At the recent DualCon in Charleston, through sheer serendipity, my table wound up being next to that of John Russo, co-writer (along with director George Romero) of Night of the Living Dead, the horror film from which essentially the entire modern zombie genre sprang. After hearing him talk about the movie on a panel we did it occurred to me that I’d never actually seen the flick. Naturally, the wife and I remedied that situation that very evening.
The story of Night of the Living Dead is even more amazing than the movie itself, although it holds up pretty well after all these years. Made for about $100,000 by first-time film makers (Romero, Russo and others had a production company that made commercials and other short pieces in and around Pittsburgh – Romero even directed some segments of Mr. Rogers!) it grossed about $30 million worldwide, making it one of the most profitable movies ever made.
The movie itself takes a fairly common setup and ramps the dread up to 11. As Russo explained during our panel, he thought of Night of the Living Dead as the 1939 movie Stagecoach, “but with zombies instead of Indians” and that seems right. You take a group of disparate people with few prior ties to each other, put them in a stressful situation, and see whether they pull together and triumph or splinter and fail.
If the movie is not just that story, but a metaphor for society at large as it faces existential threats then we, in the words of Thinking Plague, “are so fucked.” Once the group is gathered in an isolated house while the zombie horde (sorry, “ghouls” – the movie never uses the Z word) approaches, the battle lines are draw over whether to remain on the main floor or barricade themselves in the basement. The arguments both ways are the kind that can never be right or wrong – the main level has multiple points of entry for the ghouls, but also multiple ways out; the basement is more secure, but if they break through that door you’re dead.
My first thought upon viewing was that Ben, the main character and the prime supporter of the main level argument, was proven wrong, because he winds up in the basement when the horde overwhelms the house, anyway. The more I think about it, though, I don’t think that’s the case. Less important than where they make their stand is that they make it together, is what I’m thinking now. That even he is killed, in the end, and not by the ghouls, makes for a very bleak viewing experience and comment on human nature.
Aside from the side effects of its low budget (beyond its role in launching the modern zombie genre, Night of the Living Dead is one of the foundational films of the modern independent film scene) it doesn’t feel “cheap” (this is not a Zappa-esque “Cheepnis” situation). The script uses radio and TV news reports, often playing in the background, to broaden the story without losing the focus on our characters and their locale. That also helps setup the very end, too. I also enjoyed the soundtrack, which is typical orchestral bombast, save for when the zombies are the focus, when is switches to a very cutting edge soundscape of synthesized throbs and scratches.
But my final takeaway from Night of the Living Dead is irony. My first novel, Moore Hollow, is a kind of zombie story. The backdrop is that a crooked West Virginia politician around the turn of the 20th century actually tried to raise the dead so they would vote for him. In the novel, a disgraced English journalist with family ties to the West Virginia coal fields comes to track down the mystery. The zombies aren’t monsters, but more a problem to be dealt with and, perhaps, damned souls who need protection. I gave him the last name “Potter” completely oblivious to the Harry Potter connection.
His first name? “Ben.” Just like the main character in pop culture’s foundational zombie text. Sometimes the creative mind really does some wild things.
Sometimes, you just want to say a little about some interesting things . . .
Operation Nemesis: The Assassination Plot that Avenged the Armenian Genocide, by Eric Bogosian
On March 15, 1921, a man named Soghomon Tehlirian stepped up to a former high-ranking Turkish official, Talaat Pasha, and shot him dead. At his trial, Tehlirian told of how he had witnesses the murder of his family as part of the Armenian Genocide and had taken the chance to kill Pasha for his role in it (he’d been convicted of his complicity in absentia after World War I). Actor and writer Eric Bogosian thought that story would make a great movie and started writing a screenplay, only to find in his research that Tehlirian didn’t act alone, but was one part of a wide ranging conspiracy called Operation Nemesis to seek some measure of justice for those killed during the genocide. Bogosian wound up writing this book, which is plenty fascinating, but doesn’t quite live up to its goal of getting deep inside the conspiracy, focusing mostly on Tehlerian and his particular act. Fun fact – Bogosian was in Atom Egoyan’s brilliant Ararat, which is partly about making a movie about the Armenian Genocide – he plays the screenwriter.
The Bishop’s Wife
Every holiday season my wife TiVos just about every Christmas movie she can find and I’m always interested in something that’s older that I haven’t seen before. This one (from 1947) is one of the weirder holiday movies I’ve ever seen. Cary Grant plays an angel who comes to the aid of the titular bishop, mostly by wooing his wife (in some markets it was billed Cary and the Bishop’s Wife so as to not seem too religious). I’m not kidding. The bishop makes promises to do all sorts of thing with his wife, but has to cancel to go beg for money to build a pointless cathedral, so Cary steps in and does it all. I kind of like the theory floated by gpph at Rate Your Music that Cary might actually be a demon, more than an angel – that probably would have been a better movie! Still, this is a Christmas movie with precious little of “there’s only one proper way to celebrate Christmas and we’ll beat you over the head with it until you conform,” so that’s a major plus in my book.
