Netflix’s ‘Bridgerton’ is a feminist disaster. But it (almost) redeems itself.

If this review is a mess, I blame “Bridgerton,” the raunchy, Regency(ish)-era soap opera produced by Shonda Rhimes for Netflix. I believe I have sustained a “Bridgerton”-related brain injury while trying to mentally accommodate a world where soft porn meets Lisa Frank meets… not Jane Austen, but someone who has definitely heard of Jane Austen. Someone who doesn’t realize that Austen was already skewering the shallowness of society and has decided to skewer Austen by pointing out that society is mean to women. But with very wacky hair and clothes!

It is not just that “Bridgerton” is full of deliberate anachronisms. Anachronisms can work if the show understands the rules and knows how and why to break them, or else if the show is just so much fun you will forgive anything. But “Bridgerton” knows nothing, understands nothing and provides zero fun. It somehow turns graphic sex scenes into a slog. Its putative, clever outrageousness is just a multicolored explosion of clichés. Whether or not it’s faithful to the series of romance novels on which it’s based, I do not know; but the show we got is a mess and nothing else. At least at first. 

In the first few minutes of the show, Prudence Featherington (the daughter of one of two prominent families vying to make brilliant marriages while a mysterious, omniscient voyeur distributes brochures gossiping about high society) is mercilessly laced into a tight corset while her mother looks on approvingly.

This is the beginning of a nearly nonstop jeremiad on the callous mistreatment of women during this era. Every episode has at least one woman delivering lamentations on the subject of How Society Is Unfair To Women. I thought often of the scene in “Blazing Saddles” where several vicious cowboys beat up an old woman. In between punches to the gut, she looks straight into the camera and cries, “Have you ever seen such cruelty?” The feminism of “Bridgerton” is that subtle. 

And they are not wrong. It’s a hard world out there in “Bridgerton.” Lots of sexism, plenty of objectification. The problem is, much of that sexism and objectification comes from the writing itself. Two of the sisters complain that, in this society, artists see women purely as decorative objects, mere “human vases” to gawk at. Within minutes, we transition to their older brother, who is also trying to liberate himself from this same artificially constrictive society. He achieves his liberation by visiting an artist’s studio, where he is delighted to find not only a casual orgy, but naked models standing around in candlelight, for you to gawk at. Why the first scene is sexist and the second one is awesome, don’t ask me. 

There are too many examples of this double standard to list. The show self-righteously excoriates society for its shallow focus on outward appearances, but in the same breath indicates to the audience that certain characters are evil or foolish by making them fat, or slightly buck-toothed, or by giving them puffy hair. Ugly dudes are evil when they attack girls, but sexy dudes are just impetuous, and true love means trying to save them. 

Remember the first scene, with the tight corset? Once the girl is crushed into a tiny hourglass shape, she steps into an empire-waisted dress, which is gathered under the bust and then flows freely past the waist. And there it is. “Bridgerton” puts a merciless squeeze on the audience in all the wrong places, for no reason at all. Have you ever seen such cruelty?

The viewer shall also endure the laziest, most moronic attempt at fancy, old-timey speech you shall ever hear, shalln’t you? I barely made it through the first four episodes. I only continued because I wanted to be fair and thorough.

And darn it, that’s when the show turned a corner.

Read the rest of my review for America Magazine.

Image is a still from the trailer below:

 

What we’re watching, reading, listening to: Exploring Music, Lady Gaga, The Repair Shop, Unstable Felicity, etc.

I’ve been doing a lot more watching and listening than reading, these days. Working on it!

What are we watching?

The Repair Shop This is a BBC show, five seasons, now streaming on Netflix. A crew of British restoration experts team up to repair and restore cherished items people bring to them. You see the owners come in and give a short explanation about why the accordion or piano bench or whatever means so much to them, and then you see highlights of the various experts disassembling, problem-solving, hunting for materials, and carefully restoring the items, and then the owner comes back to the shop and sees the item made new again. 

We’ve only seen a few episodes of this, and I gather some of the episodes have spectacular discoveries and surprises; but many of them are just straight forward repair jobs.

There are two elements that make this show so gratifying. One is watching people doing what they were meant to do in life, which is something I always enjoy. The restorers clearly get so much true joy out of practicing their craft. I enjoy this aspect of it, seeing people following their vocation, even more than seeing the actual work they do; although it’s also fascinating and emotionally restorative to see shabby, broken, neglected things put to rights again. 

The second element is the “reunion” at the end, when the owner has something precious restored to them. In one episode, a woman brought in a clock made by her father, who had lost his vision. She remembered that the clock used to chime, but she couldn’t quite remember the tune. The restorers made the clock work again, and somehow reconstructed the music it played, so the woman heard the tune again for the first time in decades. These are British people, so they are not extremely effusive and sentimental about it, and you don’t get that “eeek, I’m not sure I should be watching this intense personal moment” feeling. They keep it pretty understated.

But it’s a restorative show in more ways than one, and it’s especially gratifying in late 2020 to watch  skilled people doing worthwhile things for the purpose of making other people happy. 

We’re also devouring The Mandalorian with the whole family, and The Crown for just me and Damien. Both excellent with great use of music; more on those in some other post. Oh, and. GILLIAN ANDERSON AS MARGARET THATCHER. Hot damn. If you ever wondered to yourself, “Is X Files actually a good TV show or not?” just think about what they did to Gillian Anderson for so many years, and you will have your answer. 

