in a surprising departure: television

This post is long overdue, I guess, but it occurred to me rather late in the game to tell you about television series. During the van trip, strangely, I got into watching TV series that I could get through Amazon Prime.

This blog began, back in 2011, as a way for me to keep track of my reading for my own sake. I’m deeply grateful that other people read it and appreciate it, too. But on some level it remains a record I keep for myself, and so here we are. I wanted to remember what shows I’ve watched, and which ones I’ve especially liked.

Bones

The one that got me completely hooked is Bones, a mystery-per-episode (or often several) crime-solving drama series based in the fictional Jeffersonian Institute and starring a world-famous forensic anthropologist. It’s fairly silly, and relies too heavily on the sexual tension of a certain couple that we wait way too many seasons to see actually hook up. But I was thoroughly, entirely taken in; I watched all 246 episodes with relish and and someday, if laid up for months with nothing to do, I may watch them again. It’s goofy but I love it. (Based on the Temperance Brennan series of novels by Kathy Reichs, which I have not read, so there’s another project.)

Mystery series based on book series: you will note a theme. Also, lots of Brits.

I was quite impressed by Bosch, based on Michael Connelly‘s novels starring LAPD Detective Hieronymus “Harry” Bosch, which I have loved since I was a teenager. They’ve done a good job of capturing the title character, and the soundtrack (based on Harry’s love of jazz) is quite good. I’ll be on the lookout for future seasons; well done, Amazon.

Jackson Brodie of Case Histories

Case Histories is based on the novels of Kate Atkinson which star Jackson Brodie. Set and filmed in Edinburgh, this series features an excellent soundtrack of female country singer-songwriters (seriously, I would follow this show just for the music); Edinburgh itself is compelling and beautiful, but it’s also easy to fall for Jackson himself, who is a runner as well as a detective whose life is filled with ill-conceived sexual liaisons, a delightfully salty assistant, and the cutest, most precocious, wittiest young daughter imaginable, as well as interesting cases. Give me more Case Histories! And these are books I’ll need to read, obviously. (It’s always nice to get a two-for-one like that.)

Unforgotten is a modern London-set series which I appreciate for its two lead detectives, DCI Cassie Stuart and DI Sunny Khan. They are a likeable pair whose lives feel realistically imperfect, something not always true of our stars. Not everyone on this show is supermodel-beautiful, which again, is nice for reality’s sake. The narrative structure of each episode is interesting and a bit unusual: we switch around between the lives of various characters, including Cassie and Sunny but also including a number of others who at first have no apparent connection to the case at hand – although, of course, they will. I’ll keep watching this one.

Seattle PD’s Sarah Linden and Stephen Holder of The Killing

The Killing is based on a Danish series; this one is set in Seattle. It may seem formulaic at this point that there our two lead detectives are a man and a woman with perhaps a hint of sexual tension? but it still feels original here; I like these two and would continue with them, given the chance.

DCI Banks is another British mystery series, set in the more-or-less present, and one that kept me occupied for a time, but my rating would be only so-so. I found the characters I was meant to identify with only mildly appealing; I was often frustrated with them, and (slight spoiler) killing off one of them only served to engage me less. Meh. (Maybe it was just the one guy’s voice as he plaintively cries “Annie!” over and over that got to me.)

The ABC Murders is based on Agatha Christie’s novel of the same name, and stars John Malkovich as Hercule Poirot. I’m sure he did a fine job, but I was raised on David Suchet’s Poirot and it is too late for me to convert to a new version. While I suspect I would still enjoy reading Christie (a theory I should test!), this onscreen version dragged on. It felt dated by unusually slow pacing, but was made in 2018. Another series that was okay but not one I’m wild about.

