Stories are powerful vehicles for sharing values, emotions, information, and history. Everyone loves a good story! We thrive on stories great and small, from the mundane to the epic. Many of our cultural stories are passed along via the silver screen, where storytelling meets the art of presenting characters and sights and sounds in ways that affect us at our core. A good movie is a shared narrative that beckons us to partake of it together, to learn and experience something as a collective. The silver screen is both a mirror and a compass, showing us who we are and who we could be in this world that is shaped by our shared experiences. But what happens when there are some stories you do not take in with the rest of society? What happens when you are the only one who hasn’t seen the movie everyone is raving about?
In this episode of Persuasion, Erin Straza and Hannah Anderson kick off a new series titled Never Seen, exploring a collection of key movies that you might be surprised to learn have never been seen by your Persuasion hosts. To help with the series launch, Vox.com movie critic Alissa Wilkinson joins the conversation to help frame up the role movies play in our lives and the power these silver screen stories can have upon us individually and collectively. Conversation touches on the shame that comes when you’ve missed a key film, to the way our movie choices are shaped by those with power in the industry, to the way older films can make us cringe based on today’s standards for equality and tolerance. Is it possible to catch up if you’ve missed an entire era of stories? Is the life of a film critic as glamorous as it seems? Should we shame people who don’t watch the same movies we do?
Listen in for dialogue on questions like these, then continue the conversation on Twitter @PersuasionCAPC or in the CAPC members-only community on Facebook.
Episode 164 Resources & Links
How to Survive the Apocalypse: Zombies, Cylons, and Politics at the End of the World, co-written with Robert Joustra
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This transcript has been edited to enhance readability.
Erin Straza: Hello, everyone. Thanks for joining the conversation today. I’m Erin Straza, and with me is Hannah Anderson. We are your hosts for Persuasion, the place where fine ladies, rational minds, and the best kind of company gather to discuss all sorts of ideas and issues. We are so glad that you’re joining us again. We’ve been on a bit of a recording break since our last full season that was Ready, Set, Think. We hope you listened in to that, otherwise you can catch it online. I’ve really missed being here and recording, so I am so happy to be back right here talking with all of you listeners out there, and, of course, talking with you, my dear friend Hannah. So glad to be back recording with you today.
Hannah Anderson: It is good. I always like the break, but then I’m ready to get back to it.
ES: There have been so many things happening in the last month, and not that we would have talked about all of them here on Persuasion, but we do tend to talk about a lot things even in between recordings. There were the numerous online kerfuffles, as always, but there also have been two major Marvel movies released since we last recorded: Captain Marvel and Avengers: Endgame. Have you seen either of these?
ES: Ah! Are you a Marvel watcher though?
HA: Generally, yeah. A couple weeks ago, we took the kids to the movies over spring break, and we had to pick between Captain Marvel and Shazam! We went with Shazam! which, you know—really enjoyed it—but my youngest was like, “We can’t go see that; it’s not a Marvel movie.”
ES: Oh! [laughs] It’s like, “We have to stick in the system because the universe is calling!” I was able to see both of those. But, oh man. Yeah. You can circle back.
HA: The last Marvel movie we went to see was Infinity War, which was great, except it wasn’t. I mean, my husband was so mad at the end that we had paid all that money, taken our kids, sat through all that, and we still didn’t know what was going to happen at the end that we’ve been, for a year, talking about! But we will get to Endgame at some point. It’s just a matter of scheduling and getting us all on the same schedule so we can see it together.
ES: That’s really been the thing for me is the scheduling of it because we were busy and then we’ve been out of town, so I finally did get to see it. But, here’s the thing, Hannah, that I have noticed: so much conversation is happening around this movie, and there’s so much shared excitement and joy and sadness around this movie. And until I saw it, I really was feeling rather left out and feeling a little bit like I didn’t know what was happening. And it struck me how much these movies have infiltrated our shared experience, our cultural stories. It’s like everything about what we’re doing right now is focusing on this movie. It’s unreal.
HA: It’s funny to me because you’re in this state where I’m hoping to see it, and everybody’s kind of respecting the boundaries of those who haven’t seen it yet. There’s this kind of no-spoilers respect toward each other, but there is a group that’s seen it, and it’s like they’re winking at each other online.
ES: Right! Right!
