Fans of the The OA (a mystery/sci fi show that ran from 2016-2019) will want to check out A Murder at the End of the World, a miniseries created by Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij. The two shows are not related, though, so you can watch the new one without having seen The OA.
This review won’t be too thorough as I’m writing this in the middle of the season. I may add to it after I’ve watched all the episodes.
Darby Hart (Emma Corrin) is a young hacker and amateur sleuth who learned from being the daughter of a forensic investigator. The first episode begins as she does a book signing recounting her experiences investigating a murder. She is surprised to be invited to an elite conference in Iceland run by a tech guru named Andy (Clive Owen), where she meets a host of brilliant (and potentially suspicious) characters, including her ex partner (both romantic and in sleuthing) Bill (Harris Dickinson), Andy’s wife Lee (Marling) who is also a hacker, and Lu Mei (Joan Chen), a designer of smart cities.
The action alternates between the present and past, as Darby remembers how she and Bill followed cold case clues to track a serial killer.
The stark landscape of Iceland creates an intense atmosphere as the conference attendees are trapped in Andy’s luxury compound with an unknown killer on the loose. What begins as a luxurious getaway for the world’s tech elite becomes a struggle for survival.So
At this point in the series, Andy is an ambiguous character who may be working for the good of humanity or have a more self-centered motive. There are signs that the site of the conference is more of a survivalist compound than a luxury hotel. This idea can be found in actual recent headlines such as:
A Murder at the End of the World isn’t a conventional murder mystery set in an exotic location. The story is also deeply concerned with bigger issues such as the role of technology (AI in particular), economics, and the possibility of imminent environmental catastrophe. A nearly sentient AI that can project a human form on a screen hovers in the background as a kind of super-Alexa/Siri. As in movies such as Ex Machina and Her, we’re made aware of how such advanced AI can pose dangers as well as benefits.
No matter how the program ends (I’m not sure if there will be future seasons), it raises some important questions. I found an insightful Salon Talks interview with Brit Marling, where she expresses a preference for posing questions over giving definitive answers.
The world of high-priced art, including auctions, art theft, and forgeries has captured the public’s attention over the last decade. Several popular documentaries and dramas have covered art-related themes. One of the latest is The Lost Leonardo, a documentary about a painting called Salvator Mundi, which may or may not be a recently discovered masterpiece by Leonardo da Vinci, the most famous Renaissance artist best known for the Mona Lisa.
When I turned on The Lost Leonardo, written and directed by Danish director Andreas Koefoed, I wasn’t clear if it was a drama or documentary and I suspect this vagueness is deliberate as more viewers might be likely to tune into a mystery drama about the art world. Although it is compelling, it is a doc after all, with interviews of art experts, dealers, and investors.
A minor spoiler alert is that, after watching The Lost Leonardo, you still won’t know whether or not the painting is authentic. Experts still debate the matter. Authenticity is what drives value but in so many cases, items are difficult to authenticate. As dealers and appraisers explain, provenance, the traceable lineage of ownership, is a key factor for authenticating art. With Salvator Mundi, the painting’s history can only be traced back to recent times, the first few hundred years of its existence remaining a complete mystery so far.
Restoration or Forgery?
The Lost Leonardo involves many characters who may or may not be trustworthy. Dianne Modestini is the restorer who first declared that Salvator Mundi was indeed painted by Leonardo da Vinci. However, others have accused Modestini of doing more than just restoring the painting, saying that she essentially took a work from a minor artist who was a mere Leonardo follower and forged it to make it look like Leonardo’s original work.
A Rivalry Between Billionaires
Another side plot is the bizarre rivalry between two billionaires, Swiss art dealer Yves Bouvier, and Russian “oligarch” (for some reason, only Russians are described as oligarchs) Dmitry Rybolovlev. Bouvier acquired the painting, was less than transparent about how he acquired it and how much he paid, and sold it to Rybolovlev, taking a profit of many millions. While this practice is fairly common in many deals, from real estate to any type of collectible or antique, Rybolovlev was outraged and launched a global campaign against Bouvier. This is all fairly silly and sheds more light on the greed and egotism of the ultra-wealthy than it does on Renaissance art, but it’s all part of the world of the high end art market. Alexandra Bregman, who is interviewed in the film, has written a book called The Bouvier Affair: A True Story, that goes into more detail about this conflict.
