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Strong Enough to Break – Requiem for a Fandom

I have always been someone who cares about something passionately. But

In the movie Adaptation, Meryl Streep’s character is fascinated by Chris Cooper’s character’s capacity for fascination. She is taken by his deep, all-encompassing love for things. Depending on the time in his life, it could be turtles, ice age fossils, resilvering old mirrors, tropical fish.

But: “Then one day I say, ‘Fuck fish.’ I renounce fish. I vow never to set foot in that ocean again. That’s how much fuck fish. That was seventeen years ago and I have never since stuck so much as a toe in that ocean. And I love the ocean!”

She’s baffled. “But why?”

He shrugs, smiles. “Done with fish.”

I never understood that line.

What I did understand, however, implicitly, with all of my being, was the measure of longing Streep’s character has in the next scene when she confesses, “I want to know what it feels like to care about something passionately.”

I have always known this. I have always been someone who cares about something passionately.

The first of those things always makes people laugh. It’s the band Hanson.

It was 1997. I was eleven years old. They were my age. They were happy, rollerblading, singing about utter nonsense with a melody so convincing that I never once questioned it. I was coming of age and they were there to greet me. It made sense.

Cameron Crowe tries but no one can really explain the impact of music on people and why they become such ardent fans of it, and that’s kind of the point. Music, even with lyrics, reaches parts of you that words and images can’t. Music begets both emotional and physical sensation. It burrows and pulls and lifts. It understands you but has no idea who you are. Within it you find parts of yourself that you didn’t know existed.

It was at the exact time that “MMMBop” was released that I first began listening to music at all. I was at the exact age at which human beings start to become sentient members of society, when you become aware of your surroundings. Hanson’s music burrowed and pulled and lifted – exalted! Their lyrics were uncommonly philosophical for their age and life experience. I loved them and I just never stopped.

It was such a love that as I got older, if people knew anything about me, it was this. Hanson is Angela’s favorite band. But, no, like, her favorite band. The kind of pride I felt for being recognized as this fanatical unicorn was consuming. After the initial scoffs, when people heard the depths of my fandom they’d often look at me with an impressed respect. Few people loved as deeply as I loved.

And I really, really loved. When I was young, I kept a box full of Hanson clippings from teen magazines. My bedroom was wallpapered with their faces for years. I saved trinkets from concerts I went to, and there are quite a few of them: I’ve seen them live 19 times. (Hardly a number, compared to some fans.) I met them twice: once in 2004 when I camped out with friends at the Virgin Megastore in Times Square for the debut of Underneath, and again in 2005 when I had the opportunity to interview them for the official fan club. (I never did submit that interview… sorry, Leigh.) For the interview, I got to sit in a little room with just the three of them. It was surreal and spectacular and a total blur. I was understandably nervous but kept a reasonable cool even though they talked over and to each other the whole time, so much that I could barely keep up scribbling the answers to my lame questions. I still have the blue Hanson hat my dad bought me at my very first concert.

On the 20th anniversary of Hanson Day, I finally got my Hanson tattoo. I figured two decades was long enough to prove my love was real, and I had spent much of those two decades trying to decide what to get. Hanson has a cute little logo, but I couldn’t envision it neatly anywhere on my body. Instead I drew a little design based off of some typography I found on Pinterest to fit around lyrics from their song, “Weird.” Even though it’s one of the earliest tracks from their debut album, it resonates still: “Isn’t it weird?”

It is.

It wasn’t just the painfully slow, way-too-delicate way in which Hanson as a group and individually addressed the Black Lives Matter protests and the events preceding them. It didn’t help.

I encourage everyone to come to their own conclusions about the massive compilation of receipts, but from where I’m sitting, Zac Hanson is a robust supporter of things I find morally and ethically abhorrent, including the defense of Stand Your Ground laws and of the murderer of Trayvon Martin. I can’t imagine anything more disingenuous or hypocritical than retaining my status as a Hanson fan after learning this information.

Is there a part of me that always suspected this could be the case? Sure. These guys were born and raised (and are bearing and raising their children) in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The Bible belt, the location of the decimation of Black Wall Street, the place where the mayor just said on the radio “we’re shooting African Americans about 24 percent less than we probably ought to be,” and where the current president of the United States will be holding his next rally… on Juneteenth. Racism lives everywhere, but maybe the odds were against them.

This is exactly the situation Hanson has been trying to avoid their entire careers. One podcaster got closer than most recently, and he tried to find the crack that could release the shitstorm and was baffled that he couldn’t. Regarding their personal lives, Hanson’s collective lips are incredibly tight. The Middle American, grass-fed boyishness of “MMMBop” never quite stopped being their brand. But there is no maintaining boyishness, despite the veneer. The men they became fully understand that the power they possess over their (mainly female) fans has everything to do with pulling the tether tied to hormonal nostalgia, of maintaining their fans’ freakish desire for proximity to them. And they granted it all. Enough slack on the tether, anyway, to keep the fandom going for nearly a quarter of a century. The boys of Hanson became very talented businessmen.

Tulsa is the epicenter of Hanson fandom. Before hopping a flight to Vegas for our honeymoon last year, my husband and I stopped in Tulsa for a couple of days. We went out to Route 66 and saw the big oil guy statue. The Game of Thrones finale happened to fall one of those days, so watching that and then talking about it took up a considerable chunk of time. And of course, we went to see a Hanson concert and observe some Hanson Day activities.

