Safe (1995), When life Makes You Sick

Safe is one of those low-key films it’s easy to miss even though it received quite a bit of acclaim when it was released in 1995. Directed by Todd Haynes, this is a stark and understated psychological drama starring Julianne Moore as a suburban housewife who becomes increasingly distraught over symptoms and chemical sensitivity.

Safe is the kind of film that raises more questions than it answers. Anyone who suffers from an autoimmune disease such as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (or a host of other conditions) may identify with Carol. On the other hand, you can also interpret her situation in a more existentialist way. Is Carol actually physically sick, or is she suffering from a kind of societal malaise that leaves supposedly successful people feeling empty and at odds with an increasingly alienating environment?

In the early scenes of Safe, Carol is shown shopping, having coffee with friends, and driving her Mercedes around nondescript, affluent suburban California neighborhoods. When she first describes her symptoms, she mentions being under stress. Yet her life contains very little stress, at least as conventionally defined. What we can see is that she moves through her life in a robotic way, barely connecting with her unsympathetic husband and her friends from the gym. Her perpetually blase affect is contrasted not by her bland surroundings but by references to the more dangerous and passionate wider world, as when her son excitedly talks about gangs or she hears a fundamentalist preacher on the radio.

As Carol’s symptoms worsen and she doesn’t get help from doctors, she visits Wrenwood, a retreat center that’s run by a self-help guru named Peter Dunning (Peter Friedman). Wrenwood, like Carol’s illness, is hard to pin down. Friedman’s new age rhetoric is meant to be inspirational but it also emphasizes that people are responsible for their own conditions. Is Dunning helping people reach their potential and heal themselves or is he a huckster taking their money while mouthing cliches? As with Carols’s illness, you have to make up your own mind.

At one point, Carol makes a halting, confused speech about how much Wrenwood has helped her. Julianne Moore does a superb job of playing a character whose words are often incongruous with what she’s actually feeling. Soon even the isolated retreat center isn’t sufficient escape from the encroaching pollution and chemicals as Carol starts to believe that fumes from the nearest highway are reaching her.

As Safe has little in the way of a linear plot, I don’t think discussing the ending really qualifies as a spoiler. The final scene (from which I’ve posted a clip from YouTube) reveals that Carol has retreated still further, to an isolated igloo where she’s alone, breathing through a gas mask. The final scene has her repeating “I love you” into the mirror with an utterly hollow expression that belies this affirmation.

Safe, as you can probably gather, isn’t an uplifting film. It has a protagonist with an undefined problem with no apparent solution. With such murky material, I feel entitled to my own interpretation, which centers on the film’s title.

I actually started thinking about this film partly because in 2020 we’re living in a time when the word “safe” is repeated endlessly and people are widely concerned about symptoms, even if from a virus rather than the more nebulous environmental contaminants faced by Carol. The whole idea of being safe brings up the eternal dilemma of living in a world that is inherently unsafe and suggests that when we place too much value on safety it turns us into prisoners at odds with the very fabric of life. The latter, of course, is only one possible interpretation. To me, the film is elegantly ambiguous, leaving us to take from it what we will.

Lodge 49: Understated Alchemy

Listen to my Lodge 49 Review podcast.

In a world where most TV shows (as well as movies) are cliche-ridden and predictable, Lodge 49 offers something truly original.

Lodge 49 refers to a Masonic-type organization with a fledgling headquarters in Long Beach, CA. While, on the surface, the lodge has the stodgy atmosphere of an Elk’s Club, with mostly older members who spend hours at the lodge’s bar and play lots of golf, there’s a mysterious background involving shadowy occult forces that a few members dabble in.

The story begins as Sean “Dud” Dudley (Wyatt Russell), a likable 30ish slacker, who’s unemployed and near-homeless, wanders into the lodge and discovers a sense of purpose as he meets the various eccentric members, starting with Ernie (Brent Jennings), a long-time member in his 50s who’s a bit disillusioned with the lodge and his life in general.

In at least one review, Dud has been compared to The Dude in The Big Lebowski (even his nickname is similar). This is fair but Lodge 49 is not even remotely derivative of that film or anything else. It has some elements in common with a range of shows that explore occult or supernatural themes. Unlike these mostly fast-paced and action-packed shows, however, Lodge 49 is understated to a fault. Don’t expect explosions, special effects, swords and sorcery, or people transforming into werewolves. There’s definitely magic afoot, but it remains in the background and doesn’t really start to assert itself until Season 2.

Much of the mystery is suggested in the theme music and the mystical artwork scattered on the lodge’s walls. Students of such lore will recognize tarot cards and various occult symbolism. The lodge’s resident mystic is Blaise (David Pasquesi) who’s even a healer/herbalist in his day job. However, his fascination with old alchemical texts and potions is tolerated rather than embraced by fellow members.

A great deal of the story focuses on Dud’s twin sister Liz (Sonya Cassidy), who has nothing to do with the lodge (at least until well into Season 2). She’s a misfit like her brother, but a very different type. While Dud can’t hold onto a job, she works diligently as a waitress at a Hooter’s-like bar called Shamrocks and tirelessly aims to pay off their deceased father’s debt.

There are numerous backstories involving Liz, including flashbacks involving their dad, and the careers and relationships of the other characters. In fact, part of Lodge 49’s charm is its slow pace and willingness to spend time with each character. A show like this could easily have been populated with a bunch of lovable but ultimately stock and sitcommish characters. Yet every member of the cast is fleshed out to reveal his or her foibles, dreams, and heartbreaks.

When you deal with a topic such as alchemy, there’s also the temptation to turn it into a supernatural/sci-fi genre piece (or, perhaps, a by-the-numbers paranormal mystery along the lines of The DaVinci Code and its many imitators). There’s nothing wrong with that approach but there are enough shows like that already. Lodge 49 charts its own course, finding an odd but captivating balance between drama, comedy, mystery, and just enough magic and mystery to keep us wondering. Even the characters go back and forth between belief and skepticism as during a series of episodes involving some alleged mysterious scrolls that reveal hidden secrets.

Whereas most shows dealing with paranormal elements get completely immersed in heroic quests and battles between good and evil, with Lodge 49, we never forget that we’re watching real people who are struggling with bills, difficult relationships, and everyday angst. Sometimes the pace is a bit slow but overall this adds to the authenticity and gives the more fantastical elements more credibility.

I won’t try to recount any more plot points as they are very complicated and almost secondary to the characters, setting and atmosphere. It’s the kind of show that’s clearly not for everyone. I’d suggest that if the first episode doesn’t pull you in, you probably won’t like it any better further in. While things speed up a bit in Season 2, it’s a very meandering and non-linear journey. At the same time, Lodge 49 doesn’t go to an extreme in the absurdist/existentialist/mumblecore directon (which has its own charms, to be fair). The characters are quirky but they do evolve and there is some forward movement, albeit in an unpredictable and circuitous manner.

The program, which first aired on AMC and is now available on Hulu, has run for 2 seasons with Season 3 apparently up in the air. It was canceled but there are rumors that another season is possible, which I hope happens. TV history, alas, suggests otherwise as the most innovative programs seldom survive more than a season or two (with exceptions, to be sure).

In summary, if you’re drawn to anything offbeat, give it a try!

For some insights into the motivations behind Lodge 49, here’s an interview with Jim Gavin, the creator.

Parasite: Class war in modern Korea

Parasite, directed by Bong Joon Ho, is a rich, often shocking, and genre-bending look at class conflict in modern Korea. Unlike many films that tackle such topics, Parasite is fairly ambivalent about its heroes/villains. More accurately, there are no heroes and the villains slide helplessly into this role rather than due to any evil intentions.

Parasite starts off as a fairly lighthearted comedy, as a familiar genre piece about con artists. Failed entrepreneur Ki-taek Kim (Song Kang-ho) lives in a bug-infested tenement with his wife Chung-sook (Chang Hyae-jin), daughter Ki-jung (Park So-dam), and son Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik). The children are grown but, like their parents, unemployed and without prospects. The family survives by doing odd jobs such as folding boxes for a takeout pizza place but even fail at this and have their meager wages cut when the boxes aren’t folded properly.

The family’s fortunes take an upward swing when Ki-woo is recruited by a friend headed for university to tutor the daughter of an affluent family. This is meant to be a short-term assignment but the family conspires to turn it into something much bigger. Taking advantage of Ki-jung’s computer skills (and her natural talents as an actress and forger), the family sneaks its way into the household. Ki-taek becomes a drive; Ki-jung an art tutor, and Chung-sook a maid. They do this in a humorously unethical manner, getting the legitimate household servants fired and scamming the socially insecure couple, pompous CEO Mr. Park (Lee Sun-kyun) and his naive wife Yeon-kyo (Cho Yeo-jeong).

