If you need me, I’ll be curled up in a dark space grieving the last gasping breath of my youth.
If you need me, I’ll be curled up in a dark space grieving the last gasping breath of my youth.
Marketed as a horror movie, but billed as a “folk tale,” this is an incredibly fascinating, thoroughly unsettling film with even more to offer after you’ve seen it than while you’re watching (at least, if you, like me, are a near-pathological overthinker).
It opens with a family of extremely devout Christians, led by patriarch William, denouncing their colony’s weak beliefs in a town meeting. The family is immediately ousted from the group, and the next thing we see is their wagon exiting through the front gates, a pack of four kids crammed into the back watching the doors slowly close behind them.
The family builds themselves a little farm on the edge of a very deep, very dark wood (cue spooky strings music). They seem happy, though, to be starting over alone, where they can practice their completely nuts — I mean “very devout” — beliefs their own way. They pray to the sky, arms raised, hope spilling out the edges of the frame. Life seems good.
And then a tragedy happens.
The eldest daughter, Thomasin, is hanging out in a field with her infant brother Samuel playing peek-a-boo, when she hits a BOO!, opens her eyes, and finds he’s vanished. The audience sees a figure in a red cloak fleeing into the woods with the baby, and later sees a nude old lady — the titular “witch,” we assume — doing something so horrific with that baby it’s better if I don’t try to describe it. Let’s just say . . . well, let’s not and say we didn’t.
The mother quickly loses her mind, and it isn’t long before everybody else in the family joins her. Despite their desperate attempts to convince each other it was a wolf who took Samuel, a wolf ultimately isn’t a big enough creature to take the blame they need to direct somewhere. They can’t direct it to God, so they end up heaving it up onto Thomasin.
It starts with a joke: when her spectacularly-creepy little twin brother and sister (Twins are so creepy. Signed: A Twin) come to her for comfort, she spins them a story to chill them instead. She’s a witch, she says. And she’s the one who took Samuel. And THEY’RE NEXT. You know, exactly the kind of thing big sisters do to little ones. Only in this case, the family is primed to believe it.
Now, whether or not there really is a witch is kind of left open for debate, which I appreciated. Yes, we see her — more than once, or else more than one — but it’s hard to know, and intentionally so, whether what we’re seeing is real or a figment of one/more of the character’s imaginations (there’s a scene in which one character’s hysteria infects two others like a virus, after all: reminiscent of The Crucible, and with good reason).
As my astute movie buddy pointed out, this doubt would’ve been even easier to run with had the family been growing wheat instead of corn (a wheat fungus and its effects on the human brain has been posited as a possible cause of the delusions and paranoia that fueled much of the Salem witch trials). But even without wheat fungus, it’s pretty easy to make the leap from extreme religious beliefs, complete isolation, fear of starvation, and grief to: totally batshit crazy.
Especially when you throw into that mix the complexity that comes from coupling those same extreme religious beliefs with crippling self-loathing (the two so often seem to go hand-in-hand). Two characters in this film make an active decision to “sin,” the father and the eldest son, and both of them end up pretty messed up about it later. The son even has a breakdown in which he begins speaking in tongues and eventually literally spits up the Original Sin — it’s hard to miss the metaphor there. Their beliefs can be summed up perfectly by the phrase “We’re not worthy,” and both the son and father talk multiple times about how horrible they are and how it’s a miracle God can still love them. That’s gonna mess a person up. That messes people up. Is it what’s going on in this story? I DO NOT KNOW.
The film gets a little bogged down in the middle, as the father casts blame on each kid in turn, the mother has nightmares in which crows are pecking at her breasts, and Thomasin struggles to stay in everyone’s good graces as doubt about her builds and builds. But a lot of what happens during these slower sections ends up contributing vital elements to the overarching theme of the destructive power of religious extremism. It’s no coincidence that Thomasin, the target of everyone’s suspicion, is a young woman entering puberty. We see more than once the older brother ogling her swelling chest. And whose fault is that sin? Why, it’s Thomasin’s, of course. Eventually, the entire family works to crush her, and, eventually — and horribly — that doesn’t go quite as planned, as Thomasin finalizes her transition from child to adult, wrenching back all the power taken from her in one seriously awful denouement.
This movie is both confusing and fascinating, but what it isn’t is “scary.” And I think that’s largely on purpose. Yes, we see a witch do a terrible thing. Yes, the woods are spooky. Yes, there’s a (unfortunate) lot of classic horror movie music working those long pauses into a frenzy. But this movie isn’t so much interested in scaring you as it is in filling you with dread. You don’t know what’s happening. You don’t know what to believe. There’s a really creepy goat. And when the shizznit finally hits the fazzan, it’s still completely impossible to tell if what you’re seeing is “real.” How could it be? It’s totally insane! And yet . . .
