As I’ve previously mentioned one of my absolutely favorite things about living where I do is that I can walk to see Joe Swanberg show off a secret film, and when I heard he was bringing his secret screenings back this year, I absolutely glowed and immediately bought a solo ticket.
I’ve been to a lot of film fests and special film events. Normally they’re all dudebros and posturing and bullshit and I want nothing to do with it but watch the film and walk out and grab a drink elsewhere and think for a while.
That’s not Swanberg’s Secret Screenings at the Davis Theater. I don’t know anyone there, but it has a communal atmosphere. We’re all there to be delighted, enthralled, disgusted, or even disappointed, but to revel in the experience!
And wow, what a gloriously stupid experience this was.
When I walked into the theater, I’d overheard Swanberg saying ‘…yeah, it’s not as brutal as the last film. It’s lighter!’ because he’s there, doing the work, still handing out flyers for his events like a 16-year-old, and I love it.
A FOLDED OCEAN is an absolutely brutal body horror short film from the FX artist of EVERYTHING EVERYWHERE ALL AT ONCE, which can be boiled down to absolution and lust, and what can come from that.
Then it took a good hour for them to figure out how to project the actual secret screening! And everyone was so patient, and reached out to everyone and talked to everyone in an extremely mindful way! I normally have my nose stuck in a book, which is 100% visually coding for: do not talk to me, but people did, and I did not mind it!
(They ended up handing out free beers to everyone — and everyone already had free beers with their tickets — and when I accepted one, they asked: do you want a second one? I indulge, but I don’t double-fist because that’s crass and stupid, so I said no, and my theatrical neighbor sarcastically quipped: ‘Do you want a six pack?’ and I couldn’t help but snort-laugh.)
SMOKING CAUSES COUGHING is essentially an anthology series — the trailer will try to fool you but the superhero schtick is just the framing device. It’s penned and directed by one person: Quentin Dupieux, of RUBBER and DEERSKIN fame. I will admit: I didn’t become a fan of his until DEERSKIN. That was the moment when I was like: okay, he’s graduated to penning proper narratives instead of self-indulgent experimental, navel-gazing works.
SMOKING CAUSES COUGHING is his best work yet, and most effective. The first story was so effective that my mind has blacked it out — not because of the free beers, but because it fucked me up. Do not go into this thinking it’ll be a fun lark, because it is not, but it’s a well-told weaving of stories, akin to THE COMPANY OF WOLVES. It’s affecting, occasionally funny, but often traumatic.
This game contains depictions of abduction, abuse, familial death and suicide. To prevent spoilers, I side-step mentioning most of those details, but not all.
LIFE IS STRANGE is an interactive narrative-forward videogame from French developer DONTNOD (now known as Don’t Nod). The game will be eight years old around the time of publishing this post. In other words, a tad more than a full teenage generation, which is fitting for a work that focuses so much on the time between being a youth and being considered an adult. It’s a game that zeroes in on how every choice — and the results of your choices — feel amplified, how the choices ripple through your life, and how you may learn to regret or embrace it. It’s also a game about highlighting traumatic incidents you’ve lived through and whether you are willing to confront them or push them aside. Often, the choice is up to you, but also intractable.
LIFE IS STRANGE takes place in the sleepy town of Arcadia Bay, Oregon, a fictional burg that was once fine waters for fisherman, at least before an old-money family by the name of the Prescotts strip-mined the area. While doing so, they buy out the long-standing local elite school for gifted artists and scientists: Blackwell Academy. (It’s worth noting that Blackwell is a rather loaded name, given Shirley Jackson’s WE HAVE ALWAYS LIVED IN THE CASTLE.)
You play as Maxine Caulfield, an aspiring photographer who goes by the shorthand ‘Max’. Max previously lived in Arcadia Bay, spending most of her free time with best friend and science nerd Chloe Price, at least until Max’s family moved to Seattle when Max was was an early teen. Unfortunately, right around the same day Max moved to Seattle, Chloe’s father died in a car accident.
Max attended the funeral, left town, and never contacted Chloe the entire time she lived near the spire.