Any further discussion of the plot would amount to spoilers, so I’ll just say that Parasite veers in a very different direction from its farcical opening act. I’ll just list a few key impressions the film left me with.

Much of the film’s impact comes from imagery rather than plot developments. For example, the stark contrast between the homes of the two families. The Parks live in a modern mansion on a hill while the Kims live at the bottom of a hill (a fact that becomes important). Elevation plays a both literal and metaphorical role throughout the film.

The very title of the film is a bit of a puzzle. The title complements an earlier film of Bong’s, called The Host, which was about a sea monster. Any parasitism in the current film originates in human nature. All of the characters can be considered parasites, depending on one’s perspective. While Bong is clearly calling attention to issues such as economic inequality, his approach is far more nuanced than simply pitting the noble working class against their evil overlords. It’s more like everyone is victimized by a faceless system that fosters inequality and, ultimately, tragedy and mayhem.

It’s worth noting, and a bit disconcerting, how globally relevant the fundamental issues in Parasite are today. While the film is set in Korea, it could just as easily be the U.S. UK, France, Canada, or many other places where the gulf between economic classes is expanding.

Parasite was nominated for several Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best International Feature Film. I saw Parasite at Bytowne Cinema, an independent theater in Ottawa, Ontario.

the art of self-defense on hulu

Fans of martial arts dramas will probably want to catch The Art of Self-Defense, now showing on Hulu. This quirky indie film stars Jessie Eisenberg as Casey, a meek accountant who learns Karate after getting mugged.

Jesse Eisenberg has one of the most varied resumes in Hollywood. He alternately stars in mainstream films such as The Social Network, high-profile indie films such as The Squid and the Whale and seriously offbeat indie efforts such as Free Samples and, more recently, The Art of Self-Defense.

The rather generically-named The Art of Self-Defense, written and directed by Riley Stearns, is sort of like a twisted version of The Karate Kid, with perhaps some Fight Club thrown in. It’s a bizarre and uneven mix of comedy, violence, and just plain darkness.

The premise of a wimpy protagonist learning martial arts is hardly new. Casey (Eisenberg) is, of course, not a kid or teen but a guy in his mid-thirties who, nonetheless, finds himself bullied wherever he goes. This culminates in a vicious assault that winds him in the hospital. After shopping for a gun, Casey wanders into a local dojo and is drawn into the warped world of Sensei (Alessandro Nivola), an intense instructor who makes The Karate Kid’s Sensei Kreese (who’s still menacing Daniel LaRusso and California’s dojos in the recent YouTube series Cobra Kai, btw) seem like a pacifist by comparison.

I won’t recount the entire plot of The Art of Self-Defense as this would inevitably contain spoilers. Suffice it to say that Casey undergoes a transformation from a meek and frightened victim to a belligerent (and rather unhinged) tough guy who takes no $hit. Sensei (who only has that title, no name) is a strange character who mixes typical martial arts traditionalism with large doses of sadism, misogyny, and, eventually, outright insanity.

There’s no real message to The Art of Self-Defense and it’s a hard film to categorize. To me, it has a pessimistic and nihilistic soul. It could be called a satire of martial arts except that few martial artists embody quite the oddball mixture of traits practiced by Sensei. One of the sub-themes involves sexism as the dojo’s female instructor Anna (Imogen Poots) is treated unfairly and never promoted to black belt. This theme, however, doesn’t quite mesh with the obvious fact that Sensei and his entire dojo are basically nuts. In effect, Anna is being discriminated against by a death cult. Why doesn’t she just quit and find a more normal place to train?

The Art of Self-Defense is an interesting, mostly engaging but ultimately unsatisfying dark comedy/drama that plays with several serious issues without offering much depth or consistency on any of them. It’s about vengeance, the violence underlying modern society, the nature of martial arts and male-dominated clubs in general, and the dangers of blindly following authority. By the end, many things have changed but no one has necessarily learned anything.