What am I reading?

Unstable Felicity

Like I said, I’m a terrible person and hardly read anymore. I know I can make my phone stop giving me weekly reports about how much my screen time has increased over the last week, but I feel like I deserve it. It’s never good news.

I have started Cat Hodge’s (yes, Cat Hodge of Darwin Catholic) new novella, and I love it so far. Very easy to read, light but literate, engaging, and promising, and the only reason I put it down is because I’m terrible and, as mentioned, don’t read anything. The premise is: If you described the protagonist’s life, it would sound exactly like one of those cheesy Hallmark Christmas movies. But when you’re actually living through it, it’s neither tidy nor adorable, but actually kind of Shakespearean, in a King Lear way.

Here’s the official blurb: 

Jill O’Leary’s December has all the hallmarks of a feel-good holiday special. She’s a successful Los Angeles career woman summoned home to small town Ohio to save the family business. There, she’ll have to navigate a White Elephant gift exchange, decorate the tree, and meet not one but two tall dark handsome strangers.
 
But it will take a miracle to make this Christmas merry and bright. Jill’s baggage is waiting for her at home: Regina, the demanding mother she hasn’t talked to since her father’s funeral four months ago; Reagan and Del, her sisters with their own agendas; Garrett French, a local real-estate mogul trying to snap up her family’s inn; and Heath Albany, the married ex-boyfriend who’s suspiciously eager to reconcile with her. 
 
Jill is determined to get in, fix the family finances by herself, and get back to the big city as soon as possible. But keeping her mother from turning Christmas into a tragedy proves more drama than she can handle on her own. It’s going to take her conniving sisters, the division of an empire, sudden blindness, a journey through a pitiless storm, and an unlikely hero to give this tragicomic tale a happy ending. 
 
When you cross a conventional Christmas plot with Shakespeare’s King Lear, you get Unstable Felicity.
Available in Kindle or paperback, with a cover by the talented John Herreid, of The Sinner’s Guide to Natural Family Planning With a Chainsaw fame. 
 

What are we listening to?

I recently discovered I can use iHeart Radio on our TV, which means when we go screen free from 7:00 – 9:00 (which we do only sporadically), I can play Exploring Music with Bill McGlaughlin. So I guess that’s my first recommendation. 

McGlaughlin is a composer and conductor with a public radio show that gently and engagingly helps the listener listen better. Each hour-long show has a theme, and he sits at his piano and picks out little bits of whatever recording he’s about to play for you. 

Here’s a representative excerpt from an episode on Schubert. The graphics are pretty cheesy, as it’s meant to be audio only. 

His delight in the music is very evident, and it’s contagious. If you’re looking for a painless way to get your family more connected with classical music, this is a great way. His voice is very pleasant and cozy, too. 

The other thing I’m listening to is, uh, “Sinner’s Prayer” by Lady Gaga. Lady Gaga is so annoying. She has such a wonderful voice and such terrible taste. But this song is pure stupid fun. My kid told me she had made a country album (Joanne), and it turned out to be not really that at all, but it’s . . . something. This particular song is sort of a spaghetti western love song, I guess? Anyway it’s stuck in my head.

Now it can be stuck in yours, too.

***
Okay, that’s it! What are you watching, reading, and listening to that you can recommend? 

What I’m watching, reading, and listening to: Over the Garden Wall, The Secret Sisters, and Joyce Cary

Oh, I have so much good stuff to recommend today. Here’s what I’ve been watching, reading, and listening to:

WATCHING
Over the Garden Wall (2014) 

If you’re looking for a spooky Halloween show for your whole family, this is the one. I’m still amazed it got broadcast, because it’s so weird and beautiful and thoughtful. It’s an animated miniseries of 12 short episodes (the whole thing is under two hours), and every one is gorgeous, creepy, funny, and strangely moving, with crazy, memorable music.

Two half-brothers find themselves lost in the woods on Halloween, and as they try to make their way home, they quickly become entangled in some terrifying otherworldly business. It’s loosely inspired by The Divine Comedy, but I wouldn’t push that too far. 

Here’s the first episode (11 minutes)

Some of the characters and situations are extremely creepy, so while we did let our five-year-old watch it, she has a very high tolerance for scary stuff, and many kids under the age of nine would probably find it too scary. (Here’s a specific list of creepy stuff.) There is a lot of very silly and hilarious stuff that fixes you right up when you get creeped out. No gore, graphic violence, or sex. There is a persistent melancholy tone, but all the relationships in the show get worked out very satisfactorily, and familial love is the true theme of the miniseries, and all is restored in the end. 

This show also contains one of the most realistic depictions of a goofy little boy we’ve ever seen. We’ve come to burgle your turts! Lots of quotes and songs have become part of our family culture.

Here’s a beast costume

a Wirt costume

and a Wirt and Greg cake:

The whole thing is crowded with allusions and suggestions and portents, and you can either pursue them or just enjoy them. It originally ran on Cartoon Network in 2014. It doesn’t appear to be streaming for free anywhere right now. We bought it to stream on Amazon.

***

READING
The Moonlight by Joyce Cary (1946)

It’s criminal that Joyce Cary isn’t in every list of great English language novelists. You may have seen the movie The Horse’s Mouth based on his novel of the same name, and that’s a vastly entertaining book about a dissolute old painter intoxicated by naked women and William Blake; but The Moonlight and Charley Is My Darling are deeper waters. 

