Happy crappy weekend, world! Here’s whatall I’ve been into over the past seven or so:
Three Identical Strangers (2018 film)
What’s great about this new documentary is that it appreciates the deep weirdness of its story: triplets, separated at birth, finding each other, happy happy, But Wait, There’s More, and the more is the real star here. How many docs do you see these days – and with the rise of streaming, they’re more central to pop culture than ever before – that have oodles of story but no sense of why the story is worth telling, of what it’s supposed to mean beyond just the same drama-by-voyeurism we’ve been getting from shitty newsmagazines since time immemorial? From HBO’s exploitative Beware of Slenderman to Netflix’s meandering Wild Wild Country, the big bonanza for documentary fodder has forced quality control to the bottom of the priority barrel. Standouts there have been and will continue to be, but too often it seems like half our original content lately is basically rejected Dateline segments.
And frankly that’s what I was afraid of during the first few minutes of Three Identical Strangers. The story of the Long Island Triplets was a cute human interest piece in 1980, gifting them the kind of momentary celebrity that’s grown more common lo these past couple of generations. Back then they were nineteen years old, handsome, charming, impossible not to like. Now the remaining triplets are in their fifties, not quite as identical as they used to be, and director Tim Wardle’s study of their lives raises and gives serious thought to questions about genetics, environment, psychology, and medical ethics. It’s not streaming yet – though its distribution through CNN films suggests it won’t be long until it’s on TV – but it’s a better return on your ticket price than most of the current streaming fare is on your time.
Paranormal Activity (2007 film)
Holy shit, that shit came out more than ten years ago?? Why does it feel like the only notable horror movies of the last decade have been part of the Paranormal Activity franchise? Maybe that doesn’t say much for horror movies in general, but the gimmick of the original (and for that matter all the sequels) shouldn’t be discounted. We came home after Three Identical Strangers looking for something watchable but not absorbing, something we’d seen before so that we could talk over it without missing anything important. But this movie’s genius is in its use of every inch of the frame in scenes where, sure, we’re expecting some vaguely weird shit to happen, but we’re also looking everywhere for it, forcing us to get absorbed in a way that we rarely ever do with conventional horror films, or conventional films in general.
It still works, and frankly it might even play better nowadays, with terms like “mansplaining” expanding our ever-colorful lexicon. The boyfriend in this movie is so insufferable – batting away poor Katie’s deep concern with, by turns, cocky dismissiveness and fake-ass bravado – that we’re rooting for him to be eaten by a demon long before we even know there’s a demon to do the eating. It’s as much low-budget horror as it is relationship cautionary tale.
Glow, Season 2 (Netflix series)
File under squandered potential. The best parts happen – who’da thunk it? – in the ring, where both real comedy and real drama are worked out the only way they should be: viscerally. Outside the ring, the characters are drawn so thin we can hardly see them through the fog of halfhearted attempts to manufacture high stakes. But high stakes require us to care about the characters, and with only ten episodes of only thirty minutes apiece, this show distributes its energy too unevenly for any character’s subtext to provoke more than momentary interest. To the limping subplot with Mark Maron’s character and his not-so-estranged daughter, I say so what? Do we know much about this guy beyond his textbook-lovable-curmudgeon surface? And does that surface make us really want to know more? You can’t just write situations with the assumption of audience investment; there need to be consequences – moral, emotional, physical, whatever. There’s potential for all this, but the show glazes over it with tame storytelling, only letting its teeth show in the ring.
And it’s also weirdly meta, which could find you mistaking the show for, in its best moments, self-aware. An undercurrent of the entire season is the question of whether or not the show-within-the-show will survive. Characters voice their concerns aloud: Who’s the audience for this? Will the network keep us on? Are we doing all we can to keep viewers interested? It’s so on-the-nose you want to inspect the writers’ room for an uncredited Dan Harmon. Why isn’t this show listening to itself? The best episode by far is the one everyone’s talking about, an actual episode of the show-within-the-show complete with canned laughter and cheeky, fake commercials. Sure, Atlanta did the same thing first (and better), but at least this episode provided some imagination, had some fun, and spent time with the only thing about the show that’s working: its goofy, committed wrestling.
