For the first time in her life, the famed food researcher and cookbook writer will be celebrating Passover alone. Roden talks about preserving the routine during an epidemic and offers simple home recipes for the seder
I learned about the pilot test of Twitter’s new crowdsourced misinformation-labeling program the same way I learn about most news events that are relevant to my life: A bunch of Harry Styles fans were talking about it on my timeline.
Or rather, they were reacting to it, in quote-tweets, oneafteranother, all saying essentially the same thing: “larries better hide,” “larries are over,” “it’s over for larries,” and, more explicitly, “i’m gonna use this against larries.” Maybe you don’t feel as though you need to know what any of this means before you read my take on whether Twitter’s Birdwatch program is a good idea, but I think it will help. Almost everything I know about life on the internet can be explained through “Larries,” a community of (mostly) former One Direction fans who believe that two of the boy band’s members, Louis Tomlinson and Harry Styles, are in love and secretly married, and that they have been for years, and that Tomlinson’s toddler son is either a child actor or the offspring of an ex-girlfriend’s stepdad. Larries thrived on Tumblr for years and are now experiencing an inexplicable resurgence on Twitter and TikTok, though everywhere they go, they find themselves locked in battle with a group of “Antis,” who are what they sound like. The Antis hate the Larries, often ridiculing them as delusional, which is sort of rude, and bringing up their history of viciously harassing Tomlinson’s family and friends, which is pretty fair.
Naturally, the Antis on Twitter took notice when the company announced, at the end of January, that it would launch an experiment in letting users decide which posts are true and which are false. This is not a fact-checking program, exactly, because it will not involve trained fact-checkers. Instead, participants in the Birdwatch pilot can identify tweets they find to be “misleading,” then submit notes explaining their stance—ideally these should link to reliable outside sources, and provide helpful context—as well as a judgment of how much harm the misinformation is likely to cause. In their reports, of course, the Antis say the Larries are causing “considerable harm.”
I’m telling this story because I think it’s funny, but also because it illustrates a core problem with Birdwatch at this stage: There is no good reason for most people to volunteer to fact-check Twitter. “Stans” are perhaps the category of Twitter user most willing to try it out, in a limited way, because they have a highly personal stake in the spread of an extremely specific form of, yes, misinformation. They have a “fave” to protect. They’re the most fun (though still volatile) result of Twitter’s competitive, gamified environment, and they clearly see something in this new tool that might benefit them. A few of them have already been more than willing to give of their time. But is anyone else going to feel the same way?
Twitter’s first big public push against misinformation came only last year. Throughout 2020, the company experimented with adding warning labels to tweets containing misleading or false statements—mostly about COVID-19 or the presidential election—but didn’t offer consistent or clear explanations of how the whole thing worked.
Meanwhile, the vice president of product, Keith Coleman, was working on Birdwatch, a different sort of system, and one that could end up being far more efficient and transparent than anything the company has tried before. His idea was to distribute the responsibility for catching and cornering misinformation across the entire Twitter community. Regular users might be able to move faster than machines when misinformation popped up in their social circles. The project also had the potential benefit of building trust with users. Coleman knew that some people didn’t like to see a large tech company exercise its power over national discourse in such explicit ways. “People might in fact really value something that comes from the bottom up, versus something that comes from any singular institution,” Coleman told me.
Birdwatch was made unusually transparent for the same reason. Anyone can inspect its ranking algorithm, which designates notes as “helpful” or “unhelpful,” or easily download all the notes that have been submitted through the program. Coleman acknowledged that the notes contain “quite a variety of quality,” so far, and said that his team expected this. If the ranking algorithm works properly, it will elevate the ones that elicit a “diverse consensus”—agreement among people who don’t tend to agree. Birdwatchers who consistently produce good notes will earn a positive reputation score, such that their subsequent notes will be assigned more weight—though it’s also possible to lose your reputation by writing notes that nobody rates as helpful.
As part of an ongoing experiment in locating the edges of my own sanity, I read through the notes one afternoon, about 3,000 of them altogether. (As of February 19, these were all the notes that had been submitted.) There were the Antis’ reports, as promised: “perpetuates a conspiracy theory”; “claims a relationship that is false”; “louis tomlinson is literally straight.” There were also notes defending Beyoncé from rumors that she had murdered her cousin, and defending members of the K-pop group BTS against unfair criticism of their “amazing vocals.” Dozens of notes had been added to tweets about the ongoing feud between Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ted Cruz and their respective fan bases. (Some iteration of “Ted Cruz never once tried to have AOC killed” was in there at least 20 times.) Also, Nicki Minaj “did not sacrifice her dad. Plain and simple.” Anthony Fauci is “a normal doctor trying his best to keep Americans safe and healthy.” Donald Trump did not incite the riot at the Capitol, and Marjorie Taylor Greene isn’t a conspiracy theorist. According to someone.
The tech journalist Casey Newton recently described the most common question asked by Birdwatch users, up to this point, as “Is this insult fair?” That seems accurate to me. I did find some more consequential questions raised, such as “Who is actually part of Antifa?” and “Should we take the COVID-19 vaccine?” and “Does pineapple belong on pizza?” (My favorite note, if you were to make me choose, was added to a tweet from The Economist about the growing trend of insect-based food products. “We’re not going to eat insects,” a Birdwatcher countered.) But overwhelmingly, as I scrolled through the reports, the objections I found were personal.
In theory, the Antis—or other, more nefarious groups with single-minded concerns—will not be able to wage sustained war on their nemeses through the Birdwatch system. Their notes aren’t likely to produce the “diverse consensus” necessary for upranking, because other people are not likely to care about them. But that’s not going to stop them from trying. When I messaged a 20-year-old One Direction fan who had tweeted, “larries we coming for you” in response to the Birdwatch announcement, she told me that she wasn’t actually part of the pilot program, but in the future, she would definitely add notes to tweets from Larries. (She asked to be anonymous, because she doesn’t want her real name associated with her stan account.)
“Larries are spreading misinformation,” she said. She was happy to hear that other Antis had already started using Birdwatch to prosecute their case, and said that if I was able to get in touch with any of them, I should “send them a big hug.”
When Birdwatch was first announced, the company was met with an understandable knee-jerk reaction.Oh, good idea! Let’s put Twitter users in charge of deciding what is “reality.” Even seen in the best light, it represents an untested iteration of the existing system for labeling misinformation, which hasn’t yet been tested very well itself. Savvas Zannettou, a researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Informatics who has studied the impact of Twitter’s warning labels, cautions that Birdwatch could easily go wrong. “I will have to see how it works in practice,” he told me, but “I’m pretty confident that people will abuse and troll the system.” He mentioned the possibility of 4chan brigades; I saw severalsuggestions that warring stan armies will be the biggest abusers.
Still, Zannettou was optimistic about the idea and considers it a good one, as long as it can be executed in a way that minimizes manipulation. Other online spaces exist where crowdsourced definitions of fact and reality have produced reliable results. Wikipedia has gotten better and better over time. WikiHow, its founder told me in 2019, is a project that “doesn’t work in theory; it only works in practice.” These sites function because the people who contribute to them and edit them identify themselves as members of a community working toward a common goal. They also function because of hierarchies: Some experienced, committed editors have powers that others don’t. On Wikipedia these are called admins, a function that was added in the site’s first year to address vandalism by trolls and “editing wars” between egotistical contributors. In a 2010 study, researchers found that the majority of admins considered editing Wikipedia “rewarding” or “very rewarding,” and that 73 percent had been doing so for more than three years.
Coleman said he believes that participants in Birdwatch will be motivated by the desire to “elevate quality information in the world” and affect the national discourse. But it’s difficult to imagine Twitter users—who joke constantly about the ways in which the site has ruined their lives—coming together to dream of the platform as a valuable shared resource, let alone a “rewarding” or “very rewarding” place to spend their time. Andrea Forte, an associate professor at Drexel University who has looked into what drives Wikipedians to contribute, is skeptical. “The motivation for the kind of sustained, committed volunteer work around improving access to information that has built Wikipedia does not seem to me to be part of what’s happening on Birdwatch,” she told me. “Wikipedians are building something together; they aren’t just trying to correct someone who’s got wrong information on the internet.” (If there are any groups of Twitter users who are committed to building something together, they probably are the stan armies, but what they’re building is not really a public resource.)
Another study of what makes people want to write for Wikipedia suggested that online communities “must meaningfully structure participants’ contributions in a way that sustains involvement.” This means setting up chat rooms and mailing lists and discussion spaces, as well as providing a way for valuable users to be recognized by their peers. Wikipedia editors, for example, have user pages where they can display lists of articles they have meaningfully contributed to, as a sort of “elaborate ‘resume.’” Coleman said that Twitter might experiment with a tool that allows Birdwatch contributors to communicate with one another, and will definitely come up with some way of providing recognition to consistent contributors—either by making their reputation points visible to others or assigning some kind of digital badge.
In the Birdwatch pilot’s first three weeks, during which Twitter approved its first 1,000 participants, only 3,300 notes were submitted, many of them tests. The company will have to inspire a lot more people to be significantly more invested if this is ever to become a useful backstop against viral misinformation. Doing that will require a major shift on the platform. Wikipedia was a collectivist project from the very beginning, but Twitter is a for-profit company that operates what is often called a “data-mining operation” or a “hell site” by its own most dedicated users. The people who spend the most time there are practiced at hoarding and funneling attention—be it for themselves, a divisive political issue, or a pop star. They’re not accustomed to thinking of tweeting as a communal act toward a shared goal of filling the world with reliable information.
The internet is more personal than we tend to acknowledge, and the least terrifying but most significant problem with Birdwatch is that a lot of people who are going to use it will come in caring only about the stories—and perceived lies—that matter to them personally. Twitter has yet to provide a good reason for them to focus on anything else. In the meantime, Antis and Larries will continue their feud, which has employed many tools over many years, and they’ll experiment with Birdwatch until they figure out whether it can be bent to their will.
As per the Ease Of Living Index (EoLI), 2020 report released by the Union housing and urban development ministry, Bengaluru has emerged as the best city among 49 million-plus cities in 2020. Among 62 cities having less than one million population, Shimla has topped the list followed by Bhubaneswar. No city has been included from West Bengal because of “data challenge”.