Five years later, Max is back in Arcadia Bay to attend classes at Blackwell taught by her favorite living photographer: Mark Jefferson. In the meantime, Chloe has dropped out of Blackwell, having become a quintessential burnout punk — all dyed hair and anger issues — but is also desperately in search for one Rachel Amber, a gregarious all-star Blackwell student, and the person that helped prop Chloe up after Max had left. Rachel has been missing for six months and, while her family and police assume she’s just jaunted off to Los Angeles to act or model, Chloe knows better, and plasters the town with MISSING flyers.
Inexplicably, Max becomes imbued with the ability to rewind time, which allows her to save her prior best friend from being shot in a Blackwell bathroom — despite not even recognizing Chloe, thanks to five years of passage, as well as her newly shorn and cyan-colored hair.
Matters escalate in a very neo-noir/VERONICA MARS sort of way that includes all sorts of teen high school drama, drugs, men taking terrible advantage of their positions and power, you have a number of romance options and oh, Arcadia Bay might be totalled by an F6 tornado that only Max can foresee, and very few folks believe her.
In other words, this is perfect teenage fodder: small decisions result in huge consequences, emotions are perpetually heightened, your protagonist is gifted and has superpowers, and everyone is thirsty.
While LIFE IS STRANGE is an interactive narrative work, it manages its gameplay elements better than similar story-first games: the time-rewind feature is perfectly honed for a game where the result of choices ripple, and the interface for newly discovered dialogue branches is far better than anything BioWare has come up with. The visual design is artfully simple while also being striking with its colorful hues and stylized environments — especially notable is how it portrays Oregon, all lush leaves and wind streaked. While it’s not my home state of Vermont, it evokes that same rustic, rural feeling.
However, the real appeal here is in the character work: Max is a shy, restrained nerd and surrounded herself by similar folks. Chloe is a problem in search of a solution, a frustrated youth who lashes out unpredictably and still lives with her mother who works at the local diner. When Max and Chloe reunite, the game crystalizes; if you were lucky enough to have a best-friend as a teen, especially if you two were weirdo misfits, this game will almost certainly hit amazingly close-to-home. If you weren’t, it’s such an earnest and honest and emotional depiction that you’ll still feel their bond, their strife, their push-and-pull.
I know a lot of folks feel like the game cribs from TWIN PEAKS. It’s literally spelled out on Chloe’s license plate, and it mimics a lot of the ‘small town with secrets’ vibe. However — thematically — I don’t feel it, even though it does indulge in abused/dead girl tropes. The game is about survival and confronting circumstances, as opposed to innocence lost, unheard pain and senseless death. Does it dovetail with TWIN PEAKS? Yes. But no one here is actually Laura Palmer, the crux of a town.
I first played LIFE IS STRANGE way back in 2015, as the episodes were slowly doled out. As such, I forgot a lot over time, but certain scenes you do not forget. To be blunt: the ending? Spoiler alert: there is no good ending, although you’re still forced to choose one.
It’s rare that I replay games. I often say it’s a time thing, but more often than not it’s about retaining my initial experience of the game, how I felt about the characters and environments and conflicts and obstacles and victories. Also, most videogames are narratively linear, even if they pretend they aren’t, and most videogame stories suck. Sure, you occasionally have a SILENT HILL 2 that upends everything, but more often than not, it’s just banal. And that’s fine and I find fun in it!
I did replay LIFE IS STRANGE a few weeks ago. (I’ll note that I haven’t played the remastered version.) The entire game came back to me as I advanced chapter-by-chapter, not unlike how memories would unfold for Max. I remembered the choices I made. I remembered the choices I wish I hadn’t been forced to make.
I made a few different choices this time around, but mostly skewed to trying to be a good friend like I did the first time. This time around, I did kiss Chloe, but then felt bad because they’re really only always going to be friends and Max — well, my Max — is pretty straight and it just felt weird and awkward, and the game plays it out that way. This isn’t a story about queer awakening — it’s a story about friendship.
However: that’s exactly why this game, this series exists: it recreates the awkwardness of becoming an young adult, and the culmination of everything and everyone that influences it, as well as everyone who supports — or exploits — you along the way.
Emotionally, it is a lot, and in more than a few ways I don’t love how the game ladles on momentous decisions as it didn’t need to push so hard. However, upon replaying, I slowly and sadly came to realize that this one game is firmly focused on reconciling losing close friendships and ties.
It’s a game I wish I had as a teen, but I’m so happy that it exists now, and so ecstatic to see what it inspires in the generations to come.
Me, to myself: “Wait, seriously? I’ve never written anything about San Junipero?”
Me, checks my archives. “Nope.”
Me: “Seriously? Never?!”
Me: “Apart from bending everyone’s ear about it and repeatedly watching it with your wife, nope, but it’s Valentine’s Day and you already wrote about HARLEY QUINN so hey, you be you.”
Obviously, the show BLACK MIRROR has become shorthand for dystopian anthology nightmare fuel, and rightly so. It’s intentionally subversive in all of the well-meaning ways, but also usually in very oft-putting ways. The show literally kicked off with the prime minister fucking a pig, which ended up being more truth than fiction somehow.
However, San Junipero is something different, and something I’ve desperately missed with speculative fiction. I’m old enough to feel terribly beaten down by the world for so many goddamn reasons, I often just want a few creature comforts. I’ve had too much of the unrelenting misery porn of the past 15+ years of what passes as ‘high-concept melodrama’. At least THE SOPRANOS had its moments of levity as opposed to say, the nihilism of THE WALKING DEAD. (At least THE LAST OF US has a lot of dad jokes, but those are all penned by fathers inserting words into daughter figures so …yeah.)
San Junipero delivers all of the goods: it’s a very sweet meet-cute, it’s an adorable and safe and welcoming queer story, and it’s a sweeping romance that goes through ages that -also- manages to be wildly sci-fi.
It has everything and delivers it in under a goddamn hour and it is amazing, but it’s also astounding because it’s literally the story of someone finding a safe space, and finding accepting (and sometimes loving) arms.
I’ve written briefly about this before, but I cannot underscore it enough: find a space where you feel comfortable. Surround yourself by folks who don’t judge you, folks you can talk to. Find a loving partner that accepts you. If you can, move somewhere that is explicitly know for being accepting.
San Junipero espouses all of that and does so in a vividly entertaining way! It’s all about misfits reaching out, helping each other, moving on, but also being in the same orbit, and it scarily mirrors parts of my club-centric youth.
It is a surprisingly hopeful and non-traumatizing depiction of a long-lasting relationship, and the goddamn episode makes me glow every time I watch it. It’s emblematic of just wanting the best for your protagonists, your favs, those you muse over, and also yourself, and they get a proper and heartfelt ending.
It is legitimately one of my favorite pieces of media in years, and again, I can’t believe I haven’t penned hundreds of words about it already, but here we are.
OH! And goddamn, the needle drops! Best use of “Heaven is a Place on Earth” ever. Just watch it already. I’ll shut up now.
This was not a great year for prestige films or flyboy-less blockbusters, but it was a fantastic year for small-scale genre films. Granted, I have missed out on a lot of films — I have yet to see ARMAGEDDON TIME or EO or WOMEN TALKING or a bunch of others as there’s never enough time — but below are my current favorites of 2022.
Brilliantly nuanced work about youth and child rearing. One of the most intriguing body horror films since Cronenberg’s THE FLY.
EVERYTHING EVERYWHERE ALL AT ONCE
“[An] absolutely outrageous film; it’s mind-bogglingly high-concept, often amusingly puerile, always inventive, but also remarkably emotionally grounded.”
MARCEL THE SHELL WITH SHOES ON
“This is a quiet film, both in tone and in scope, but it confidently speaks volumes. It’s a work about ennui and minor victories and emotional stumbles while also being about longing for an accepting crowd. It’s a melancholy, complicated film told simply, one that’s destined for cult status, simply because it defies tonal categorization or, perhaps, because it’s so cute, so initially innocuous, while ultimately being a measured existential tale, one so immaculately put together in a way that will almost certainly have you smiling through tears.”
High-concept filmmaking with the heart of Cahiers du Cinéma; an audacious look at Hollywood’s role in representing history and people.
The film that made me ask myself: “Why the fuck do I put myself through this?” A brazen and tautly constructed spiral of trauma.
WE’RE ALL GOING TO THE WORLD’S FAIR
“A meditation on finding one’s identity and transformation [and] how people reach out through technology when there’s no other way. It’s a heartfelt, singular work.”
Cronenberg returns to body horror in a big way, letting Kristen Stewart do whatever she wants, indulging Viggo Mortensen in breath work, all while showcasing Tarkovsky-esque backdrops.