HA: They’re like, “We’re the ones, and we know!” And what’s funny to me is it reminds me of growing up: we didn’t see a lot of movies, we didn’t go to the theaters, we didn’t even rent from Blockbuster—although I don’t know if we had one close, quite frankly. But there was this kind of otherness and this sense that all my friends at school would be talking about a movie or have seen something, and I would not have seen it. So I am trying to keep myself stable here and not trigger my childhood of being out of the loop. So I have this hope. We will see it. We will know the end.
ES: It’s just not right this minute. You got to hold on. Well this Avengers madness, the excitement around it, it’s such the perfect entry for our next series and what we want to talk about in terms of the power of stories and movies in particular to draw us together, or in some ways to separate us. So excited. All you listeners out there, we have a new series that we’re kicking off today called Never Seen, and to help us launch the series right, we have a guest. We love having guests here at Persuasion, and today we have invited our friend and movie critic extraordinaire Alyssa Wilkinson to join us. Alyssa, welcome to Persuasion!
Alissa Wilkinson: Thank you for having me.
ES: We’re so glad you are here. Now, Alissa, you are a staff writer and critic at vox.com, you cover film and culture, you also are an assistant professor at The King’s College. You have all kinds of things going on. We would love to hear, What does the life of Alyssa look like? Are you just watching movies and running to classes? How do you fit all this stuff in?
AW: [laughs] It really depends on the week. Right now, classes are winding down—I actually taught my last class of the semester yesterday—and we also are in the middle of the Tribeca Film Festival in New York, so it’s like going to movies, running back and teaching class, maybe carrying some papers with me on the way to another film and writing kind of in the gaps. It’s all over the place. But then in two weeks, I’ll be in France for the Cannes Film Festival, and, there, it is a lot of standing in line waiting.
ES: [laughs] Well that doesn’t sound as glamorous!
HA: I was going to say, that’s not what I was thinking about.
AW: Cannes is very glamorous if you are a movie star, and if you are a movie critic, it is—I mean, it’s still more glamorous probably than whatever else I might be doing at the same time because you are in the French Riviera even if you’re standing in line. But, honestly, it’s a lot of standing in lines for hours in the rain and hoping that you get into the film that you need to see so you can go back and write a review of it and file it back to the States. It’s quite an experience. During the summer, I get to mainly work on writing, but during the two semesters, it’s pretty crazy. And it’s kind of interesting because academic life has its seasons and movie critic life does too. From Labor Day to the Oscars, it’s just like one long marathon of craziness. But then this time of year, it’s all like Endgame and Pikachu and stuff like that.
ES: [laughs] Those two things don’t seem to go together actually.
AW: You’d be surprised!
HA: Well, what I love about this series that we’re developing over the next few weeks and the conversation we’re having is, as Erin said, it’s titled Never Seen, and what we want to do is pick up on all those movies that are part of our cultural narrative and our conversation that either Erin or I haven’t seen for one reason or another. I think it’s fascinating, as Erin said, that movies kind of create this shared experience or this shared, common-culture story, and I was just curious, Alyssa, what you see as the value of movies. You’ve given your working life to this genre, so what is it that you love about movies, and what do you think is their value to us both as a culture and as individuals?
AW: I should say it first off that I never really intended to be doing this for a living, and in fact, I grew up not watching a lot of movies myself. My family was very conservative and also just not very into movies I guess—we were into music and books and things like that, but not film. So I really was an adult before I started watching film seriously, and I realized that it wasn’t just this big, expensive entertainment thing that you’re supposed to partake in mindlessly, but that it’s actually an art form and that the stories that are told and the images we see are really important. So for me, I think about certainly the shared stories, and, especially with big Blockbuster movies, they give us ways to talk about all kinds of things. And the really good ones often are just about what it is to be human, so I think that’s really good for everyone to be engaging in that conversation no matter what we believe. I also think it’s good to not discount what actually makes a film a film, which is that it has images. You could have a movie without a story, but you can’t have a movie without images. I love that when we go see a movie, especially in a theater, we are sitting; we’re small; we’re smaller than the screen, right? If you’re not smaller than the theater, you’re doing it wrong. [laughs] It’s rare to be dwarfed by things, I think, in our culture, especially as we move to smaller and smaller screens, so I think that’s actually a good thing for people to experience, being small. And experiencing wonder or sadness or fear or any emotion in that kind of a space, it makes us a little bit helpless in a way that our world doesn’t always let us be. And then we’re all doing it together if we’re in a theater and, hopefully, people aren’t sitting there on their phones. And if they are, you can always yell at them.