A few years ago, when I still had confidence in our modern ability to fight viruses, I pored over a photo essay of the 1918 flu pandemic. How quaint, I remember thinking, as I looked at people bundled up for outdoor classes and court and church. How primitive their technology, those nurses in gauze masks. How little did I know.
I felt secure, foolishly, in our 100 additional years of innovation. But it would soon become clear that our full-body hazmat suits and negative-pressure rooms and HEPA filters mattered little to Americans who couldn’t find N95 masks. In our quest for perfect solutions, we’d forgotten an extremely obvious and simple one: fresh air. A colleague joked, at one point, that things would have gone better in the pandemic if we still believed in miasma theory.
Miasma theory—discredited, of course, by the rise of germ theory—held that disease came from “bad air” emanating from decomposing matter and filth. This idea peaked in the 19th century, when doctors, architects, and one particularly influential nurse, Florence Nightingale, became fixated on ventilation’s importance for health. It manifested in the physical layout of buildings: windows, many of them, but also towers erected for the sole purpose of ventilation and elaborate ductwork to move contaminated air outdoors. Historic buildings still bear the vestigial mark of these public-health strategies, long after the scientific thinking has moved on.
The obsession with ventilation—and miasma theory in general—was indeed wrong when it came to pathogens such as cholera and yellow fever that we now know spread through other means (water and mosquitoes, respectively). But it did make sense for the diseases that invisibly stalked people through 19th-century air: measles, tuberculosis, smallpox, influenza—all much diminished as threats in the 21st century. “We’ve gotten so good at preventing so many diseases, there’s been a loss of knowledge and a loss of experience,” Jeanne Kisacky, the author of Rise of the Modern Hospital, says. Science is not a simple linear march toward progress; it also forgets.
Today, amid a pandemic caused by a novel airborne virus, these old ideas about ventilation are returning. But getting enough schools and businesses on board has been difficult. Fixing the air inside modern buildings, where many windows don’t or barely open, means fighting against the very nature of hermetically sealed modern buildings. They were not built to deal with airborne threats. Nineteenth-century hospitals were.
That era saw the rise of well-ventilated “Nightingale pavilions,” named after Florence Nightingale, who popularized the design in her 1859 book, Notes on Hospitals. As a nurse in the Crimean War, she saw 10 times more soldiers die of disease than of battle wounds. Nightingale began a massive hygiene campaign in the overcrowded hospitals, and she collected statistics, which she presented in pioneering infographics. Chief among her concerns was air. Notes even laid out exact proportions for 20-patient pavilions that could allow 1,600 cubic feet of air per bed.
Each pavilion was a separate wing, radiating from a central corridor. And it had large windows that faced each other, which allowed a cross breeze to blow between the beds. The windows stayed open no matter the weather. There were stories, Kisacky told me, of hospitals in winter where “the patients are closing the windows, and the nurses are opening them. And the doctors come and knock the glass out to make sure they stay open.” In some pavilions, a central fireplace heated the room, so that contaminated air rose out of the ward via the chimney effect. That heat might have been nice in the winter but “they would run fires in the fireplaces in August to keep the air moving,” Kisacky said. “You wouldn’t want to be the patient in the bed closest to that.”
The pavilion-plan hospitals formalized the fear of “bad air” in hospital design, but the idea is much older. The Greek physician Hippocrates warned in the fifth century B.C. that bad air was the cause of pestilence. People in the Middle Ages believed some version of this too. The word miasma, which dates to the 17th century, comes from the ancient Greek for “pollution.” In the 19th century, the fear of outbreaks fueled new sanitation campaigns to rid cities of miasma.
Homes needed ventilation as well. In Victorian England, reformers successfully fought a window tax that penalized large windows, says Henrik Schoenefeldt, an architectural historian at the University of Kent. Bigger windows meant better ventilation. One doctor, Schoenefeldt told me, even railed against small windows as a “crime” that was killing people. When I was Zooming with another historian of architecture, Harriet Richardson Blakeman of the University of Edinburgh, she pointed her webcam up toward the ceiling. Above the door was a grate, which ventilated the room that had become her office in her Victorian-era home. (Blakeman thinks the grate may have actually been added some decades after the house was first built, as ventilation continued to be a concern.)
The massive growth of cities in the 19th century also sparked the creation of bigger and more elaborate public buildings, which meant the creation of bigger and more elaborate ventilation systems in new museums, prisons, and courthouses. “There are new types of buildings being invented to respond to urbanization,” Alistair Fair, an architectural historian also at the University Edinburgh, says. This was a time of innovation in ventilation too. In these complicated buildings, simple windows and chimneys would no longer do. Instead, intake vents were installed, as were ducts that wove through the walls and floors.
A famous example is the Palace of Westminster, in London, whose construction began in 1840. The building’s architect consulted with a doctor, David Boswell Reid, and Reid suggested extensive revisions to the architectural plan to improve ventilation. The two iconic towers of Westminster—the Victoria Tower and the one that holds Big Ben—are both also ventilation towers that helped draw warm, stale air out of the buildings. Reid further insisted on an expensive third tower, the Central Tower, for the sole purpose of ventilation. The ventilation system as a whole, which also included mechanical fans, valves, and a series of air chambers in the basement, accounted for a quarter of the building’s costs. Physically, too, “that system, when it was completed, took up about a quarter of the entire building,” said Schoenefeldt, who has extensively studiedhistorical ventilation in Westminster.
The system’s physical remnants are still in the building, now unused. Even in the 19th century, the building’s ventilation did not always work as designed—Reid was a doctor, not an engineer, after all—but the principles of his designs were influential. “The Palace of Westminster was, at the time, the technologically most sophisticated building constructed in Europe,” Schoenefeldt told me. Its ventilation system inspired those in the era’s new museums, concert halls, and courthouses.
By the late 19th century, scientists were developing the beginnings of germ theory. John Snow had drawn his famous map of a cholera outbreak, which he traced to a single water pump. Louis Pasteur had shown that organisms cannot spontaneously generate in sterilized broth. And Robert Koch had identified the microorganisms that cause tuberculosis, cholera, and anthrax. But germ theory did not immediately do away with the importance of fresh air. “Early understandings of the germ, which emphasized its ubiquitous presence in air and water and its hardiness outside the body, neatly harmonized with already accepted modes of protection,” Nancy Tomes, a science historian at Stony Brook University, writes in The Gospel of Germs. The shift, like most paradigm shifts in science, was gradual.
For hospitals, the pavilion style continued into the 1930s, Annmarie Adams, an architectural historian at McGill University, told me. The 1918 flu pandemic struck at a time when germ theory was taking hold but people still recognized the importance of air. Even in modern hospitals today, where hand-washing and disinfection are paramount, the flow of air remains tightly controlled. Infectious patients are put in negative-pressure rooms, which contaminated air cannot escape. Immunocompromised patients are put in positive-pressure rooms, where contaminated air cannot enter. If anything, the flow of air is controlled in ever more sophisticated ways.
Outside hospitals, though, the menace of “bad air” has faded away. Airborne diseases simply don’t exist the way they did 100 years ago, Tomes says. Measles and smallpox have been vanquished through vaccines. Tuberculosis is treatable with antibiotics. The common remaining airborne pathogens are the cold and flu, diseases taken so unseriously that you might be docked for missing school or work on account of them. Without deadly airborne pathogens in the literal air we breathe, we’ve lost an intuitive sense of their invisible danger. And we’ve lost the relatively simple ways of mitigating that danger. Fresh air became less important; homes and workplaces were sealed up for energy efficiency.
Imagine, Tomes said to me, a sci-fi movie featuring a scary new virus. You would probably picture people protecting themselves with space suits and respirators. “Nobody ever goes to open a window,” she said. Who would have thought that the key to fighting this novel coronavirus would be as simple as fresh air? Only everyone 100 years ago.
Before COVID-19 hit last year, Linsey Marr, an environmental engineer at Virginia Tech, was one of the few scientists already studying airborne transmission of viruses. She told me she would read medical textbooks that claimed pathogen-laden droplets from our mouths fell to the ground within six feet. Until recently, however, scientists couldn’t measure what remained airborne, because they had no way of collecting delicate live viruses from the air.
There were other signs the textbooks were off, though: Marr knew, based on simple calculations she did with her undergrad students, that droplets of a certain size could linger midair. And papers going back decades suggested that common respiratory ailments such as the flu were indeed airborne, which official medical sources kept downplaying. “I just kind of figured, well, maybe 30 years from now, people will look back at these papers, mine and other people’s, and realize, ‘Oh yeah,’” she said. “Finally there’ll be enough evidence showing that these diseases are really transmitted by breathing in virus from the air.”
Then a mysterious new respiratory virus began sickening people in China at the end of 2019. Scientists quickly identified it as a novel coronavirus, but it took several more months for health agencies to acknowledge that COVID-19 spreads through air—a blip in the normally glacial pace of science but a long time in an emergency when cases are growing exponentially. Experts were initially reluctant to label the virus “airborne,” because they typically used that term to describe pathogens that linger infectiously in the air for hours, such as measles. The coronavirus doesn’t seem to last as long, but it can still transmit through the air when people talk and breathe. The smoking gun, in Marr’s view, was a study that found live viruses lingering in the air seven to 16 feet away from patients. Super-spreader events and asymptomatic spread—when people aren’t coughing or sneezing—offer additional circumstantial evidence, she said, that the virus is spreading via small aerosols from breathing and talking.
In July, she was one of 239 experts who signed an open letter to the World Health Organization outlining the evidence for airborne transmission. The WHO eventually acknowledged airborne transmission, as did the CDC, finally, in October. In retrospect, it’s remarkable how long it took to say what should be intuitive: A virus that infects the respiratory system spreads through air. “It seems like it would be obvious, right?” Marr said. A 19th-century doctor, who didn’t even know what viruses were, might have thought so too.
Still, early advice that focused on hand-washing and sanitizing surfaces has stuck, as evidenced by the hygiene theater that continues to pervade public spaces. Genuine confusion exists about the changing scientific consensus, but so does inertia. Wiping surfaces and erecting plexiglass barriers is easier than installing expensive air filters or, God forbid, reconfiguring a hermetically sealed building’s entire ventilation system. Even the CDC’s school-reopening guidelines, released just this month, said little about ventilation.
