The Art of the Video Essay

I’ve been diving into the work of Patrick Willems on YouTube recently and I enjoyed his piece on the art of the video essay.

Willems argues that the format is fairly stale at this point. Many video essay-ists are actually filmmakers in reality, but their essays don’t reflect the full breadth of their creative abilities. Why not?

I appreciate that Willems is trying to push the medium forward. His subsequent video essay on Star Wars begins to show what may be possible with the medium from a narrative standpoint.

An Oral History of Bob Costas’ Pink Eye

Kelly Conaboy, writing for Vulture:

Bob Costas: I found it odd that some people thought, “Well, he just can’t bear to give up his seat at the Olympics.” I’d done ten Olympics by that time. My honest feeling was: this is my job, and I’m the one who’s prepared to do this job. You know, it’s hard to just — when Matt and Meredith were thrown into it, the researchers wrote stuff for them, and they did a great, professional job. But I’d prepared to do the job; I was the person suited to do the job. And you don’t want to let your colleagues down. They work harder than the hosts do. They’ve spent a year, or a year and a half, traveling the world, doing research, compiling all these research manuals, producing these pieces, and you’re kind of carrying the ball for them. So you don’t want to feel as if you’ve let them down.

I thought this was a ridiculous premise for an oral history piece, but it turned out to be a thought-provoking meditation on what life in the spotlight is like, and the limits of professionalism. Amazing work by Conaboy.

The /Filmcast Interview with Rian Johnson

This is one of the best things that I’ve ever been a part of.

This week, Star Wars: The Last Jedi director Rian Johnson stopped by the /Filmcast for a couple hours. We talked about what it was like to get the offer to direct Star Wars, how he arrived at some of the themes of the film, and how he’s dealing with the polarized reaction from fans.

The first time I spoke with Rian was many years ago when he wrote/directed a a tiny, weird movie called The Brothers Bloom (I loved it). To see him go from that $5MM movie to commanding one of the biggest franchises in cinema history has been a wonder to behold.

And not to toot my own horn, but I also think this is one of the best interviews that’s out there on the topic of the film. Strongly considering retiring after this one – might as well go out on top.

Anyway, so honored to have been able to do this. I hope you enjoy it.

My 10 favorite longreads of 2017

I didn’t get nearly as much reading done in 2017 as I wanted to — hence why this year’s list is coming out much later than usual. I didn’t even know if it was worth putting together a list, as many of these choices are from the first half of the year, before I got a new full-time job and barely had the time to enjoy longform journalism regularly.

But hey, I’ve been keeping this list running for several years now, and it would be a shame to stop it just for having an off year. So without further ado, here are 10 pieces I read in 2017 that I really appreciated:

My President Was Black – On the verge of the Trump presidency, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ wrote a moving account of the Obama White House, capturing both its redemptive nature and the high price that came with it.

The Republican Waterloo – Healthcare was a hot button issue this year and in this essay, former George W. Bush speechwriter David Frum explains why the Republican strategy was always bound to be a losing one.

The Heart of Whiteness – Ijeoma Oluo’s interview with Rachel Dolezal is contentious, uncomfortable, and revealing. It also helps to bring some closure to this crazy saga of the past two years.

The Lost Picture Show: Hollywood Archivists Can’t Escape Obsolescence – One of the side effects of the digital age is the challenge of archiving films. With a frightening, clinical approach, Marty Perlmutter lays out the very real possibility that many of our greatest cultural works are in danger of being lost forever.

The Leftovers: Life, Death, Einstein and Time Travel – There’s been a lot of great writing about The Leftovers, but this piece by Maureen Ryan is my favorite. It really destroyed me. Ryan powerfully relates personal tragedy with how the show captures grief.

The Silence of the Lambs – Kathryn Joyce chronicles a sex scandal in the Protestant church, demonstrating that complicity and cover-ups are not confined to any single religion.

Four Castaways Make a Family – You don’t have to be biologically related to be a family. In this piece, Rene Denfield describes the process of adopting children. And while she makes it sound intensely difficult to love someone that much (especially when they don’t love you back), it’s also clear that sometimes only the hard things are worth doing.

The Two Americans – Sabrina Tavernise writes about the case of Abraham Davis, who helped vandalize a mosque in Fort Smith, Arkansas, then unexpectedly found forgiveness by the people he attacked. Even in the increasingly divided age that we live in, love still trumps hate.

How Uber’s Hard-Charging Corporate Culture Left Employees Drained – Caroline O’Donovan and Priya Anand’s deep dive into Uber’s intense culture asks the question: What is the true cost of unicorn startup valuations, and is it worth it?