ES: That actually just happened to me at Endgame.
AW: It’s the worst, people.
ES: I mean, I wasn’t yelled at. There was an incident. [laughs] I was not the one on my phone, but somebody was, and another movie-goer was not having it. It was very, very stressful.
AW: It’s very rude. But, I think that being in a place together, having an experience that’s bigger than us is not a thing that most people experience maybe outside of a church, if ever, in our culture, so movies give us that opportunity. And, of course, we’re seeing fewer and fewer of them on the big screen on the whole, but I don’t think that diminishes the value; it might even increase the value of it if we’re actually in the theater.
HA: That’s fascinating that you bring up that smallness and the experience of the movie because, growing up, I came from a similar conservative background, and when we watched movies, it was on TV, and usually it was cut up by commercial breaks, and it was edited for content and length, so it would fit the eight to eleven block with commercials or whatever. We would sometimes see movies in a religious context, a church would show or screen a movie, but I remember the first time I sat in a public movie theater, seeing a Hollywood movie, I was blown away by the sound and the full sensory experience of it. It was very different than just the story or just the images. It was this full-bodied experience, and I was like, “Oh, that’s what it means to go to the movies!”
AW: Certainly, there have been different ways that Christian people have reacted to film since the birth of the medium, and some have been very positive, and some have been very negative. But I think sometimes that big of a sensory experience is overwhelming and kind of frightening. We’re swept up in it, and then we tend to be skeptical about whether that’s good. But that’s what art is supposed to do is kind of sweep us up in what’s happening. It’s not something we can control, and, I think, it’s really good for a lot of us to remember that we’re not in control of everything. I know that sounds overly philosophical, perhaps, for thinking about a big, dumb Blockbuster, but I actually think it has a lot of value for us.
ES: When I was growing up, we did not go to the movies a lot mainly because there just wasn’t a lot of extra money to do that. So, like you, Hannah, I watched a lot of things on TV, but then, once I hit college and early adulthood, I had my own funding, and Mike and I loved to go to movies. He watches a lot of movies, we’ve seen a lot at home and at the theater, so I’ve watched quite a few movies—and some strange movies! The things that I’ve watched when I’ve gone onto Letterboxd and marked the ones, I’m thinking, “Oh my goodness, I have the strangest collection of movies that I’ve seen!” But, there are still some films that I don’t go watch, and everyone else is excited about it. Everyone seems to be talking about whatever the movie is, and I just am not interested or don’t care to go see it. And that sense of not being part of the group, that to me is—I feel it. It’s almost like I don’t want to admit the fact that I’ve not seen a movie when everyone’s talking about it. That peer pressure to be part of it and to see everything is overwhelming. I’m wondering what you think of that, Alyssa. You watch a lot of movies, so you probably have seen a wide array. Do you ever have that sense like you’ve missed out on a movie, or can you relate to that?
AW: Yeah, I mean, part of my job is to see as much as I can, which, it is actually impossible to see every movie. I think about 15 or 20 come out in theaters every weekend, so the pile just gets higher and higher. And it didn’t used to be this way. But for me, sometimes it’s like, “Ah, I need to see that; I know I need to see that because everyone is seeing it, and that’s part of my job.” But for me, I also end up in the position where there are a lot of movies that most people will never ever hear of that I know about because my friends are critics and they saw this movie at a festival or they saw it in a repertory theater or something. And especially because I live in New York where we have theaters that are constantly playing old films or doing series of films by filmmakers who have new movies coming out, I, at some point, had to accept the fact that I was never going to see everything. And when people say, “Oh, you have to see ‘X’,” usually, if they are doing it from a place of good-heartedness, it’s because they want to share their excitement with me. And I’m like, “Okay, this isn’t about how boring I am for not having seen it”; it’s because they’re like, “No, really, you’re going to love it! I know you will.” And that’s been helpful for me, especially because I spend all of my time trying to catch up on things that I never saw in the first go-around.