Sea of Tranquility
I really really loved Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven (and her recent work to get her divorce cited on her Wikipedia page) and so was a little disappointed with Sea of Tranquility. It starts really well, laying out multiple timelines and a singular bit of weirdness that appears to link them all. When things lose steam, for me, is when we get deep into the time travel stuff at the book’s core, which I just don’t find that compelling (it’s wrapped around the “what if we’re living in a simulation, man?” speculation and at least comes to the correct answer – who cares!). That said, Mandel is just great on a scene level and there are really excellent bits here and there that make it worth the (relatively short) read.
This Hulu series (18 episodes over two seasons so far) has been on our radar for a while, but we only got around to actually digging into it recently. Thankfully, it’s as brilliant as the reviews made it out to be. It’s about four Native American teenagers on a reservation in Oklahoma dealing not only with the regular realities of life, but also the suicide of their best friend, which hangs over the series thus far. If that makes it sound depressing and serious it can certainly be serious (and touching – a scene in the second season finale made me choke up), but it’s hilariously funny in other parts, as well.
Looking back on the various media items I consumed the past year – I really need to keep better track of some of them – I was looking for some kind of trend or meaning for what stuck with me. Alas, there really isn’t any, so here’s just a collection of interesting things, both new for 2022 and new to me for 2022.
I didn’t get to sample a whole lot of “new” music in 2022, but it’s unlikely that any would have perched higher in my soul than Marillion’s latest, An Hour Before It’s Dark.
Grappling with COVID-induced lockdowns and fears (which vocalist/lyricist Steve Hogarth initially said they weren’t going to do), the album manages to both dredge up some of the worst of it and still end on a beautiful, hopeful note. It’s not as great an album as Fuck Everyone And Run, but that’s not much of a criticism. That the band has been at it so long and is still so good is either inspirational or enough to make you give up. Either way, I can’t wait for the next one.
In terms of “old” stuff, the complete out-of-the-blue find I had in 2022 was Norwegian band Suburban Savages and their 2021 release Demagogue Days.
Stylistically they’re hard to pin down, with a foot each in surreal Canterbury-style progressive rock and the other in the more avant garde side of things. There’s also a lot of great synth work, which naturally attracts my ears. The title track may be the catchiest use of 7/4 since “Solsbury Hill,” too!
The wife and I still haven’t seen a movie in the theater since COVID hit (more out of inertia more than anything else, I think), so I didn’t get to see a lot of “new” movies in 2022, although we did get to catch up on several big-name flicks over the holidays, most of which (Nope, Glass Onion, etc.) were solidly “meh” in my mind. The standout from 2022, for my money, is The Wonder.
It’s a small, quiet film about an English nurse in post-famine Ireland who is brought in to observe a teenage girl who allegedly is surviving without eating anything. It’s no spoiler to say she’s not what she appears, but the way those around her deal with it are fascinating. The movie has a creepy atmosphere that doesn’t really read “horror,” but makes it feel that way anyway.
For some reason, in 2022, I decided to regularly take a look at the offerings on Turner Classic Movies. As a result, we wound up watching a lot of movies from the 1930s and 1940s, classics that I’d never seen before. Top of the heap for me was Double Indemnity, the 1944 noir classic directed by Billy Wilder.
It’s a pretty sleazy tale for the middle of Code-era Hollywood, but everybody gets theirs in the end, so I suppose that’s justice. All I know is that it’s a ball to watch the plotting and scheming unfold. You can see the DNA in a lot of modern thrillers in it.
I also wanted to give some love to a pair of documentaries I saw this year that dealt with overlooked aspects of music history.
The first, which hardly needs my approval (it won an Oscar, after all), is Summer of Soul, directed by musician Questlove.
It’s about a series of concerts held in Harlem during the summer of 1969, the same year as Woodstock (which overshadowed these shows in the popular conscience). A lot of them were recorded for proposed TV specials that never really happened, so there was a rich treasure trove of performances from the likes of BB King, Stevie Wonder, and Nina Simone. But the movie also gives a lot of context for why these concerts were such a big deal at the time, along with modern feedback from several attendees (and a few performers).
The other gets at the overlooked contributions of women to the development of early electronic music, Sisters With Transistors.
It focuses on real pioneers, including Delia Derbyshire (responsible for the Dr. Who theme, the assembly of which is amazing) and Wendy Carlos (of Switched on Bach fame), so lots of cool archival footage.
First, exiting the stage along with Better Call Saul was, for me, the best sci-fi series of its generation, The Expanse.
As it happens, I read the first book in the series (which I highlighted in my list of favorite recent books last year) before the TV show started so I was already primed to like it, but the adaptation was really excellent. Maybe it lacked swoopy spaceships, but it had compelling characters dealing with real human issues against a backdrop of an existential threat to our species. They didn’t even bowdlerize Avasarala!
One that both came and went in 2022, in that it won’t get a second season, is Archive 81.
Based on a podcast (which does continue past this only season), it’s about a guy hired to digitize a series of videotapes that pull him into a mystery/conspiracy involving a cult and a huge apartment fire decades before. It’s creepy and atmospheric and the cult aspect actually works better than I thought it would. I think the season could stand on its own, but there was clearly an expectation of more given the ending. Oh well.