Like so many viruses before it, the coronavirus is likely to be tamed by vaccines. Perhaps soon, ventilation won’t matter again. But COVID-19 is a humbling reminder of the value of lost knowledge.
I’m writing this now at my desk, which is in front of a radiator, which is in front of a window. For apartment buildings like mine, built in the early 20th century, this is by design. The radiator runs too hot, so that residents can keep the window open for ventilation. (I am indeed too hot. The window is open.) This quirk of old building design went viral months agoin a collective “Aha!” moment. This thing that never made sense actually makes sense! Like many old buildings, my apartment has pipes that somehow always need to be repaired. I remember going downstairs one day to find a giant trench dug out in the lobby, where a steam radiator had exploded. And in the past year of working from home, I have cursed the lack of central AC and the overwhelming heat of the radiators.
But the window is open today. The air is good. This is a building designed in a time of airborne pathogens.
On a golden day last September, I visited the ruins of the first Greek city on the Iberian Peninsula, a settlement from the sixth century B.C. called Empúries. Traders venturing down present-day Spain’s Costa Brava, a rugged stretch of coastline in northeastern Catalonia, had recognized the advantages of the location: a natural port, some protection from the fierce tramontana winds blowing off the Pyrenees, and access to local trade networks established by native Iberians. But as the Greek settlers discovered, another attribute of their new home lay just offshore.
As the archaeologist Elisa Hernández and I walked the shadeless grounds of Empúries, she pointed out the stone remnants of temples, public squares, homes of wealthy merchants, and humble dwellings of the poor. Throughout the ruins, archaeologists have found vivid bits of red coral, likely handpicked by free divers along the rocky coastline. In a laboratory of the Empúries branch of the Archaeology Museum of Catalonia, located just at the edge of the site, Hernández emptied a fat plastic bag of these collected pieces onto a lab table,tiny remnants of the branching vermilion animals that once flourished across the Mediterranean Sea.
Mediterranean peoples’ connections to red coral stretch back to Paleolithic hunter-gatherers, who collected the fragments that washed up on beaches after storms. In the past, as now, red coral was valued for its beauty, and in many cultures it isstill believed to have protective and curative powers. The Greeks even gave red coral its own creation myth: Its wavy branches were said to have formed from the blood of Medusa, the snake-haired Gorgon, after she was cursed by the goddess Athena and beheaded by the Greek hero Perseus.
As red coral became a sought-after material for jewelry, currency, and religious ceremony, the Greeks, the Romans, and, later, others established extensive coral-trading networks that eventually reached India, East Asia, the Middle East, West Africa, and elsewhere. Long after Empúries faded into the dunes, coral harvesting along the Costa Brava continued—by free divers, by boats fitted with crude, destructive dredges, and in recent decades by specialized scuba divers who can collect coral from otherwise inaccessible caves and small crevices. Until recently, this rugged Catalonian coast remained an important center of coral collection and trade. Here, as in the red-coral-fishing communities that range from France, Italy, and Croatia to Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia, the species is an enduring element of local culture.
Red coral is no longer bountiful, though: It’s threatened not only by over-harvesting but also by habitat destruction and climate change. Saving the species requires an international effort as complex and innovative as those ancient trading networks, one that values red coral for both its aesthetic splendor and its role in supporting entire Mediterranean ecosystems.
One early morning this past fall, I crossed the French border about an hour north of Empúries to meet Lorenzo Bramanti, who studies coral ecology at the Oceanological Observatory of Banyuls-Sur-Mer. Bramanti has been scrutinizing the earliest life stages of red coral, part of an effort to give coral larvae the best chance to survive and propagate.
Bramanti and I drove along the winding coastal road that borders the Cerbère-Banyuls marine reserve—an area rich in biodiversity just north of the Cap de Creus, the peninsula where most of Catalonia’s red-coral harvesting historically occurred. Seagrass meadows in the reserve provide a nursery for species like seahorses and octopuses; rocks shelter mollusks, crustaceans, and fish. The reserve protects what is known as a coralligenous habitat, where red coral and other non-reef-building corals anchor themselves to a rocky structure made from the accumulated skeletons of algae and small animals.
“This is my underwater laboratory,” Bramanti told me cheerfully. It was easy to understand his enthusiasm: Protected since 1974, this reserve is a candy shop for a coral scientist, offering a rare chance to see what long-term conservation can do for the health of red coral and other species.
We descended into the village of Banyuls, nestled between the sea and the foothills of the Pyrenees. The rivers that rush down from the mountains carry nutrient-laden sediments into the sea, and the tramontana winds create an upwelling effect, pulling deeper, colder, nutrient-rich seawater to the surface. This means that red coral flourishes here in a relatively shallow 50 to 65 feet of water. “If you dive here, you find that the water is always turbid. Full of food. The corals eat a lot,” Bramanti said.
Bramanti’s work revives an old tradition of coral research in Banyuls. Henri de Lacaze-Duthiers, a French zoologist, founded the lab in 1881 after decades of studying the sea life of the western Mediterranean. In 1864, he published the first monograph on red coral, whose scientific name is Corallium rubrum. Bramanti still uses Lacaze-Duthiers’s exquisite drawings and painstaking notes to help him understand the species.
Bramanti has studied corals in his native Italy as well as in Spain, California, and the Caribbean. Since arriving in Banyuls four years ago, he has focused his attention on the first years of C. rubrum’s life cycle, when the coral transforms from tiny larvae into branching treelike creatures.
The coral derives its intense, enduring red color from carotenoid pigments, which play a role in the photosynthetic processes of the tiny plants that form part of C. rubrum’s diet. When people think of red coral, they often picture its deep ruby branches, polished to a vibrant glow, that are worn as jewelry. In life, however, those calcium-carbonate branches support a colony of tiny animals called polyps.
When undisturbed, the coral’s polyps emerge from the skeleton like semi-translucent flowers, pushing through the skin-like tissue that covers the branches. Their eight tiny tentacles, fluttering ever so gently with the current like fine dandelion fuzz, usher plankton and other organic matter into each polyp’s central mouth and transport it through the outer tissue to nourish the entire colony.
Each year in July, the polyps in a male coral colony—a colony’s polyps are either all male or all female—excrete sperm. If they’re lucky, the sperm find their way to a female colony and fertilize its eggs. The fertilized eggs develop into larvae, and after a few weeks the larvae are released into the ocean currents. Most of them don’t survive, but a lucky few will land on a rocky surface—ideally in a protected crevice, cave, or overhang.
Once they’ve found a home, each larva metamorphoses into a polyp, which then reproduces asexually to create new, genetically identical polyps. These polyps, in turn, spit out tiny particles called sclerites that slowly accumulate to form a mound from which the calcium-carbonate skeleton can grow. Once mature, the polyps on the growing skeleton will produce either sperm or eggs, beginning the cycle again.
In his seaside office, located just a few yards from the observatory’s dock, Bramanti described the process of diving to collect coral specimens just before female polyps release their larvae. In his lab, down the hall from his office, he studies the newly liberated larvae under a microscope as they settle, become polyps, and slowly begin constructing hard skeletons.
By the time a coral colony reaches sexual maturity, from six to 10 years old, its skeleton is still just a red nub about the height of a thumbnail. It needs as much as a century to develop into the magnificent branching structure that plays such a crucial role in its ecosystem.
If the colony can survive that long, that is. Even in many marine protected areas, red-coral colonies remain vulnerable to harvesting.
In shallow waters, coral fishers have already removed most of the older, larger colonies. Those that remain are tiny, many only a few inches tall and lacking the intricate branches that today fetch exorbitant prices.
Yet in most parts of the Mediterranean, the harvest continues: Under guidelines established by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), it is still legal to harvest colonies with a basal diameter of seven millimeters or larger. Tiny though that may seem, a colony with a “trunk” of that size could be 30 or 40 years old, Bramanti said. And poachers take colonies of any size, because even tiny pieces can be turned into composite products, or ground into powder believed to possess medicinal properties. Harvesting pressures are contributing to smaller average colony sizes.
Bramanti and other researchers frequently compare red-coral colonies to a forest. Like trees in a forest, the colonies create three-dimensional complexity in the environment, providing shelter and camouflage to other species. Trees affect wind currents; corals affect ocean currents. These branching “animal forests” provide services that a multitude of species depend on.
Or, at least, they did. In too many parts of the Mediterranean, these functions have been lost because the corals have either disappeared or are too small to provide meaningful ecosystem functions. It might be too late to fully understand the impacts: Scientists don’t know the potential of C. rubrum’s role in ecosystems because they cannot study the kinds of large, pristine populations that were prevalent in the past.
“With the red coral, we have microforests. We have, like, fields, not forests,” Bramanti explained.He and his colleagues speak of the transformation of coral forests to “grasslands.” As with so many other wondrous creatures, humans have nearly loved the red coral to death.
Serious efforts to manage the Mediterranean’s red-coral fishery didn’t commence until the late 1970s, after harvests peaked and began to fall. By the early 1980s, data revealed a steep drop in yields.
In 1987, Spain unsuccessfully attempted to list red coral under CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species; two decades later, successive attempts by the United States and the European Union failed to list the species. All of these efforts faced concerns about the difficulty of implementing and enforcing trade controls; they were also opposed by industry representatives who argued that local management could still be effective.
Georgios Tsounis, an adjunct professor of marine biology at California State University Northridge who serves as a technical adviser for the intergovernmental General Fisheries Commission for the Mediterranean (GFCM), says local management is too often underfunded and vulnerable to political pressures. He thinks continued development of international solutions is also necessary.
Tsounis believes that the previous CITES attempts have laid solid groundwork for a potential future listing. They also have raised public awareness and helped spur new research and management strategies. A decade after the last attempt, Tsounis would like to see the evidence for a CITES listing revisited as international demand continues to drive soaring prices that incentivize illegal coral fishing and trafficking. Without border controls, this remains difficult to combat. “The term red gold becomes increasingly more justified,” he told me.
