Ever feel like you don’t do much of anything during the week? Same here, which is why I started making these weekly top 5s. On the one hand, the full stuff of my week is laid out in front of me, so I can see that, yes, I do do things, that I’m not quite as lame and lazy as I often feel. On the other hand, if it turns out that I really am lame and lazy, that I really don’t do much of anything, forcing myself to write a weekly top 5 about What I’ve Been Up To encourages me to purposefully seek out new things – new TV to watch, new podcasts to listen to, new music to fail to understand because I’m over thirty and that’s just how it works.
In a sense, keeping this weekly top 5 going is my way of both giving myself credit and holding myself accountable for being an active, non-cretinous human. The degree to which I succeed is, I suppose, in the eye of the beholder. Nonetheless, here’s what I’ve been forcing myself to be into this week.
Bridget Jones’s Diary (1996 book, 2001 film)
Caught the film on HBO this week and remembered that I stopped reading the book on page 96 in 2016, so I’ve dived back in. The movie is probably the most compulsively rewatchable product of the British rom-com renaissance that began with Four Weddings and a Funeral. I always give Love Actually a spin around Christmastime, but once a year is about as often as I can handle all that sugar and schmaltz. It’s grating for the same reason American rom-coms got so grating and subsequently disappeared from the market: it thinks that what we want out of meet-cute love stories is sweetness, when what we actually want is pain. We want to watch good-hearted people flail around, knocking over everything around them, abused by life’s irrepressible sturm und drang, only finding relief when they accidentally fall ass-backwards into it.
That’s the appeal of Bridget Jones. She’s cigarettes and alcohol, cellulite and hair removal, failure and humiliation. She’s closer to the real us than most protagonists full stop, let alone most rom-com leads. The great appeal of the novel is how relentlessly it mines the maddening contradictions of poorly-adjusted adult life. What black arts govern the indecisive temperament of the bathroom scale? How can we stay invested in human horrors abroad when we’re surrounded by people insistent upon playing out their own unruly dramas, sucking us into them and spitting us out at will? The Bridget of both the book and the film is the best and worst versions of us: literate without being intellectual, indulging without sulking, crashing without burning. May we all remain as charming as we trip over own feet through this life.
Sorry to Bother You (2018 film)
The comparisons to Get Out are too easy, but they’re also inevitable, so here’s mine: If the former movie got under your skin, Sorry to Bother You gets on top of your skin, scraping away at it with a nail file and fingering the jagged wound. The dystopian well has been so painstakingly plundered by the merchants of self-flagellating hopelessness (see below) that it’s a wonder there was anything left for those noble critics of Our Beleaguered Human Condition: the satirists. Only satire uses the dystopia as crosshair, because only satire has the courage not to excuse or explain the darkest impulses of the people and forces who create and encourage the dystopia.
Boots Riley, writer/director of Sorry to Bother You, knows that true satire – as commentators from Slavoj Zizek to Chuck Klosterman have agreed – doesn’t take aim at the most powerful members of a state. To make a real impact and a useful argument, it has to aim at the common people: the people who by complicity or endorsement or indifference or simple ignorance (or even by impotent opposition) provide the oppressive state with its power. It’s easy to blame power structures for oppression – they are the direct offenders, after all – but Sorry to Bother You and other great satires require us to look at what we’re doing at the citizen level to enable these power structures. What happens when we’re seduced en masse by the comforts of capitalism? We forget the human costs of those comforts. Sorry to Bother You goes to diabolical places to show how our humanity is methodically stripped from us when we trade principle for profit.
The Handmaid’s Tale, Season Two (shitty TV series, 2018)
Alternatively, when your aim is trained specifically upon the power structure, you’re making it too easy for your audience to know where their allegiances lie. Observe Offred, alias June Osborne, protagonist-cum-punching bag of The Handmaid’s Tale. June is a Good Person. The theocratic state of Gilead – formerly the eastern US – is Bad. The twist of the show is that Bad Things keep happening to Good People. This, in fact, appears to be the entire function of Gilead, and indeed of The Handmaid’s Tale. I’m binging the show, so I can’t quite imagine how the week-to-week viewers must have felt, waiting seven whole days only to see fifty-seven solid minutes of the Good People getting beat up and the Bad People being smug and satisfied.