Hopefully, since we’ve already gotten two (short) seasons, we won’t be denied more of Slow Horses.
Based on the books by Mick Herron, the series is about a clutch of essentially exiled British intelligence agents who either are, or are perceived to be, useless fuck ups. Until somebody thinks they might be useful and then the shit hits the fan. I read the first book before diving into the series and the adaptation was incredibly faithful, right down to Jackson Lamb’s championship flatulence.
I loved Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell when it came out and had kind of given up on getting anything else from her when Piranesi appeared in 2020.
It took me a couple of years to get to it, perhaps worried that the slighter volume wouldn’t measure up to its predecessor. I shouldn’t have worried. It’s a beautiful, expertly crafted book and completely different from Strange & Norrell. If you’ve heard people praise Clarke’s work by find the first book’s length a bit daunting, start here. You won’t be disappointed.
After Salman Rushdie was cowardly attacked in New York in August I finally decided to jump into The Satanic Verses.
It was, admittedly, a lot, with a narrative that jumps all over the place in terms of time, place, and tone. Beyond that, Rushdie isn’t exactly sparse with words, spinning sentences that sometimes seem to wrap around you two or three times before the period comes. I found it challenging and exhilarating all at once.
Finally, 2022 was the year I finished up the saga of necromancer Johannes Cabal, with The Brothers Cabal and The Fall of the House of Cabal.
I had a couple of quibbles (I don’t find the fictional nations in the middle of otherwise recognizable Europe very compelling), but overall it was a great ending to the tale of one of my favorite characters. Johannes is deeply cynical, but also funny and honest. You may not like him, but it’s hard to argue with him (to borrow a phrase from Clerks, “he’s blunt, but he makes a point”). The story of his brother, Horst’s, struggles with being a vampire were a fresh take on that theme.
In spite of hosting one, I haven’t really been a podcast listener until this year. For the most part I cherry pick episodes here and there on things that interest me, but there are a couple that became more regular listens this year.
The more entertaining of the two is Discord and Rhyme.
It’s a podcast in which a rotating cast of young(ish) music writers gather to talk through one of their favorite albums. What drew my attention when I was scanning through the back episodes was how many of them involve progressive rock (and adjacent) bands. It’s heartening to hear people not raised in the early 1970s who genuinely like that kind of music (most of them have parents to blame). But even on other albums what works the best is that they’re all coming from a place of love (or at least like) for particular albums, so the talk is engaging, informative, and enthusiastic. It’s much more fun to praise something you love than to tear down something you don’t.
The more aggravating of the two was Hoaxed.
A six-episode podcast, it dives into an incident from the UK in 2014 in which two children accused their father of being part of a cult of devil-worshiping pedophiles. Shades of the 1980s Satanic panic when the kids recant and it turns out that they were put up to it by their mother and her very odd boyfriend. That’s enough to hook you, but the story goes on to cover the backlash against the community when the charges fell apart and whether anybody will ever be held accountable for the damage done. It’s like a QAnon story in miniature. All right – bring on 2023!
When I latched onto Leeds United as my favorite team outside the United States I didn’t do it with any sense of the club’s history. Sure, I knew they’d been around a long time, but it was their then-current form that lured me in (and led to years of heartbreak – alas, that is the truth of the beautiful game). What I didn’t know at the time was that for about a decade leading up to my birth they were one of the, if not the, best team in England, winning the top division twice, the FA Cup once, and finishing runners up in both competitions several times between 1964 and 1974.
What I also didn’t realize was that they did so with a bit of a reputation. Think of the infamous Philadelphia Flyers team known as the “Broad Street Bullies” and you’re on the right track, except there were twice as many of them and at the time there was only one allowed substitute in soccer. Any injury often meant the other team playing a man down.
That Leeds team was the product of manager Don Revie who, after the 1973-1974 season ended, left the club to become manager of the England national team. His replacement, Brian Clough, was a former player who had worked wonders as a manager at Derby County, dragging the team up to the top flight and to the league title. One the one hand, it looked like following on from one brilliant manager to another.
On the other hand, well, that’s the story of The Damned United, first a novel by David Peace and then a movie, directed by Tom Hooper with Michael Sheen (current Wales national team hype man) as Clough. They cover Clough’s rocky 44-day stint at the helm of Leeds and the culture clash that led to his ultimate downfall. It’s never a good sign when the new boss comes in and declares that all your prior success was down to “cheating” and you were going to start winning the “right way” now that he’s here.
I saw the movie first around the time it came out, based more on the good reviews than any particular interest in the story itself. Sports movies tend to be built around cliches leading to the “big game” and, honestly, once you’ve seen a few what’s the point of another? What makes The Damned United so interesting is that it turns the cliche on its head – rather than being about a coach who pulls together a group of underperforming misfits into a team of winners, it’s about a team of winners slowly falling apart. Honestly, it would be a good case study for a management class or something, a cautionary tale of how someone so convinced of his own brilliance can get things so wrong.