The Painting is Acquired by a Saudi Prince
Salvator Mundi ended up being purchased at Christy’s for a record high price of $450 million by Saudi prince Mohammed bin Salman. The Louvre negotiated with him to display it at a large Leonardo exhibit, but the negotiations fell apart. As the film explains, the Saudis wanted Salvator Mundi displayed next to the Mona Lisa to dispel any controversy about its authenticity. The Louvre apparently refused and the painting hasn’t been publicly seen since.
Art: What is Authentic?
Aside from being of interest to art lovers and art historians, The Lost Leonardo raises some interesting questions about how we value art. After all, it’s the same painting, no matter who actually created it 500 or so years ago. Of course, the same can be said for any work of art or collectible. Whether it’s a painting or a celebrity’s signature, we want an assurance that the item we’re buying or just admiring is “real.” If you love and admire a work of art for years and then find out that it’s “fake,” do you suddenly stop appreciating it? If so, does this mean that abstract issues are more important than the sensual experience of viewing the work? Difficult questions to answer, highlighting the uneasy relationship between art and reality.
The Lost Leonardo is currently streaming on multiple sites, including Amazon Prime, Hulu, and YouTube.
All My Friends Hate Me, currently streaming on Hulu, is a British dark comedy-drama directed by Andrew Gaynord. Tom Stourton, who is also a co-writer, stars as Pete, a young man preparing to meet up with old college friends for his 31st birthday. His journey to the countryside, where his old friend George has a massive estate, is fraught with unease. He approaches a dog on a chain and an apparently abandoned car, only to be chased by a homeless man. An elderly local whom he approaches for directions mocks him. When he arrives at the house, it is deserted. When his friends finally arrive, one even suggests that Pete’s invitation had been a joke. So, early on, Pete’s position is uncertain and he is wondering if his old friends really want him there at all.
All My Friends Hate Me is a fascinating study of group dynamics, insecurity, and the lingering British class system. It’s one of the most interesting films I’ve seen recently, and often uncomfortable to watch. The atmosphere borders on the horror genre, which is no accident, even though most (though not all) of the violence is verbal and psychological.
Pete’s history with these people is a little unclear, especially as his and their recollections often diverge. He has a romantic history with Claire (Antonia Clarke), something his fiance Sonia (Charly Clive) knows about. To complicate things, Sonia isn’t due to arrive at the house until a day later. The tension between Pete and Claire is exacerbated by the possibility that Claire is unstable and allegedly tried to kill herself after breaking up with Pete. Or is this just something the others are telling Pete to make him feel guilty?
Much of the tension is between Pete and Harry (Dustin Demri-Burns), who is supposedly an outsider that Pete’s ex-college friends found in a bar. However, Harry, who is loud and borderline aggressive, seems to have an unexplained hostility towards Pete. Pete also feels like he vaguely recognizes Harry. The others, meanwhile, seem oblivious to Harry’s increasingly unhinged antics.
It’s hard to readily identify heroes and villains in this film. Although Pete may be the victim, it’s also clear that he hasn’t made any effort to stay in touch over the last decade. Furthermore, his constant references to his volunteer work sound glib and self-important.
One interpretation of All My Friends Hate Me is that the entire group are privileged, atavistic characters from a bygone era. The museum-like mansion full of antique portraits is one clue. Another is a traditional pheasant hunt that the others insist Pete take part in, despite his obvious discomfort around guns and hunting.
It would be hard to reveal spoilers, as nothing very definitive happens. The audience is challenged to interpret the events, and Pete’s perceptions, in their own way. This would be an interesting film to watch a second time, though I’m not sure that even repeated viewings would net any definite conclusions.
If you were to analyze the film scene by scene, it wouldn’t be hard to poke some holes in it, especially if you want to stick with the interpretation that Pete is simply being overly sensitive or even paranoid. For example, on their way from the house to a pub, the group drives away, leaving Pete to walk. At best, his friends have a sense of humor that borders on the sadistic.
All My Friends Hate Me, with its emphasis on dialog and emotional outbursts, is the kind of film that could be a stage play, which isn’t usually a complimentary thing to say about a film. Fortunately, there are enough changes of scenery to prevent the claustrophobic feeling that filmed plays often suffer from.
However you interpret it, I think the main subject of All My Friends Hate Me transcends its class-related issues and effectively evokes the sense of social unease that is so common. While most of these characters may seem they are out of a period piece, anxiety about others’ opinions of you is at least as prevalent in the social media age. If there’s a takeaway, it may be that you can never really know how others feel about you or the motives for their actions.