Cary originally wrote The Moonlight (as in the “Moonlight Sonata” by Beethoven, and also as in . . . moonlight) because he was so incensed by Tolstoy’s novella The Kreutzer Sonata. I haven’t read Kreutzer in a long time but, although I adore Tolstoy in general, we all know he could be a little

y
i
k
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about women and sex and ideal love, and I recall that Kreutzer is an extreme example of this tendency. The Moonlight deals with two generations of women living through social transformations of sexual mores, and the choices they make, the hardships they can’t escape, and what it does to their souls. That makes it sound tiresome, but it’s super dramatic, but also extraordinarily true to life, very tender and funny and sometimes shockingly, horribly familiar. 

Cary is one of those authors who understands human nature very deeply, and also loves his characters very deeply, even as they allow themselves to do stupid and monstrous things. The book would be a wonderful portrayal of the interior lives of women in any case, but the fact that the author is a man makes the book extraordinary. Love, suicide, pregnancy, art, sisterhood, beauty, sex, taxes, dead sheep: this novel has it all, and it’s so fluidly and engagingly written, and always with the element I admire most: clarity.  This is my current “pluck strangers by the sleeve and try to get them to read it” book.

I always feel like I choose the wrong excerpt and turn people off books I love, so I’ll just give you the opening page, and you see what you think.

If you’re thinking, “Oh, like Jane Austen,” you are mistaken. Maybe it’s like if someone took Jane Austen characters and gave them souls. I said what I said. 

The book is hard to find, so you’ll want to go third party seller on this one!

***


LISTENING TO

The Secret Sisters

What a find! My favorite radio station, WRSI, recently played “He’s Fine” and I had to go find out who the heck that was singing. It is two sisters from Alabama, Laura and Lydia Rogers, plying that magical sibling harmony and here to make you Feel Things. Here’s “He’s Fine,” which is currently Corrie’s favorite song:

Here’s one that really knocked my socks off: “Mississippi.” It carries such a weight of old-fashioned menace — man threatening doom on a young woman — but he gets a little backstory and interior life of his own. Men like this come from somewhere.

I can’t help it, I’m going to give you the whole lyrics. 

All my life
I ain’t never been a lucky man
Saw the back of my daddy’s hand
Lost your momma to the promised land 

In my time
I’d never had a thing that’s mine
Till they handed me a baby fine
My little girl 

There’re only two things I know
I get ugly when the whiskey flows
Wanted you to know I love you so
And I would kill before I let you go 

Taking off for Mississippi
Wearing someone else’s name
Brought you in this world and I
Can take you from it just the same 

If you leave for Mississippi
I will beat you at your game
Brought you in this world and I
Can take you from it just the same.
 
My dear one
Heard you’re whispering your plans to run
Off to marry some rich man’s son
I bet he’s never met a poor man’s gun
 
In the darkness you could not see
The drunken devil instructing me
Two bullets in a crimson sea
Now I’m certain that you’ll never be 

Taking off for Mississippi
Wearing someone else’s name
Brought you in this world and I
Can take you from it just the sameIf you leave for Mississippi
I will beat you at your game
Brought you in this world and I
Can take you from it just the same

Grief and sin
When the righteousness of you sets in
And the blood in my veins
begins to ramble on

Now I know we can
stand and judge the execution man
But we all have to make a trembling stand
before the sun

Maple tree
Can your branches carry me?
Before the war, before the wine
Before I stole what wasn’t mine
Can you bring my baby back to me?

 
Co-written by Faulkner, I guess. What a complex song, not only the lyrics but harmonically and structurally. Brilliant. This is a sequel to Iuka, which is from the young woman’s point of view, urging her lover to take the risk despite her father’s jealousy. (It doesn’t go well.)
 

I heard a clip of a concert where the sisters laughingly apologized for the fact that their lives were going so well now. They had sung a lot about betrayal and loneliness and grief, but then they got married and had babies, and now they sing happy songs, and who wants that?

I DO. Here is one that keeps going through my head: “Late Bloomer”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eeWtjx4XAJk
 

It’s so unapologetically encouraging, very motherly, and I sure need that right now. 

And here’s one that was apparently in The Hunger Games, which I haven’t seen. Wonderful song: “Tomorrow Will Be Kinder”

Even their sad songs are full of comfort and promise: (to all the girls who cry)

I just love them, that’s all. 

Okay! What are you watching, reading, and listening to that you can recommend? 

***
Images: Joyce Cary from a 1950’s Penguin book cover, via Wikipedia, fair use
Screenshot from Over the Garden Wall ep. 1 and The Secret Sisters from Rattle My Bones

Movie review: Jojo Rabbit made me laugh, but not cry

“Comedy is a red rubber ball,” said Mel Brooks, “and if you throw it against a soft, funny wall, it will not come back. But if you throw it against the hard wall of ultimate reality, it will bounce back and be very lively.”

With this quote in mind, I went to see Jojo Rabbit, which has been nominated for six Oscars. It is the latest applicant to an exclusive club: Movies that laugh at Hitler.

The film’s premise is, if anything, more audacious than anything by Brooks. It follows Jojo, a sweet and manic 10-year-old German boy who is absolutely wild for the Führer. In fact, he has made an imaginary companion out of him and spends his days palling around with a goofy, benevolent Adolph, who eggs him on and encourages him through every woe. One day, Jojo and his buddy Hitler are both horrified to discover that his mother has hidden a Jewish girl in the walls of their house.