(I can already hear some asshole in the back going, “But that’s what America is really like!” And fair enough, it certainly is for many people – but simply portraying the oppression absolves the creators of the first and most important responsibility of art, which is to find catharsis in it. This was the vacuum of meaning that sucked so many viewers away from The Walking Dead: if all we’re doing is jumping from one sick, nasty leader to another, it’s clear we’ve abandoned any pretense of meaning. That kind of nihilism might work for first-person-shooter games, but it’s incompatible with art.)
Observe, on the other hand, Serena Joy Waterford, co-antagonist and one of the architects of Gilead’s policies toward gender and birthing. Serena Joy is on the Bad Side, but it’s hard to tell if she’s a Bad Person or just someone who’s suffocating under the weight of her own bad decisions. Almost every scene with Serena Joy confronts the viewer with the incongruity of intention and result: she’s a true believer who only now is beginning to see the cracks in her own ideology. Dig that inner conflict! See, grief by itself has diminishing returns in fiction. We need some ups and downs, some ambiguity in order to be interested in a character. Serena Joy is the only character with anything approaching that sort of ambiguity, which is why she’s the most interesting character by a factor of a hundred. Shame she’s not the main one. Unfollow.
The Office (U.S.) Rewatch (TV series, 2005-2013)
Sure, I’ve seen this shit more times than I’m comfortable living with, but come on – you can’t expect a non-masochist to sit through the brutal penance of The Handmaid’s Tale without some low-stakes goofery to help come down off it. Lest I go to bed with Gilead fresh in my brain and spend the entire night staring at the ceiling and worrying about Mike Pence, The Office is my muscle relaxer.
We’re up to season three so far – arguably the show’s peak – and I’ll say this: I’ve spent hours and hours and hours watching Jim Halpert. I’ve watched him prank Dwight probably half a million times by now. I’ve watched him creep on Pam for two full seasons, then shun her like a bratty high schooler when she tried to apologize for Roy. I’ve watched him string along not one but two girlfriends, one of whom uprooted her entire life just to be with him before he literally abandoned her in the middle of Manhattan just so his stupid Romantic Gesture to Pam would land. All this before season 4.
I’m beginning to side with the contingent of Office fans that thinks Jim Halpert is a dick.
Hannah Gadsby, Nanette (Netflix comedy* special)
*so to speak
And here I was thinking that Pablo Picasso was never called an asshole. I’m shitty at keeping up with the news but apparently People Are Talking about this Australian comedian and her farewell-special-turned-righteous-diatribe, inexplicably titled Nanette and streamed to an American audience that didn’t know she had a career to say farewell to. Suddenly Hannah Gadsby is the most important comedian in the universe, and for an unfortunate reason: Because for all the soft moralizing that bubbles underneath a lot of Trump-era comedy, Gadsby was the first to get up and declare this time in human history Not Fucking Funny. That the person sending this message was a comedian merely set italics to the ugly fact that comedy feels kind of wrong right now.
Since watching Nanette, I’ve gone back and forth between my initial reaction – something along the lines of Damn, this is intense and uncomfortable and kind of necessary – and moments of skepticism. Gadsby’s points aren’t to be discounted, but is her solution – stop laughing, get angry and do something – a sound one? Don’t comedians have one of the most unique and far-reaching platforms in all the arts? Isn’t that platform uniquely suited to spreading political messages, with its potential for group consensus and the custom of laughing very much at people and ideas that are not in the room? Isn’t Malcolm Gladwell correct that the audience for comedy is both greater and more susceptible to difficult messages than the audience for serious journalism?
I don’t know, and I suspect Hannah Gadsby isn’t quite certain either. But I will say this: w/r/t that stuff about the Western Canon from last week, it’s interesting to hear Gadsby take down Picasso, essentially claiming that it’s fucked up and wrong of us to shrug at the known sexual abuses of supposed geniuses just because cubism. Since watching Nanette, Picasso’s name has come up a couple of times. Antonia Banderas got an Emmy nomination for playing the 5’3″ cubist on NatGeo’s super subtle Genius. Then yesterday, wasting a hangover on some old Monty Python’s Flying Circus, I rediscovered the great “Picasso on a Bicycle” sketch from the very first episode. Credit to Hannah Gadsby for the fact that I can no longer hear the name without thinking: Okay, cubism, sure…but he really was an asshole.
‘Til next time.