lenore and Harold.
Lenore (played in the book’s staged photographs by none other than Sheila Heti) is a recipe developer at The New York Times; Harold (depicted by artist Paul Sahre), about ten years her senior, is a commercial photographer who travels for work several times a year. I can’t say this is the most subversive piece of art I’ve ever enjoyed—in part because the compulsion to continue reading, at first, derives from the gossipy delight of digging into someone else’s conspicuous consumption—but it has made me consider what it means to hold onto the matter of a relationship, even after the associated objects cease to seem like anything but stuff.
The entire narrative of the couple unfolds over a series of about 300 auction lots and their descriptions. We witness, through ephemera, gifts, and trash, how Lenore and Harold got together (“LOT 1006: A pair of movie tickets // A pair of unused tickets to Annie Hall at the Film Forum”), the banal domestic life they lived as a couple (“LOT 1119: Dog salt and pepper shakers // A pair of dachshund salt and pepper shakers. Given by Morris’s mother to Doolan”), and the long dissolution of their relationship (“LOT 1306: A white noise machine // a no. 500 Sleep Sound by Invento white noise machine, kept by Morris . . . Irreparable damage to top and sides, as if struck by a hammer”). Though the drama plays out over the course of several years, the form of auction catalog as fait accompli lends itself to a kind of pessimistic reading: Every time I return to the book, I find myself searching for more clues as to the tensions that tear apart the relationship. As much as Jewish Currents readers might relish the easy materialist analysis the form encourages, Shapton’s text would make anyone contemplate the strange and mundane objects from ex-lovers and friends that they still possess.
Mitch Abidor (contributing writer): I’ve long found the 19th-century French socialist Paul Lafargue admirable for two reasons. The first is his suicide alongside his wife Laura, the daughter of Karl Marx. In his suicide note, Lafargue wrote, “Healthy in body and mind, I end my life before pitiless old age which has taken from me my pleasures and joys one after another; and which has been stripping me of my physical and mental powers, can paralyze my energy and break my will, making me a burden to myself and to others.” No longer able to fully participate in the social struggles that had given his life meaning, he chose to exit the world on his own terms, ending his note with an optimistic declaration that the cause for which he fought would triumph: “Long live Communism! Long live international socialism!”
The other reason for my admiration is his one truly great contribution to socialist thought, his pamphlet The Right to Be Lazy, which was recently published by NYRB Classics in a new, vibrant translation by Alex Andriesse. As a theorist, Lafargue’s ultra-radical line famously inspired his father-in-law to say that if this is Marxism, “je ne suis pas marxiste.” In The Right to Be Lazy, Lafargue takes the socialists and the wider working class to task for valorizing the greatest ill that afflicts them: work. The time has come, he insists, for the proletariat to reject existing morality and thinking and “return to their natural instincts.” “They must proclaim the right of laziness,” he writes, “a hundred times nobler and holier than the Rights of Man cooked up by the philosophizing lawyers of the bourgeois revolution. They must hold themselves to working only three hours at a time, lazing about and feasting the rest of the day and night.”
How will they be able to do this? By supporting mechanization, which reduces the need for manpower and, in the new socialist order, will permit them to spend their time fishing. The death of capitalism will reduce the need to overproduce, making labor superfluous. True socialism is not, for Lafargue, the ultimate sanctification of labor, but rather its gravedigger. (In the end, it was not Marxism but Situationism that followed the path laid out by Marx’s kin, with their call to “Never Work.”)
It’s no surprise that none of what Lafargue imagined has come to pass. Like most Marxist writing, this great book can be classified as science fiction, though actual science fiction (think Jules Verne) has predicted the future far more accurately than, say, anything in the catalog of Verso Books. Still, the fact that things didn’t turn out as Lafargue hoped—that veneration of work remains ubiquitous even among leftists and the drive for consumption, which in Lafargue’s time spared workers, is now the defining feature of all classes—takes nothing away from the cogency, the sparkle, the sheer fun of The Right to Be Lazy.
Lafargue, in his diagnosis of the ills of capitalism, brings a class analysis to the problems that impact every individual. Almost all of us spend our lives busy at something of little use or interest to us. And as he reminds us, there’s nothing revolutionary about a marginal reduction in the workday, unless it’s to virtually zero.