Progress on other management strategies also remains slow. In the 1980s, the FAO established some basic guidelines for national regulation of red-coral harvests. An EU dredging ban followed in 1994, though some poachers continue the destructive practice. Spain, France, Italy, and other European countries, as well as North African nations like Morocco, Tunisia, and Algeria, began applying restrictions on coral fishing in over-exploited shallow waters.
The GFCM established an adaptive management plan for red coral in 2017. Whereas coral management had historically prioritized industry needs—for example, by compromising with industry on biologists’ recommendations for minimum size and collection depth—adaptive management integrates more ecological data into decision making.
But so far, scientists are still waiting for more detailed data.
What’s needed, Tsounis said, is information that goes beyond the total tonnage of red coral harvested. Scientists would like more specific data about where coral has been collected. And they want to know not just the minimum, but also the maximum, colony size harvested in a given location. Much of this “fishery-dependent” data is already being gathered by coral fishers and local fishery managers, but in order for it to be useful to coral conservation it needs to be standardized across the region—something the GFCM is working on. “It’s an opportunity to really improve the management when we get this fishery-dependent data,” Tsounis said.
In 2017, the regional government of Catalonia imposed a 10-year red-coral-fishing moratorium in its waters following a report that illustrated the dire situation of the species in shallow waters off Costa Brava. The Spanish government announced its own two-year, extendable moratorium in 2020 while new conservation strategies are studied.
But even the most protective conservation laws are ineffective without adequate enforcement, funding, and international coordination, says Joaquim Garrabou, a leading red-coral researcher at the Institute of Marine Sciences (ICM) in Barcelona. Two years into the Catalan moratorium, poaching and trafficking continue, just as in other coral-rich parts of the Mediterranean. High prices create irresistible incentives, even in the face of restrictions. One case in point: Tunisian authorities seized 671 kilograms of illegally harvested red coral—worth 2 million euros—and arrested 10 people on suspicion of trafficking, the Agence France-Presse reported in 2019. “The market is there,” Garrabou said.
With limited patrols charged with covering vast areas of ocean, it’s difficult for law enforcement to be in the right place at the right time to catch coral poachers. Even when cases make it to trial, said Garrabou, the burden of proof is high and penalties generally small, so many find poaching a risk worth taking.
Garrabou believes that stronger penalties coupled with robust funding for enforcement and criminal investigations would significantly decrease illegal harvesting and black-market trade. Every action counts, because there’s another threat that’s even harder to control: As policy makers fret about fishing, climate change is rapidly altering the Mediterranean Sea.
In the summer of 2003, Europe was gripped by a deadly, unrelenting heat wave. Above-normal temperatures descended on the United Kingdom, France, Spain, and Italy, extending north to Scandinavia and east to Russia. Wildfires raged in France, Spain, and Portugal; ancient permafrost melted in the Alps, triggering massive rockslides.
Then things got worse. The old and the ill succumbed to heat exhaustion and dehydration. By the end of the summer, the prolonged record-breaking heat had claimed more than 30,000 lives, and countries were forced to reckon with their lack of preparation.
At the same time, global warming was unleashing another, more hidden, catastrophe. Few of the vacationers who fled sweltering cities for Mediterranean beaches knew that a mass-mortality event was occurring just under the surface of the sea, where temperatures spiked 1 to 3 degrees Celsius above the average, resulting in the warmest water ever recorded in some areas.
It wasn’t the first severe marine heat wave to strike the Mediterranean. In 1999, another sudden warming event had led to mass mortalities in the waters off the French and northern Italian coasts. In both heat waves, temperatures were so far outside the normal seasonal range that they caused severe physiological stress in red-coral colonies.
Under these conditions, colonies can succumb to usually harmless bacteria that cause disease in coral only above certain temperature thresholds, suffering total or partial death of the living tissue covering their skeletons. Over time the most severely affected colonies break off at the base, leaving no trace. Heat waves also diminish larvae’s ability to survive and settle, in effect killing off the next generation.
By 2003, Garrabou had spent nearly a decade studying a stunning coral population in the Scandola marine reserve off Corsica. Located in an underwater cave, the lush, colorful population of huge red colonies gave scientists some idea of what the Mediterranean’s coral must have looked like before intense harvesting. After the heat wave, though, the cave became a scene of devastation.
“It’s like you found this really nice place to go and take a walk, and then there is a forest fire and you go back there and there is no more color,” Garrabou told me. Everything had been transformed into a dull gray-brown.
In the decade before 2003, Garrabou’s team had placed markers next to corals so they could collect data year after year. Fellow scientists who later accompanied Garrabou found the markers, but no coral. “Then I showed them the pictures taken before 2003, and they understood the magnitude of the change and why we put the marks there. Because there were a lot of red coral. Colonies that are now simply gone.”
Garrabou had expected to witness a comeback of the Scandola population at some point. But the 2003 heat wave was followed by others in 2006 and 2009, and again in 2010, 2016, and 2018. Today, he estimates that this red-coral population has decreased by between 80 and 90 percent. “For us it’s like seeing a terminal patient,” he said.
The heat waves in the Mediterranean Sea are part of a global trend. A 2018 study published in Nature Communications found that from 1925 to 2016, the global average frequency of marine heat waves rose by a third, while their duration increased by 17 percent. Over the past century, there has been a 54 percent increase in annual marine heat-wave days.
Globally, the ecological and economic impacts of recent marine heat waves are sobering: rapid changes in the range of certain species, die-offs of species that could not migrate or otherwise respond, and restrictions and closures of important fisheries. In the Mediterranean, marine heat waves have elevated average sea temperatures at an alarming rate. Mass-mortality events are increasing and have affected dozens of species, including seagrasses, sponges, and several other coral species—resulting in ripple effects for the fish and other organisms that depend on them.
In addition, there is the wild card of ocean acidification, which hinders the ability of red coral and other marine species to construct calcium-carbonate skeletons and shells. Estimates suggest that acidity in the Mediterranean Sea increased by more than 10 percent from 1995 to 2013 alone. While marine warming is a more immediate concern, Garrabou said, acidification could have synergistic effects that further damage red-coral populations.
Even if someone could wave a magic wand and suddenly halt the impacts of climate change, damaged corals wouldn’t recover overnight. Aiding the recovery of red coral through directtransplantation has shown promise on a local scale, said Garrabou, but it is not a large-scale solution. Researchers have successfully transplanted a few poached red-coral colonies that were still living when law-enforcement agents intercepted harvesters. Other experiments have involved taking fragments from “donor” colonies—for example, colonies that have shown a resistance to marine warming—to support restoration in shallow coastal waters. Such actions have been effective for some fast-growing tropical corals. But for slow-growing species like red coral, even assisted recovery could take decades.
Scientists are investigating other ways of increasing red coral’s chance of survival. In Banyuls, Bramanti is trying to pinpoint the optimal conditions for larvae establishment and endurance. To replicate those conditions, he’s experimenting with what he calls “coral hotels”: cement boxes that simulate protective caves and crevices.
First, Bramanti genotypes a group of small, sexually mature male and female colonies. Then he slides up to nine removable ceramic tiles, each containing one colony, onto the ceiling of the boxes. Several boxes are arranged in a hexagonal shape on the sea floor so he can investigate factors like the best ratio of male colonies to female colonies, and the optimal distance for fertilization.
Once fertilization occurs, Bramanti removes some female colonies and takes them to the lab, where, rather like an expectant father, he observes the release of larvae. “Then a universe opens,” he said.
With special cameras and microscopes, he observes the larvae as they move and settle. After settlement, he continues monitoring the development to understand which conditions and interventions best support survival in this vulnerable time. “If you can save them during this period, when they are stronger they can go back to the wild,” he said, and have a greater chance of success.
To fight poaching and trafficking, scientists are developing molecular tools that can identify illegal coral harvests. Jean-Baptiste Ledoux, an assistant researcher based in Portugal at the University of Porto’s Interdisciplinary Centre of Marine and Environmental Research, integrates population genetics, genomics, and experimental ecology to study coral conservation. He previously worked with Garrabou at the ICM to identify distinct genetic groups of C. rubrum from colonies located in two Costa Brava hot spots: the Medes Islands and Cap de Creus.
Ledoux and his colleagues will soon be able to apply even more precise forensic analyses to red- coral-fishing enforcement and conservation. In November of last year, theCatalan Biological Society announced funding to sequence the entire red-coral genome.
The project, led by Garrabou at the ICM, is a huge development. Ledoux will coordinate research between the institutions involved in decoding red coral’s complete genetic instructions. This will help scientists advance the development of powerful genetic tools to help law enforcement catch poachers and strengthen criminal evidence against them.
Similar molecular forensic techniques have helped combat ivory poaching by genetically identifying the origin of intercepted ivory and beefing up enforcement to protect targeted elephant populations. The same could be done for red coral. And if C. rubrum eventually receives a CITES listing, these tools could be deployed at international borders.
Ledoux says genomic sequencing will allow scientists to explore in more detail the genetic factors that increase resilience—for example, why some coral populations are less affected by marine warming—so they can be targeted for restoration.
“Having the genome sequence of the red coral will open new avenues for its conservation and restoration as well as for policy, enforcement, and the struggle against poaching,” he told me. “This is potentially a giant step for the conservation of the species.”
Well-managed marine protected areas are also essential to conservation. Not only do they give coral a chance to grow by restricting fishing, but they allow researchers to do long-term monitoring of relatively undisturbed coral populations.
Currently, only 6 percent of the Mediterranean Sea is protected at all, with less than 1 percent designated as highly protected. Any serious efforts to save red-coral colonies, Garrabou said, must involve expansion of marine protected areas—and enforcement—across the entire region.
Scientists and conservationists recognize that effective enforcement must enlist the support of local communities, whose residents run the fishing and recreational-diving businesses that can damage coral populations.
Eighteen miles south of Empúries, in the medieval fishing village of Begur, the tradition of coral harvesting remains embedded in community identity and the local economy.From the 14th to 19th century, Catalan coral fishermen set out from Begur’s crystalline coves to collect coral both locally and down the coasts of Spain and North Africa. Upon their return, traders transported the harvest to the Italian centers of coral craftsmanship: Genova, Trapani, and, later, Torre del Greco, which remains the heart of the red-coral-jewelry industry.
