Sunday, February 28, 2021

"What Do You Do in San Francisco?" (1967)

One of the interesting points about this story by Raymond Carver is that it's hard to say who it is about. The first-person narrator, a mailman, declares up-front, "This has nothing to do with me." He tells us all about himself. Then there is the couple he's formally concerned with, the Marstons, whom he refers to as beatniks. The narrator's name is Henry Robinson. He's divorced and hasn't, he mentions, seen his children in 20 years. The Marstons have moved to the small town of Arcata in Northern California, and Robinson, their mailman, spends the story trying to figure them out. They are young, apparently unemployed (Robinson presses suggestions for work, but they ignore him), and they have three young kids, two girls and a boy. Robinson decides almost right away he doesn't like the woman, and in fact, as the story goes along (and it's not that long), he soon has a very strong dislike of her. Which approximately mirrors our dislike of him. He's clearly a dick even though he tries to act like an easygoing sort of happy regular fellow. The most glaring questions here are about Robinson's former life, just as his are about the Marstons'—not so much his divorce as why he hasn't seen his own children in so long. My sense is he's just kind of an emotional deadbeat who can't live up to his responsibilities, even as he judges the Marstons. He casually washes his hands of any responsibility he doesn't care to acknowledge. It's possible he's precluded from seeing his kids for some legal reason, but he's also the kind of guy who would bring that up as excuse in his own defense. Anyway, he tracks the lives of the Marstons as much as a mailman can (which turns out to be a fair amount) and reports the details in this story. Eventually, in his telling, Robinson's hunch about the Marston woman is right, as she runs away with another man, leaving the children behind. The story has Carver's abrupt tone and shifts in focus, as if coming from a place of constant distraction, a remarkable sketch of the modern mind coping with confusion. The pseudo-spying aspect is entertaining and the revelations are often startling, almost but not quite adding up to something in a way that feels like typical life. The strange sloppiness of the title may be speaking to that turmoil of distraction. The question that occurs in the story (emphasis mine) is "What did you do in San Francisco?"—a passing remark in a casual conversation. Small talk. Why is it the title and why is it changed? I don't know, but I like a lot of things about this one.

Raymond Carver, Where I'm Calling From (Library of America)

Friday, February 26, 2021

Poetry (2010)

Shi, South Korea, 139 minutes
Director/writer: Chang-dong Lee
Photography: Hyun Seok Kim
Editor: Hyun Kim
Cast: Jeong-hie Yun, Lee Da-wit, Hee-ra Kim, Yong-taek Kim, Myung-shin Park, Jong-goo Kim

I have an impulse to call Poetry underrated because it's more of a film festival / arthouse show, a "foreign movie" with subtitles. They tend to live in their own ghetto, where the blurbs are overheated (e.g., "An extraordinary vision of human empathy" - Manohla Dargis, New York Times) and the awards generous (over 50 nominations and/or wins, including a shot at the Cannes Palme d'Or) but the theatrical runs and other afterlife are too often meager, playing to empty houses or not even making it into multiplexes at all (multi-what? oh PRE-pandemic). On the other hand partisans at that citadel of the middlebrow, IMDb, have awarded it a highly respectable rating of 7.8, with over 10,000 voting.

The popularity surprised me a little but the fact is Poetry is just a remarkable and undeniable film, which could probably win over anyone who looks at it. Manohla Dargis is right that it's extraordinary, pulling off a trick of using true-crime notes to make poetry, of all things, alarmingly moving. It's the next day and I'm still crying about the poem. Jeong-hie Yun—the notable secret ingredient in this picture—is Yang Mi-ja, a grandmother in her mid-60s living in Seoul and raising her grandson on her own. She is ingratiating and charming, working part-time as an in-home aide for an older man who has suffered a stroke and is disabled, but she is beginning to show signs of dementia herself, losing some of her nouns—she can't quite think of the word for things like electricity and wallet. Poetry is virtually a one-woman show. Before we even meet Mi-ja, however, the other thread of this picture is introduced.