As the final credits rolled, my friend turned to me and said, “What the fuck just happened?” and I replied, “I have no idea.” And it was glorious. Later, I found myself thinking a lot about the differences between “folk tales” and “horror,” and things got even more intriguing. Horror stories classically fit into the genre of “folk tale,” but in modern storytelling, and particularly in modern American horror filmmaking, they’re mostly engineered for one purpose and one purpose alone: to scare the poop out of you.
“Folk tales,” on the other hand, are generally thought of as stories passed down from generation to generation, often rooted in something supernatural, and typically carrying along with them some kind of moral. If the goal of the story is to scare, then the goal of the scare is to teach. But what is the moral of The Witch? I can’t really answer that. Which is to say: I have about a dozen answers to that, but I have no idea what the “right” one is, and that, to me, is a sign of something really interesting going on. Is it about religion? Is it about “the patriarchy”? While I would say a lot of the imagery in this film gets slammed against us excessively and unnecessarily hard, overall, there’s still a thriving subtlety at work here. I saw this film about two weeks ago, and I’m still thinking about it.
I like that about us.
Highly recommended, and you will want to see this on the big screen for full effect, I would say. Treat yourself.
Genre: Horror, sort of?
Cast: Ralph Ineson, Kate Dickie, Harvey Scrimshaw, Anya Taylor-Joy
Aunt Alexandra was fanatical on the subject of my attire. I could not possibly hope to be a lady if I wore breeches; when I said I could do nothing in a dress, she said I wasn’t supposed to be doing anything that required pants. Aunt Alexandra’s vision of my deportment involved playing with small stoves, tea sets, and wearing the Add-A-Pearl necklace she gave me when I was born; furthermore, I should be a ray of sunshine in my father’s lonely life. I suggested that one could be a ray of sunshine in pants just as well, but Aunty said that one had to behave like a sunbeam, that I was born good but had grown progressively worse every year. She hurt my feelings and set my teeth permanently on edge, but when I asked Atticus about it, he said there were already enough sunbeams in the family and to go about my business, he didn’t mind me much the way I was.
To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee
(Thank you for everything.)
The first time, after I finished Three Delays, I couldn’t pick up another work of fiction for six months. I couldn’t stand reading a single word of anything; every word, every idea paled so miserably by comparison.
I thought surely that was a fluke — c’mon, that wouldn’t happen again. I’m a reader! I love to read! I read all the time! Then his publisher sent me a copy of his new novel, Ginny Gall (out later this month), and, guess what: I haven’t read so much as a cereal box since I finished it three weeks ago.
Ruined by genius. I am plagued.
This novel is set in the 1920s, the Jim Crow era in the U.S., when abject cruelty was the protocol of the day. It’s about a little 5 year-old black boy named Delvin Walker whose mother, a prostitute, is forced to flee for her life after being accused of killing a white man. The story opens there, and then we are slowly, richly walked through Delvin’s next two decades of life, as he meets and is mentored by a series of older African American men with much wisdom but about as little luck, rides the rails, falls in love, lusts for life.
Delvin is brilliant thinker, like the author who created him, and a lover of both reading and writing. He carries around a notebook, into which he jots breathtakingly evocative notes on both his internal and external scenery. Eventually, Delvin is falsely accused of the sexual assault of a white woman, and the latter portion of the novel involves his time in prison, where he is brutally sexually assaulted himself, and his eventual escape and return home.
This is a long novel, and if it had been written by someone lesser, it would’ve been insufferably so. I often pass by novels this long, to be honest, because a good 4 times out of 5, I spend most of my time reading them thinking, “What up, editor?” But Ginny Gall wasn’t written by someone lesser; it was written by Charlie Smith. And that means every individual word is a poem, right down to the pronouns, the lowercase letters that ought to be uppercase, the single adjective in front of a singular noun. There was no point in this novel where I caught myself wanting to speed up, antsy to move to something else. In fact, I did the opposite: I slowed way down, I read every word, some of them more than once. I jotted notes in the margins. I underlined. I dog-eared. I meant to share it with someone else, then found I couldn’t bear to lay myself that wide.
Someday, I will read it again and make fun of myself for finding so moving at least half of what I found so moving.
(I can’t wait.)
“The singular occasion of reprimand and the sorrow it uncovered and the moment of silence it revealed. . .”