The Amazing Johnathan Documentary

John Edward Szeles, better known as The Amazing Johnathan, is a high-profile renegade magician who’s appeared in numerous venues as well as in movies and various celebrity shows. In 2014, Johnathan was diagnosed with a heart condition called cardiomyopathy and given a year to live. Several years later, however, he was still around. Director Ben Berman decided that an infamous magician on borrowed time would be a good subject for a documentary.

Of course, The Amazing Johnathan Documentary turns out to be a lot less straightforward than the above introduction suggests. It seems that it’s not enough to make an ordinary documentary these days. It helps if there’s an air of mystery and a heavy dose of “meta,” where the documentarian and his work is at least as important as the alleged subject. Exit Through the Gift Shop comes to mind, and The Amazing Johnathan Documentary, while not quite as fascinating as that one, has some similarities.

There are a few twists in the doc that it’s probably better not to reveal. One, however, must be mentioned. As the filming got underway, several other documentary makers began to surface. One, allegedly, was the production company behind hits such as Man on a Wire. Then another, and yet another, documentary maker appeared, turning Berman’s own doc into a kind of hall of mirrors.

At this point, Berman, as well as the viewers have no idea what’s really going on. Is Johnathan playing him (and us) or is he himself being used by multiple filmmakers cashing in on his impending death. Speaking of which, is he even sick at all?

One backstory is that Szeles is a heavy drug user, which possibly explains his heart condition. In fact, if he really uses meth every day, it truly is a miracle that he’s still alive. At one point, Berman offers to take meth with Szeles as an act of “Gonzo journalism.” He goes as far as to consult with a lawyer on the possible legal ramifications. This episode is an example of how the doc drags in spots. In 2019, it isn’t really shocking or necessary for authenticity to watch people take drugs. Yet this is treated as a major ethical and aesthetic issue.

There are other places where the action slows or feels repetitive. While it’s interesting to contemplate who’s telling the truth and what’s really going on, most doc viewers have already seen this kind of thing before. Just as Berman doesn’t know how far he can trust Szeles, so the viewer is in the same position in regards to him. Do we even know, for example, that there really are multiple documentary makers? The main focus is on the notorious second group. Berman doesn’t let us see or hear anything they do, either for his own purposes or because they don’t want to be filmed.

There’s one scene, in a Vancouver theater, where the second doc is allegedly playing, but we don’t get to see any of it, only a sparse crowd that includes an actor Berman pays to crash and ask a question. If we want to get in the spirit of suspicion and paranoia, there’s little evidence that this doc actually exists. Of course, I haven’t taken the trouble to research it and perhaps others have verified it. The point is that the whole film puts one in this state of mind where everything can be doubted.

Whatever other docs may or may not have been made, The Amazing Johnathan Documentary has obviously broken through. It was showcased at Sundance, has been shown in art theaters and is now on Hulu. I’d recommend this film to anyone who’s fascinated in The Amazing Johnathan and/or who can’t get enough of murky doc/mocs where it’s never quite clear what is and isn’t real. It’s not my favorite example of this genre but it did hold my interest.

Room For Rent

Room For Rent, a low-budget Canadian blackish comedy directed by Matthew Atkinson, is the kind of indie comedy that provides a respite from the steady stream of formula action, horror, rom-coms, and other generic fare churned out by the Hollywood machine.

This isn’t to say that Room For Rent doesn’t fall into genre cliches of its own. There’s definitely an established category of psycho roommate who won’t leave. However, while Brett Gelman infuses the unhinged roommate Carl with an edgy creepiness that could turn scary, the film never quite goes into full-fledged horror mode.

Mitch (Mark Little) is a thirty-something slacker who still lives with his parents. The catch in his case is that he’s a former lottery winner who managed to blow over $3 million in a few years with a series of failed inventions and improbable business ventures, including a self-drying umbrella and a sex doll marketed to teen girls.

When Mitch’s father (played by Mark McKinney, known as the goofy manager on the TV show Superstore) loses his job, the family is faced with the prospect of losing their home. Rather than consider the extreme prospect of getting a job, Mitch comes up with the idea of renting out a room. Enter Carl, who arrives with a suitcase, ready to move in on the spot, and a thick wad of cash which overcomes the parent’s reluctance to take in a complete stranger.