The biggest difference between the movie and the book was Clough’s motivation and general attitude about all this. Both portray Clough as a supreme egotist, convinced that he’s right about everything related to soccer (Peace uses the word multiple times in the book, so back off) and everyone else is wrong. In the movie, this comes across as more hopeful delusion than anything else. He has a better way to play the game, one that prioritizes attack and frowns on the “dark arts,” and that’s what’s driving him. He wants to improve things, elevate them.
Novel Clough is, by contrast, a complete rage-driven asshole. This is evident in the book because we’re entirely in Clough’s head, privy to all his thoughts and the loathing he has for just about everyone and every place. While his wife and children come out unscathed (though they’re press so far to the edges that he might as well have been a bachelor, for the book’s purposes), he even goes after his assistant manager/partner Peter Taylor, with whom he had already had (and would again have) great success. It’s unclear at points whether he really wants to reform Leeds or drive them into a ditch. Clough’s head is, for the most part, a frightening place to be.
To be fair, the novel gives Clough some basis for his anger, giving us more detail on his playing and prior managerial career than the movie does. Primarily, we get Clough’s bitterness at his playing career being cut short by a knee injury. I think movie Clough mentions his goal-scoring tally at one point, but book Clough returns to it again and again. It is impressive – 251 goals in 274 games – but comes with a major caveat: all but a handful of those came in the Second Division, making Clough sort of a Crash Davis of English football, without Crash’s recognition that records in a lower league don’t mean all that much.
The other pillar of novel Clough’s anger is his belief that he should be manager of the England national team. This makes his taking over Leeds all the more fraught, given that he thinks Revie doesn’t deserve the England job. It adds an additional layer to the way that Revie haunts Elland Road (Leeds’ stadium) after he’s gone, like a millstone ghost hung around Clough’s neck. That he goes so far as to destroy and burn Revie’s desk is extreme, but you can kind of see where he’s coming from.
Aside from that, the novel and movie tell the same story. I think the movie does it better, partly because I found Peace’s style – which makes copious use of repetition of words (usually in threes) – annoying. As usual, I consumed the book via audio and even with the narrator’s cadence giving it some life, it felt overdone, as if the book (not that long to begin with) could have been a third shorter without it. And I can see why Clough’s family was upset with both the book and movie. One review I read noted that the three main characters – Clough, Revie, and Leeds midfielder/captain Billy Bremner – were all dead at the time the book came out. You can’t libel the dead, after all. Another Leeds player, Johnny Giles, did win a libel lawsuit about the book, although given British libel laws I’m not sure how much that means about what is, after all, a work of fiction.
That said, I kind of wish both book and movie had an epilogue of some sort. If you weren’t a soccer fan you’d think that Clough crashed and burned at Leeds and that was it, his days of success over. In actuality, he went on to even greater heights afterwards, leading Nottingham Forrest to not one but two European Cups (what they call the Champions League these days), an amazing feat for a club that size. Never got to manage England, however.
One of my favorite David Fincher movies (of which there are several) is Zodiac. What makes it work so well isn’t that it “solves” one of the most infamous cold cases in American history, but that it compellingly portrays how the obsession with trying to solve something that might not be solvable can ruin a person’s life. In the end, it becomes less a triumph of perseverance and grit than a pathetic throwing away of a life’s potential.
The four-episode documentary series The Most Dangerous Animal of All, adapted from a book of the same name, is an interesting companion piece to Zodiac, although I’d hesitate to call it perfect.
It’s about Gary Stewart, who was adopted as an infant into a loving family. For decades, he struggled with questions of his real identity and what it meant to be abandoned by his birth parents, so he started working to track them down. He found his birth mother easily enough and through her learned that his father was a guy named Earl Van Best, Jr.
Best was a bad dude at the time he met Stewart’s mother. And by “met” I really mean kidnapped, raped, and abused. He was 27 years old at the time, she was only 14. Their “love affair” even made headlines, allowing Stewart to get not just a feel for the circumstances of his birth but pictures and even some in-court film of his father when he was eventually caught, convicted, and sentenced for his crimes.
All that was bad enough, but then Stewart, armed with a mugshot of his father, saw a documentary on the Zodiac killer and that iconic drawing of the suspect:
Stewart realized it looked a lot like his father. This sets him off on an odyssey to determine whether his father was, in fact, Zodiac and solve this coldest of cold cases. Through the first three of the four episodes, Stewart marshals his evidence and it sounds pretty compelling. He wrote the book upon which the series was based and then, well, it all went to shit.
What’s particularly interesting is, according to this article, said going to shit started happening while this documentary was in production. This left the creators in a pickle – how to deal with the evidence that seemed to show that Stewart’s argument that Best was Zodiac was full of shit? The way they handled it was to present, point by point, experts debunking each of Stewart’s claims – to him. Essentially, they made the documentary on one track, all the while building the case against Best as the Zodiac (culminating in records showing he wasn’t even in the United States when the Zodiac killings took place) on another, only bringing them together in the end.
The result is compellingly awkward. You might expect that Stewart, confronted with the evidence contradicting his theory (some of which implies he just made shit up), that Stewart would come clean or break down in some way, blame the stress of his quest for driving him down this particular rabbit hole. Instead, he steadfastly holds onto his conclusion that his birth father – who had nothing to do with raising him – is the Zodiac killer.