Wednesday, February 24, 2021

"The Man Who Has Everything" (1993)


"The Man Who Has Everything" is approximately where Very Relentless takes to its slowdown cooldown in the greater arc of the big show, but it bears a good deal of heat the way objects do on hot days even after sunset, glowing like radiation. The largely instrumental track attacks with long pulling notes on strings and an intensely percolating rhythm. Singers begin to emerge, singing at the top of their lungs but pushed way down in the mix in the style of "The Theater." The words are hard to make out, mindless calls to work it more, work it harder, with a pounding hi-NRG vibe: "Come on, come on, come on, come on / How long will you do some more? How long will you do some more? / You got to you got to – Love Love." At about a minute and a half in it steps up to a familiar Pet Shop Boys play, a shift, a rise, dawning of melody. A silvery portion of heaven and host of keyboards do the functional work of chorus, the place where it returns again, and again. Sing laa-la-la-la-laa, get high on it while it's here. Another 30 seconds, another rise, a new layer of rhythm careening into the fray. Now it feels like speed racer zooming around the track, background images a blur the way manga shows motion but with the main subject as if motionless statue, absolute point of focus, inside this bare fraction of a moment. The bits roll in like waves then, dense substantial ephemeral matter crashing. And again—back and forth, up and down, ascending, racing, crashing. Smooth like glass, glossy reflecting surface, rubbery with bass notes, holding to your head like your favorite hat. It never loses intensity even as it scales down. "The Man Who Has Everything" modulates its six minutes one to the next, impossibly beautiful in unexpected moments, churning and stirring and ending on one last "Love."

Sunday, February 21, 2021

You Should've Heard Just What I Seen (2020)

Phil Dellio makes a wide-ranging survey of movies and TV in this book focusing narrowly on the uses of pop music. I say "narrowly," but Phil's discursive conversational style, strewn across dozens of review-style pieces, covers a lot more than just pop music. More than just pop music, but he is reasonably exhaustive on the music. And it's a lot of fun to read, even when you want to argue with him about things, the music or the movies or both. His center of gravity and touchpoint is the TV series Mad Men, which full disclosure I still have not seen, anticipating rightly or wrongly too much David Ogilvy for my taste. Phil reaches back to The Graduate, Martin Scorsese, and Quentin Tarantino, as one must—it had to start somewhere. He acknowledges The Sopranos and Six Feet Under, with oddly nothing to say about Deadwood or The Wire—no pop music or bad pop music, maybe. No Lost either, which did have good pop music, though The Leftovers is mentioned several times. From about 2015 on, since Phil's blog of the same name started (with Scott Woods contributing), he has stayed well abreast of the latest in peak TV, or prestige TV, or premium TV. Call it PTV. His long list at the end makes apparent how deep into the weeds of TV series he has gone. He can pull rabbits out of his hat too. His argument for the Jackie DeShannon song at the end of Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice has resigned me to looking again at a movie I recall as insipid. To be honest, though, that's why I read books like this, and Phil is really good at it. I learned a lot, have 15 or 20 titles to go looking for, and that's a lot more than I get from a lot of the books I read. I've come away even more sensitive to the way music and a narrative moment can build on each other to create something unique and memorable. It's still cinema, even if it's on a TV screen, and it's something only cinema can do. (Further full disclosure, Phil is a friend and kindly mentions my name in this book.)

In case the library is closed due to pandemic.

And don't miss the blog.

Thursday, February 18, 2021

"For the Blood Is the Life" (1905)