ES: Do you think it’s possible to play catch-up? Like, for instance, if there would be a whole era you missed out on, and everyone refers to them, and they have the inside jokes, and it’s like, “Oh my goodness.” How do you catch up on that? Do you have key movies that you think, “Wow, if everyone would watch these 20, you would be pretty much caught up?” What do you do?
HA: Let’s say, for example, a person or a friend . . .
ES: [laughs] A friend.
HA: . . . has a certain time period of her life that she didn’t see popular movies. Let’s say this friend has never seen Titanic.
ES: [laughs] Who? Who is this person?
HA: Should said friend take time to see it?
AW: Yes. So, I actually had this experience. Last year was the 20th anniversary, I think, of Titanic, and I had not seen it.
ES: No! This is awesome!
AW: Yes. For years I’d been like, “I really need to see it, I really need to see it,” but, of course, I really needed to see everything. But often when there’s a big anniversary, you’ll be able to see it on the big screen, and with a movie like Titanic, that was ideal given that it’s just an enormous movie. I had no idea. I had absorbed a lot about Titanic. Like, I knew [laughs] what happens at the end of it.
HA: Right. And we know “My Heart Will Go On.”
AW: Yeah, you kind of pick up on things over time, so I thought I knew what I was getting, and I was like, “Man, this is three hours long. Whatever, it’ll be fine.” And it’s so good. It’s just so good. I couldn’t believe how good it was. I was like, “That is cinema; that’s what it’s supposed to be.” So yeah, Titanic, that actually happened for me. But I do have a list of movies that I haven’t seen that I keep that I know I should see either because I hear about them so much and I need to see them, or because I want to for whatever reason. And years ago, maybe five or six years ago, I asked a small film site that I knew of that I knew wasn’t going to pay me, but I just needed a place to do this, to let me write a column where I watched a movie that I really, seriously should have seen by then and write about it. The first one I did was [laughs] Citizen Kane, which, that’s a movie everybody should see. But, I was like, “Oh, this is a really good movie,” and I was like, “Well, of course it’s a really good movie. That’s a stupid thing to say.” But having that list helped me work my way through movies like that. I think I watched E.T. I watched A Nightmare Before Christmas. Just movies that really were things I should have seen that get referred to. But, I think you have to let go of your shame over not seeing movies and realize that even professional film critics who are paid money to do this have a whole backlog of films that they know they should have seen.
HA: Well, I will pass that advice along to my friend.
HA: And maybe in the next few weeks my friend can take some time to see Titanic, and we can talk to my friends about her responses to it.
AW: [laughs] Well, your friend is in for a treat.
ES: [laughs] That’s hilarious.
HA: Erin, is there anything you haven’t seen that you feel like, “I need to see this,” or getting rid of your shame saying, “I would like to see this?”
ES: Right. Okay, I’m going to get rid of the shame of—I have never seen any one Harry Potter movie the whole way through.
AW: Well, most of them are not that good, so that might be okay.
ES: Okay. Well, I’d say those are the movies where I have experienced the most reprimand. People are just—they’re infuriated: “How could you not see these movies?” So, I have seen bits and pieces of all of them, I think, but they all blend into one. [laughs] It’s more like, “This all seems the same to me.” I don’t know. And maybe it’s also because I have not read those books. But don’t tell anybody. So for whatever reason, when those movies and the books were coming out, that was just not something I was reading and watching. Now I feel like that cultural moment has passed, and I don’t feel like investing that time to go back and watch that. So, there are those movies. I have not seen hardly any classics whatsoever because my family was not a movie family, and I haven’t gone to a film fest where they’re showing all the classics. So, I just haven’t watched them. When people refer to, like, Alyssa, you said Citizen Kane, I’m like, “I have never seen that.” I don’t even really know what to expect. So, there are all these movies that people refer to that are more the long-standing classics, I haven’t seen any of them. I’ve seen a lot of weird, dumb movies, like a lot of teen movies, but the serious stuff I really haven’t seen.
HA: You know, the thing I find fascinating about the classic repertoire is, I do feel like, with each passing year and all of the movies that come into the repertoire of movies that we should see, it just feels like you can’t catch up. People have been writing and telling stories and books for millennia, and you have a sense of literature where you’re like, “Okay, it’s impossible to read the canon of everything that was ever written or produced,” but with movies, because it’s a genre that’s—how old is the genre?