In Begur’s grand central church, an ethereal sculpture depicts a Virgin of the Coral with flowing hair and gown, holding at her hip a child clutching a crimson coral branch. Here, generations of women prayed for the safe return of their fishermen; some of their descendants still wear bits of coral around their necks or keep some in their homes for protection and good health.
Today, Begur and nearby L’Estartit maintain economic connections to coral. Some 60,000 recreational dives a year occur in the nearby Medes Islands, a marine reserve whose relatively healthy corals are a big tourist draw. The success of the diving industry here represents yet another threat to vulnerable marine organisms, because divers can accidentally break off coral colonies—and, in some cases, tourists illegally collect them as souvenirs. But Joaquim Garrabou told me there’s also an emerging opportunity for local fishers, divers, and scientists to team up and protect imperiled species.
Garrabou coordinates a project called Sea Watchers, an international network of researchers, industry leaders, and community members that incorporates local observations and expertise into marine monitoring and research.
The project also facilitates training for diving companies so they follow best practices to protect fragile ecosystems and educate tourists about vulnerable species like red coral. Dive clients can participate directly in citizen science, identifying and documenting red coral and other species through underwater photography, for example, that is shared with scientists.
Fishers with a lifetime of experience at sea are helping researchers identify, map, and collect data on coral populations, contributing to a more complete picture of the corals’ demographics and health. Fishers respond positively when their expertise is valued and included in decision making, Garrabou said. “The top-down approach maybe can work for some issues, but when we have to deal with this transformation of our society, it has to be really understood by the people; otherwise, the implementation is not efficient or effective at all.”
After my visit with Bramanti in Banyuls, the two of us headed back over the Spanish border to Cadaqués, an isolated fishing village just beyond the rugged Cap de Creus. Bramanti was there for dive-safety training facilitated by Toni Garcia, a former coral fisher and the proprietor of the Diving Center Cadaqués. Garcia has worked with Bramanti for years, providing logistical support for scientific dives and introducing him to local fishers.
Garcia’s own father was a fisher in Cadaqués in the 1970s, during the last golden age of coral fishing there. Garcia returned to Cadaqués in the early 1990s and started the dive center, working as a commercial diver and spending summers harvesting coral.
Garcia is an example of a coral fisher with his “foot in two shoes,” Bramanti said.When they met in the mid-2000s, the two men bonded over a shared passion for diving.As Garcia accompanied Bramanti and his colleagues on dives, he came to embrace sustainable, science-based fishing policies.
Coral fishing “has been the most beautiful job I’ve had in my life, and I would do it again, without a doubt,” Garcia said. “But surely with a different perspective, more conservation-minded.”
Bramanti, Garrabou, and other prominent coral researchers are convinced that this kind of community stewardship is crucial to any effective conservation effort. The more opportunities people have to participate in science, the more likely they’ll beto protect the coral.
Back at the Banyuls-Sur-Mer observatory, Bramanti paused at a small glass case to point out a bright red-orange coral skeleton, thick with branches, about 11 inches wide by 7 inches tall. The display described it as a 300-year-old colony harvested at a depth of 90 meters, or almost 300 feet.
The colony was collected in 2002 by a Cadaqués fisher whom Bramanti met through Garcia. Bramanti had been searching for a small specimen to study and was willing to pay for it. But the fisher insisted on donating the entire colony to the observatory. Bramanti estimated that it is worth close to $3,000.
“At the end of your career you realize you’ve killed a lot of these super-beautiful animals,” Bramanti said, referring to the fisher. “You get old, and you realize. And you want to give something back.”
Nancy Hollander has taken on many difficult cases in her career, but none quite like that of the Guantánamo detainee Mohamedou Ould Salahi
By the time Mohamedou Ould Salahi was brought from his home in Mauritania to the Guantánamo Bay detention facility in Cuba in 2002, he had already experienced a series of harsh interrogations in Jordan and Afghanistan. Now he was in the hands of the Americans he thought his experience might improve, but he quickly discovered he was wrong. In Guantánamo, Salahi was tortured and held without charge for 14 years. His story, first published in his 2015 memoir Guantánamo Diary, is the subject of a new Hollywood film, The Mauritanian.
In the second of two episodes about his story, Salahi’s lawyer, Nancy Hollander tells Anushka Asthana how she came to represent the man who was, at one time, Guantánamo’s most high-value detainee. And Salahi’s friend and former prison guard, Steve Wood, wonders what it will take to close his former workplace for good. Wood’s friendship with Salahi is the subject of a new Bafta-longlisted Guardian documentary, My Brother’s Keeper.
How did the second time compare with losing my “first” virginity? It was certainly more memorable
I had gender reassignment surgery in the late 2000s, and while I had been sexually active prior to this, I had always imagined what it would be like to have sex as a woman for the first time. I had pictured a whirlwind romance or a hotel room, or maybe even a seedy club. What actually happened was altogether more intriguing.
At the time I was a keen photographer, and was also beginning to explore the kink scene. These interests intersected when a couple asked if I wanted to photograph their new dungeon equipment for them. At this point no sexual high jinks were on my mind, just a two-hour train journey across a sodden Lancashire and a warm cup of tea at the end. But when I arrived, the man and woman were charming and interesting, and ended up asking if I’d be keen to try the equipment.
Psychiatric hospitals, nursing homes, and other long-term-care facilities have served as chilling backdrops to some of film’s most arresting psychological thrillers. But the foreboding lighthouse of Shutter Island and the macabre, labyrinthine hospital of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest pale in comparison with both movies’ animating horrors: the wretched treatment of the people trapped within. These works dramatize the cruelties that hospital administrators and caretakers exact upon their patients, especially those who have been admitted against their will, with Hitchcockian dread. In doing so, they challenge conventional wisdom about mental illness, authority, and the ethics of condemning people to isolation.
Recent productions about the complications of caregiving include Ratched’s clumsy attempt to revisit the tyrannical asylum nurse in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest as well as Falling, an intimate tale of a gay man whose aging, ailing, and conservative father comes to live with him. The latest addition to this loose category is I Care a Lot, which began streaming on Netflix last Friday. More neo-noir than nuanced character study, the writer-director J Blakeson’s film nonetheless shows how easily a shrewd scammer can manipulate systems that already cause grave harm.
Rosamund Pike plays Marla Grayson, a con artist whose grift is particularly cruel: She bribes a doctor into declaring elderly people unable to look after themselves, then becomes their court-appointed legal guardian. Marla is savvy and severe, but her greatest skill as a scammer is her knowledge of the countless ways that legal and health-care bureaucracies leave the elderly and disabled vulnerable. Under the guise of protecting her patients, Marla easily persuades doctors to alter their medications and isolate them from the loved ones who might guard them from her ploy. The movie’s message is clear: Marla may be remarkably evil, but these intersecting systems already enable the abuse of elders, people who have disabilities, and anyone else who doesn’t have the legal or societal power to fight back.
When Marla arrives at the lovely home of Jennifer Peterson (played by Dianne Wiest) to inform Jennifer that the court has ordered her to a care facility, it doesn’t matter that Jennifer insists that she’s perfectly capable of looking after herself. A few flashes of court documentation—and a quick nod to the police standing by—make clear that Jennifer is powerless to stop the impending takeover of her life and her finances. “She sounds a bit more like a prisoner than a guest,” another character later observes of Jennifer’s existence inside the facility. The film’s central scheme takes some unexpected twists: Without giving away too much, Peter Dinklage plays a menacing figure who comes to Jennifer’s defense, causing a wrinkle in Marla’s typically smooth operation. But even accounting for a handful of grisly action sequences, I Care a Lot’s most disturbing moments are the ones in which institutional violence seems far more threatening than any one person, no matter how steely his gaze or heartless her mission.
Unlike earlier films that focus on the psychological toll victims suffer, I Care a Lot emphasizes how systemic injustices can be maneuvered specifically to generate personal profit. After all, a single diagnosis can be enough to revoke someone’s basic rights under the guise of medical care, and all it takes is one conniving person to exploit those missing protections. Watching Marla deploy her femininity to nefarious ends, it’s immediately tempting to see an extension of Pike’s most famous role, Gone Girl’s Amy. Both women orchestrate diabolical schemes enabled in part by racist, sexist perceptions of white women’s perpetual innocence. Even Pike has nodded to the overlaps between the two: “I do think they would be two interesting women to get in a room together,” she told Entertainment Weekly. “I don’t think they would like each other very much at all.”
The characters have wildly different motivations, though: The titular woman in Gillian Flynn’s 2014 thriller seeks interpersonal damages, not wealth. I Care a Lot’s Marla, meanwhile, is a merciless capitalist villain. “To make it in this country, you need to be brave—and stupid and ruthless and focused,” she says during one climactic confrontation. “Because playing fair, being scared, that gets you nowhere. That gets you beat.”
I Care a Lot is most perplexing in moments such as this, when Marla’s reprehensible racket is cloaked in the language of Lean In feminism. “You know how many times I’ve been threatened by a man? Thousands,” she declares early in the film. “You know how many of ’em ever came to anything? Two.” In this scene, and in the several altercations she has with angry men, I Care a Lot casts Marla as a morally ambiguous character, despite the fact that her actions clearly harm scores of people, including other women. Though the film’s final scene suggests a clear judgment of Marla’s ethics, much of the preceding dialogue sets her up as the badass boss babe.
Much of I Care a Lot’s muddled conclusion about Marla’s principles is communicated through the literal image she projects: Marla trades the clinical presentation of Nurse Ratched for #girlboss couture, complete with a razor-sharp blond bob and a romantic partner who doubles as a femme-fatale co-conspirator (Eiza González). Real care work is grueling and unglamorous. The people most often caring for ailing family, especially now, are disproportionately women; many of those working as aides in the health-care industry are women of color. But in Blakeson’s film, the fraud victims, family members, and health-care workers all suffer at the hands of women who hide behind the rhetoric of bureaucracy and female empowerment.
A new form of coronavirus variant is spreading rapidly in New York City and it carries a worrisome mutation that may weaken the effectiveness of vaccines. As per the research by two teams, the new variant --B.1.526 -- first appeared in samples collected in New York in November. However, by the middle of February, it appeared in about one in four viral sequences in the database shared by the scientists.
