Sunday, 5 February 2023

Plain Bad Heroines

emily m. danforth’s Plain Bad Heroines (aided by beautiful illustrations by Sara Lautman) is a matryoshka doll of a story. Nesting – and what a great horror-inspiring verb that is – at its centre is Mary MacLane’s first published book, originally titled I Await the Devil's Coming, but renamed by the publisher to the more socially palatable The Story of Mary MacLane. This 1901 sensation of autobiographical writing caused a craze at the time, especially among young girls, and inspired what we would now call a dedicated fandom. It is also the historical kernel of danforth’s horror novel, and a delight of a starting point into the rabbit hole. MacLane, spending her youth in Montana like the author, later went on to lead a bohemian (and queer) life, writing more books and starring in the 1917 silent film Men Who Have Made Love to Me, in which the fourth wall to the audience is broken, which also seems fitting – in Plain Bad Heroines, an omniscient narrator often addresses the reader directly and comments further on the happenings in both informative and ironic footnotes. 
We find out that we are in a horror novel early into Plain Bad Heroines. In 1902, Clara and Flo are students at a Rhode Island boarding school called Brookhants School for Girls (pronounced Brookhaunts), founded and run by a couple that will star in another layer of this nesting doll. They have dedicated themselves to MacLane’s writing, identifying with her voice and her unconventional and rebellious disregard for what teenage girls are meant to strive for. They also find a horrible end soon after being outed – stung to death after stumbling into a nest of yellowjackets on the schoolgrounds. Wasps will continue to swarm and haunt the rest of the story like harbingers of impending doom. Predictably, MacLane’s writing, which has inspired the girls to overcome social conventions, now engenders a moral panic in their surroundings. The novel traces the particular individual book the girls read together back to the school’s founder Libbie Brookhants, for whom it functions like the tell-tale heart of a past betrayal of her current partner. 

danforth traces the book – literally, and in terms of its influence – backwards and forwards in time. Forwards, it leads to literary wunderkind’s Merritt Emmons book The Happenings at Brookhands, which details the fate of Clara, Flo and a third student who came to a horrible end after being haunted by something that the book itself indirectly roused. Emmons’ book, completed at sixteen and for now without a follow-up, is now being adapted into a film. This adaptation becomes another doll, encapsulating both Merritt’s novel and what we have already learned about Clara and Flo – but we will later find out that the director, Hollywood horror genius Bo Dhillon, plans to build an even larger doll around Merritt and the two actors cast as the main characters. Inspired by found-footage horror films like The Blair Witch Project, Bo plans to not only film Merritt’s book, but also the production of the film itself, and the relationship between the writer and the two actresses, especially after they stumble into a complicated net of interpersonal drama. At the centre of it is Harper Harper (again, a wink, this one maybe a little bit too much?), a rising young star, who, in a segment of the novel that reads most like a blossoming romance (a path it never quite goes down to, at least not unambiguously, even though there’s a lot of tragic romance in this), begins courting Merritt not just for insider information on the character she will be playing, but also more conventionally, because she really seems to like her a lot (and she is also conveniently in a non-monogamous relationship). Merritt, who enters Hollywood with the overwhelming sense of being in over her head, seems swept along with it the more Harper breaks down the walls of cynicism she’s built around herself, but then pulls back when the second actress enters the stage. 

Audrey Wells, daughter of a 1980s scream queen who more recently has made headlines with a tragic accident and substance abuse issues, appears too inexperienced to be in a film that has a star like Harper Harper attached, and Merritt appears to dislike her on the spot, until that feeling slowly turns into something a whole lot more ambiguous. And this is my favourite part about the whole book – that everyone in it is queer, and that all the relationships always appear to be verging on something more, or something else, in much the same way in which the story itself appears to be straightforward until it veers into psychological horror. The director informs Audrey of his plans to secretly film the production of the film, the relationship between the three women, and to introduce elements of horror to that story – manufactured mysteries that will make the set appear haunted, except then of course his intention is overshadowed by the very real haunting of Brookhants, the one that has killed and driven to madness women before them, and may or may not have started with something called Spite Tower, a pointless structure that was erected to spoil the view of an independent woman who refused to move for the benefit of two brothers with great plans. 

And if it hasn’t been clear so far – there are so many meta-levels to Plain Bad Heroines that it is almost impossible to mention them all. danforth’s first was the raw The Miseducation of Cameron Post (a novel that I love more than almost any other, that I reread as soon as I finished it the first time, and was adapted two years ago into a great film that according to danforth did not directly inspire the meta-story around the film-production of The Happenings at Brookhants). This book is entirely different, mainly because the narrator creates some distance between the reader and the characters. A very essential part of Cameron Post is Cam’s process of realising that she is gay, and finding ways to figure out what that means in both a remote location and in a time before the internet. For Cam, that means going to videostores and trying to figure out if the films are gay based on the blurb at the back (she does pretty well for small-town Montana, two of the films playing a more central role are Personal Best, a 1982 classic in which Mariel Hemingway plays a sprinter, and The Hunger, a 1983 vampire film starring Catherine Deneuve, Susan Sarandon and David Bowie). Later she has a tentative connection to the outside world through a friend and fellow swimmer, who sends her dispatches and mixtapes from the Pacific Northwest. As much as this is a very personal and raw book, now it also works as a time capsule of the 1990s (what would Cam have been like had she had Jamie Babbit’s But I’m a Cheerleader, a completely different approach to the conversion camp horror story, this one more camp but still tragic underneath). 