Carl wins over the parents but makes Mitch uneasy. An undertone of creepiness soon becomes outright threats and pranks. Carl calls up Mitch’s ex-girlfriend Lindsay (Carla Gallo), who Mitch alienated while going on his spending spree years ago.

The second half of Room For Rent takes a slightly different course than you might expect from the Roommate From Hell genre. Without getting too specific, let’s say that the film provides a semi-coherent motive for Gelman’s bizarre behavior.

I found the explanation a bit convoluted and contrived. For one thing, it depended on Carl arriving at Mitch’s household literally minutes after the “Room For Rent” sign was put up. It also gets into some dubious legal and business matters involving patents that may or may not make sense (I’ll let someone with an MBA or a patent lawyer answer that one).

All in all, however, Room For Rent is an entertaining movie. I always give props to a film that’s at least somewhat unpredictable. In a typical Hollywood film with this kind of setup, you’d have something like Pacific Heights (actually a pretty good example, and one of the first, of that genre), where Michael Keaton’s psycho character gets crazier and crazier until the predictable bloodbath ensues.

Countless cable (e.g. Lifetime) knockoffs of this variety have been made. At least Room For Rent, though not perfect, manages to walk an interesting line between drama and dark comedy without falling into total cliche.

Bill Murray Stories on Netflix

The Bill Murray Stories: Life Lessons Learned From a Mythical Man is a documentary on Netflix about a curious phenomenon involving the comic actor who’s reinvented himself as a kind of trickster guru over the last decade.

“Bill Murray sightings” have been reported for many years. These are seemingly random incidents where Murray appears in unlikely places such as a kickball game, a college dorm, or at a random party. Filmmaker Tommy Avallone sets out to document these sightings and find out if they are real or simply bizarre urban legends.

These aren’t like typical celebrity sightings. Murray is always alone and simply blends into the local culture. As Avallone discovers, many of these stories are true. The documentary has footage from several of these events as people are shocked and overwhelmed to have a star in their midst.

You can look at Bill Murray Stories in a number of ways. On one level, it’s a study in the modern obsession with celebrity. Several of the interviewees have almost religious awe at having met Murray, saying how the experienced transformed their lives. This is touching yet also a bit disturbing.

On the other hand, Murray seems intent on providing inspiration and positive energy without the usual celebrity fanfare. Even if these encounters do make the celebrity gossip columns, Murray doesn’t really need the exposure at this point. He seems to be having a good time as he elevates the environment.

We’re also reminded that many of Murray’s films such as Razor’s Edge, Groundhog Day, Caddyshack and even Meatballs have a transformative message. In a strange way, Murray truly seems to be a latter-day Zen master who is now wandering the world inserting himself into the lives of ordinary people.

There’s also a clip from Coffee and Cigarettes, one of my favorite Jim Jarmusch films, which is a series of semi-improvised sketches with odd pairings of celebrities having random conversations. In one scene, Bill Murray plays himself pretending to be a waiter, referencing the whole Bill Murray Sighting phenomenon.

Possible Spoiler Alert: Bill Murray is never directly interviewed in this film. All the footage is taken from previous “sightings” and public appearances (such as one Murray made at a Comi-Con festival). This, however, is actually part of the appeal of Bill Murray Stories. If Avallone had full access to Murray, it would just seem like another insider piece. Instead, it’s more like a doc you might catch at an indie film festival.

Green Book: Familiar But Engaging Buddy/Road/Race Relations Movie

Green Book, directed by Peter Farrelly (along with his brother Robert, best known for low-brow comedies such as Dumb and Dumber and Something About Mary ) starring Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali is the kind of film that Hollywood absolutely loves to produce and that tends to win Academy Awards: A buddy film that takes place on the road, with a mismatched black and white duo and dealing with serious social issues.

Tony Lip (a moblike nickname) is a bouncer at a nightclub who has at least casual ties to local mob figures. Despite a penchant for gambling, he manages to steer clear of their dubious offers of easy money. When the nightclub closes, he seeks employment and has an interview for an unusual driving job with a musician named Don Shirley (Ali).

The two are about as mismatched as you could imagine. “Doctor” Shirley is a classical musician, a Ph.D. who speaks multiple languages while Tony Lip is a garrulous street character whose diction Shirley immediately starts to correct.

