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.

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.

‘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. 

‘Yesterday’ Rises Above Its Gimmick… Mostly

‘Yesterday’ knows exactly how charming it is and goddamnit is it fun.

Yesterday is every musician’s dream born of a What If hypothetical: a Y2K-like event causes everyone in the world to forget the Beatles ever existed except for one man. The man is struggling musician Jack Malik (Himesh Patel), who seizes the mass amnesia as an opportunity to make his dream come true and co-opt the Beatles catalog as his own. Much of what follows is a rise-to-stardom tale sprinkled with unrequited love, imposter syndrome (but for real this time), and a whole lotta catchy ass Beatles songs. 

It’s to Yesterday’s credit that it doesn’t rely on its elevator pitch, because it could have, and then would have become the movie I thought I was going to see. The hypothetical works better than it should because the film is open to examining the consequences. An early example: before Jack realizes that the Beatles only exist to him, everyone thinks he’s written their songs. He’s routinely flabbergasted by everyone’s cursory judgment of songs that he deems to be masterpieces, rendering him an egoist, ensuing hilarity. That his friends and family would consider him suddenly so very self-centered is the logical extension of an alternate reality that feels both novel and familiar. It also unveils Yesterday’s secret weapon. 

Well, not so secret. It got you to see the movie. If you saw the trailer, no doubt you were taken by the adorable irony of the hypothetical. This referential irony – not at all to be confused with dramatic irony, because no – is part of the reason why the MCU has succeeded beyond all reason. Audiences find value in easter eggs and having theories being proven right. They enjoy being in on the joke. 

Yesterday rewards you for paying attention to culture. Or, the less cynical take: for being a part of the culture at large and for appreciating art. 

But referential irony means you’re a step ahead of every character at all times, which makes you feel smart, which results in laughter. With no Google search to deliver lyrics, because, after all, the Beatles songs don’t technically exist, Jack struggles to remember the songs. But we know. His endless quest to remember the words to “Eleanor Rigby” (“There’s rice in it!”) is funny because the clever editing and Jack’s swearing is funny but also funny because you want to scream at the screen, “IT’S FATHER MACKENZIE WHO DARNS THE SOCKS!” because you know something that that guy doesn’t. Referential irony recontextualizes your preexisting knowledge so that one joke becomes two jokes: one to laugh at and the other because you get it

Yesterday has a lighter hand than most films (read: American films) would when it comes to its referential jokes. All of the Picasso Lines in the trailer are sprinkled throughout the movie so it’s not as insufferable as it could have been. And many of them are undercut by a Google search sight gag that shows the most obvious answers (beetles not Beatles), so they’re not the full punchline. It’s a clever antidote to way-too-easy jokes. 

If you’re sensing a bit of skepticism from me, it’s totally there. I enjoyed Yesterday, I really, truly did, but I’m still trying to reconcile the (yes, well-executed) hypothetical with the gimmickry of referential irony. Why do people need to feel smarter than the thing they’re watching in order to enjoy it? But then, if the gimmick makes more people feel more involved in the thing they’re watching, how can that be a bad thing? Is it cheap? Maybe. Bad? No. I’d probably feel more irate about the gimmick if not for the fact that the referential irony doesn’t get in the way of the movie as a whole. 

Because, I promise you, cynic of all cynics, it really doesn’t. Yesterday knows exactly how charming it is and goddamnit is it fun. It secured a killer leading pair in Patel and Lily James, who have actual chemistry, which is a bit hard to find this side of A Star Is Born while romcoms are still generally on the outs. Patel is perfect in the role. An outstanding vocalist and overflowing with movie-carrying energy, he also has the exact right face for the amount of times he needs to read “earnest but befuddled.” We’re also blessed to get Kate McKinnon as not-quite-villain in excellently tailored clothing. Her particular brand of weird is an amazing foil to Patel’s befuddled face. Yesterday toes the line of being too much so deftly it’s basically dancing on it: a lively if not mildly stiff Ed Sheeran plays himself and uses his own song as his ringtone. (As though people have ringtones anymore? The joke still lands.) Best of all, it’s not at all corny. 

