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I Can Whistle With That: What the Stories of 2018 Show Us About Responding to Despair

First Reformed (2018) | art by Brianna Ashby
illustration by Brianna Ashby

I think quite a lot—probably more than anyone would consider healthy—about one late night 25 years ago. I think about being 7 years old, sitting alone at the foot of my childhood bed, holding in my lap a collage frame that bore photos of my parents, my sister, grandparents, aunts and uncles. And I think about being suddenly gripped by a realization that I would be unable to shake for two and a half decades: one day, all of these people are going to die. And so am I.

I thought about that night more often than ever in 2018. It’s felt so present again, that painful awareness of my own impermanence that I’ve carried around like a virus. It’s all been so near at hand as I’ve felt my mental and emotional systems taxed by the effort of balancing two irreconcilable facts: the future is coming. And it’s harder than ever to avoid being terrified of what that future is going to look like.

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In the lead-up to its premiere in the midnight block on Adult Swim in May 2018, Joe Pera Talks With You was pitched as a genially ironic riff on the Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood school of educational programming. And while the nine (mostly) 11-minute episodes that comprise the first season do deliver the information promised by titles like “Joe Pera Shows You Iron” and “Joe Pera Shows You How to Dance,” each successive episode burrows deeper, plumbing some profound, if gently absurdist, facet of the human experience according to one self-described “soft-handed choir teacher” from Michigan’s upper peninsula.

In the second episode, Joe explores breakfast options at the local family restaurant, where he encounters his neighbors, the Melskys. Patriarch Mike offers to demonstrate for Joe his obsessively particular formula for The Perfect Egg Bite, “the trick of getting all the flavors [of your breakfast] and the unbroken yolk into your mouth.” Mike has specifications for toast density, amount of butter; most crucially, if the yolk on the over easy sunny side up egg is broken, the experience is ruined.

Beneath the comedy of Mike’s consuming passion for this ritual—the scene is scored by a passionately emotional piano melody that would be more appropriate for the rousing speech at the climax of an inspirational sports movie; before Mike takes his bite, he tells his wife he loves her as though he’s about to attempt a perilous ski jump—lies a seed of universality. Each of us has similar fixations, simultaneously insignificant and essential, that provide a framework for our lives. My first sip of coffee has to fall within a narrow temperature window, or the morning is a bust; if my wife doesn’t get one of the four good ellipticals at the gym, her day will never recover. In a world increasingly defined by chaos and confusion, we rely on these small comforts, even as their larger existential significance may be hard to fully articulate. When Mike’s yolk breaks and he howls, “I need a win!” it’s very clear: this was about more than just a good bite of breakfast.

Joe Pera Talks With You is an inventory and a celebration of these minor essentials in our lives. Joe teaches us how to prepare a warm apple on the grill; he shows us his treasured collection of antique sheet music; an acquaintance demonstrates his hobby of setting up complex domino displays (a habit that upsets Joe, because “once they’re falling, you’re watching potential disappear before your eyes”). In the third episode—”Joe Pera Takes You on a Fall Drive”—Joe’s avuncular best friend Gene explains that every task we undertake, from carving a jack-o-lantern to cooking a meal, involves giving over a portion of our soul; our daily efforts are meaningful, because (at least by Gene’s reckoning) they are quite literally a part of us. And so the best way to balance the scales, to regain the portion of our soul we’ve depleted, is to reward ourselves with a favorite activity—Gene suggests taking a Carnival cruise or watching a music video.

As I came to recognize how devoted this show is to small good things, it became entwined in my head with “A Small Good Thing,” Raymond Carver’s 1983 short story that culminates in a couple, reeling from the sudden and brutal death of their young son, suffering an emotional collapse in the kitchen of a bakery, where they’re soothed by the baker’s offering of hot coffee and warm rolls—“a small good thing in a time like this.”