Plain Bad Heroines is similar to that in the sense of diving deep into what it means to be young and different, and desperately trying to find something that reflects this experience. Clara and Flo find it in Mary MacLaine’s writing – an indication that a different life is possible, even if theirs end so early and so tragically – and Merritt finds it in their story, and that of the weird haunting of Brookhants, which is in a way another haunted manor story in the year of Bly. A place bears the wounds of its past – of two girls, stung to death, a third, driven to suicide via poisonous plant (one that, predictably, is later used to get high, always a good thing to do on haunted grounds), and that of founder Libbie and partner Alexandra Trills, which also ends badly. The novel shows women loving each other and making lives with each other – against societal conventions (the footnotes frequently refer to Boston marriages). The extension of this desire for representation is maybe between the reader and the three women who are watched being themselves, who become – wittingly or unwittingly – characters themselves in the director’s attempt to manufacture a found-footage film (and, because the layers never end, Merritt is writing her second book about the production of the film) – because in this horror story, everything is suddenly possible. What may have been subtext to never come to fruition – not just the obvious attraction between Merritt and Harper from the get-go, but also the immediate intense connection between Harper and Audrey through the characters they play, and the ambiguous change that happens between Merritt and Audrey – is text here (a text in which the three final girls are all in love or lust with each other), and only hindered by the fact that they are also in a horror story littered with bodies. 

originally published in 2020

The Miseducation of Cameron Post

“The afternoon my parents died, I was out shoplifting with Irene Klauson.”
This is how emily m. danforth’s novel starts. Cameron at this stage is just out of childhood, and she loses her parents the same day that a dare with her best friend Irene opens up a whole new world to her. It’s an unfortunate coincidence that Cameron’s first kiss with another girl ends with the trauma of losing her parents, as the guilt of that moment, and the question of whether her parents’ death was somehow a punishment by god for her behaviour, haunts her for the rest of her youth. 
Desiree Akhavan’s adaptation never shows us this moment. In fact, nearly all of the details of Cameron’s youth in Montana’s Miles City, which take up about two thirds of the novel, are missing from the film. 
What Desiree Akhavan does achieve, in spite of only focusing on a narrow part of danforth’s novel, is still remarkable. She creates a foundational trauma that happens in a flash of quickly-paced scenes, Cameron (Chloë Grace Moretz, somehow perfectly cast for this) and Coley (Quinn Shepherd, a few years ago very impressive with a short but memorable stint on Person of Interest) stumbling, kissing against walls, stealing moments away together, in secret, until they are finally discovered by Cameron’s homecoming-date and best friend Jamie after having sex in a car. There’s no need to really hear what happens after, because we can guess, even without having read the book: Jamie, making horrified noises while Cam tries to put her clothes back on and Coley weeps in the car, inconsolable, ashamed, Cam being sat down by her Aunt Ruth, and then, Cam being taken away to God’s Promise, an evangelical conversion therapy centre. 

We don’t really know much about Cam at this point in the film, while she is well-established in the book, and it’s hard to judge how this moment of horror would play out for someone who isn’t familiar with Cameron Post from danforth’s writing. In the book, it’s the culmination of her low-key struggle with Aunt Ruth, who comes to raise her after her parents’ death because her grandmother isn’t really able to do it by herself, as kind and gentle as she is with Cameron’s identity and grief. Aunt Ruth means well, which is probably the worst part of it, because Cameron prior to that point has been raised in an agnostic household and now has to cope with a re-born evangelical Christian who thinks she is saving her niece’s soul by making her go to Church, church group, and eventually, the conversion camp. There is no ill-intent in this, or even hatred, just an utterly and horribly misguided love. 
Cameron herself is – sarcastic, stubborn, questioning. She takes what she’s learned about herself with first best friend Irene Klauson to the same place that so many other queer kids have taken their questions – film -  and educates herself via her small town’s videostore (because the book, and the film for that matter, are set in the early Nineties), sharpening her sense on classic film Personal Best. She runs wild with her best friends (so many scenes in the book are memorably set in an abandoned hospital building, and some of the allure of it comes from how free these kids are to do with their days more or less as they wish, without much parental supervision). She swims competitively and meets a gay girl who is about to move to the Pacific Northwest, and will send her dispatches in the form of letters, phone calls and riot grrrl mixtapes from a world where it seems so much easier to be gay. Cam soaks all of it up, and tries to find meaning, in a way, between her attempts to comprehend how it relates to her parents’ death and to being in a small town, trying to shape an identity, until she falls in love with Coley. 

I think it’s worth knowing all of this while watching the film, I think it adds to the layers and layers, as much as the film works on its own. It adds to know how falling in love with Coley feels to Cameron like a bomb going off, an inevitable time bomb that will blow everything apart. Lindsey, her gay friend, from far away cautions her not to go after a straight girl, but Cam can’t help herself (plus Coley isn’t exactly straight, just scared out of her mind). In the book, she seduces her by using The Hunger (in the film, it’s Donna Deitch's beautiful drama Desert Hearts, in both cases it’s good they never make it to the end). Like in the film, they get caught, and Cam is the one paying the price, the one carrying the burden, the one sent off to the conversion camp. 

A lot of the complexities of Cameron at this point are hard to convey in a film that mostly relies on sparse and predominantly sarcastic dialogue between its main characters as well as facial expressions to tell its story. In the novel, Cameron narrates her own story, and she is particularly good at capturing how seasons, weather and landscape play into people’s behaviour – especially kids who are still in school, who come to life during summer holidays. When she arrives at God’s Promise she is shell-shocked – the moment when she and Coley got caught in the car replays a few times, in particular Coley’s refusal to be comforted, and Cameron’s guilt because she thinks that she made her do something she didn’t want to. Since the film doesn’t have the connection between Cameron’s realisation that she is gay and the death of her parents, it uses the guilt over having seduced Coley to turn Cameron into a character who isn’t entirely opposed to the teachings of God’s Promise. It’s the same position the occupies in the book – somewhere between the kids who are there believing deeply and profoundly that they are wrong, and require healing, and the kids who know they are only there because their parents are wrong and misguided, that they only have to survive long enough, or play the game, to be free again. It would be much easier to watch a character interrogate the teachings of God’s Promise from the start, refusing the buy into it entirely – like Cameron’s soon-to-be friends Jane Fonda (Sasha Lane, as perfectly aloof and cool as Jane Fonda is in the book) and Adam do, who have created their own little community of ditch-weed smoking survivors of Dr. Lydia’s heinous teachings. We don’t see too much of that teaching on the screen, the main part is the theory of the iceberg, according to which gayness is only the part of the problem that is obvious to the eye, whereas the majority of the kids’ issues remain buried under the sea, and require (for the most part, profoundly traumatising) inspection before they can hope to overcome their SSA. Cameron is curious enough about that part that she investigates everyone else’s iceberg, trying to understand everyone along the lines of Rick and Lydia’s interpretation of their identity, trying to fill in her own iceberg to understand herself. In the novel, the iceberg fits in well with Cameron’s previous attempt at finding a metaphor for her complex inner life – after her parents’ death, she starts to decorate a dollhouse from her childhood with found and stolen objects, but maybe in 2018, after Sharp Objects, it’s for the better that this detail didn’t make it into Akhavan’s film. 