Still. It’s clear that English romcom screenwriter emeritus Richard Curtis didn’t want to stray far from his comfort zone. Yesterday’s love story becomes its main narrative. But buried under its romcomness there’s a version of Yesterday that would resemble something closer to an art movie than what we got. Think of a peppier Inside Llewyn Davis that replaces some of the ennui with philosophy. There are more than a handful of occasions when the movie asks us to consider the following, though without a lick of follow-through: What are the implications of losing an immense cultural touchstone like the Beatles? What does it say about Rock and Roll’s history of cultural appropriation that Jack, a person of color, has trouble getting these incredible songs off the ground? What do these songs mean outside of their cultural context? What does music mean to people? 

It’s hard to tell if Yesterday’s hypothetical came before the decision to use the Beatles as the vanished band. The Beatles are the band, after all. It’s impossible to argue with their ubiquity, so we’ll never not buy the idea that the world would lose their collective shit over these songs. (And if you – yeah, you – don’t like the Beatles, you’re a contrarian and you know it. Grow up.) The hypothetical created a very lovely film, but it’s still hard to avoid the desire to see more of what this cinematic universe could provide.   

‘Can You Ever Forgive Me?’ Keeps Its Woman Difficult

That McCarthy plays Israel with the fearful distrust of an abused dog creates a distinct relationship between viewer and subject: she’s a protagonist that begs to be sympathized with but doesn’t command it.

Twentieth Century Fox

The title for Can You Ever Forgive Me?, shared with the Lee Israel memoir from which it is adapted, may be a quote attributed to famed writer Dorothy Parker. Or, it could be a complete fabrication derived from Israel’s imagination, as she chose Parker as one of the inspirations for forged letters, which she sold to collectors under the guise of authenticity. So adept at forgery was Israel that she claimed she was a better Dorothy Parker than Dorothy Parker. 

Though she started forging these letters for money, the whole enterprise is an exercise in the lengths to which people will go for success and admiration. Israel (Melissa McCarthy) had been a successful biographer, but became so overcome with anxiety that she fell into a permanent state of writers’ block. She confesses in the film that she doesn’t find herself very interesting, and so she plays Cyrano for herself: using her words and wit to impersonate those who already have success and admiration. 

Israel’s relationship to the writing community is fraught; she doesn’t play the game but still wants recognition for showing up. Her wryness, smarter-than-thou resentment, and general misanthropy are the oil to the water of those donning turtlenecks and pronouncing the “bra” in “macabre” at book parties. “Oh, to be a while male who doesn’t know he’s full of crap,” she laments at Tom Clancy’s prosperity while wallowing in her lack of it. 

But it’s unclear why she even wants to be a part of this world. The critique of the world of literary letters is the film’s most fruitful and least explored theme as it applies to Israel’s life. There’s a strong sense that buyers and collectors believe only what they want to believe; that the finding and possession of letters from famous writers grants them access to an elite world that they’d otherwise have no access to. Their pretentiousness comes from a desire to co-opt the fame not of others’ work but of their lives, and to claim ownership over a small slice of history. 

And isn’t this exactly what Israel is doing in her forgeries? We see what she does, but not how she feels: in the act of forgery, pawning off her work then spending the money she got for it, but rarely any sense of pride or accomplishment, however twisted it may have been. Israel doesn’t have anything to prove to anyone, and seems to only be doing this for money, though we know that that’s not wholly true. The film acts as Israel would in this way: it purposefully doesn’t show us her inner thoughts and keeps her innermost self secret. 

Though it can be argued that withholding Israel’s motivations is meant to maintain Israel’s air of enigma. Can You Ever Forgive Me? establishes Israel as someone with loose moral standing from the beginning, as we witness her stealing a coat from a party out of spite. Her frequent alcohol-induced benders result in her losing her job and causing undue harm to others. That McCarthy plays her with the fearful distrust of an abused dog creates a distinct relationship between viewer and subject: she’s a protagonist that begs to be sympathized with but doesn’t command it.

With very little backstory, Israel is presented as a character full of flaws with little in the way of redeemable qualities, and impressively, the film doesn’t provide Israel an excuse for her behavior. As far as we’re aware, she didn’t have a difficult childhood, she wasn’t abused in her past or present, or allowed any other cop-out for an anti-hero, and yet she’s allowed to act as badly as she will. The movie makes no attempt to redeem her personality or behavior because it understands that it doesn’t have to. Can You Ever Forgive Me? is perhaps the only piece of film since the television show Girls that not only allows but embraces its leading woman to be insufferable and unpresentable and filthy. Israel apologies for her actions but not for who she is. 