Yes, there is a day. And it’s become an annual, week-long celebration in Tulsa not just for fans, but specifically for members of their fan club, because you have to be a paying member to participate. (There is an additional charge for the events you want to attend, at which members of Hanson also attend, if only for a short while.) Lots of women exactly like me, white and in their thirties, go to Hanson Day every year.

After the concert, I ran into some internet friends from my days on Hanson.net as a teen (I was quite active). The general air about the table at which we convened for some craft beers and apps was skeptical at best. These women decided to come to Hanson Day on a lark, and while we all agreed we enjoyed the show (how could we say otherwise?), I wouldn’t say any of us were exactly enthused. The conversation was around why they hadn’t released anything but a single, a Christmas album, and a reissue of old recordings with an orchestra dubbed in in years… presuming they didn’t want to be around each other long enough to record anything new. We wondered why the subject of their songwriting has recently lapsed into somewhat lazy musings about achieving your dreams, instead of something – anything –  more sincere. If we had asked ourselves why we were there, why we were still doing any of this, I’m not sure any of us would have had an answer, except maybe “habit.”

It’s going to sound rather convenient now to confess that for the last few years I’ve been reevaluating my relationship with Hanson, but I have (do I even like this kind of music anymore?), and the trip to Tulsa didn’t help. Seeing dozens and dozens of women walking up the main drag to a venue to (pay to) watch Taylor DJ for a couple of hours, all I could think of was, This is his job. He had dinner, put his kids to bed, then went out to DJ for some fans for a couple of hours, then he’ll go home. Check the mail.

I’m not trying to be critical about the way they’re making their money. Since Hanson created their own record label in the early 2000s, they’ve bolstered their revenue stream beyond album sales to these sorts of events (they also host an annual trip to the Caribbean) and the way they’ve been able to sustain their brand is honestly pretty impressive. That moment for me was just so pedestrian. Celebrities, actors, bands go to comicons or host cruises all the time. But Hanson’s pull is so great their fans come to them.

The relationship between band and fan cannot be reciprocal, and it’s that lack of reciprocity that I’ve been thinking a lot about recently. It’s not Hanson’s fault, and in fact it’s advantageous for them to exploit it, so more power to them. But in being as big of a fan as I was for the bulk of my life, I’ve given to them more than I would ever get back, and I don’t just mean money. Because this kind of fandom is not just about an exchange of material goods. When we watch bands play live, we face them and they face us, like a conversation. The love, the joy, the energy, the ineffable ephemera that’s created when you’re an intense fan of something is sent back to the creator, like gratitude. That’s how it feels for me, anyway. Felt. But there’s no returning that. It just doesn’t go the other way.

And now there’s this. Because how can I see Hanson live again? Am I supposed to simply ignore the mental asterisk of racism, transphobia, homophobia? How can I listen to Zac singing about being broken, misunderstood, when now maybe I know what he was talking about? How can I participate in being a fan, as someone who is trying every day to be a better white person to the world, knowing that at least one third of this band thinks this way? My decades-long stream of gratitude feels like it’s being spit back out at me.

The loss of my fan status will mean nothing to them. Maybe not the sign of a great relationship. Maybe intense fandom (eventually becoming toxic fandom) should generally be reconsidered.

Some fans will be okay with this. Of other people’s reactions to this I have no opinion.

If there is a fall from grace it won’t be financial, but perhaps worse (for them), reputational. There will be those who want to defend their reputation, to claim their outward, perceived goodness relieves them of all sins. Hannah Gadsby said, “We only care about a man’s reputation. What about his humanity? Fuck reputation. Hindsight is a gift. Stop wasting my time.”

I will mourn their hooks, their harmonies, the wall of sound that their best songs have and that they’re so good at making. For their intensely thoughtful lyrics that spoke for me when I couldn’t find the words. For the feeling of their sound vibrating through my veins. For the visceral jolt of joy I would feel hearing the first chord of “MMMBop” played live. I’m thankful that I don’t have to mourn the community of women I’ve gotten to know very well over the decades, because that love runs deeper than our favorite band.  

What I don’t have to mourn is my own life being taken recklessly and with purpose from a police officer because implicit bias and hate guided their hand based on my skin tone. I don’t have to mourn for my livelihood when legislation was passed at my expense because I don’t identify with my assigned gender. I don’t have to mourn my future for a lack of generational wealth. I don’t have time to list all of the things I’m privileged to say I don’t have to mourn.

I’m oddly not heartbroken. To wish that I was would signal that this fandom guided my life more than it does. I’m relieved to know that. I’m sure some Hanson fans will read this and decry I was never really a fan… a claim that is a ridiculous measure of worth but admittedly one that once upon a time would have destroyed me. But it’s fine. I didn’t know anything then, and we shouldn’t be expected to continue believing anything with enough experience, wisdom, and a shit ton of receipts.  

Done with fish.

Black lives matter.

Peggy Olson and Ian McKellen Share a Birthday

Today I learned that Peggy Olson and Sir Ian McKellen share a birthday. Like, an exact birthday. They are the same age.

How do we know this?

Sir Ian’s Wikipedia confirms it: 25 May, 1939 (age 82).

(Let’s stop here for a moment and collectively wonder, how does Wikipedia even get this information? Did they obtain a copy of his birth certificate? Do they take the word of a close friend or close-enough relative? Did Ian McKellen himself field a phone call from a Wikimedia fact checker? Did he have to stifle a Jesus Christ I am busy understanding Beckett how did you get this number to just get them off his back and say, “… yeah. I was born on 25 May, 1939.”?)

Peggy Olson was also born on May 25, 1939. I can write it like that because she’s American.

Who the heck is Peggy Olson? you may be wondering to yourself.