What to do? Who to trust? Who to fear? From the very first scene, the movie puts in balance two monstrously weighty forces: Life and death, good and evil, loyalty and rebellion, hope and futility. It whipsaws back and forth between slapstick and horror, comedy and tragedy. I watched, enthralled, to see where it would land.

As a Jew, I am ready and able to laugh at the darkest of jokes. That’s how you make it through the dark. Mel Brooks managed this feat handily in his lesser-known “To Be Or Not To Be,” which contains one scene that shatters me every time.

Until this scene, “To Be Or Not To Be” is pure comedy; but then the weight shifts, and for a terrible moment, everything hangs in balance. The bumbling crew of actors must smuggle Jews out of a darkened theater bristling with Nazis. In desperation, they disguise the refugees as clowns, and it’s actually working—until one poor old babushka, her wrinkled face pathetically smeared with greasepaint, freezes. So many swastikas, so many guns. It’s too much. She’s weeping and trembling, and the audience realizes something is wrong.

So the leader of the actors looks the Nazis straight in the eye and shouts merrily, “Juden!” He slaps a Star of David on the old woman’s chest, whips out a clown gun and shoots her in the head. POW.

And that’s what saves them all. The Nazis roar with laughter in the dark, and the innocent make it through.

This scene carries the whole movie, because it has the nerve to set aside comedy and make the audience sit for a moment in naked peril: These men are killers. They do laugh at shooting an old woman in the head. The terror is real. “To Be Or Not To Be” earns the right to make Hitler jokes, because it doesn’t flinch away from knowing and showing what is at stake. The ball of comedy bounces because that hard surface is there to hit, however briefly.

There is no such hard surface in “Jojo Rabbit.”

Instead . . .

Read the rest of my latest for America Magazine

Image: Still from movie trailer 

A quick review of Hadestown, which you should sell a kidney to see

Yesterday, Clara and I saw the Broadway production of Hadestown for her birthday. It was the best thing I have ever seen on stage.

Hadestown is written, words and music, by Anaïs Mitchell, who originally made a musical, then recorded it as a concept album with Ani DeFranco, then re-worked it as a new musical that premiered in 2012. If you still think of Mitchell as a somewhat pretentious, precious, indie folk cutie, you need to get caught up! This is a mature and stunning work that’s hard to classify. WordPress is having fits over me trying to insert audio right now, but you can hear the Broadway cast recording here

It’s based on the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, Hades and Persephone, and it’s set in a Depression-like era perhaps near the end of the world, complete with squalid barroom and post-apocalyptic New Orleans folk jazz, I guess? Normally I could do without old stories cleverly transposed into unconventional settings — this Onion article springs to mind — but that’s not really what Hadestown is. Part of the conceit is that we’re all always telling these same stories over and over again, and that we must. And in spirit, it’s truer to to Greek tragedy than any Greek tragedy I’ve seen performed straight, complete with an omniscient narrator in the person of a dazzling urbanite Hermes (André De Shields):

Image from this Theater Mania video

a chorus of the three pitiless, inexorable fates (Jewelle Blackman, Yvette Gonzalez-Nacer, and Kay Trinidad), who are on no one’s side;

screen shot from this Theater Mania clip

and so much catharsis, the ushers had to go around with a spatula, scraping the melted puddles of the audience out of their seats after the final curtain. 

I’ll do a more thorough review at some point, but in the meantime you can read Leah Libresco Sargent’s take here

The lyrics are real poetry, but also clear and clever, studded with allusions you can take or leave. Each song, lyrically and musically, was worthwhile in itself, and didn’t exist merely to move the plot along or to give equal time to every performer. Clara and I agreed that Orpheus’ song — the one that has so much power in the story– really did have that much power. You didn’t have to tell yourself, “Yeah, yeah, I’m sure this feels very magical if you’re part of that word.” The hairs standing up on your arm spoke for themselves. 

The stage set was so well-conceived, they could build worlds with lighting and shadows and the three concentric circles of the stage floor, which rotated independently and could be raised or lowered. Without complicated special effects, they placed us indoors and outdoors, in Hell, and in uncanny in-between places.

(These photos are before the show began, obviously.)

All the musicians were part of the action or otherwise integrated into the set, and many of the actors played instruments as well. It was mind-boggling how much talent was on display. 

Orpheus (Reeve Carney)’s voice was powerful and disturbing and he sometimes lost control of his falsetto, which was affecting, rather than otherwise.

He had the air of a floppy theater kid ingénue.

Image from Theater Mania videoo

At first I thought his acting skill wasn’t quite on par with the rest of the cast, but I believe this radical immaturity was part of his tragic flaw. Hermes introduces him this way:

Now Orpheus was the son of a Muse
And you know how those Muses are
Sometimes they abandon you
And this poor boy, he wore his heart out on his sleeve
You might say he was naïve to the ways of the world
But he had a way with words
And the rhythm and the rhyme
And he sang just like a bird up on a line
And it ain’t because I’m kind
But his Mama was a friend of mine
And I liked to hear him sing
And his way of seeing things
So I took him underneath my wing
And that is where he stayed
Until one day…

Well, one day the gods get involved. Toward the end of the show, Persephone takes up the bird theme again, singing:

Hades, my husband, Hades, my light
Hades, my darkness
If you had heard how he sang tonight
You’d pity poor Orpheus!
All of his sorrow won’t fit in his chest
It just burns like a fire in the pit of his chest
And his heart is a bird on a spit in his chest
How long, how long, how long?

