"Why do you write like you're running out of time?"
-- question posed to Alexander Hamiliton by Aaron Burr in Lin-Manuel Miranda's "Hamilton: An American Musical"
We set aside a few hours to watch "Hamilton" on Friday.
I'd managed to secure access to an advance screening link, but couldn't quite make it work. It required downloading an app and when prompted for a password click the "forgot password" link which presumably would have taken me to a page where I could set a password. Only there was no "forgot password" box to click either on the app the good people from Disney+ had me download or on the web page from which I downloaded the app.
Such is the way we live now.
So I didn't get to see "Hamilton" in advance. Which is why there was no "Hamilton" review in Friday's Style section. Which I had countered as a minor failure, but now take as a small blessing.
Having a review of a movie or a book of what we used to call a "record album" in the newspaper on the day it's released for public consumption (or slightly before) is a convention that goes back decades. Why it's something of a badge of honor to get the reviews in at the first opportunity (usually as soon as some sort of embargo is lifted by the product's distributors) is curious, I continue to chase advance copies and screeners even though I'm more and more aware that the general public doesn't care that much. And I don't see myself as in the business of giving consumer advice--whether or not your rush out to see/read/listen to a given entertainment product/work of art doesn't matter much; I actually prefer you read a review after you've done your consuming. Then we might have something to talk about.
In this particular instance, I'm glad I didn't write a review of "Hamilton" in the immediate aftermath of my first viewing of it. I will likely write about it for this Friday's section, and might watch at least parts of it again before I do. I've always had a fondness for the founding father who, in a very literal sense, may have thrown away his shot (in that he may have planned to purposefully miss Vice President Aaron Burr that morning on the Weehawken dueling grounds), and having a little extra time to think about the show can only be a good thing.
"Hamilton" has been around since 2015. I only saw it Friday. Maybe you can wait a week for whatever thoughts I have about it.
That's a thought that's as sacrilegious as it is self-aggrandizing, for in my business, we like to be the first to tell you things.
Historically, there are sane reasons for that. Most of the things we tell you don't have a very long shelf life; news isn't news when it's old news. One of the challenges newspapers have faced since the dawning of electronic media more than 60 years ago is the simple fact that we're no longer likely to genuinely break a story anymore; the public will learn at least a little about most events before they read about them in the newspaper.
In light of this reality, the only reasonable course of action is to shift our emphasis away from the mere imparting of knowledge towards analysis and contexurization. When the who, what and when are easily discoverable, what might distinguish a newspaper from its competition is how well the why can be explained. But telling the why is always problematic, because motives are always obscure. All of us are mysteries, even unto ourselves. So how do we begin to unpack the reasons behind the current of events that we call news?
Maybe we begin in all humility, acknowledging that what we actually know is quite slight. Some things are verifiable, but if we've learned nothing else these past few years, we might all agree that no "fact" is beyond challenge. Deep fake videos can literally put words into the mouths of anyone who has been photographed enough to support digital modeling. Can you prove the world is round? Can you prove your own memories have not been implanted by some intelligence so high and wide as to seem to us invisible? We not only have a dwindling supply of common cultural points of reference, we distrust any evidence that tends to subvert our prejudices.
Someone long ago figured out how to get you to give them money for flattering you. Most of you will shop and pay for affirmation, while rejecting anything that presents a challenge to your wishful beliefs. (Which is why a lot of people in my business take such pains to remind you how smart and fair-minded--how good!--you are.)
One of those wishful beliefs may well be that your particular intellectual mascot, be it Tucker Carlson or Noam Chomsky (who would at least remind you that ideas are at base more important than the motivations of the people who advance them), is somehow engaged in truth-telling. None of us perfectly apprehend the truth; some of us doubt there's any Platonic truth to apprehend. About the best thing we can do is make up interesting stories that fit with the facts we think we know, always keeping in mind the possibility that we might be wrong.
I was wrong about "Hamilton," at least insofar as the production I watched on my television did not conform with what I thought about the musical, which, without giving away too much, I can say that it's pretty good if you're the sort of person who likes musicals. I might be one of the last people in the country to catch on that it's a lot more than that.
That's all right. I have time to get around to it.
It's a stretch to say there's a bright side to this covid-19 plague, but it has managed to slow us all down a bit. There seems little reason to rush anything now. While deadlines are still exigent, I find myself working at a different pace. I am not rushing to get to the office, to the gym, back home. Now I drift around the house, sometimes carrying my laptop upstairs, sometimes working from the bedroom, sometimes from the porch.
Nothing concentrates the mind like a deadline, but inspiration keeps its own calendar. More and more, I'm willing to wait for it.
Philip Martin is a columnist and critic for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Email him at email@example.com and read his blog at blooddirtandangels.com.