Only the copy chief of Sterling Cooper Draper Price Cutler Gleason and Chaough. Who could have starred in her own episode of I Didn’t Know I Was Pregnant. Who could bring back knit pantsuits with a single wide shot. Who could possibly have had fleeting sexual chemistry with a strapping Colin Hanks dressed as a priest.

Peggy Olson is a fictional character played by Elizabeth Moss on Mad Men.

(Of all the Mount Rushmore shows from the Gilded Age of TV, Mad Men is always the last one to get a mention. Important but not watershed. Mad Men is Teddy Roosevelt. Tucked away in the corner, obscured in Jefferson’s [The Wire] shadow.) (Sopranos is Washington, obviously. Breaking Bad is Lincoln. Don’t expect me to sit here and explain this to you. It’s science.) (I happen to share a birthday with Teddy Roosevelt but we really can’t get into that now.)

Mad Men happens to be my favorite television show. The characters are awful people in the most glorious of ways. Blame it on the trauma, I love them all dearly.

Possibly the best episode of the series – inarguably the best bottle episode ever created in the history of TV – is season four, episode seven of Mad Men: “The Suitcase.” (It is also the episode in the exact CENTER of the series. Episode 46 of 92. Goddamn you, Matthew Weiner.)

In “The Suitcase,” the enigmatic Donald Draper is avoiding what he knows will be a bad phone call. The plucky Peggy Olson is heading out to have a romantic dinner with that wet loaf of bread she calls a boyfriend, Mark. Don is not happy with the work for Samsonite. (Suitcase!) Peggy stays working with Don, even though everyone else has left the office already. She is at once being naïve assuming Don will find her time valuable, for which she will inevitably complain, and also unconsciously indulging in the workaholic side of her self-fulfilled prophecy, of which she really loves. Mark resents both the former and the latter, and they break up over the phone when Peggy is so late for dinner that his FORTY BUCKS has gone to waste! (Break out your inflation calculator for this show, folks, or you will never stop laughing when people emphatically announce what things cost. Which happens a lot.)

Anyway. We’re not here to recap.   

The frame narrative of “The Suitcase” is of the infamous second fight between Sonny Liston and Cassius Clay. Everyone has left the office already because they’re off to watch the fight on closed circuit TV. Mark is taking Peggy out to dinner because it’s her birthday. And what day is it? May 25, 1965!

But how do we know how old Peggy is?! Well! Earlier in the episode, Meghan the Receptionist asks Peggy this question directly, and she replies, “26.” Meghan reacts with an impressed smile at the Single and Fabulous Exclamation Point copywriter, “Oh, you’re doing well, aren’t you?” Peggy is proud of herself.

Moments later in the same scene, when Mrs. Trudy Vogel Dyckman Campbell, obtuse about the waist from an on-purpose pregnancy, learns that Peggy is 26, her response is, “Well… 26 is still *very* young.” The condescension is devastating. Peggy is less proud of herself.

I mean… feminism, right?

From here it’s simple subtraction, my friends. 1965 – 26 = 1939. Peggy Olson and Sir Ian McKellen were born on the exact same day.

(Have I told you my favorite movies are The Lord of the Rings?)

Upon this realization, it’s not a far leap to immediately imagine that Gandalf the Grey and Peggy the Pantsuit are peers. Maybe acquaintances… friends, even!

Sitting in the booth at the Greek diner, waxing philosophical about finding purpose through work, eventually discussing the death of a loved one. Peggy tells Gandalf that she watched her father die in front of her, while they were watching sports on TV. Gandalf replies, “Yeah… I don’t have a father because I’m a kind of immortal being that was sort of just, like, there one day? Like I wasn’t born so much as I just was, you know? But, I have watched a lot of people die right in front of me. So… I kind of get it.”

Peggy doesn’t really know what to say, so she just nods. Nibbles on a pickle. She glances up at the painting on the wall.

“Why is there a dog in the Parthenon?” she asks.

Gandalf looks up. “That’s a roach,” he says. “Let’s go somewhere darker.”

They get up to leave.

“Speaking of somewhere darker, did I ever tell you about the time when I was in the Mines of Moria?” Gandalf says, dropping cash on the table.

“Yeah,” Peggy says, scooting out of the booth. “You tell that one a lot, actually.”

The Good Trouble in ‘The Trial of the Chicago 7’

Intentionally or not, The Trial of the Chicago 7 is an exquisite display of the white man’s role in the American political and judicial systems, for better and worse.

One of the most telling moments from The Trial of the Chicago 7 is an accident. In protest against the callous and, at times, cruel actions of Judge Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella), the eponymous seven defendants agree to not stand in respect to the judge when called upon by the bailiff. When the time comes, however, one of the defendants, Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne), does stand. The rest look at him with surprised exasperation at his lack of solidarity. He looks at them with confused regret. “It was a reflex,” he says. Deference, even to a staunchly conservative decisionmaker, even on the part of a liberal activist, is second nature in the American courtroom.

It’s impossible to deny that some of The Trial of the Chicago 7’s punch comes from excellent, uncanny timing. The film takes place in 1968 during a tumultuous election year (complete with an underwhelming Democrat against a smarmy Republican) that also saw intense clashes of heated protests and police brutality. Written and directed by banter master Aaron Sorkin, the film chronicles the highlights of a trial that sought to punish activists for inciting riots outside of the Democratic National Convention. Of course, what actually occurred was police violence against protestors trying to speak out against the Vietnam War, but the newly placed Republican Attorney General wanted to prove a point.