The Deep End, directed by Jon Kasbe, is a documentary about the spiritual teacher Teal Swan, who has been a controversial figure for years. While she has consistently attracted a large number of “haters,” this is the first mainstream coverage/expose of her work. It raises at least as many questions about the intentions and integrity of the media and documentarians as it does about Teal Swan and her organization.
I don’t have strong feelings about Teal Swan one way or the other. I subscribe to her YouTube channel and have watched probably 10 or so hours of her content over the last few years. Some of it is insightful, but I don’t have any urge to attend a live workshop. I watch many people but don’t really “follow” anyone. The word “follow” is relevant here because, in The Deep End, they insisted on labeling almost anyone who attends an event a Teal Swan “follower,” which is a loaded word typically applied to cult members. Just to be clear, this is mainly a discussion and review of the documentary The Deep End, and not of Teal Swan and her work. I’m not nearly familiar enough with the latter to have an informed opinion.
Documentarians as Narcs
If you are going to watch The Deep End, I highly recommend going to Teal Swan’s YouTube channel and watching her responses. She claims that the producers, who filmed her for 3 years, misrepresented the intentions of the project, at first assuring her that it would be portrayed in a positive light. While this may seem like a case of “they said, she said,” I doubt that she would have given permission to do such intensive filming if she knew that she would be portrayed as a cult leader. It seems like the director Kasbe and his crew approached the project with the mentality of narcs or undercover agents, infiltrating the organization and pretending to be allies.
Teal Swan points to the many ways that the documentary distorts reality, including the spooky music that often plays ominously in the background. Most notably, when you have hundreds of hours of footage and edit it down to a few hours, it’s easy to paint just about any picture you want. Cults are very popular right now and they make for sensationalistic TV.
This isn’t to say that Teal Swan is beyond reproach. When someone reaches her level of influence, it’s inevitable that “followers” will have good and bad experiences. One area that her critics (including the makers of The Deep End) have always focused on was her attitude towards suicide. While Swan doesn’t advocate suicide, she does talk openly about it, recognizing that it’s an option. Unfortunately, a certain number of people (a growing number) do take their own lives. This includes people who watch Teal Swan, as well as people who are under the care of psychiatrists and psychologists. However, the point of a program such as The Deep End is to point an accusing finger at Teal Swan.
Just about any popular self-help or spiritual teacher could be labeled a cult leader. Right now, this would include Anthony Robbins, Sadhguru, GaryVee, Abraham Hicks, and many others. if you applied a microscopic view to any organization and applied selective editing, you could alternately make anyone seem like a true savior or a complete charlatan.
By the last couple of episodes, The Deep End devolves into pure melodrama and cheesy horror movie effects, casting Swan as a demonic figure. Clearly, the intention here is to push a certain narrative and the intended audience are viewers who accept such narratives at face value.
The Media: Exposing Cults or a Cult In Itself?
The Deep End is a fascinating example of how media and art forms such as documentaries can construct reality. Personally, I am more interested in this general concept than I am in the doc itself or even Teal Swan and her teachings.
For anyone who shares this kind of bizarre obsession with the cultoid, propaganda, and how the media creates and distorts perceptions, I’d recommend watching The Deep End along with Teal Swan’s reactions (there are 4 videos, one in response to each episode).
It’s usually too flip and simplistic to say that the truth probably lies somewhere in the middle, but in this case, it truly seems like the most likely scenario.
A documentary by Hayley Garrigus, You Can’t Kill The Meme explores the bizarre and controversial Pepe The Frog meme that became infamous during the 2016 election. Based loosely on the ancient Egyptian god Kek, the cartoon frog Pepe spread online, especially on 4Chan and many “alt-right” message boards.
If you search for Pepe The Frog, you’ll see that, somewhat absurdly for an innocuous-looking cartoon animal, it’s widely considered a “hate symbol.” With so much political controversy, mixed with mysticism and fairly obscure online subcultures, it’s hard to approach this topic with any kind of objectivity. Hayley Garrigus, however, manages to maintain a detached focus on the many unusual belief systems and eccentric characters she interviews. She herself stays in the background, barely appearing in front of the camera at all.
