WEEK 52: TAINT MISBEHAVIN'

Though confusingly titled "Week 52"—next week will be "Week 1" of 2021—this is actually the first in a new series of weekly blog posts intended to serve as an ersatz newsletter. Since I can't write full reviews of everything I watch, this is where I'll discuss what I've been watching, as well as what I've been working on lately, what's coming up that I'm excited about, and any other random thoughts that seem worth sharing. You can read the logic behind this—and my overall plans for 2021—here

And so we find ourselves, this week, living in 2020's "Holiday Taint," that strange, fallow period that comes at the end of every year. 'T'ain't exactly Christmas, but 't'ain't New Year's either.1

To be clear, I consider the whole concept of "New Year's Day" to be a completely arbitrary marker on the calendar, one we imbue with hopeful significance as a desperate form of magical thinking. It's a clean slate! Everything will be different once this cursed year is over! But that's okay: There's nothing wrong with a little magical thinking, after all. Narrative is a powerful and seductive thing, and it is inevitable that we are inclined to break up our experiences into convenient section-breaks. After a year like the one we've just endured, it is natural that we are excited to turn the page on this particular chapter of our lives—even if we know, deep down, that the path of the story is unlikely to veer significantly from one chapter to the next.

But the Holiday Taint is a strange no-man's-land, the empty space at the bottom of the last chapter's page. I think we all understand somewhere in our circadian souls that the year really ends at the solstice—let's call it Christmas—and so this week always feels like a peculiar respite, or a redundancy, or a remission.

I suspect, actually—based on no evidence of any kind—that there are two basic philosophies of Taint Dwelling, depending on whether you see this time as an epilogue to one year or as a prologue to the next.

If you are of the former inclination—the "epilogue" camp—you may be a far happier creature right now. For you, this is a time of well-earned rest and relaxation, one that may well bring you to a near vegetative state of being. After all—this year, more than most—there is nowhere to go, and nothing to do, and you have earned the right to stay home and do the hell out of all that nothing while you're able. You have checked out for the remainder of 2020—like a senior who is finished with finals—and you will worry about 2021 when it comes, and not one second earlier. In the meantime, you may well intend to fuse the very DNA of your body—Jeff-Goldblum-in-The-Fly-style—with the very fabric and filling of your sofa.2 And who would dare blame you?

If you are of the latter temperament, however—the "prologue" camp—you may have a harder week ahead of you. For you, these last few days on the calendar are not a relaxing coda, but a stressful countdown. You are obsessed with all the things you didn't get done in 2020, and—even if you are lucky enough to be on vacation from work this week—you are probably haunted by the backlog of tasks that await you when you return. Perhaps you have also been—like countless resolution-makers before you—compelled by the illusory promise of a clean start, and seduced by a still-pristine vision of the better, healthier, more integrated, more organized life that has to begin at midnight on January 1. For you, then, this is a time of anxious preparation, a sort of spiritual spring-cleaning, or a frantic limbering up for the marathon ahead.3

I confess: By nature—bone-idle lazy, that is—I am usually more inclined towards the first camp. But this year I find myself nervously camping out in the second. As I rather foolishly announced last week, I have set myself some broad goals for The Unaffiliated Critic in the new year, built on such strange and unnerving principles as "produce more content," "finish projects," and "meet deadlines." (I also set myself some terrifyingly specific goals, like—to name just one pressing example—"publish a new blog post/newsletter thingie every Monday, starting Dec. 28.") Only five days left before the new year starts, I keep thinking, as I write this. I gotta get my shit together, because I have so much shit to do. Frankly, it's all stressing me out a bit.

Which is, I suspect, the point. I'm guessing there's a reason I'm feeling so anxious to get organized about my work this year, and it probably has more to do with the anxiety than the work itself. As exactly no one needs me point out, 2020 has not been a particularly restful year. It has, in point of fact, been an absolute shit-sandwich of a year—in so many ways—and there is no reason to believe any of it will instantly get better at midnight on January 1st. (Or even at noon on January 20th.) I find I am finishing 2020, and beginning 2021, with a disorienting combination of total exhaustion and weird, almost manic nervous energy.

All of which is to say that I strongly suspect my sudden and inexplicable urge to get organized and productive is a sub-conscious coping mechanism.4 I've got to do something with all this nervous energy and free-floating anxiety, after all. I can't fix the pandemic. I can't solve systemic racism. I can't do much to hasten the horrifying last days of the Trump administration, or to forestall the inevitable disappointments of the one that will replace it. But, by god, I can finish my Deadwood reviews. I can dedicated myself to the task of writing really long posts about really old movies. I can make myself sit down once a week to blather in a blog, whether anyone wants to hear it or not. I'm no neurologist,5 but my theory is that the brain has some sort of gating mechanism for stress, like it does for pain: You can't freak out about the big things too badly if you arbitrarily assign yourself a lot of smaller, more manageable things to worry about.