Hades (Patrick Page), from his gleaming hair to his gilded shoes, was downright terrifying, in voice and presence. You felt that presence every second he was on stage.

I thought at first his basso profundo was something of a party trick, but he knew how to deploy it, and he seemed more than a man. Which made it all the more gripping when, as a god, he is faced with a terrible choice of his own. 

Persephone (Amber Gray) in this work is not an abducted maiden in mourning, but an aged and aggrieved queen and wife who’s prowled back and forth between summer and the underworld countless times, and who knows full well that “a lot can happen behind closed doors.” She’s developed some coping strategies, and they are not ideal. With her gravelly powerhouse voice and desperate green velvet and shimmies, she is alarming, pathetic, malevolent, and ultimately completely winning, as well as miraculously light-footed in her spike-heeled boots. 

Image from Theater Mania video

The only quibble I had was the casting of Eurydice (Eva Noblezada). She did a good job, but I didn’t lose my heart to her, as I did to every other character. It wasn’t a stumbling block, though; and at one point, Hermes directly chides the audience for holding Eurydice to too high a standard. I was content to award the real heart of the story to Persephone and Hades. Eurydice and Orpheus are, after all, still very young in this iteration. It did hurt to see how she held him at arm’s length even as she was falling in love.

While Hadestown is raucous, funny, stylish, and vastly entertaining, it is also profoundly in earnest, and doesn’t try to dazzle or deceive the audience about what’s the show really means. It has elements of politics, of social commentary, of lessons about the environment and worker’s rights and industrialization; but what it’s really about is . . . well, art, love, and death.  

In elementary school, some student would always complain, “Why do we have to read Greek myths?” The anemic answer came: “They teach us about our own lives.” This makes no sense when you’re fourteen years old and reading a fleshless synopsis of a tale about people in togas making inexplicable choices and being randomly smitten by the gods. But in Hadestown, which keeps most of the myth’s major plot points intact, the very overt point is: What you’re seeing right now will happen to you. Rather than asking you to suspend your disbelief for the show, they insist you resist forgetting, and that you acknowledge how personal it is. As Hermes tells Orpheus: “It’s not a trick. It’s a test.” 

As the action moved inexorably toward the final shattering blow, I was in agony, not only suffering with the characters, but wondering whether the show would have the guts to end with naked tragedy.

And they did. They did not flinch, but let the terrible thing happen. But the way it was framed, what they showed us was tragedy, not nihilism. Real tragedy, which tells you something true about life. Real tragedy which gives you something, rather than taking everything away.

What a contrast there is between the circular reasoning in “Why We Build the Wall” and mystical cycle of hope that Hermes reveals at the end. The whole show is marked by a pattern of openly asking and answering questions, and leaving it up to the audience to decide whether the answers satisfy or not. My friends, I was satisfied. 

***

Clara drew a picture of the show the night before, and several of the cast members signed it.



One more note: The Walter Kerr Theater was wonderful. It’s a small theater, and although our balcony seats were unexpectedly high up, they were still good seats. The sound was great, the theater is gorgeous, and the courteous, placid staff managed the tight crowd exceedingly well, directing streams of antsy New Yorkers in a serpentine line for lady’s room with aplomb. Overall a near-flawless experience.  If there’s any way at all you can get to see this show, I beg you to try! 

The show says it’s recommended for people age 12 and up. That seems about right to me. There isn’t any sex or violence or cussing that I can recall, but it sure is sad. 

The 1997 Odyssey miniseries is hokey, thrilling, and gorgeous

Need a little pick-me-up? The 1997 two part miniseries of The Odyssey is the most entertaining thing I’ve seen in ages. It’s now available for streaming on  Amazon Prime and on the Roku channel, and everyone I know who loves The Odyssey loves this production. 

Don’t get me wrong. Much of the movie, sets, effects, and acting, is hokey to the max. But it’s charmingly, enthusiastically hokey, and every minute of it is made with great love. 

Let’s start with the soundtrack. It is incredibly terrible, and some scenes may actually have been recorded inside a tin can. The incidental music is devastatingly synthetic and cheap sounding, like something from a video game. But then many scenes include people playing actual instruments, and are full of real music — tunes and sounds you can respond to as a human, but which also convey a thoroughly other time and place. 

The show is full of stuff like this: Big, balls-out, broad strokes and spectacle, peppered with startling touches of authenticity that must have come from a scholar or at least a deeply invested amateur. When Odysseus leaves his men at the door to the underworld, for instance, he mentions “the land of the dead” and they all make a reflexive ritual gesture of some kind that may or may not be ancient, but it sure looks both authentic and heartfelt. 

But the real secret of this movie is not that they get everything right. The secret is that they’re enjoying the hell out of it, and that comes through from start to finish. They have an awesome story to tell, and here it is:

Some of the scenes (the show was filmed in Malta, Turkey, England, and the Mediterranean) are clumsy and corny — there’s lots of churning water filmed to look like giant waves when it’s clearly not — but others are inspired.  Viewers are very familiar with movies that take a Cecil B. DeMille-style stab at vaguely barbaric grandeur, with everything pillared and gilded and exotically alluring. This movie also doesn’t hold back, and sometimes bites off more than it can chew; but here, the alien distance of ages is made coherent through dozens of details, the sounds, the fabrics, the hairpins, the utensils. The household gods, for instance, somehow look both sacred and naive, and you can see both that the characters are praying to them sincerely, and that they have built them themselves.