Garrigus isn’t so much concerned with Pepe The Frog itself, but the underlying ideas and movements that latched on or appropriated the symbol. She was inspired by the book Memetic Magic: Manipulation of the Root Social Matrix and the Fabric of Reality, by R. Kirk Packwood, a now out of print book. Packwood is interviewed and expresses an ambivalent attitude about the movement he unintentionally inspired.
Memes (including the word “meme”) Have a Life of Their Own
The terms meme magic and memetics go back to the original definition of meme rather than the more limited modern idea of memes as simply images shared on social media. Richard Dawkins coined the term as the cultural equivalent of a virus that spreads quickly through society. Of course, Dawkins is a rather dogmatic atheist and would most likely cringe at some of the ways the term has been used. But this is, somewhat ironically, the very way memes work: they evolve or mutate in unpredictable ways. Pepe The Frog is the perfect example.
If you want to follow the bizarre evolution of Pepe, you may be more interested in another doc called Feels Good Man, about Pepe’s actual creator, cartoonist Matt Furie who disowned his creation after it was appropriated by underground movements.
The ADL has labeled Pepe a hate symbol. Yet, the ADL website says, “In the fall of 2016, the ADL teamed with Pepe creator Matt Furie to form a #SavePepe campaign to reclaim the symbol from those who use it with hateful intentions.” So they are somewhat ambiguously calling it a hate symbol and trying to redeem it. The whole history of Pepe, including its creation and abandonment by Matt Furie, R. Kirk Packwood’s own distancing of his book on memetic magic all show how slippery memes can be and how they take on a life of their own.
Fortunately, Hayley Garrigus doesn’t get bogged down in the controversy of Pepe and the simplistic right vs. left conflict and gets into more esoteric territory. She interviews a self-described lightworker in Las Vegas named Carole Michaella as well as other eccentric magicians, including Billy Brujo, whose getup includes white face paint and a cross on his forehead. All of this seems practically designed to scare away “normies” to dismiss all this as woo-woo or the ravings of political extremists desperate for a way to feel empowered.
When memetic magicians (if that’s the correct term) claim they were responsible, not only for Trump winning the 2016 election but even for causing Hillary Clinton to collapse in the street, skepticism is understandable. However, Garrigus seems open to the ideas that are presented, however farfetched, or at least lets the characters express themselves without judgment (at least that she expresses). She seems more interested in the underlying possibilities of memes than in the particular idiosyncratic way certain characters have interpreted these memes. After all, versions of magic (or magick) have been around a lot longer than American politics.
I think some viewers and reviewers were frustrated by the film’s apparent lack of a clear message. If this topic was handled by, say, a network TV show such as 20/20, the focus might have been on exposing the characters as lunatics or dangerous extremists. On the other hand, I never had the sense that Garrigus blindly believes anything anyone says. Her detached style lets you judge for yourself and, if you’re so inclined, to do further research.
You Can’t Kill The Meme will probably be most appreciated by people who already have some knowledge of alternative belief systems, if not memetic magic itself. It at least helps to have an open mind. Our world is far richer and more complex than is portrayed by conventional institutions and this documentary sheds some light on one loosely defined subculture that is exploring certain aspects of human potential.
You Can’t Kill The Meme is not a movie for everyone, and it received more than its share of negative reviews. Most of these are from “normies,” people with either no background or interest in the occult and fringe movements who are often outright hostile to anything outside the mainstream. In this case, there’s additional pressure to distance oneself from a movement that’s been so closely associated with Trump and the “alt-right” (whatever that really means). However, Garrigus isn’t endorsing any political or cultural movements here but simply exploring a fascinating phenomenon. Memes are always with us and can have a profound, and often hidden, impact on society, whether we like them or not or whether we’re aware of them or not.
You Can’t Kill The Meme is currently streaming on Hulu.
Nightmare Alley (2021), directed by Guillermo del Toro, is a remake of a 1947 film based on a novel by William Lindsay Gresham. It’s a long (2.5 hours), an ambitious period piece that evokes the atmosphere of old noir style movies.
Nightmare Alley stars Bradley Cooper as Stanton Carlisle, a drifter running from a crime who starts working for a traveling carnival. Nightmare Alley is full of strong character actors, which is fitting for a movie that’s largely set in a traveling carnival. There’s the unsavory owner Clem (William Dafoe), a fortuneteller named Zeena (Toni Collette) and her brilliant but alcoholic husband Pete (David Strathairn), Bruno the strongman (Ron Perlman), and Molly (Rooney Mara), a girl who survives apparent electrocution night after night. The carnival also has a geek who eats live chickens, so the movie isn’t for the squeamish.