To what end? It’s not clear. Maybe it’s because Stewart is so desperate for a personal history, an identity that latching onto one that horrible is preferable to not having one at all. Maybe it’s that, if he’s going to be the offspring of a monster, anyway (which Best, by all evidence, was), might as well be the offspring of one of the most infamous (and unidentified) monsters of all time? Or, maybe it was all a grift, with Stewart coming up with a slick way to monetize his search into his background.
I don’t think it’s the last one. From the documentary it really appears that Stewart believes the story he’s trying to sell. Either of the others are heart wrenching, in their own way, and make you feel sorry for him. Which is what makes this series so compelling – come for the potential true crime bombshell, stay for the fascinating portrait of a man who is so wrapped up in the distant past that he can’t come to grips with the more recent version.
Last year, in my review of the first season of Star Trek: Discovery, I laid out how I’m not really a fan of nu-Trek and was happy to let the rest of that series go on without me. What really dragged it down for me was that it didn’t feel very “Trekky” and it was too slavishly devoted to the modern streaming serialized storytelling ideal.
So along comes Star Trek: Strange New Worlds. Another prequel (of sorts), but also a spinoff of something that occurred in a subsequence season of Discovery, Strange New Worlds gets us back on the Enterprise during the time it was commanded by Christopher Pike. Pike is well known to original Trek fans as the guy from the pilot (replaced by Kirk for the series), with said pilot being cut up for use in a later episode that reveals Pike to be horribly injured, but with great loyalty from Spock.
Although I’m skeptical of prequels, I thought I’d give Strange New Worlds a shot, for a few reasons. First, since there’s not a lot out there on the pre-Kirk Enterprise, I figured there was some room to tell some cool stories. Second, given that this is the Enterprise we’re talking about here and the name of the show is Strange New Worlds, I hoped it would lean into the exploration angle more than Discovery did. Finally, what I read about the show suggested it was going to be less serialized and more “mission-of-the-week,” which, again, provided some room for good stories (and to not be stuck dealing with the aftereffects of bad ones).
I’m fairly happy with how Strange New Worlds met those expectations. The prequel part is the least successful, I feel. It’s one thing to have certain characters involved because we know they were there from original Trek (Spock & Chapel, mostly), but is there a particular reason the security chief has to be named Noonien-Singh?. And isn’t Kirk’s fight with the rubber-suited guy supposed to be first contact with the Gorn? Then there’s the final episode of the first season, which is a take on the original Trek episode “Balance of Terror” (the one where we first meet the Romulans), where Kirk himself shows up. There’s more of him promised for season two, as well, which makes me worry that the writers aren’t confident in the new stories they have to tell and will keep wrapping in known characters from the show as crutches. I won’t get into potential continuity issues with the original Trek stuff (it makes my head hurt) except to say, again, what’s the point of a prequel if it doesn’t lock in certain things about your world?
All that said, most of the stories told in the first season of Strange New Worlds are really good, some inching towards great. As promised, the episodes do tend to stand alone, which provides a good variety of atmospheres (so to speak). “Children of the Comet” is a pretty cool culture clash story, with the do-gooders on the Enterprise confronted with religious dogma. “Spock Amok,” in addition to having fun body-switching, has a diplomatic plot that reminded me of something out of Babylon 5 (high praise from me). “The Elysian Kingdom” was probably my favorite, using a typical old-school Trek plot device (an energy being!) as an excuse to dress everybody up in fantasy garb to push to a really heart-wrenching ending (sort of). Then there’s the aforementioned “A Quality of Mercy,” which “what if?”s that classic Trek episode in a pretty satisfying way.
My only real beef is that the writers had a lot of issues with endings (I can sympathize – endings are hard). Take “The Elysian Kingdom,” for example, which looks like it’s going to end on a note of melancholy uncertainty as the ship’s doctor says goodbye to his ill daughter who is going to live with/as the nearby energy being. Rather than leave this unsettled – you think you do the best thing but how can you know? – the writers went ahead and threw in a little more to make sure of a happy ending. Not bad, but could have been better. There were a couple of other episodes that went the same way, headed towards really great but they couldn’t stick the landing. Or, alternately, they didn’t do more with it, as in the episode that was less a riff than a cover of “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” (should have started with that ending and explored what it means).
And I have to say that while these stories were mostly self contained, there was an overarching theme to the season in terms of characters, particularly Pike. Apparently, in the Discovery episodes that spawned Strange New Worlds, Pike learns his eventual fate as we’ve seen from original Trek (it’s unclear if he learned he’ll become a running joke on Futurama) and so in this season he’s trying to figure out if there’s a way around that end. That’s what triggers “A Quality of Mercy,” but Pike confronts it several other times during the season. It’s well done.
Which is to say, I’m cautiously optimistic about the second season. Given results thus far, I’m willing to give everyone the benefit of the doubt that we won’t be overwhelmed by Kirks (Jim’s brother is on this ship, too, for some reason) and we’ll be introduced to more strange new worlds.