I'm not sure it's a particularly healthy coping strategy, but it's the one I seem to have settled upon for the time being: Keep busy, control the things I can control, do the stuff I've committed to do, enjoy good art, think about it, and write about it as best as I am able. It ain't much, but it's what I do.

Which is what I'm doing now, without further ado. So here's what I've been up to recently, as well as what's coming up in the weeks ahead.

RECENT STUFF

On December 15, I published my long (and long overdue) piece on Jean Renoir's Grand Illusion (1937), part of my Independent Study in World Cinema series.

On December 21, I announced my plans for 2021—in the proto-blog for this blog series.

On December 24, my wife and I released a new episode of The Unenthusiastic Critic Podcast, on Alfonso Cuaron's Children of Men (2006).

COMING SOON

On December 29, we'll drop a new podcast episode on Daryl Duke's The Silent Partner (1978). This little movie—a bank heist film with Elliott Gould and Christopher Plummer—was largely overlooked in 1978, and it has been largely forgotten ever since. But it's a solid, taut, remarkably tense thriller that's due for rediscovery, and it's well worth checking out if you've never seen it. (You can currently find it available on demand from Turner Classic Movies, Direct TV, or Hulu Live if you have them; streaming on The Criterion Channel if you subscribe; or to rent on Amazon and other services.)

On December 31, I'll publish a new Independent Study essay on Jean Renoir's The Rules of the Game (1939). A comedy farce with serious stakes, Renoir's masterpiece was a brilliantly scathing (yet strangely sympathetic) critique of the French upperclass on the eve of the Second World War, and it's just a deceptively dazzling piece of filmmaking. (You can find it streaming on The Criterion Channel, or to rent from the usual suspects.)

On January 7, I'll publish the first "new" review in my resurrected coverage of HBO's Deadwood, my favorite show of all time. I left off several years ago with Episode 1×08, "Suffer the Little Children," so that's where I'm picking back up, and I'm planning to write about one episode a week until I'm done. (You just about have time to watch—or rewatch—the first seven episodes, so you can watch along with me for the next few months.)

MOVIE WATCHING

Still trying to settle into my new reviewing schedule, I'm not sure I'll try to tackle any serious writing about new movies for a while. But I'm still watching new movies, and my plan is to share thoughts about them (very briefly) here each week. Here's a quick round-up of new stuff I've watched recently.

I was enthusiastic about Patty Jenkins' Wonder Woman in 2017, and I so wanted to like Wonder Woman 1984 (2020), which dropped on HBO Max on Christmas Day. But, with all the good will in the world, I couldn't find much to enjoy about it. The opening scenes had a sort of goofy energy—reminiscent of the Christopher Reeve Superman movies—that I rather appreciated, but once the actual story kicked in the movie went off the rails completely. Despite a screenplay co-written by comics veteran Geoff Johns (and Jenkins herself), WW84 feels like the sort of superhero movie we get when the people making it don't actually understand (or care about) superheroes at all. The story—preposterous, poorly structured, and painfully ill-suited to the character—felt like it was driven by a committee's checklist rather than anything organic. (Find a ridiculous way to get Chris Pine's bland love interest back in the story? Check. Do a well-intentioned but ham-fisted and ultimately toothless Trump analogy? Check.) Unlike the first film, WW84 offers absolutely nothing that feels grounded in character, real-world stakes, or aesthetic concern: In its unforgivably sluggish two-and-a-half hours, the film somehow finds no beauty, no excitement, no real emotion, nothing to say, and—worst of all—no real fun.

If you want a far more imaginative, heartfelt, and exciting fantasy with a female hero, may I recommend Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart's animated adventure Wolfwalkers (2020)? A stunningly gorgeous fable about a brave girl in 17th century Ireland who befriends a misunderstood pack of mythological beings, Wolfwalkers has more to say about friendship, courage, oppression, prejudice, and fascist governments than a dozen corporate confections like Wonder Woman 1984. It's also far lovelier to look at, and way more fun. Wolfwalkers dropped on Apple+ on December 11, and in a better world it would have landed with a bigger splash than all these soulless tentpole movies we (for inexplicable reasons) spend so much energy discussing.

Another gem I caught up with this week was Thomas Vinterberg's Another Round (2020), a Danish film now available to rent on most of the streaming services. Mads Mikkelsen gives one of his best performances—and that's saying a lot—as a depressive high-school teacher who convinces his three best friends (and fellow faculty members) that the key to reaching your full potential in life is to stay just a little drunk at all times. The four friends undertake the experiment, which unfolds like watching a funny, slow-motion trainwreck. Another Round is one of my favorite things: a deadly serious comedy. It's comically sad, imperfectly insightful, and (somehow) exhilaratingly tragic. I loved it.