Harvey Weinstein Paid Off Sexual Accusers for DecadesHarvey Weinstein’s Accusers Tell Their Stories, and many others  Possibly the most socially consequential stories of the year, Jodi Kantor, Megan Twohey, and Ronan Farrow broke the story on Harvey Weinstein’s years of sexual assaults, and helped create a movement whose impact is still being felt today.

The best movie moments of 2017

I love thinking through the best movie moments in a given year. More than any other aspect, the individual moments of grandeur and spectacle in films stay with me long after I’ve watched them.

That’s why I was glad to contribute to /Film’s “56 Best movie moments of 2017” piece. There are some great moments on here, assembled by the entire staff. Here’s what I had to say about the ending of The Killing of a Sacred Deer:

My longstanding belief about conspiracy theories is that they’re popular because deep down, humans prefer to believe there’s a higher power at work. It’s terrifying to contemplate the possibility that every occurrence is completely random. Much more reassuring to think that someone is pulling all the strings, even if that someone is malevolent. The Killing of a Sacred Deer turns this notion on its head. Here, surgeon Steve Murphy (Colin Farrell) becomes increasingly certain that teenager Martin (played chillingly by Barry Keoghan) exerts an other-worldly power over his family, causing them to become sick. The only thing that will cause it to stop is if Murphy takes one of his family member’s lives – retribution for Murphy errantly taking the life of Martin’s father in a botched surgery. After agonizing over how to proceed, Farrell decides that introducing randomness into the equation is the only solution. He ties up his family in the living room and spins around randomly, firing a rifle until one of them is dead. It’s a brutal, heartbreaking scene with an unspeakable outcome, demonstrating that sometimes, chance is only outcome we can live with.

The Definitive Takedown of ‘Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice’

MovieBob (AKA Bob Chipman) has created a series of video essays totaling 4 hours (!) discussing everything wrong with Zach Snyder’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. It is one of the most comprehensive analyses of any film that I’ve ever watched — Chipman covers everything from the film’s aesthetics and structure, to why Snyder’s overall attitude towards superheroes might’ve made him the wrong director for this film.

Most importantly, I think Chipman hits the nail on the head by calling Batman v Superman an act of cultural vandalism. It takes characters who are beloved, revered, and admired, and it completely defaces everything we know about them. That is not inherently a bad idea. Great pieces of art often subvert, deconstruct, and satirize. But in this case, the end result does not make it feel worthwhile.

Batman v Superman was a disaster of a film, but what remains tragic to me is how it has essentially ruined these characters for a generation. If I had a child, I would not take them to go see the film and if I’d seen it when was a kid, I can’t imagine admiring or wanting to be either of these characters. Man of Steel and Batman v Superman created this psychic void of heroism and integrity that these characters used to fill. Watching these video essays helped me reckon with that loss.

This set of videos isn’t without its own flaws — some of Chipman’s points are self-admittedly minor nitpicks, the aesthetics of the videos might not be up to everyone’s standards, and there is a significant amount of repetition — but if a YouTube video essays can be said to be a genre, then this is one of the best entries in that genre that I’ve ever seen. Highly recommended for any film fan.

Black Mirror: Season 4 review

When I watch Black Mirror, I’m really only looking for the show to do the following: Take my understanding of technology, extend it to its logical conclusion, and then twist it in such a way so as to make me question all my values. By this measure, the fourth season of Black Mirror is a resounding success.

I binged the entire season on the day it was released on Netflix. Here are a few thoughts on each episode:

“USS Callister” (S4E1): This episode refines ideas from Black Mirror Christmas special (specifically, the concept of enslaved computer programs), and combines them with commentary on toxic male fandom and unsafe workplaces. I love that it captures the feel of Star Trek — both original series AND new Abrams reboot (somehow). It’s clearly made with a lot of love towards the franchise, and felt like it honored Star Trek, while adding to it. The third-act suffers from incredibly far-fetched plotting but the episode’s very last moments are great. Grade: A-

“Arkangel” (S4E2): The lesson of this episode is that you must never parent too much. But never too little either. It must be precisely the right amount, lest horrors befall you and your family. This is the kind of episode that people who dislike Black Mirror often think of it as: facile, alarmist, and moderately ridiculous. Grade: D

“Crocodile” (S4E3): This episode is insane — nearly a self-parody in how over-the-top and dark it was. The premise is ludicrous. The ending is so stupid as to be insulting. It does almost nothing to explore the inner life of the main character and as a result, ends up revealing very little about technology or human nature. That said, it is gorgeously shot on location in Iceland and I will happily watch Andrea Riseborough act the hell out of anything. Grade: F+

“Hang the DJ” (S4E4): A wonderful, heartbreaking look at the dehumanizing effects of modern dating apps (with some dystopian aspects of The Lobster mixed in for good measure). Hell is dating other people. This episode is beautiful, though, and joins “San Junipero,” “Be Right Back,” and “The Entire History of You” as part of a excellent quadrilogy of short films about how technology impacts love and relationships (Thanks to Kyle Turner for pointing this out). Grade: A

