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Each week Elma and I give you 5 opinionated but culturally relevant choices, based on our experience of curating smart sticky stuff for Ovation, Trio, Bravo, A&E, Sundance, Fuse, and others.
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Last week, one of our favorite series came back: Narcos on Netflix. Very bingeworthy.
But when we contemplated doing a post, our first thought was – why do we like this guy? And then, how the heck do we justify that?
The hero of Narcos is Pablo Escobar — a ruthless sociopath whose major contribution to the advancement of the human race was industrializing the international cocaine trade. But even though he’s not the hero, he’s the one you want to see.
And then it hit us like a lightning bolt. The coyote! The trickster, the fox, Loki. It’s Trump! After eight years of sober responsibility, people are sick of the literal, factual, doesn’t-get-you-anywhere small “t” truth. They want The Truth. And they want it from somebody with enough coyote wiles to deliver the goods. Or, as one academic put it: “a personification of the chaos that the world needs to function.”
Thanks to Joseph Campbell and Pablo Escobar, we finally understand the 2016 election.
The nominal hero of Narcos is American DEA agent Steve Murphy (Boyd Holbrook), but as so often happens, the hero suffers from a fatal dramatic flaw – predictability. Luckily the creators of the series don’t worry too much about who’s supposed to be the hero and focus instead on the world class real-life villain Pablo Escobar (Wagner Moura).
In Narcos, Escobar’s dizzying rise to power is fueled by a tangle of contradictions – sympathetic and sadistic; loyal and ruthless; strategic and impulsive. He’s a far more interesting character than the workaholic DEA agent.
And even though Holbrook does a credible job, he simply doesn’t have the charisma of Moura – a Brazilian (and therefore Portuguese-speaking) actor, who learned moved his family to Medillin (Escobar’s home town) and learned Spanish for the part.
With Narcos, Netflix made a another ballsy technical decision (for the notoriously monolingual realm of American television). In the series, characters actually speak the language they speak in real life – meaning that about half the series (the best half, as it happns) is in Spanish with English subtitles.
After charting Escobar’s dizzying and bloody rise, Season 1 ended with him alone and hunted. We lost a lot of sleep plowing through the 10 episodes. Season 2 was released a couple weeks ago. Word is, it’s as good as Season 1, so we’ve resisted even starting until we can clear a block of time.
THE MASK (1994)
Once upon an innocent time Jim Carrey was a goofy young over-the-top but funny guy on In Living Color. And “CGI” wasn’t a word kids learned in grade school.
Then came 1994, the year of Jim Carrey. The Mask was his big summer breakout, one of three that year – Ace Ventura opened in January, and Dumb and Dumber opened in December.
The Mask is based on a comic book and was originally planned as a horror film – it was directed by horror/thriller specialist Charles Russell, whose John Travolta thriller I Am Wrath went straight to video this year.
A milquetoast bank clerk, Stanley Ipkiss (Carrey) finds an ancient mask. When he puts it on, he transforms into the shapeshifting Norse trickster god, Loki. Once he puts on the mask he undergoes a CGI transformation and his deeply suppressed desire for revenge is unleashed. He zips around town, doing things that Stanley wouldn’t even let himself fantasize.
The story is slapdash, and yet the movie made a hundred million off a budget of ten. This was the year after Jurassic Park and the same year as Forrest Gump. Gump beat Mask for the Special Effects Oscar — but Russell was one of the first to make a crucial realization — for a certain demographic, story can take back seat as long as your CGI blows the minds of young male viewers.
Watch this movie with kids, if you can – you’ll laugh at things you wouldn’t laugh at on your own. There’s a strong then-and-now component (it was Cameron Diaz’ first role – she had to audition 12 times). There’s also a dandy 30 second explication of trickster myth by Stanley’s shrink.
THE DARK KNIGHT (2008)
Batman first appeared in Detective Comics in 1939, and The Joker appeared in the first issue of Batman in 1940. There is an eternal dispute over which of three Batman creators actually invented The Joker – which to us is simply proof of how deeply archetypal and zeitgeist-ian the character is.
Dark Knight is so perfect in so many ways, that we rank it as the best superhero movie of all time, effortlessly transcending its genre. So many elements are so good, and yet all orbit around the black hole of Heath Ledger’s Joker.
Now, if the Joker were running for president… Would we be tempted to vote for him?
This is not the greatest show that has ever been on TV, but it was remarkable that a dynastic soap opera set in a fictional Middle Eastern dictatorship (think Syria) even got on the air, let alone lasted for 3 years. Props to FX.
The arc of the show’s success is why it’s on this week’s list.
The hero of record is Barry Al-Fayeed (Adam Rayner) younger son of the aging dictator Kaled Al-Fayeed. Barry is utterly westernized – no accent at all. He’s even relatively pale by Southern California standards – SoCal is where he fled to avoid his genetic destiny, went to college, became a doctor, married a blonde, and had a family.