DC Endeavor Morse and DCI Fred Thursday of Endeavor

Set in 1960s Oxford, Endeavor has my heart. I’m just in the middle of this one now, and I’m devoted to the title character, DC Morse (first name Endeavor. Which is weird, but not as weird as Hieronymus Bosch). This serves as a prequel to the long-running 1980s-90s series Inspector Morse; I have not seen that one. DC Morse is a prodigy within the department, but his odd methods, failure to bow to authority, and general nerdiness don’t play well with his superintendent. He does have a good relationship with DI Fred Thursday, and that relationship’s development seems to be part of the arc of the series overall. I’m having a good time with this one.

A few outliers are not mysteries.

Catastrophe is a comedy about a several-night stand between a visiting American businessman and an Irish primary school teacher living in London which results in a pregnancy and, surprisingly, marriage. A second child follows the first as the couple turns out to quite like each other, but (yes) catastrophes follow one upon another. Silly but good fun.

My Mother and Other Strangers caught me with its name, and this Masterpiece Theatre production has a charming, evocative, specific setting in a small Irish village during World War II. American soldiers are stationed in a village that does not appreciate their presence. The series is narrated (minimally) by an old man, years after the fact; he is the small son of the mother in question, and this is the story of his family (mom, dad, two kids) firstly, and of the village. I love the details of time and place, the sense of a small specific setting and its place in much larger historic events. The backward-looking perspective has elements of elegy and of nostalgia, and that mystery of the mother–she is present, but enigmatic–is compelling.

The Durrells in Corfu

And then The Durrells in Corfu, an absolutely addictive series based on three memoirs by Gerald Durrell: My Family and Other Animals, Birds, Beasts, and Relatives, and The Garden of the Gods. (More books to read! If they’re half as loveable as this series, I’m in.) British widow Louisa Durrell decides all of a sudden to move her four children from Bournemouth to the Greek island of Corfu, where the financially strained family will have a better chance of scraping by. Antics ensue. Corfu has no electricity, there are animals everywhere, and the Greeks vary in their willingness to accept strangers. But delightful characters abound. The four Durrell kids (ranging from teens to early twenties) are a hoot; the youngest (Gerald himself) adopts every creature he can put his hands on. I would follow this series anywhere.

Old news, but in the interest of completeness: I am up to date on The Walking Dead which I have long loved, although yes, they frustrate me more every season. I think I’m in to the end, but the producers seem determined to test the bounds of my love. And I’ve seen all of Breaking Bad, but had mixed feelings. I found Walter White a little less ambiguous than I think he was intended to be – I didn’t like him enough (even within the bounds of ambivalence, and I do love ambivalence) to be entirely patient with the extended length of his torture of the more-loveable Jesse.

What excellent series am I missing that would fit into this list?

movie: The Watermelon Woman (1997)

This 1997 film is an autobiographical mock-umentary in which filmmaker Cheryl Dunye stars as “Cheryl,” more or less herself: a young Black lesbian working in a video store with her buddy Tamara, and working as well on a film project which documents her research into the identity of a historic Black female actor known in credits only as “the Watermelon Woman.” This actor played the “mammy” or kitchen/maid/”help” roles that were most of the available work for Black women of her time, the 1930s. Cheryl learns that this woman luckily lived in Philadelphia, where Cheryl also lives; she finds people who knew her; the research goes fairly well. At the same time, Cheryl meets and begins a romance with Diana – who is white, which causes friction with Tamara. Two plotlines, then: finding the Watermelon Woman, and navigating romance and relationships across race lines.

On the one hand, as some testy reviewers have pointed out, the script can be a little stilted, and the acting falters; a few lines are fumbled, and I wish they’d reshot those scenes. The research plotline, in particular, is overly simplistic: two friends drive from Philly to New York to get into a special lesbian archive (acronym C.L.I.T.) and are in and out in five minutes! The research is too easy, too quick. But, it’s all in service of a message, right? The film is all-around dated – but it’s over 20 years old, so, fair enough. Those reviewers who criticized jumpy camerawork just missed the message, though: it’s presented as hand-shot by relative amateurs, you guys. Remember Blair Witch Project?

On the other hand, this project is sweet, heartfelt, and in pursuit of the kinds of social work I’m absolutely behind. It was funny, and earnest. I kind of loved it.

Just before closing credits, the screen reads: “Sometimes you have to create your own history. The Watermelon Woman is fiction. Cheryl Dunye, 1996.” IMDB quotes her further: “The Watermelon Woman came from the real lack of any information about the lesbian and film history of African-American women. Since it wasn’t happening, I invented it.” In other words, the outlines of this story may well be true, but in the absence of even a sketchy “watermelon woman” to investigate, Dunye has allowed a fictional one to stand in for those lost to history. I dig this way of dealing with absence.

Poo-poo to the crabby critics. An imperfect but fine film.


Rating: 6 photographs.

From the Shelf: “Memoir: Commonalities in Differences”

This column ran on October 22, 2019 in Shelf Awareness for Readers.

I love reading: stories, novels, poetry, magazine articles, listicles, all sorts of things. But the genre that strikes closest to my heart is memoir. I love finding commonalities among differences, noting the ways we’re all tied together.

In The Wild Boy (Atria, $16.99), Paolo Cognetti recounts the year, at age 30, in which he returned to the Italian Alps with a sense of yearning for something earlier, simpler, purer. In these circumstances and in its literary cast, Cognetti’s memoir recalls Phillip Connors’s transcendent Fire Season (Ecco, $14.99), about a summer spent working as fire lookout in New Mexico’s Gila National Forest. Connors’s slim, moving book considers the history of fire management, family ties, solitude and so much more. That season became a career for Connors, and readers can follow his lovely, lyric writing, tender storytelling and heartbreak for the natural world in his sequel, A Song for the River (Cinco Puntos, $16.95).

Following numerous essays and novels (Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist, The Wake, Beast [all Graywolf, $16]), Paul Kingsnorth offers a vulnerable core of himself in Savage Gods (Two Dollar Radio, $14.99), a memoir in part of writer’s block and in part of the more general frustration, stagnation and despair brought about by years of fighting for the Earth and her nonhuman inhabitants. Only Kingsnorth could express anguish so beautifully–in the midst of a claimed inability to write.

Jennifer Croft’s Homesick (Unnamed Press, $28) is a stunning, layered memoir, with photos, that reveals a passionate fascination with language as well as the story of two sisters, their devotion and devastation. It is a stylistic masterpiece, a narrative puzzle and an intelligent book to get lost in. In its elegiac consideration of family, it is cousin to fine work like Kelly Grey Carlisle’s We Are All Shipwrecks (Sourcebooks, $15.99) and Jeannie Vanasco’s The Glass Eye (Tin House, $15.95).

movie: The North Star (1943)

By Source, Fair use, Link

Another quick movie review: I’ve had this one in a queue for a long time. Lillian Hellman wrote the screenplay for this drama about a Nazi attack on a Ukrainian collective farm, where the locals rather romantically undertake to defend their land and resist the greater power at whatever cost. Wikipedia says “the film was an unabashedly pro-Soviet propaganda film at the height of the war,” and they are not wrong. Romantic, yes; propaganda, yes; and yet it’s neatly done and who doesn’t sympathize with romantic guerrilla resistance to Nazis?? I certainly do, and I enjoyed this movie, found it heartwrenching even as I saw its machinery working to just that effect.

[In the 1950s, the House Un-American Activities Committee took exception, and the film was re-cut to remove the idealized portrayal of Soviet collective farms, and to include references to the Hungarian Uprising of 1956.]

Teenage romance, children and pets, a principled stand taken by an aging doctor, homegrown guerrilla tactics, hometown pride, fraternal bickerings set aside in the face of larger enemies – I say The North Star has it all. I was impressed that this one from all the way back in 1943 was available for free on Amazon Prime (Amazon is evil but here we are). Go check it out.


Rating: 7 guns.

movie: Wonder Boys (2000)

Quick review here… as I got ready to start my new teaching job, a friend said I should watch this movie I’d never heard of. There were a few moments that were silly enough that I rolled my eyes briefly, but overall I have to say, this was hilarious and moving and yes, recognizable. I’m pleased I spent an evening this way.