“Metalhead” (S4E5): What happens when we piss off robots one too many times? This mostly thrilling episode (shot completely in black and white) tries to answer that question. A solid modern-day riff on The Terminator, with impressive visual effects. While it’s a decent genre exercise, it’s not as thought-provoking as the best of Black MirrorGrade: B

“Black Museum” (S4E6): How would advanced technology impact the fields of medicine and crime? This mini-anthology episode tries to answer that question by masterfully weaving together three stories into a main narrative that involves a girl visiting a mysterious and horrifying museum (loaded with Black Mirror easter eggs). I loved each of the vignettes and enjoyed the broader story as well. This is as good as it gets. Grade: A

Overall thoughts: If there’s one overarching theme for this season, it’s the concept that one day, computer programs will be able to experience consciousness, and therefore, pain. Our society will be ill-equipped to deal with this when it happens.

I think we got three great episodes (USS Callister, Hang the DJ, Black Museum), one good episode (Metalhead), and two outright terrible episodes (Arkangel, Crocodile). Any show would be great to rack up numbers like this, but for a show as ambitious as Black Mirror, it’s especially impressive given that we’re already into the show’s fourth season. I’ll be crossing my fingers for a fifth.

The 8 podcast episodes of 2017 that I’m most proud of

A lot of writers on Twitter have been sharing pieces they’ve created this year that they’re most proud of. Since I do way more podcasting than writing, I thought I’d take this idea and apply it to the podcast episodes I’m proud of having been part of. Here they are in no particular order:

1) The /Filmcast: Transformers: The Last Knight review with Paul Scheer – Paul Scheer’s comedy career has been ascendant recently (I loved him in The Disaster Artist) so it was a delight to have him on the /Filmcast to dismantle this atrocity of a franchise film. Bonus: We used this episode to raise over $8500 for LA Children’s Hospital.

Download the ep here, or listen below:

2) A Cast of Kings – Live from Con of Thrones: The Ghosts of Westeros Panel – I was honored to moderate this panel with Joanna Robinson at Con of Thrones, in front of an audience of thousands of Game of Thrones fans. We talked with characters who’ve met brutal ends on the show. It was really a geek’s dream come true.

Download the ep here, or listen below:

3) The Tobolowsky Files: The Soldiers of Empathy – This episode from the latest season of the Tobolowsky Files is a wonderful articulation of the challenges and rewards of being an actor.

Download the ep here, or listen below:

4) The /Filmcast: The Dark Tower movie review with Matt Singer – I try not to take too much glee in panning films. Nobody sets out to make a terrible film, and even the worst films feature a lot of hard work from dozens, if not hundreds, of people. But Sony’s The Dark Tower felt like such a half-hearted effort, lacking the resources necessary to tell a story of such epic scope and tragically closing off the possibility of any similar adaptations for the foreseeable future. I had fun deconstructing this film with Matt Singer from Screencrush.

I try to do at least one of these movie dissections per year with Matt Singer and it’s always a lot of fun. See: our review of Collateral Beauty last year.

5) Peaks TV: Series Finale recap – The return of Twin Peaks was a genuinely exciting television event. David Lynch opted not only to subvert viewer expectations, but to deliver episodes that were chock full of exciting ideas and bravura filmmaking. That said, the experience of watching the show could often be baffling and disorienting. I’m proud of the finale recap episode I recorded with Joanna, where we try our best to explain WTF happened and summarize the entire experience of watching this unique show.

Listen below:

6) A Cast of Kings: Season Finale recap – This season of Game of Thrones was amazing and terrible in almost equal measure, hinging largely on an incredibly stupid plotline up North that was totally unbelievable. That said, I was happy that Joanna Robinson and I got to dissect the show in brutal detail as usual. This recap of the season finale really nailed many of the issues and the joys we had with the show as a whole. It’s also Joanna Robinson at her best, bringing wit and insight to this beloved series.

[Side note: A Cast of Kings shattered download records this year. Over 300K people downloaded this episode.]

Download or listen below:

7) The /Filmcast: Blade Runner 2049 review with C. Robert Cargill – I’ve followed C. Robert Cargill’s work since he was a movie reviewer for AICN. Since then, he’s gone on to write two hit films (Sinister and Doctor Strange), and become a brilliant creator in his own right. His appearance on the podcast this year to review one of my favorite sci-fi films of recent memory was a wonderful geek-out session.

Download or listen below:

8) The /Filmcast: A lot of conversations about The Last Jedi – The /Filmcast did two episodes on The Last Jedi, totaling about 3.5 hours of conversation (not to mention this additional 1-hour Periscope I recorded). I’m about done talking about this film, but was super thrilled to have many thought-provoking conversations about how this film takes the Star Wars franchise in bold new directions. Our first episode can be found here. Our spoiler-filled follow-up episode is below.