The Island of Circe is stunning and otherworldly; but Ithaca itself is the real island of a real person. I almost wept when Odysseus, still in disguise, first tastes the long-remembered cheese of home. You get a real sense of place, with well-beloved specific trees and blades of grass, and you can feel how much it feels like the entire small world to Odysseus and Penelope. Their tree bed is somewhat vague and disappointingly etherial, but the room where the suitor are slaughtered is real as real, part of an actual house.

Poseidon, as a rolling, roaring face in the waves, is hilarious and also hair-raising. In Hades, the special effects are ridiculous and yet terrifying.

Odysseus stalks right through patches of fire which were clearly pasted in afterward, and gazes in horror at eternally tumbling sheets of lava projected on the green screeniest of green screens. And yet . . . it works. It’s scary as shit in there, and you’re holding your breath the whole time as you watch, because of the fumes, and because you don’t want those shades of the hungry dead to get any closer. I wasn’t crazy about Christopher Lee as a crusty, cranky Tiresias, but I was willing to go with it. 

Which brings us to another miraculous virtue of this movie. The casting is really weird sometimes. Armand Assante as Odysseus? That is NOT how I have always pictured Odysseus. And yet, three minutes in, I was sold. Man has a presence, and he clearly feels bigger than he actually is. You can see why his crew adores him, and you can see how he kept on pushing, year after year, until he makes it home. When he finally lands in Ithaca draped in a red and gold robe with his hair combed and oiled, he is very convincingly the hero we’re still talking about thousands of years later.

Isabella Rossalini as Athena, with those eyes and that posture and that voice and that skin? Brilliant. Absolutely perfect. Bernadette Peters as Circe? Sure, why not? She gives it her witchy all. Vanessa Williams as Calypso? Sufficiently slinky. The guy who plays Hermes is a gilded weirdo zipping around awkwardly in the air, which seems about right. Greta Scacchi, who I’ve never seen in anything else, is a wonderful Penelope. I’d want to come home to her, too.

Her dialogue isn’t profound (none of the dialogue is), but she does convey a complex emotional life besides what you see, and she is grippingly beautiful and strong, and she looks her age. 

I wish they had included the scene where she tests him before she accepts him as her husband. That scene carries a lot of weight to counterbalance all the sex he has with various nymphs. But all the other elements are in place, and the homecoming absolutely hits the mark.

Above all, this production understands the Odyssey not as some kind of effete literary relic but as a really exciting adventure story full of fighting and monsters, with sexy ladies here and there, and a huge, endless love propelling the whole thing. And that is what the Odyssey is. I wouldn’t change a thing. 

***

It being The Odyssey, it’s pretty violent and sexy, so I’d probably show it to kids age 14 at the youngest, depending on the kid. People get graphically ripped to shreds and eaten and stabbed, and there are some very slinky outfits and steamily suggestive scenes. I mean, it is The Odyssey. 

Dreamlike reviews: Hadesdown, The Ghost Keeper, and The Sopranos (again)

You know what the real thing is about being in your mid-40’s? You can do everything you used to do in your 30’s, but you cannot bounce back.

I was in Chicago at the FemCatholic Conference last weekend, and it was completely wonderful. Met Mikayla Dalton, Corita Ten Eyck, Theresa Scott, Leticia Adams, Donna Provencher, Jenne O’Neill, Aimee Murphy, and so many others in real life for the first time, and I spent lots of time with my wonderful friend Elisa Low.  And Nora Calhoun, and Hope Peregrina and Ben Zelmer, and Samantha Povlock! And Shannon Wendt and Meg Hunter-Kilmer and ARGH the woman at the Femm Health table whose name is escaping me at the moment. And so many other brilliant, interesting, driven women I admire so much. I felt so out of my league.

Anyway, now I’m lurching around like a reanimated but still desiccated mummy, dizzy and incoherent, picking ridiculous fights with people I care about, and complaining about how bad my head feels and always feels, and I just can’t seem to snap out of it. I blame feminism. And airplanes. And train madness! (I did not take a train.)

Oh, if you want to hear my talk and all the talks at the conference, you can stream and download the whole thing for $49. My speech was called “When Women Say Yes: Consent and Control In Sex and Love.” It was about . . . a lot of things.

Also, I’m sorry we haven’t put out a podcast since the middle of February. Soon, I promise! I’m sorry! You could listen to that one again if you wanted to. Sorry.

Anyway anyway, I don’t want the algorithms to forget me completely, so here are some quickie reviews of things I’m enjoying while busily burning through all my social capital:

Listening to Hadestown

My daughter Clara turned me onto this musical. Originally a New Orleans jazz-style folk opera concept album about Orpheus and Eurydice by Anaïs Mitchell (I know. Stay with me), it’s now a musical that’s premiering on Broadway this month. You guys, it’s so good. Entirely successful world building. I am a sucker for anything based on Greek mythology, but become irrationally enraged with anything that doesn’t do it justice. This one is just weird enough to work.