Since this is 1993, Cameron doesn’t really have the same luxury of being able to just refute the claims of Reverend Rick and his much easier to hate sister Dr. Lydia from the start. As much as Jane and Adam attempt to make her understand that there are other villains in her story – Coley, for one, once she figures out that she was the one who ratted her out, not her friend Jamie – there is still a part of Cameron driven by guilt that buys into some of the thing that God’s Promise is selling, even if she isn’t as completely convinced by it as her room-mate Erin and some of the other kids are. It’s so easy for Rick and Lydia to sell the idea that being gay is wrong because it matches what the kids have heard from the people who’ve sent them there – who are meant to love them unconditionally, and care for them – and because in 1993, it would’ve been easier to argue that having a family, and living a life not burdened with adversity and conflict, is easier when you’re straight. 
It takes a while for Cameron to catch on to the fact that Rick and Lydia have absolutely no idea what they are doing, that their hack-psychology isn’t cut out to deal with actual crises, that their limited conception of self and personhood creates an atmosphere in which someone will inevitably break, even more so because some of these children weren’t sent there by loving parents or guardians who wanted the best for them, but hateful and despicable irresponsible people who want what they think is evil cut out of their children, with no regard to their mental and physical well-being. The most horrible moment in the film is taken directly from the book – it’s when Mark (Owen Campbell, absolutely remarkable in the role), the poster boy for the camp’s success, a kid who passionately quotes scripture, believes profoundly in the teachings, and is so lovable and compassionate on the phone that he brings in most of the donations finds out that his father is still refusing to let him come home because he remains too effeminate. Distressed, he quotes scripture in group therapy that makes it clear how much he has been made to hate himself. Rick and Lydia, utterly incompetent, leave him alone, and he severely hurts himself. 

It’s a horrible moment in which Cameron finally realises that these people who are meant to be responsible for the children under their care are not capable of caring for them, that these amateurs do not know what they are doing. Ironically, an investigator is sent to question the kids about the conditions in the camp (the man tells her, point-blank, that he is there to investigate practices, not judge the intent behind it). He asks if she trusts the Rick and Lydia, if she believes that they have her best interest at heart, and Cameron can’t even begin to put into words how impossible that question is to answer in the affirmative. Rick and Lydia and the culture their represent are tasked with destroying any sense of self-possession and self-knowledge, any sense of true identity, that the kids have, and Mark’s fate is only the most jarring example of what happens when those things are taken away from a person. 

A more quiet moment, and one that I’m so glad has made it from the page into the film, is between Erin and Cameron. The film, like the book, very intentionally plays Viking Erin (Emily Skeggs doing perfect magic) up for laughs – her obsession with a sports team, her narrative of herself as being gay because she is too much into sports, and bonded with her dad over it, her earnestness in trying to become straight, her attempts to become more fit to hilarious “Blesserzise” videotapes. Cameron is so caught up in her blooming friendship with Adam and Jane Fonda and trying to make sense of her remaining feelings for Coley that she completely misses the many moments where it’s pretty clear how much Erin cares for her – until Erin literally leaps on her, after Cam has a vivid sex dream, to try and save her from having evil thoughts until she changes her mind and makes her come instead. She still insists, after, that she wants to become straight, that she wants a “normal” life, except it’s so clear, in everything she does, that she likes Cameron too much. It’s like a transformation happens in those few minutes, where Erin goes from a character played for laughs to turning into a whole complex sexual being (who responds to Cameron, after she says that she really didn’t see it coming, that it is because she didn’t think of her that way – and she sounds like she deeply wants to be thought of that way), where she gloriously triumphs over all the moments where anyone would’ve made fun of her for being too much into God. The fact that God’s Promise is trying to eradicate this spirit and passion out of her is as much proof of its failings at basic humanity as Mark’s horrible act of self-destruction is. 

This is why The Miseducation of Cameron Post is at its best when it reminds us that the kids trapped at God’s Promise are exactly that, teenagers who are trying to make sense of themselves, who become gloriously themselves when they are finally able to turn a radio to a non-Christian-rock radio station and sing “What’s Going On” together (perfect, in a way, after Sense8 two years ago). God’s Promise is trying to break them down so it can more successfully instil its hideous ideology – another horrible moment is when Lydia cuts off Adam’s (Forrest Goodluck) beautiful hair, an act of pure hatred against his identity that refuses to be shaped into evangelical Christian forms. Rick and Lydia’s agenda ultimately has to fail because the sheer amount of life, of passion, of desire for freedom that refuses to be beaten or prayed out of Adam, Jane Fonda and Cam will carry them into a life far away from this horror. At least that’s the note the film ends on – the three of them, riding away from God’s Promise in the back of a pick-up truck, playfully and freely flirting with a real life of their own. 
It’s a much less ambiguous ending than danforth’s novel, which, because it starts the way it does, ends with Cameron swimming the lake in which her parents perished, attempting to make sense of how her loss and her grief connect to how and whom she loves. In both cases, it would have been wasted time to prosecute the institutions we already know are evil, and it is glorious to see instead a celebration of those who successfully overcome, simply by being free. 

2018, directed by Desiree Akhavan, starring Chloë Grace Moretz, Sasha Lane, Forrest Goodluck, Emily Skeggs, Owen Campbell, John Gallagher Jr., Quinn Shephard, Jennifer Ehle.

Originally published in 2018

Tuesday, 31 January 2023

Reading List: January.

Non-Fiction: 

Stephanie Foo: What My Bones Know. 
Annalee Newitz: Four Lost Cities. 
Peter Frankopan: The New Silk Roads. A New History of the World.
Rick Morton: My Year of Living Vulnerably. 