Download or listen below:

Asians and Affirmative Action

Aaron Mak, writing for Slate, about his decision to hide his ethnicity during the college admissions process:

There are multiple ways to interpret my college application experience, all of which hinge on whether you believe the allegations of anti-Asian discrimination in college admissions. If you believe that the discrimination does exist, then my attempts at passing were a way to sidestep a policy that treats me unfairly. If you believe it doesn’t exist, then I bought into a myth designed to slander affirmative action for the benefit of a white majority, giving rise to an anxiety-ridden climate in which Asian applicants are constantly told that they need to take steps to hide their identities.

I know many Asians who’ve struggled with these kinds of issues. Whether there’s actual advantage or a disadvantage to being perceived as Asian, it’s never something that we have the option to stop thinking about.

Errol Morris’ review of ‘Finding Frances’

Errol Morris, writing for The New Yorker, about the season finale of Nathan For You:

What’s the difference between a bad impersonator and a meta-impersonator? Or between true love and delusion? What makes something real? That we believe in it? That we can convince others to? These questions all come to a head in Fielder’s season finale. Maybe we are all poseurs pretending to be real people. Or possibly the other way around. The series, and this episode especially, is a perfect imitation of life. I mean, a perfect imitation of an imitation of life. However you want to describe it, it is some of the most interesting “reality”-based work yet made.

What a delight to see my favorite filmmaker commenting on one of my favorite pieces of television of the year. See also: My review of Nathan For You: Season 4

 

 

Bojack Horseman Season 4 takes the existentialism up a notch

[Spoilers for Bojack ahead]

No show does modern existentialism as well as Netflix’s Bojack Horseman. Beneath its searing satire of showbiz, its whimsical world in which animals talk and coexist with humans, and its nonstop barrage of obscure references and puns, there’s a core that gets to how painful, lonely, and sad modern life can be.

I enjoyed the first few season but I dragged my feet on getting through season four, for one simple reason: the first three seasons were so emotionally devastating that I wasn’t in a hurry to get back to this world.

Season four takes this punishing feeling of malaise and doubles down on it. There were two episodes in particular that really got to me:

Season 4 episode 9 (Ruthie– In the distant future, Princess Caroline’s great-great-grandaughter recounts one of Princess Caroline’s most challenging days. Princess Caroline loses her baby, then almost blows up her entire life in the aftermath. At the end of the episode, we discover that the future construct is completely imagined by Princess Caroline herself, purely as a means of soothing herself.

It’s a brutal gut-punch of an ending, precisely because the introduction is so enticing. It is reassuring to imagine that your descendants are still around, generations from now. And it’s equally terrifying to consider that this imagining might be the only thing separating us from a total mental and emotional collapse.

Season 4 episode 11 (Time’s Arrow) – This episode is one of the most visceral depictions of dementia I’ve ever witnessed, primarily due to its usage of the first-person perspective. We see Bojack’s mother, Beatrice, experience flashbacks of her entire existence with some notable omissions (many people’s faces, with Henrietta’s scratched out entirely to indicate her esteem in Beatrice’s mind). We see why Beatrice resents Bojack — and men in general. Bojack trapped her in a terrible marriage with a cheating husband.

As the episode draws to a close, Beatrice seems to regain her bearings. And even though Bojack is about to leave her in a terrible place, he provides one final act of kindness by walking her through an idyllic fantasy in their final moments together. Even in anger, there can be flashes of humanity. Even in moments of rage, our familial ties can be impossible to ignore.

**

Was it a great season of the show? It’s not my favorite. Bojack tried venturing away from its more familiar show-biz obsessed formulas and opted instead to dive further into Bojack’s family history. While the episodes above were extremely effective, I find myself more exhausted by this show than I have in the past. Its whimsy no longer counteracts its overbearing sense of fatalism.

I relate so much to the messages of this show. Bojack Horseman has helped me to understand what it’s like to be me, and why I feel the way I feel. But more and more, I think I might need more of a distraction from being me. After all, I’m already me for most of the time.

‘Every Frame a Painting’ comes to an end

Tony Zhou and Taylor Ramos, writing about the end of their wildly popular YouTube series Every Frame a Painting:

Everyone who works in filmmaking knows the triangle: Faster, Cheaper, Better. Pick two. A film can be made fast and cheap, but it won’t be good. Or you can make it fast and good, but it won’t be cheap. Or it can be cheap and good, but it won’t happen fast.

Every Frame a Painting was made after we came home from our day jobs and paid our bills. That kept it cheap. We also tried really hard to make it good. Which ultimately meant we had to sacrifice “fast.”The big danger for future video essayists is that large websites have started moving away from the written word and towards video, which is completely unsustainable. Video is just too expensive and time-consuming to make.