At her own admission, Israel confesses that by committing herself to forgeries gave her a way out of doing real work. Actual writing meant, she said, “opening myself up to criticism, and I’m too much of a coward to do that.” This resolution offers a refreshing sense of ownership, though her spiky personality keeps her redeemability forever in question. Israel finds herself without losing herself, however unpleasant that self may be. 

‘The Wife’ Perpetuates an Unhelpful Narrative

It’s tempting to believe that the post-Weinstein revelations would yield semi-immediate results, given the fervor with which the court of public opinion rendered their verdict against those men. But then a film like “The Wife” comes along. 

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Something that the comedy sketch show Inside Amy Schumer often took pleasure in was skewering Hollywood for its many and varied expectations for women. One of the more pointed jabs took aim at the Best Actress category at the Oscars, in which Schumer and four other actresses (all of whom happen to be Oscar nominees or winners) play wives on the phone with their husbands, crying for them to come home. It may have been a direct dig at American Sniper, but its overall influences were broad: the roles women often play in Hollywood films are the emotional support for successful men.

And that was back in 2016, when that slew of problematic men had yet to be taken down and before #MeToo hit. It’s tempting to believe that the post-Weinstein revelations would yield semi-immediate results, given the fervor with which the court of public opinion rendered their verdict against those men. But then a film like The Wife comes along.

At the top of the film, writer Joseph Castleman (played in age by Jonathan Pryce and in youth by Harry Lloyd, both of whom happen to be Game of Thrones bad guys, which likely doesn’t help this character’s case) has won the Nobel Prize in Literature for his life’s work. He attends many gatherings congratulating himself, at which his wife, Joan (Glenn Close), stands at a distance, being talked to about furs or salons or shopping, admiring the genius that she gets to remind to wipe the crumbs out of his beard because he’s a grown ass man who can’t remember to do simple fucking tasks without her help.

She’s the wife that is thanked endlessly in her husband’s speeches, sitting demurely and smiling graciously. She’s the wife being cheated on with younger women seduced by Joseph’s clout, many years after being one of those younger women herself. (He used that all-too-familiar incongruent teacher/student dynamic to land Joan while she was a co-ed in his university lectures, all while he was married with a kid.) She’s the wife who gives much of herself for her husband to shine.

There’s a moment in The Wife when Joan says to Joseph’s wanna-be biographer over a slightly illicit drink: “Please don’t paint me as a victim. I’m much more interesting than that.” Because she’s Glenn Close, and because Glenn Close plays Joan with the poise and stoicism of a marble sculpture, you believe that her assessment of herself is right, that she is more interesting than a victim. You believe all subjugated women are more interesting than the pedestal on which their successful husbands lean, too tired to stand from the praise that other successful husbands are heaping onto them. (Or, perhaps, in a #MeToo world you want to believe all this to be true.) So why doesn’t Joan’s movie know that she’s more than a victim? Especially when she also says things like “I don’t want to be thought of as the long-suffering wife,” and is given scant opportunities to prove herself otherwise?

Because she is a victim. She’s a victim of the misogyny, internalized or otherwise, of the 50s and beyond that crushed her writer dreams so hard that (surprise!) she’s been the writer of Joseph’s books all along! Joan made a career of ghostwriting while her infantile husband did the “woman’s work” of the home, all so he could reap the glory. And, ultimately, he does, because Joseph dies of a heart attack shortly after Joan expresses discontent of all of the years where he took the credit for her work. She decides to stay silent about it, after a lifetime of sacrifice, allowing Joseph to maintain his legendary status even in death. And with that impossibly magnanimous gesture, the film seems to think it’s proven Joan’s personal agency.

Logistical issues notwithstanding (how is it possible to claim ownership over 40 years’ worth of work when the one guy who could back you up is dead?), by Joan keeping her secret, The Wife allows for the problematic man to be redeemed over the long-suffering wife. Yet again. It perpetuates the notion that a woman’s emotional labor is enough, that her long-suffering means SHE’S the one with the REAL strength and determination, even if she goes entirely unrecognized. SHE’LL know it was all worth it in the end, giving that Santa Claus grin to the heavens as her husband is praised for her work even in death.

The narrative would be more insulting if it weren’t so tired, and at this point in our cultural consciousness, just unhelpful. The very week The Wife premiered, Louis C.K. decided to shove himself back into our lives, seeming to believe that enough time has gone by for him to kick-start his path to redemption. As Roxane Gay put it, these men “have fallen from grace, but they have had mighty soft landings.”