This vampire tale by F. Marion Crawford, the special effects specialist of yore and master of the florid title ("The Dead Smile," "The Screaming Skull"), starts with an interesting optical illusion, which transmutes into ghostly trappings and various impossible events, and then finally here comes mayhem the way only vampires can deliver it. The scene is an ancient tower on the Mediterranean in a section of Italy reputed to be the birthplace of Judas Iscariot. Here a couple of globe-trotting colonialists have dinner in the fresh air of the rooftop at sunset and attempt to figure out the mystery. On the side of a faraway hill which they can see from the tower there appears to be a burial mound and a body lying on top of it. It only appears in moonlight, the host notes, and when the guest obligingly hikes over to it some distance away he sees that the vision changes when you approach, and the body disappears. The host, watching from afar, sees the body take the form of mist, embracing his guest and clinging to him, though the guest is well able to make the hike back. Among other things, it sounds like a long night. Well, it's quite a phenomenon, and yes, now that guest asks, there are local stories and legends about it, and please don't mind me the host if I tell it in two parts without quotation marks. Both of these embedded stories are quite busy, about stolen treasure, legacies denied, murder most foul, a vampire creature, and inevitably ruby-red lips, blood-sucking, and a wooden stake produced and utilized. I never quite understood why Cristina here suffers such a terrible end. No proper Christian burial following her murder is probably the answer but I'm also talking about the murder itself. She already had a vaguely vampiric look even when she was alive, "more like a gipsy than any girl I ever saw about here. She had very red lips and very black eyes, she was built like a greyhound, and had the tongue of the devil ... but she was a good girl." Whatever you say, boss. She never seems to get a break here. After a while the story is full-on vampire hunting and we all know what a bloody mess that can lead to. I can't make up my mind about the strange way the story is set up. It's almost so awkward that's what I like, backing into itself with the optical illusion and long hike, followed by story hour. I also wished Crawford or the storyteller had a little more sympathy for Cristina, whose main crime appears to be only that she looks like a gipsy and was in the wrong place at the wrong time. There are plenty of good details here and it is always competent, but it dares yet does not always transcend the many ruts of the vampire tale.

The Big Book of the Masters of Horror, Weird and Supernatural Short Stories, pub. Dark Chaos
Vampire Tales: The Big Collection, pub. Dark Chaos
Read story online.

Monday, February 15, 2021

The Hunt (2020)

I note first that The Hunt is not that good, but I was attracted to it partly because of its principals and basic premise and partly because it has such a striking history of bad luck at this point. Directed by Craig Zobel (Compliance) and cowritten by Nick Cuse and Damon Lindelof (between them Lost, The Leftovers, Watchmen, etc.), the story is out of "The Most Dangerous Game" crossed with "The Lottery," Lord of the Flies, and The Hunger Games¬—in short, unenlightened humans hunting humans for sport in a dystopian near-future time. (No one has yet done it like George Hitchcock.) The Hunt was originally scheduled for release in September 2019, but the studio got nervous after two days of mass shootings the previous month in El Paso and Dayton and postponed the release indefinitely. Then they decided March 13, 2020, would make a better release date. Well, you can't win 'em all, and now The Hunt has been well-buried by bad reviews too. I like the way the movie inverts the expectations of its social and political commentary, but that's about the only thing that's close to original about it. In this world, a group of random deplorables has been rounded up and they are being hunted by libtards on a mysterious estate that might be in Arkansas, Vermont, or Croatia. The story is somewhat muddled but comes down to a parable of self-fulfilling prophecy and being careful what you wish for. No one learns their lesson and the picture on the whole veers quite close to both-sidesing the issues it wants to address. The sendups of hypocrisy are equally lacerating toward deplorables and libtards and pretty much equally easy. The deplorables are gullible self-styled patriots while the libtards are both woke and shallow to painful degrees, corporate creatures who correct each other's language constantly in expensive clothes. Social media drives all conflict to levels of pitched hysteria. Everyone lives inside their phones. The Hunt is reasonably careful not to inflame vengeance passions, the mainstay of many action shows, but paradoxically that makes the action scenes here less satisfying and less interesting. And, not surprisingly, the action scenes dominate, with military-grade guns blazing, knives flying, and fancy hand-to-hand combat too. I liked director Zobel's Compliance because I thought it was basically a fair appraisal of deeply human traits not understood well until social psychology started looking closely. The Hunt is more like broad satire from the op-ed page (an Alexandra Petri column, say) or, worse, the tedious stupidity of social media back-and-forth. It's too real to be funny in this time of extraordinary tension, but humor is all it has to relieve the tension, so it just hits the obvious notes. Betty Gilpin is stand-up as the action hero and last man (/ woman / person / camera / TV, sorry didn't mean to use gendered language)—the last one left standing. But I wasn't really here to see a shoot-'em-up. Might be worth it for Lindelof and Zobel completists.