There are a couple of things I’m really excited about coming up at the end of this month, especially Mercy Street on PBS and The X-Files on FOX, both of which I hope are as good as they ought to be. Fingers crossed!
Incidentally, if you’re looking for a new series to binge-watch on streaming, I cannot recommend highly enough the British mystery River, currently available on Netflix. It’s about a detective (Stellan Skarsgard) who is simultaneously trying to cope with the grief of losing his partner and solve her murder — all while dealing with a fairly brutal mental illness that manifests as visions of dead people (including her). I know it sounds like something you’ve seen before; I almost didn’t bother for the same reason. But as it turns out, while not in any way a happy series, it’s an absolutely beautiful, intelligent one. Well worth checking out if you are a fan of mysteries/crime dramas and damn good writing.
As for what else is new, here we go:
Billions – Showtime – 10pm – The pilot for this series is available for free on Amazon at the moment, so I dipped in to see whether or not it might be good enough to warrant a Showtime subscription. It stars ex-Boyfriend of the Week Damian Lewis as a hedge-fund manager of lax morality being chased by a U.S. Attorney (Paul Giamatti) of dubious morality. Created by New York Times financial reporter Andrew Ross Sorkin, I assume a lot of the money stuff is legit, but overall, I didn’t find much to sink my teeth into here. It’s a bunch of rich white guys doing rich white guy stuff, and while I liked Giamatti in this, Lewis is trying to do some kind of New England accent that isn’t workin’ out for him (or me) one bit. If this comes around for free on streaming at some point, I might try episode 2, but it’s definitely not worth another monthly subscription fee.
Mercy Street – PBS – Check local listings – Civil War nurses and doctors: YEP, that could not be further up my alley (I’m a bit of a Civil War junkie, just like uber-cool, longtime reader Liz (hi, Liz!)). Reviews have been fairly good, with caveats that the series tries to cram too much (abolitionists, freed slaves, Confederate sympathizers, wounded warriors, etc.) into the season’s 6 episodes. I’m really looking forward to this one and so, so hoping it’s good. Will report back if so!
Angie Tribeca – TBS – 9pm for 10 eps – Cable television tries to mimic streaming video’s binge-ableness with this cop show parody from Nancy and Steve Carell that will air its first ten episodes all in a row before moving into a regular weekly time slot. I’ve seen the ads a few times, and they did make me laugh. Good sign! Plus the stories center on a female lead (Rashida Jones), which I always appreciate, especially in sit-coms. DVR set to record!
War & Peace – A&E, History, or Lifetime (simulcast) – 9pm – This miniseries has a ridiculously good cast (Gillian Anderson, Jim Broadbent, Stephen Rea, Paul Dano, Lily James, and James Norton), but reviews have been pretty lukewarm. I don’t know how you could manage to put Anderson, Rea, Dano, and Broadbent in a thing together and have it end up being described as “a long, dull slog to Moscow” (Variety), but this miniseries appears to have pulled it off. I’m still planning to tune in so I can see for myself, plus the costumes alone look fun, but I’ll definitely be keeping expectations low.
DC’s Legends of Tomorrow – CW – 9pm – Another comic book series, this time starring Brandon Routh (former Superman), Wentworth “Permascowl” Miller, and Victor Garber. If Victor Garber isn’t planning to regularly break out in song, though — and it appears he is not — I just don’t see the point. Victor Garber should only ever regularly break out in song (nobody knows what the hell I’m talking about, but what the hell I’m talking about is Eli Stone). Also, the hero’s name is “Rip Hunter” and the villain’s name is “Vandal Savage”: I know when a thing is not going to be my thing, and this is one of those things that is not going to be my thing.
Baskets – FX – 10pm – This dark comedy co-created by Zach Galifianakis, Louis C.K., and Jonathan Krisel, on the other hand, has a pretty good shot at being exactly my thing. It’s about a lonely, hairy dude (Galifianakis, natch) who decides to move to Paris to become a professional clown. Only, as it turns out, it’s really hard to get work as a professional clown in Paris when you don’t speak any French. Hélas pour moi! Forced to give up on that dream, he moves back home and joins a rodeo in California instead. Louie Anderson plays his mom (yep, you read that right), and the trailer makes this look like it might, in fact, be exactly as weird as it would need to be to be any good I’m in.
