Elsewhere

Apologies for the recent radio silence. I have a few things in the work that will hopefully go up later this month, but in the meantime, here are a few shorter pieces that went up at Lawyers, Guns & Money, after a week that, rather incongruously, suddenly delivered a deluge of interesting (or at least interesting to talk about) film and TV.

First up, Mike Flanagan takes a break from the Haunting series for Midnight Mass, his first Netflix miniseries not based on an existing properties (though the influence of Stephen King can, as ever, be strongly felt, and I found myself thinking, in particular, of books like Needful Things and Under the Dome). That shift is all to the good, as Midnight Mass, despite some typical Flanagan-ish flaws, is his most complete work yet, one that actually seems to have something to say. I was particularly struck by the show's nuanced, thoughtful handling of religion.

Almost from the start, Midnight Mass goes very deep into the specifics of Catholic ritual, in a way that cuts against the standard pop culture depiction of it, as a sort of vaguely Christian blob. Here terms like chasuble and ordinary time are thrown out casually, the specifics of altar boy hierarchy are gotten into, and the choreography of the mass is repeated again and again. To be fair, this is all probably a lot weirder to me than to most people watching the show, but the depiction feels deliberately alienating, as if trying to make the point, even before anything supernatural happens, that what these people take for normal is actually kind of strange. And Flanagan is quick to capture how religion can encourage poisonous habits of thought. Sure, not every member of St. Patrick's is like Bev Keane (Samantha Sloyan), the self-important, self-righteous church administrator who bullies and steamrolls anyone who gets in her way. But even Riley's kind, open-hearted mother (Kristin Lehman) will sometimes do things like rejoice in the fact that a Muslim teenager has come to church.

By the time the healings start happening, Midnight Mass's argument is clear: unquestioning Christian faith has left the congregation of St. Patrick's vulnerable to evil, able to be persuaded that what they're witnessing is an act of god. While some parishioners are eventually able to see that something has gone wrong, that Hill's sermons about "an end to death" and a coming holy war are not normal or good, for the most part the characters who have the moral clarity to realize that something is wrong are the ones who are outside the fold: Riley, the atheist; the town doctor, a lesbian who feels alienated from the church (Annabeth Gish); the Muslim sheriff (Rahul Kohli).

Next up, the fall's biggest hit, Squid Game. When I wrote this piece, I lamented that it was only the foreign language barrier that was keeping this violent, outrageous fantasy about desperate people competing to the death to win a big cash prize from becoming this year's The Queen's Gambit. A week later, that seems to have happened anyway. As I write in the review, Squid Game is smart, impeccably made, and offers a twist on its Hunger Games-esque premise that makes it all the more wrenching and relevant.
On their own, the game scenes would make Squid Game a riveting, pulse-pounding show (not unlike the chess scenes in The Queen's Gambit). But what gives them extra flavor and importance is the reason the players are competing. After the Red Light, Green Light massacre, the surviving players are given a choice: they can vote to leave, in which case the prize money—one hundred million won for each fallen player—will be distributed among the dead's relatives. If they keep playing, however, one of them has the chance to win the whole pot. (This did my head in while watching the show, so as a service to you I'll mention that 1000 won ~ 1 dollar.) All but a handful choose to stay.

At first this seems purely like desperation, but eventually it becomes clear that in some ways, the game is better than the world outside it. It is, as its administrator insists to his underlings, "fair". It's incredibly, sadistically cruel, but at least there are clear-cut rules, and the consequences of both following and deviating from them are neatly laid out and immutable. And unlike the outside world, where people like Gi-Hun can never really win, despite all that they've been told to the contrary, here there is a guarantee that at least one player will come out ahead. To people down on their luck like the players in the game, the idea that you could gamble your life—and win a fortune—on a game of marbles or tug-of-war makes for a more comforting, more rational world than the one they've been living in, in which every choice has been a losing one, and the rules keep being changed and reinterpreted to their detriment.
Finally, we have the long-awaited Sopranos prequel The Many Saints of Newark, which flashes back to Tony Soprano's teenage years and fills in the character of Dickie Moltisanti, Christopher's father. I found the film disappointing, rarely rising above fan service and gesturing at ideas that it lacks the space to develop (such as a subplot about increasingly strained relations between Italian and black gangsters, set against the backdrop of the black civil rights struggle and white flight). 
Like any other interesting idea raised by this movie, however, this subplot isn’t given enough room to breathe and develop, and ends up being unceremoniously dropped as soon as the white heroes decamp for the suburbs. In fact, the kindest thing I can say about The Many Saints of Newark is that it might have worked better as a television series. With space to develop its characters and pepper in those glimpses of humanity and fallibility, of tedium and stupidity, that made the show so special, its story might have rivaled the original's. At feature length, it feels like a Sopranos highlights reel, one that contains only the moments of violence and significant event, without the connective tissue that made the original show so heartbreakingly humanistic. Take, for example, the subplot about Dickie's mistress, Giuseppina (Michela De Rossi). Her rocky relationship with Dickie, and fatal misreading of both the man that he is and the depth of his commitment to her, are an obvious parallel to Adrianna's. But absent the slow buildup of tension and complexity that made that storyline one of the show's most gutting, it just feels like a story we've seen a thousand times before in mob movies (not to mention, one that ultimately revels in violence against women without giving sufficient space to their humanity).

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