As the two drive to the segregated South of 1962, they encounter predictable instances of racism and hypocrisy. While Shirley is superficially honored as a great musician, he is not allowed to dine with white people or even use their toilets.

The lessons the two impart to one another are predictable. Tony’s worldview expands while Shirley learns to loosen up and even enjoy fried chicken (a recurring joke that’s milked throughout the film).

It would be easy to dismiss Green Book as merely a series of familiar tropes. Despite this, strong performances and some moving, as well as humorous moments, provide genuine pathos as well as entertainment. It does come perilously close to falling into the “white savior” category as Tony (Mortensen) acts as bodyguard and protector to. However, he’s just flawed enough to avoid being too blatantly a savior.

The film was “inspired by a true story,” which means that somewhere, sometime, something at least remotely similar may have occurred. Green Book gets its title from The Negro Motorist Green Book, an actual book which provided information on which hotels and other businesses permitted blacks to enter.

The fact that Green Book has been nominated for Best Picture can be attributed mainly to Hollywood’s long-time attachment to familiar themes and uplifting tales involving race. Driving Miss Daisy, a film that invites comparisons to Green Book for obvious reasons won Best Picture in 1990, a year when a far more cutting-edge drama dealing with racial issues, Do The Right Thing, wasn’t even nominated.

Both Mortensen and Ali were also nominated for, respectively, Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor. Whatever little relevance the Oscars have these days, the actors are deserving of acclaim for making the very most of what they have to work with. Mortensen, in particular, is given the all-too familiar role of a brash Italian American gangster type with a gargantuan appetite (in an early scene, he wins a hotdog-eating contest). Despite this, he manages to rise above the stereotype and imbue Tony with likable qualities.

While not exactly original or groundbreaking, Green Book isn’t as banal or objectionable as it could have been. It’s the kind of film that is hard to dislike even if you recognize that it’s shamelessly tugging at familiar heartstrings.

I saw Green Book at Tyneside Cinema, an atmospheric, well-preserved traditional theater in Newcastle, UK where they do an admirable job of recreating the old-fashioned cinema experience. I did grumble at the decidedly modern practice of making you sit through some 20 minutes of commercials before the film but I suppose it’s a challenge for movie theaters to pay the bills these days.

Fyre on Netflix

“The Greatest Party That Never Happened”

The Netflix documentary Fyre looks at the infamous Fyre festival of 2017. What was meant to be a game-changing super luxury music festival for privileged millennials turned into a disaster.

While much of the blame can be attributed to organizer Billy McFarland (one of his associates labels him an “operational sociopath”), it was really a group effort that required the complicity of influencers, marketing agencies, and, not least, the people who gullibly bought the exorbitant tickets on faith.

Fyre is interesting on many levels. Far more than just a failed event, it speaks to a crucial aspect of contemporary culture: the obsession with social media and influencers and the obsessive need to be associated with celebrities and glamour.

One darkly amusing segment at the end shows how McFarland, out on bail after the collapse of Fyre, was able to con people on the festival’s mailing list yet again with a bogus “VIP Access” scam that promised imaginary meetings with Taylor Swift, a private dinner with Lebron James, and discounted tickets to Burning Man and Coachella.

What really SOLD people to pay as much as $250,000 for a Fyre ticket? It obviously wasn’t the opportunity to hear great music or even lounge on the beach. You can do that for a fraction of the cost. To really get the idea, you need to watch the original promo video for the event.

They recruited some of the world’s top models along with scenes of pristine beaches, private jets, and yachts to appeal to what MacFarland says in one of the doc’s most revealing comments:

“We’re selling a pipe dream to your average loser.”

What’s so incredibly significant about that statement is that it applies to so much of the modern media, advertising, and social media landscape. TV commercials and magazine ads were doing this decade before the internet. What’s different is that now they can package more than mere products.

Fyre: A Lifestyle App

At the beginning of the doc, it was pointed out that Fyre was meant to be more than just a one-off festival. It was supposedly going to be a platform for matching people (presumably ones with lots of disposable cash) with amazing experiences. Macfarland was also involved in another gimmicky endeavor: Magnises, a metallic black card that was meant to be an even more exclusive version of the American Express Black Card. Like the Fyre Festival, Magnises crashed due to lack of substance.

All of McFarland’s projects from Magnises to Fyre to the post-Fyre VIP Access were blatant attempts to exploit the public’s (it would be unfair to confine it to the easy target of millennials) fascination with celebrity, wealth, and glamour.