London Spy – BBC America – 10pm. This 5-episode series, starring Ben Wishaw, Charlotte Rampling, and Jim Broadbent, is set in LONDON and is about a SPY (I’m guessing, but I feel like it’s a solid bet). Based on reviews after this show aired in the UK, it takes some warming up to but may be worth it in the end. Whishaw has been creeping me out ever since I saw him in Perfume, but I do love a good spy story, and The Guardian described Broadbent’s character as “fully teddy-bear-carrying-a-switchblade,” which sounds lovely. Worth a shot.
Mad Dogs — Amazon Streaming — British comedy about four men who “get more than they bargained for on a trip to Belize.” Stars Michael Imperioli, Romany Malco, Ben Chaplin, and Steve Zahn, so I immediately wrote it off as a boring, boring bro-medy. When I saw the pilot was up at Amazon, though, I decided I should at least give it a shot before I bash it. WELL GUESS WHAT! It’s a boring, boring bro-medy! I both love and hate it when I’m right.
THE X-FILES – FOX – 10pm
BOOM. LET’S DO THIS THING.
Lucifer – FOX – 9pm – Based on the Sandman comics from Neil Gaiman, this is about the former king of hell after he resigns his throne to go party with the humans in L.A. Since this is network television, of course, he must also solve crimes (I don’t know if that’s in the comics or not, but it’s certainly a requirement of network television, regardless of whether or not it makes any sense). Friends of mine who are comic nerds are peeved. <– This may or may not be useful information.
The Magicians – SyFy – 9pm -Based on the novels by Lev Grossman, the first one of which I really enjoyed, The Magicians is basically Harry Potter set in college, with more drinking and making out. The pilot is online if you want to watch; my husband, who read more of the books than I did, really liked it and intends to keep watching (and this from a man who doesn’t really like TV). The trailer made it look pretty cheesy, but possibly fun enough? Speaking of SyFy, I’m also really enjoying The Expanse these days, though I’m only about 4 episodes in at the moment. Good old-fashioned sci-fi space fun! Anybody else watching that? Did you read the books? Are they good too?
You, Me and the Apocalypse – NBC 8pm – This 10-episode series is set in the days immediately after mankind learns it’s about to be destroyed by a comet. A group of people all hunker down together to try to ride it out. Stars Megan Mullally, Rob Lowe, and Jenna Fisher (as a librarian!). Could be fun; the ads looked promising, and I do love Jenna Fisher (not to mention librarians). God, what’s up with me and sit-coms suddenly? I keep signing on! Are they getting more interesting or am I getting less interesting? Oh, don’t answer that.
Okay, that’s it for new TV in January! I’ll be back (in terms of TV, anyway) the first week of February with more!
I read a lot of poetry, but rarely review collections here, partly because I tend to dip in and out, rather than sit down and read them cover to cover, and partly because it can be hard for me to characterize a collection of poetry in a way that seems useful or satisfying.
Aside from the word “astounding,” I often find it difficult to explain why something resonated with me, and without a theme or plot, something many collections lack, I’m not sure what else to say.
In the case of this book, though, not only can I apply the word “astounding,” but I can also describe both the collection and why it got to me. The Uses of the Body tells the story of a marriage, from wedding to childbirth, from stumblings to “Borderless, and the open days go on –.”
It’s a short collection, but every line packs a wallop, and that’s despite the fact a good chunk of them involve motherhood, something I have no personal experience with (my grief and her joy collided spectacularly somewhere around page 35; I’m pretty sure the whole neighborhood could feel it).
The rest, however, I know very well: aging, loss, romance ebb and romance flow, ch-ch-ch-ch-changes (RIP, Starman). Astounding is certainly what it is. You may wish to pick this book up. While you’re deciding, I will leave you with this:
One summer there was no girl left in me.
It gradually became clear.
It suddenly became.
In the pool, I was more heavy than light.
Pockmarked and flabby in a floppy hat.
What will my body be
when parked all night in the earth?
Breathe in. Breathe out.
I am not on the oxygen tank.
Twice a week we have sex.
The lithe girls poolside I see them
at their weddings I see them with babies on their hips
thickening I see them middle-aged.
I can’t see past the point where I am.
Like you, I’m just passing through.
I’m about 9,000 book and movie reviews behind at the moment. Last June, my husband fell down some steps and ended up having to have emergency knee surgery. The recovery was long and complicated and kind of threw us both off our games for the rest of the year.
I’m not going to try to catch up completely, partly because a lot of the movies I saw are ones that have already been reviewed six ways to Sunday, like The Martian and Mad Max: Fury Road (both of which were excellent, by the way). But I am going to try to hit a few of the things I saw or read that I really enjoyed and that you might’ve missed.