A few weeks ago, in my list of favorite movies, I mentioned that Jean-Xavier de Lestrade, director of the Oscar-winning documentary Murder On a Sunday Morning, went on to direct The Staircase, an epic (it eventually had 13 episodes) true-crime documentary about the death of Kathleen Peterson and the trial of her husband, Michael. It is basically the urtext of the modern true-crime doc boom. So when I heard that someone had made a non-documentary miniseries not only about the Peterson case but about the documentary itself, I wondered whether this was something the world really needed. Having binged it over a weekend I’m still not sure it was necessary, but it certainly was interesting.
The base facts of the case are fairly simple – in December 2001, Peterson found his wife dead at the bottom of a set of stairs in their home. The scene of her death was seriously bloody, evidence of a violent and tormented death. Everything else is supremely complicated. Peterson was charged with murdering his wife and eventually convicted, but his trial was rife with prosecutorial misconduct and expert witness fraud, leading to the conviction being overturned. Rather than go through with a second trial and risk going back to prison, Peterson eventually entered what’s called an Alford plea to manslaughter, in which he did not admit responsibility for his wife’s death (the point of an Alford plea is to allow a defendant to get the benefit of pleading guilty while maintaining their innocence – admittedly, it’s counterintuitive).
Part of what made the documentary series so riveting is that Lestrade and his team basically embedded with Peterson, his defense team, and his family, providing the kind of in-the-moment access that most true-crime docs can only dream of. The crew initially had similar access to the prosecution team, but that waned as the case went on.
Given that the documentary was such an interior view of proceedings, what does the miniseries bring to the table that it couldn’t?
Primarily, it brings life to Kathleen Peterson, whose death hovers over the documentary but who isn’t given any chance to be developed as a person. The miniseries splits its timeline three ways, with one being events leading up to Kathleen’s death. It does a good job of bringing to life someone who tends to get overlooked in the whole true crime genre and Toni Collette does a great job with the part.
Another thing the miniseries gives us is a more in depth look at the Peterson family and how the trial impacted them. The way that family was put together would strain fiction – two sons from Peterson’s prior marriage, a daughter from Kathleen’s prior marriage, and two adopted daughters whose mother had died in Germany (at the bottom of a set of stairs, no less!). They pull apart in different ways as the miniseries goes on and lends a real sense of how a case like this grinds up everyone who is caught up in it.
Finally, the meta touch of the miniseries is that it includes the makers of the documentary in it as characters. With one notable exception this really isn’t commented upon that much, as in large part their presence is simply noted in the background as filming takes place. The exception – and it is a doozy – is that the editor of the documentary wound up in a multi-year romantic relationship with Peterson while he was in prison, casting her objectivity into doubt (she has issues with some of the facts portrayed in the series – and isn’t theonly one – but doesn’t deny the relationship). I mean, it’s an “ooh, I didn’t know that” moment, but unless you think documentaries are rigorous exercises in balance the idea that the documentary had a POV (and it was that Peterson was innocent) doesn’t come as a shock.
But is he innocent? It’s here that I find the differences between the documentary and the miniseries have the most interesting effect.
As I said, the doc is largely framed through the trial itself and the ways the state’s case is shaky (and the doc doesn’t even include an entire state’s expert witness whose testimony was struck for perjury!). That plays into, at least in my criminal defense lawyer brain, the presumption of innocence. If it can’t be proven, beyond a reasonable doubt, that he did it then he didn’t right? The Alford plea at the end of things is meaningless in this regard as the entire point is that it allows a defendant to take a deal while maintaining innocence. There’s a burden and the state didn’t meet it. Simple as that.
But the miniseries, perhaps because of its broader scope, leaves me less certain. I think it’s that in paring away a lot of the legal wrangling you’re left with there being, basically, two stories of what happened – one in which Peterson killed Kathleen for not particularly well explained reasons and one in which it was simply a horrible accident. Neither story accounts for all the physical evidence and the only person who knows the truth, Peterson, has issues with honesty. I still think, if I was on a civil jury, I’d find that he didn’t do it, but it would be a much closer question.
So back to the original question – did we need a fictional take on The Staircase (aside from the incredibly funny Trial and Error)? Probably not. In truth, the miniseries doesn’t shed any more light on the case or the people involved. It does allow for some dramatic speculation, however, about areas that were beyond the scope of the documentary. So necessary? No. Worth a watch? Absolutely.
I’m not going to say that finding a great story to tell is easy, but in some ways coming up with the story itself can be easier than figuring out the proper form to tell it.
I’ve been thinking about this as the wife and I have been watching Gaslit, the Starz series about Watergate that wrapped up this past weekend.
See, the thing about Gaslit – from its title to its marketing (as you can see above) – is that it promises a new angle on Watergate. It was supposed to be focused on Martha Mitchell, a political celebrity and wife of Nixon’s one-time Attorney General John Mitchell. She knew all about Watergate and told the truth about it, only to be destroyed privately and publicly by, among others, her husband.
That is a fascinating story, horribly relevant in the world of #MeToo, that would provide some interesting insight into the general Watergate story we’ve all see over and over again. Only it really isn’t. Instead, Martha’s story is buried in the mix, forced to share or cede time to a cast of characters we’ve seen before and about whom the show has little to say.
