We’ll always love you, but that’s not the point

Subjects discussed: Kyrie Irving, Tenet, Lost, The Avalanches, Substack

As someone who cares a moderate amount about sports, our society’s major obsession with sports is never not bizarre and sometimes even appalling, depending on the story of the day. Sometimes, as a thought experiment, I’ll wonder what it would be like if other industries were covered and discussed with the same admixture of patronizing claims to expertise and breathless escalation of not-so-very-high stakes — if, say, there was a 24/7 cable channel dedicated to music journalism where some handsome, suited, fake-funny reporter sat at a desk and said stuff like, “BREAKING: Animal Collective are weighing the possibility of working with Rick Rubin for their next album” and then a panel of other handsome, suited, fake-funny critics talked at each other about what this meant for AnCo’s sonic direction, legacy, release timetable, pot consumption, etc. A phenomena I love is when superstar NBA reporter Adrian Wojnarowski tweets some news of a truly banal transaction — a bench player on the Charlotte Hornets swapped for a 2024 second-round pick, or something — and within seconds it’s retweeted thousands of times, and the replies fill up with fans speculating about what this means for the 2024 draft or the Hornets bench, when the answer is almost certainly “probably nothing, man.”

There’s nothing wrong with fun, until it crosses over into the grim-jawed joylessness and even literal violence that colors a real percentage of all this, whether it’s the coach of the New York Giants actually vowing he will never “disrespect” the game of football, or some Dodgers fans deciding to beat the shit out of some San Francisco Giants (no relation to New York) fans. The irony of “stick to sports” as a retort to any discussion of politics in the big game was that even if sports didn’t explicitly brush up against politics — like when venal, dumbassed WNBA owner Kelly Loeffler ran for the Senate on an anti-Black Lives Matter platform — pretty much everything you need to gain a surface understanding of American culture might be gleaned from watching ESPN for a week.

While I wasn’t writing this newsletter but working on other projects, I was thinking about Kyrie Irving, the mercurial Brooklyn Nets point guard who, as of draft time, appears to have casually peaced out on his team commitments despite making $34 million to play for a championship contender. I don’t want to bore the non-NBA fan with too much sports talk, but for the uninitiated, Kyrie is a legitimate basketball genius who seems to have a middling interest in playing sports. When the Nets were playing on Tuesday night, Kyrie was instead hopping on a Zoom call for Manhattan District Attorney candidate Tahani Aboushi, along with Cynthia Nixon and Linda Sarsour. While Kyrie isn’t alone among NBA players with a real commitment to social justice and politics, he is fairly unique in that he seems ready to give up on the NBA part, at any moment — again, this despite being a 28-year-old in an ideal team situation making a bunch of money.

Sports media doesn’t really know how to talk about this, partly because Kyrie is moody and standoffish in a way that even the most pro-player fan would struggle to justify (bailing on your teammates is unjustifiable, if we accept that a main part of living in society is by doing right by those around us), and partly because American culture is just generally unequipped to think about a young person who’s reached the zenith of one of the most socially enviable careers alive, and decided “so what?” Part of it’s the money, an unconscionable amount to make, much less during a global pandemic when millions are struggling. But also, sports (to say nothing of America at large) valorize this culture of productivity and effort and grinding that any abstention from this feels entitled. Like, people are really mad that Kyrie is not using all of his God-given talent, even though the end result of that is just “putting a ball in a hole to make some other people rich,” not something inarguably essential like vaccine distribution.

There’s such a narrow range of socially acceptable ways for athletes to behave that someone who transgresses it in a manner that doesn’t seem actively destructive (like the time Latrell Sprewell choked out his coach) still seems too dangerous. Like if an NBA player outright says that playing in the NBA just doesn’t really matter to him given everything else happening in the world… then, shit, how is anyone supposed to just talk about the NBA, whether it’s Wojnarowski or the people in his mentions?

Not to valorize a 28-year-old semi-anonymously hopping onto a Zoom call to listen to someone talk about criminal justice, but that seems like an eminently more reasonable reaction to what’s going on than “pretend Kyrie is doing some real damage to the Nets by not playing.” I would prefer not to is such a devastating counterpoint to the productivity cult that I can’t blame anyone who’s so polite about their lack of interest in showing up, even if he’s leaving Kevin Durant in the lurch. Especially since it’s happening to the Brooklyn Nets, a team born out of a cynical play for real estate with few diehard fans — a team for which I have attended games consequential (the 2013 playoff run) and not (a meaningless December 2019 game) with no perceptible difference in audience interest besides “I’m at a basketball game, I’m having a good time.” As it should be, in a world that isn’t majorly obsessed with sports. So who could blame Kyrie for being appropriately checked out?

In the last few weeks I started and stopped a couple of Substack drafts that sort of went nowhere, in between those assignments I mentioned, my self-directed disappointment at not writing more accelerated by the news of all these monied deals handed out to writers, contingent upon their posting all of the time. Some weekly newsletters are justifiable — subscribe to Discontents, folks — but speaking personally as someone whose bent is “here’s some stuff I thought about,” I found it hard to commit since I did not recently receive six figures to leave my job and make that my brand. But also, money aside, I took umbrage with the idea that the only way to make this platform work is by grinding your ass off, by wringing hundreds of words out of every spare thought when that directive is rarely conducive to good or even interesting writing. (Ask anyone who ever made a living from blogging, when that was still possible.)

A few weeks ago my girlfriend and I watched Tenet, a movie I spent several months making fun of — the typical self-seriousness of the trailer, the selfishness of Nolan’s insistence on debuting in theaters during a pandemic, the revelation that the protagonist is named Protagonist, etc. — but was mildly humbled to genuinely enjoy. In particular I enjoyed the lead performance of John David Washington, the aforementioned Protagonist, who’s unlike any of Nolan’s lead actors — the standard for which is Christian Bale, with his affectless delivery and stony face absent all the charisma he’s displayed in other movies. Typically, those lead actors don’t do much besides facilitate the plot. Nolan is an irritatingly restless director; stuff is always happening, rarely are we allowed a respite from the relentless machinations of narrative, never does his camera linger on a sight or character and allow us to imagine thoughts and emotions that haven’t been mercilessly telegraphed by the dialogue.

Tenet does not deviate from that. The characters are always walking and talking, and I will not insult you by trying to tease out the winding logic of the film’s time travel plot device, a logic that I believe even the Reddit nerds have chalked up to “well, it just happens like this.” But Washington manages to inject his intentionally flat character — again, his name is Protagonist — with the slightest personality, making him feel like a human amidst all this stoic architecture. He’s confident, but not unrealistically competent; funny, but not aggravatingly quippy; poised, but like us, frequently baffled by what’s going on. One sequence has him sitting down with the wife of an arms dealer, and attempting to pose as someone he’s not in order to tease out information, but right away the ruse is blown. Almost immediately, he adjusts to get what he needs. He’s in over his head, as one might be when working out the mechanics of time travel in order to stop World War III, but he’s making do.

Partly this dynamic sticks out because Washington is, notably, Nolan’s first Black protagonist, and in particular a Black protagonist navigating what we might call a traditionally white world, as far as action movies are concerned: European arms dealers, shadowy government organizations, tax havens for art billionaires, gorgeous blonde women with secrets. Inasmuch as people clamor for a Black James Bond, here Nolan has actually done it, an observation noted by many others. In BlackKkKlansman, Washington also played a Black man navigating a white world, someone who was frequently in over his head but managed to keep his sense of humor, which is basically what happens in Tenet: He constantly gives the impression that everything he’s experiencing is a tad ridiculous, but never goes the Whedon-esque route of quipping “Time travel? Really?” to distract from his discomfort. The world may often be a tad absurd, but not taking it seriously has devastating ramifications, and “really?” is ultimately the pose of someone who is not up to the task — no surprise it became a beloved SNL bit during the Bush years. From interviews, it sounds like Washington shaded in most of his character, and if you don’t enjoy marijuana, paying attention to how he does it is possibly the best reason to watch Tenet at all.

We’ve also been rewatching Lost, because on another lazy Sunday stuck inside we were struck with banal nostalgia for the hatch and the bear and the incident, all things we’ve re-experienced in the last few weeks with Proustian recollection. I suspect that all hemming and hawwing about “the conversation” i.e. “why aren’t people talking more about this” is permanently constricted by the myopia of our own experience, and that most stuff doesn’t get “memory holed” so much as “consigned to the neglected vault containing most of our experiences.” But also, Lost has been somewhat memory holed, largely because the creators botched the ending and the “good television” it helped inspire ended up being much better, or at least shorter. Would you recommend someone watch 28 episodes of The Leftovers, knowing they might be disappointed, or 121 episodes of Lost, knowing they’ll definitely be disappointed?

I imagine we might give up somewhere halfway through, once many of the original mysteries are answered and we recall which ones are forgotten forever. Three episodes into season two, we remembered that Walt — whose latent psychic abilities and complicated relationship with his father Michael make him one of the show’s best characters — is all but written out for good beyond some MacGuffining of “we have to find Walt!!!” alongside the main story, and they just… never… explain what’s up with him, unless you want to Google it. Sorry, pass. But Lost is still very fun, especially when you watch it with another person and can recreate that mid-’00s water cooler culture where “what’s with the hatch?????” animated literally millions of morning conversations at schools, dorms, workplaces. While we ultimately already remember what’s with the hatch, beyond the finer plot details we also talk about the performances, the writing, the cultural reference points like the fact everyone, and I mean everyone, is wearing bootcut jeans.

