I watched well over fifty films during the four-month period I was given to write my first book. Almost every night I would get into bed, build a comfortable wall around me using several pillows, and tune into some streaming service. This probably wasn’t what I should have been doing, how I should’ve been spending my nights—and on more occasions that I’d like to admit, my days—when I had a 30,000-word book to write. But I love movies. I’ve always loved movies. This is a ritual I’ve been practicing since my high school days; I would have an essay to write but it wouldn’t matter because there was so much to see.
Months earlier, on the last night of a trip to Stockholm, I stayed in—tucked myself away in a large closet of my Airbnb, a room that somehow managed to fit a small bed—and pitched a book in the dark. My pitch was messy, more a collection of jumbled thoughts and ideas than anything formal or cohesive. The book would be an entry into the 33 ⅓ series, a collection of short books about different records. The series’ editors wanted a book on Arcade Fire’s third record, The Suburbs , and were prepared to commission it. So under a tight time constraint I was asked to put together a confident, but more significantly, fresh opinion on the album.
A week later I was back in New York, heavily jet-lagged, and my proposal felt like a strange something I had hallucinated. I wrote it high on an immediate visceral and emotional response to the album. I knew I loved this record, that I had thoughts on it, but that was the extent of my thinking. When I learned that my pitch was accepted, that I would be writing my first book—well, I had to actually write the fucking thing.
What I wanted to say about The Suburbs —so heavily tied to the visuals it evokes—has everything to do with the movies and TV series I love. The Suburbs has a prickly relationship with suburbia. There’s a nostalgia Arcade Fire feels for it—the kind that makes some of us feel warm when we watch a John Hughes movie, for example—but the band also expresses a darker, more serious critique of traditional American suburban life.
And so I found myself, without really thinking too deeply about it, watching movies. It was Blue Velvet . I knew that before I knew anything else about the book. It was a scene, a moment of unadulterated sentiment, something that often appears in David Lynch’s movies. This was what I wanted my book to be: ecstasy. When the barriers are knocked down and all we are left with is pure, raw feeling. It’s nauseating. You feel gluttonous. It passes quickly—we can’t stay too long without growing disgusted with ourselves, but this is how feelings work. After this sweetness, as Leslie Jamison writes in her essay “In Defense of Saccharin(e),” “dwells a sharpened sense of everything not sweet.”
Sandy Williams (Laura Dern) carries the weight of the world on her shoulders. Her neighbor and beau, Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan), finds himself becoming the protector of a beautiful lounge singer who suffers at the hands of a deranged sociopath, and wonders why things are the way they are—how such depravity was able to creep into his small North Carolina logging town. Almost as if possessed by an angel of light, Sandy goes on to deliver a monologue about a dream she had.
“For the longest time there was this darkness and all of a sudden thousands of robins were set free,” Sandy begins. The camera barely leaves her, only cutting to Jeffrey to capture his awe. “And they flew down and brought this blinding light of love, and it seemed like that love would be the only thing that would make any difference.”
It’s corny. Lynch often is in his films. There’s this signature brand of earnestness he subscribes to that has come to inform his work. Amidst darkness and violence we get these moments that transcend realism, have no interest in it, actually. There isn’t anything naturalistic about Sandy’s delivery here. Her words feel hyperreal, a little pretentious even—but a part of me wonders if this is something a teenger could actually say, with complete sincerity, in a space where they are not self-conscious or defensive of their thoughts and feelings. When I think of suburbia, I think of sentimentality, and that’s how I wanted to feel when writing about it and Arcade Fire. If I wasn’t feeling everything, if I wasn’t able to have my emotions amplified to their loudest and most unchecked forms , then I wasn’t going to be able to do this.
Of course I was never feeling anything when I wanted to be feeling something. That’s not how feelings work. It’s also not how writing works. I think that’s the hardest part: understanding that writing is, most of the time, unromantic. It’s grueling and unsatisfying and something you sometimes just have to do, like taking your cashmere sweater to the dry cleaners.