Fiction: 

R.F. Kuang: Babel. 
R.F. Kuang: The Poppy War.
R.F. Kuang: The Dragon Republic.
R.F. Kuang: The Burning God.
Lauren Groff: Arcadia. 
Lauren Groff: Fates and Furies.
Allegra Goodman: Sam.
Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai: The Mountains Sing.
Emma Donoghue: The Pull of the Stars. 
Marisa Crane: I Keep My Exoskeletons To Myself.
C.J. Tudor: The Drift.
Morgan Talty: Night of the Living Rez.
Christopher Golden: All Hallows.
Tess Sharpe: 6 Times We Almost Kissed (And One Time We Did).
Shelley Burr: Wake.


Films: 

Emily the Criminal (2022, John Patton Ford).
Not Okay (2022, Quinn Shephard).
Beyond the Hills (2012, Cristian Mungiu).
The Menu (2022, Mark Mylod).
Corsage (2022, Marie Kreutzer).
Watcher (2022, Chloe Okuno).
M3GAN (2022, Gerard Johnstone).
Barbarian (2022, Zach Cregger).
Salt (2010, Phillip Noyce).
The Bone Collector (1999, Phillip Noyce).
Taking Lives (2004, DJ Caruso).
Changeling (2008, Clint Eastwood).
She Said (2022, Maria Schrader).
Aftersun (2022, Charlotte Wells).
The Banshees of Inisherin (2022, Martin McDonagh).
Showgirls (1995, Paul Verhoeven).

Shows: 

Person of Interest, Season Five.
Black Snow, Season One.
The Confessions of Frannie Langton, Season One.
Die Totenfrau, Season One.
The Head, Season One, Season Two.

Other: 

Rina Sawayama @ 170 Russell.

Monday, 23 January 2023

The Menu


In the documentary series Chef’s Table, each episode portrays a singular chef. The best episodes travel far, and provide insight into how history, culture and politics shape the dishes of the chefs, and how concerns about the environment and access to food systems beyond industrialised production influence what ends up on the plate. Mark Mylod’s The Menu references Chef’s Table – Nicholas Hoult’s Tyler has seen the (obviously fictional) episode starring Chef Slowik many times – and it uses the same techniques when filming the plating of the dishes, presenting them in a way that resembles tiny landscapes, befitting of Slowik’s description of some of them as entire ecosystems. 

Chef Slowik’s restaurant Hawthorn is the epitome of exclusive. Only twelve guests are served each night, the restaurant is on a privately owned island that can only be accessed by boat, the tasting menu is prohibitively expensive. Tyler and his date Margot (Anya Taylor-Joy) arrive at the harbour, Tyler vibrating with excitement and obsessive enough about what he is about to experience to correctly identify that they will be sharing the experience with famous food critic Lillian Bloom (Janet McTeer), while Margot, trying to sneak a smoke, seems like an outsider from the start, unlikely to be swayed by the event and not very impressed by the bits and pieces that Tyler tells her (and not very impressed by Tyler’s insistence that she stops smoking so as not to destroy her taste buds). 

Like Chef’s Table, the illustrious guests – a rich couple (Margot recognises the husband), three finance bros who are exactly as you would imagine them, a movie star over his peak – are introduced to the environment that informs the dishes they will eat, although their interest varies. Chef Slowik sources his ingredients from the island, has his own smoke house, bee hives, goats. It’s the kind of ultra-local cuisine that is en vogue, but also demands a kind of responsibility and attention to detail that appears to be beyond these particular guests. 

And then service starts. I think it would have been interesting if The Menu had been promoted as a film about food, with even fewer hints into what was eventually going to happen – the best way to see it is to know nothing, and to slowly come to realise that this is a horror film along with the guests, who are slowly acclimatised to the idea so that when it hits them, it’s already too late. They could have maybe guessed earlier, like when they see the cramped and minimalistic staff dorms, but in light of what they have paid for this exclusive experience, it just seems befittingly eccentric that they appear to have no space to themselves, and never leave. Slowik introduces his dishes like artworks, interwoven with ideas about history and deep reverence for the ingredients. He implores his guests to taste, not eat – this is not the kind of food that is meant to truly nourish anything except the mind. It’s food as art – Tyler, later, talks about it as art made with the ingredients of life itself, more authentic and true for its proximity to death (how close, we’ll soon find out). 

 The second course, Chef explains, is the bread course. Bread, historically, is the food of the common people, and nobody who could spend this much money on a tasting menu is common, therefore, the guests are only served tiny drips of accompaniments. It is the first direct hit Slowik delivers – opting for a tasting course in a restaurant means, to an extent, giving up choice, and everyone here is now at his mercy. It causes outrage, as Hawthorn is famous for his bread, and the absent bread is introduced in all its glory, rare obscure grain and all. The finance bros demand it, in a deeply satisfying interaction for anyone who has ever worked in customer service – Hong Chau Elsa’s absolute “no” cannot be bargained with. The conversation reveals that they work – for, not with – the angel investor of the restaurant, and therefore feel powerful – but all their power comes to nothing. 

The only irritation for this immaculately planned dinner is Margot, the surprise guest. It’s clear from the outset that each guest is intimately known here – in a later course, the tortillas are laser-imprinted with the guests’ sins (Tyler’s are photos of him transgressing the “no photos” rule again and again) – but Margot is an unknown quantity, a last-minute substitution for a different date. She makes Slowik uneasy. It all escalates, truly, with the fourth course titled “the Mess”, which is introduced with the suicide of sous chef Julian, a man who bought into the dream and found it empty. It is a moment so horrible and out of the expected that some of the guests assume that it is a dramatic, but staged, death, but any hopes for that disappear when Richard, the rich husband, attempts to leave and loses a finger in the process. It becomes clear that nobody will leave alive, that chef despises each of them. Richard, for example, has dined in this exclusive, once-in-a-lifetime restaurant eleven times, and cannot recall a single course – the greatest crime, beyond the specific ones (making a disappointing film, being privileged enough not to be burdened with student loans, the very existence of the breed finance bro), is being served something exceptional, and then forgetting about it as if it were nothing. 