If life is fair — and we all know it is not — this film will become a cult-classic, at least as long as long as it’s available to stream. It starts off as a private high-school STRANGERS ON A TRAIN and then becomes something completely different, all backed by an astounding 90s soundtrack. Shades of a modern JAWBREAKER from the creators of SWEET/VICIOUS.
MRS. HARRIS GOES TO PARIS
Extraordinarily winsome character drama that puts the delights and desires of the best features of attire forward.
A surprising “paean to 50s Technicolor melodramas” from one of the most humanist genre filmmakers working right now.
(PC/PS4/PS5) From The Chinese Room and Dan Pinchback, the developer of DEAR ESTER — which can probably lay claim to being one of the most popular ‘walking simulators’ — came this extraordinarily fascinating and exceedingly measured look at an apocalyptic scientific event in a small English town.
It’s all there in the name: EVERYBODY’S GONE TO THE RAPTURE. Scientific forces are toyed with, and an entire town’s inhabitants disappear. ‘You’ discover their memories and piece together the event that unfolded.
Some might not label this as horror as it’s quite bloodless — in fact, if you didn’t know the context of why you’re there, it might feel quite quaint and cozy to explore this verdant Shropshire locale — but you do know why you’re there, and you know peoples lives have disappeared, and they are not coming back. Despite being entirely different tonally, it reminds me a bit of Carpenter’s PRINCE OF DARKNESS: the result of unbridled science.
I’d be remiss not to mention Jessica Curry’s orchestral score, as it’s expertly composed and woven into the work; it’s perfectly melancholy with its swell of strings and ethereal vocals, and is often what I think of first when I think of this game.
(HBO MAX, for now) I’ve written about MADE FOR LOVE twice before — first concerning the initial HBO season and second regarding the original novel. Now I’m writing about the second and, sadly, final HBO season so, this will probably be the last time I’ll write about it.
Both the initial novel and the first HBO season dialed in on a very sloppy woman named Hazel who routinely made bad decisions and rarely thought about or regretted them, which lead to the trauma of being a woman escaping from a technological bubble created by Byron Gogol, an obsessive man’s technological spider-web. She ultimately gets roped back into the bubble — The Hub — but MADE FOR LOVE’s second season is a tad more flip, far more darkly comic, albeit at the cost of a lack of focus.
While the end of the first season of MADE FOR LOVE aptly set the stage for a second season — going against the grain of its source material, I’ll add — the second season feels like a wild swing for the fences; it tackles a number of wide-eyed high-concepts in ways that recalls cyberpunk classic MAX HEADROOM while still hewing close to its character study of Hazel’s difficult relationship with her father, how she can course-correct her life, and ultimately find a better version of her self.
There are times when the season feels rushed, however there are also a number of subplots and character arcs that feel tantalizing but sputter out — especially the reintroduction of Zelda, the dolphin that aided Hazel’s escape in season one. However, the highs exceed the lows — this season ventures into batshit-crazy territory and completely exploit the universe. I wish I could say why without spoiling matters.
Season two bites off more than it can chew, certainly, but goddamn it is an aspirational piece of high-concept work that utilizes tech and humanity in ways that feels revitalizing.
(Theaters/VOD soon) In this age of cheap film production values, of 4K cameras in every pocket, toaster box CGI readily-available, it’s odd that truly out-spoken, revolutionary DIY works seem to be less visible now than they were during the 90s, when you only had shitty digital cameras or bought the unused 16mm heads or tails from local TV shoots.
This is only one of a number of reasons why Saul Williams and Anisia Uzeyman’s NEPTUNE FROST is such a welcome and radical musical, one that embraces a lo-fi, DIY ethic, while still shooting for the stars, for having a globally disruptive message and still being absolutely wildly engaging.
Part-fairy tale, part-post-industrial capitalist nightmare, NEPTUNE FROST sings a number of songs of specially anointed individuals that find each other and then work to upturn the world through their technical abilities. NEPTUNE FROST is one of the most vibrant, most effective posterworks to extoll what can be accomplished by a lo-fi look: the film mostly eschews CGI — apart from some CG-centric motion and interface design late in the film — opting instead for some radical costume design, glowing make-up, black lights, and dumpster diving for CRT monitors, raw electronics, and tactile keyboard pieces.