The early scenes of the carnival, which are left out of the 1947 film, simply serve as Stanton’s origin story. He takes up with Molly, convincing her that they are both capable of grander things, and they take their act to the big city (or Buffalo, anyway, which seems like a big city compared to the small towns Stanton and Molly are accustomed to). We next see them conning higher end marks in nightclubs.
Nightmare Alley is not only set in the 1930 and early 40s (the onset of America’s entry into World War 2 is a background story heard on news broadcasts) but the film’s style and sensibility recall movies of this era. Of course, as a remake, this isn’t really unexpected. However, del Toro could have chosen to reimagine Gresham’s tale through a more modern lens. Instead, he amplifies many old tropes, most notably the powerful figure of a beautiful but deadly femme fatale, perfectly cast with Cate Blanchett.
Nightmare Alley is an unapologetically old-fashioned film. The neat way the story cycles back on itself is reminiscent of not only movies from the black and white era but also shows like the original Twilight Zone, where characters get what’s coming to them. This, of course, can be traced back much further, such as to the Greek tragedies. However, sometime in the late 20th century, movies began to evolve (not necessarily implying improvement) in a more postmodern direction, and things didn’t have to make sense, destiny was uncertain, and you never know what might happen. Modern audiences may, therefore, find Nightmare Alley a bit hackneyed, which is fine as long as you understand that del Toro has not actually “post modernized” a tale from the old days of Hollywood, simply made it bigger, longer, and flashier.
Are we living in a computer simulation? Are alternate realities bleeding into our own, causing multiple interpretations of the same events, also known as the Mandela Effect? How can we even know what is real? If these sorts of questions fascinate you, A Glitch In The Matrix, a documentary currently streaming on Hulu might be for you.
Directed by Rodney Ascher, who also directed Room 237, which explored strange symbols and synchronicities associated with The Shining. While the unifying topic of Room 237 keeps it relatively reigned in, A Glitch In The Matrix is an unfocused romp through various loosely related topics concerning science fiction, philosophy, and technology.
Philip K. Dick provides the closest thing to an anchor for the film. Specifically, we see portions of a lecture he gave in Paris in 1977, where he refers to reality glitches and basically describes the popular idea of the Mandela Effect without naming it (obviously, as Nelson Mandela, in any timeline, was still alive back then). Beyond anything else, the doc establishes Dick as one of the founding influencers on modern simulation theory as well as The Mandela Effect.
As the title suggests, The Matrix is also a major theme. The Matrix films actually introduced an ancient concept into popular consciousness —the notion that the world we perceive isn’t the real reality, but some type of projection. Of course, it’s only in the digital age that we came up with the idea of a computer simulation.
Some of the documentary’s more interesting speculations remind us that philosophers from Plato to Descartes have examined these themes. Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, in particular, is an obvious influence on the Matrix.
The 17th century philosopher Descartes, posed the idea of a demon who fools everyone into believing in a false reality. This connects to his famous adage, “I think, therefore I am.” While self-identity is fairly persuasive most of the time (I don’t think Descartes was familiar with psychedelics), it doesn’t necessarily prove that the world around us is real.
The film doesn’t mention Gnosticism, an early Christian heresy, which was strongly influenced by Plato and various schools of ancient mysticism. Gnostics believe the world we see was created by the Demiurge, a kind of false god (who may also be the God of the Old Testament) and usurper. The goal of gnosis or knowledge is to find our way back to the true creator.
Buddhism and other Eastern religions also helped to set the stage for simulation theory. Of particular relevance is the concept of Maya, which can be translated as illusion or deceit. If we don’t perceive reality as it is, it’s not so farfetched to believe we’re inside a simulation.
When not focusing on Philip K. Dick and ancient philosophy, A Glitch In The Matrix features a group of seemingly random interviewees. These are all guys dressed in bizarre sci-fi outfits. I’m not sure if these costumes are from cosplay events, comic books, or computer games, but the effect doesn’t exactly add to the film’s credibility. To me, it has the effect of pigeon-holing the topic into the realm of sheer geekiness. To be sure, these are geeky, intellectual topics, but they didn’t have to go overboard to drive home this point.
I’m not sure if the interviewees wanted to remain anonymous or if they just thought it was cool or entertaining to have these get-ups. They sounded intelligent enough, but didn’t seem to have any special credentials apart from having some interesting anecdotes regarding synchronicities. I found some of these stories a bit underwhelming, at least as far as providing any real insights into simulation theory. Arguably, they could have better spent the time by delving more deeply into the history and philosophy of these ideas.
Aside from Philip K. Dick and the costumed characters, the film quotes various other opinions on simulation theory, including Elon Musk to Neil deGrasse Tyson, who both believe it’s likely we are indeed in a simulation. A couple of the talking heads bring up the statistical probability of this being true. Personally, I don’t find statistics convincing with this type of metaphysical argument. It’s either true or it isn’t.
A Glitch In The Matrix also reveals the potential dark side to simulation theory. In the 19th century, Dostoyevsky explored the idea of nihilism in novels such as Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov. A famous line from the latter novel, spoken by the atheist Ivan, states, “If God does not exist, everything is permitted.” Of course, Dostoyevsky meant this in the worst possible way, meaning that people have no reason to follow any type of moral code. In the 21st century, simulation theory can be seen as posing a similar moral dilemma. A Glitch In The Matrix explores this in depth.
One character who gets lots of air time is Joshua Cooke, who came to be known as “The Matrix killer.” He also used The Matrix Defense in court, a variation on the insanity plea. We hear Cooke himself describing in detail how, after repeatedly watching the films (along with listening to various hardcore music soundtracks), he murdered his parents with a shotgun. This eerie and unnerving sequence reveals a dark side of simulation theory, the possibility that, if our lives aren’t even real, we don’t have to worry about the consequences of our actions.
On a similar note, they cover a case of someone who randomly decided to steal a plane because he’d done so in computer games. Before fatally crashing, he is heard over the airwaves saying that it’s just like a video game.
A Glitch In The Matrix is not the most coherent presentation of ideas such as the Simulation Hypothesis and the Mandela Effect. On the other hand, these topics are intrinsically confusing, paradoxical, and multidimensional, so a logical linear approach may not be ideal or even possible.
It’s not likely there will ever be a definitive study of this infinitely complex and unprovable theory (which is equally impossible to disprove). A Glitch In The Matrix, despite its unevenness and the distracting costumes, does contribute something of value to the discussion and certainly provokes further thought.
Nomadland, directed by Chloé Zhao and starring Frances Mcdormand, is a fictionalized rendering of a book by Jessica Bruder. The book is a nonfiction study of the emerging subculture of nomadic people who, mainly due to economic necessity, adopted the nomadic lifestyle of living in vans.
The movie focuses mainly on a woman named Fern (McDormand) who sets off in her van after her husband dies and the town in Nevada where they lived literally shuts down after losing a factory. The movie, while fictionalized, follows a documentary format. Indeed, it stars many actual nomads who are discussed in the book such as Bob Wells, who acts as a mentor for people new to the van lifestyle.
Since around the financial collapse of 2008, many people in late middle age and even older, became van-dwelling nomads. Some subsist on social security or savings but many work at a variety of temporary jobs all over the country. Amazon warehouses are a major employer of these folks, which is portrayed in the film and, much more comprehensively, in the book.
The movie was recently awarded a Golden Globes Award for Best Drama. While the acting (such as it is, as many characters are simply playing themselves) and cinematography are flawless. The lonely beauty of the American Southwest plays a major part in setting the mood. However, compared to the book, Nomadland tends to water down some important aspects of this lifestyle.
A Self-Reliant Loner
Frances McDormand expertly portrays low-key, earthy characters such as Fern. Her character here is still recovering from the heartbreak of losing her husband and home. The movie mainly depicts the challenges of life on the road and the creative ways nomads cope with everyday issues such as staying warm, going to the bathroom, and cooking.
The closest thing to a plot is that a fellow nomad is obviously interested in Fern and pursues her while she keeps him at a distance. There’s also a scene in which Fern visits her family and tensions from the past arise. These scenes all depict the conflict between the “normal” domestic way of life and the nomadic one. It suggests that living on the road for a long time makes one feel imprisoned by conventional life.
Led by Bob Wells, we see how the nomads form temporary yet close-knit communities. Many, like Fern, are fiercely independent loners who, nonetheless, take pleasure in one another’s company and who help each other out as much as possible.