Great cast with Michael Douglas as the maybe-slightly-washed-up writing professor, Tobey Maguire as weirdo student, Katie Holmes as higher-achieving student who wants to sleep with her professor, Frances McDormand as chancellor who really is sleeping with the professor, Robert Downey Jr. as his editor, and more. (I had to double-check my memory but yes, Tobey Maguire was Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby movie. The two roles echo each other a bit.) The plot has it all: an admired novelist struggling to complete his second novel; jealousy of a talented student; academic office politics; sex and betrayal; industry and professional bullshit; a louche Robert Downey Jr. Like I said, there was a bit of silliness, but there were a lot of laughs. Several times I scared my little dog with sudden loud belly laughs. I was as surprised as he was.

Oh, and it’s marketed as a rom-com… I was less taken with the love story than that, but there was so much to hear to admire.

And no, to answer Barrett’s question, I do not intend to be this close with my students. More boundaries, please.


Rating: 7 dogs.

on stories

Stories live, especially when they are freed from the chains imposed on them by the written word. Even within those chains, there is freedom of movement. I have written two novels from the strange space of unknowing which grows around you when a story approaches and makes demands. I have had demands made of me by magical goldsmiths and pagan gods and black cats, and after a while you learn that there is nothing to do but open yourself up. There is nothing to do but be open.

–Paul Kingsnorth, Savage Gods

I will tell a story. I must tell a story. My greatgrandfather Timmy Cooney told stories. He walked and told stories. That’s what he did all his life. He couldn’t stop walking after the Hunger. He walked and walked. There are stories in the air as thick as birds around me, he would say. I will save those stories from starving, he would say. I have a great hunger for stories, he would say. He always walked west. That was his way. To the west was Tir na nOg, the Country of the Young, the Country of the Blessed, where no one ever grew old and no one ever was hungry. It was near to you when you heard bells, he would say. Some people said it was under a lake and some said a river but Timmy Cooney said it was under the great ocean to the west. Sometimes he saw it shimmering there. He would stand ar chostai, on the shore, and sing and tell stories. He said you could reach that country on the back of a white horse. You could live there for a hundred years and it would be the blink of an eye here. You could come back but woe to you if your foot touched the ground. You had to stay on the white horse. That horse would take you from one country to the other. It was a very good horse. There are more holy horses and holy countries than we will ever know, he would say. The way to find those countries is by telling stories. You can eat stories if you have to, he would say. A good story is a very good thing to eat. If you have a true story and some good water you will be all right, he would say. He would sit and listen to people for a long time without moving. He wanted to hear their true stories, he would say. If people die young their stories haven’t been told enough and there is no rest for them, he would say. Their stories are too hungry. I will save those stories from starving, he would say. Sometimes he would tell stories about stories. The stories of children are green, he would say, and the stories of women are blue, and the stories of men are red. You can walk right through a story on the road or in the woods and only hear one word from it, he would say. Or you can sit down inside a story and hear the whole story. Then the story is inside you. You can eat an infinite number of stories. No one can ever eat too many stories. When you have saved enough stories from starving then you will see Tir na nOg, the Country of the Blessed, where no one ever grows old and no one ever is hungry. Geabhaedh tu an sonas aer pighin, he would say, in that country you will find joys as common as pennies, as thick in the air as birds around you.

–the voice of Owen Cooney in Brian Doyle’s Mink River


Doyle has written some astounding lines about stories elsewhere, too, for example in The Adventures of John Carson in Several Quarters of the World, but I do not have those in front of me now. There is still a world of Doyle to be explored, which is small consolation for the loss of the man and the stories he had yet to tell, but I will study what we have here and be grateful. I have a great hunger for stories.



Edit: After finishing this post, I came across this weird, delightful article about the stories Gabriel García Márquez carried around with him. I love collections and I love stories, and I love the weird and delightful, and I thought these belonged here.

movie: Matewan (1987)

Having recently visited the museum, I knew I had to track down this movie, which was not easy – thanks Barrett for your help!