AW: Like, a hundred and ten years, I would say.
HA: Yeah, it almost feels possible. You’re like, “If I do this, I can get caught up!” So, there is a limit, just the recentness of the genre. You do feel like, “Well, I should catch up on all of these classics.” But as I was thinking about this idea of catching up, I realized that I’ve probably never seen a silent movie.
ES: Oh yeah. Probably me either.
HA: So in my experience, maybe start with “talkies,” or maybe start in like 1930s. So, I think it’s fascinating how time kind of warps our sense of what we’re seeing and how each passing year makes it harder and harder to see everything.
AW: Yeah, we also have the illusion, I think, that we’re always going to be able to see whatever we want because we live in this age of streaming and all these things. But, the truth is that only a very small percentage of movies are actually available to stream. And I think the illusion of availability means we’re like, “Eh, I’ll watch it later; I’ll just watch this; I’ll rewatch whatever my favorite movie is for the 20th time,” which totally has its place. I certainly have done that, but I think sometimes it’s good to remember that these are actually somewhat scarce, and it’s good to watch them when they become available to you through whatever means you have at your disposal.
ES: As we’re talking about this whole idea of going back and watching older movies and pulling them out of that era and watching them today, Alyssa, what sort of reaction do you have to films that are set in a social construct that is so different from what we’re experiencing today? What are the reactions that you’ve had to some of those older films where, in some ways, the dialogue or the interactions can be really cringe-worthy? How do you deal with that?
AW: Yeah, I think it’s important for us to remember—well, to think about them as if we’re watching a movie from a different culture. So, if you watch a foreign film—say you’re watching a film from Iran—you might encounter things that feel unfamiliar or even objectionable or problematic in some way because of the culture that they’re set within. It doesn’t maybe jive with what your American perception of how people should live is, right, or notions of faith or of family life or any of those things? So, what that gives us is the opportunity to recognize how people live. That it’s different. That, you know, our world is not the only world that exists. And I think that’s largely true of watching movies from the past as well, Hollywood movies from the past in particular. I think that the one slice that’s always worth remembering is that Hollywood is an industry that was shaped by a very small set of wealthy, elite dudes, basically, from the past. And not that it’s changed, right? But some of the stuff that we see is not so much how people were back then, but how they thought people were back then. So, that’s a really interesting window into something that’s vital for us to remember, but it also is important for us to not be like, “Oh, well that’s how everybody was,” when the fact is that’s how some guys thought everyone was.
HA: That’s fascinating that you bring that up because, as I was thinking about the movies I haven’t seen, I went back and read Academy Award winners. And I had this thought: as I was reading through the list of what received awards, I was like, number one, these are all the same. There’s a similar set of values in what they determined was an award-winning movie, and then I realized, how much are the movies that we’ve been told to watch dominated by the context from which they emerged, which you just described as this elite, male-dominated kind of space? So, it gave me this whole different sense of freedom to say, “These are the movies that were recommended, and I have been told you must see these because they are the best, but even that evaluation is rooted in a certain set of presuppositions.”
AW: Right, right. And people then will be like, “Oh, back in the golden age of films, everyone kind of had these moral stories, and they were uplifting and all these things,” and well, there’s a reason for that, actually. There was a self-censorship code that the industry held to for decades that was basically designed to keep the government from censoring them. But, it had all kinds of crazy things baked into it, like you couldn’t show a mixed-race marriage. That was forbidden. You couldn’t show that. So, that certainly shapes what you saw on screen, and who got jobs, and who got hired to play different parts. There are just all kinds of interesting pieces of the industry that are worth knowing if we’re going to talk about how movies appear and were made in the past and what we count as good, especially when we’re talking about how they relate to movies today. So, it’s all very interesting, and there are good books and documentaries that can get you get caught up pretty fast. But, whenever I’m watching a movie from the past, I’m thinking a lot about the era in which it’s made, not about how people acted back then, but more the conditions of the industry at the time.
ES: That’s going to be so helpful to us as we move through this series. And, as a way of framing up what we’re doing, basically, each episode, we are going to be talking about a movie that one of us hasn’t seen. So, Alyssa, we’ve started to get that list pulled together, and we have a couple—one of them may be Titanic. We have some classics on there, like we will probably be looking at Singin’ in the Rain, and we’re real excited about that. But we thought we’d leave an option open, and we’re going to call it Critic’s Choice, so we would like to get influence from you. We would love to have your take on what film do you think we need to see? Hannah and I had come up with a couple of options, things that we hadn’t seen, and we would love to hear your thoughts on that. What movie do you think we should fill in the slot?