FOR EXAMPLE: These two horror movies, which have a couple of interesting things in common, making them great choices for your next horror movie double-feature date night (I’m just assuming everybody else is having those; I’m married so I watch movies with my cats). Both are about teenagers, and both take a fairly age-old horror movie plot and turn it into something fresh. Of the two, I liked Unfriended better, which puts me squarely opposite most film critics and people with actual taste, but after you read my enthusiastically nerdy review of it below, I think it’ll make more sense.
It Follows opens with a scene designed to suck the audience right in, and man, does it ever work — a young woman fleeing her house in a panic, driving to the beach, calling her father to say goodbye, and then being found dead the next morning. Opening scene: I salute you. Play on!
From there, we switch focus to another young woman, Jay, making out with a guy she has a terrific crush on (Hugh). They have sex, she artfully ponders a flower, and the next thing she knows, she’s waking up tied to a wheelchair, Hugh looming and crazed in front of her. He explains that he’s been suffering from a deadly curse he could only rid himself of by passing it on via sex, and she’s all, “I’m sorry, what?” (wait, once more with feeling: “I’M SORRY, WHAT?!”).
He explains: he’s been cursed with an entity that can only be seen by those who have been afflicted, one that takes on the appearance of various people and then follows him everywhere he goes, plodding along slowly in standard horror-movie easily-outrunnable-but-still-aaigh! monster manner. He knows if it ever catches him, he will die (I’m not clear how it then gets passed to the next person, by the way, but let’s not overthink this).
After a couple of weeks of terror (tough guy), he’s sorry to report he just couldn’t take it anymore (wuss). And since she was trying to get into his pants anyway (charmer), she was basically asking for it (jerk). Sorry, Jay (more jerk)! But hey, you can just have sex with someone too and then it’ll be their problem (sociopath).
In essence, it’s like the worst STD imaginable. The rest of the movie is about Jay trying to deal with the emotional complexities of having to choose between dying herself or potentially cause the death of someone else. Talk about making the old horror movie trope “sex = death” about as literal as possible, right?
But this film actually goes a little deeper than that makes it sound. It’s not so much a fable about the dangers of premarital intercourse as it is about the intimidating specter of growing up (which certainly is aptly described as “plodding”). Okay, that may be a stretch, but still: this film is extremely effective and thoughtful, and it’s also incredibly creepy in places. Overall, though, while I appreciated and enjoyed it, it’s not a film I’m likely to watch again.
This one takes the old horror plot wherein a group of teens humiliate a peer and pay the price for it –think Prom Night, Carrie, etc. — and bumps it squarely into the modern age. The camera is focused on a single location for the entire film: the computer screen of the main character, Blaire, as she watches stuff on YouTube, browses the web, and interacts with her boyfriend and pals via text and video chat.
As the friends log on to Skype with each other one evening, they notice a stranger has joined their call, the standard “no photo uploaded” avatar hanging out on the screen. At first, they think it’s a glitch and they hang up and try again. But no — it’s still there.
Then both Blaire and her boyfriend Mitch get a strange message from an old friend, Laura Barns, the girl whose suicide Blaire was watching on YouTube as the movie began (it’s the first anniversary of her death).
As the story progresses, we learn that the group of friends had been involved in posting another video of Laura a little over a year ago in which she was recorded while passed out drunk, having either gotten her period or crapped her britches (I wasn’t clear which, but I think probably the latter). That video ended up online, and the reaction from her so-called “friends” was brutal. Humiliated, she ended up shooting herself, also on camera (kids these days), the next day at school.
The mysterious avatar finally reveals herself — and it’s coming from Laura’s old account. It seems to, in fact, BE LAURA. The kids go bananas. She tells them she wants to play a game, “Never Have I Ever,” in which each person puts up five fingers, and lowers a finger if they are guilty of the action described. Examples: “Never have I ever had sex.” “Never have I ever turned my friend into the cops.” “Never have I ever spread a rumor about Blaire.” With each revelation, the group of friends increasingly turn on each other. And meanwhile, they are also being killed off one by one by some mysterious (entity?) that drives them to commit suicide, just like they drove Laura to.
Now, granted, there is nothing even remotely unique about this plot. As previously noted, the revenge story is as old as the teenage slasher genre itself, and the “people forced to play murderous shame-game” thing is too (Truth or Die, e.g.). One of the things I’ve said many times on this blog is that once you’ve seen a lot of horror movies, as I have, it starts to become really, really hard to impress (or scare) you (me). That genre in particular seems plagued by unoriginality — not just because the same stories get told and retold, but because the same storytelling techniques are often recycled over and over until they lose their effectiveness (found-footage, for example).