The end of an era. Every Frame a Painting was one of the gold standards for video essay channels, being both influential and widely viewed. But there’s something to be said about holding close to one’s principles and going out on top.

This farewell essay brings to light exactly how unsustainable and nonsensical all this media industry talk of “pivoting to video” is. Video production and video editing are costly, time-consuming affairs. User acquisition in today’s saturated environment is intensely challenging. And that’s not even getting to the monetization piece yet! Every Frame a Painting couldn’t figure out a way to make it work that satisfied their creative goals, even with robust Patreon campaign. What hope do people who aren’t insanely talented have?

The other troubling issue this essay highlights is how challenging it is to even make video essays for YouTube these days. Zhou had to reverse engineer the Content ID algorithm, then alter footage (or only show extremely brief clips of it) to avoid getting his work taken down and blocked. As someone who’s had their work taken down due to spurious copyright claims, I know firsthand that publishing video essays on Youtube can be a frustrating experience that privileges the copyright holder in nearly all circumstances.

Basically, it’s hard out there for a video essayist these days.

How ‘Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri’ Treats Race

Alison Willmore, writing for Buzzfeed:

In striving to make Ebbing feel like a lived-in place, rather than just an idea of one, Three Billboards treats racism like it’s just another quaint regional detail — part of the local decor. Here’s the gift shop, here’s the bar, and here’s Officer Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell), a violent, openly intolerant alcoholic who’s rumored to have tortured a black man in his custody. That’s a claim the other characters don’t deny so much as they defend on the basis of a lack of evidence. Dixon also gets declared a “good man,” if there’s any question of how little the term has to do with moral quality and how much it has to do with how many chances someone is given. Even Mildred herself is let off the hook for an assault she’s definitely committed. Dixon instead arrests Mildred’s black friend and coworker Denise (Amanda Warren) for possession, to use her as leverage (seemingly her only function in the movie). His colleague congratulates him for coming up with the idea.

Dixon’s behavior, and the way it’s tolerated by others, is depicted with a matter-of-factness that’s striking — but not nearly as striking as the disinterest the film has in actually engaging with that racism. It’s a disinterest that becomes clearer as Dixon becomes increasingly central to the last act of the movie, eventually starting to reckon with his anger and his brutality, but never with his bigotry.

I agree with everything Willmore says here. Three Billboards uses racist violence as window dressing, even as it tackles sexual violence head on. It made me feel deeply uncomfortable, and I don’t think in a way the film intended.

‘Olaf’s Frozen Adventure’ Is An Abomination

I went to see Coco with my family this weekend. It’s been years since I’ve been able to watch a movie in theaters with my brother and my parents, so I was excited to be able to take them to Pixar’s sumptuous new story about an aspiring young musician trying to make his way through the Land of the Dead. The movie was great — thought-provoking, moving, and respectful of the traditions by which it was inspired. There was just one thing that marred the entire experience.

Olaf’s Frozen Adventure.

Olaf’s Frozen Adventure is a 21-minute “short film” that plays in front of Coco. That means that between 15 minutes of trailers and this 21-minute ABC holiday special, you’re looking at a good 35 minutes before the movie even begins.

The decision to put this special in front of Coco creates numerous externalities. First of all, it bumps a Pixar short film that would’ve otherwise gone in its place. These shorts, while hit or miss, often showcased important up-and-coming talent and were frequently nominated for “Best Animated Short Film” awards due to their quality (I’m going to go out on a limb and say that Olaf’s Frozen Adventure will not land that honor). It also means there are lots of confused people in the audience of Coco, wondering whether or not they’re even in the correct theater.

But let’s put all that aside. Even if all those extremely annoying aspects of the Olaf-viewing experience weren’t present, you’d still have to contend with this: Olaf’s Frozen Adventure is a terrible piece of art represents all the worst aspects of the commercialization of Christmas. Olaf has always been an irritating character, but he’s fine in small doses — he’s the spice, not the stew. Making him the center of the story is like trying to force Captain Jack Sparrow into the protagonist role of a Pirates film (How’d that work out for Disney?).

Olaf spends the movie hunting around for more “traditions.” Songs are sung. References to Frozen are made. Suffice it to say, he comes to learn that the real tradition…was love.

The short film was constructed in a way to be the most widely appealing, least offensive reference to Christmas ever. At the end, when Elsa uses her ice powers to create a Christmas tree, there’s a Disney ornament at the top, rather than something that might actually symbolize anything other than corporate domination of the holidays.

This is the type of film people complain about when they say that Christmas is too commercial. It says nothing of value. Its execution is barely competent. It is only interested in getting you to buy more Frozen Blu-Raysor getting you to think about these characters once more during the long wait for Frozen 2.

