TV: The Leftovers (season 1)
Five Came Back by Mark Harris
This is Mark Harris's 2014 book about five Hollywood film directors — Frank Capra, William Wyler, George Stevens, John Huston, and John Ford — who helped the war effort in World War II by making films for the armed forces.
Between this and Pictures at a Revolution, I will read any damn thing Mark Harris puts out. He depicts characters beautifully, at a level that few nonfiction writers can manage. He does exhaustive research. He understands film history well enough to show us how these smaller stories fit into the big picture, and the lasting impact they'd have on what followed. And he chooses details that fill out the world of Hollywood with depth, and the sort of palpable verisimilitude that a fantasy/sci-fi writer would *kill* for.
In this case, he's set his sights on wartime filmmaking. Instead of centering on the films that were up for an Oscar in 1967 (the basis of Pictures at a Revolution), he's focusing on the five big-name directors that pitched in with the war effort. And again, he's rock-solid with descriptions: strong characters, and a strong sense of the world they move through. As the story moves forward, you get a gut feeling for the story of how America experienced World War II.
And above all, you see how this was an inflection point: after the war, American filmmaking was not going to be the same. We saw war footage differently. We saw the purpose of movies differently. Directors suddenly resented the studio system, and wanted to break free. Audiences hungered for darker, grittier stories. You can even see the seeds for the auteurs that would break loose in Mr. Harris's earlier volume.
This is a very entertaining book, and is well worth your time if you have any interest in film history or in the 1940s. I can't wait to see what Mr. Harris will do next.
Gardening Basics for Dummies by Steven A. Frowine
This is the omnipresent how-to line's book about basic gardening.
It's a known brand. When you buy a "... for Dummies" book, you know what you're getting, no matter what the topic. It's like when you order a McDonalds anywhere in the United States — it's a known quantity. It'll have cartoons from The 5ᵗʰ Wave, which is like The Far Side with all of the absurdist edge extirpated. And the tone of the book itself follows suit, harmlessly breezy, like two harmless suburban dads bantering on a golf course.
And like everything else in the line, it's written at about an 8ᵗʰ-grade level. It aims for breadth far, far more than depth, going a mile wide and an inch deep. Chapters feel a bit like "Flower arranging: arranging flowers in a garden is important! It makes them look pretty. Be sure to arrange flowers in a way that you like them arranged! Put the tall ones in back, so they don't block the front ones. If you have further questions, talk to a gardening expert or nursery employee." So: state the topic, blather for way too long about why the topic is important, give some mostly self-evident tips, and then punt with "if you get stuck, ask the pros."
Honestly, this was a dumb book for me to read. I'm looking to plant a vegetable garden — which is a quixotic goal here in Austin, but anyway — and I thought, welp, I'd better read this "gardening basics" book, since it will probably give me a fundamental understanding of gardening that I will need to understand their more specific and erudite volume about vegetable gardening.
But instead, the book isn't really *about* anything — again, it's more broad and shallow, more like an encyclopedic info dump than anything with a through-line. And so most of it was a waste of time, explaining to ambitious homeowners how they can plant trees, and redo landscaping, and create water gardens, and plant flowerbeds — so many flowerbeds. I'm not sure it had much to say about vegetables beyond "give them lots of organic matter and follow the instructions on the seed packets", puffed up to chapter length.
But it was a place to start, at least, giving me the absolute basics on how to garden, even if I wasted a lot of time thumbing through, say, how to create a pleasing color palette for a floral container garden. I'd recommend it as a basic reference, but nobody should read this straight through.
The Leftovers (season 1)
This is the 2014 HBO adaptation of the Tom Perralta novel. It's about a small town dealing with the aftermath of a mysterious event in which 2% of the human beings on earth suddenly vanish.
I didn't enjoy this show. And I hate writing that. Friends and critics I admire love this show. Friends of mine have *appeared* on this show. Going into this, every indication was "this is a show that is designed for Peter". For showrunner Damon Lindelof, this was a perfect TV follow-up to LOST — after a decade of captious fans asking him "what is the island?", or "who is the man in black?", or "what did season six even mean?", he got to make a TV show that was literally about how we act when faced with the unknowable.
And that's the core of The Leftovers. It's like a nihilist subversion of overheated evangelical fantasies about The Rapture — but instead of "some people vanished and IT MEANS WE WERE RIGHT", it's "some people vanished and it makes no sense." There is no explanation. There is no *hope* of an explanation. There is just unexplainable tragedy and shattering loss. And, pitted against that mystery, the mind slowly twists into a knot.
Again: this should be my jam. I'm befuddled that it's not.
I know part of it is that I didn't like the look of the show. The style is almost aggressively bland. The shooting style and editing choices feel very conventional. The color correction is standard teal-and-orange, leading to lots of oompa-loompa-complected actors standing around in night-sky-colored rooms. Half the characters look like models. The score doesn't seem to do much beyond loop obsessively around its main piano theme.
But these feel like feeble complaints — yes, these things all matter, but you can tell good stories even if the score is repetitive, the color scheme is bichromatic, and the actors are pretty. And by my reckoning they're telling a good story. Their world-building — reckoning what the world becomes after six million people disappear — is thoughtful, detailed, and self-consistent. They create effective storylines with clear stakes. They give characters emotional depth. I could argue that it can be a little too plotty, a little too much emphasis on moving the pieces around when it wants to be more character-focused and meditative... but again, I feel like I'm grasping for justifications more than accurately reporting what's there.
Maybe the show was just too sad for me. The show is relentlessly grim, unleavened by humor, with occasional sparks of gruesome violence. It heavily emphasizes cults, which I usually find scary and upsetting. I think Nora was the only character I liked. At one point I nearly tweeted:
Me: Okay, The Leftovers, what fresh hell do you have for me today?I hate to think of myself as somebody who needs TV to be cheery and fun, but I guess I have my limits, and I guess I found one of them here.
[woman gets tied to a tree and literally stoned to death onscreen]
Me: Well ok then.
For next week: I'm watching season two of The Dragon Prince. I'm reading a beginner's guide to philosophy by Nigel Warburton, and Vegetable Gardening for Dummies. Still catching up on podcasts for now — no audiobooks in progress.