Archives for category: TV
Being Hercule, so to speak; publicity photo from The Hollywood Reporter, June 21, 2018.

John Malkovich stars as Hercule Poirot in a 2018 BBC rendition of Agatha Christie’s The A.B.C. Murders, now streaming on Amazon Prime. And his performance bookends a clever thriller just out on Netflix in a film called Velvet Buzzsaw.

I saw the latter, which stars Jake Gyllenhall and Rene Russo (see below) and a few other familiar faces. Think of the movie Final Destination crossed with the old TV show Friday the 13th, but with a satirical twist. Jake G’s performance is . . . odd. He plays a bisexual art critic but with gay mannerisms. Probably perfect for a satire . . . not that there’s anything wrong with that.

Very well done. I greatly enjoyed it.

Haven’t watched the Poirot miniseries yet, since Tony Randall’s performance in the same story lingers in memory. From the first few scenes it looks like they have taken the story in a very different direction than was taken in the film starring Randall.

Velvet Buzzsaw; see this weekend’s review in the Chicago Tribune.

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Rachel Brosnahan plays Midge Maisel.

It took me at least a month to get through the first episode of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. Watching Mr. Maisel go through his excruciatingly bad comedy routines, as the viewer had to do repeatedly early in the show, was hard to endure. And a host of other small problems plagued the comedy-drama. The whole emprise, for example, made Woody Allen seem WASP. But it was a Sherman-Palladino production, friends said they loved it, and the lead actress is fun to watch. So I plodded through, a few minutes every other day or so. And got to the end, where it got good.

And then I binged all the way through the two seasons up on Amazon Prime.

The show is fun, but has . . . “issues.” As notes Rachel Lu:

There’s a scene in Season Two of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel that perfectly encapsulates the show’s central conundrum. Margaret (Midge) Maisel, our 1950’s-Jewish-housewife-turned-comedian, has finally gotten a gig at a semi-respectable New York City club, somewhere on the way to midtown. She shows up in her trademark black cocktail dress, fresh and beautiful and raring to go. Unfortunately, her act gets pushed back repeatedly as confident male comedians breeze in to claim her spot. By the time Midge (Rachel Brosnahan) takes the stage, it’s late and the audience is drunk, while she herself has completely lost her feminine charm. She’s sweaty, angry, and mildly intoxicated, sporting mustard stains on her sexy dress. Storming the stage, she abandons her prepared act and launches into a meta-discourse on comedy, and the suitability of women to participate in it. Comedy, she says, is about pain and rejection. Who understands these things better than women?

“Mrs. Maisel’s Mixed Messages,” by Rachel Lu, Law and Liberty (February 8, 2019)

Everybody understands pain, at least as it pertains to them. Telling other people that you know pain more than they do must be demonstrated. And made funny. The breakout rant described above is not comedy, and funny only because filled with invective. It is also not quite believable, because both too defensive and offensive. It is a manifesto Mrs. Maisel delivers. Or “womanifesto,” if you must. But it is only funny for the insults.

The story of the show is this incredibly peppy, “privileged” woman, married with two children, who almost never takes care of her children. Her parents and her wayward husband and a series of nannies do that. Her parents are wealthy. How they got this way is never quite explained. Her father, played by Tony Shaloub, is a college professor of mathematics. This was not a lucrative career path then or now, not without a government grant (which actually occurs as the story develops). Her mother dresses to the nines in every scene, and comes across as an heiress. But that information, if imparted to the viewer, missed me. Her husband (who leaves her in the first episode) works for his own father in the family clothing factory. Yet the young couple and the old live in vast, multi-room apartments elegantly decorated and filled with books and bric-a-bracs and elegant, 50s-era appliances.

The pain she experiences is not poverty.

The rejection she experiences is from her hapless hubbie alone.

And of course, only barely mentioned in one scene, there is a background pain — giving birth to her children, whom she almost never sees or touches.

This is all some weird sort of fantasy. And some of the fantasy is feminist.

One thing not quite confronted is why male comics were then and are now more common than female ones. We see two “famous” comics in the show: Lenny Bruce, who was a real man and most people say was funny, but whose work has not made me laugh in the past, but which isn’t bad re-created here; and “Midge’s female nemesis, Sophie Lennon . . . a crude hack recycling years-old material.” Neither of them strikes me as especially driven by pain or rejection.

