And he slides in under his self-imposed, flexible deadline with seven minutes to spare.
Drowning by Numbers — The first movie I watched this week was Green Lantern. (I’m not going to review it; it was part of a live show I’ve covered before.) This was the second. Consider my palate cleansed. Peter Greenaway is a filmmaker I connected to from the first frame of the first movie I saw of his (The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & her Lover). So it’s odd that it’s taken this long for me to watch a second. Drowning by Numbers has instantly become one of my favourite movies. It has everything I love in a movie: pitch dark comedy, scrupulous attention to detail, complete sensory overload, and hysterically British restraint in the performances. It’s a story about three women from three different generations of the same family, all named Cissie, all of whom drown their husbands, and all of whom manipulate the local coroner into covering for them. I haven’t processed what I’m meant to take away from this story yet, because I’m still marvelling at the crazy garb Greenaway clothed it in. The movie’s primary gimmick (in the most complimentary sense of the word) is the appearance of the numbers 1 through 100 in sequence throughout the movie. Some of these appearances are rational, like the numbers that appear on runners’ jerseys. Others are not, like the ones painted onto cows. But the gradual progression from 1 to 100 provides the movie with an unexpected secondary source of narrative thrust. The closest thing we get to an explanation of why this is happening comes right at the beginning of the movie, when a girl jumping rope explains that once you count to 100 once, all the other hundreds are the same. She’s not wrong. But how that connects with anything is the sort of question that’s bound to result in hacky, unsatisfying readings of a work of art that isn’t meant to be pinned down. Here’s one detail that I think demonstrates something about Greenaway’s approach: when a huge number 50 is seen in yellow cardboard numerals from one angle, and then from the opposite one, the ‘5’ is switched around so that it won’t appear backwards. From the other side it reads ‘05.’ This is, paradoxically, an intentional continuity error. Greenaway wants us to be aware that we’re seeing the number 50 from the other side, but doesn’t want a backwards 5 in his movie because, ugh. He switches the 5 around for the same reason that the disciples are all on the same side of the table in The Last Supper: because we’re looking at a flat image. That’s how Greenaway thinks about cinema. His camera doesn’t represent a single point of view in a three-dimensional space; it reduces everything in front of it to a single, two-dimensional plane. Greenaway is the opposite of Jean Renoir in The Rules of the Game, in which Renoir moves the camera around specifically to call your attention to the things that aren’t onscreen at the moment. But in a Greenaway film, does anything even exist behind the camera? Who knows? Greenaway’s ninja move is a thing he does where he moves the camera laterally through a long take, and every time it stops, the picture has the framing and composition of a Rubens painting. That’s as many as three Rubens paintings in one take. (Rubens is the reference point of choice, because his work appears in the movie. Greenaway loves painters.) All of the performances are fantastic, particularly Joan Plowright as the matriarch of the three drowneresses and Bernard Hill (a.k.a. Theoden from Lord of the Rings) as Madgett, the hapless coroner who turns scary when he doesn’t get what he wants. The restraint of the performances is one of the many, many elements of this film that seems to anticipate the entire aesthetic of Wes Anderson. Others include the immaculate, flat compositions shot with a laterally moving camera (much like the opening of Fantastic Mr. Fox), the voiceover by Madgett’s precocious son Smut (a tragic figure who presages the child protagonists of Moonrise Kingdom), explanations of incredibly convoluted processes (think of the heists in Bottle Rocket) and a general sense of airlessness. Greenaway lacks the pathos and fundamental optimism of Wes Anderson, but so many of the ingredients are here that it almost makes Anderson seem like less of an original. A final remark: Greenaway’s musical collaborator (and perfect aesthetic analogue) Michael Nyman is at his absolute best here. The score is based entirely on the Mozart Sinfonia Concertante, from which Nyman wrestles an impressive diversity of themes (one of which will appear to even greater effect in The Cook, the Thief His Wife & Her Lover). I’m used to hearing this music on accordions, so it was nice to hear it in its original context. Anyway, I’ve gone on long enough. I’ve got nothing to say to sum up this review, because this is a baffling movie that I have only a cursory understanding of. But it is one of the best movies I’ve ever seen in my life. Pick of the week.