He brings his wife and teenage kids back for a first time ever visit, and while they’re there, the father dies, setting the clockwork of the plot in motion.
The trickster villain (self-serving but sentimental psychopath, given to laughing quietly to himself) is the older brother Jamal Al-Fayeed (Ashraf Barhom).
Barry believes in democracy, equality, and all the things that make America great. And is totally boring. Jamal is turbulent, amoral, a ruthless dictator both by destiny and personal inclination, and utterly fascinating.
Granted, part of this is the casting. In order to get the show on the air, they cast a British-American white guy (Rayner) in this extremely earnest part. But then, inexplicably, he plays Barry even more earnestly than he is written. Yawn.
Jamal, the trickster brother who steps into the father’s shoes, is played by Israeli Arab actor Ashrof Barhom. He plays him as wildly inconsistent, by turns ruthless, impulsive and tortured.
Jamal quickly became the main reason to watch the show. As soon as he dies, the series ceased to be interesting, and was cancelled. Tyrant is not worth binging, but it’s well worth watching a few episodes, for Barhom’s Jamal. Late Season 1, into Season 2.
PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: THE CURSE OF THE BLACK PEARL (2003)
The irony of the subtitle here is that Johnny Depp’s decision to play Jack Sparrow as a fey dipsomaniac was at least partly a trick on studio head Michael Eisner (who richly deserved a trick or two). Which then became an “Answered Prayer” for Depp.
Depp punked Hollywood. We – America — got the joke, and loved it.
The resulting juggernaut success detoured Depp from the emo cult path he seemed to be headed down, and catapulted him onto the highway of first magnitude stardom. Since then, his career has careened wildly from Pirates to Tim Burton to Hunter Thomson, with the occasional detour to Whitey Bolger as he tries somehow, desperately, to figure out what he wants to be when he grows up.
Jack Sparrow is Depp’s defining creation; but the trickster character stole Depp’s life. Don’t you think Depp might have been a lot happier if he’d spent these last thirteen years descending into cult obscurity? The moral being, if happiness is what you really want, it’s probably wiser to avoid becoming a big movie star.
The movies, even far down the franchise, continue to be reliably fun.
SONG OF THE SOUTH (1946)
On a very personal level, it makes us sad that this film seems to be locked in the Disney vault forever. (We tried to get it for Trio a couple times — no dice.) If you want to spend the money, you can but a copy of the Japanese DVD; and there are usually pirated bits and pieces on YouTube. Of course, we never watch video we suspect of being pirated on YouTube…
It makes us sad because Brer Rabbit is one of the great tricksters, and the story of the Tar Baby is a defining fable of our childhood. “Not the briar patch! Anything but the briar patch!” is not only a brilliant ploy, but also a deep commentary on human nature – the things our rational mind resists most violently are so often exactly what our unconscious longs for the most.
As an adult, we understand that the movie is deeply, offensively condescending. The black folks are happy and willingly, even eagerly defer to the whites. Slavery? What slavery? And the tunes are utterly Disney, with nary a nod in the direction of the truly incredible African American tradition.
But for us, lily white as we are, Brer Rabbit and his “Born and bred in the briar patch!” will always represent the underdog who is smart enough to outfox the fox and triumph against all odds, even overcoming his own personal limitations.
Wikipedia has a synopsis of the Tar Baby story, and some interesting facts about its roots and variations across traditions.
The Uncle Remus stories were popularized in the late 1800’s by Joel Chandler Harris, which is an interesting story in itself. You can get a PDF here. Be forewarned, it’s written in deep cringe-worthy dialect – for a quick payoff, skip ahead to the last two paragraphs.
We didn’t consciously set out to be subscription heavy this week, but it makes sense that it would turn out that way – isn’t whole concept of disruption a kind of massive trickster ploy, perpetrated against the nation by the overeducated sociopaths of Silicon Valley?
Fleabag has been getting a lot of ink lately (e.g., this week’s New Yorker). It’s a startlingly transgressive series written by and starring – are you ready for this – a female trickster.
As the New Yorker article points out, it is the latest in the breaking wave of bad girl comedies. But the distinction here is that not even Amy Schumer has talked directly to us, grinning, as she… how do we say this… takes it up the bum.
Phoebe Waller-Bridge writes and plays the namesake heroine of this six-part British series. Fleabag (her name is never explained or used in anything but the title) is an obsessive-compulsive loser who pulls off the ultimate heist. She hijacks our sensibility by disrupting the third person flow with rapier, seductive zingers straight to the camera.
She lies, she steals, she has wildly inappropriate sex and sexual fantasies (flirts with a small white dog at one point), and yet manages to keep us firmly on her side, becoming the above-cited necessary personification of chaos.
Extremely bingeworthy (since this seems to be our thing this week). And at six half hour episodes, won’t even disrupt your sleep schedule. Yes, it’s only available on Amazon.