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo acknowledged for the first time on Sunday that some of his behaviour with women “may have been insensitive or too personal”, and said he would cooperate with a sexual harassment investigation led by the US state’s attorney general.In a statement released amid mounting criticism from within his own party, the Democrat maintained he had never inappropriately touched or propositioned anyone. But he said he had teased people about their personal lives in an attempt to…
After several 11th-hour delays, people are now starting to depart camp to argue their asylum cases in the US
A dusty soccer ball lay idle and forgotten a few days ago at an empty dwelling that had been knitted together from billowing, fraying plastic tarps tied to dead trees in the Mexican city of Matamoros.
The vignette of the abandoned shelter is expected to replicate across the makeshift migrant camp in the coming weeks, wedged between the edge of the city and the swirling Rio Grande, across the border from south-east Texas.
A gentleman comes from the East Coast to make his fortune. When the train lets him off in a dusty Wyoming town, he encounters an array of cowpunchers, card sharps, and ne’er-do-wells, whose coarse manners shock and intrigue him. At the saloon, he’s treated to their opinions on the local women, as well as one man’s boast that he never forgets a face—so long as that face is white. A game of cards nearly turns into a shootout when one man calls the newcomer a “son-of-a—,” causing him to lay his pistol on the table and utter what will become the story’s catchphrase: “When you call me that, smile.”
So begins Owen Wister’s The Virginian, considered by some to be the first Western novel. Published in 1902, it became a mega–best seller, made Wister rich, and helped popularize an international genre of literature and film. The Virginian doesn’t get a lot of attention anymore, but its basic tropes are still what many readers think of when they picture a Western: a bunch of white men shooting at one another, or at Indigenous people, who enter the story as faceless antagonists if they enter it at all.
But the past several years have seen the rise of a different kind of Western novel. The genre has been evolving for some time, with TV shows like Deadwood and films like No Country for Old Men and Hell or High Water offering a twist on the usual formula. And recently, a number of authors have upended it further, in the process sweeping away some of its most calcified myths.
The protagonist of Hernán Diaz’s 2017 novel, In the Distance, for example, takes the opposite of a traditional hero’s journey; instead of trying to conquer Western land, he seeks to disappear into it. In Téa Obreht’s 2019, Inland, cowboys and outlaws are replaced by a camel driver, an exasperated mother, and visitors from the afterlife. And in How Much of These Hills Is Gold, C Pam Zhang’s 2020 debut novel, a Chinese American prospector’s daughter forges her own path across California after her family is kicked off their claim.
These novels preserve some aspects of the old Westerns: the parched vistas, the isolation, the high-stakes emotion of characters running afoul of the law. But they also call into question the genre’s basic premise: the idea of the frontier as a place to be mastered and overcome. Instead, the Western becomes a way of thinking about humans’ relationship to land, the past, and the idea of home.
“If the Western is the expansion of America, I wanted to question who or what is American,” Zhang told me in an email. “If the Western is about nostalgia, I wanted to complicate that nostalgia through immigrant characters who simultaneously feel the tug of inherited nostalgia for another land.”
Indeed, the protagonists of recent revisionist Westerns are tugged not merely West to make their fortunes, but in more complex directions. In Diaz’s In the Distance, for example, a Swedish boy named Håkan tries to sail to New York with his brother, but gets on the wrong boat and ends up alone in San Francisco. His search for his brother leads him to travel against the flow of settlers; as Lawrence Downes wrote at The New York Times in 2018, he instead goes “west to east, around in circles, down into the earth, and north to Alaska.”
Håkan becomes an outlaw, but is the most unwilling of gunslingers; after he slaughters a band of thieves for assaulting the woman he loves, he is so consumed with shame that he lives largely as a hermit for decades, digging a warren of subterranean caves and sheltering inside them. Dressed in rags and eating only what he can trap or gather, he is completely absorbed by the work of maintaining his underground burrow. “He seldom considered his body or his circumstances—or anything else, for that matter,” Diaz writes. “The business of being took up all of his time.” Rather than conquering the West, in other words, Håkan becomes a part of it.
Téa Obreht’s Inland, too, offers a twist on the hero quest. Instead of a horse, Lurie Mattie rides a camel, his travels across the West inspired by the real-life United States Camel Corps. Like Håkan, Lurie is an immigrant; he arrived in the U.S. as a child from the Ottoman Empire. Unlike Håkan, he has an unusual gift, or curse: He can feel the desires of the dead. Obreht’s other protagonist, Nora, is an Arizona homesteader who is haunted, too—by the memory of Evelyn, her dead daughter, who still speaks to her. By the time Nora’s story intersects with Lurie’s, readers sense that neither will attain the standard Western hero’s goal of laying claim to the land.
But when Nora opens Lurie’s canteen and gains, for a moment, some of his supernatural power, she’s able to see a different future for herself. “This is the place,” Obreht writes, “until it isn’t; her house—until it isn’t; no water and therefore no house, no paper, no town at all, one way or the other, no matter what; but then some other town, some other house, some house elsewhere, some new house in Wyoming; and Evelyn there—Evelyn with her in the new house, after all.” Ultimately, Nora’s and Lurie’s stories both raise the possibility of a home in the West—in the world—defined not by treaties or conquest or lines on a map but by the presence of loved ones, living or dead.
The characters in Zhang’s How Much of These Hills Is Gold are also forced to consider how to put down roots when owning land isn’t an option. The story follows Lucy and her sibling, Sam, who must make their way in Gold Rush–era California after the death of their parents and the cancellation of the family’s claim. The latter occurs thanks to a racist law intended to target their Chinese American family: “The law strips all rights to gold and land from any man not born in this territory.”
The siblings take divergent paths through their grief and dispossession into adulthood. But when they reunite, they must make a decision about where their future lies. As Lucy makes that decision, she thinks back to her childhood environs, her memories inextricably tied up with love, family, and loss:
Maybe if you only went far enough, waited long enough, held enough sadness pooled in your veins, soon you might come upon a path you knew, the shapes of rocks would look like familiar faces, the trees would greet you, buds and birdsong lilting up, and because this land had gouged in you an animal’s kind of claiming, senseless to words and laws ... then, if you ran, you might hear on the wind, or welling up in your own parched mouth, something like and unlike an echo, coming from before or behind, the sound of a voice you’ve always known calling your name.
While the old Westerns were about claiming land, How Much of These Hills Is Gold is about being “claimed by it,” about how landscape and history combine to shape a human life.
Diaz, Obreht, and Zhang all propose different kinds of relationships with land and place than those offered in conventional Westerns. And such relationships are sorely needed as America begins to reckon with its colonialist past and present. “Many more of us should question who has rights to a place, and whose rights were stolen in the process,” Zhang told me. “Not necessarily in an antagonistic way, but in an empathetic way that is informed by the tangled, bloodied history of exploitation and violence that has led us up to this point.”
Throughout her novel, Zhang is clear about whose rights were stolen in the California hills—not just Lucy and Sam’s, but also those of the Indigenous people who lived there before the prospectors arrived. In old Westerns, by contrast, Indigenous people either don’t appear at all or are presented as obstacles keeping white people from what should belong to them. In John Wayne movies, for example, “we oftentimes see the hero celebrated for killing people who look like me,” Joshua Nelson, the chair of the University of Oklahoma’s Film and Media Studies Department and a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, told me.
Perhaps for that reason, Indigenous writers and filmmakers have not always been interested in revisiting the tropes of the Western, Nelson said. “The Western has never been very much about American Indian people,” he explained. “So, by and large, Indigenous folks have instead wanted to tell stories that were about them.”
Many of these stories, though they may not have the hallmarks of the revisionist Western, deal with issues of land and sovereignty in their own ways, Nelson said, citing works by Louise Erdrich and other Indigenous writers and filmmakers such as Jeff Barnaby and Sterlin Harjo. Erdrich’s The Round House, for example, is about an Ojibwe woman who has been sexually assaulted near the border of reservation and United States land, calling into question which courts have jurisdiction over the case. The story follows her son, Joe, as he investigates the crime himself, coming to a greater understanding of trauma, law, and justice in the process.
Stories such as this, by Indigenous creators, and neo-Westerns such as those by Zhang, Diaz, and Obreht are coming to the fore at a time of greater cultural attention to the many histories that have been papered over to make the myth of America. It’s also a time when the land of the West is deeply at risk from climate change. “Wildfires raged through California while I wrote and edited and put out my novel,” Zhang told me. And it’s a time when authors continue to experiment with genre and play with time, in alternate histories like TheUnderground Railroad or fantasies like The City We Became.
When The Virginian came out, and for decades after, “the frontier” was a site of fantasy for many white readers. “Practically every American male has at one time or another thought of himself as a cowboy or rancher,” the novelist (and rancher) Struthers Burt wrote in his 1951 introduction to the text. But today, the so-called frontier can be a site of reimagining—of how to live on land without possessing it, how to make a home without stealing someone else’s, and how to tell the story of the past in a way that informs the future. “To me, the true DNA of the Western is nostalgia,” Zhang said. “Westerns exist at the trembling edge between one world and another.”
To be sure, How Much of These Hills Is Gold and novels like it look to the past for inspiration. But they also look outward, inviting readers not simply to imagine themselves as “a cowboy or rancher,” but to envision other lives, other journeys, and, perhaps, other worlds.
Thousands of New Zealanders forced to evacuate following a series of strong earthquakes in the area on Friday can return home, authorities have said.An 8.1-magnitude earthquake struck about 8.30am (local time) near the Kermadec Islands, some 800 kilometres off the northeast coast of New Zealand’s North Island.It followed a 7.4-magnitude quake in the same area, and a 7.3-magnitude quake that struck off the east coast of New Zealand in the early hours of Friday.The National Emergency Management…
Thousands of people have been evacuated in coastal areas of New Zealand’s North Island after a powerful 8.1-magnitude earthquake off the coast prompting a tsunami warning. The quake was one of three to strike New Zealand in a day, with emergency orders in coastal regions urging people to head away from the water and onto high ground. There were no immediate reports of serious damage or casualties before the warning was downgraded
Mughal palaces, Egyptian tombs and modernist masterpieces can be experienced in VR tours that depart from your sofa
While our lives have mostly shrunk to our own four walls – besides the sneak peek of others’ homes glimpsed via Zoom – we can still step into other worlds virtually. Stately homes and fortresses, from Blenheim Palace to Bran Castle (of Dracula fame) have opened digital portals allowing anyone with a laptop the chance to snoop around, without getting off the sofa. Here are 10 of my favourite colourful buildings from the vast eclectic trove online.