Sunday, February 14, 2021

One Step Behind (1997)

Here's another really good one from the Kurt Wallander series by Henning Mankell. Some of the devices may be growing somewhat threadbare—another climax with Wallander in grave mortal peril, more health problems, brooding attacks of doubt, new friends. It's a thriller series more than police procedural let alone hardboiled detective so action-packed scenes are inevitable. Mankell's plotting is as good as ever. It relies on some shaky premises but the case remains intriguingly mysterious for a long time. Another repetition: the most heinous crimes ever seen in the region. That has already been used at least twice before in the series (One Step Behind is seventh of 12). At first I thought this was going to be a mass murder variation, but no, in due course it turns out to be another serial killer. The love for serial killers obviously reached Sweden in the '90s too. But I can forgive these miscues because this one is just so cracking good most of the way. A group of college-age kids disappears in early summer. They are believed to be traveling, as their parents receive postcards from points in Europe, but one mother is convinced they are forged and it's not her daughter's handwriting. Then one of the police detective Kurt Wallander's colleagues, Svedberg, is found brutally murdered. He had been working unofficially and in secret on the disappearance. Now I have to admit Svedberg never made that much impression on me in the series. In fact, sometimes I'm sure I'm confused a little about Wallander's and Martin Beck's coworkers. Anyway, a lot of interesting revelations about him come to light in the investigation. One of Wallander's new friends is a postman who delivers mail by boat in an island area of Sweden. He's more of a plot device here but looks like he might be around for the future. The other is a preening new prosecutor who doubts Wallander's abilities. Baiba Liepa has been summarily dismissed from the series, it appears—they broke up between the last novel and this one. I like that Mankell did that and I also like that he did it offstage. There is also not much in this one about Wallander's daughter, Linda, and I like that too. Maybe what I like is that a lot of the clutter of Wallander's personal life has been cleared away and we mostly focus on the case. Overall this is one of the best. The elements may be familiar, but Mankell is still getting more skillful working with them.

In case the library is closed due to pandemic.

Saturday, February 13, 2021

Heart-Shaped World (1989)

I've never been able to get a handle on Chris Isaak exactly. The bruised rootsy James Dean approach is generally palatable and even convincing enough, though sometimes perhaps too much so, verging on shtick. You can play this one too much. Revisiting Heart-Shaped World recently reminded me more than anything of time lost in coffeeshops with posers—Starbucks, specifically, where I believe I once purchased Isaak's next album San Francisco Days. Remember when Starbucks used to sell albums? What a franchise. Heart-Shaped World includes Isaak's biggest hit in "Wicked Game" (which topped out at #6 in 1991). An instrumental version made it into David Lynch's movie Wild at Heart and later Isaak got a plum role in Lynch's Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me as FBI Special Agent Chester Desmond. My problem with "Wicked Game," which is suitably moody on the subject of unrequited love or something like it, starts with the way he chose to blur the word "love" in the chorus into the word "lust": "No, I don't wanna fall in luhh - sss / With you." It's just too cute by half, a big broad wink, as if the singer knows he's too good-looking ever to be rejected and desperately wants you to know it too. The longing hurt is just another pose in the coffeeshop after all. This guy doesn't fall in love, he falls in lust, passing sexual infatuation. It's the stoic and the agony of cool. Isaak almost has the chops to put as much ache into his vocal as Roy Orbison himself. But that's one way he comes up short of Orbison—there are enough tells to know his singer doesn't mean it. Isaak's brand of star appeal goes directly to Elvis Presley as much as James Dean or Orbison, of course. Men are hurt in love in Elvis songs too, you call tell by the trembling lip, but actually no, not really. Elvis, always, is above the mess—it's one of the things that made him fat. For these guys it's either about sex or mothers and Isaak sadly does not have that range, as his mother rarely if ever comes up. I'm carping a lot but Heart-Shaped World (and San Francisco Days too, for that matter) often plays sweet and easy and can give a room a glow. It's quite an attractive surface but maybe only a surface.