Telling an entire story using only a computer screen is something I’ve never seen done before, though, and it is masterfully done here. Multiple platforms are used to build out the backstories at play, from websites about ghosts making contact from the afterlife, to online videos, to photos on Facebook, songs on iTunes, and chat. This could’ve made things difficult to follow, especially when multiple windows were open, or a lot of text appeared on the screen. But every time there’s a moment when you’re unsure where to put your eye, something happens that successfully orients you — a video starts, something flashes, a sound boops, the cursor moves over a line of text.
I found that element of this particularly fascinating, because as someone who develops multimedia online trainings as part of my day job, I’m constantly thinking about ways to keep a user focused on the right onscreen element. And another thing I do for a living — in fact, I co-wrote a journal article about this last year — is think about the best ways to gather and/or present information to people on computers. Which platforms are right for what activities? Which techniques work best for a specific audience? What is the best way to convey this type of information for that group of people? In my work, this is about the dissemination of information related to substance abuse research, but the more I thought about this film after seeing it the first time, the more I found it remarkable to consider this movie in that context. The way that, in some ways, effective dissemination of information is not that different from “storytelling.”
Both of these films get an A+ from me, but Unfriended is by far the more innovative of the two, even while it’s also the clear loser in terms of actual plot. I highly recommend both, and if any of you guys have seen Unfriended in particular, I’d love to hear what your reaction was. If I’m wrong that this has never been done before, definitely correct me, because I’d love to know what I missed and then go un-miss it.
It Follows: Maika Monroe, Keir Gilchrist, Olivia Luccardi, Lili Sepe
Unfriended: Shelley Henning, Moses Jacob Storm, Renee Olstead, Will Peltz, Jacob Wysocki
Yesterday, I posted here to say I had a new entry up at ye olde Metro Confidential blog, and then realized the minute I posted here that, in fact, that blog had suffered some kind of fatal error. Blogger did some major overhauling between the last time I was in there (forever ago) and now, and I couldn’t get access to it restored or update the template or basically anything.
I know a bunch of people get these posts via email and probably clicked the link and were like, BORK. Sorry about that!
We all like WordPress better anyway, right? So, I moved the posts to a new WP blog last night (maintaining accurate post dates), and updated the link over there on the right.
This ended up being a nice exercise, by the way, because I hadn’t read most of those essays in years and years and I had forgotten about some of those people (some I still see now and then, like The Russian and Charts and Graphs). It was nice to visit with them again. Especially, Frog-Face Girl and Sour-Puss, who could be sisters, now that I think about it. Sad-faced sisters. I wonder where they are now. Or if they still “are” at all? It’s kind of weird how I’ll never know.
Anyway, you’ll see if you visit that text formatting is a bit on the inconsistent side — it’s the price you pay for a quick copy/paste. I’ll be fixing that up post by post in the next few days. Bear with me.
You can find the new post (very short!) here:
Thanks for reading!
There’s a new batch of shows coming up this month and next that I’m looking forward to poking at with a stick, so to speak. Assuming you guys already knew Sherlock had a special one-off on New Year’s Day (it was fantastic, by the way! Don’t miss!) and Downton Abbey returned Sunday night, here are a few other things coming in the next two weeks that might interest you. I’ll do another one of these on January 18th or thereabouts to fill you in on the rest of the month. LUCKY YOU!
Killing Fields – 10pm – Discovery. If you, like me, recently devoured all of Netflix’s new fascinating, complicated, and infinitely debatable documentary Making a Murderer, you may find this new 6-episode documentary series on Discovery intriguing too. It will follow a detective, Rodie Sanchez, who’s come out of retirement to work a cold case he failed to solve back in 1997. Reviews so far have accused it of being overly glossy, not to mention pretty clunky — more like Dateline than, say, The Jinx — but I do confess I find these kinds of procedural things interesting. One caveat: they’re filming the series in real-time with a fixed number of episodes, which means there’s no neat ending guaranteed. That could end up being pretty frustrating, but I’m definitely game to check this one out.
American Crime – 10pm – ABC. I watched all of season one of this show and did not hate it, but that’s pretty much the nicest thing I have to say about it, partly because I barely remember the plot (that memorable, yes). Season 2 is on my second-chance list, but I think it’s probably unlikely to get much of that second chance. The DVR is set to record the first episode — WILL IT BE SET TO RECORD THE SECOND? It’s a mystery! Following in the footsteps of American Horror Story, it’ll apparently be a whole new story using most of the same actors and none of the same characters. I know naught else about it. We’ll see.
