Monday 15 April 2024

Links: 15/4/24

Back at the end of March, the UN Security Council passed a resolution demanding an immediate ceasefire in Gaza. It was passed with 14 votes in favour, none against, and only the US abstaining. There have been other signs that the tide is turning on Gaza, seven months into the bombing campaign that has cost the lives of more than 30,000 Palestinians (numbers that are likely an undercount, considering the state of the all the institutions that would be able to keep track). Francesca Albanese, the UN's Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Palestinian territories, released a report warning that there are "reasonable grounds to believe that the threshold indicating the commission of the crime of genocide…has been met." Canada is halting future arm shipments. Australia's foreign minister Penny Wong has called for a two-state solution. US President Biden, now in the midst of his Presidential campaign against Donald Trump, called on Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu to protect civilians and aid workers after the IDF killed seven aid workers in an air strike. Biden is facing the reality of many young voters and Muslim voters furious at the US' support of Israel's bombing of Gaza in states where a few votes could make the difference for his attempt to get re-elected
The conflict is threatening to affect the entire region. Following a drone strike on the Iranian embassy in Damascus that is widely believed to have been carried out by Israel, Iran launched missiles and drones towards Israeli military installations (the majority of which were intercepted). 

The Arizona Supreme Court made use of a 1860s law to ban almost all abortions in the state. Legal experts in the US are warning that right-wing anti-abortion campaigners are looking to use the Comstock Act, a 1873 anti-obscenity law, to effectively restrict abortions in the entirety of the United States (while public opinion on abortion in the US had shifted significantly over the last years, the Supreme Court is stacked with conservative justices). The law forbids the shipping of obscene materials in the mail, which could be applied to the shipping of medications. NPR links to a 900+ page document called "Mandate for Leadership" that is a roadmap for a future conservative Presidency. While this is all specific to the US, I think there are general concerning conclusions to draw about a conservative attempt to advance causes in electorates that are increasingly less supportive of conservative policies - capturing institutions, forging international alliances, using obscure laws, thriving in an environment of misinformation.

This April is the 30th anniversary of the genocide in Rwanda, which unfolded while UN Peacekeepers were in the country - the film Shake Hands with the Devil  is about the experience of Roméo Dallaire, commander of UNAMIR, who unsuccessfully pleaded with his superiors to be given commands that would allow him to effectively protect the massacred population.
Pop Culture: 
I haven't written about it, because I think it requires a level of cultural knowledge that I don't have, but Shōgun is one of the best television shows I've watched in a long time. I highly recommend watching it and listening to the podcast, which gives insight into the production and features interviews with the creators, actors and crew. It's hosted by Emily Yoshida, who used to write reviews for Vulture, and was a writer on the show (it's interesting to see former television critics becoming either television writers or releasing newsletters, as the landscape for television reviews becomes smaller and smaller). 

It's also a relief that Monarch: Legacy of Monsters has been renewed for a second season (I caught up with all the Monsterverse movies this year and enjoyed them a lot more than I thought I would) - Anna Sawai is fantastic in both shows, playing wildly different characters, and this has already been a sad year for television shows being cancelled after only one season even though they had a lot of potential (I'm aggrieved about Death and Other Details, which made a perfect trifecta with Only Murders in the Building and Poker Face - I suppose the The Good Wife spin-off Elsbeth fits into this wave as well and is, like Poker Face, kind of an homage to classic Columbo). 
Films: excited about I Saw the TV Glow, which sounds like a love letter to Buffy the Vampire Slayer (including the casting of Amber Benson as the mum of one of the characters!). I also recently watched Shayda and All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt, which were both fantastic.

Sunday 31 March 2024

Reading List: March

Sara Wheeler: Cherry.
Leslie Jamison: Splinters.
Lyz Lenz: This American Ex-Wife.
Elizabeth Hand: Waking the Moon.
Nick Fuller Googins: The Great Transition.
Christopher Golden: The House of Last Resort.
Gabrielle Zevin: Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow.
Tana French: The Hunter. 
Vera Kurian: A Step Past Darkness. 
Marina Yuszczuk: Thirst. 
Margot Douaihy: Blessed Water. 
Izzy Wasserstein: These Fragile Graces, This Fugitive Heart.
Poor Things (2023, Yorgos Lanthimos). 
Lisa Frankenstein (2024, Zelda Williams).
Killers of the Flower Moon (2023, Martin Scorsese).
The Zone of Interest (2023, Jonathan Glazer).
Love Lies Bleeding (2024, Rose Glass).
Ravenous (1999, Antonia Bird).
Drive-Away Dolls (2024, Ethan Coen).
Cold Meat (2023, Sébastien Drouin).
Quiz Lady (2023, Jessica Yu). 
I'm Thinking of Ending Things (2020, Charlie Kaufman).
Echo, Season One. 
Mary and George, Season One. 
Passenger, Season One. 
Wreck, Season Two. 
Jennifer Wong's The Sweet and Sour Hour of Power @ Prompt Creative Space. 
Antigone in the Amazon @ Dunstan Playhouse.

random mixtape - only marks and only flaws.

 warpaint | bees. gossip | tough. sleater-kinney | six mistakes. laura marling | devil's spoke. burial | boy sent from above. four tet | 31 bloom. jlin feat. björk | borealis. various productions | where i belong. sleater-kinney | small finds. gillian welch | rock of ages. johnny cash | loading coal

Saturday 30 March 2024

Drive-Away Dolls

In the 2007 comedy Itty Titty Bitty Committee by Jamie Babbit, a group of feminist activists disappointed by their lack of reach (in a devastating scene, they realise all the page views on their website are from people in the room) and the conservatism of establishment feminism (as represented by one of the main character’s partners), plot to blow up the Washington Monument, which they regard as a phallic symbol for the patriarchy. In the context of Babbit’s career as a film director (she is an extremely prolific television director, who also worked as a director and producer on Ryan Murphy’s pre-Glee show Popular, which shares many of Babbit’s aesthetic quirks and returning actors), Itty Bitty followed 2005’s The Quiet, which was a serious departure from the much more famous and very much cherished But I’m a Cheerleader in 1999. I think it’s also fair to say that it is now mostly forgotten and never reached the fond audience that her first film did – but it was the first thing that came to my mind when I watched Ethan Coen’s (co-written with Coen’s wife, Tricia Cooke) Drive-Away Dolls, a lesbian road movie set in 1999. 
There’s something about the propulsive quality of the film, its unbridled willingness to be wacky and over-the-top, its abstract and absurd dream sequences (featuring, of all people, a sprite-like Miley Cyrus, giving life advice), that reminded me profoundly of Babbit’s film (or maybe of their shared inspiration from John Waters), and more generally, of that specific type of 1990s-early 2000 queer movie that I spent so much time watching and expanded energy finding in a period where it was a lot more difficult to track films down. Another road-movie lesbian movie that I somehow caught dubbed on television back in the days that this reminds me of is 1995’s The Incredibly True Adventure of Two Girls in Love, a Maria Maggenti film that sent freshly in love Laurel Holloman (very pre-The-L-Word, playing a character that couldn’t be any more different from Tina Kennard) and Nicole Ari Parker (more famous for her stint on Empire – but anecdotally, both actresses appeared in Boogie Nights) on the run from their conservative community, another shenanigans-filled road trip.

I don’t know how much either of these films actually influenced the writing and making of Drive-Away Dolls – as a film, it is just as much recognisable as a typical Coen film, even if it is lacking the involvement of Joel. It also sits comfortably in the more recent tradition of female buddy comedies, even if it is set in a different time period – there are echoes of Olivia Wilde’s Booksmart, and Natalie Morales’ Plan B. But I’m not sure if the film had felt as emotionally resonant for me if it hadn’t made me feel nostalgic for the queer movies that I raised myself on, both in terms of the general energy of what was happening on screen and the endlessly entertaining game of recognising a plethora of actors from other things they have done (always a fun game to play with Jamie Babbit’s oeuvre). The production history of the film, which begins in 2007, makes for an interesting read, especially in terms of names that were previously attached to the project (Selma Blair and Chloë Sevigny, which feels very early-to-mid 2000s). 

Drive-Away Dolls follows best friends Jamie (Margaret Qualley, who is having some kind of year) and Marian (Geraldine Viswanathan, from Blockers, Bad Education and Australian crime drama Janet King), who are trying to get to Tallahassee on the cheap and accidentally end up driving a car that contains dangerous cargo. They soon are chased by a trio of criminals eager to retrieve what’s in the trunk, but Jamie’s determination to hit up every lesbian bar on the way (or even a bit out of the way) makes the chase difficult. Jamie, who has just gotten out of a relationship (via cheating) with cop girlfriend Sukie (played by a great Beanie Feldstein) and lost her home in the process, and is trying to get Marian, who spends the trip trying to evade questions and reading Henry James’ The Europeans, to loosen up. Of course, they realise that they’ve been in love this whole time in the process, and of course, the “dangerous cargo” is a collection of dildos based on the penises of powerful public figures, one of which is played by Matt Damon (it’s a Coen film!). And there’s the severed head of Pedro Pascal (also currently at the peak of his career but appearing in the film more as a Drew Barrymore in Scream-esque role), resting on a bed of dry ice.

Drive-Away Dolls
seems made with sheer entertainment in mind. It is frequently absurd – every character on the edge of the story is interesting and strange – and yet also manages a heartfelt earnestness in its portrayal of the friends-to-lovers romance that is deeply surprising (it works in spite of Qualley’s Texan accent). It somehow manages to perfectly embrace the aesthetic of the year it’s set in – and much of it wouldn’t work if the writing had to factor in the internet. There’s also a genuine sense here of refusing the realities of 1999 – Qualley’s Jamie is openly, joyously and unapologetically queer, and somehow this never leads to situations that are dangerous because of her openness (like asking a hotel concierge directions to the nearest lesbian bar), which gives the film almost an utopian quality for the time period it is set in, and the places the two leads go to. It viscerally feels like a film in which everyone involved had a great time – and that translates to the audience. This isn’t high art – or High Art (1998, Lisa Cholodenko), and that’s just fine.

2024, directed by Ethan Coen, starring Margaret Qualley, Geraldine Viswanathan, Beanie Feldstein, Joey Slotnick, C.K. Wilson, Colman Domingo, Pedro Pascal, Bill Camp.

Tuesday 19 March 2024

Favourite Books I've Read This Year In Progress


Gilbert King: Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America.


Andrea Barrett: The Voyage of the Narwhal.
Michelle Paver: Thin Air.
Sarah Lotz: The White Road. 
Maggie Thrash: Rainbow Black.
Gabrielle Zevin: Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow.

Andrea Barrett
's The Voyage of the Narwhal follows a fictional American expedition looking for signs of John Franklin's lost ships Erebus and Terror in the early 1850s. The voyage is also meant to be a scientific journey, gathering data about the fauna and flora of the Arctic. The main character is a scientist, naturalist Erasmus Darwin Wells, who is also coming along to look after his sister's fiance, the headstrong expedition leader Zeke. The story may be fictional, but to anyone who has read accounts of real polar expeditions during the 19th century, it holds little treasures of recognition and references many actual events, including the horrifying Inuit accounts that Rae collected about the fate of Franklin and his men. The beauty of the novel is the scientific work though, and the close relationship that Erasmus forges with the surgeon on board (a relationship almost romantic, and tragically doomed), who is similarly fascinated by everything he encounters. There are echoes here of the television adaptation of Harry Goodsir's character in The Terror and of the (in my opinion) best part of the seafaring classic Master and Commander. One of my favourite aspects of the novel were the attempts Erasmus makes to include Ned, the eager and curious young ship cook (with his own tragic story of surviving the potato famine in Ireland), in the journey of discovery. Of course, most things that can go wrong do, including scurvy due to inadequate preparation for overwintering, a nipped and lost ship, and severe discordance within the crew when individuals begin to disagree about priorities and plans. Interwoven with the accounts and thoughts of the explorers are the women back at home, waiting for the men to return and contributing to the scientific work in the only way they're reluctantly allowed to (I thought that Alexandra, a woman who is learning the art of engraving, was deeply fascinating). There is also a discussion of science in relation to racism, both in regards to the understanding of the Inuit that the expedition connects with and the question of slavery back home in the United States just before the Civil War. This is a fantastic novel of fiction that weaves together philosophy, science and polar exploration with all of its dark sides included. 

I like when by sheer coincidence, two books appear to be in conversation with each other. Michelle Paver's Thin Air chronicles a fictional 1935 attempt to reach the summit of Kangchenjunga. Soon after arriving at the foot of the mountain, expedition doctor Stephen, eager to prove to his comrades that he is just as valuable as his older, sneering brother, begins experiencing a haunting - T.S. Eliot's "There is always another one walking beside you", but, as he comes to realise, malevolent, unlike the calming presence that Shackleton felt when he first reported the phenomenon after his trek through the mountains of South Georgia to save his stranded expedition. It appears that the mountain is haunted, perhaps by a member of a previous expedition whose body was never retrieved. Thin Air is a great portrait of the same kind of doomed English arrogance that cost Scott's life at the South Pole, putting a focus on the way the white men of the expedition look down on their support staff (the ones actually doing all the work, while they sip their tea). 
Sarah Lotz
' The White Road doesn't begin on a mountain - it starts in a place that I personally find even more scary, a cave system in Wales in which protagonist Simon is attempting to film the dead bodies of a previous group of cavers for a morbid and sensationalist website he runs with his friend. In the caves, his guide dies after they get trapped by rising water levels, but his presence doesn't leave Simon, as if his bad intentions are now being judged by the constant presence of another malevolent "third man". Simon carries that spectre with him to Everest (again on a mission to film the dead), where he finds himself in the middle of another man's attempt to find closure from the death of his mother on the mountain years earlier. The climb ends in more disaster, and Simon is stuck trying to artificially create closure so the haunting stops. 
Gabrielle Zevin
's Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow is a book about a complicated friendship between Sam and Sadie that begins in a hospital games room. Sam is in it for the long haul after a severe leg injury from a car crash that killed his mother, Sadie is there to visit her sister, who has cancer. They bond over their shared love of computer games and form a tight friendship that runs into some difficulties when Sam finds out that Sadie is collecting brownie points for the community service she is providing by keeping Sam's company (she's gamified friendship, but it's pretty obvious she's being genuine in her affection for Sam). They later reconnect after years of not talking to each other and begin playing again, except this time they make games together - a beautiful, artistic game, ambitious. The book also adds Marx to the mix - a lovely if privileged "tamer of horses" who becomes their producer and thinks about all the things they don't, because they're focused on the work. 
This novel works because it is passionate about the computer games, which are written in a way that the reader can imagine them, maybe even play along. The characters are flawed, but difficult not to root for. I think what really made this exceptional is that it reads like a spin-off of Halt and Catch Fire, specifically the seasons after the first one when the focus was on Cameron and Donna: It's about two incredibly creative people creating beautiful things together, but clashing on principles sometimes, and they both care so much that their differences threaten the friendship constantly.

Sunday 17 March 2024