Breaking: Karina Longworth
What do you do when you're tired of being a film critic but you still love the movies? If you're Karina Longworth, you turn the history of film into a longform podcast series.
BACKSTORY: The former LA Weekly film critic’s podcast, You Must Remember This, is drawing raves from history-heads, culture-hounds, and cool-hunters alike
FROM: Los Angeles
YOU MIGHT KNOW HER FROM: A twelve-part series on the Manson Family’s relationship to 1960s Hollywood, which showed up on a lot (/all) of 2015’s best-of podcast lists
NOW: Writing a new book, recording more podcasts, and keeping an eye out for the next story that she just can’t shake
Jobs are an important thing to have, and some bad jobs often hold their virtues, but even dream jobs—such as film critic or film professor, Karina Longworth’s two positions prior to starting her beloved podcast You Must Remember This—put people in a difficult position. Nobody wants to be forced to do the thing they love once they no longer want to do it. Longworth is obviously still in love with The Movies, but she now describes her time as a film critic the way other people might discuss a job in retail. And that’s because, at a certain point, the ability to be involved in The Conversation failed to compensate for the pain of having to churn out hot take after hot take for lukewarm product after lukewarm product. Or, in her words: “I tend to get burnt out and not want to do a thing anymore.”
And so she did The Other Thing. She quit. She took her show to academia. And that didn’t work either. So what’s a body to do when it doesn’t want the thing it wanted anymore? Well, that’s where podcasts come in.
Longworth said goodbye to all that and researched, wrote, performed, and produced the first episode of You Must Remember This, because that was the thing she wanted to do. And as it turned out, that was something that other people wanted. (“There are a lot of films that you can’t understand unless you understand the historical context,” as she says.) Her show’s ostensible purpose was to tell the “secret and/or forgotten history of Hollywood’s first century,” and while that mission statement remains apt, it’s clear that such a definition already feels too limiting.
“At the beginning of the show I didn’t know how anyone was going to receive it and I wanted the possibility of being able to hide behind irony. But as it’s evolved I haven’t really had to do that,” she says.
“There are a lot of films that you can’t understand unless you understand the historical context.”
But if the show isn’t about secrets and it’s not about camp, is it maybe a history show? What’s the analogue? Listening to Longworth talk about how Bing Crosby’s career only took off once the technology of the microphone allowed him to croon, and hearing her dissect the strange anatomy of Hollywood’s celebrity culture in the late 1960s, I was reminded at once of shows like Hardcore History (which is similar in its historical scope and ambition) and Welcome to Night Vale (which is similar in its campy narrative thrust). Longworth, however, doesn’t seem especially interested in precedents or analogues from the podcasting world. And though podcasts may be thriving, she’s likely right that one needn’t rely on them to learn how to find—or tell—a story. There’s television and Broadway for that.
“The two things that were most inspiring to me recently were The People v. O.J. Simpson and Hamilton,” she says. Both of those offer “nonfiction storytelling that is historically accurate, dramatic, and [relevant to] the present.”
Longworth remains obsessed with the past and disillusioned by the present. The golden age is forever behind us, the front lines are forever ahead of us, and the grass is always greener on the other side. And that’s a valuable perspective, because the prevailing opinion seems to be that the here and now is already plenty good enough. Karina Longworth and You Must Remember This, however, are hungry for more. FL