It is a colossal waste of time whose only legacy will be that it made the magical experience of seeing the great new Pixar film just a little bit less special.

‘Nathan For You’ Season 4 Review

This week, Nathan for You concluded its fourth season with an unprecedented two-hour event entitled “Finding Frances.” I wanted to share some detailed (spoiler-y) thoughts on the finale and the season as a whole.

As we begin, it’s important to note that I am not just a Nathan for You fan; I’m a Nathan for You evangelist. Nathan Fielder’s show, which features the comedic actor suggesting and implementing ridiculous business ideas, has been a razor-sharp satire of reality TV, not to mention an occasionally thought-provoking look at the media and human nature. I not only appreciate how the show has exposed weaknesses in our institutions (as Nathan does this season when he smuggles in an elaborate chili-dispensing system into a hockey stadium with nothing more than a doctor’s note) but have also laughed heartily at the way Fielder revels in the awkwardness of humanity.

All that said, I found the fourth season overall to be a bit disappointing. Fielder’s ideas for improving businesses became increasingly outlandish, and his elaborate “side quests” often showed even less connection to the original mission than in seasons past. While Fielder has always used a local business’ problems as a jumping off point for crazier pursuits (see: Dumb Starbucks), the gulf felt especially pronounced this year — and even occasionally mean-spirited, as Fielder’s dragnet entangled everyone from a local councilman to Craigslist musicians.

When I watch Nathan For You, I want something that uncomfortably blurs the line between reality and fiction, and that makes me question the nature of my reality. The finale of season 3 broke my brain with its ambition and execution, and I was hoping for something similar to occur this season as well.

I got my wish, twice.

I always enjoy checking out Fielder’s appearances on late night television, as I find them delightfully awkward. His appearance on Kimmel (above) showed Fielder at his best, delivering a long, drawn out anecdote about a run-in with police. A few elements of the story seemed off to me (the photo of the suit seemed too perfect and also, why would someone carry their mom’s ashes in a baggy?), but hey, who doesn’t exaggerate things on late night television?

In season 4 episode 4, “The Anecdote,” Fielder reveals that the anecdote was an elaborate ruse. He had watched countless late night appearances and reverse-engineered the perfect late night anecdote, then used his extensive resources to make the anecdote’s events come true in real life. What’s great about Nathan for You is it forces us to retroactively reconsider everything that has occurred up until this point. Was Fielder pretending to bad at late night talk shows this entire time, as an elaborate set up for this episode? How much of his entire personality is a public performance? The mind reels at the possibilities.

“The Anecdote” is a brilliant examination of the performative nature of these talk shows, as well as one of the best instances of transmedia storytelling I can recall (Fielder went on to discuss the anecdote on Seth Meyers and Conan). It is, in other words, Nathan for You at its finest.

The second time the show really got to me was with its finale, “Finding Frances,” which I found to be painful, funny, and moving. Shot as a full-blown documentary, Fielder takes on the case of Bill Heath, who is regretful about Frances, an ex-girlfriend from decades ago that he believes he should have married. Nathan agrees to help track her down so that Bill can confess his love to her. Along the way, we learn that Bill’s intentions and character are not quite as sterling as we’d hope for a mission that is this ambitious.

For one of the first times ever, “Finding Frances” forces us to consider the challenge of making Nathan For You. Fielder stages elaborate schemes, such as claiming that he’s filming a sequel to the indie film Mud, or having a “57-year Reunion” at a local school, all to try and get some scraps of information about Bill’s mysterious long lost love. At one point, Fielder describes himself as wandering aimlessly through Arkansas, with hundreds of hours of footage, unsure if this would even turn into an actual episode. There’s lots of footage of Fielder falling for Maci, a local escort, who he’d originally hired to socialize (non-sexually) with Bill. It makes you wonder how many Nathan For You episodes we never actually get to see because, while expensive, they never amounted to any story worth telling.

I was profoundly uncomfortable for most of the episode, as Bill not only seemed like a compulsive liar intent on using Fielder’s resources for his own gain, but also a lecherous old man with no empathy. I questioned not only whether the already-creepy idea of tracking down someone from a past life and exposing her info to a national tv audience was worth doing, but whether this was the guy that one should do it for. In one scene, Fielder asks Bill to play act his hypothetical interactions with Frances, and Bill is creepy AF, touching the actress inappropriately and believing that he and Frances can pick up right where he left off. But through the exercise, Bill does eventually gain an understanding of why Frances left him, and even admits to cheating on her.