From The Theater Times:

[Mitchell’s] version isn’t totally pin-downable about where and when it’s set–it’s mythic, after all–but there’s a Depression-era vibe to above-ground scenes, where penniless poet Orpheus and his lover Eurydice struggle to survive. It is hunger that allows the wealthy Hades to tempt her down to the underworld–to an economically secure but soulless industrial town, where men may be guaranteed work, but forgo contact with the natural world. Naturally, it is Hades who gets rich from their labor.

You will not believe “Why We Build the Wall” was written in 2010.

But this isn’t about politics; it’s about mankind. “Wait For Me” just about killed me.

All in all, just a fascinating, captivating, completely original work. Perfect lyrics, songs that stay with you. Such good stuff.

What I’m reading:

The Ghost Keeper by Natalie Morrill

It is not a chick book, despite what the cover might suggest if you are one of my jerk sons. I keep plucking people by the shirt sleeve and shakily asking if they’ve read this book yet. I don’t know why I haven’t heard more about it. It did win the HarperCollins/UBC Prize for Best New Fiction, which is a good start. I’m working on a review for the Catholic literary mag Dappled Things, where Morrill is fiction editor.

This is seriously brilliant lyrical writing, on a level with the best of Michael Chabon or . . . I don’t know, I don’t want to be crazy, but I keep thinking, “Edith Wharton, no, E.M. Forster, no, Faulkner . . . ”

It follows a Jewish Austrian boy with a very particular vocation that keeps pulling him back. He grows up and starts a little family, and they are so happy, until the Anschluss.

The book follows them before, during, and after the war, and I’ve just gotten up to the chapter that describes another, related love story, but an infernally inverted one. And then they all need to figure out: What is love? What is loyalty? What is forgiveness? GOSH. I haven’t finished it yet, but even if it totally mucks up the ending (which I don’t anticipate!) I’ll forgive it, for all the moments of gorgeous tragedy and piercing joy. Do not read on airplanes unless you don’t care if you get stared at for gasping audibly while you read. Wear a sweater; you’ll get chills.

And we’re watching:

Well, we’re still watching The Sopranos. This is the second time around for me, and it’s even better than I remembered. It’s so much funnier than I remembered. It’s a little scary how much more sympathy I have for Tony this time.

I also think they should have won some particular prize for the depiction of dreams.

I guess the common thread in all these things is a sort of lyrical dreamlike quality, realer than real life.

That reminds me, what movie or TV show has the best, most accurate portrayal of dreams? It’s so easy to get it wrong and overplay your hand.

Quick review: Jenny Ford’s marching workout is perfect

One of the reasons I have stuck with running is because it is easy. Left, right, left, right, don’t throw up, left, right, eventually stop.  I can do that. But our stupid school schedule is making it really hard to go out and run more than once or twice a week. Sometimes, to fill in, I make a stab at a “beginner” or “easy” or “drooling moron” workout video, but I always end up like Liz Lemon in the Cardio Hip Hop Groove class:

And yes, this is humiliating and discouraging even if you’re alone in your living room.

Well, I just found a half-hour workout that even I can do: Marching Cardio Workout with Jenny Ford. You can stream it for free with Amazon Prime, or you can watch it on YouTube.

The moves themselves are not complicated (step-tap, grapevine*, and box step is about as challenging as it gets), and the instructor gives you plenty of practice and directions. She often gives you an alternate move if the one you’re doing is too hard; and you’re always marching in between, so if you get confused, you can just fall back on marching.

She does not appear to be made of hot dog-colored silicone, she isn’t wearing tons of makeup, and for some reason, she is standing in the middle of a scrubby field in Illinois. (She has a whole series of marching videos, on Prime and on YouTube, not all set in Illinois, but this is the one I found first. I like the part where the utility repair truck tools by and takes its time parking.)

Best of all, she seems to sincerely understand that you are fat and old and are trying– well, maybe not your best, but you’re here, aren’t you? She isn’t constantly shrieking, “Ooh, feel that awesome burn, six, seven, eight! Your buns just love it, woooo!” Instead, she says things like, “You doing okay? Okay, now remember the kick thing? Get ready, because we’re going to do that again, but not for too long.”

The music is just typical workout nonsense, but it’s easy to ignore. You don’t need tons of space to do the routine, or any equipment at all. There is a bubble in the corner that counts down what percentage of the workout you have left.

Now I just need to figure out my little toddler-on-rollerskates-pushing-the-ottoman-into-my-achilles-tendon problem,** and I’ll emerge lithe and athletic, if not hot dog-colored, on the other side of winter.

*which I know how to do because we called it “the hora” and danced it while playing “Hava Nagila” when I was little.

**Besides letting her pour corn flakes into a giant box and do her own marching workout. This was okay, if noisy, until the kitten got involved.

Family Game Review: Mysterium (and Amazon Prime Day reminder!)

As you read this, we’re on our second day of camping. One game we’re bringing with us (because we camp in yurts. Yurt with tables. Daily life is rustic enough without getting tents involved, thanks) is Mysterium (Amazon Associates link), which my 15-year-old son got for his birthday.

But first: It’s Amazon Prime Day! If you’re scooping up some deals on Amazon today or any day, please please consider using my link! (My link is also always at the top of my home page, and on my Facebook page.) I make a commission from sales made through my link, and this makes up a significant part of my family’s income.