Nomadland Downplays the Harsh Realities of Gig Work
In Jessica Bruder’s book, the modern nomadic lifestyle is explored as a kind of sociological study, with an emphasis on how economic hardship is forcing people to find new ways to survive. This is certainly obvious in the film as well. When Bob Wells makes his pitch to novice nomads, he preaches an ultra-individualistic philosophy of self-reliance and realizing that society isn’t going to take care of you.
The movie, though insightful about the motivations and personalities of its subjects, avoids looking too closely at what its subjects have to do to survive economically. This is most apparent when we see the nomads working in an Amazon warehouse. My first thought was, “Amazon actually let them film this?” The book, after all, pointed out how hard and exploitative these temporary gigs are, especially on older adults. Bruder describes, for example, how injuries on the floor are common.
In the film, however, we only see brief snippets of people working. And, significantly, the only words actually spoken about Amazon are positive, when Fern tells someone that the pay is good. The film, similarly shows a variety of mostly brief scenes of nomads working in different environments, such as a campground. In this manner, the film underplays one of the most significant facts about this lifestyle —it compels people to work very hard for relatively low wages and no benefits. In this manner, the living in van lifestyle of these contemporary nomads who rely on temp jobs can be seen as one branch of the emerging gig economy.
Vulture discusses this at length in an article, What Nomadland Gets Wrong About Gig Labor. Of course, it’s doubtful Amazon would have permitted filming in their facilities if it was portrayed in a less positive light. Or, perhaps, Zhao preferred not to focus on these issues, which would have made the film more political. As it is, the film is more about the expansive landscapes of the American West and the resourcefulness and community-mindedness of the nomads.
An Emerging Nation of Nomads?
Bruder’s book came out several years ago, and explains how many of the new breed of nomads were victims of the 2008 economic crisis. Today, many of the conditions of that decade have only worsened, made even more severe by businesses closed and jobs lost due to COVID. Even before the pandemic, issues such as homelessness and economic inequality have been steadily worsening. Thus, it’s likely that the lifestyle depicted in Nomadland will become more and more common.
Nomadland is currently streaming on Hulu. I recommend it, but you should definitely read the book to get a fuller picture.
In a world where most TV shows (as well as movies) are cliche-ridden and predictable, Lodge 49 offers something truly original.
Lodge 49 refers to a Masonic-type organization with a fledgling headquarters in Long Beach, CA. While, on the surface, the lodge has the stodgy atmosphere of an Elk’s Club, with mostly older members who spend hours at the lodge’s bar and play lots of golf, there’s a mysterious background involving shadowy occult forces that a few members dabble in.
The story begins as Sean “Dud” Dudley (Wyatt Russell), a likable 30ish slacker, who’s unemployed and near-homeless, wanders into the lodge and discovers a sense of purpose as he meets the various eccentric members, starting with Ernie (Brent Jennings), a long-time member in his 50s who’s a bit disillusioned with the lodge and his life in general.
In at least one review, Dud has been compared to The Dude in The Big Lebowski (even his nickname is similar). This is fair but Lodge 49 is not even remotely derivative of that film or anything else. It has some elements in common with a range of shows that explore occult or supernatural themes. Unlike these mostly fast-paced and action-packed shows, however, Lodge 49 is understated to a fault. Don’t expect explosions, special effects, swords and sorcery, or people transforming into werewolves. There’s definitely magic afoot, but it remains in the background and doesn’t really start to assert itself until Season 2.
Much of the mystery is suggested in the theme music and the mystical artwork scattered on the lodge’s walls. Students of such lore will recognize tarot cards and various occult symbolism. The lodge’s resident mystic is Blaise (David Pasquesi) who’s even a healer/herbalist in his day job. However, his fascination with old alchemical texts and potions is tolerated rather than embraced by fellow members.
A great deal of the story focuses on Dud’s twin sister Liz (Sonya Cassidy), who has nothing to do with the lodge (at least until well into Season 2). She’s a misfit like her brother, but a very different type. While Dud can’t hold onto a job, she works diligently as a waitress at a Hooter’s-like bar called Shamrocks and tirelessly aims to pay off their deceased father’s debt.
There are numerous backstories involving Liz, including flashbacks involving their dad, and the careers and relationships of the other characters. In fact, part of Lodge 49’s charm is its slow pace and willingness to spend time with each character. A show like this could easily have been populated with a bunch of lovable but ultimately stock and sitcommish characters. Yet every member of the cast is fleshed out to reveal his or her foibles, dreams, and heartbreaks.