Ocean’s 8 — It’s better than Green Lantern, but not as good as Drowning by Numbers. (God help you if you’re reading this on Tumblr, devoid of any context.) My memories of having seen Ocean’s Eleven and Ocean’s Twelve (did I see Ocean’s Twelve???) are hazy, which probably works in this movie’s favour. I love a good caper movie. The thing that I love about them, whether they’re made by Steven Soderbergh or Wes Anderson, is their elegance: the sense that the often glamourous cast of characters is just waltzing merrily through a byzantine storyline full of snake traps. Ocean’s 8 ups the ante on that elegance by presenting a heist that depends not only on criminal knowhow, but impeccable taste. This is partially a function of its all-female headlining cast. The idea is that this heist relies partially on traditionally ‘feminine’ knowledge, like fashion, gossip and party planning. This is… bad? I’m not sure. The fact that there’s an Ocean’s movie with a bunch of the best actresses around in it is straightforwardly good. But whether or not the execution is a little problemsy is a thing I’ll have to think about more. Still, the extent to which this caper is ripped from the society pages makes it a very different feeling and fresh story. Everybody in it is great, but mostly Cate Blanchett is great. No wait — also Anne Hathaway. I was also very happy to see some brilliant actresses of an older generation make cameos. There’s a reading of Ocean’s 8 that sees it as first and foremost a celebration of women in movies. I’m there for that.
Pamela Colloff: “Blood Will Tell” — I started this month trying to read “The Tower” by Andrew O’Hagan. For those unfamiliar, that is a recent 60,000-word investigative piece about the Grenfell Tower fire in the London Review of Books. It is the first story in that weird-ass publication’s history to take up an entire issue. Truly, it is the Thick as a Brick of investigative journalism about horrible tragedies. I couldn’t get through it. It is too meandering even for me. I will stick to news coverage on that particular infuriating story, I think. I bring it up as a point of contrast with this incredible, immersive story about a possible miscarriage of justice in a small town — a man was convicted of murdering his own wife based largely on the questionable practice of blood spatter analysis. Colloff is intensely concerned with the social implications of her reporting — she emphasizes how widespread blood spatter analysis has become. And she’s also careful not to leap to the conclusion that her subject is innocent. But in addition to those concerns, she is also deeply concerned with telling a story by putting one sentence in front of another. It’s masterful and you should read it. Both parts. Also, as a side note, I heard a concert performance of Peter Grimes this week (one of those things I don’t review) and was struck by that opera’s continuing relevance in a world where we still read stories like this.
Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Season 4, episodes 1-6 — Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is extremely silly and extremely good. The standout episode of this is a mockumentary in which a vacuous DJ is converted to the cause of “men’s rights activism” by learning a fun-house mirror version of this show’s whole backstory. That means Jon Hamm gets to play the buffoonish abuser Reverend Wayne Gary Wayne as a would-be martyr. And that is a delight to behold. That episode aside, Carol Kane runs away with this half-season, relishing the role of “that distasteful person who apparently used to sleep with my dad.” I wish it were a whole season, but that’s my only complaint.
Tig Notaro: Boyish Girl Interrupted — The lede here is that Tig Notaro does the last third of this set shirtless, post-mastectomy. But that’s just one element of what is a very, very good special for many reasons. Notaro’s best bits are extended stories. Here, I’m particularly fond of her story about bombing 14 shows in Vegas. But I’m also a fan of the story of her accidentally meeting Santa. (It wasn’t Santa.) She’s also brilliant, as always, at responding to and manipulating the audience. I think she’s in my top three comics right now.