A decade ago, the “gender” issue in comedy became a hot topic. The upshot from the men, whom I believe (and not the feminists, whom I do not), was that men are funnier than women, on average, because men need to amuse women while women do not need to amuse men — men like women even if they are not funny.

Rachel Lu, in the review I link to above, notes the theme of comedy and pain, and Midge Maisel’s insistence that does she know both. Neither seem plausible.

Her lips say “I belong on this stage,” but the show’s creators seem to be signaling something else. Before the lady comic was permitted to claim her microphone, she was forced to morph into a smelly, angry, drunken slob. In other words, she had to be un-womaned before practicing the comic arts. Was it freak happenstance? Or is there some deeper truth here? Can a good woman also be a great comedian?

This re-gendering is perhaps dramatically necessary because men understand the function of comedy, and, well, maybe women do not. Or, more likely, feminists do not. As in the old joke: “‘How many feminists does it take to change a light bulb?’ ‘That’s not funny!’” The point is, it is men who understand rejection on the receiving end. The evolutionary setup is fairly clear: women find advantage in making themselves as attractive as possible to as many men as possible, and rejecting all but the very best of those that want them. Men tend not to reject women as routinely. This basic truth undergirds all comedy. The comedy landscape in the show seems a tad misleading. We are being misled. We are being Mrs. Misled (sorry about that).

Of course it is not that women cannot be funny. It is that they have less incentive to be. There are good female comedians. Just like there are good male models. But the evolutionarily stable strategies do not stack the deck in either favor, and aren’t most male models gay?

So, what of the men in Mrs. Maisel’s world?

As in previous Sherman-Palladino creations (The Gilmore Girls and Bunheads), the men on this show share one possibly-unrealistic quality: they reliably take notice of witty and talented women, and find these qualities sexy and alluring. In general, Sherman-Palladino’s men are judged by two criteria. First, can they handle their manly business, as professionals and members of society? Second, can they handle their women? Sherman-Palladino dramas have no mercy on men who are too weak to match the objects of their affections.

This is very much a fantasy, but, alas, with no unicorns.

Or, one — our unicorn, Midge, a funny Jewish woman who claims to that pain and rejection feed her art but whose experience is quite different: a charmed life right up until the first, almost-unwatchable episode. But her magic seems more plausible as we get sucked in, as the fantasy picture show does its magic.

twv

Philip K. Dick’s 1952 short story “Human Is” is clever. Not great. Just clever. (You can find it in the collection We Can Remember It for You Wholesale.) It is not unlike, say, a Fredric Brown story, but not as well written.* It does not present an elegiac mood, or aim for anything like the sublime. It is a rather cynical sf tale about marital discord and unhappiness. And betrayal.

But it was taken as the inspiration for Amazon Prime’s new series Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams, appearing as the third episode. And was it changed! Only the ending of the short story remained untampered with, quoting (adopting) about two lines verbatim.

Yes, friends, there are spoiler ahead. . . .

The short story’s basic premise — of a mean, cold bastard of a husband (Lester) going off to an alien planet, Rexor IV, and coming back changed, turned into a nice, easy-to-live with loving man — that is the same. But instead of a literalist, a scientific researcher, the show features a callous warrior (renamed Silas, played by Bryan Cranston), bent on exploiting and killing an alien race for the good of “Terra.”

The short story’s subplot about the wife’s brother and nephew, that is gone. And all the dreck of everyday life? Gone too. The change of scenery and alteration of tone from the original make the show different. Very. Instead of reading about an unloved wife whose uncharitable husband will not help an inlaw out, we see an unfulfilled and tyrannized wife — emotionally abused and domestically oppressed despite her elevation to a major official role in the futuristic sealed-off society.

Yes, in the TV show she has been turned into a professional — a government official, even. And instead of suffering neglect from the man who won’t serve as foster father, we see our heroine suffer from coldness, indifference, and even envy from her husband. Actually, he is much worse, because minatory. Yes, he threatens violence.

The show’s penultimate scene takes place in a court room, in a trial that spells the issues out very clearly, cleverly. The written story is nowhere nearly so thematically tight.

But the big change? The whole story has become politicized. The husband in the show is portrayed almost exactly as leftists see “right wingers” — eager to kill and exploit foreigners (aliens), and as being emotionally withdrawn and cruel. And since the woman is now a career woman, a leader, this makes her a feminist heroine rather than the pathetic character that Dick imagined. With the child gone, it is just the microsocial antagonism of a childless couple, not a family drama — and the show carefully evades any issue of parental feeling from her husband to his brother-in-law’s son. This excision allows our feminist heroine to be portrayed as romantically and sexually unfulfilled. The very model of a modern Ms. obsession.

Indeed, in the show, because of her husband’s lack of interest in intimacy, early on she seeks out some sad satisfaction in a far-flung-future orgy in the sterile city’s underground (yes, the teleplay writers made sure to hit every possible mythic beat). When her husband comes back transformed, changed into a cheerful, sympathetic, and very sensual sexual partner (we “get” to see Cranston’s full-rear view nude form in a lovemaking session), she defends him — chooses him — even though it has been proved that he is not her husband.

Who is he? Well, her husband’s body, possessed by an alien metamorph. Invasion of the body snatcher!

The alien is from Rexor IV — as in the original PKD story. But where in the original the husband had been a careless innocent, his soul stolen by surprise while on a solo vacation, in the show there is war, and he was the aggressor and he became a casualty. At the beginning of the show, our heroine had politically opposed her husband’s plan to kill Rexorians and steal their atmosphere (or something like that). At the end of the show, she lets the enemy, the Rexorian, not only into her society but also into her bed, ostensibly because her human husband had not been nice enough to her. Not appreciative enough.

And was a bad guy anyway.

All this is standard left-right archetypes and stock figures and bigotries. Let me spell it out:

  • The husband? The very cliché of a left winger’s idea of a conservative.
  • The wife? The leftist self-image of a feminist heroine, ill-treated by her conservative partner.
  • The Rexorian? An exploited alien (foreigner) just “fighting for its life” and perhaps justifiably attacking our military and Silas, the Cranston character.

It would be hard to imagine a clearer allegory to today’s conflict with the Muslim world. The feminist women betray conservative men because those evil conservatives are bent on defending their nation by exploiting and killing foreigners (Muslims/Rexorians); further, those feminists replace the murderous conservatives with the foreigners, going so far to bedding them . . . because the frustrated, unfulfilled feminist women will be more sexually fulfilled by the foreigners/aliens than by their fellow nationalists/Terrans.

Also present is the “right wing” fear that the enemy will infiltrate and pretend to be “one of us” but then betray us completely, taking our place — this “paranoid” fear is exactly mirrored in the television story. And, going another step even further, the right wing suspicion that the leftists will betray us, preferring the other to their own, and making cuckolds of the West’s men . . . that is very close, too — for the woman does betray Terra, and just because the alien treats her better as wife and lover.

So, the fantasies and fears of both rightists and leftists are played to. Both sides could view the story with a kind of . . . indecent? . . . pleasure. And, because the Amazon version is so artfully done, it turns out to be a beautiful, sublime story, too. Much more powerful than the original.

It is now a philosophical horror story, not just a clever little domestic drama with a cynical sci-fi surprise ending.

The wonder of it is how brazen it is, how timely. The perpetrators — I mean, writers and actors and producers — of the new drama surely know what they are up to. But why? Why do it this way? I assume that these are all left-leaning Hollywood types. The story, though with all the biases of your standard-brand Hollywood Left Coast cosmopolitan written deep into the story’s premise, and played out as the drama unfolds, in the end gives away much of the game to the right wingers. What could be worse than the Left shown as the betrayer and the enemy shown as capable of using elaborate deception? And all because the leftist woman demands love she is not getting at home.

First world problems leading to the conquest of that world by the Third.

She even goes as far as cuckolding the Right in the end. In a sort of Gertrude-and-Claudius way.

A cautionary tale — an apocalypse! — indeed.

Ah, the culture wars. All-too-human, is.

twv

* Dick’s science fiction short stories, at least the early ones, are not very artful on the sentence level — his realistic novels were far more carefully crafted. The short stories are also rather tawdry, as are many of the science fiction novels, filled with the dreck of everyday domestic conflict.

N.B. I wrote the above before reading anyone else’s criticism. And now, as I clean this up, I flit around the net and find appraisals that do not go very far. And not a few just show the insipid shallowness of modern feminism.