Sunday, May 29, 2022


Until 2010, the Texan psychologist BrenĂ© Brown was an obscure professor, working in what academic researchers call “the field of shame”. Then she gave a Ted Talk called “The Power of Vulnerability,” which became one of the five most-viewed Ted Talks of all time. She’s published six books since then, all of them best-sellers. Her latest, Atlas of the Heart, came out last year. Now she’s made a five-part docuseries of the same name, which is currently streaming on Binge. 

Self-help is a fantastically lucrative industry. According to Forbes magazine, Americans spend more than $US10 billion a year on self-improvement paraphernalia. Brown is one of the genre’s rising stars, and the blurb for her series suggests she’s invented a radical new form of entertainment: the binge-worthy “interactive” TV show that’s also thoroughly good for you. 

Actually, there’s nothing very groundbreaking about the format of Brown’s show. She stands on a stage in front of a studio audience and imparts the lessons of her book, using slides and movie clips to illustrate her points. There’s a lot of talk about “relatable learnings” and going on journeys together. There’s a lot of thanking each other for sharing ... [READ MORE]

Depp v. Heard

I can’t claim to know everything there is to know about the Depp v. Heard case. But I know enough to know that I wish I knew less. When you stopped watching it long enough to start thinking about it, the trial was a terribly sad affair. Johnny Depp and Amber Heard might be glamorous movie stars, but they’re also real human beings. In court, they were obliged to revisit some of the most painful and exquisitely private moments of their lives. 

Given that there was a lawsuit in progress, these private matters were undoubtedly the jury’s business. My news feed kept telling me they were my business too. They weren’t, but my news feed was insistent ... [READ MORE]

Wednesday, May 4, 2022

Bob Dylan: Overrated

Let’s begin with some clarifications. When I say Bob Dylan is over-rated, I’m not saying he’s no good at all. That would be an absurd claim. I’m not even saying I dislike his work. Some of my favourite songs are Dylan songs.

Nor do I doubt that Dylan’s influence has been profound. From Joni Mitchell to Bruce Springsteen, all the great singer-songwriters have hailed him as a pioneer. 

If people were content to praise Dylan for his actual merits, I’d have no beef. What irks me is that Dylan stands at the epicentre of a tenacious mass delusion, which causes its victims to see qualities in his work that aren’t really there ... [READ MORE]

Monday, April 18, 2022

David Foster Wallace

It was a dark day for literature when David Foster Wallace took his own life in 2008, at the age of 46. Wallace was hands-down the most talented American writer of his generation. Arguably he was one of the most striking and original prose stylists of the past century. And yet he’s never really been a household name, unless you live in an unusually highbrow household. He had enormous gifts, but an equally enormous propensity to get in his own way. Maybe that’s why America’s Wallace industry has been busier since his death than it was during his life. The man himself is no longer around to impose his artistic standards, which were both fanatically strict and strangely self-sabotaging ... [READ MORE]

Thursday, April 7, 2022

The Dropout

What is it about con artists that fascinates us? Right now our entertainment platforms are crammed with shows about real-life mountebanks and charlatans. 

On Netflix alone you have documentaries like The Tinder Swindler and The Puppet Master – both dealing with loathsome male grifters – and Bad Vegan, about a meat-hesitant female fraudster. There’s also the rambling mini-series Inventing Anna, which dramatises the exploits of the faux heiress Anna Sorokin.

And now on Disney+ there is The Dropout, starring Amanda Seyfried as the enigmatic Elizabeth Holmes, founder of the dodgy biotech start-up Theranos. Once feted as America’s first self-made female billionaire, Holmes was recently convicted of defrauding investors out of hundreds of millions of dollars. When she’s sentenced later this year, she’ll face a maximum penalty of 20 years’ imprisonment.

The Dropout aims to “humanise” Holmes, which is easier said than done ... [READ MORE] 

Monday, February 28, 2022

The Batman

The advance word about Matt Reeves’s The Batman suggested the world was in for a pretty odd reboot. The film’s running time would be three hours. The hero would be played by the lugubrious Englishman Robert Pattinson, who revealed, in an interview, that The Batman was “a sad movie”, and that his character was “kind of a weirdo”, whom the writers had partly modelled on Kurt Cobain. 

As it turns out, Reeves’s movie is indeed odd. But it’s odd in an unsettling and haunting way. If American democracy continues its slide into decadence, future historians may well point to this film as a kind of watershed or omen: an ailing bat in the coal mine. After four years of Trump and two of Covid, even Batman seems ready to throw in the sponge. Surely a culture must be in terminal strife, when even its fictional superheroes can barely see the point of going on ... [READ MORE]

Monday, January 17, 2022

The Art of Clickbait

It’s not easy to say universally true things about the Internet. As our online experience becomes increasingly customised, increasingly tailored to our personal preferences and vices, it’s getting harder and harder to be confident that your version of the Internet will necessarily resemble mine. 

For example, is your online news feed as full of clickbait headlines as mine is? Or is mine so full of clickbait because the algorithm has worked out, correctly, that I can’t stop clicking on the stuff?

If I had no source of news besides my so-called news feed, I’d be able to tell you almost nothing important about what’s been going on in the world. On the other hand, I’ve become a big authority on the inane and the irrelevant. I can tell you who threw shade at Johnny Depp last week. I can tell you who called out Kanye.

And I can tell you a few secrets about the dark art of clickbaiting ... [READ MORE]