2018 saw a hell of a lot of times like this, and I spent the year hoarding and cherishing my own private reserve of small good things. Without fail, the one that’s been the most effective candle in the darkness has been episode six, “Joe Pera Reads You the Church Announcements,” in which the eponymous exercise is interrupted by Joe’s frenzied account of his recent discovery of The Who’s “Baba O’Riley.” The bulk of the episode is a flashback montage of Joe spending a euphoric night gorging himself on the song, compulsively calling radio stations to request it as he runs around his house jumping on couches, dancing with his basset hound Gus, feverishly ringing handbells, and finally ordering a pizza just to drag the delivery guy in to share the ecstasy of discovering a new favorite song.

It’s a joy I’ve experienced so many times with so many songs, and yet I’ve never seen it effectively reproduced onscreen. When I first watched the episode in June, I howled with the kind of laughter that becomes an avalanche, and across the ensuing six months, every time things seemed like too much to bear, I watched it again, feeling my soul grow back a little more with each successive play.

There’s a pleasurable sort of cognitive dissonance to Joe Pera Talks With You. How is it that in this year of all years, finding a show so intensely devoted to life’s smallest things could feel so large, and so urgent?

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First Reformed seems at first to have nothing in common with Joe Pera Talks With You. Paul Schrader’s film has little time for small things—good or otherwise—so consumed is it by one very large, very difficult thing: the ever more uncertain likelihood of humanity’s survival on this planet.

The word important tends to be freely thrown around as we wrap up a year in film, but in a real and direct way, Schrader’s commitment to confronting audiences with undeniable (at least to any reasonable mind) facts about climate change makes First Reformed feel like possibly the most acutely important film of the year, and even the decade. In one long, defiantly uncinematic scene in the first act, Rev. Toller sits across from 31-year-old parishioner Michael and absorbs a torrent of data, the kind from which most of us cringe away out of emotional self-preservation—“1/3 of the natural world has been destroyed in your lifetime. The Earth’s temperature will be 3 degrees Centigrade higher [by 2050]. Four is the threshold. Severe, widespread, and irreversible impact.”

As Toller listens, his face never shifts beyond polite indulgence, and when Michael finishes—“The bad times, they will begin,” he says, his voice simultaneously dispassionate and choked, “and from that point, everything moves very quickly”—Toller launches into his own extended pitch on the uselessness of despair. The definition of wisdom, Toller assures us, is the ability to simultaneously hold two seemingly opposed notions in our heads: our urge to despair and our ability to hope. No matter how irreconcilable they seem, only by finding that delicate balance can we achieve inner peace.

Michael offers that one detail so overwhelming that it’s borderline impossible to process, no matter what else you might use as counterbalance: we had a chance to reverse the disastrous effects of climate change, but those in power chose not to, and now we’ve passed the point of no return. It’s true not just in the film’s reality, but in our own, as confirmed in August by the mammoth New York Times Magazine story “Losing Earth.” The world will soon be radically different, and it looks as though there’s nothing we can do but react as it changes.

So seldom is anything in our lives truly irreversible. Essential data from a crashed device is usually backed up somewhere. A breakup that may seem unavoidable can be prevented with the proper contrition. We reckon with the terror of what we stand to lose, and then we rally and find the solution. Beyond the death of a loved one, it’s rare that we’re faced with any profound loss that’s truly immutable. We cling to our faith in solutions.

But it isn’t long before First Reformed forces Toller, and the viewer, to ask: what’s the appropriate reaction when there’s no solution to be had?

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If First Reformed raises the question of how we might proceed in a hopeless situation, Amanda Kramer’s Ladyworld—which premiered in September at Fantastic Fest—is a feature-length dive into the nightmarish answer.

The film opens on the aftermath of an earthquake that’s trapped eight adolescent girls in a remote house meant to be the site of a birthday bash. With no power, no food or water, and no bars on their phones, they’re faced with a question that’s simultaneously simple and impossible: what do we do?