Matewan is the retelling of the story of Bloody Mingo County and the Battle of Matewan, where the humble coal miners stood up to the bosses and lives were lost. It’s an iconic story in American labor rights history, and it’s movingly told here.

We begin with Joe Kenehan (Chris Cooper, in his film debut) arriving in the town of Matewan, West Virginia as a union organizer sent to help the locals with their ongoing strike. (I was immediately reminded of the adage that there are only two stories in the world: a person goes on a journey, or a stranger comes to town.) On the same train that brings Kenehan are a group of Black miners from Alabama who are being brought in as strike-breakers; the local miners attack these men before they even reach Matewan, presaging racism and violence that will plague organizing efforts. Kenehan exhorts the locals, however, telling them that it’s workers against bosses, not white against Black or anybody else (there is a recently arrived group of Italian miners in town, too).

It’s uphill work getting the white WV miners to let Blacks and Italians into the union, just as it’s uphill work getting the latter groups to strike, but Kenehan’s speeches, and the poor conditions and disrespect of the mine bosses, do achieve this. Everyone puts down their tools; the miners and their families construct a tent city on the edge of town (as their housing is all company-owned), and the workers bumpily navigate their union. Meanwhile, hired guns with the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency try repeatedly to do the work of intimidation: evictions, repossession of food and furnishings, and general pressure and violence. They are repeatedly thwarted by the town’s major and sheriff, and once by armed “hill people” from outside of town. For a time, it looks like the ragtag union bunch are well-positioned to win their fight, because of the tight local community. But hanging over this impression is knowledge that the company, and Baldwin-Felts, has only to bring in more and bigger guns, and eventually the town will be outnumbered.

The action of Matewan proceeds from Kenehan’s arrival through organizing and early conflicts and concludes just after the Battle of Matewan, the shootout where the mayor and Kenehan, and seven Baldwin-Felts guys, are killed. Voiceover by Danny from a later date (he is now a grown man, and still a coal miner) indicates that the union was eventually defeated in the West Virginia Mine Wars by the US military, and that conditions have more or less returned to their starting point.

Remarkable characters include the boarding-house proprietress who initially puts Kenehan up – a miner’s widow – and her teenage son Danny, a coal miner, budding Baptist preacher, and passionate union man; Few Clothes (delightfully played here by James Earl Jones), leader of the Black contingent; a flirtatious widow with a role to play; and two miners’ wives in the camp, one West Virginian and one Italian, who begin as antagonists but forge a friendship even without benefit of a common language. Several miners, union men and Baldwin-Felts thugs play individual roles, as well, but these are less developed personalities. While there is no question that this is a film with a message and that takes a side, these flawed human characters make it something more and better than propaganda.

While Few Clothes, the sheriff and mayor, and several union men and Baldwin-Felts guys were true historical characters, Kenehan and Danny are both inventions for the purpose of this film. On the one hand, I find they work very well as central characters to focus our sympathies and make the story come alive. On the other hand, I regret that it took fictional characters to do this work, and I wonder if the same emotional results could have been achieved using only true figures. I believe so; but I guess it would have been harder to focus it, with a larger cast and no one central hero like Kenehan. But isn’t that a beautiful fact of the union, that there is no one, single hero?

True events are also compressed, and sometimes conflated. I feel more forgiving of this move; this being not history, but a stylized version thereof, it’s okay with me that we made the storyline a little tighter and easier to follow, and more dramatic for its brevity. Inserting a fictional central hero feels less faithful to me that compressing a timeline. Maybe that’s just me? At any rate, if you’re learning the history of Matewan and West Virginia’s Mine Wars, do look further than this film, excellent though it is. (This should go without saying and applies to all historical fiction.)

Although a sad story and therefore hard to watch, I found this movie also beautiful and well done. I appreciated the cinematography, darkness and shadow moving, the feelings of tragedy and betrayal; it made me cry. I highly recommend it, if you can find it. Know your history, friends.


Rating: 7 rabbits.
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