AW: There are so many that are so wonderful. I think that some of the movies that are worth watching are the ones that flew just under the radar but I think will be major in the future from recent years. So, one I’ve talked and thought about over the last year was Eighth Grade. But, I have to be honest, I almost skipped it at it’s Sundance premier because I had heard it was made by a YouTube guy, and I was like, “Oh no, YouTube people.” But then I watched it, and it was easily one of the most profound movies of the year.
HA: It’s so good.
AW: It’s about a girl who, it’s her last week of eighth grade, and she has a whole bunch of experiences. It’s very, very empathetic and very knowing about what it must be like to be a 13-year-old girl in the world right now when you’re surrounded by cameras and by people who will judge you on the internet as well as in real life and how that fits your real life. And it has this really wonderful father as well who is very sensitive to what his daughter needs while also being a giant dork. It’s just a really, really good film. I think it got ignored a little bit last year by some people because it seems like, “Oh, we know what that movie is going to be ’cause we’ve seen teen movies before,” and this is not like that at all.
HA: It was almost subtle, I think. And that’s what’s going to create the lasting value. I watched it with my daughter who is the same age right now, and it was amazing. It is one of the experiences we will have together in our memories.
AW: And I think, also, it’s good to remember that there are lots of great nonfiction films. We’re actually kind of in the middle of a, I don’t want to call it a revolution, but it’s certainly a renaissance of nonfiction. We’re telling all kinds of interesting stories with documentaries, not just what people think of as a documentary where it’s either polemical or it’s just a bunch of talking heads cut together with some photos that got pulled out of some archives, but there are so many wonderful documentaries now. One that always springs to mind when people ask is a film called Stories We Tell. It is a movie in which the director is trying to re-navigate the stories that her family told themselves about themselves, her family history, and it’s done through interviews with her family, but also through some reenactments with actors and things like that. Nobody would be interested in the story of her family if she hadn’t made the movie ’cause they’re not famous or anything, so it’s more about us in the audience thinking about our own families in our own lives and our own histories as we’re watching this investigation.
ES: That’s just the epitome of film, isn’t it? Like, let’s go dive into somebody’s life and see what it’s like, and then we get to watch it on the big screen. That’s very cool. Well, I think we have all sorts of things to think about, Hannah, as we get this series kicked off and running. I’m really looking forward to it. Alyssa, thank you so much for being here and shaping the start of the series, getting us headed in the right direction. We so appreciate you spending time with us on Persuasion today.
AW: I’m so glad I could. Thanks for having me.
ES: Well, as we wind down, we want to remind you that we are going to be looking at movies every week. We’ll give you some little teasers here and there, but come on back. We’ve got a full series lined up for you. But until then, check out these movie-based Persuasion combos. We’ve had a discussion on Black Panther with Kathryn Freeman; Hannah and I talked about Beauty and the Beast a couple years back, and then we also talked on An Ounce of Persuasion about The Incredibles. I’ll get links of those past episodes online, so you can check those out while you’re waiting. And we would love for all of you to join the conversation, so, Hannah, do we have a question of the day for everybody?
HA: We do. We want to know what is your never-seen movie? What is that movie that you, in shame for years, have hidden that you haven’t seen because everyone else has seen it. It’s time to come out into the light. Let go of your shame. Tell us which movie you haven’t seen or one that you would like to see that you know everyone talks about. You can join us on Twitter @persuasionCAPC. Let us know what your never-seen movie is. Or join us in the Christ and Pop Culture members form. You can become part of our community for just $5 a month where you support the conversations that are happening there, the articles that we post online, and the whole Christ and Pop Culture podcast network.
ES: We want to say thanks to Jonathan Clauson. He produces Persuasion and all the other shows in our network. You can give them a listen at christandpopculture.com, or you can search for Christ and Pop Culture on iTunes; all of those shows will just pop right on up there for you. And while you’re there at iTunes, we would love ratings and reviews. You know how that works. It’s such a help. But we really do appreciate all of you listening here at Persuasion, and we will catch you next time.