The physicality of the disparate look of the revolutionaries sets NEPTUNE FROST apart in ways that so many other films would falter. This is a film that should be spoken alongside of REPO MAN, of TETSUO: THE IRON MAN, and other lo-fi class-centric punk films. It is an effective call to arms, one that I hope finds its audience.
If you do get a chance to see it in theaters, please do so: the soundtrack is astounding, and you will want to feel it surround you.
Caitlín R. Kiernan’s THE TINDALOS ASSET is the third and final novella in the TINFOIL DOSSIER trilogy, a fitting bookend to their confidently wild portrayal of mostly scumbags trying to reign in — or perpetuate — horrors both otherworldly and extra-dimensional. Like the other two novellas, it’s an absolutely wild ride of clipped thoughts, traumatic events both past, present (and some future), all occasionally interrupted by bouts of depravity.
THE TINDALOS ASSET returns to The Signalman, the binding character of the series, while spending much of its time in other Dreamland agents’ heads. In several ways, both in setting and inciting events, TINDALOS feels smaller in scope, far more than the epic, wide-ranging state-of-the-world relayed via the second book in the series, BLACK HELICOPTERS. That feels strange to say, given that TINDALOS is centered around very apocalyptic events, but it primarily takes place in only three locales: a hotel room, and airplane, and by a body of water. Between the limited locations and the amount of exposition and dialogue expelled between the major players, TINDALOS often comes across more like a stage play, as opposed to the unseeable weird fiction it is.
That TINDALOS feels more insular and focused more on the headspace of its characters and their actions and motives, and this approach is to be applauded! Each act in this grand work has its own texture, its own litany of surprises. Don’t enter weird fiction hoping for more-of-the-same with every installment, because if you do? You should find a different genre.
After reading AGENTS OF DREAMLAND I noted: “To riff on the ‘it’s not a season of TV, it’s a 12-hour movie’ sentiment, the TINFOIL DOSSIER series is not so much three novellas, but a three-part novel.” I wish I’d taken my own advice and binged the novellas like a season of TV. Reading the three novellas over the period of a few months under a year proved to be too spread out. To those who read these as they first appeared, especially those who followed it via piecemeal through anthologies and the like, I salute you. I wish I’d read them all in one big gulp, but in time — instead — I’ll simply re-read them, hopefully shortly after being told the release date of a TINFOIL DOSSIER film or TV adaptation.
I love adaptations. Part of it’s the writer in me, as I love to scrutinize how a work is transformed to fit a different medium. However, truthfully, most of it boils down to the fact that, as a youth, my parents wouldn’t allow me to watch anything racy or violent or swear-laden so instead I simply read the novel adaptation of a PG-13 or R-rated film instead which, as you might suspect, played fast-and-loose and often were far more taboo than the source material.
That said, a lot of modern adaptations disappoint me. (To be clear, we’re mostly talking about comic/novel to film/tv adaptations, because the heyday of film-to-novel adaptations has long passed.) They often hew too closely and lose their luster, or go wildly off-the-rails. Rarely is there an in-between.
I first watched MADE FOR LOVE and loved it and immediately ordered Alissa Nutting’s 2017 novel of the same name, curious as to how they’d handle the interiority of runaway wife Hazel Green. However, given how thrilling plotted and substantial the series was I figured they mostly followed the novel’s template and goosed a few scenes to play better visually.
That is not what they did. Instead, showrunner Christina Lee (SEARCH PARTY) enlisted Alissa Nutting (who also wrote the controversial novel TAMPA) to join the writers room and run with the core concept of Nutting’s novel: a desperately unhappy wife Hazel Green decides to leave her brilliant-but-psychopathic billionaire tech mogul Byron Gogol upon being told of his plan to ‘merge their minds together’ via a chip implant in her head. Hazel breaks free of his isolated work compound, leaving all of her belonging and any money behind, so she has no option but to crash at her widower father’s trailer home. Shortly after being introduced to her father’s partner — a sex doll named Diane — she realizes that Byron had already implanted the chip in her head.
So far, the source material mostly mirrors the adaptation, however, this is where it slowly starts diverging. Since I’m comparing and contrasting the two — I have yet to watch MADE FOR LOVE season two, so this will only refer to the first season — I’ll be noting specific plot points and character traits for both the series and novel, so if you want to go in blind, best circle back to this later. If you just want to know if it’s worth reading the book, regardless of whether you did or did not watch the show, I implore you to do so.
The first sign that the show is its own creature is that: in the novel, her father has to use a Rascal mobility device to get around, whereas in the show he’s very mobile.
The second sign is how the book handles Liver, who on the show is a handsome twenty-something working at a local bar, brewing beer at night, outside, shirtless, arms covered in foam up to his elbows. In the novel, he’s has forty years on Hazel, and they quickly fall into a very friendly, physical relationship, partially due to the fact that they’re cranks.
The third sign was that I kept waiting for Alissa to add a possibly more sympathetic side to Byron, even if it feels like he was pretending to do so — akin to the show. However, he remains a monster all the way through.
Similarly, Hazel is fleshed out a bit more and comes across as smarter and more aware than she is on the show, but also has an array additional issues that lead to her living life as a fuck-up.
There are also some minor changes with how Byron can access Hazel’s experiences. Unlike the show, where he has a direct live feed 24/7, in the novel he downloads them once every 24 hours, which significantly alters the tension dynamic.
Most importantly, while dolphins factor into the novel, they do so in a wildly different manner, and feature a con-man Jasper who hooks women into his orbit, bleeds them dry and moves to another town. At first it feels completely unnecessary, but Alissa manages to weave it all together in a smart manner. I do wonder if they may touch upon that in the second season (which I have yet to watch).
Lastly, the endings of each could not differ any more, but both are quite satisfying within the context of each work. (I’d argue the end of the novel would work as the end of the first season, but not vice versa.)
While the show is an amusing thrill ride that happens to examine human desire, tech and surveillance culture, and more, the novel touches on all of that but is mostly concerned with Hazel and Jasper’s personal journeys and growth, of reckoning with guilt and poor decisions, all while trying to figure out what they want their lives to look like. Both are vastly different and both have a lot that they want to say, and both are worth your time.
(HBOMAX) MADE FOR LOVE is not exactly the most enticing premise for a television series, despite the fact that Alissa Nutting’s novel that the show is based on was very well-received. (It is worth noting that Alissa Nutting is credited with writing on the show as well.)
The show is about a smart-ass firecracker, Hazel Green (an amazing fictional name, played by the astoundingly elastic Cristin Milioti) who, while down on her luck, selling false raffle tickets for free smartphones to make ends meet, ends up marrying tech capitalist Byron Gogol* (played by the delightfully creepy Billy Magnussen, who was Marcus in one of my favorite episodes of TV ever: THE LEFTOVER’s ‘Guest’). Byron then moves Hazel into his home: the Hub, a hyper virtual reality workplace campus, a place where she has no agency, where she has to periodically log orgasm ratings in order to play the flight simulator video game she uses to numb herself to her situation.
Hazel finds herself loathing Byron and this technological purgatory, and she finally snaps when she discovers that Byron has been using her — without her consent — to develop ‘Made for Love’: implants that ‘co-mingle’ two beings, tethering two together so one can see and feel and experience what the other is feeling.
Hazel then runs, falling backwards to home, to her sadsack father (a delightful Ray Romano, whose dramatic skills have been vastly underrated) who — after the death of his wife/Hazel’s mom — has adopted a realdoll to replace his romantic and physical urges. Byron, being the controlling megalomaniac that he is, is completely unwilling to let her go, for both personal and capitalist reasons.
What follows is a thrilling and heartfelt and intelligent exploration of human desire, tech and surveillance culture, infatuation & the kept woman, and the masculine, blinkered approach to problem-solving emotional relationships. All of this is bolstered by pitch-perfect sound design, music supervision, cinematography, and production design; the Hub is so expertly handled — a modernist dystopia of tech and interior design; watch for how the show constantly throws visual barriers between Hazel and Byron, and how Byron’s often lathered in an icy blue; there’s one moment in the third episode where Hazel literally smells agency, then acts upon it; and the integration of the Gogol logo to also reflect handcuffs is a stroke of brilliance.
MADE FOR LOVE is a show flexing all of its muscles. It is in complete command of what it wants to convey and how it wants to convey it. I initially thought it was a limited series, but no, it ends on an open note, and the second season airs April 28th.
I know a number of folks label him as an Elon Musk techbro, and yes, I think there’s some of that there, but personally I think his DNA is more Howard Hughes than Musk.