Harold Bloom, The Western Canon (book/concept)
More fun with academic research. It’s probably good that Harold Bloom exists: for the stereotype of the stuffy literary intellectual to survive, someone has to embody it to a calligraphic T. But the content of his Western Canon – subtitled “The Books and School of the Ages,” literally aiming to compile everything that everybody “should” read if they can possibly live long enough and avoid such distractors as human contact – is less noteworthy than its apparent raison d’être. Released in 1994, The Western Canon seems to be Bloom’s reaction against the emergence in literary theory of schools such as feminism, New Historicism, deconstructionism, etc. – i.e., those who wish to examine archaic texts (and new ones for that matter) through new perspectives with new political, ideological, and cultural priorities. Bloom – an old white dude born in 1930 and educated in the intense appreciation of the world’s most classically “important” literature – is having none of this, of course. “Mimic cultural wars do not much interest me,” he writes on page 1 of his book. He then proceeds to bitch about these cultural wars for the next forty pages, and intermittently thereafter.
There’s a lot to sympathize with in Bloom’s view – which, if his self-consciously dense prose can be boiled down, is essentially that aesthetics should be paramount when deciding what goes into the Canon, and that those who question the Canon on political, ideological, or cultural grounds are misguided and wrong. He derides these questioners as members of the “School of Resentment,” complaining that efforts to democratize the Canon actually undermine it by making the content of canonical works subordinate to its (historical/social) context.
It’s a why-can’t-we-just-have-nice-things sort of argument, and I want to agree with it because, sure, the meaning and effect of a work of art theoretically should be what’s important. But we’re equipped nowadays with the tools to dissect our own privilege, which means that we can’t shrug at history anymore. We can’t not question the Canon, because refusing to do so is evidence in itself of white male privilege. It’s easier to swallow the primacy of Shakespeare, Dante, Joyce, etc., when you know they’re writing for you, when they’re sharing a great deal more of your experience than writers who couldn’t possibly have had the same opportunities for an audience.
If literary study has done its job, it will reach a place between Bloom’s sycophancy and the so-called School of Resentment’s identity politics – a place where we can question and appreciate simultaneously. As to whether we can mature enough to do so within my lifetime, well, I can dream.
Girls rewatch (HBO series, 2012-2017)
This was more of a casual rewatch than an immersive one. We started randomly, I think in season 2, and skipped the least eventful and most aggravating episodes. (The Patrick Wilson bottle episode ticks both boxes.) But even when sticking with the last two seasons all the way through, I can’t help but come to the conclusion that I fear is at once too easy, unfair, and way off: Hannah Horvath is the most insufferable character on this show.
This isn’t a new view, and I come by it only hesitantly. Surely Hannah’s got more than enough competition. Marnie’s pronunciation of “Ecuador” alone should catapult her to the top (bottom?) of the list, not to even mention pretty much every time she sings in public and every time she interacts with Ray – who also belongs pretty high on the list, if only for being such an inexplicable sucker for Marnie. Shosh probably has her detractors due purely to her intensity, but she’s far too endearing and actually winds up being the mature one of the group. Adam has his obvious immaturity, but his outbursts make it difficult to take him seriously enough to hate him. Replace “outbursts” with “crying fits” and the same could be said for Desi, who also just isn’t around long enough to be persistently infuriating. And Jessa’s pretentious, but at least she’s got plenty of reason to be troubled; after all, her dad was the road manager for Stillwater. What’s Hannah’s excuse?
What places Hannah on her own level of insufferability is that, no matter what happens to everyone else, Hannah is the person we’re always required to empathize with. We occasionally empathize with other characters, but we always need to be on Hannah’s side, because we know that her fate is the fate of the show. So particularly in season five – as she rambles over her friends’ more serious problems and can’t pay for rice pudding and blowjob-crashes a BRAND NEW coffee truck – the underlying assumption that we should be feeling anything besides exasperation for Hannah is almost as frustrating as when she lands a full-time job teaching “the internet” in the second-to-last episode of the series. Unlike her compatriots, Hannah doesn’t go through any real struggle before being rewarded (last-minute pregnancy plotline notwithstanding), so even though we accept her as a protagonist, the idea that we could fit into her shoes is an insult to our feet.
The show works, though, because it’s about people who are so real that their motivations and desires are both unpredictable and baffling. If Hannah is the worst, it’s because all of us have been at least as shitty as her at some point, and confronting audiences with that fact is possibly one of Girls‘s most remarkable dramatic achievements.