What would have been lost in an ending to a film called The Wife where she is the one who is redeemed?

The frustrating subtext in this film’s release is that Glenn Close is already on the award season short list. One imagines the clip that is played of her performance to be one of Joan’s moments of clarity, when she defies her husband and the patriarchy in a fiery piece of monologue, and will get lauded by the live audience for playing a defiant woman with agency. But outside that clip, she’s still just the wife on the phone.

The Nitpic’s Summer Watch Review – June 10-30

Catching up on three weeks’ worth of watching! New movies, old TV, revolutionary comedy, and more.

juneWow, so this month really got away from me, huh? When I wanted to do this “weekly” watch review I had the plan to do a lot of watching during the week and a lot of writing on the weekends. It was a pretty solid plan, considering that I very much consider myself a homebody, and typically use weekends to recover from the week and my shitty day-job.

But in a pretty insane plot twist, the last three weekends in June I actually had shit to do. Like, what? How’d that happen?! I’m assuming it’s because most people who are not me enjoy doing things in the warmer months, and somehow I obliged to all kinds of plans with the lovely people in my life.

So, yeah, I slipped a bit, and a lot of this isn’t going to be as in-depth as I’d like it to be. But here it is, anyway! And here’s to carving out some more me time…

Movies

Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

It might be unoriginal to say that movies are a thing with my brother and me; movies are something that most families do together. But Dan and I bonded over movies at a pretty seminal point in our collective lives, so it really is a thing. I probably see more movies with him than I do with anyone else (maybe even including my boyfriend, with whom movies are also a thing) and we see them often. The funny thing to me over the last fifteen or so years of our movie-going lives is that we’ve developed into very similar movie-goers: we like to experience a movie surrounded by as few people as possible. So it’s pretty natural that, on a bright and sunny Saturday, Dan and I find ourselves in the fourth row of a documentary at 11 o’clock in the morning. No, documentaries are not our usual fare, but with little else to see, there we found ourselves with popcorn for breakfast.

In this #MeToo era, Mr. Rogers seems like a figure that one should approach with caution and from the side, like a bear in a public setting. To confront this man head-on is dangerous, because there are no more heroes (especially white male ones) with whom you can neatly package your nostalgia. To attend a screening of a documentary of his life is to knowingly put yourself in the way of possible nostalgic destruction. Surely he had sordid affairs, or was an alcoholic, or worst of all, he was actually a pervert all along.  You sit down, and cringe in anticipation.

But, of course, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? acknowledges your cynicism, and gently shoos it away. Because cynicism has no place in Mr. Rodgers’ neighborhood. It is the opposite of who he was, so there’s little surprise at how quickly the documentary soothes away your worries.

The film is made in Fred Rodgers’ likeness: it’s tender in tone and light-handed in narrative. (There’s little doubt that if he were still alive, this would be the same film.) It focuses mainly on the professional career of Mr. Rodgers, and clearly has no interest in delving into the personal life of its subject. So we can’t be completely certain of any private shortcomings (except that he was Republican, which, yeah… saw that one coming), but with your nostalgia at its mercy, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? confirms what you already knew: Mr. Rogers was a really great man. It’s a 134-minute sigh of relief.

There Will Be Blood

I don’t know if there’s a line that has stuck with me in recent times more than Pete Holmes in Crashing, admitting, in his basically trademarked amiability: “There’s no good way to tell someone you haven’t seen The Wire.” Because I use it. All. The. Time. Not just with The Wire, though it does apply (oh my god, I knooow), but with pretty much anything else. “The Wire” in that sentence should just be one big empty space that anyone can fill anything into. Anything you lie about seeing just to get out of the onslaught of judgment, fill that on in there!

So, specifically for a cinephile in 2018, There Will Be Blood is one of those movies that there’s no good way to tell someone you haven’t seen.

I hadn’t seen it mostly for reasons regarding a general not-in-the-moodness, but also because I have seen the last three Paul Thomas Anderson movies, and my relationship to his work is fraught. I see The Master or Inherent Vice or Phantom Thread (all in the theaters, I’ll have you know) and I’m on board for the first hour or so, and then my attention totally runs out of steam. The narrative threads (ugh sorry) are so weak and/or convoluted. They take either totally nonsensical turns or completely obvious ones, and then they fall right off a cliff. He’s clearly trying to say something that is either going totally over my head OR he’s saying nothing at all, and then when every critic I respect and admire is in love with it I’m left wondering why they’re all full of shit pretentious. But of course, that can’t be right! I know they’re not pretentious and that’s why I love and admire them! I’m never a part of the general PTA consensus, so whenever I see his movies I’m left full of self-doubt and confusion and annoyance. I just don’t get it.