Friday, February 12, 2021

The Fugitive (1993)

USA, 130 minutes
Director: Andrew Davis
Writers: Jeb Stuart, David Twohy, Roy Huggins
Photography: Michael Chapman
Music: James Newton Howard
Editors: Don Brochu, David Finfer, Dean Goodhill, Dov Hoenig, Richard Nord, Dennis Virkler
Cast: Harrison Ford, Tommy Lee Jones, Sela Ward, Joe Pantoliano, Jeroen Krabbe, Andreas Katsulas, Julianne Moore, Jane Lynch, Lester Holt

When I was putting together my credits summary for this '90s movie remake of the '60s hit TV show I was struck by how many editors worked on it, six, when usually that's a solo job or at most a two-hand, with or without the director. But taking a second look at a movie I liked pretty well when it was new, it was easier to see how that might happen. The Fugitive is a big-production thriller with a barrage of pell-mell action that barely ever lets up, set in motion by a reasonably spectacular train wreck. It's a very busy picture with lots of physical activity. Mad magazine parody titles once again come in handy. Its 1964 treatment of the TV show went as "The Phewgitive." It's true that's not one of their more elegant goofs, but it does have a point—not the sense of "phew" that refers to a bad odor (bad odors being a staple of Mad) but rather to the strong sense of relief after a close call of some kind.

If you ever watched the TV show, which was not bad, you know basically that's how it went. Dr. Richard Kimble (Harrison Ford in the movie, David Janssen in the show) has been wrongly accused and convicted of murdering his wife. On the way to prison he escapes and then wanders around searching for the mysterious one-armed man he claims did the deed, which no one else believes. In the show, which ran for four seasons and an incredible 120 episodes, that was just the frame. Most of the episodes didn't have that much to do with any one-armed man but were more like noirish scenes from My Voyage to America, usually with tender moments of some kind and then some close call about being identified and almost captured before getting away again. Phew! The movie 30 years later wisely makes it all about the one-armed man even as the close calls come at the rate of handfuls per hour.

Thursday, February 11, 2021

"Count Magnus" (1904)

I admit M.R. James has been something of an acquired taste—he has felt consistently oversold—but stories like this are bringing me around. He has a strange dry way of telling them, ruminative and circling main points, though the details and violence as reported can be ferocious. They are often in the vein if not indeed classics of one of horror's favorite devices, first-person tales by librarians, scientists, and other researchers whose work introduces them to curious mysteries that deepen into the uncanny. "Count Magnus" is built out of documents found hidden in a house that has been purchased and demolished for new construction. I should say spoiler alert because this latter point is reserved as a reveal for the end. But it's only an empty formality, as it adds little to the foregoing. James sets up basically a historian's approach to assembling knowledge, summarizing and editing original documents (judiciously, we trust). This cerebral and sober distance can work to make fantastic events more believable but also less immediate; paradoxically, the impact is more strained but also more insidiously unnerving. You feel the spook later and it doesn't necessarily go away quickly. So there is our narrator, puzzling over details from the found documents, and there is Mr. Wraxall, a freelance writer who sold light travel pieces and created the documents—notes, mostly, for his pieces. The story involves Wraxall's experience in a region of Sweden where he died and specifically one estate, where his body was found. The local inquest rules it death by "visitation of God." "Count Magnus" is ambiguous enough in its details that it may be considered a ghost story (as Wikipedia and the Penguin collection above has it) but others take it as a vampire story—most horror writers of the day had at least one or two of them, the way all garage bands in the '60s covered "Gloria." The story has some great effects with various hideous deaths. Count Magnus is shown to be a cruel lord of the manor in the feudal times when he was alive, severely punishing the peasants on his estate for the smallest infractions. As Wraxall investigates, we see evidence that something is affecting him. He begins to have blackouts and periods of missing time and confusion. At one point he reports: "[I] found myself (as before) turning in at the churchyard gate, and, I believe, singing or chanting some such words as, 'Are you awake, Count Magnus? Are you asleep, Count Magnus?' and then, something more which I have failed to recollect." This clouding minds business to me puts it squarely in the vampire realm, though we are spared any overt blood-sucking, purple lips, etc. You have to wonder what an inquest jury is getting at with the "visitation of God" ruling. Our narrator does not know because he only has the documents to go on, and Mr. Wraxall has long since been dead and unable to tell the rest of the story himself.