I also earn a bounty if you sign up for Amazon Prime. You can get a free 30-day trial, which gives you access to free, fast shipping on many items, special prices on many items (especially today!), free streaming of many excellent (and many terrible) movies and shows, free music streaming and photo storage, free Kindle books, savings on subscriptions, and a ton of other stuff — pretty much everything you could possibly need in life except for love, sex, God, and gin. And warm bread.

Okay, now for the game review for Mysterium.

 

It’s a little pricey, but tons of fun, beautifully designed, and sturdy. It’s sort of like Clue, in that you have to make educated guesses about murder suspects, the crime scene, and the weapon — except in Mysterium, you’re helping the dead victim remember who his murderer is. You get clues from a ghost, who can’t remember much about his own murder, and who can only communicate with you for a short time (there is a sand timer involved, and each round moves a clock ahead an hour until your time is up).

The ghost (who sets the game up ahead of time, and who controls the play, sort of like a dungeonmaster) can’t speak except in knocks, so he deals out “vision cards” to the players, who act as mediums, cooperating to solve the mystery.

The catch is, these vision cards are deliberately baffling and subjective, and the players must use their imagination and intuition to figure out which information is important and which is just atmospheric red herrings.

They can also agree or disagree (using “clairvoyance tokens”) with the other players’ guesses, and they advance in play if they agree with guesses that turn out correct.

It’s a cooperative game, all-win or all-lose.

If all the mediums correctly guess the correct suspects, location, and weapon before time runs out, they all advance to the climactic final round. If not, the ghost despairs and fades away without revealing the final clues to his murder.

The game itself is gorgeous, very artfully crafted with clever and entertaining details. (These rather blurry photos don’t convey all the detail and vividness of the actual game components, which are printed on thick, glossy board.)

The pawns are crystal balls, and the play surface, a spectral mansion, is constructed in bits as the play proceeds. A skilled “ghost” can add to the thrills and suspense by hamming it up and adding drama and tension to the play

(for instance, by cawing eerily as he removes the cardboard crows that perch on the wall to signify vision cards that must be discarded).

Since the vision cards are intentionally dreamlike and subjective, you can replay the game many times in different ways

(and, of course, there are expansion packs). You can even download an app which plays unnerving background music to the game, to increase the sense of urgency and unease.

(For the nervous parent: The game deals with ghosts and creepy things, but it’s not occult or demonic, just spooky. Sensitive children might be frightened by the spookiness, but it doesn’t actually show gore or death. It’s more like Edward Gorey meets surrealism.)

You can play with two to seven players. We played last night with two adults and kids ages 16, 15, 12, 10, and 8. You could easily allow a younger child to play as your partner and help you figure out visions — which might even be actually helpful, since overthinking can be an impediment.

The game took about an hour from start to finish, including setup time. It would make a good party game, because players can get the hang of it pretty quickly, as long as one person is already familiar with the rules and is motivated to do the prep work as the ghost. I, frankly, would not be able to juggle enough ideas at one time to be an effective ghost, but some of my kids are great in this role.

And now another reminder that today is Amazon Prime Day. Do use my link! Thanks so much!

Understated greats: Jesse Winchester

Why has no one told me about singer and songwriter Jesse Winchester? I heard an excerpt of an interview with him on American Routes yesterday, and whoooo, what an interesting guy.

Here’s the song that really knocked me back a few paces. “Isn’t that so” from Third Down 110 to Go (1972):

I don’t think these lyrics are as flip and breezy as they seem at first. Is he really advocating for following the “line of least resistance,” or is he making a quiet accusation? Either way, it’s a heck of a song.

Winchester also wrote songs for Elvis Costello, Jimmy Buffett, Joan Baez, Anne Murray, Reba McEntire, the Everly Brothers, Lyle Lovett, and Emmylou Harris, among others. I have endless admiration for folks who write and perform short songs. Say what you came to say and then move along!

The American Routes interviewer says,

[I]n your life there’s seems to be this back and forth between your southern sensibilities in growing up and then migration for various things. You went off to college in Massachusetts. That had to have been kind of culture shock if you were growing up around North Mississippi and Memphis I would think.

And Winchester answers:

Nick, you put the nail on the head, buddy. It was a shock to me. It was the first time I came across people who put sugar in their cornbread, and I was so disappointed in them.

Ha. A very thoughtful guy, but with a pervasive humility and quiet sense of humor. He moved to Canada to avoid the draft in Vietnam (a choice I understand better now that I have teenage boys and a president I trust not at all), and launched his career there. He says in the interview:

I remember a quotation from Peter Ustinov, who was one of my favorite actors. He said there’s no national anthem that sets my toe a-tappin’ and I know what he meant. It’s a very dicey issue — nationalism. I’m not sure where I stand on it. Who am I? I don’t know. I like certain things about living in the south and certain things about living in the north. It’s just, viva la difference.

He didn’t return to the US to tour until 1977, after President Carter extended amnesty to draft dodgers who changed their citizenship.

Here’s “Step By Step” from Let the Rough Side Drag (1976). This song will be familiar to viewers of The Wire:

and (skipping forward several decades) a song recorded shortly before he died of bladder cancer in 2014, just a few years after he had been treated and cured of cancer of the esophagus in 2011:
“All That We Have Is Now:”

 

From the album A Reasonable Amount of Trouble. I’m thrilled to discover a new-to-me singer/songwriter. If you’re already in the know, which Jesse Winchester album do you recommend?

***
Photo of Jesse Winchester by robbiesaurus (Flickr: Jesse Winchester) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons