The best show not on TV

TV critics are open to the idea that a web series could be the best show around. They’ve just picked the wrong one. According to Metacritic, critics’ favorite new show this fall is Amazon Video’s Transparent (admittedly a brilliant title), a show about Mort Pfefferman’s announcement to his adult children that he’s actually Maura, a woman. I must be missing something, but I don’t see what they’re seeing. It can’t just be that critics are eager to praise a show for finally foregrounding a trans character: they’ve already fallen all over themselves for prison-joke-show Orange is the New Black, which, like Transparent, never seems to be sure if it’s a comedy or a drama and therefore suffers when it tries to be either. In the latter, Jeffrey Tambor plays Mort and Maura, and he’s a pleasure to watch, but he doesn’t have much to work with: his children are entitled, upper-class Californians who don’t want to learn or change and we wouldn’t want to relate to even if we could. The writing is often clumsy; in the first four episodes (which critics saw for initial reviews) I’ve cringed at least once in every scene without Tambor.

The web series that everyone should be talking about (and some people were talking in 2012-13, but not enough) is High Maintenance, on Vimeo. Metacritic doesn’t aggregate reviews for it, even though it’s been extolled in the New Yorker, the New Republic, Slate, and elsewhere. (Note: I emailed and tweeted to Metacritic inquiring about the absence and haven’t heard back.)

Screen Shot 2014-12-11 at 11.43.52 AMHigh Maintenance’s running thread is The Guy, an anonymous pot dealer played by show co-creator Ben Sinclair, who bikes to deliver to each episode’s real main character. Some characters recur, starring in some episodes and in the background of others. Every episode is funny, insightful, thoughtfully constructed and scored and filmed. None are really about marijuana, but several characters use it in various ways: as a crutch, conversation starter, self-medication, escape. But that’s rarely the point either. Most bring a life lesson of sorts, and character insights, but they’re conveyed as casually as The Guy slipping you an eighth, with enough respect for the audience not to beat us over the head.

FX courted Sinclair and Katja Blichfeld, his wife and co-creator, for a cable deal, but thankfully they stayed online. For High Maintenance’s newest season, you’ll have to pay per episode or, the better deal, for the full season, but it’s well worth it.

Previously, episodes ranged from 5 to 16 minutes long, and the first few of the new season are a little longer, 14-18. Vimeo is releasing these new episodes in bursts: the first three are out now, the next three are out in January, and so forth.

The first episode of the newest season is the best, while the other two are good examples of what happens when the series strays from its strengths. Watch the shows first if you want to avoid spoilers. In the first episode, “Ruth,” The Guy connects two of his clients, both single New Yorkers looking to be matched up. They have a nice first date, but no sparks fly — no big risks were taken, but they both felt comfortable: they smoked in the park, asked bizarre questions, shared a goodnight kiss. Then it turns out she kept a secret that The Guy accidentally spilled: she had stomach cancer. On their second date, while cooking peppers, the man tries to hide that he knows, the woman confronts him, and tension holds. Just at that moment, when their potential energy is waiting to be released or made kinetic, he goes to the bathroom, and gets jalapeño on his dick. The night’s plans are ruined, made both more and less intimate than planned. They share a hilarious recovery, she spends the night, and there’s a poignant turning point the next morning.

The subtle point, narratively, is that The Guy set them up and almost derailed their connection, but his returning to the story kept it moving. The Guy is the audience conduit, the interlocutor, keeping it real. He’s always insightful, always knows what to say. He meets New York’s weirdest but refuses to judge, instead indulging those who sometimes order weed just to socialize. His relative absence from the next two episodes allowed them to drift into caricature.

In “Genghis,” an asexual white magician named Evan quits his boring job to assistant teach underprivileged black kids in Brooklyn. Aside from his sexual non-orientation, this one hits all the stereotypes: the black kids don’t give a shit, the regular teacher doesn’t care either, and the white guy is doofy and everyone laughs at him. At conferences behind the scenes, Evan learns that all the teachers are resigned to prejudice and discipline and have given up on teaching and positivity. The episode’s best line is a throwaway by none of the main characters, delivered in sign language: a rejected actor signs, “I thought doing that fat girl monologue from Louie was such a good idea.” The lesson here is that Evan needs to grow up, but it’s too obvious: we get that he’s childish, after montages of him playing games, doing magic tricks, and watching cartoons, that’s plenty clear. The message is sent when it’s mirrored by his childlike naivety in thinking he could stroll into Brooklyn and make a difference. Had The Guy been more involved earlier on, he could’ve told Evan that sooner. He may not judge, but his wisdom is worth listening to.

In “Geiger,” a woman’s extended nightmare about her boyfriend becoming an extreme survivalist is echoed uncannily in real life. In the dream, which takes up the first half of the episode, fiancé Andrew delves into the world of preppers, and persuades Lucy to become hyper-prepared too. When she wakes up, she smokes a bowl, and maps out their wedding seating with Post-Its. The next day, he drops a wildly unsubtle line, “It’s not the end of the world.”

Then the focus shifts to her anxiety, with Andrew asking if she took her Xanax, and then calling up The Guy, saying Lucy “needs it.” Andrew pressures him for a pound of weed, and when he won’t go for it, Andrew wants his seller’s information. The Guy tells him he can get seeds online, and Andrew becomes obsessed. The fable about how over-focusing on the future prevents you from appreciating the present is far too heavy-handed to enjoy. We got the message in both halves (the dream and reality), didn’t need both, and either one could’ve been cut down. What would’ve been more effective is to cut out the dream and instead draw out The Guy’s concurrent story, in which he visits an AMSR YouTuber and tries to understand her process. Just those few seconds are the episode’s best. The YouTuber is Andrew’s extreme opposite, completely in the present moment, enjoying how the weed bag’s crinkle triggers a “wonderful” sensory reaction. Cut back to Andrew, whom we assume Lucy will soon be leaving. The contrast would’ve still made Andrew’s obsession unnerving, but the lesson wouldn’t be so clumsily implied.

But none of that takes away from the touching, understated lyricism of “Ruth,” nor from High Maintenance’s past episodes, filled with touching, understated moments. In “Stevie,” The Guy offends an uptight client when he reads her pill bottle, but he’s quickly disarming, and by the end of the seven-minute episode, the phone she couldn’t put down before she’s now throwing in the toilet. In “Jonathan,” a dissatisfied comedian suddenly has to cope with an act of violence. Each one is subtle, different from the rest, and different from anything on TV.

Maybe some critics aren’t giving it the time of day because some episodes are so short, some just a few minutes long. But consider the way Louie, heralded as narratively groundbreaking, comprises two 15-minute segments (with commercials, so closer to 11). And why should High Maintenance have to fit into cable-TV lengths? That was likely an enticing point of avoiding FX’s offer — the freedom to end episodes when the stories end, no filler needed. It is this type of consideration that makes High Maintenance well worth your time, and worth a little more of TV critics’ attention.

Hello to Language: on the words Godard inspired

Fandor’s Michael Atkinson lays out the ways in which even normally perceptive critics have been stupefied by Jean-Luc Godard’s latest film, Goodbye to Language, forgetting that narratively unconventional doesn’t mean incomprehensible and walking on critical eggshells as they warn viewers that they might have to do a little brain-work instead of watching passively. Lou Lumenick, who writes of Godard’s “private language only film critics and Upper West Side audiences pretend to understand at this point,” is the least subtle of these, but writing for the New York Post, he’s also the easiest fish in the barrel to shoot. Atkinson thankfully aims his sights a little higher.

The New York Times‘ A.O. Scott, no slouch generally, windily maintains that Godard “seems to divide the world into skeptics and worshipers, with not much middle ground,” hardly bothering to make a case as to what a middle ground would look like, or why the “skeptics” (as if Godard is a conspiracy theorist) are simply moviegoers that do not or will not consider anything out of the structural mainstream.


The routinely astute Andrew O’Hehir, at Salon, even seemed at a loss, writing what he said might be a “reader-proof” review of what might be a “viewer-proof” movie—gingerly saying that you “have to cast aside preconceptions about movies being entertaining, or at least about what you think that means, in order to enjoy Goodbye to Language, and that’s not possible for everybody.”

I could add to the critique. Atkinson says Eric Kohn “gets” Godard but his review also calls it “baffling,” “esoteric,” and “dense.” The always thoughtful Bilge Ebiri opens a positive review, “I’ve now seen Jean-Luc Godard’s latest film twice, and I think I might be one more viewing away from finally being able to say what the hell it’s about.”

It’s actually not very difficult to enjoy, and it’s not as purely cerebral as even its advocates make it seem, by which I mean it’s also viscerally fun and fascinating and challenging and worthwhile. Continue reading “Hello to Language: on the words Godard inspired”

Pathologizing Vivian Maier

Vivian Maier’s street photography is worthy of a Museum of Modern Art installation — whether she’d have wanted it displayed there is another question. Maier was a nanny for decades, all the while creating fantastic photographs, shooting from her waist-level Roliflex as she escorted children around Chicago. Collector John Maloof stumbled upon a trove of her stunningly reflective, beautifully composed negatives of city characters at an auction after her death, and subsequently applauded himself for Finding Vivian Maier in a documentary that hit U.S. theaters in March.

It was a treat to see Maier’s black and white perspective on the big screen — her candid shots are evocative, varied, and fresh, reminiscent of Leon Levinstein or Robert Frank, and still breathing more than fifty years later. She had a keen eye for poignant moments and lively characters, but she also took penetrating self-portraits and more abstract street shots.

But it quickly became clear that Maloof was more interested in painting Maier as an oddball than in understanding her ostensible contradictions, and worse, in pathologizing her double life to cast aspersions on her motives. “Why would a nanny be taking all these pictures?” he asks, as if the two are somehow mutually exclusive. He might have asked about Wallace Stevens, ‘Why would an insurance agent be writing all these poems?’ Maloof implies a romanticized ideal of the artist without any real-world evidence that giving up her day job would’ve made Maier a better photographer. As it was, Maier supervised children for so many years and still managed to take hundreds of thousands of top-notch stills. Continue reading “Pathologizing Vivian Maier”

Mourning Phase

Beck has learned to say goodbye, he’s endured i-so-la-tion, someone or he himself remains unforgiven. He may have dropped the “u” for the title, but in his Morning Phase, Beck is grieving. He’s also slowly resigning himself to the consistency of change, and his new album is gorgeous and sad and comforting all at once.

Morning, sunrise, and “waking light” all herald CHANGE in big — if fuzzy — letters. Something is new. She is gone. The bed is bigger and colder and your arms feel weirdly long when you don’t need them to wrap someone else closer. Continue reading “Mourning Phase”

Alex Gibney’s response to my ‘We Steal Secrets’ review

Documentary filmmaker Alex Gibney responds in full to my critical review of his film on WikiLeaks whistleblower Chelsea Manning, “We Steal Secrets”

On May 24, 2013, I reviewed Alex Gibney’s WikiLeaks/Bradley Manning film ‘We Steal Secrets,’ focusing on its portrayal of Pfc. Bradley Manning. Read that review here. Alex Gibney wrote me a letter in response, reprinted in full below:

Dear Nathan:

I read your recent review of “We Steal Secrets: the Story of WikiLeaks.”

I have great respect for the work that you have done and continue to do on behalf of Bradley Manning.  With that in mind, let me express my disagreement with a number of your assertions about my film.  I do not expect you to share my views, but I would hope that you hear them. Continue reading “Alex Gibney’s response to my ‘We Steal Secrets’ review”

What ‘We Steal Secrets’ leaves out

The portrait of Manning is one of pity more than empathy, that makes us feel bad for Manning rather than take a serious interest in [her] beliefs and plight

This review was first posted here on May 24, 2013

Alex Gibney’s “We Steal Secrets” chronicles WikiLeaks’ front-page, world-shocking 2010 leaks from inception to publication to aftermath, framing WikiLeaks’ work as a meteoric rise giving way to a self-incurred implosion.

While I find fault with this view, and even its premise that WikiLeaks has failed and died (the site continues to publish Stratfor emails and Kissinger files, it just won an important Icelandic victory to resume accepting donations through Visa interlocutors, and the Freedom of the Press foundation continues to funnel anonymous contributions its way), I’d rather let others dissect its portrayal of Assange and WikiLeaks and instead focus on how it characterizes Bradley Manning. (Read WikiLeaks’ annotated copy of the film’s script here.)

Earlier this year, we took issue with some of director Alex Gibney’s comments associating whistleblowing with alienation, pathologizing Manning’s leaks and undermining his political values. Producer Sam Black emailed to assure us that, in fact, Bradley Manning is “a hero in the film. He is the moral and emotional center of a complex story about what should and should not be secret.”

Though the movie does laudably transition away from its opening focus on Julian Assange by reminding viewers that Manning is the courageous whistleblower who deserves at least as much public attention, Manning’s story only makes it into about a quarter of the two-hour film, which quotes journalists, former WikiLeaks members, high-ranking government officials, and fellow soldiers.

The time that is spent on Manning leaves much to be desired, and what it leaves out is as much to blame as what it includes. Ultimately, the resulting portrait of Bradley Manning is one of pity more than empathy, one that makes us feel bad for Manning rather than take a serious interest in his beliefs and his plight. Continue reading “What ‘We Steal Secrets’ leaves out”

2012 albums

Ten of my favorite albums from 2012, mostly for posterity, in no particular order — check here for links to a playlist and a favorite song from each album

220px-Hot_Chip_-_In_Our_Heads_album_coverSome of my favorite albums from this year

Playlist: 2 songs from each. Links below go to full albums.

Hot Chip //  In Our Heads

Kendrick Lamar // Good Kid M.A.A.D. City

Beach House // Bloom

Pet Shop Boys // Elysium

Grizzly Bear // Shields

The Shins // Port of Morrow

bloom-bigFrank Ocean // channel ORANGE

David Byrne & St. Vincent // Love this Giant

The Magnetic Fields // Love at the Bottom of the Sea

Grimes // Visions

2011 albums

Posting for posterity: the 2011 albums I’ll want to remember — each album name links to a favorite song from that record

posting for posterity: the 2011 albums I’ll want to remember – album names link to a favorite song from that cd

war on drugs // slave ambient

cults // cults

adele // 21

fleet foxes // helplessness blues

bon iver // bon iver

the decemberists // the king is dead

beyonce // 4

st. vincent // strange mercy

das racist // relax

radiohead // the king of limbs

wilco // the whole love

wild flag // wild flag

tune-yards // whokill

tom waits // bad as me

feist // metals

dawes // nothing is wrong