A transgender South Korean soldier who was forcibly discharged from the army after gender-reassignment surgery has been found dead, police said, prompting anger on Thursday and calls for legal reforms.Firefighters found Byun Hee-soo in her home in Cheongju after a mental health counsellor called emergency services to report that she had not been heard from for several days, Yonhap news agency reported.South Korea remains deeply conservative about matters of sexual identity and is less tolerant…
A tennis ball covered in spikes. That’s all we’ve got. More than a year has passed since the first reports of human-to-human transmission of the novel coronavirus, and its most memorable visual signifier is a stylized illustration of the virus itself. That spiky ball floats in the background of explanatory graphics and charts, or looms eerily behind the heads of television anchors delivering yet more somber news. When I think of COVID-19, that’s what I see.
The lack of an iconic photograph from the coronavirus crisis has been nagging at me for months. When I think of 9/11, I see the smoking towers, or the “falling man.” When I think of the 2015 Mediterranean refugee crisis, I see the tiny body of Alan Kurdi, a boy whose family searched for safety across the water and found tragedy instead. Where the visual references come up short, so do my memories—the 2005 Islamist bombings of London have faded in my mind, because all but one of them happened underground. A terrorist atrocity that happened just miles from my home in London feels less real than one across an ocean in New York, at least partly because I cannot summon vivid images of the former.
Having one or more iconic images would help anchor the conversation about the pandemic in a shared set of facts, a common reality—something that seems particularly vital when COVID-19 denial is already a potent force, and “skeptical” commentators argue that lockdown measures were needless or pointless. Consider how few images have survived (or perhaps were ever taken) of the 1918 flu pandemic, compared with the First World War, and which of those two mass killers looms larger in our culture.
News organizations have long argued that “bearing witness” to conflicts, famines, and natural disasters is an ethical imperative, even when it means placing reporters and photographers in dangerous situations. (The cynical add that we are perfectly capable of looking at other people’s tragedies without feeling obliged to ameliorate them.) “News photography is what brings a story to the world, and news photography is all about access,” Rickey Rogers, the global head of pictures at the Reuters news agency, told me. “When everyone is running away from a war or an explosion, journalists are running towards it.”
But covering an infectious disease has changed the risk calculus. “One of the biggest changes to photographers is that instead of going out to cover something that involves risk and coming home to a safe place, they’re bringing that danger home with them,” Rogers said. “We have photographers that have access to ICUs, but we don’t want them to have hours in there. Every minute is a greater risk.”
Paul Brand, the television channel ITV’s U.K. editor, echoed that sentiment. Even before the pandemic, he told me, he had experienced difficulties in reporting on elderly-care homes, because some residents might not be able to give consent for an interview. But “add the pandemic, and you’re a potential danger to them. So then we’re trying to give a GoPro [camera] to a nurse and sterilize it when it comes out.”
Nonetheless, journalists in Britain and elsewhere have persisted in trying to report on hospitals and assisted-living facilities, the worst-affected places in the pandemic. Since Christmas, there has been a noticeable increase in the number of such reports on the BBC, Britain’s state broadcaster—including a powerful series by the reporter Clive Myrie, who interviewed exhausted morticians and doctors, as well as a man whose wife had just died.
Why does that matter? In the past six weeks, Britain’s National Health Service has come close to collapse and deaths have spiked higher than the first COVID-19 wave last year, partly because of a new and more transmissible variant of the coronavirus. Yet misinformation abounds. In October, researchers published a paper demonstrating the reach of the #FilmYourHospital hashtag, which was designed to spread images of empty wards. One post claiming that hospitals in Los Angeles were “EMPTY and very quiet!” received more than 20,000 retweets. If the crisis doesn’t feel real, how do you get people to stay at home, wear masks, and get the vaccine?
News reports from hospitals, and efforts such as a tracker from the Los Angeles Times showing the true impact of COVID-19 on the city’s hospitals, might help counteract this kind of misinformation, but they are less effective when it comes to humanizing the crisis. Stuart Franklin, a Magnum photographer, wrote an essay to accompany his photographs of a British hospital in March because so many of his pictures featured people in masks. “Images of this pandemic tend to show the suits and clothes and gear that people wear, which has an othering effect,” he told me. “It’s like photographing bobsleigh racing or Major League Baseball—you can’t see anyone’s emotions under the helmet.”
In fact, masks might be the most iconic representation of the crisis—at least in the West. (Wearing face masks has long been unremarkable in Asian countries affected by previous respiratory viruses.) But a mask is an addition to a scene, not an event in itself. And even in Europe and the United States, thanks to ER, Grey’s Anatomy, and any number of other medical dramas, masks are part of an existing visual vocabulary. They stand in for hygiene, safety, and distance. We’re just seeing more of them now.
These thoughts unlock the essential weirdness of this pandemic. It is a novel event in which nothing truly new is happening: People are staying at home, people are dying in hospitals, people are socializing in small groups or not at all. How does a picture of a woman standing at her window convey that she doesn’t just happen to be there for a moment, but has been trapped inside for months, shielding her fragile immune system?
Some of the most arresting pictures are the ones of nothing: the absence of shoulder-to-shoulder crowds in a shopping district, the concert hall with no audience, the offices inhabited by dead mice rather than living humans. (TheNew York Times ran a series of such photographs called “The Great Empty.”) Again, though, these pictures do not shock us, because city centers are often deserted late at night and over the holidays. Musicians rehearsed to empty rooms before the pandemic, and will continue to do so afterward. The difference now is that the stillness doesn’t last a few hours, but stretches on, season after season.
The challenge of documenting the coronavirus is to show how our existence has been put on hold, how time has telescoped while our horizons have contracted. Many parents know what it’s like to skip work to look after a child; they just never expected to do it for weeks on end. “I’ve got kids in their 30s who are teaching at home, and all of that homeschooling, we barely see,” Franklin said. “And a lot of people aren’t homeschooling—their kids aren’t getting any education at all.” But what photograph can show that?
I would love to see visuals that show our time-lapse lives: the steady degradation of a home that is now an office, playground, school, coffee shop, and bar all at once, day after repetitive day; the slow blooming of beards as shaving became a needless task; the monotony of another day in jeans and socks as a wardrobe full of clothes hangs idle, with no parties or conferences to attend.
But again: the unique challenge of this crisis is that we are all banned from one another’s homes. “I did a story in the north of England for TheSunday Times,” Franklin said, “and the negotiation with people about whether they’d see you in their garden, whether you could speak to them on the phone—it took hours.”
When I asked Rogers, the editor at Reuters, to give me an idea of the coronavirus stories he had commissioned, he reeled off a long list: super-spreader events, transportation of the sick, people lying dead on the streets in Brazil and Ecuador, outbreaks in prisons, empty supermarket shelves, theaters with an audience of trees instead of people. “I can’t say that there was one iconic image from any news source,” he added. “An iconic image brings all the elements together, and this story was just too complex for that.” Emily Jan, an art director at The Atlantic, agreed. “I think of window portraits and plastic-bag hugs, of people saying final goodbyes on Zoom and evictions and food lines,” she told me. “People were experiencing this tragedy in vastly different ways, and in different waves. It’s not as if one sudden destructive event had occurred and we are all grappling with the aftermath.”
For Rogers, two sets of visuals nevertheless stood out. The first was drone footage of mass burials in New York City in April—something his audience was shocked to see outside a war zone—and the second was aerial images from October of cruise ships being dismantled, now that no one wants to be stuck on a boat with potential virus carriers. The latter type of images, Rogers suggested, would define COVID-19’s second year, as we slowly realize the many ways in which the world has changed while we’ve been at home, hiding from the coronavirus. “What if rather than one iconic image, this period sees a body of work become what goes down in history?” Jan said. “I believe there’s something radical there about the possibility of more perspectives when telling what we view as one story or news event.”
We need photographs of this pandemic because we need to remember it collectively. We need to fix the coronavirus crisis in our minds, so we can stand back and consider the upheaval of our lives. We must remember the scale of the challenge faced by politicians, epidemiologists, health-care workers, vaccine researchers, and the clunking bureaucracies that silently run our lives—and remind ourselves which of those groups rose to the occasion, and which did not.
In a decade’s time, we will need to stop the dead from slipping into the mist, along with the failures that helped send them there. We need to see what happened—so that, later, we can all agree that it did.
After losing her marketing job due to the pandemic and then gaining 40 pounds, Remi Bader, 25, began spending more time on TikTok. She built up a following by posting about clothing items not fitting her correctly and her struggle to find larger sizes in New York City stores.
Watching Allen v. Farrow, HBO’s new four-part miniseries about the 29-year-old allegations of child molestation against the director Woody Allen, I kept having a feeling that I couldn’t entirely identify. Since revelations about Harvey Weinstein emerged in late 2017—broken, in part, by Allen’s son, Ronan Farrow—harrowing stories about abusive men in the workplace have been reported one after another. But the story of Dylan Farrow, who was 7 years old in 1992, when she told her mother that her father had sexually abused her, is different, an allegation of domestic trauma that’s been weaponized by interested parties again and again. The feeling I had, I eventually realized, was one of wanting to look away. Not because I don’t believe Dylan (I do), or because I believe Allen’s work is so valuable that her testimony is worth shunting aside (I don’t, and no one’s is). It’s queasier than that: a nagging sense that, at this point, there’s still no way for Dylan to tell her story without it being exploited.