Eventually, they get a break in the case and discover that Frances is now married and living in Muskegon, Michigan. Fielder, Bill, and the whole camera crew drive out to the Frances’ house in Muskegon to talk to her. But after thousands of miles traveled, Bill is unable to get out of the car and go to her front door. Instead, he decides to call her from the car. As the conversation plays out, Bill realizes that Frances has moved on with her life. At first, she can’t even recognize his voice. She’s happily married with nine grandchildren. Meanwhile, Bill’s life as an actor and performer didn’t quite turn out like he’d hoped. And he realizes that he probably shouldn’t confront Frances in person after all. It is one of the most raw pieces of tape I’ve ever seen on Nathan for You, or probably anywhere.

What “Finding Frances” reveals is that everyone has a story. To paraphrase Charlie Kaufman, we are all the main character in the play of our lives. This episode pulls back the curtain on one such main character, Bill Heath, and invites us to examine his regret, his excitements, his desires, even as a 78-year old man.

“Finding Frances” ends with Fielder returning to Arkansas to meet up again with the escort Maci. The two share an impromptu moment of connection before the cameras turn off. Fielder seems to be trying to complete his character’s arc on the show — Bill regretted never marrying Frances because his family looked down on her, so Fielder is determined not to repeat the same mistakes with Maci, even as she has a profession that some might also look down upon.

In reality, we are probably watching a highly edited, controlled, purposeful interaction. In reality, Maci has signed a release form to appear in this scene, and was likely paid some kind of fee. In reality, Fielder may have no feelings for Maci whatsoever, and has scripted “Finding Frances” to end exactly where it would feel satisfying.

But we have no idea where reality ends and fiction begins with Nathan For You. And that’s what I love about it.

What even is the point of Loki in the Thor movies anymore?

[This post contains SPOILERS for Thor: Ragnarok]

Thor: Ragnarok is the best reviewed Thor movie by a longshot (as of this writing, its RT score sits at 93%). I found the film did a great job of infusing director Taika Waititi’s off-kilter sense of humor into a well-established cinematic brand. You can view my Periscoped thoughts on the film right here.

But one thing nagged at me: What even is the point of Loki in the Thor movies anymore?

While I didn’t think Thor was the greatest Marvel film, one thing it unquestionably accomplished is bringing the Marvel Cinematic Universe its greatest villain: Loki. Hiddleston’s performance as Loki was charming but whiny, vicious but vulnerable. In other words, he was complex. Plus, the conflict between Loki and Thor was genuinely poignant — a Cain and Abel story played out against the massive backdrop of Norse/Marvel mythology.

Perhaps due to the MCU’s inability to consistently generate memorable villains (I dare you to use two adjectives to describe Malekith other than “evil”), the MCU films have clung to Loki as though he’s their lifeblood. He showed up as the villain in The Avengers, then appeared once more in Thor: The Dark World where he betrayed Thor, had a sad goodbye-death-scene, then somehow reappears later impersonating Odin.

In Thor: Ragnarok, Thor discovers Loki lounging around on Asgard as Odin. The two watch their father die, then end up in a crazy situation on the planet Sakaar where Loki again betrays Thor(!) before reuniting with him at the end to save Asgard. On a transport ship at the end of the film, Loki stands by Thor’s side as Thor leads Asgard’s people into the future.

At this point, I posit that Loki’s character has gone through so many twists and turns that it is impossible to attach any stakes to his position. One moment, he’s dead. The next, he’s alive. One moment, he hates Thor. The next, they are taking down Sakaarian guards like they’re playing a video game.

It’s a classic case of trying to extracting too many resources from one character, rendering their presence completely meaningless. I hope the MCU can work on its secondary character game a bit more (to some extent, Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner, who never got his own film, is a pretty good example of what is possible). In the meantime, I’m sad that Loki seems to have befallen the same fate as Miley Cyrus.

Three lessons on storytelling from Brian Reed, the producer of S-Town

I was a big fan of the S-Town podcast when it was first released, so I was excited to have the opportunity to see producer Brian Reed give a talk about it recently at Benaroya Hall.

S-Town is the fastest growing podcast in history, with over 60 million downloads on its seven episodes to date. I found the podcast interesting because it pulled together disparate threads of American life into a compelling narrative: climate change, horology, poverty, journalistic ethics, and the history of the South.

Reed spoke for about 70 minutes and played a slideshow that featured audio that was cut from the final podcast. He was also gracious during an audience Q&A.

As he began, he talked about how important it was that Ira Glass at This American Life (where Reed is Senior Producer) had built an environment and budget where they could kill one-third of all stories that the staff pursued. This ensured that only the best of the best would ever make it to air, and allowed journalists to pursue stories far past the point most outlets would find acceptable.