Lord of the Flies Meets The Beach in 2017?

One disturbing aspect of Fyre goes beyond the intentions of the promoters and organizers and relates to how the festivalgoers themselves behaved. Granted, they had good reason to be disappointed, angry, and even scared. What had been promised as a luxury resort atmosphere resembled a refugee camp, with hundreds of tents lining the beach.

We see how their mood transforms from exuberant to skeptical to outraged. This is perfectly understandable. What’s unfortunate is how this quickly degenerated into what one observer called a “looting mentality.” The scene became a nightmare that evoked some of the most dystopian novels/movies set on beaches from Lord of the Flies to The Beach.

One festivalgoer, without apparent shame, admitted how he and his friends destroyed neighboring tents to make them uninhabitable, all so they wouldn’t have close neighbors. This type of reaction doesn’t bode well for civilization if any major catastrophes ensue.

Equally interesting was the reaction on social media from the general public -in other words, people not suffering at the festival. The reaction was hardly sympathetic. On the contrary, there was widespread hilarity and exuberance. The prevailing attitude was that it served these spoiled rich kids right for spending so much money on a luxury excursion. There’s was definitely an element of class envy going on here.

The Dot Com Collapse, Blockchain and Castles in the Air

The way McFarland and co-conspirators were able to sell the Fyre concept is reminiscent of other internet-related phenomena. While fast-talking scammers have always been able to con the gullible, it’s now much easier to create the appearance and framework of substance even when none exists.

In 2000 there was a collapse of internet companies that threatened the demise of the digital age in its infancy. While this is sometimes conflated with the post-9/11 economic slump, the internet bubble actually started to burst in 2000.

It turned out that many companies were built on nothing but vague concepts. Many were running at a loss. Of course, it’s well known that Amazon, now one of the world’s wealthiest companies, went for many years losing money. However, the majority of businesses that start out losing money don’t turn into Amazon: they simply fade away.

Now, almost 20 years later we have several new developments that make it even easier to create castles in the air: social media, online video, and smartphones. The Fyre Festival was able to construct such a castle by creating a glamorous video and hiring some models and influencers.

The blockchain and cryptocurrency are also producing all kinds of vague and untenable companies. Following the rise of Bitcoin, hundreds of new cryptocurrencies were (and continue to be) released, enticing speculators to invest. Apart from cryptocurrencies, many businesses are using the blockchain concept in realms from publishing to online security.

When McFarland gets out of prison (he’s currently serving a 6-year sentence) it wouldn’t be surprising if he starts a blockchain company. This isn’t to say that the blockchain and cryptocurrency don’t hold real potential. The point is, they can easily be used to create promising yet impractical businesses (or outright scams in some cases).

The Fyre Festival, like McFarland’s other schemes, points to how much of modern society is built on vague and shaky promises. It may be significant that the virtual space where so much data is stored is called The Cloud.

A Society Obsessed With Images

Last year, I read and reviewed a modern classic of sociology, The Image, by Daniel J. Boorstin. This book from 1961 identifies many of the key movements that would morph into contemporary social media/influencer culture. Another prescient classic that dealt with this type of issue was The Society of the Spectacle, by Guy Debord in 1967. Both of these pre-internet thinkers identified the emerging trend of a society where people are obsessed with appearances, images, and celebrities (i.e. people whose images are worshipped).

The Fyre Festival was indeed a pipe dream but one that was irresistible to people immersed in an image and celebrity-centric culture.

Forever: Amazon Prime’s Experimental, Existential Dramedy

Warning: Mild spoiler alert (mild as this isn’t really a plot-driven show so major spoilers would be nearly impossible).

Amazon Prime has been entering the streaming TV competition (mainly against Netflix and Hulu) with a fury. While many of its shows are fairly standard genre fare: Jack Ryan is a familiar Cold War-type spy hero while Goliath is a legal thriller starring Billy Bob Thornton, Forever is something different: a low-key, experimental comedy/drama/fantasy.

Starring Saturday Night Live alumni Maya Rudolph and Fred Armisen, Forever takes a few episodes to establish its premise. The two stars play a married couple, June and Oscar, who are basically content with their lives. June, however, feels a certain amount of boredom and frustration with Oscar’s complacency -a recurring theme of the entire season.