Indeed, a point is made. Watching fifty-year-old images that could have been pulled from any social media account today, police violence and the conservative penchant for suppression is as American as apple pie.

But perhaps the most identifiable mirror to today’s political climate comes from Hayden’s knee-jerk respect for the establishment. The liberal bend to ardent conservative whims, the notion that respect offered means respect returned, has permeated into the political systems so that one party is consistently strong-armed by the other in the name of compromise. One sleeps well at night knowing they’ve kept their honor, the other sleeps well knowing they’ve won.

In a prelude to the film’s emotional climax, Hayden (who is, indeed, the vision of liberal virtue) confronts Abbie Hoffman, the progressive rabblerouser aptly played by Sacha Baron Cohen, on his methods for mobilizing the masses: “My problem is that for the next 50 years, when people think of progressive politics, they’re going to think of you. They’re going to think of a bunch of stoned, lost, disrespectful, foul-mouthed lawless losers, and so we’ll lose elections.”  

“Winning elections is the first thing on your wish list?” Abbie responds. “Equality, justice, education, poverty and progress. They’re second?”

“If you don’t win elections, it doesn’t matter what’s second.”

Keep the peace. Play to the middle. Be respectful. Win elections. It doesn’t matter what’s second.

The problem being, of course, that the other side doesn’t have to play respectability politics to win, which is why the beefed-up role of prosecuting attorney Richard Schultz (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is such a curious addition. Schultz is hand-picked by Nixon-appointed Attorney General John Mitchell (John Doman) to head up the prosecution, which carries with it a strong feeling of a passing of the guard.

Schultz is a largely symbolic player in this film. Yes, he’s conservative. Yes, he’s prosecuting a case in which the verdict is a foregone conclusion. But he has unwavering faith in the judicial system, an allegiance to Lady Justice so proud he’s as blind as she is. This gives him morality where other conservative players have none.

In the most inhumane moment of the trial, Judge Hoffman bounds, gags, and chains eighth defendant Bobby Seales to a chair for speaking out. The only Black defendant, Seales was only included in this crowd as a way to make the defendants look, in his words, “scarier” to a jury. Shortly after this, Seales’ inclusion was declared a mistrial, and in the film it was Schultz who convinced Judge Hoffman to do it. It’s suggested that Schultz did it because the judge “made a Black man a sympathetic character” so that would weaken the prosecution, but Gordon-Levitt plays the moment appalled. How could such a thing could happen in an American courtroom?

While this did happen at the real trial, there does not appear to be any evidence that the real Schultz had any involvement in getting Seales the mistrial. If Sorkin is interested in weaponizing Gordon-Levitt’s cheek-pinching nice-guy reputation, he is doing it to an uncertain end. The audience has such a relationship with this actor that it’s already hard not to want to be on his side, and this moment (along with several others) makes it impossible not to want to see him as a hero. So why give the fictional Schultz a moment of humanity that the real Schultz didn’t have? Why try so hard to convince us that the right wants respect as much as Hayden does, all while the right is displaying unseemly acts of cruelty?

To say The Trial of the Chicago 7 is trying to take a centrist stand wouldn’t be giving it enough credit but praising it for timeliness or relevancy may also be giving it too much. Development on this film began in 2007, before Obama took office and well before the word “president” preceding the name “Trump” was a sparkle in the GOP’s eye. Sorkin’s typical brand of snark is tamped down to a rather moving effect here (which could be because this film was in the hands of Steven Spielberg before his own) but his eagle-eyed sharpness is intact. His wit plays a superb balancing act to the darkness of the events and times the film discusses.

But intentionally or not, The Trial of the Chicago 7 is an exquisite display of the white man’s role in the American political and judicial systems, for better and worse. On both sides of the aisle, on both sides of the stand, on both sides of liberalism, white men have been arguing amongst themselves about the direction of this country for so long that nothing has changed. The film is an echo of where we are in 2020, but we are also an echo of where the film was. Republicans, the establishment, have relied on the potency of this maddening echo chamber to respect authority, to hold fast law and order, which keeps white liberals like Hayden playing into their hand and keeping progress firmly planted in cement.

At the end of the trial and the end of the film, Hayden is called upon by Judge Hoffman to make a statement on behalf of the defendants. The judge requests that Hayden’s statement be “brief, respectful, remorseful and to the point.” Hayden reads the names of the American soldiers killed in Vietnam since the trial began. Triumphant music swells, some people in the court leave, shaking their heads, some people stand or cheer, Judge Hoffman furiously bangs his gavel. It’s both sweet and subversive in a romantic Hollywood way. It’s like Sorkin to employ such a neat ending, to reframe the narrative and lend the story a happy ending where there might not be one.

It’s not so neat out here, where I’m finishing writing this on election day. A president who has never played to the middle, who has never shown a modicum of respect to anyone or anything, may refuse the results of the election if he loses. Will there be a swell of music? Can we reframe this narrative? In a year that saw the deaths of both Ruth Bader Ginsberg and John Lewis, The Trial of the Chicago 7 reminds us of their respective missions, and that we may have to keep doing it for fifty more years. Dissent. Get into good trouble. 

Meditations in an Exploration: ‘The Calming’ Lives Up to its Name

In the vast silence and through the many pauses in action, Fang reminds us that all art is a series of choices. She succeeds in turning down the volume on the world, making us lean forward and listen close. To slow down, to pay attention, and to find virtue in that peace.