In the "rewatching old favorites" department, my wife got me the recently released Criterion blu-ray of All That Jazz (1979) for Christmas, and I sat down and devoured it last night when I should have been doing other things. The film has been mystifyingly missing from streaming platforms, but it's one of my all-time favorites: the great choreographer and director Bob Fosse's painfully honest examination of his own flaws, and his surreal (and accurate, as it turned out) imagining of his own death. (Watching last year's FX series Fosse/Verdon, I kept thinking: You're not revealing anything about Fosse that he didn't reveal about himself—and better—in All That Jazz.) The recent death of the wonderful Ann Reinking—who basically plays herself in the film—made the viewing all the more poignant. I'm looking forward to introducing The Unenthusiastic Critic to this film some time in the future, ideally when the movie is finally available to watch streaming somewhere.

TV VIEWING

There is absolutely nothing currently on the air that I'm watching, so most of my TV-watching time lately has been consumed with revisiting the first season of Deadwood, to get me back up to speed for my reviews. But this week I did manage to watch the first couple of episodes of Bridgertonthe new Netflix series from creator Chris van Dusen and executive producer Shonda Rhimes. And…I don't know yet? An R-rated, color-blind-cast soap opera set in Regency England—with various great houses competing to marry off their daughters—it's sort of like Pride & Prejudice meets Game of Thrones. That combination should be right in my wheelhouse, and the show is well-made, I suppose, and entertaining enough. But so far there are way too characters to tell apart, and I don't actually care about anyone yet. I'll probably give it another couple of episodes to see if it can develop the characters enough to sink its hooks into me.

For my late-night comfort viewing, I've been rewatching random episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation, a show I remember first gathering with friends to watch in the TV room of my college dorm. (Incidentally, the HD remaster of that show on Netflix is absolutely beautiful. On the spectrum of remastered shows, ST:TNG is pretty much the gold standard, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer is pretty much the bottom of the barrel. I've tried to watch the remastered Buffy on Hulu, but it's so plastic, terribly cropped, and awfully color-corrected that I quickly realized I'd much rather deal with my old, scratched DVDs.)

But I digress. Anyway, I've been rewatching ST:TNG, and enjoying it thoroughly, and I don't really have any profound thoughts to share about it. Mostly, I find myself skipping the same episodes I never liked (I just can't get interested in Klingon culture, which seems to have been based on the rock band KISS), and having the same observations I've always had (namely, that both Data and the holodeck malfunction and try to kill everyone so often that neither should ever have been allowed on board a federation starship). But there's a lot to be said for formula and familiarity: With the world going to hell outside, there's just something so reassuring and satisfying about life aboard the Starship Enterprise, where everyone is polite to each other, decisions are made according to the highest ideals, everything is brightly lit and colorful, and problems are inevitably solved in the span of a single episode (or—at the most dire of times—two).

AND FINALLY…

I want to thank you for reading this inaugural post of my new blog-series/backdoor-newsletter. I am still—very clearly—figuring out what to do with it, and I fully expect it to morph and evolve as it becomes a more regular part of my week. (If you would like to receive these blog posts as a weekly newsletter, just send me your email address here. You can also subscribe to receive notifications of all my new stuff by email in the "Stay Unaffiliated" box at the bottom of this post. Don't worry, I don't send you a lot of other crap or sell your email address to anyone: Honestly, I'm not that organized.)

One of the reasons I decided to do this was to have more regular, less formal communications with my readers, so I am open to suggestions of what people would like to hear, and I hope some of you will share with us in the comments what you are watching/doing/thinking about to get through this odd period of history in which we are living.

Until next time, I wish all my readers a very Happy New Year: a productive one, if that's your thing; a lazy one, if that's more to your liking; but either way a better one. Stay safe, stay indoors, stay masked, stay healthy.

Notes

  1. You’d probably be surprised—if not a little concerned and saddened—to learn how much time I spent trying to figure out the correct spelling and punctuation of the informal term “taint.” Since it’s a contraction of “It ain’t,” it would seem to me that ‘t’ain’t would be correct. But no one seems to punctuate it that way when the word is used as a noun. I saw a few votes for ‘taint, but using the first apostrophe and not the second or third makes no sense to me at all. I also quickly discovered—fair warning—that this is a word one wants to be very careful about Googling, so I finally gave up and defaulted to common usage. (The clearer course of action, of course, would have been to abandon the idea entirely, but that would have required me to think up a different title for this post, and I’d already wasted too much time accidentally Googling pictures of perinea.)
  2. “Brundlecouch.”
  3. Or perhaps it is—as it seems to be for me—a season of shameless, desperate metaphor-mixing.
  4. Or a “semi-conscious” one, I suppose, since I am, clearly, consciously thinking about it.
  5. In college I once did a bullshit independent study on “Neurolinguistics”—does that count?

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