I’ve been thinking about this argument since viewing the film, because it is interesting to consider Chef Slowik either as the traditional horror movie villain who has transgressed rationality – some of the hatred he has for his guests is petty (it is difficult to see what Judith Light’s Anne has done wrong, beyond being married to a horrible man), other arguments hit something deeper, a question about how any art can be produced with dignity, without loss of self, in an environment where everything is commercialised and whoever has the money to finance it has the power to determine its content (the angel investor is killed, dramatically, setting Slowik free from his bounds, for the crime of thinking that having put money into this venture gives him absolute ownership over it, and turning these chefs and cooks and staff into puppets). Slowik thinks of the world in dualistic terms – there are those that dine, and those who cook, the privileged and the shit-shovelers who cater to them, and he is insist that this is an important distinction even in death when he tries to categorise Margot, who doesn’t quite see how it makes a difference when the outcome, in the end, is death (but then, food is ephemeral also, and only exists to be eaten in the end). Margot, it turns out, is actually Erin, a sex-worker, whom Tyler, who knew what was going to happen, recruited because there are no tables for one. She has her own horror stories about finding out about the depth of human depravity in her job. Her position becomes liminal, one of the workers but still seated with the diners. The men are given a (doomed to fail) chance to escape, perhaps mainly to demonstrate to the female diners how willing they are to abandon them – ultimately, they are returned (in one of the few genuine laugh out loud moments in the film, the last one to be found is crouched in a chicken coop, and received a complimentary Passard Egg course). Tyler is punished for his many faults, the main of which is the hubris to think that knowledge about the workings of the kitchen means he can be, genuinely, elevated above the other guests – he is asked to cook in front of everyone, and, trembling, serves a horror-course of badly chopped, under-sautéed leeks and raw lamb, after which the chef berates him about destroying his art and sends him off to fall on his sword. 

Margot, now part of the staff, is sent off to retrieve a barrel, and kills Elsa (delightful Elsa, RIP), who is jealous of her promotion (a mystifying course of events, truly, the greatest weakness of the film is that so many stories aren’t told, as if the staff, who have chosen death also, are interchangeable while the diners are individuals). She enters Chef’s living quarters and figures out the magic words to escape – here he is, young and happy, making a burger, the kind of food that is both affordable and nourishing, crave-able. Margot has not eaten, she is still hungry, and she orders a traditional cheese burger. Chef makes it, and looks, for the first time this evening, happy and fulfilled. It’s a kind of reverse Ratatouille, but also a strange thing to unpack in this film – is this an argument against elitist art that has obsession but not love, for art that is accessible and greasy, dripping with melted American cheese? Margot takes one perfect bite, and then asks to take the leftovers home with her. She is allowed to leave, because she has solved the puzzle of Chef’s discontent, has found the place in this personal history where he took the wrong turn. From a boat off the course, she watches as the final dessert course comes to fruition and the guests become human s’mores, appearing to finally have given into their fate, or become exulted by the idea of being a literal part of the Menu. She eats. 

2022, directed by Mark Mylod, starring Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Fiennes, Nicholas Hoult, Hong Chau, Janet McTeer, Paul Adelstein, John Leguizamo, Aimee Carrero, Reed Birney, Judith Light.

Thursday, 12 January 2023

Emily the Criminal

Imagine a breathless thriller that is structured around four job interviews. The first one is a con – the interviewer has made up his mind about Aubrey Plaza’s Emily before she’s even entered the room. He lies to her about what kind of information he’s assembled about her, asking probing questions about a conviction. She lies and he reveals he knows about her assault charge. What unfolds is a marvel. Instead of backing down or being cowered, Emily immediately calls him out on lying to her, on trying to test and trick her. It’s a perfect way to introduce her, and an explanation for what happens later. 

Emily has $70,000 and her repayments don’t even cover the interest. She works as a contractor for a catering company, the kind of place that clearly profits off the precarity of contracting workers and still treating them like employees. When she enters corporate offices to set up buffets for the workers, they treat her like furniture. Before Emily gets caught up in the credit card fraud ring that promises her better returns for her work, the world that Emily the Criminal is already presented as inherently exploitative and impossible to navigate with dignity for someone without privilege. The fact that all the people that hold power over her are presented as capitalism’s version of legitimate criminals means that for Emily, the only way to claw back a liveable life is to become a criminal herself. 

She is recruited by Youcef (Theo Rossi). Her first job is to purchase a TV with a stolen credit card. He offers her a second, more profitable and dangerous job, and she takes it after realising there is no other way out of her predicament. She buys a car with a no-limit credit card, knowing that she has eight minutes to get out before the bank will call the seller. It goes wrong – the seller assaults her, after discovering the con – but once again, instead of backing down, she proves herself resilient. First, there’s a car chase, then she attacks the pursuer with a pepper spray. She gets out – with a broken nose, but successfully. 

Stylistically, Emily the Criminal is outstanding, maybe because its action sequences are so unlike any others I’ve seen recently. Music is used sparsely, and violence erupts suddenly, unexpectedly, realistically. Later, when Emily has gone freelance with Youcef’s help, she is robbed by one of her buyers – a terrifying moment, made helpless and held down with a boxcutter to her throat – but again, instead of relenting she follows the robbers, tases on of them, takes back what is hers. She will reveal later that her assault charge was for attacking a former boyfriend, that her only regret is not being more threatening, to discourage him from going to the police. The same kind of defiant aggression breaks through several times, as does her ability to think on her feet, to seek out conflict where she’d be expected to back down. 

One of my favourite scenes is her second official job interview. There are a few scenes throughout the films that show her surrounded by her former friends, who have moved up in the world and seem weirdly distant, as if the spectre of her conviction was haunting her, as if they were afraid that her lack of success could discredit them or rub off on them. The person who is presented as her best friend drags her feet when it comes to getting her a job interview with her boss, but finally comes through for her. A few seconds into the interview, Emily realises that this job she’s pinned her hopes on, that she’s seen as a way to get out of the criminal life and back into a respectable one, is in fact an unpaid internship. Gina Gershon only has this one scene in the film, but she manages to personify the entire absurdity of an unpaid internship model. She presents it as an act of charity to allow Emily to work full-time hours for six months without any money, but Emily, outraged because the capacity to do this is so obviously tied up in the privilege of being supported, somehow, by rich parents or a trust fund (and the fact that her friend never mentioned this to her, in spite of certainly knowing Emily could never say yes), calls her out on it. Gershon’s character talks down to her, and Emily is having none of it. It’s a gratifying scene, a take-down of a broken culture. “What I don’t understand is how you feel so comfortable asking someone to work without pay.”, she says, and eventually walks out, burning her bridges. The only way to break the system is to write the rules yourself. The only way to exist with dignity is to steal back. 