Angel from Hell – 9:30pm – CBS. This is a new sit-com featuring Jane Lynch as a rabble-rousing angel assigned by God to protect a . . . “type-A dermatologist” (Maggie Lawson)? Dermatologist, eh? Well, that’s a new one. It’s hard to picture anybody doing “rabble-rousing angel” as well as Jane Lynch could do “rabble-rousing angel,” but hen again, it’s a sit-com, and you guys know how I feel about those (though, by the way, I’m still loving to pieces Life in Pieces). This one’s in the DVR too, but I make no predictions as to my tolerance.
Shades of Blue – 10pm – NBC. Jenny from the Block stars as a single-mom-slash-detective taking bribes and kickbacks to make ends meet until she’s caught by the FBI, who then flip her into an undercover agent working to gather evidence about the higher-ups. Ray Liotta plays her boss, one of those corrupt higher-ups; I bet he yells a lot in this and his forehead veins all do their magical Ray-Liotta-forehead-veins thing. There isn’t a single person on the planet who can’t completely predict the entire arc of this story, and if you’ve seen any of the ads, they’ve merely served to confirmed your suspicions, and mine, that we have amazing deductive skills. I won’t be tuning into this one, but if I’m wrong about it being as utterly dumb as it sounds, definitely let me know!
Second Chance – 9pm – FOX. This show has gone through four names so far, finally settling on what I would argue is the most boring of the bunch — not a good sign (the other three were Lookinglass, one-word-one-g for whatever reason, The Frankenstein Code, and just plain Frankenstein). It also started out as a 13-episode thing and has already been reduced to 11. HA HA DOOM. The series, apparently inspired by Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (hence the original title) is about a morally corrupt cop who dies at age 75 and is brought back to life for a do-over as a young man. I don’t fully understand the Frahnkensteen connection, given that information, but luckily, I can’t seem to care enough to . . . you know, care. When does the new X-Files start again? Oh, hurry up, January 24th.
Colony – 10pm – USA. USA surprised us all last year when they created and delivered to us the brilliantly weird Mr. Robot. So, when I heard they were working on another “serious” series, and that it was going to star Dimples, no less, I got kind of excited. Even better: it’s about an alien invasion, you guys! I love alien invasions! The bad news is the pilot’s already available online, I have watched it, and, man, it is terrible. It’s set up similarly to Fear the Walking Dead, with a group of families under a town quarantine of sorts, patrolled by the military, which they are not allowed to leave (note to men, by the way: whatever you do, don’t marry Sarah Wayne Callies, because you will only end up living la vida post-apocalyptic, and I don’t mean that figuratively (I think)). But where Fear the Walking Dead ended up being surprisingly (I thought) thoughtful and well-paced, this show is pretty much the opposite: all surface and flash. I’ll put up with a lot for some Dimples time — just ask the Meg who watched all of Intelligence even though it was utterly ridiculous (hi, That Meg! You’re dumb!) — but I’m not sure I can put up with this. I’m thinking about trying the pilot one more time, because I was distracted the first time I watched it, but I don’t have high hopes for this one, I’m afraid. I’d love to be wrong. Maybe I’ll be wrong! Let’s roll with that.
More new TV later in the month. In the meantime, what are you guys watching these days? Anything good?
On May 1, 1915, the Lusitania, at that time the world’s largest passenger ship, set sail from New York, headed for Liverpool. Of the 1,959 passengers who went to sea with her, only 761 would ever feel land under their feet again. On May 7, as most of us probably remember from about two sentences in a history book in high school, the Lusitania was struck and sunk by a single torpedo from a German U-boat — an important incident, as it marked the moment the Germans changed the protocols of war (from”Hey, don’t sink civilians, you jerks,” to “Sink whomever you want; it’s a goddamn war”), which, along with the fact 123 American passengers died, is what finally got the U.S. to engage.
Erik Larson has written two of my favorite non-fiction books of all time: Thunderstruck and The Devil in the White City. In both those books, he employed a similar narrative device: the weaving of a fascinating historical story (the invention of the wireless for the first, the Chicago World’s Fair for the second) with a crime story about a super-creepy sociopath. Larson’s last book, In the Garden of Beasts, veered from that pattern, and, in my opinion, it suffered from it. While still an interesting story, there wasn’t anything terribly compelling or unique about it. I was disappointed.
When I heard he was about to release a new book, this time about the Lusitania, I was hopeful we might be in for a return to form. After all, the sociopath’s story line here was pretty clear: Walther Schweiger, the notorious captain of U-20: the man who sank a ship packed with children, families, artists, writers, and other civilians headed to England for business or pleasure.