The Big Book of the Masters of Horror, Weird and Supernatural Short Stories, pub. Dark Chaos
Vampire Tales: The Big Collection, pub. Dark Chaos
Read story online.

Wednesday, February 10, 2021

Top 40

1. Ryuichi Sakamoto, "Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence" (4:40, 1983)
2. Public Enemy, "State of the Union (STFU) (Main)" (2:58)
3. Dusty Springfield, "Spooky" (2:45, 1970)
4. Maximo Park, "Child of the Flatlands" (5:16)
5. Flaming Lips feat. Kacey Musgraves, "God and the Policeman" (2:28)
6. David Guetta & Sia, "Let's Love" (3:20)
7. Janelle Monae, "Turntables" (2:43)
8. Doobie Brothers, "What a Fool Believes" (3:44, 1979)
9. E-40, "Choices (Yup)" (4:32, 2014)
10. Travis Scott, "Franchise" (3:22)
11. John Chibadura, "Yemurawo" (4:22, ca. 1986)
12. Future Islands, "For Sure" (3:25)
13. Fleet Foxes, "Can I Believe You" (4:04)
14. Sinead O'Connor, "Trouble of the World" (4:48)
15. Megan Thee Stallion feat. Young Thug, "Don't Stop" (3:07)
16. Skip James, "Devil Got My Woman" (2:58, 1931)
17. Ten City, "Suspicious" (4:43, 1989)
18. DEVO, "Uncontrollable Urge" (3:09, 1978)
19. Dusty Springfield, "You Don't Own Me" (2:27. 1964)
20. Internet Money, "Lemonade" (3:15)
21. Kills, "I Put a Spell on You" (2:16)
22. Daniel Lanois, "(Under the) Heavy Sun" (3:27)
23. John Carpenter, "Weeping Ghost" (3:33)
24. Lesley Gore, "You Don't Own Me" (2:29, 1963)
25. Jason Moran, "You've Got to Be Modernistic" (5:48, 2002)
26. Rico Nasty, "OHFR?" (2:00)
27. M.O.P., "Ante Up" (3:33)
28. Frumious Bandersnatch, "Hearts to Cry" (5:26, 1967)
29. Cocteau Twins, "Heaven or Las Vegas" (4:58, 1991)
30. Cocteau Twins, "Cherry-coloured Funk" (3:12, 1991)
31. Cat Power, "Moonshiner" (4:50, 1997)
32. Bob Dylan, "Moonshiner" (5:05, 1963)
33. Miranda Lambert, "Settling Down" (3:17)
34. Phoebe Bridgers, "If We Make It Through December" (2:59)
35. Porridge Radio, "Pop Song" (5:03)
36. Future Islands, "Moonlight" (3:38)
37. Boney M., "Mary's Boy Child / Oh My Lord" (4:02, 1978)
38. Nirvana, "Come as You Are" (3:38, 1991)
39. Sloan, "December 25" (3:36, 2016)
40. Merle Haggard, "If We Make It Through December" (2:43, 1973)

thx: Billboard, Spin, etc.