Emily dreams of being an artist, of travelling to South America. Youcef dreams of using the money he’s saved on buying an investment property. In the end, Youcef is conned, and their attempt to get his money back goes sour. It ends with a serious injury, a brutal robbery gone wrong. But we’ve seen what Emily does when she’s cornered, and instead of ending up in prison, she takes the money and runs. In the end, she’s where she dreamt of going, running a scam of her own. In the end, she’s the one on the other side of the job interview, offering $200 to a new group of shoppers in South America. As far as anti-capitalist revenge fantasies go, this is a pretty great one, and Aubrey Plaza is a revelation. 

2022, directed by John Patton Ford, starring Aubrey Plaza, Theo Rossi,  Megalyn Echikunwoke, Gina Gershon. 

Saturday, 31 December 2022

Shows of the Year

Best new show:

A League of Their Own

This show is so joyful, so clearly a work of love by everyone involved - how amazing is it to see Abbi Jacobson go from Broad City to this! I love everything here, from the way it builds on the film in a way that acknowledges the shortcomings but retains the glee, the fleshed out minor characters (Roberta Colindrez from Vida! Kelly McCormack from Killjoys and many other Canadian delights!) that grow on you so much as the show progresses, the friendship between Max and Carson, the friendship between Max and Clance - and I'm quietly convinced Jacobson watched her partner Jodi Balfour in Bomb Girls and Had An Idea, and it comes together so well. 

Severance

Pachinko

This adaptation of Min Jin Lee's novel spans several generations of a Korean family but centres on Sunja (played by Minha Kim at a younger age and Youn Yuh-jung later), who migrates from Japanese occupied Korea to Japan. It is a history of a violent occupation and racism that still exists in the late 1980s, when Sunja's grandson Solomon returns to Japan from the United States to convince an old woman to sell her valuable land to his company. Pachinko is immersive, sometimes overwhelming in its sadness - the sadness of people craving what they left behind, but can never truly return to, the everyday violence of a country that does not welcome them, even when it is happy to exploit their labour, but also the underlying impossibility to truly convey personal history to the next generation, especially when that generation is so eager to get on with their own lives, with little space to contemplate the sacrifices of their parents and grandparents. In an episode that is not based on the novel, we get the backstory of Sunja's first lover (a man who wanted to make her his concubine, but found her unwilling to live in shame - he guards the life of her and her son secretly from then on, uses his influence to award them a measure of protection), who lived through the devastating Great Kantō earthquake in 1923. 

The Bear

Abbott Elementary

Watching the first season of this show, I was reminded of everything that went wrong in beloved Parks and Recreation's first season: how Parks didn't yet know what perspective to take, how it mocked Leslie Knope, how it started off as a whole lot more cynical and cold. Parks found its feet after that short first season, but Abbott Elementary doesn't need any idle time to get there: it's perfect from the beginning, warm and un-cynical, relentlessly funny, perfectly cast. 

Interview with the Vampire

An explicitly queer sequel to the 1990s film, that feels like it is taking the Anne Rice novel and exploiting its full potential without the burden of having to hold back, or hide in subtext. Interview with the Vampire is about a self-destructive love, deals with racism, and the nature of memory and recollection, and how those things become warped when they are turned into a story told to someone else. 

The Peripheral

It's incredible that this is the first adaptation of one of William Gibson's novels (Johnny Mnemonic and Abel Ferrara's New Rose Hotel are based on his short stories). It is an interpretation of sorts, deviating from the story it is based on, and very much influenced by the visual language creators Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan developed in Westworld. Chloë Grace Moretz is a perfect Flynne Fisher, who gets caught in a complex thriller plot when she tests out what she believes to be new gaming technology for her veteran brother Burton (Midsommar's Jack Reynor). I still dream of what Olivier Assayas could make with Pattern Recognition, but this is an almost perfect first season. 

Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power

I think that some of the draw of this show for me was how much it reminded me of watching the three Peter Jackson films when they came out. The Rings of Power is beautiful - many of its dialogue scenes feel like they are staged like they would be in a play, the scenery of New Zealand is captured gorgeously, the night scenes are - blissfully - visible, all of which creates an expansiveness that I think has been missing from other recent fantasy series. 

The Serpent Queen

Samantha Morton is Catherine de' Medici, who survives intrigues at the French court through brilliant plotting (her handling of the politically hapless Mary Stuart is mouthwatering, especially when you've been raised with the historical perspective of Schiller's play), in a series that takes many historical liberties but is endlessly entertaining to watch. 

Best one-season show:

Station Eleven

Life After Life

Archive 81

The Midnight Club

Mike Flanagan's newest story is about a group of teenagers who spend their last days together in a hospice, meeting each night to tell stories to each other. There is another story in the background about the history of the house (it resembles Archive 81, sometimes), but I think The Midnight Club could have gotten away with having no dramatic foil at all and merely focusing on the power of storytelling as these kids deal with their illness and the prospect of death. 

Giri/Haji

I know this show set in Tokyo and London is from 2019, but for some reason, it slipped through the net and I only managed to finish it in 2022: and it's not the story itself that lands its here, which is a convoluted tale of two Japanese brothers, one a cop, the other a Yakuza, who chase or maybe save each other. This isn't even really a police show - when police work appears, things go wrong, and the cops that are the main characters barely behave like police at all. What makes this show work is the relationships between the characters, which emerge unexpectedly, especially the one between Sarah (Kelly Macdonald) and Kenzo (Takehiro Hira) and Kenzo's daughter Taki and male sex worker Rodney. Kelly Macdonald has never not been great but I think this might just be her best performance, from the absurdity of celebrating Yom Kippur with three strangers who become friends to the sharp but caring way she looks after Rodney. This is full of little surprises. It made me think about how Collateral kind of shaped my perception of what Carey Mulligan could do beyond the films she was in around the same time - I think this is an example of a show that proves how the long-term format can give so much more room for performance and brilliance. 