The first thing to notice about The Calming is the foliage. The film opens in an art gallery where an image of a forest is projected on a blank wall. A gallery employee adjusts nature for brightness and contrast. The next scene takes place in a tree-lined park where the main character (played by Xi Qi) lets a friend know she and her partner have broken up. In the subsequent scene, the foliage is fake and stuck forever between drywall and glass in a restaurant. Oh yes, writer and director Song Fang is going to have something to say about surroundings.

And it’s not all trees (though it is a lot of them). Fang places her protagonist against an incredibly varied array of backdrops: a city at night, a snow-covered country, bamboo forests, industrial refineries, mountains. She is almost always shot from behind, the camera at a safe enough distance to put her body and her environment in equal focus, forcing the audience to constantly evaluate the image to determine if her current place is the right one. The one that fits, that feels right. The one that will stick.

The Calming’s protagonist is constantly on the move, from city to city for her documentary exhibition or lectures, for brief visits to see friends and her parents. The walks she takes in nearby forests or parks are the only times she transports herself. She is always on a train or bus or in a cab. She is neither in the driver’s seat of her own life nor is she the author of her artist’s bio, because any talk of her life or work is spoken of by others. Her friend asks her about what happened to her relationship and she changes the subject to someone’s recent death. She’d rather talk about the absence of life than herself.

And so the audience is left watching her watch others, since she won’t talk about herself. Watching her wander paths to watch the branches and leaves blowing in the breeze. The presence of sound is so scarce. She has no internal monologue, and there is little soundtrack to speak of. To be contented to settle into this film of listless wonder appears to be the endgame.

But it’s not about wonder, is it? The closer she gets to home, the less honest she is about the end of her relationship. Why? When her belongings arrive at her new apartment, they barely take up one corner of one room. What does that say?

And then there’s the opera. The only time where we get to really see her face, and her eyes are closed. She is not only emoting for the first time in the film, she’s crying as she listens to Händel’s aria that says, “Convey me to some peaceful shore, where no tumultuous billows roar, where life, though joyless, still is calm, and sweet content is sorrow’s balm.”

The Calming is a story of a broken heart. In the vast silence and through the many pauses in action, Fang reminds us that all art is a series of choices. She succeeds in turning down the volume on the world, making us lean forward and listen close. To slow down, to pay attention, and to find virtue in that peace. We watched the protagonist wandering the woods and we wondered, “What is she looking at?” Instead, the movie was asking us, “What is she looking for?” The protagonist’s life may be joyless, for now, but it sure is calm.

There is No Spark in ‘Tesla’

Tesla is a film that often plays like a History Channel special about the life and times of visionary inventor Nikola Tesla, at which it both succeeds and fails. It is both as boring as a lecture on electrical currents, and it is not remotely informative.

Written, directed, and produced by Michael Almereyda, Tesla is a film that often plays like a History Channel special about the life and times of visionary inventor Nikola Tesla, at which it both succeeds and fails. It is both as boring as a lecture on electrical currents, and it is not remotely informative.

While an omniscient narrator spoon-feeds the viewer facts in place of a story, a fourth-wall breaking frame narrative derails what little momentum exists from an already wordy script, making any discernible story nearly impossible to follow. Busy camera work tries in vain to create a mood while a baffling array of plot points distracts from whatever the point of this film is. (Did you need to know how Thomas Edison courted his second wife? Because for some reason Tesla will tell you.)

There is nearly as much emphasis on the prolific Edison (Kyle MacLachlan) as there is on the titular character himself (Ethan Hawke), which could be a fun mirroring exercise if not for the lazy retelling of Edison as villain as though hipsters haven’t extolled this sentiment for years. Tesla is left substantially underdeveloped, mumbling and bumbling around in rooms full of powerful men without ever asserting what makes his life worthy of a film adaptation, proving that this one is more interested in exploring its own gimmickry than creating a story of value.

An auteur’s self-indulgent fingerprint is all over this bloated slog of a film, so much so that it lacks the fundamental element that made Tesla’s AC current so innovative: there is absolutely no spark.

Don’t Be Scared of ‘Boys State’

If Boys State is a microcosm of our political system (the lack of girls notwithstanding), of the youth participating in it and their dedication to the cause, have so, so, so much hope.

If you’re anything like me, you may begin watching Boys State like you would a horror movie, through the slats of your fingers, holding your breath. Your nerves have taken such a beating in the last four years that they’re shot to shit on a near constant basis. Your soul winces when you go on social media. Any given New York Times push notification should have a trigger warning.

In the wrong hands Boys State may have been that horror movie. As a woman I’m hard pressed to find many things scarier than an auditorium full of only men and boys, wearing the same thing, chanting, yelling, standing at podiums and saying things like, “Our masculinity shall not be infringed” to a roar of applause. The documentary’s subject is what amounts to a summer sleepover camp at its highest frequency: Boys State is an annual program in Texas sponsored by the American Legion for high school junior boys interested in politics. If I’ve made it sound piddly, it’s not. It’s been around since 1935 and notable alumni include Bill Clinton, Dick Cheney, and Rush Limbaugh. If you think it’s very conservative, it is. If you think it’s very white, it is.  

The weird (surprising, refreshing, relieving?) thing is it’s not quite as conservative as you might think, not quite as white as you might think. The mock election process is far more in control than you’d ever give several hundred teenage boys credit for and not nearly as triggering as the infringement of masculinity line would lead you to believe.