When you deal with a topic such as alchemy, there’s also the temptation to turn it into a supernatural/sci-fi genre piece (or, perhaps, a by-the-numbers paranormal mystery along the lines of The DaVinci Code and its many imitators). There’s nothing wrong with that approach but there are enough shows like that already. Lodge 49 charts its own course, finding an odd but captivating balance between drama, comedy, mystery, and just enough magic and mystery to keep us wondering. Even the characters go back and forth between belief and skepticism as during a series of episodes involving some alleged mysterious scrolls that reveal hidden secrets.
Whereas most shows dealing with paranormal elements get completely immersed in heroic quests and battles between good and evil, with Lodge 49, we never forget that we’re watching real people who are struggling with bills, difficult relationships, and everyday angst. Sometimes the pace is a bit slow but overall this adds to the authenticity and gives the more fantastical elements more credibility.
I won’t try to recount any more plot points as they are very complicated and almost secondary to the characters, setting and atmosphere. It’s the kind of show that’s clearly not for everyone. I’d suggest that if the first episode doesn’t pull you in, you probably won’t like it any better further in. While things speed up a bit in Season 2, it’s a very meandering and non-linear journey. At the same time, Lodge 49 doesn’t go to an extreme in the absurdist/existentialist/mumblecore directon (which has its own charms, to be fair). The characters are quirky but they do evolve and there is some forward movement, albeit in an unpredictable and circuitous manner.
The program, which first aired on AMC and is now available on Hulu, has run for 2 seasons with Season 3 apparently up in the air. It was canceled but there are rumors that another season is possible, which I hope happens. TV history, alas, suggests otherwise as the most innovative programs seldom survive more than a season or two (with exceptions, to be sure).
In summary, if you’re drawn to anything offbeat, give it a try!
Fans of martial arts dramas will probably want to catch The Art of Self-Defense, now showing on Hulu. This quirky indie film stars Jessie Eisenberg as Casey, a meek accountant who learns Karate after getting mugged.
Jesse Eisenberg has one of the most varied resumes in Hollywood. He alternately stars in mainstream films such as The Social Network, high-profile indie films such as The Squid and the Whale and seriously offbeat indie efforts such as Free Samples and, more recently, The Art of Self-Defense.
The rather generically-named The Art of Self-Defense, written and directed by Riley Stearns, is sort of like a twisted version of The Karate Kid, with perhaps some Fight Club thrown in. It’s a bizarre and uneven mix of comedy, violence, and just plain darkness.
The premise of a wimpy protagonist learning martial arts is hardly new. Casey (Eisenberg) is, of course, not a kid or teen but a guy in his mid-thirties who, nonetheless, finds himself bullied wherever he goes. This culminates in a vicious assault that winds him in the hospital. After shopping for a gun, Casey wanders into a local dojo and is drawn into the warped world of Sensei (Alessandro Nivola), an intense instructor who makes The Karate Kid’s Sensei Kreese (who’s still menacing Daniel LaRusso and California’s dojos in the recent YouTube series Cobra Kai, btw) seem like a pacifist by comparison.
I won’t recount the entire plot of The Art of Self-Defense as this would inevitably contain spoilers. Suffice it to say that Casey undergoes a transformation from a meek and frightened victim to a belligerent (and rather unhinged) tough guy who takes no $hit. Sensei (who only has that title, no name) is a strange character who mixes typical martial arts traditionalism with large doses of sadism, misogyny, and, eventually, outright insanity.
There’s no real message to The Art of Self-Defense and it’s a hard film to categorize. To me, it has a pessimistic and nihilistic soul. It could be called a satire of martial arts except that few martial artists embody quite the oddball mixture of traits practiced by Sensei. One of the sub-themes involves sexism as the dojo’s female instructor Anna (Imogen Poots) is treated unfairly and never promoted to black belt. This theme, however, doesn’t quite mesh with the obvious fact that Sensei and his entire dojo are basically nuts. In effect, Anna is being discriminated against by a death cult. Why doesn’t she just quit and find a more normal place to train?
The Art of Self-Defense is an interesting, mostly engaging but ultimately unsatisfying dark comedy/drama that plays with several serious issues without offering much depth or consistency on any of them. It’s about vengeance, the violence underlying modern society, the nature of martial arts and male-dominated clubs in general, and the dangers of blindly following authority. By the end, many things have changed but no one has necessarily learned anything.
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