Irma Vep

Shining Girls

Outstanding performances especially by Elisabeth Moss and Phillipa So in this serialised adaptation of Lauren Beukes' time travelling thriller, and Jamie Bell makes for a compelling creepy, stalking killer. 

Chloe

The Dropout

It's fitting to commend Julia Garner for Ozark and then to go on and commend Amanda Seyfried for what she accomplishes in The Dropout, with the very difficult performance as Elizabeth Holmes - she plays her from high school senior to current times, capturing the transformation somewhere in the middle into a construct (the accent! the tone!). Julia Garner as Anna Delvey is as good as it could have been, but something about that character in Inventing Anna is too far removed, the whole thing too much of a satire to ever reach a moment of truthfulness (and I think that's entirely intentional - but also means that the entirety of the show can be summed up in an SNL sketch). The exception is when Anna is on the phone with her lawyer's son and there's a glimpse of something, for a second, but I think for the most part the show misses the mark, in part because the perspective is wrong. The Dropout, on the other hand, makes a point about hustle culture, about entrepreneurialism - where the cult becomes so overwhelming that the product it is centred around could be anything, even a technology that will never work, as long as the other markings are there - that I think makes a lot of sense about the economy we've lived in for a while now. Holmes is obsessed with it, and once she realises that it all a scam, she takes the eloquent step and turns her own hustle into a scam as well. 

Astrid and Lilly Save the World

During the first two years of the virus, there was a wealth of small, quirky shows with a lot of heart that seemed a bit too strange to ever make it to a second season - Vagrant Queen, Warrior Nuns (which has been renewed, but hasn't been back so far...). Astrid and Lilly is another example - it is delightful, weird, queer. It stars two best friends (played brilliantly by Jana Morrison and Samantha Aucoin), teenage outcasts, who accidentally open a portal that lets in demons into their world - and a "Giles" (Oliver Renaud's unselfconsciously Earth-curious Brutus is one of my favourite things about the show) to guide them how to fight them. The shows makes many overt references to Buffy, which it is obviously deeply inspired by - high school is hell, especially the pecking order and the useless to dangerous teachers and parents. But week by week, as they slay the demons, this show grows its monster heart along with the bravery and self-respect of its two heroines. I wish we had seen the entirety of the William Shakespeare Michelle collab "Romeo and Juliet Down Unda", I wish we could have four seasons of the demons always, without fail, getting aspiring teen actress Val. 

Best show:

For All Mankind

Russian Doll

Season two - what a concept! Nadia, instead of reliving the day of her birthday again and again, now travels back in time, through the life history of her mother and grandmother - a journey that takes her back to Hungary during the WW2, in an attempt to undo mistakes that changed the course of everyone's life (but in the end, is it possible to unravel the past, or is it just about coming to terms with it?). There is a breathtaking ambition in this second season, Natasha Lyonne is once again outstanding in this role of a lifetime. 

Only Murders in the Building

Who would have thought that the combination of the Martins and Selena Gomez in an apartment building teeming with eccentrics (almost of of them broadway stars) would provide the kind of escapism essential to surviving 2022? 

Hacks

Deborah and Ava take the show on the road - it's a whole season about how these two women are eerily similar, and profoundly need each other because of it as they discover more about themselves (some of the things they discover are profoundly unlikable, and Hacks has always drawn from that). 

Reservation Dogs

Four kids who live on a reservation in Oklahoma are trying to pretty-crime their way out towards California, or maybe to find a way to live there and look after each other as best as they can, after the loss of their friend Daniel to suicide. Outstanding acting, funny, heart-felt. 

Borgen. Power and Glory

My favourite political intrigue show is back after a long wait! I think the interesting thing here has always been the fact that Denmark is small - that this is a show about how a small country acts internationally (since Birgitte is now foreign minister) - but the focus in this season on Greenland and the complex ties of a rich country to its struggling territory that strives for independence and dignity is pretty fascinating (especially because we've moved way, way on from the idea that Birgitte is the good cop here).

The Handmaid's Tale

One of Us Is Lying

I am not saying that I didn't like the Pretty Little Liars remake/spin-off that came out this year - it is gritty (as expected from something set in the Riverdale universe). But I also rewatched all of the original series this year, and I did miss the certain spark, the wild campy ride, the million-twists-an-hour pacing. And somehow, One of Us is Lying tickles that spot better, and comes with the added bonus of an established cast that just seems to get so perfectly, and hits all the emotional marks as well. 

Saddest Goodbyes:

The Expanse

Warrior Nun

In My Skin

The second and last season of Welsh In My Skin made me speechless: this is a quietly powerful gem of a show that accomplishes more in five thirty minute episodes than other shows do in years. Gabrielle Creevy's Bethan faces incredible challenges - an abusive father, a mother who is in and out of hospital with bipolar disorder, the economic challenges of poverty. She tells lies to everyone - her friends, her teachers, her girlfriend - about her life to try and pretend normalcy, and because she struggles with shame and asking for help, but the second season unravels her. These are some of the best performances of the year - nuanced, complex (a special shout-out to what Jo Hartley achieves as her mum, and James Wilbraham as her best friend). 

The Good Fight

I think if we ever have to recapture the emotional horrors of Trump and post-Trump America, The Good Fight will be a good reference point. The show continues to be almost over-the-top topical, with fictional representations of historic and pop cultural events, but it also increasingly shows the incredibly emotionally destabilising impact of living through political radicalisation during a global pandemic. Here, even the most even-keeled characters begin going off the rails, because it seems like the only possible way to deal with the world going insane.