Is abortion the most frequently brought up issue (other than gun control) upon which these literal boys are creating a party platform without a single uterus to be found? Absolutely. You’d be tempted not to expect anything more from these boys to whom a woman’s body is not autonomous but governable flesh… but you’d be jumping the gun. What emerges from the early stages of Boys State is a clear cast of characters, the obvious ideological elite among a very large group:

There’s Ben, the junkiest of these political junkies, who keeps a talking action figure of Ronald Reagan in pride of place in his bedroom and gets off on meritocracy. There’s Robert, the overly enthusiastic bro with the kind of energy that can rally a crowd with a rousing gesture to his crotch. He made some cash off of bitcoin and how lives in a home with a secret door behind a bookshelf like a Bond villain. There’s René, more composed than any teenager ought to be, impossibly and impressively centered. He’s got chic as fuck colonial-era founding father glasses and wins people over with passion where others only have division. And then there’s Steven, the most hopeful of the bunch. He’s a quiet, borderline meek progressive who got into politics because of Bernie Sanders and looks to continue in that vein.

You’ll think you have all of them pegged in their first few minutes. You will be wrong. They have narrative arcs that bend in the most unexpected places. There is growth and change among them. You see some of them discover the merits of our political system, others discover the faults, to both their fascination and disappointment. You’ll start to root for some in spite of yourself, to condemn others. You’ll find yourself holding your breath at the film’s climax. Not in the way you would in a horror movie, but in the way you would in the defining moments of a sport’s championship. You might cry.

Politics in this country is fraught, contentious, generally infuriating and sometimes all-consuming in its goddamn misery. But if Boys State is a microcosm of our political system (the lack of girls notwithstanding), of the youth participating in it and their dedication to the cause, have so, so, so much hope.

Let ‘Little Voice’ Sweep You Away

Little Voice is the sweet, hopeful antidote to our current moment.

In the newest AppleTV+ venture, the titular little voice belongs to Bess King (Brittany O’Grady), a singer-songwriter whose self-described earnestness and lack of stage presence make it difficult for her music career to take off… until it does.

Sounds a little cute? What if I told you that to make ends meet Bess steeps herself thoroughly in the gig life? Because what’s cuter than a 20-something who walks dogs and sings standards to the elderly?

Need another push? Her “music studio” is a tricked-out storage unit complete with a boho flair of tapestry and string lights. Oh, and in said storage unit she meet-cutes an amateur videographer (director? Cinematographer? Who cares, he’s adorable.) and you better believe he already has a girlfriend. Don’t worry, there’s also a dreamy guitarist with whom Bess connects beautifully. Mmm… conflict!

Yes, Little Voice has many trappings of a romcom of 90s days gone by and finds much success leaning into them, but don’t mistake its sweetness for saccharine; it’s careful not to get too precious. Bess is very likeable with perhaps too few faults – save for some unhealthy coping mechanisms and a mildly annoying stubborn streak – but the show frequently cuts its cute with real feelings of self-doubt, self-destruction, and general hopelessness. Bess has found herself as the backbone of a splintered family, and she often struggles to balance that emotional labor while actively seeking her dream. Her little wins like winning real studio time in a songwriting contest or playing to a tiny room without making a fool out of herself feel like major triumphs. It’s a show that doesn’t need to earn your empathy. You’re ready to give it away.

Little Voice is so confident in its execution that it will charm the cynical right out of your sensibilities. Its editing is whimsical and airy. Its inclusivity is effortless. It even dares to get a little postmodern with its moving and conceptual seventh episode. And why not? Why not root for the young woman trying to take New York City by storm, back when that was possible? Little Voice is likely one of the last major projects to have filmed in the city prior to the coronavirus outbreak, and all the people and action and movement might break your heart a little. If there’s ever a time to give in to cuteness, it’s now. Little Voice is the sweet, hopeful antidote to our current moment.

Who’s Afraid of Shirley Jackson?

‘Shirley’ imagines the unconventional woman as societal terrorist, capable of profound, delectable corruption.

Anyone who’s watched five minutes of The Handmaid’s Tale is keenly aware of that show’s success falling entirely on the actability of Elisabeth Moss’s face. It’s excellent at hiding secrets. When her eyes need to read emotionless her mouth takes over… she smirks, snarls, exhales cigarette smoke not through pursed lips but by jutting out her lower jaw. If a smile sneaks through, she swallows it. It will be to your delight that Shirley contains much of the same, for similar and somehow even darker reasons than the Hulu show.

A viewer could be forgiven for confusing Moss’s age in Shirley, because for someone as hardened, bitter, talented, strained, and achieved as Shirley Jackson you’d imagine her to be much older than her 35 years at the time she wrote Hangsaman. (Presumably the novel she’s writing in the film. Though never specified, the general premise and a scene with three Hanging Man tarot cards suggest as much.) Though the actor is barely older than this, the performance reads much older, as though Moss was playing some decades her senior. She is weathered, lowering her vocal tone in line with Jackson’s penchant for smoking, though she’s not physically aged to look older.

But Moss’s Jackson reads “old” simply because the male gaze hasn’t struck her, simply because we’re not used to seeing women like this. Her breasts sag and her tummy bulges. She looks wrong in a red lip. She is not of her surroundings… or is she? She looks and acts as though she’s been chewed up and spit out by the expectations of post-war, American dreaming New England. Her mental illness(es) are a part of her whole person, which by nature is not for the consumption of men. Such is the sexualization of women in the language of film that “crazy” rarely translates as more than Manic Pixie Dream Girl. The only exception to this may be Misery, but even then, her un-sexuality is a plot device to keep her as neutral and unthreatening as possible.