Pop Culture Happy Hour catch-up — HAVE WATCHED: Ocean’s 8. WILL WATCH: The Incredibles 2. DIDN’T WATCH: the Tonys. WON’T WATCH: Cobra Kai; Law & Order. UNDECIDED: Paddington…?
The Memory Palace: “No Summer” & “A White Horse” — I recall having heard podcasts about the year without a summer before, particularly as it relates to the origins of Frankenstein. But this is the best telling of that story I’ve encountered. And, I’ll listen to “A White Horse” every time Nate puts it in the feed. It is one of the most beautiful, most heartbreaking pieces of radio ever made.
Lend Me Your Ears: “Richard II” — I adore this podcast, and I adore Richard II. I’m toying with the idea that this is the most underrated Shakespeare play. This episode teases out a political theme that’s quite obvious in the text, but not something I’d especially thought about, which is the notion of legitimacy. In a sense, the story of Richard II is the story of two leaders whose legitimacy is called into question. Richard has the divine right of kings on his side, but that can only take him so far in a country with a government. Henry Bolingbroke is a boldfaced usurper, but he jumps through hoops to try and ensure the legitimacy of his own reign. Famously, he fails. In an age when a sitting president lost the popular vote and is thus despised by a substantial portion of the citizenry he governs, this is a deeply relevant play. I might not have noticed the extent to which it is relevant if not for this show. Highly recommended.
In The Dark: “The D.A.” — This is an episode that gradually builds up to a climactic interview with the D.A. who’s been the focus of so much of this season so far. It is an interview that is cut from 11 minutes of raw tape. 11 measly minutes. That’s all they could get out of him. That in itself speaks volumes. The rest of the episode comprises a capsule biography of this person, which also serves as a short-term social history of the region where the story takes place. This is a good illustration of why I’m enjoying this season of In the Dark more than the previous one: it is equally rigorous in its journalistic integrity and nearly as insistent on the broader implications of its story. But its storytelling is subtler and cleverer. Much is accomplished by implication. This is one of the best podcasts of the year so far.
Reply All: “The QAnon Code” — Here is a big long episode about an insane internet conspiracy and a sports thing involving Gene Demby. It is very good. I wonder what the story was with that incredibly long wait time for Demby to answer the phone.
Code Switch catch-up — A lot of Code Switch at once is a dangerous thing. Highlights: stories about the origins of a particular prison tattoo aesthetic, and a story about intergenerational trauma in an Alaskan community.
Theory of Everything: “Real Costs Extra” — Here we have a crossover episode between Theory of Everything, at its most tangential to reality, and 99% Invisible, which does not do fiction. It’s like Roman Mars’ presence in the episode is a marker of the line between reality and the murky zone that Benjamen Walker lives in. And, true to expectation, as soon as he departs from the episode, things take a turn for the fake. Also notable: this contains the closest thing we’ve gotten to Starlee Kine talking openly about what her experience at Gimlet was like. It was bad. She doesn’t name Gimlet. But that’s pretty clearly what this is about.
Song by Song catch-up — We continue through Frank’s Wild Years, which the hosts of this show continue to underrate, IMO. The highlight is an appearance by Ivor Cutler as a point of comparison. I love Ivor Cutler. I should listen to him more.
Caliphate: “Prisoners” — This two-part episode of Caliphate is one of the most devastating pieces of audio storytelling I’ve ever heard. It is hard to praise, and harder to recommend, simply because the events it depicts are so dreadful. The first part tells the story of Rukmini Callimachi’s excursion to an Iraqi prison, where she meets a condemned ISIS member who claims to have bought a sex slave for the purpose of saving her — and Callimachi’s discovery that this was far from the case. The second part builds on a story, and a memorable episode of The Daily, about young women being rescued from slavery and returning to their communities in catatonic states. There is light at the end of the story, but it is a draining and horrible listen. It is also incredibly important, compassionate, brave reporting. It cements Caliphate as one of the tentpole achievements of serialized podcasting. Pick of the week.