Take the penultimate episode, which splits time about equally with Martha’s testimony before the Watergate committee – behind closed doors, ambushed by accusation of mental illness – and the struggle of Gordon Liddy in prison to kill a rat. Really, is that what the series is about? It doesn’t help that every time Liddy opens his mouth it sounds like he’s just one step away from lapsing into Doctor Evil’s meat helmet speech.
In other words, there’s a pretty good movie struggling to escape from an eight-episode limited series. A tight two hours or so that trusts the audience to already know what Watergate is and focus on the relationship of the Mitchells (played well here by Julia Roberts and Sean Penn), how it pulls apart, and the effect that daring to tell the truth had on her. It’s particularly sad that we didn’t get that movie, given that we’re in the fiftieth anniversary year of Watergate and we’re going to get lots of other general retrospectives on the scandal, including the one currently on CNN featuring John Dean (who gets a goodly amount of screen time in Gaslit as a Porsche-driving climber who kind of lucks into doing the right thing, eventually).
It’s entirely possible that Gaslit was only ever supposed to be a big ensemble piece and the purported focus on Martha came later, which would explain why much of it is not her story. It’s also possible that the Martha story was what drove the creators, but the network guided into a more blown out story. Obviously, you can’t tell at this point.
What you can tell is that whatever Gaslit is, it’s not what it wants to be or purports to be. Which is a shame, because with the talent on screen it could have been so much more if it had been so much less.
It always drives me nuts that when the start of December rolls around (sometimes even earlier!) we begin to see “best of . . .” lists for that year. As if nothing interesting ever happens in December. So, to buck the trend, I wait until January to talk about stuff I found interesting in the year prior. With that said, here’s what most interested me about media – books, music, TV, and movies – last year. Not all of these are 2021 releases, keep in mind. Sometimes I’m a little slow on the uptake.
In term of fiction, the only new-for-2021 book that really stuck with me was The Actual Star, by Monica Byrne (no relation, so far as I’m aware).
The story sprawls out across three separate timelines, each 1000 years apart (basically the far past, the present, and the distant future) and leans more heavily in to fantasy than sci-fi for me, but ultimately the label doesn’t matter. The stories playing out in the three eras tie together really well and there’s a lot of interesting ideas tossed around to chew on. Highly recommended.
In terms of endings, I have to give a shout out to Sex Criminals, by Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky, the comic/graphic novel that wrapped up its run in late 2020 (I didn’t get the sixth and final volume until January of last year).
The series never really reached the heights of the first volume again – the pages (three-and-a-half of them!) where Suzie sings “Fat Bottomed Girls” in a bar, with all the words covered over with exposition explaining how expensive it is to quote song lyrics in a comic – still leaves me rolling. It touched on a lot of interesting things along the way and was never less than interesting. The ending worked, too.
2021 was a weird year, musically. Several of my favorite artists – Mogwai, Steven Wilson, St. Vincent, Resistor – released albums last year. All of them are good – I even like Wilson’s electro-pop driven The Future Bites better than most proggers – but none of them really grabbed me. Maybe they’ll grow on me in the future, but for now there wasn’t anything in 2021 really worth taking note of.
As a result, last year was more about getting caught up in some things I’d overlooked – in some cases for a long long time.
Speaking of Steven Wilson, my history with his old (and new again!) band Porcupine Tree is that I preferred the “newer” stuff, from Stupid Dream on, to the older material. The Sky Moves Sideways just feel tedious to me, for instance. But poking around Bandcamp (my happy hunting ground) I found a recent rerelease of the band’s 1996 album, Signify.
That album really hits a sweet spot between the spacier stuff and the tighter, song-driven rock stuff. I also love the recurring samples that mostly touch on religious themes (the guy on “Idiot Prayer” switching from his LSD trip being nearly rapturous to just repeating “please help” does it for me every time).
I’ve given some time over the years to reevaluating music that was popular while I was growing up in the 1980s. Part of that is due to getting into electronic music, including the synthpop of my youth. Part of it is just maturing as a listener to realize that just because something is popular doesn’t mean it’s crap (95% of it is, of course). So when I came across this article written by a professor who used pop culture to open discussions of how people felt during the Cold War I was inspired to go dive into some of the music, including the second Men At Work album, Cargo.
The singles are good and some of the deeper cuts are just as good. “No Sign of Yesterday,” which closes out side one is great. It’s fairly recognizable pop/new wave, but with just enough weirdness to distinguish it.
Finally, another pleasant discovery from Bandcamp was the album Prophecy by Solstice:
Solstice were part of the neo-prog scene of the early 1980s, but with definite folk and Celtic shadings. They only released one album back then, but have released a few more over the years, with Prophecy coming in 2013. It’s great melodic stuff. Wonderful find.
You don’t need me to tell you we’re living in the era of peak TV. There’s just so much good stuff out there that I couldn’t touch them all. So let’s focus on pleasant surprises – things that I thought might be decent, but turned out to be really good.