Shirley Jackson is not neutral. But she is unconventional. Unconventional in the way that women are not allowed to be when placed out of the male gaze because of the inherent danger they exude, a danger both alluring and repulsive to those around her. Shirley imagines the unconventional woman as societal terrorist, capable of profound, delectable corruption. She’s the embodiment of the first day you realize the patriarchy is real, when the bottom falls out from under everything you once saw and now you see it everywhere. She infiltrates minds. The dean of the English department confesses that after reading Jackson’s work he imagines taking his own paper weight and bashing his head in.

A premaritally pregnant Rose Nemser (Odessa Young) in her sweater set is ripe for becoming Shirley’s newest vessel. Rose is caught between both the horny, debauched underbelly of academia (members of which are often jerking each other off both figuratively and otherwise) and the smothering nature of the time period, with an evolved sexuality of her own that buzzes at the edges of her scenes. If not for Shirley, Rose would have become like all the university wives, both victims and contributors to their fates.

If Shirley is of the Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? lineage, Rose acts as more Nick than Honey to Jackson’s Martha. She both torments and nurtures Rose, using Rose as a filter through which she can process both her emotions and her intensely engrossing work. Through Rose, Shirley is able to shed a layer of neurotic skin, appearing whole, almost relieved when done. Through Shirley, Rose becomes unconventional. She is now the terrorist, able to infiltrate minds, needing to shed her own skin. And on and on the cycle goes.

‘Light from Light’ is Here to Soothe Your Existentially Anxious Soul

‘Light from Light’ worked with a light and careful hand to craft a sense of existential ennui that’s hard to do without becoming overbearing.

Grasshopper Film

This review contains mild spoilers. 

Perhaps it shouldn’t be remarkable for a film to have an exceptional opening scene, but Light from Light shows how rare it is. Right out of the gate, the film expertly stages the entire piece in tone and intent. The scene is impeccably structured and showcases the protagonist’s journey with a skilled deep-dive into her background. The strength of its introduction makes you believe.

As a child, Shelia (Marin Ireland) once had a dream that could be interpreted as prophetic and otherworldly or merely coincidental, depending on one’s individual proclivities towards such things. But it was deemed prophetic for her, turning little Shelia be something of a psychic and became a small town celebrity for a time. People relied on her for guidance and comfort, anxiously awaiting to hear her most recent dream. But once her dreams ceased to foretell anything at all, her community quickly lost interest in her. A fact that, while not explicit, visibly still pains 40-something Shelia in the present day as she’s retelling the incident in a radio interview. The young girl thought herself to be special, in the kind of way that’s reflected in everyone else’s behavior towards her, until one day she wasn’t. Though Shelia grew up to be a small-time paranormal investigator, her belief in both the supernatural and herself never really recovered. 

Sheila is instantly empathetic, and the film that follows the opening scene never exploits that. She’s almost permanently wounded, though not bitter, and moves through the world with a sense of resignation less indicative of depression than a sincere belief in one’s own inconsequentiality. A financially struggling single mother, Shelia had to forfeit her position with her ghost hunting team because she couldn’t afford the dues. However, when she takes on a freelance case with a widower, Richard (Jim Gaffigan), she does so for free. It’s a development that at once checks out and feels a little superfluous, but Shelia’s altruism is the logical extension of her outlook on life. Nothing really matters, including money. 

The concept of paranormal investigation is usually relegated to campy horror, but the fact that it’s been a part of popular culture for fifteen years and is rarely used as a device of high drama is rather surprising. Light from Light rightfully finds the metaphor in the practice: of course it’s not about proving ghosts exists more than it’s about providing consolation for the pained and living. It’s a salve for even the irreligious (or especially for them); a metaphysical exercise to sooth your aching soul. Shelia’s involvement in ghost hunting is threefold: she wants to help people, she longs for confirmation of a divine existence, and she needs the fix of hopeful possibility. 

It’s that fix that fuels the paranormal investigation field, both for those who participate and those who watch it. That fix keeps even the Light from Light film watcher on high alert, keenly searching every corner of a room for movement or a misplaced item. When it doesn’t happen, you’re disappointed. When it does, you’re thrilled. For a moment.

Because when the film is over, the jolt of the thrill dissolves and inevitably feels empty. Because the act of seeing releases the narrative tension. Because now there is proof and proof is not nearly as exciting as the possibility of it, or the tease of not obtaining it. Something is now definitive where once it was delightfully opaque. Shelia is relieved at having seen, but why? Is it merely because she’s proven to herself the very thing for which her community rejected her as a child? She now has an answer, but what will the answer solve? Having seen absolves Shelia of finding purpose within herself. Of doing the work of living. 

Light from Light worked with a light and careful hand to craft a sense of existential ennui that’s hard to do without becoming overbearing. It develops its world and really lives in it, full of characters together but alone, drifting through whatever we’re supposed to be doing here. It’s not aimless, even if its characters seem like it. Its climax doesn’t negate the rest of the movie, but it’d be something more profound without it: What do we owe to ourselves? Where does hope come from if not from above? How do we keep going, when the fix is so temporary?   

‘Carnival Row’ is Television Word Vomit

‘Carnival Row’ is the television equivalent of word vomit. The intention is there, but the product is hasty, jumbled, and confusing.

Amazon

The first note I wrote down while watching Carnival Row was, “Who is this show for?” Eight hours later, I do not have an answer, unless that answer is “probably no one.” Yes, it’s admirable to try to make fantasy creatures roam around a Victorian England-looking city (they don’t fit), or to set off into the great unknown of non-existent intellectual property (it actually makes you realize the many benefits of IP). But ultimately, admirability is no substitute for watchability, and Amazon’s newest fantasy series ignores genre convention to an illogical end. Carnival Row is the television equivalent of word vomit. The intention is there, but the product is hasty, jumbled, and confusing. 