Westworld

Search Party

Somewhere between a satire about taking cliches and insults of gen-y literally and a riff on Patricia Highsmith's protagonists, Search Party radically transformed itself in each and every of its five seasons, refusing to ever be predictable. The final season, fittingly ends with Dory Sief, post-revelation, convinced both of the coming apocalypse and the ability to save humanity. What ensues is, unsurprisingly, a twist peppered with pop culture references. Alia Shawkat has been outstanding throughout, and the supporting performances really shine this season as well (Chantal Witherbottom's sidequest intersects at the end). 

The Wilds

I did not think that I would be into the control group story line at all, but I loved season two of this show, which switches back and forth between the boys and the girls. It's only been about two years, but it feels like much more than that because of how the world changed in between seasons, and still, these characters resonate so much with me - if anything, they feel more inhabited , like they've grown with the actresses over the intervening years. Dot owns my heart (I wish I could be this useful and levelheaded in a crisis) but every single one of them goes on a journey (Leah with Adelaide's own Ben Folds!), and even the boys sometimes got to me. Rachel Griffith remains delightfully unhinged. 

Derry Girls

Better Call Saul

I think one of the most amazing things about Better Call Saul is how it outgrew the show it was based on - at no stage did I even want to go back to Breaking Bad, watching it, as if somehow, the missing heart at the centre of BB was something that kept me away, knowing that after Better Call Saul, it would feel like it lacked something essential. Rhea Seehorn's accomplishment here cannot be overstated, or the deep and profound tragedy of a man like Mike coming to the end he did. The sheer suspense, the weekly shocks, the way all of that was always founded in caring for the characters, in the substantial question of Jimmy's soul. The final scene - in black and white, like most of this season - which has Kim visiting Saul, sharing a cigarette with him - is one of those moments that will last forever. 

Motherland: Fort Salem

Tally Craven!

Batwoman

And...

I've spent a lot of time thinking about Ozark, which ended in two installations this year. It's always been a show that is great at building suspense, a show of cliff-hangers, of pulling out the rug under the viewer - and still, I don't think that it's ever been truly good, at worst a pastiche of other shows (the best moments of the show are probably around Ben, Wendy's brother, but to me the resonance happened because it reminded me of Brenda's brother Billy in Six Feet Under). At its best, it's been a platform for Julia Garner (an amazing discovery, not unlike that of Kaitlyn Dever in Justified), who plays Ozark's most compelling character. At its heart, Ozark feels cynical - highly privileged white people from Chicago enter the community they find like locusts and leave nothing but grief and devastation behind, and like a secular prosperity gospel, they feel entitled not just to money but also a great legacy, and of course Ruth Langmore will have to pay the price, and of course Marty and Wendy will once again get away. It is a bitter, unforgiving ending, one that befits a show that has always refused its other characters the hope of an escape. 

High School, an adaptation of Tegan and Sarah's memoir, is a great Canadian show (and it is always fantastic to see Clea DuVall excel in her new career!), set in the 90s (unclear if so much flannel because of time period, or Canada, or both). It shows how the twins pick up music accidentally after drifting apart, in the midst of a lot of emotional turmoil. But the stand-out in this very well-cast show is Cobie Smulders, who plays a mother who struggles severely with being trapped in a life that doesn't have anything specific wrong with it, but is far removed from what she imagined for herself. Everyone here is trying their best, but sometimes the suburbs and motherhood and being in a relationship that is maybe only continuing because of inertia can be absolutely just as smothering as something going horribly wrong. Smulders is so good here - in a dramatic role that is often comedic, after so many years of being in a sitcom and existing within the limits that Marvel imposes on character development. I hope her career truly takes off from here (also, kind of an entertaining parallel to Carly Pope popping up as a mum in the new Pretty Little Liars). 

Siobhán McSweeney is magnificent in Derry Girls - Sister Michael's suffering through questions of faith and the reality of attempting to get these girls through a difficult political always shines through the sheer humour of her character - but she is outstanding in the crime-comedy Holding. This show hits so surprisingly when it does - I'd say nothing beats the emotional journey of hearing Brenda Fricker's Mrs Meaney (nobody knows her first name) recount the tale of her suffering - but there's something about Brid Riordan that is an utter, complete surprise. 

Sepideh Moafi (who is also one of the best parts of the frequently not-so-great Generation Q) in Black Bird - a show with many great performance, including Ray Liotta's last. A stand-out, as tough FBI agent Lauren McCauley. An absolutely memorable take on someone who seems so excellent at getting exactly what she needs, by reading her opponents well and playing into their weaknesses. 

I've been pretty lukewarm on Wednesday, maybe because after watching the second season of Warrior Nun, nothing came close to the amount of emotions I felt - everything, short of a reread of Lauren Groff's Matrix, felt muted and flat after. But Jenna Ortega (who is also very good in The Fallout) is so good, an amount of dedication to the role that is visible in every scene. 

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Reading List: December.

Non-Fiction: 

Ken McGoogan: Dead Reckoning: The Untold Story of the Northwest Passage.
Buddy Levy: Empire of Ice and Stone: The Disastrous and Heroic Voyage of the Karluk.
Adam Serwer: The Cruelty Is the Point: The Past, Present, and Future of Trump's America.
Sophie Lewis: Abolish the Family: A Manifesto for Care and Liberation.
Janina Ramirez: Femina: A New History of the Middle Ages, Through the Women Written Out of It.
Judith C. Brown: Immodest Acts.
Tamim Ansary: The Invention of Yesterday: A 50,000-Year History of Human Culture, Conflict, and Connection.

Fiction: 

Catriona Ward: Sundial.
Catriona Ward: The House on Needless Street.
Jas Hammonds: We Deserve Monuments.
Elif Batuman: Either/Or.
Bushra Rehman: Roses in the Mouth of a Lion.
Saara El-Arifi: The Final Strife. 
Rosie Andrews: The Leviathan.
Megan Giddings: The Women Could Fly.
Holly Throsby: Cedar Valley. 
Lauren Groff: Matrix.

Films: 

Thelma (2017, Joachim Trier).
Tahara (2020, Olivia Peace).
Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery (2022, Rian Johnson).
Benedetta (2021, Paul Verhoeven).
Hadewijch (2009, Bruno Dumont).

Shows: 

Picnic at Hanging Rock, Season One.
Star Trek Discovery, Season Four.
Person of Interest, Season Two, Three, Four.