In my weekly blog series (and stealth newsletter), I discuss what I've been watching, what I've been working on lately, what's coming up that I'm excited about, and any other thoughts that seem worth sharing. If you would like to receive these posts by email as a weekly newsletter, please email newsletter@unaffiliatedcritic.
As I write this, it is late Monday evening, and I am sitting at my desk watching the first few flakes descend in what is rumored to become the city's first decent storm of the season. One does not, of course, make one's home in Chicago if one is unprepared to deal with a little snow, and the efficiency of our species' ruination of the planet has resulted in suspiciously mild winters in recent years. So, really, I shouldn't complain, and I usually don't.
In fact, I generally try to adopt an attitude of false cheer and zen-like acceptance about winter, especially in front of my Vegas-raised wife. (Nakea still, after 20 years in this city, reacts to every single snowflake as if it is a cruel and personal affront. I sort of love that about her.) But this year, I admit, I'm struggling. Anytime recently that I have tried to remind my wife that winter is the annual cost of doing business in Chicago, she has reminded me in turn that we didn't get to enjoy a summer this year. And that's when I stop arguing with her, because the point is inarguable.
We are rapidly coming up on a full year of pandemic lockdown. Though the City of Chicago has tightened and relaxed and re-tightened its restrictions seemingly at inexplicable whim, we have maintained the same strict regimen we adopted in the early months of 2020: We simply assume every single person in the outside world might kill us. We have not eaten in a restaurant or shopped in a bookstore in eleven months. We have not seen friends or family in eleven months. We have not left the house except when absolutely necessary in eleven months, and every single time we did we have worn masks and avoided coming within a midsize-rock's throw of other people.
Personally, I mark our pandemic anniversary from February 28, which was the last day I saw a movie in a theater. It's a small thing, but I used to see all the movies. That's what I did. I had one of those monthly-pass deals where I could see up to three movies a week, and I frequently maxed it out by Wednesday, annoyed that I had to wait for the weekly Friday reset so I could see more movies. Don't get me wrong: I'm glad most of the theaters are closed, and I think they should stay that way. Throughout the pandemic, I have been adamantly, vehemently, violently opposed to filmmakers and studios who insisted on releasing movies in theaters and luring audiences out. (Seriously, fuck Christopher Nolan.) But it's not because I don't value the theatrical experience, and it's definitely not because I don't miss it. Lately, in fact, I've been missing going to the movies like it's a physical need, and I really would like us to get this disease under control so we can all get back to it.
Anyway, I think the cabin fever is finally starting to get to me a little bit. It's an unseemly thing to complain about, of course, when 3,000–4,000 people a day are dying in the U.S. But that's part of the increasing frustration: We've been nearly a year under lockdown, and America had its highest number of daily deaths—4,409—on Wednesday. Our venal and inept government squandered almost an entire year doing nothing, and now—even with a vaccine, and the promise of a return to basic competence under the Biden administration—there appears to be no end in immediate sight. (As my wife and I are both under 65, and relatively healthy, current projections are that we may be able to get the vaccine in June. Maybe.)
All of which is to say nothing more or less than this: This snow is bumming me out tonight. I know, we are unbelievably fortunate in most every way. We have stayed healthy. We have health insurance, and enough money to live, and work we can do from home. We have had few loved ones get sick, and we know very few people who have died. We are not even, really, particularly outgoing people: A couple of bookish introverts, accustomed to working from home, and remarkably, almost freakishly tolerant of each other, we are probably as well-prepared—by situation and temperament—to be trapped in our apartment as anyone could be. (Hell, most of what I do in a good year is sit around, and watch TV, and stream movies, and read, and write.)
But I gotta say: It's starting to get to me. I'm starting to forget that I'm a homebody by nature and choice, and I'm starting to feel trapped. And winter is most definitely not helping: It just intensifies that feeling of having everything turned inward, of our world having been reduced down to a few hundred square-feet of apartment.
(Anyone remember that episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, where Crusher and Picard ended up the only two people on the Enterprise, in a bubble universe that was exactly the size of the Enterprise, and Picard acted like it had always been that way and was all perfectly normal? Yeah, it's kind of like that.)
It's not so bad, really. Just a little melancholy, and perhaps I'm at risk of going a little buggy. It could be worse.
Let's get to the business.
On January 21, Nakea and I posted a new episode of The Unenthusiastic Critic Podcast, in which I introduced her to a staple of my generation's teenage years, Paul Brickman's 1983 hit Risky Business. It went better than I was thought it would, actually: Though broadly categorized as a "teen sex comedy"—and therefore exactly the sort of thing I generally expect my wife to crap all over—Risky Business turned out to be a more interesting movie than I'd remembered, and a slightly better movie than she was expecting.