So, no, I hadn’t seen There Will Be Blood. Until last Friday. The stars and streaming services aligned, and I was finally able and ready to watch this freaking movie.

And I really fucking loved it.

Admittedly, I was sucking down White Claws at a pretty steady rate, but I trust my instinct underneath that inebriation. And looking at PTA’s last four movies as a cohesive unit, There Will Be Blood is the simplest, and therefore most effective, of the unit. The best move was keeping the story strictly at Daniel Plainview’s side, making those Eli Sunday flourishes throughout create incredible punctuation. This is a film that relishes in the beauty of its own medium. There is so much that is said in complete silence, with only camera angles, edits, and light and shadow to tell the story of a scene.

I found it also oddly and surprisingly political. Once I realized his son’s name was H.W., for the rest of the film I was thinking about what republican capitalism does to a man, and by extension, a country. Its callow, vapid consumption spreading like a virus, affecting the masses without giving a single fuck about consequence. And then you wither away all alone, in your empty, sprawling estate, bludgeoning a man to death with your own bowling pin. Yyyep.

There Will Be Blood was so good that it’s making me rethink those last three PTA features.  Is he experimenting with style so much that I should have absolutely seen There Will Be Blood before The Master to get it? (I don’t believe I will ever get, or remotely like, Inherent Vice, but that’s for another time.) Or, is There Will Be Blood like the English seasons of Black Mirror? You only watch the others because of the hype, and they never really live up to their predecessor.

Also: Antonement

Comedy

Cameron Esposito’s Rape Jokes 

My dear friend Jacquie turned me onto Cameron Esposito’s comedy with the greatest period joke of all time, which yields the most amazing line that, yes, I do repeat in agony every month: “My body is smashing my body out of my body using my body.”

Now, that line doesn’t have much impact when written out. It’s clever, sure, but funny?

What you have to imagine is Esposito’s immaculate mid-western accent undulating with emphasis not unlike a Shakespearean tragedy. Half of the fun of her comedy is a delivery that she uses like iambic pentameter: she shouts when she gets really riled up about something, but it sounds like singing.

And – you guessed it – she does a good amount of singing in Rape Jokes. A one-hour special basically thrown together over the span of a few weeks, Rape Jokes was something born from the #MeToo movement and Esposito’s desire to speak her specific truth, specifically the way she internalized her own experience of sexual assault. And, ostensibly, to take back rape jokes for the survivors.

The most revelatory part of her special is the idea that comedians (mainly the male ones) are falsely reinforced of their own funniness by using rape jokes because of how taboo the topic of rape is. It becomes a sort of microcosm of the patriarchy: men want to force women to laugh at their jokes, and they mistake nervous laughter for genuine laughter. Yeah. Mind blown.

On top of speaking her piece in a super honest and vulnerable way, Esposito’s also using the special to raise money for RAINN, and to date has successfully raised $50,000 for the organization. There were times when the special felt its thrown-togetherness, but it’s pretty impossible to be cynical at it when it accomplishes way more than a comedy special usually does.

Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette 

In some ways I’m disappointed to say that it’s nearly July, and Nanette is the first thing I’ve seen on TV this year that’s really blown me away. (Could we really be feeling the loss of Game of Thrones that hard?) In other ways, I’m confident that no matter what the context, Nanette would be the best thing I’ve seen on TV this year. Because Nanette is a shocking piece of comedy that is about how destructive comedy can be to its creator.

Like Cameron Esposito (also: Tig NotaroChris Gethard), Gadsby is using a comedy special to dig deep into very personal issues. She details her experiences of hate crimes, internalized homophobia, and sexual assault, and how she used those experience previously in her comedy. And sure, laughter is the best medicine and all that, but Gadsby realized that turning her pain into comedy actually forced her to create a specific narrative of her own life that she repeated night after night until it became her reality.