Unfortunately, this book ended up being disappointing overall as well. What the hell is going on over there, Mr. Larson?
The story actually weaves together four stories: the stories of the passengers/crew of both ships (Lusitania, U-20), the story of the British Admiralty, and the story of Woodrow Wilson’s budding romance, by far the least relevant and most distracting element of the book (mostly all that treacly tangential confection did was make me wonder if we really should’ve let a guy that mopily lovesick make such important decisions about things like war; and I’m pretty sure the answer is “no”). I can’t even be bothered to say anything more about that entire subplot, it was so out of place in this narrative. What a slog.
More problematic, though, is that most of the passages set on the Lusitania were dry and drab, overloaded with tedious details about what people were wearing — and I mean everything they were wearing, from their hats to their shoes, as though he’d found their luggage inventory lists and thought, what the heck, might as well throw those in too — as well as how bored they were. Right about the time Larson writes, “The usual shipboard tedium began to set in,” I found myself agreeing wholeheartedly with him.
Though the book tells the stories of some interesting “lost” faces of history, like Boston bookseller Charles Lauriat and pioneering female architect Theodate Pope, since he never sits with a single passenger long enough to let us truly get to know them, it’s hard to build any kind of emotional connection to anyone on board, or to the passengers as a whole. When the ship goes down, it’s terrible, it’s horrible, it’s tragic — but what it isn’t is moving. And that, I would argue, is more Larson’s fault than mine.
THAT SAID. The other two story lines in this book are utterly gripping and, I would argue, make the whole thing worth a read even if you have to skim the other sections to get yourself to the end.
The first section of interest is: every single second set on that U-boat, where life is described in riveting detail: the stifling heat on board, particularly when the ship was submerged; the “basal reek” of 36 unwashed men wearing leather uniforms that didn’t breathe; the part where the toilets exploded if you flushed them while the ship was underwater (a prank often pulled on n00bs, resulting in “the scent of a cholera hospital”); the dogs and puppies Captain Schweiger had a soft spot for; that time they sink a ship loaded with horses and Schweiger describes watching one of them fight to swim, unable to do anything to help it as it kicked and thrashed about in the water, eventually throwing itself onto one of the life boats, with predictably disastrous results.
These passages are brilliant and they’re among the most engaging things I’ve read all year, packed with the Larson’s clean, transportive writing and a degree of detail that reflects what must have been a veritable shit-ton, pardon my English, of research. Unlike the passengers on the Lusi, Schweiger and his men become real people, putting the reader in the uncomfortable position of kind of liking them. I haven’t felt myself so conflicted by my feelings by a bunch of asshole Nazis since Das Boot.
The other part worth taking a look at — and something I’m now really interested in reading more about — is the controversy described regarding the role of the British Admiralty in the sinking of the Lusitania. The Admiralty — specifically the intelligence group they called “Room 40” — had gotten their hands on a German code book, and were busily decoding messages when they started to encounter signs that a passenger ship flying a British flag was in danger of being targeted. They knew all about Schweiger (were, in fact, decoding his messages too), and they knew exactly where both U-20 and the Lusitania were. The connection was pretty clear. The risk was pretty obvious.
Yet — they said nothing.
Why? Well, Larson has two theories, one of which he clearly supports more than the other. It was either because: 1) they were afraid that alerting the Lusitania would reveal to the Germans they had one of their code books (which would make the Germans, then, change up the code book; fair enough, I suppose, though 1,198 passengers and crew might beg to differ), or, 2), as Larson appears to believe, they actually wanted U-20 to go ahead and sink the Lusi, because they knew it would be the thing that, at long last, pulled the U.S. into the war.
Larson offers a lot of evidence supporting that latter theory (though, I should note, he doesn’t quite outright say, “This was all Churchill’s doing!”), much of it’s pretty compelling, and all of it was news to me.
And so, for the sake of this section and the sections on board the U-20 alone, at least for those of you intrigued by history and/or fascinated by wartime conspiracy theories, this book is worth picking up. Trust me, though, when I tell you you can just breeze yourselves right through all the parts set on board the Lusi (though, I did find Theodate Pope’s story interesting, so watch for her name) and everything about Wilson’s coup de foudre. You won’t be missing much worth catching, I’m afraid, and it’s mostly just going to get in your way.
Here’s hoping Larson returns, in his next book, to the kind of storytelling he does best (or, at least: better). I’m still in, though I’ll be wary.