On January 23, I published the latest long piece from my Deadwood rewatch, covering Season One's 10th episode, "Mister Wu." As much I've always said Deadwood is probably my favorite show, I find I'm rediscovering just how good it is as I write these pieces. (That's what writing about things does for me: I may enjoy an hour of television, but until I dig into it in obsessive, overly-analytic detail, I can never really love it.) A few people have told me they were inspired to watch the show—either again, or for the first time—and I'd love to hear how that's going.
I've momentarily stalled out on my next Independent Study in World Cinema essay—on Roberto Rossellini's Rome, Open City (1945)—and I had to set it aside to concentrate on some paying work. But I'm planning to get it done by end of the month at the latest, which would put me back on an every-two-weeks schedule. (Jean Cocteau's Beauty and the Beast is still scheduled for—appropriately enough—sometime right around Valentine's Day.)
The next Deadwood piece—on Episode 1×11, "Jewel's Boot is Made for Walking"—should appear January 29th.
On or about February 3, the next episode of The Unenthusiastic Critic Podcast should drop. Having come across a crazy right-wing conspiracy theory about Trump and Biden switching faces—so Trump was really inaugurated for a second term this week, you see—I've seized on this thin excuse to make Nakea watch John Woo's preposterous identity-swapping thriller Face/Off (1997). (Honestly, her loathing of Nicolas Cage alone should make this a good one, even before we get to her problems with the science.)
Having listed a bunch of stuff last week, I hope you'll forgive my paltry viewing this week. I watched no new television this week, and only managed to watch a couple of new movies, but they were both good.
Nakea and I both enjoyed One Night in Miami, Regina King's confident debut feature about the night in 1964 when Cassius Clay/Muhammad Ali (Eli Goree), Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir), Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.), and Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge) gathered in Malcolm's motel room to celebrate Clay's victory over Sonny Liston to become heavyweight champion of the world. It's based on the play by Kemp Powers, and—like the recent (and similarly themed) Ma Rainey's Black Bottom—it wears its "staginess" unapologetically and to great effect: The small motel room becomes a pressure cooker in which the different attitudes, approaches, and ambitions of these four superstars comes to a fascinating boil. (I actually thought the first 20 minutes or so of the film—in which Powers' script opens up the play to introduce each character —was the weakest part, a hand-holding framing sequence the story doesn't really need. But once the four men arrive at the motel room, the movie starts to sing.) Even attempting to portray four charismatic icons was a gutsy piece of hubris, but the cast is uniformly excellent. (In particular, Hodge—with perhaps the least to do—gives a quietly stunning performance.) What really impressed me is that it's a film without cardboard fools or foils: As questions of friendship, Black identity, and the uses of power and privilege arise organically, each man's argument is given its due weight and worth, creating a powerful and entertaining debate with no clear villains and no clear victors. It's an intelligent, uncompromising play, brought to dynamic life through four great performances and King's precise, remarkably controlled direction. Highly recommended.
I also enjoyed—somewhat to my own surprise, and somewhat against my own will—Paul Greengrass's News of the World, a western about a Civil-War veteran and itinerant newsreader (Tom Hanks), who reluctantly agrees to escort a 10-year-old German girl (Helena Zengel) back to her white relatives after she has been "rescued" from the Kiowas who kidnapped and raised her. News of the World is almost daringly old-fashioned filmmaking—bordering, at times, on hokey—but it ended up winning me over, through Greengrass's elegant but restrained direction, Hanks' always reliable performance, and Zengel's absolutely mesmerizing one. The film is one I'd probably have a lot of problems with if I thought about it too much. (For one thing, Hanks' character is a former Confederate officer, and—as Lovecraft Country recently reminded us—"you don't get to put an 'ex-' in front of that." The issue of slavery is just one of many issues the film doesn't bother to deal with except obliquely, and the total absence of any true Native American voice is more troubling still: Zengler's fierce performance is a wonder, but the character's near muteness and lack of agency is something of a problem.) Still, it's a beautifully made film, and there is something seductive about such classic-Hollywood-style manipulation: I'd be lying if I said I didn't end up emotionally invested in the relationship between the two leads. (I wouldn't necessarily advise spending the $20 to rent it now, but it's worth checking out when it's available through a more casually-friendly streaming option.)
The snow is falling pretty good now: The streets are totally empty, eerily quiet, muffled and muted and indistinct with white. Somehow, looking out from the warm and silent interior of our apartment, I'm reminded of a line from Moby Dick, in which Ahab and one of his harpooneers are alone late on deck: "hooped round by the gloom of the night, they seemed the last men in a flooded world."
Oh, well. The snow's kind of pretty, I guess. Peaceful. I can do this for a few more months, I think.
Hey, how's my credit in this joint, anyway, Lloyd?