With admirable maturity, they devise rational steps—test possible escape routes, make sure their phones don’t die—but it’s clear almost instantly that they have no chance of surviving through their own ingenuity. They’re forced to wait and hope for either rescue or death, and within hours, they’ve descended into utter nihilism.

As the Danish writer Janne Teller wrote in her own novel of adolescent despair, Nothing, “from the moment we are born, we begin to die,” and life is about trying to convince ourselves that we’re filling our allotted time with meaningful productivity while keeping at bay the fear that our efforts are for naught. Ladyworld provides a microcosm for the violent struggles that Michael in First Reformed predicts will come once people have been robbed of their illusions of permanence: the girls fall first into needless cruelty and then into full-scale psychosis within only a couple of days.

Of any dialogue I heard in 2018, none has lingered more than one exchange in this defiantly upsetting film. As two of the girls, Olivia and Blake, sit pondering a painting of a nude woman, her back gouged open and crawling with maggots, Olivia muses, “It’s so ugly.”

“Yeah, but don’t you think you need a little ugliness?” Blake asks. “Beauty is our baggage.”

Ladyworld is not afraid to risk ugliness. Nor is First Reformed. Nor are so many of the works that felt most relevant to me this year. When Donald Trump was elected, some hoped we might see a respondent surge in aggressive, persuasive art. Week after week, though, the box office has been topped by escapism. Sometimes it’s escapism with important things on its mind (Black Panther); sometimes it’s escapism that marks exciting cultural progress (Crazy Rich Asians); sometimes it’s escapism that nobody feels strongly about except insofar as it provides escape (Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom; Solo: A Star Wars Story; Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald—basically anything with a colon in the title). But in each case, they’re movies with the perfectly justifiable aim of letting the audience walk out feeling better about the world, not worse.

Could Ladyworld, or First Reformed, or any other painfully relevant art make the world demonstrably better? That’s rarely the kind of thing you can judge contemporaneously, but I cling to the belief that they could help. As Blake notes when pondering that brutal painting: “Some beauty’s…like, oppressive.”

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Unlikely as it might seem, Mike Melsky’s Perfect Egg Bite and the mortal terrors of First Reformed and Ladyworld are united by a psychological concept called terror management theory, or TMT. According to TMT, humans are the only species blessed with self-awareness, which means we’re the only species forced to hold two thoughts in our heads simultaneously: we’re programmed to fight tooth and nail for survival, but in the long run, each and every one of us will fail. And as the theory goes, every system and framework ever devised, from religion to social structures to all our individual small good things, is an effort to hold back the crippling despair we’d fall into without a buffer between ourselves and the realities of oblivion.

The most significant recent work on TMT, published in 2015 by psychology professors Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg, and Tom Pyszcynski, is entitled The Worm at the Core. It’s a metaphor they drew from philosopher William James, who called the awareness of our own mortality “the worm at the core of all our usual springs of delight.” And, according to James, the worm does not want to stay at the core. All it takes is a small push for the worm to “spring into full view and turn us into melancholy metaphysicians.”

It sometimes seemed that not a week could go by as an American in 2018 without the worm springing into full view. It was summoned by historically deadly shootings at schools and synagogues and the respondent antipathy of the powerful. It was summoned by family separations, by tear-gassing of legal asylum seekers, by inhumane and lethal detention of toddlers and newborns. It was summoned by a system that did everything possible to make sure a Supreme Court nominee’s red carpet stroll wasn’t interrupted by credible allegations of sexual misconduct. And it was kept ever present by the backdrop of hurricanes and wildfires, constant reminders of the toll taken by man-made climate change, against which all those horrors, and so many more, unfolded.

A central tenet of TMT is the idea that strong shared cultural worldviews—defined in The Worm at the Core as “the beliefs we create to explain the nature of reality to ourselves”—are a key technique for holding despair at bay. By 2018, though, any sense that Americans share a unified belief system has been decisively fractured. In his 2017 paper “Trump and the American Collective Psyche,” psychiatrist Thomas Singer outlines his belief that not only did the 2016 election gouge a deep wound in the heart of our shared worldview, this rupture has gone hand in hand with a spike in “an even deeper, less conscious threat that I call extinction anxiety.” In short, the increasingly tense state of American discourse isn’t just stressful, it could be generating an unconscious belief that humanity is coming to an end. And if it sometimes seems the only force capable of transcending ideology at this point is the deliberately inoffensive realm of franchise filmmaking, then perhaps our collective fondness for IP-driven shared universe storytelling comes down to the same yearning for a metaphysical balm that mythology has answered since the dawn of time.

With the drumbeat of terror and its management serving as the year’s undercurrent, the stories of 2018 started to look, at least by my reckoning, quite a lot like a compendium of options for how to respond to insurmountable despair.

In You Were Never Really Here, Joe’s despair is rooted in years of searing, compounded trauma, and his choice of response, as Travis Woods wrote in Bright Wall/Dark Room in September, is to “[wield] his own trauma like a weapon,” using what’s left of his unsaveable life to save others. Red similarly weaponizes his despair in Mandy, though with the less altruistic aim of savage revenge against “crazy evil!

In A Quiet Place, the core despair is a literal extinction anxiety, but the choice of the central family is to survive at all costs, stemming from what The Worm at the Core classifies as an animalistic survival instinct, one it’s almost impossible for them to deny even as they’re tormented by the equally undeniable awareness that they’re living on borrowed time.

In Annihilation, each of our team of protagonists is wrestling a personal despair, be it due to substance abuse, self-harming depression, or mourning, and they respond by plunging themselves into a sanguine suicide mission to investigate the invasive force that’s on a path to destroying life as we know it; as Lindsey Romain wrote, “they are all on the brink of destruction anyway. The Shimmer may kill them, but it might also be a vessel towards some higher recognizance.” Ultimately, both Ventress and Josie willingly relinquish themselves to that destructive force; Josie greets her annihilation with serenity, while Ventress throws her head back in ecstasy (of the classic, metaphysical sort) and releases her every atom to the fragmentation. In the face of inevitable destruction, might it feel better to struggle, or to choose surrender to an unknowable future?

Even our zeitgeist-grabbing comedies have dealt, in ways large and small, with despair. Sorry to Bother You is an urgent holler of rage in the guise of pop-art satire. Eighth Grade, despite being written and directed by one of our preeminent comedians, illustrates the Herculean daily effort of putting one foot in front of the other despite the world’s indifference.

The third season of NBC’s The Good Place has been an examination of cosmic despair as overt as First Reformed—the characters, learning that their souls are irretrievably damned, choose to spend the time they have left trying to save the souls of their loved ones. It sounds like a heroic impulse, but Eleanor’s voice is strained with desperation as she asks her friends, “Why not try?” before settling back into exhausted despair as she adds, “It’s better than not trying, right?” She can’t quite believe it herself, it just feels like what one is supposed to believe in the face of unstoppable damnation. Doing a little good with the time you have left is something like your survival impulse’s last kick, but it can be hard to muster. “The true meaning of life,” Chidi told his students just moments earlier, surrendering to his inevitable and eternal pain with manic glee, “is nihilism. The world is empty. There is no point to anything. And you’re just gonna die. So do whatever.”

Perhaps the year’s most relatable portrayal of the quotidian battle against despair came in Support the Girls, which depicts a day in the life of exhausted service workers as a tragicomic odyssey. By the climax, the characters have lost their jobs and are trying to catch their breath before going out to find new ones just as soul-numbing—they’ve long ago accepted that life has little in store for them beyond drudgery. “First comes cryin’,” goes Danyelle’s personal philosophy of the three-step response to despair, “then comes laughin’, then comes screamin’ your ass off.”

The first time she presents this theory, it comes in the form of advice—be careful once you move from step one to step two, because step three won’t be far behind—but by the rooftop finale, it’s a recipe for catharsis. The film ends with the characters standing on a literal precipice screaming their asses off, first taking turns and then drifting into unison. The first screams sound like a purging of all their pain and rage; the next few seem like the only way to give voice to a terror and sorrow for which they don’t have the vocabulary; but the final unified scream seems— like Ventress’ annihilation—ecstatic, a primal and defiant demonstration that they’re still here. And that’s how we leave them: howling into the void of the future, exhausted and frightened but unable to give up quite yet.

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First Reformed, from virtually the moment after the summit between Michael and Toller, traces the slow-motion deterioration of the reverend’s terror management. He’s already battling a crisis of faith, so once he’s radicalized by Michael’s climate change data, Toller is on an unstoppable path to self-destruction. Michael chooses a shotgun to the head as the answer to his despair, but in so doing he passes to Toller the mantle of doomsday prophet, and Toller’s own response, perhaps motivated by that religious crisis, represents an evolution in both the depth of Michael’s despair and the scale of his response.

As Toller battles his mounting despair, he turns for council to another man of the church, Pastor Jeffers. With Toller now playing Michael in the debate—though even Michael seemed in better control of his emotions than the increasingly frantic Toller—megachurch pastor Jeffers assumes the role of sage denier, and many of his promises echo Toller’s own. Where Toller, following his meeting with Michael, has called despair “a development of pride [that it] chooses one’s own certitude rather than admit God is more creative than we are,” Jeffers now calls anxiety and worry “[an] indication of how wicked we are—fretting arises from our determination to have our own way.”

The message is ostensibly the same: you can relax; God holds your fate in His hands. From Toller, it comes from a place of hope. From Jeffers, though, it sounds more like nihilism. He even cites the Genesis flood—might climate change be God’s second crack at cleansing His creation?

We often use terms like “the end of the world” when referring to climate change. And yet the world, as a planetary body, will spin after humanity has left it. When we say “the world,” we mean “us.” It’s an egotistic viewpoint—we make our own species, and those in our food chain, a synecdoche for the entirety of existence. And on one hand, it sounds kind of serene to remember the ground we walk on will always be here, perhaps bearing some infinitesimal permanent record of our footprints. On the other, Jeffers’ indifference to Toller’s suggestion that they take organizational action and warn their parishioners of the coming dangers feels borderline genocidal. Two interpretations, both valid yet irreconcilable.

There’s another popular psychological theory—the paradox of choice, introduced by Barry Schwartz in his 2004 book of the same name—that suggests we yearn for our decisions to be as simple as possible, and that the more options we have, the unhappier we become. In The Worm at the Core, the authorial triad suggests it’s this capacity to choose that motivates our terror of death—“Unlike moths…we aren’t inexorably sucked toward the flame,” but this awareness of our independence also engenders a fear of the flame that the moth can’t conceive. When we yearn for simple choices, being asked to balance seemingly opposed truths feels less like grace than agony.

When Toller decides he must choose a path forward, he selects martyrdom. It’s one of the most viscerally bleak endings in recent American cinema, and yet it also represents Toller mitigating his own terror. Martyrdom is an attempt to leave behind a message that motivates change, a way to make one’s death meaningful. And according to The Worm at the Core, attempting to transcend death by leaving something behind creates a symbolic permanence and soothes our terror. It’s agonizing to witness, and we long for him to have chosen any other path forward. But in wrapping himself in barbed wire like a Northern Hazel Motes, Toller uses his last gesture to flip off despair the only way he has left.

*

In the year’s most startling twist, the penultimate episode of Joe Pera Talks With You reveals that the entire season has built up to something like the comedic answer to First Reformed.

Much of the season has been devoted to Joe’s flirtation with Sarah, a new coworker in the music department of the elementary school where he teaches choir. Joe and Sarah seem like soul mates, and their hesitant steps toward romance lend a heartwarming backbone to the series. But like so many elements of the season, it was a head fake.

In that penultimate episode, Sarah finally excoriates Joe for obsessing over life’s small good things rather than thinking about “real stuff!” What is real by Sarah’s reckoning? “There’s rising water levels and nuclear war and there’s population displacement! Drones, ours and theirs!” It’s the opening salvo in a litany of possible existential threats that culminates with, “Every bone in my body says that you won’t last past the first wave because you keep talking about lawns and ping pong and sing songs and ding dongs!”

Yes, Sarah is a doomsday prepper who devotes most of her time and energy to stocking her fortified basement. And once she presses Joe to start thinking about “real things,” he puts forth his best effort, asking the viewer, “Will America pay for what we’ve done?” an uncanny echo of First Reformed’s already iconic, “Will God forgive us for what we’re doing to His creation?”

Attempting to deepen his perspective on life, Joe turns to his pre-adolescent students, interrupting their auditions for the choir solo to ask each of them, “What do you usually think about?”

Chuckling nervously, one boy answers, “It really saddens my heart sometimes that I know that I’m gonna die someday, and all my friends and family.”

“How often do you think about that type of stuff?” Joe asks.

The boy heaves a deep sigh and knits his eyebrows in a look that’s simultaneously contrite and matter of fact, and entirely too weary for someone so young. “Almost every day.”

It’s a hard scene for me to watch. I remember so vividly being that boy. And in so many ways I never evolved beyond that childlike awe at the task of balancing my urge to collapse before existence’s indifferent facts, and the transcendent impossibility of knowing for sure what the cosmic future might hold.

Season one of Joe Pera Talks With You ends with a long visit to Sarah’s fortified basement. Joe wants to understand how she views the world, a perspective he still can’t find any way to share. Sarah shows him her stockpiles of nonperishable food and medicine, her tools and weapons. But even as she demonstrates her coping mechanism for despair—preparation—they can’t help engaging in his—celebration. They get drunk on cinnamon whiskey, practice fire safety drills and weighted push-ups, taste test the prepackaged foods. Finally, Joe shows Sarah the suitcase he’s packed to prove his fitness to survive disaster. She’s aghast to find it contains only his beloved collection of sheet music.

But that’s survival according Joe: cherishing life’s mundane pleasures. At no point does he try to dissuade Sarah from her doomsday beliefs; he’s entirely receptive to the likelihood of global catastrophe. But he can manage any terror by virtue of his rock-solid core commitment to focusing on the impermanent joy around him. Sitting next to Sarah on her cot, he sings “I Can Whistle With That,” a song (apparently, though probably apocryphally) from 1934 about using natural objects as whistles: Went out in the woods, found a piece of grass/Picked it up. I can whistle with that. In the show’s final moments, it offers this ultimate thesis statement: the world is filled with small good things that are so easy to ignore, but if you take the time to consider them, they can be the flame that lights your way in the darkness. Maybe it’s a distraction, as Sarah believes of all Joe’s obsessions. But if you’re walking along the graveyard, you may as well whistle.

Back in early 2016, Joe Pera introduced himself to the Adult Swim audience with the animated short “Joe Pera Talks You to Sleep.” It’s a simple, free-associative monologue delivered in Joe’s typically deadpan style. But nestled within is a call to balance two seemingly incompatible ideas:

Our star, the sun, is just one of dozens of stars in the galaxy, which is just one of dozens of galaxies in the known universe, all set against handfuls and handfuls of time. If one guy cheats on his wife, what’s the big deal? Thinking further down the same line of thought, however: if we’re so tiny and insignificant, if you’re able to find one person in the entire universe who cares about you, why would you want to disappoint them?

On the one hand, everything we do may be meaningless. Oblivion may be the only truth. But on the other, maybe it’s exactly this ultimate despair that makes our all our everyday actions essential.

I don’t know about you, but after almost 30 years trying to manage my own terror, I think, finally, I can whistle with that.