One element I’ve also been talking about is the performance of Daniel Dae Kim as Jin, who first we know as a Korean guy who’s mean to his wife, and later as an unqualified sweetie. Despite having cheekbones you could cut the grass with, Kim is shunted into one of those sexless Asian guy roles we’ve all read about, and despite having grown up on the East Coast, he’s only allowed to speak Korean for maybe the first 20 episodes. Eventually Jin starts learning English, but watching it from the present, I couldn’t stop cackling once I remembered that soon enough, this stupidly handsome, naturally charming, fluent-in-English Korean man would be walking around saying “Michael” with a thick accent. I mean, this was 2004, not the ’60s. It’s like when you remember that 15-20 years ago, sports pundits were allowed to be outright racist about Black quarterbacks, which was deeply wack then but still permissible within the broader sports culture.

Kim has said in interviews that while he trusted the show’s creators, he worried that if Lost was cancelled early on then all we’d know of Jin was this obvious stereotype. Like literally every single Asian-American actor dating back to the invention of film, he had to weigh personal opportunity against broader responsibility to the diaspora, then hope he wouldn’t end up humiliating himself and his ancestors. As interesting as Jin becomes, I wondered what it would’ve been like if Daniel Dae-Kim could’ve played an Asian-American like himself, or even someone whose character doesn’t exist as a referendum on decades of Asian representation in popular culture. Josh Holloway didn’t have to wonder if he was perpetuating cultural attitudes about unshaven grifters, you know. Lost cast a demographically wide net to gesture at the broadness of the human experience as found on your average commercial flight — the ex-musician junkie, the doctor with a savior complex, the Black father trying to reconnect to his son, etc. — and it’s still the Asian guy who starts out as a trope. (To be fair, there’s also Maggie Grace as a dumb blonde.)

There’s nothing to this line of thought besides “what if?” since I do not intend to author one of those hectoring Twitter threads that begins, “Y’all, we have to talk about Jin in Lost (1/93).” But this is what you think about, when you have the benefit of hindsight. As Tenet was wrapping up I facetiously remarked to my girlfriend that Nolan had finally completed the (very deep voice) Time Trilogy, given the subject matter of Inception and Interstellar. Then something strange happened: After the movie was over, I kept on imagining that my actions were running in reverse, per Tenet’s hastily explored logic: I walked into my bedroom to grab my phone charger, but was it not possible I was actually exiting my bedroom having just plugged in my phone charger…? Stupid, I know, and maybe it was the edible (obviously it was the edible, but bear with me) but it took a while to shake that feeling. It happened during a year that’s shed all fidelity to temporal normalcy, as I, and millions of others, have looped the same behavior for so long that it becomes difficult to remember when exactly anything happened, a point I’ve made before that just keeps on being true.

And here I am, dipping back into the past to watch Lost with modern eyes, wondering how we’ll think about Kyrie in 15 years when he’s retired and the cultural importance of sports has possibly dimmed, as it slowly but surely is now if we go by TV ratings and ticket sales, and tomorrow’s content writers are coming up with essays titled “Revisiting an NBA Player’s Unprecedented Protest” though of course right now it seems like it’s not a big deal. (Assuming Western civilization hasn’t collapsed in 15 years, but don’t force me to be pessimistic.) Living in the present is crucially important, but remembering the timeline on which life plays out is what got me through quarantine, especially now that we’re into 2021 and I look back at 2020 and think, “Wow, after March I just did not see anyone in a normal way besides my girlfriend.” Nine months of a year, swallowed up into “it happened.” Soon, it’ll be March again.

Last month, the Avalanches released a new record called We Will Always Love You, which I listened to on loop to as I made my (extremely short) routines around the neighborhood. I was never a gigantic fan beyond “hey, I like this song” but this new one really did it for me — the ongoing way they layer past and present, juxtaposing the fresh and old to suggest this is all happening at the same time. The title track, for example, makes subtle lyrical references to their 2000 debut album, the lead vocal is handled by Blood Orange, there’s a fairly blatant sample of the Roches’ “Hammond Song” in the middle, and the total effect felt as though I was listening to some extraterrestrial radio station from the year 2500, when the events of my life and my parents’ lives and my parents’ parents’ lives have also flattened into “it happened.”

We Will Always Love You was released mid-December, too late to make any year-end lists, which feels appropriate — an album whose remembrance will be contingent on people remembering it, not because it was declared important at the time. “Our new record is about such journeys, from darkness to light,” the band said in a statement about this song, which I just looked up right now. “About life after (all kinds of) death. About the transcendent nature of music itself. Every voice ever played on the radio over the last 100 years now exists in the stars; the transmissions of these singers are forever floating around out there, lost in the cosmos, endlessly travelling. … Those spirits are out there. We are each a tune, floating in space.” I don’t have more to add.