Reed also mentioned a few principles that guided his work with the S-Town Podcast:

  1. Don’t use verbal sign-posting – In most podcasts, the hosts to go great pains to remind you what the program is about throughout the runtime of the show. This not only is helpful for a radio audience where someone may have tuned in halfway through the episode, but also helps convince someone to stay engaged and to understand the stakes. S-Town eschewed these methods in favor of a novelistic approach. Normal novels don’t explicitly state, “Hey, this is where these facts are all leading so stay tuned, okay?” Neither did S-Town, increasing the mystery and making it more engrossing for listeners who went in fresh.
  2. Create and include tape that tells the story and tape where emotional work is being done – Getting interviews of people conveying the narrative you want is table stakes for journalistic podcasts. What Reed thought was the most fascinating was tape where emotional work is actually being done by the journalist and subject — tape where stuff is happening and people are bouncing off each other in interesting ways. How did the subject react to something the journalist said? How were they egged on or discouraged? How have they decided to alter their decision path? Hearing all those things transpire can be fascinating, and Reed put a lot of the focus on that kind of tape when he was assembling the final podcast.
  3. Fact-check – Fact-checking is an extraordinarily useful way of extracting meaningful details out of the seemingly mundane. The key was to pursue promising but obscure avenues that had the potential to bear fruit. Everything in S-Town was rigorously fact-checked and some of the material uncovered (particularly content about mercury poisoning and fire gilding) was so fascinating that it helped shape the narrative of the podcast itself.

Overall, it was a fun talk, but I’d say it was only truly useful for people who were fans of the show or fans of journalistic podcasts in general. Also, at $35/ticket, I thought it was a bit steep given that many of these insights could be discussed and revealed in, say, a lengthy podcast interview. 

Back when I was making the Gen Pop podcast (RIP), I recorded a review of the S-Town podcast with Joanna. You can listen to it below:

The origin of David S. Pumpkins

This is a great piece by Jesse David Fox at Vulture about how the David S. Pumpkins sketch on SNL came together:

“Haunted Elevator” is a Saturday Night Live sketch about confused people trying to figure out what this guy named David S. Pumpkins’s deal is. The now-classic sketch (more commonly referred to as “David Pumpkins”), starring Tom Hanks as Mr. Pumpkins, was written by similarly confused people trying to figure out what his deal is. The character — his signature wardrobe, orange hair-streak, hand motions, voice, name — became clearer with each step in the SNL process. Exactly one year from the debut of “Haunted Elevator,” and a week away from a new David Pumpkins Halloween special, this is the story of how it came together, told by those who wrote it — Bobby Moynihan, Mikey Day, and Streeter Seidell.

This piece captures the fortuitous circumstances and insane amounts of work required for a sketch like this to come together. Sometimes, something created for sheer entertainment value (and nothing else) can be what endures.

Fame and its discontents

Now that I’m taking a break and finally have enough time to do things like read books and listen to podcasts, I’m finally catching up on a lot of media I’ve missed over the past few years.

One such program is a podcast called Heavyweight, where the host helps people resolve long-held grudges or other issues. In particular, I really appreciated the second episode of the show, which features an interview with the musician Moby.

The setup is that a friend of Moby is upset with Moby’s success, especially after Moby refused to acknowledge the friend’s contributions to it. When confronted about this, Moby explains that fame is not all it’s cracked up to be and that it was at his most successful that he felt the most despondent:

You think when you get to where you want to go, finally you’ll finally be happy. But then you get to where you want to go, and you’re just as miserable as you were. In fact, you’re even more miserable because you no longer have anything to aspire to. And you feel this hopelessness because, what’s left to aspire towards?

This quote really struck me coming from someone as successful as Moby. No matter how successful you are, someone else will always be more successful. It’s how one deals with that knowledge that determines one’s level of happiness.

‘Long Shot’ is a short Netflix doc about chance and happenstance

To explain the premise of Long Shot is to basically give away the entire plot. With that in mind, here is what the movie is about: Long Shot is a new Netflix documentary about the trial of Juan Catalan, who was wrongly accused of murder in 2003. Catalan was at a Dodgers game around the time the murder was said to have taken place, but had few ways of definitively proving his whereabouts. Desperate to solidify his alibi, his lawyer turns to an unconventional place: footage from an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm that just happened to be shooting at Dodgers Stadium that night.

Long Shot is that rare Netflix property that doesn’t overstay its welcome. The film, directed by Jacob LaMendola, is well shot and efficient with its interviews and b-roll. With a documentary this short (39 minutes, in this case), it can be challenging to have a broader takeaway from this story of near-catastrophe. But I did get one idea from this film that I haven’t been able to shake, and that is that we are all just one random decision away from complete and utter catastrophe befalling us.

What if Catalan had decided to watch the game at home that night? What if Curb decided to shoot only one take that night? What if the production assistant had chosen a different section of the stadium to shoot in? If any of these things had happened, Catalan might be serving a life sentence today.

It’s a mind-boggling idea to consider, and elevates this doc from “true crime” trifle to something more thought provoking.