The conflict between Allen and the actor Mia Farrow began when Farrow discovered explicit Polaroid photos revealing that Allen had been having an affair with her 21-year-old adopted daughter, Soon-Yi Previn. Seven months later, a babysitter reportedly observed Allen kneeling with his head in Dylan’s lap, and when Farrow questioned Dylan later about what had happened, she told her mother that he’d molested her. The ferocious media blitzkrieg that arose when both stories became public led to Allen and Farrow being maligned in the press, with their friends and family flinging accusations into the cross fire. The week the news broke, during the 1992 Republican National Convention, newsweeklies bumped planned political coverage to focus on the story. “Cries and Whispers: The Ugly Explosion of an Unconventional Family,” Time blared. Allen’s proxies claimed that Farrow was an unfit mother who abused pills and neglected her adopted children in favor of her biological ones. Farrow’s allies told the press that Allen had been seeing a therapist for his inappropriate attachment to Dylan, with Farrow’s mother stating in one interview that he was “a desperate and evil man.”
But over the years, Dylan’s story has been steadfast, even if few cared to remember it. In 2014, when she chose to re-air it via an open letter in The New York Times, and in 2018, when she spoke out again amid the #MeToo movement, she said she did so to shock an industry that had never stopped lauding the man she says abused her.
The series, in litigating Dylan’s accusations once again, stretches the conflict out into a fourth successive decade. Allen v. Farrow has the weighty quality of wanting to put something definitively to rest; in focusing on Dylan, and in presenting some previously unaired evidence, its filmmakers, Amy Ziering and Kirby Dick, aim to offer a conclusive case for Allen’s guilt. (He has always denied abusing Dylan in any way, and declined to be interviewed for the series, as did Soon-Yi and her brother Moses Farrow, the two siblings in the family who publicly spoke out in 2018 against their adoptive mother.)
But a documentary series, ideally, should feel like a journalistic investigation, not a case being presented in family court, especially when so many of the details have been picked through and blasted out by so many parties for so long. It’s easy to see why Ziering and Dick might have wanted to gloss over some facts. Custody battles and sexual-assault cases are both zero-sum: Any point that undermines one side, however frivolous, tends to have the unfortunate effect of boosting the other. The fact that Allen, Soon-Yi, and Moses declined to participate in the show is unfortunate, and unsurprising; all of Farrow’s other surviving children were interviewed in the course of putting together the series, and all supported their mother and their sister Dylan’s account. It’s still hard to justify, however, giving such short shrift to the accounts of the other two, both of whom have offered strikingly different versions of growing up in the Farrow household in the past, and who are cursorily dismissed on camera by their white siblings. The show’s narrative is too determinedly focused for any nuance that might complicate its momentum.
The landscape for survivors has also changed significantly even over the past three years, shifting the power dynamics of the family yet again. Since Dylan retold her story in 2018, Allen has been effectively cast out of the industry. Most of the stars who once attached themselves to his projects have disavowed him; his most recent movie was released primarily outside of the U.S.; his four-movie deal with Amazon was dropped; his autobiography was pulped by Hachette after the publishing company’s employees staged a protest. (It was later released by the independent-trade house Arcade.) There’s so little appetite to defend Allen that, in the moments when I realized that the series had omitted elements that might have portrayed Mia Farrow unfavorably, I felt a little guilty about remembering them.
Ziering and Dick have made their name exposing institutional abuses of power and the ways in which organizations protect alleged offenders to protect themselves. Their 2012 feature, The Invisible War, delved into an epidemic of sexual abuse within the military, and 2015’s The Hunting Ground revealed how assaults on college campuses are routinely covered up or underreported to minimize the damage to academic reputations. On the Record, released last year, considered assault allegations made against the music producer Russell Simmons and the conditions within the industry that deter accusers from speaking out. (Simmons denies all allegations against him.) But with Allen v. Farrow, the directors enter a different realm. In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Ziering and Dick explained that they’d been offered funding for a project that explored incest, and in Dylan, they seemingly identified a subject who allowed them to examine both the consequences of childhood trauma and the hypocrisy of Hollywood mythmaking.
The challenge of Dylan’s story is that for decades, many people preferred to forget it, which, Allen v. Farrow argues, has affected her ability to heal. Her allegations against Allen complicate the legacy of a man who profoundly changed film—who normalized the neurotic strain in the creative imagination and, in the words of the writer Claire Dederer, “shows something that’s uncomfortable in himself. And then you feel less alone.” But the charges against Allen aren’t that he abused his power as a filmmaker and Hollywood legend. They are that he fundamentally corrupted his role as a partner and a father. Think about the conflict between Allen and the Farrows (Mia, Dylan, Ronan, and their siblings) as a domestic one, and its fault lines and contradictions become easier to understand.
The flaws in Allen v. Farrow arguably stem from its determination to settle things once and for all, and the uneven weighting of events and subjects it offers in the process. Families are inherently messy and illogical, and the neat hero-villain frame the series superimposes doesn’t exactly fit. From the start, the relationship between Allen and Farrow appears to be counterintuitive: the Earth Mother devoted to her ever-growing brood and the solipsistic writer with zero interest in children. Central Park, one senses, wasn’t the widest gulf between them. Part of Farrow’s intention in adopting Dylan, she explains in an interview for the series, was wanting a baby who might pique Allen’s interest—he’d previously stated that he didn’t want anything to do with her adoption of another child, but that he might be more disposed to a “little blond girl.” The subtext of that statement and the inferences viewers might draw about the four Vietnamese and Korean children Farrow adopted before Dylan is a minefield all by itself. But Farrow’s instincts proved to be right, and Allen became entirely enchanted with Dylan, to the point where even the child found his interest obsessive and overwhelming. “I was always in his clutches,” Dylan tells the filmmakers. “He was always hunting me.”
Allen’s uncomfortable fixation on Dylan is compared in the second episode to his romantic preoccupation with teenage girls in his work, and his relationship with Soon-Yi, which Allen v. Farrow alleges began when she was in high school. (Both Allen and Soon-Yi, who remain married, have disputed this claim in addition to the rest of the series, which they described in a statement as “a shoddy hit piece” and “a hatchet job riddled with falsehoods.”) Smartly, the series employs female critics, such as Vox’s Alissa Wilkinson and Slate’s Lili Loofbourow, to reassess the awkward synergy between his personal life and his work. Allen’s films have always been a canvas for him to explore his darker fantasies, and the particular theme of an older man dating a much younger woman is so recurrent that it was tacitly accepted for decades. A whole generation of film writers watched Manhattan, in which Allen’s 42-year-old character dates a 17-year-old, and found nothing amiss; before they started dating, Farrow even wrote to Allen to tell him how much she’d enjoyed the movie. The filmmakers also interview Babi Christina Engelhardt, who says she dated Allen when she was a teenager and believes she was the muse who inspired Manhattan. Once again, time adds haunting context. “I was very much in love with him,” Engelhardt tells the camera. “I thought he was magical.” Then she adds that she later became “a super-vigilant mother” who “would not let my daughters go over to an older man’s home, no matter what.”
The threads between Allen’s public work and his alleged private abuses have been documented ad infinitum. What feels more relevant, and more harrowing, is footage that’s being publicly revealed for the first time: the videotapes Farrow made of 7-year-old Dylan in the days after she first told her mother that Allen had touched her “privates,” and the audiotapes Farrow made of conversations with Allen after his relationship with Soon-Yi and his alleged abuse of Dylan became public. The tapes of Dylan are brutal to watch, and Allen v. Farrow recruits a team of child-abuse experts to watch them, all of whom testify that her allegations are both plausible and convincing. Days after watching, though, I can’t stop thinking about the intentions of the person who recorded them. Later in the series, another expert explains (in the context of critiquing a later investigation into Dylan’s allegations) that repeatedly interviewing a child about acts of abuse is a profoundly damaging thing to do, because it traumatizes that child over and over. And yet this is exactly what viewers of the show watch. “Hey, Dylan, just tell me again what happens, okay?” Farrow’s voice can be heard saying. Later she says, “Okay, Dyl, wanna tell me again what happened in the attic?” In some moments, Dylan appears to shut down. It seems clear that she doesn’t want to keep enduring the effort of recollecting these events.
The tapes are included because they’re new, and they’re presented as damning evidence that, despite what Allen has always said, he did abuse Dylan; in truth, they’re extremely difficult to interpret any other way. But I can’t help wondering about the impulse to record the tapes in the first place, and the nature of a family preparing to fight its battles in public. Even if you believe that the tapes were always made for Dylan’s child psychiatrist, as has been stated, and not to be stored as future collateral, the fact that they were first leaked in 1992 to a news network (which ultimately decided not to air them) is discomfiting.
Later, Allen v. Farrow lays out the battles that arose after Dylan’s allegations became public, fought as much in the media as in the courtroom. It presents Allen as a Hollywood leviathan, with fleets of high-powered lawyers at his disposal and a publicist who’d use any means necessary to twist information in a way that spared her client’s reputation. It doesn’t mention the fact that Farrow hired Alan Dershowitz as her attorney during the custody fight over Dylan and two of her siblings, or that Dershowitz reportedly offered to make the child’s allegations against Allen go away for a multimillion-dollar settlement. (Dershowitz denied that money was attached to a proposal for a private settlement.) Presumably, the filmmakers didn’t want to include anything that might detract from Dylan’s own story. But this information exists, and is widely accessible. It’s yet more evidence of the fallout that ensues when family conflict goes nuclear, which inevitably does its most vulnerable members a disservice. Dylan’s motives are impossible to fault: She tells the filmmakers that she wants to share her experiences again so that others who have endured what she has feel less alone. She deserves to get to do that, and if more exposure brings catharsis, then so be it. But the paradox is that in portraying events so selectively, Allen v. Farrow leaves too much room for yet another public wrangling.
The men behind the highest-grossing films of all time on how superheroes can instruct world leaders, and changing direction to make a bleak experimental opioid drama – starring Spider-Man
Where do you go after you have just directed the highest grossing movie in history and your past three movies brought in a combined haul of $6bn? Only two people have had to grapple with this question. Joe and Anthony Russo have spent nearly a decade immersed in the Marvel universe, weaving together a tangle of plot strands, marshalling an enormous cast, staging ever more spectacular action scenes, and bringing the whole saga in to land against gale-force headwinds of expectation.
As well as the concluding Avengers Endgame and Infinity War, the Russos directed Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) and Captain America: Civil War (2016), the latter of which introduced Chadwick Boseman’s Black Panther and Tom Holland’s Spider-Man. On the one hand, you could say they have won Hollywood, but now they face the challenge of life after Marvel, which could be even tougher.