I wasn’t sleeping so I started watching movies. My troubles writing, and I’m sure many others feel the same way, is that I often can’t escape my own head for long stretches of time, something I’ve found essential for good writing. Movies are a form of escapism, that’s something that’s been articulated time and time again, but movies are something else, too. When I see something good, when I catch a line of dialogue that feels particularly profound or nuanced, a scene that’s framed so beautifully I wish I was there holding the camera—that’s exactly it. Watching movies makes me want to do.
Both the suburbs and The Suburbs are constructed around images. There are the images the band provides, but there’s a more interactive component, too—an invitation for listeners to bring in their own memories and associations. I watched a movie almost every night of the nearly four months I was given to write the book. I kept track of what I watched. Some of these had to do with suburbia, but most were random. On March 28, I watched Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Elena . I don’t know what I wrote the next day. But I went to bed thinking and feeling—and this would continue to happen—that tomorrow would be a great day to write. This felt special, felt like something sustainable I wanted to hold onto. If I could hold onto that feeling, a drive to create something as affecting as the thing I just watched, I could do it.
I think a lot of people will say they have a tricky time leaving themselves, taking a break from narrating each and every lived moment. I was watching Blue one evening, Derek Jarman’s final film. Blue is a seventy-nine-minute experimental work that features nothing but an electric-blue screen and several voiceovers from Jarman and his friends. Blue is a tricky film to watch. The part of you that wants to hold on to understanding, to keep focus on the screen and Jarman’s words, will fail. You will get lost. You will find yourself thinking of something else. This is what it often takes for me to work through something, to work in general. “Suppose I were to begin by saying that I had fallen in love with a color,” Maggie Nelson writes at the beginning of Bluets . The book grows richer and deeper and smarter from there, almost as if, for Nelson, blue encompases anything that allows her to feel freely. Blue cleared me out, and for whatever reason—maybe a divine one—images and inspirations started to pour into my mind. W hen I returned to my writing I knew what I wanted to show. I knew what I wanted to say.
My book is David Lynch, but it is also very much Todd Haynes. It is Far From Heaven , a reimagining of Douglas Sirk’s 1950s melodramas. Haynes revises history, dives deeper into what artifice can reveal. There’s no subtle critique in his film. The suburbs are racist and homophobic and if you don’t look like you fit in, you don’t belong. Of course this stung and anything that stings sticks around for a while.
My book is also Zvyagintsev. It’s Terence Davies. Hong Sang-soo. Kelly Reichardt. Claude Chabrol. Olivier Assayas. Agn ès Varda. Éric Rohmer. Ingmar Bergman. Wong Kar-wai. Sofia Coppola. Nicholas Ray. Stanley Kwan. I rewatched a few episodes of Mad Men . Matthew Weiner, the mastermind behind the series, never planned on making Betty Draper—Don’s disgruntled wife—a major part of the show. But her unhappiness, her inability to articulate what about her role as a housewife in a ’60s-era New York suburb is so dull, makes her the unexpected tragic figure throughout the series. She is stuck. We see it. She doesn’t. How could I not write about that?
None of this was planned. I was lucky. Arcade Fire made it easy. They’re the kind of band that some people don’t like because of how unabashedly sentimental they can be. They’re obsessed with their feelings. Their images are familiar: writing letters to a crush, learning to drive, running through the dark. I had to listen to the album, front to back, at least twice a day. This was numbing sometimes, but most of the time it was enriching.
I’m thinking about the more formal modes of productivity, the other things I did that enabled me to write this book. I learned to outline. I trained myself to write a certain amount of words a day. I organized my time. This is all essential—and I’m sure it helped me more than I realize or care to admit—but it doesn’t feel as important as seeing Isabelle Huppert breaking into a rich family’s home in La Cérémonie and killing everyone just because. It doesn’t feel as special as witnessing the unsatisfying, but very real, moment when Mary Tyler Moore realizes she doesn’t love her husband or son and abandons them in Ordinary People . It doesn’t feel as hilariously crushing as watching Jean-Pierre Léaud get devoured by pigs in Pigsty . Sometimes, while writing the book, as little notes to myself, I would begin paragraphs by paying respect to a certain director or writer. This felt necessary. I needed to express my gratitude. I cut most of these out. They weren’t really necessary, but I hope this is something readers will sense. They’re all still there. That feels important.