The Afterlife as Suburban Limbo

Here’s the closest thing to a genuine spoiler: both Oscar and June die and relocated to an afterlife that’s like a less populated version of a Southern California suburb. Nothing much happens in Forever, which is unusual for American television. The two explore their relationship, interact with a few other characters in the afterlife (including one played by Catherine Keener, a fixture in many indie films since the 90s).

I appreciate the effort behind shows such as Forever, as I’m sure anyone is who is simply tired of the same old rom-coms, thrillers, and special effects-driven superhero shows and movies that dominate popular culture today. However, I can’t say I was especially captivated by Forever. As I mentioned, not much happens here and the conversations and self-reflection are only interesting up to a point. It’s kind of like a mid-life crisis played out in the Afterlife. I doubt if a show like this would get much attention, or even a chance to air if it didn’t have star power behind it. Because Armisen and Rudolph are so familiar and we associate them with cutting-edge culture, we might be more patient with the lackluster material than we might otherwise be.

There’s nothing terrible about the show and it’s certainly watchable. At the same time, it isn’t particularly funny, suspenseful, or moving. The closest thing to suspense is the viewer’s instinct to believe that something is sure to happen sooner or later. That’s why the word “existentialist” came to mind. It does rather capture the state of mind people might have in Limbo, though the afterlife here is never given that name – or any name. That’s another odd thing about the show -this is an extremely vague vision of the Afterlife.

There’s, as I mentioned, a sparsely populated suburban landscape. Then they discover another place where dead people “live” -a kind of mansion where residents party and symbolically burn all ties to the past (i.e. their actual lives). So one theme of the show is the question of whether it’s better to retain your memories or live in an eternal present. Yet nothing seems to be at stake here. There’s no suggestion of great rewards or damnation (or the possibility or reincarnating).

One whole episode abandons the main characters completely and focuses on another couple, two married people who are having an affair. This episode is well done but has no connection to anything that comes before or after. The only link is that, at the end, we see June observing them, apparently motivating her to travel with Kase (Keener) away from the burbs to the more glamorous neighborhood. There’s an intimation that the two might be attracted to each other but this possibility doesn’t play out.

In some ways, Forever is the diametrical opposite of another contemporary show about the Afterlife: The Good Place. Whereas that show is full of rules and explanations (from where much of the humor is derived), Forever is like a Twilight Zone episode where you never find out what’s really going on. You might say the vagueness of their situation makes it more creative and open to interpretation. On the other hand, you could just as easily say it’s a bit lazy, leaving viewers to wonder where the hell (pun intended?) they really are and why.

The Afterlife as a Continuation of Middle-Class Privilege?

One reaction, that I had at times, is to roll your eyes at this vision of privilege (perhaps an overused word these days) – that comfortable, upper-middle-class people with few serious problems will just keep on like that forever, living in a spacious suburban home with all their material (or perhaps immaterial) needs automatically met. Of course, many shows focus on the affluent or at least comfortable. To digress a bit, a good example is Modern Family. At the same time that it revels in its message of embracing diversity, it’s all within the rubric of comfortable, property-owning professionals. However, the metaphysical pretensions of Forever put it in another category. Any portrayal of an Afterlife, unless otherwise specified, implies that this is where everyone goes. Of course, the extreme insularity of these characters’ situation deliberately cuts off contemplation of universal concerns. Like characters in 19th century English and Russian novels, their main challenge is boredom.

Is This All There Is?

The ending of Forever (another very mild spoiler alert!) suggests that Oscar and June can expand their reality if they become a bit more adventurous. In other words, just perhaps, there could be a version of the Afterlife that’s not an endless continuation of suburban ennui. Will Forever continue for another season? As of now, it’s uncertain. According to Bustle, “probably not.” It’s hard to care too much as the first season didn’t exactly end on a cliffhanger.

It’s probably best not to read too much into Forever (advice I clearly didn’t follow). It’s probably more a metaphor for modern middle-class life, mid-life crises, and relationships than a true exploration of eschatology. It’s almost incidental that June and Oscar are dead. What the show is really asking is, how can they wake up and rediscover themselves in a society that encourages a kind of sleepwalking? Taken this way, the show is fairly interesting if not exactly mind-blowing.

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