The vitally important world-building facet of fantasy seems rather recklessly performed here, making the foundation of this show feel more bullet-pointed than dossier-ed. Rather than being steeped in its own mythology, Carnival Row exists through flimsy tidbits that come from and go nowhere, and casual references to larger cultural artifacts. (My favorite example of which is the cursory mention of a “Saint Titania” among the fae folk. Plus one point for everyone who paid attention during freshman English!) We don’t feel as though we’ve been immersed into a world that’s been established for thousands of years. Being in Carnival Row is like being dropped into a production meeting halfway. (And don’t let its Wiki page fool you – very little of what’s detailed on that website is in the actual show.)

In order to understand the indecision mire in which Carnival Row has caught itself, one need only look to its main character. Only his name, in fact: Rycroft Philostrate. Okay so his name is a supremely goofy fantasy name, but we’re in this world and that’s not the issue. The issue comes from the fact that he goes by the nickname “Philo.” So. Of aaall the potential nicknames that are derivative of his full name, the powers that be skipped over the one-syllable ones like Ry, Croft, Strate, or even Lo, and they went with the only situation in which his nickname has as many syllables as his actual name and is actually longer than any other nickname option. Oh, and when it’s shortened, Philo is pronounced with a long “I” vowel sound. When in its full iteration, it has a short “I” sound.

Yes. The nickname is pronounced differently than the word from which it derives.

But here’s the main point: Why does he have a nickname at all? Writers, if you wanted him to be called Philo with a long I, then for the love of Saint Titania why didn’t you just name him that? 

The meandering logic that it took to name its main character can be applied it to nearly every decision made in the creation of Carnival Row. The source of the idea for any given plot point or narrative arc may have been created with some intent, but the execution is often so stodgy and full of holes that what we get are more questions than answers. 

The sense you get is not one of laziness, to be fair (in fact the opposite could be true, to a fault), but of a lack of confidence. Almost beset with the responsibility of being new in an ever-expanding world of IP, Carnival Row frequently veers into the insecure. At nearly every turn it second guesses the strength of what it’s created. Storylines are picked up, briefly considered, then discarded more often than they’re followed-through. With the exception of a couple of decent outliers, the objectives of characters are never fully-formed or connected to one another. They’re just free-floating through any given plot, not tied to each other or to their physical space (not literally, obviously, since many of these characters can fly), and ultimately accomplishing very little.

This indecision appears to have something of a trickle-down effect from its bullet-pointed beginnings. Every character, with all their dialogue, action, and backstory, and every plot that extends from them, and every subplot that extends from there, is like a nail in shitty drywall. They hammer in one idea and what’s created are cracks, which create more cracks, nail after nail, and so on, until the structure inevitably begins to crumble. 

Not helping Carnival Row’s infrastructure is its odd reliance on politics. The most tepid of the three major plots involves characters who work in a system of government so on-high that it rarely interacts with the other plotlines in a meaningful way. Perhaps this was purposeful, used to show how disconnected the policymakers are from real life, but every scene and every character in this plotline ends up reading as just disconnected.  

Worse yet is the show’s penchant for bait-y political commentary. It sets out to address all manner of sociopolitical issues, and it mostly does, as curtly as a fairy godmother waiving her wand. A handful of gay characters show up in bit parts, and in short order two of them are dead. Faeries, pucks, and other species have been forced to flee their countries of origin due to war, so the topic of immigration plays a substantial and fruitless role in the show. Racism also rears its head due to the city’s new inhabitants.

When I say “racism,” I should specify that the racism in the show’s world is not referring to skin color. The fact that there are several species other than humans in this world creates many points of contention among many characters, which results in an ideology resembling racism. One major plot in particular plays the race relations card in the most predictable way imaginable, in which a female woman (who happens to be white) and a male puck (who happens to be black) become romantically entwined. That this is the most effective plot of the entire series is both a wonder and a disappointment. (For the record, the wonder comes from Tamzin Merchant as Imogen Spurnrose, whose deft performance steals the whole show right out from under its glitzy leads. Merchant makes clear, defined choices that allow for her character to show depth rather than drastic changes in heart. She’s not given much, to be sure, and that material would have doomed a lesser actor.) 

Carnival Row is ostensibly about immigration and racism, but episode by episode the action never catches up with its premise. Because despite what the show might have you believe, its intention is never to deal with the incredibly complex and far-reaching issues it raises. In one infuriatingly smug line, a character suggests that the country solved racism of skin lone long ago, while offering no explanation of how or at what cost or the extent of the struggles that it took to get there. Carnival Row is not here to deal with racism, immigration, or homophobia. It’s here to plant a flag on the right side of history.

When allegory is done right it achieves its payoff by fitting both our world and the fictional world, but Carnival Row is so self-conscious in its pursuit of allegory that it’s wholly ineffective. The problem with trying to tackle real-world issues in our very troubled time is that if done indelicately, as is the case here, it comes off as pedantic at best, and can bleed into the offensive and condescending. It contributes to the noise rather than makes sense of it. 

The first season of Carnival Row is clumpy at best. It ends in a cacophonous finale episode so full of half-hearted exposition that it’s exhausting, and the rash ways in which it ties up what little plot remained negates just about everything that happened in the previous seven hours. It suggests that the already-green-lit second season will start from near scratch, which could be a potential blessing for Carnival Row’s creators. After all this, we’re owed more than a show made up of ill-fitting, rusting, creaking steampunk gears.