Gadsby’s grappling so hard with reconstructing her life’s experiences in the wake of that realization that she’s quitting comedy. I would say that losing her as a performer (even though I’ve only just heard of her) would be a real loss, but then you watch her fluctuate between goofy bits and profound, intense bouts of anger, and you know that she’s not going away completely. She has so much more to say.

Television 

And for the rapid-fire portion of this post:

Tried

Harlots – it kept me in it for five or six episodes before it lost me. There’s something in these women having a palpable sense of autonomy that I really appreciate, but that’s all it has going for it. The conflict is a bit dull and very repetitious, and I have no idea where or what the moral compass of this world is. Too many characters, too little set-up, and nothing propelling it forward.

Rewatch

Girls – various episodes from season two. Their low-level millennial ennui just feels like the kind of show to watch during the first heat wave of the summer.

Big Little Lies – impeccably structured, high brow bitchiness, beautiful style. The murder mystery is fun for the first watch, but even when you know the end this show is a blast to watch.

The Affair – only a few episodes while there’s a promo period on Hulu. Such a great concept, and an overall disappointment. The best, most interesting part of this show is its opening credits.

Binging

Community – nearly done the series. I never watched the sixth season all the way through (only the first and last episodes) and I’m glad I never wasted my time. The last two seasons are just sad reminders of what a great show used to look like.

Completed

Problem Areas with Wyatt Cenac – a delightful casual watch that feels like Last Week Tonight‘s chiller sibling. Its stance on policing in America was clear, but it also gave a lot of consideration to the concept as a whole. Always as funny as it is considerate and informative.

And more…

Great Shows to Nap To: all of the British vacation-house-hunting shows on Netflix. Those accents really lull you into a slumber.

Great Shows to Multi-task To: Encounters with Evil, also on Netflix. If you’re reorganizing your closet, like I was, and just want something you can frequently ignore, this is a solid one. At any point in it you can tune in and discover a gruesome tidbit about a real crime, and promptly tune back out.

 

‘Dietland’ is Weighed Down by Plot

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Don’t ever say marketing doesn’t work, because an Instagram ad for this show got me. It was an animation, where body bags with labels like “Comedian” and “Politician” on them were falling to the ground, and I thought, “Ooh! Topical!” My algorithm’s really working.

The first two episodes of Dietland premiered on AMC this week, and I’m skeptical. The show works best when it’s leaning into satire, like the line that an unironic weight management leader says to Plum, the main character, that she should “break all those bad habits. Like eating.” It was a line so expertly hit that barely read as a punchline. But Dietland seems to want to take a more plot-heavy approach with the inclusion of a vigilante organization called Jennifer, on top of an ex-weight-specialist-turned-therapist, on top some workplace police investigation. See? Heavy.

All of these things are also happening all at once, so most of the episode consist of Plum walking around a city, being bewildered by strangers, and asking questions of them. Mostly, the episodes feel like pilot-itis. A lot of seeds are being sewn, so the show may require a little more patience than I’m willing to give.

I’m mainly unsure of the treatment of Plum’s weight. A show with a title like Dietland means we’re in for a lot of fat-stigma-confronting, but those stories are often very tired. Because fat people, specifically fat women, are marginalized, storytellers tend to feel the need to overcompensate with a lot of fabulousness and loud displays of confidence. A woman shows up late to the Waist Watchers (cute) meeting that Plum is attending, and when she’s chastised for not hating her body enough, launches into a rant about how much she loves her body. Her speech peaks with a strong grab of her crotch (I’ve never seen a woman do that.) and a proclamation that she gets all the dick she needs.

No, our protagonist isn’t like that, but there’s a yet floating around that sentence. It’s the kind of fat character treatment that, however well meaning, always translates as a little preachy and a lot pandering. Is it empowerment, or is it disingenuous to feel the need to have a character like that in the first place, when it is not likely any woman’s reality?

I was reminded of a pin I saw recently by the illustrator Adam J. Kurtz. It was a pink triangle with the words “GAY AND BORING.” He explains:

The pink triangle has been a symbol of gay pride and activism for decades, and thanks to those who came before us, LGBTQ folks now have more rights than ever before. The work isn’t over, but we’re getting closer and closer.

One of those rights is the right to be BORING AS HELL. Sure, we’re fantastic, sassy, fabulous, and all those exciting words. But we’re also just plain old people who wanna stay home and watch TV while scrolling Instagram explore page on the couch next to our partner… and that’s our right too.

Do women have to be fat and fabulous? Can’t they just be fat and boring?