On the one hand, it’s a true crime story of a married couple who murder the wife’s parents and bury them in the garden then go on the run for fifteen years. On the other, it’s a close study of a couple shut off in their own little world where reality only sometimes intrudes. It’s shot with a grab bag of styles related to classic cinema and includes a bravura scene where the police interrogation room is pulled apart to reveal a set while the scene resets. Brilliant? I’m not sure, but it wasn’t like anything else I saw last year.
I feel somewhat the same about Only Murders In the Building, in that I thought it might have potential, but didn’t think I’d enjoy it as much as I did.
The Martin Short/Steve Martin pairing is as good as ever and Selena Gomez slipped into the mix very well. I’m not sure the actual mystery made much sense, or that I really cared about it, but given the light-hearted nature of things, who cares?
Staged, on the other hand, I was relieved was as good as it was.
I missed the first season in 2020, even though David Tennant and Michael Sheen doing comedy should have drawn me in. That season chronicled their involvement with rehearsals of a play that never actually happened (delayed by COVID and then collapsing). Shot via Zoom (or some similar platform), with their significant others playing themselves it managed to be funny and thoughtful at the same time. The second season, from last year, expands a bit as an American remake is in the works – one which isn’t going to use either one of them as stars (since, apparently, we don’t like them over here). It’s more meta and sillier, but equally good.
The first season hasn’t even finished as a write this and it may go way off the rails in coming years (it’s allegedly going to run for five seasons) but so far it’s been engrossing.
I can’t say much about movies in 2021 since I didn’t set foot in a movie theater all year (the pandemic and all). I watched a few 2021 releases on streaming services, but nothing that really wowed me. As a result, I think the “movie” that stuck with me most from the year was Get Back, Peter Jackson’s epic excavation of The Beatles. I already wrote about that here.
Plus ca change Plus c’est la meme chose The more that things change The more they stay the same – Neal Peart, “Circumstances” from Hemispheres
Much has been written about how we’re living in an era obsessed with stories about crime. True crime podcasts and documentaries are everywhere. There’s something compelling about digging into an extended investigation of crimes and the people who commit them (the people against whom they’re committed usually get less attention). That’s true even for somebody who is knee deep in criminal law every workday. I’ve fallen down the rabbit hole of more than a few of these cases.
Along with the rise in true crime media has been concerns about what it says about society or how it may shape perceptions of crime. While those are legitimate things to worry about, if you get nothing else out of The Invention of Murder it should be that our societal obsession with crime, and qualms about it, are nothing new.
Victorians didn’t actually invent murder, of course, but Judith Flanders presents some evidence that it wasn’t very prevalent before the 19th Century (or at least widely reported). What occurs in that period is a convergence of emerging mass media, organized police forces, and growing cities that created a kind of perfect storm of crime and reflection upon it.
For the most part, Flanders works through the century by covering the details of a specific case, then showing how it was discussed in the press and, eventually, popular entertainments (Charles Dickens shows up in these an awful lot). Along the way we see the shift from public to private executions – public ones could attract thousands of people. We also see that the public interest in the stories of murders – which are often different from the facts – became insatiable.
This format gets a little redundant at times, but it allows Flanders to show that whatever the details of any particular petty atrocity, the press and popular entertainment could always make it worse, more salacious, more interesting. These includes not just novels, but stage plays (lots of stage plays – copyright wasn’t much of a thing in that era) and even marionette shows. Famous murders became quick reference points for certain kinds of maliciousness. Cases crept into popular culture so much that famous killers lent their names to ships and racehorses.
That the facts of particular cases didn’t always match the public’s perception mirrors our world today. I was struck when Flanders described the mid-century panic over murder by poisoning, even though they were so uncommon as to be nearly non-existent. A better example of a moral panic it would be hard to find.
Other threads running through these cases would feel familiar to a 21st Century reader. The modern police force was formed in the early part of the century and, almost as quickly, the police were criticized not as protectors of the general public but as enforcers of social order. Almost immediately after the Metropolitan Police Force was organized in London one newspaper listed among the “Necessary Qualifications” to be a cop the ability “to perjure himself with a clear conscience,” which could lead to “speedy promotion.” Then there are the repeated instances where a murder defendant is othered in some way (as a Catholic or Jew or Eastern European – I think there was one where all three were used!), set apart from the wider society that was reading about them.
One of the ongoing dialogs in the press that Flanders recounts is the requisite navel gazing as to whether the press coverage and popular media fascination with murder actually leads to the commission of crime. Throw in “video games” or “social media” and you have the same dialog going on today. What’s interesting is where this leads – Jack the Ripper. Flanders doesn’t argue that Jack’s crimes were caused by the Victorian obsession with murder, but does suggest that it’s kind of the final step in that evolution. What Jack the Ripper became in the public imagination couldn’t have happened a century earlier. If you’ve read Alan Moore’s From Hell this is a kind of reverse of the theory that animates (so to speak) that book, that Jack’s crimes were actually the birth of the 20th Century and all the mayhem that would occur during it.The Invention of Murder isn’t a quick read. It’s fairly dense and comes with pages of notes and source citations in the back, so it’s a serious historical work. But it’s also really entertaining, if you have any interest in how societies process crime. Flanders brings just enough snark to proceedings the lighten things up here and there. Definitely recommended.