Sunday, February 07, 2021

People Who Eat Darkness (2010)

Richard Lloyd Parry's true-crime nonfiction novel has obscure ambitions in directions toward the best—certainly in the opinion of the blurbers lined up for it—namely, In Cold Blood and The Executioner's Song. The story in summary has endless potential for the flatly lurid and sensational but Parry evades all that with his canny construction. In 2000, a 21-year-old British woman working in the shadowy hostess bar economy of Tokyo goes missing. Her family is frantic, flying in to Tokyo to press the search. Media coverage is all over it (in the UK, no doubt—I don't actually recall it). Speculation and high emotions are rampant. Nine months later her dismembered body is found buried in a cave. Eventually a man is charged with the crime. Parry is quite artful about the way he distributes information. In his tick-tock portions he discloses almost right away that the woman, Lucie Blackman, was dead within 24 hours of going missing. He unhooks us from the roller-coaster ride of the family, police, and public in real-time, but puts us on another one instead. He works the suspense by taking the space he needs for exposition, which may be somewhat dry but is necessary to understand this case, and is often so alien that more time is required to digest it: about the hostess bar economy in Tokyo, about how Western women are viewed there, about the surreptitious nature of the work in terms of their visas. Later, as Parry reveals more and the story deepens, he must describe the Japanese police culture and criminal legal system. The trial takes literally years. Parry never explains his title, but in a way he doesn't have to because it feels like eating darkness is what we're doing as we go. The variety of human monsters is probably infinite but it's somehow always surprising when you come across the next new one. Parry, a British national who serves as an Asia correspondent for the London Times is uniquely positioned to tell the story, with which it sounds like he was patiently, grindingly obsessed for more than 10 years (and could well still be following further developments). The result is a remarkable book that makes a good deal more of a routine missing person case (in this day and age!) than you or I or anyone else might have. Kind of like In Cold Blood and The Executioner's Song.

In case the library is closed due to pandemic.

Monday, February 01, 2021

Fleabag (2016-2019)

I finally caught up with this award-winning and much-acclaimed British comedy series by Phoebe Waller-Bridge and found it completely and 100% enjoyable and impressive. It deserves the hoopla. Based on a one-woman theatrical show Waller-Bridge first did in 2013, it ran for two 6-episode seasons (of 25-minute episodes) in 2016 and 2019. Waller-Bridge wrote, stars, and breaks the fourth wall until it disappears, as if on aesthetic principle. At times it feels almost athletic—she can say volumes with fleeting facial expressions—and it's one of the best and most interesting points about the show, much more than a gimmick. Her character is credited as "Fleabag" but no one ever calls her by name, let alone that, so I'm not about to start. Waller-Bridge has said it's her family's nickname for her, so make it Phoebe. She thus exists as a kind of abstracted brooding human spirit, half-narrator hovering above the scenes—dissociative, in practical terms. At the corporeal level, this particular human spirit loves sex and cannot make emotional commitments. Yes, that urban story again. This one is set in London, where she operates a shoestring cafe. Phoebe is a bit like Pigpen from the Peanuts comic strip—accompanied everywhere by irrational bouts of behavior that buzz in mad swirling patterns around her. She is like the eye of the hurricane but she is also the hurricane. No one knows exactly how, but they know it's her. They tell her to behave, knowing there's no point. Phoebe comes by her problems honestly enough. Her mother has been dead for some years. Her father (Bill Paterson) is a bumbling nebbish involved with her godmother (who is also her sister's godmother). This fairy godmother (Olivia Colman) is a narcissistic and commercially successful artist whose themes are sexual in various 1970s ways, and also one of the best characters on the show. Claire (Sian Clifford), Phoebe's sister, has coped by making herself a tormented overachiever, a success in her corporate work who has misplaced all her feelings along the way. "There she goes again" is the implicit refrain about Phoebe, and like classic I Love Lucy episodes a lot of this will necessarily be seen through your fingers, because you know the worst is coming and it's always surprising—Waller-Bridge is so good at writing these scenarios that all disasters can be discerned even when they are just specks on the horizon. Also your eyes will frequently pop—lot of activity around the eyeballs. It's hard to believe but too easy to believe the things these people say and do. Are they lovable and you forgive them anyway? That's the thing. They are not at all lovable and you can't really forgive some of it. But yes, I love them all, and every bit of this show.