David’s Watch Diary: December 2019, Part 1

Thoughts on Marriage Story, Watchmen, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, American Factory, and more.

Marriage Story

Regarding couples watching Noah Baumbach’s lacerating drama on Netflix, there are two kinds. The first group will frequently reach out to squeeze the other’s hand, in shared recognition of joy, pain, and cataclysms averted. The second will have a lot they need to talk about afterwards. There were also reports of couples leaving screenings partway through, but only they know why.

Unlike 1980 Best Picture Winner Kramer vs. Kramer, or Baumbach’s own The Squid and the Whale, Marriage Story takes a painfully familiar topic to audiences — Divorce — and dramatizes it on screen in a way we haven’t really seen before: As a confounding swamp to be marched through at swordpoint. There are many moments where theater director Charlie (Adam Driver) and actor Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) could have listened, apologized, changed, and kept their marriage together. Even when they’re screaming at each other things they can’t take back, it’s not really a lost cause; it just feels like one, and that’s enough to change their lives forever.

This isn’t a dissolution presented through the eyes of a confused or angry child. Their son, Henry (Azhy Robertson), is old enough to understand what’s going on, but still young enough to adapt to it (and sometimes be kind of a twerp, which is also refreshing). Marriage Story instead gets into the nitty-gritty, the legal minutia, the rank unfairness of the process the Barbers have committed themselves to as well as the whiplash emotional moments that border on parody. One moment their lawyers are fighting in a trench, weaponizing benign comments on behalf of their clients; the next, they’re chummily ordering sandwiches.

It’s an unsparing screenplay from Baumbach, who as ever pulls from his own life as well as the lives of his cast: Johansson was going through her own divorce on the eve of production; Driver’s parents separated when he was a child. Together they bring extraordinary verisimilitude to career-best work. Johansson brilliantly delivers a single-take monologue where she walks her shark-like lawyer (Laura Dern) through a life story that never really felt like her own.

Driver, though, solidifies his status as one of the best, if not the best, actors of his generation — it’s a unique physical performance and a devastating emotional one, lived-in and fraying, but also comic, and even musical (the Sondheim performance). I expect that many Oscar voters will see themselves in him, accurately or not, and I sorely hope they reward him accordingly.

Baumbach’s cast also includes Alan Arkin, Ray Liotta, and Merritt Wever, who all get moments to cook, but this is one of the great two-handers of modern cinema. And though its protagonists share both the blame and the load, it ends on an unexpectedly hopeful note — perhaps not for the Barbers, but for the institution of marriage itself.

Watchmen

In recent years, studies have found that traumatic experiences can be passed on through chemical markers in your DNA. If your parents or grandparents survived a catastrophe, persecution, or period of constant upheaval, that may be reflected in how your body responds to stress, insulin, or even certain scents. This has added fresh fuel to our ongoing — and necessary — conversation about Black America: What has been inflicted over the years, what has been ignored, and what could (and should) be done about it.

It’s also the underlying theme of HBO’s Watchmen, a “remix” of the seminal Alan Moore/Dave Gibbons graphic novel, and one of the year’s most astonishing television series. Showrunner Damon Lindelof (and his diverse writers room, which includes The Good Place‘s Cord Jefferson, The First‘s Christal Henry, and former LOST mad re-capper Jeff Jensen) begins his story with a young boy surviving the Tulsa race massacre of 1921, and ends it with that boy’s granddaughter eating a raw egg to inherit the godlike powers of Dr. Manhattan. In between were moments of shock, awe, and pure comic book madness: catapulting clones and fetus swamps; inter-dimensional squids and a time-hopping blue deity; mirror rooms and millennium clocks; and, of course, Lube Man. It was a phantasmagoria of blissed-out mystery box storytelling, propelled by Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross’s buzzing score.

But what has separated Watchmen from its contemporaries (not to mention Zack Snyder’s own take on the material in 2009) isn’t just the rich world-building or exceptional performances — especially from Regina King, Tim Blake Nelson, Jean Smart, Jeremy Irons, Yahya Abdul-Mateen, and… well, I’ll just say everyone — but its pure subversiveness. Lindelof’s eureka moment for the series, the kernel that grew this great oak, was the idea that the legendary figure Hooded Justice, the first vigilante in Watchmen lore, was black: a closeted cop who decided that the only way he could mete out justice was to hide his face. That decision changes the course of this alterna-Merican history where President Robert Redford’s reparations plan has created some measure of equity for the people of Tulsa, and masked figures work alongside (and within) its police department, but the original enemy — white supremacy — can’t be fully eradicated because it’s co-opted the same symbols. It’s a world just familiar enough to be deeply unsettling.

I’ve given special mention in a previous post to the episodes “This Extraordinary Being” (where King’s Angela Abar lives through her grandfather’s memories) and “Little Fear of Lightning” (the showcase for Nelson’s Looking Glass), but the final two episodes surpassed even my high expectations. “A God Walks into Abar” was a moving love story, beautifully anchored by King and Abdul-Mateen, that also recast the most powerful being in the universe as a caring husband, father — and a black man. Then this past Sunday’s “See How They Fly” deftly tied together every dangling thread (well, except the aforementioned Lube Man) in a sensational finale with an unforgettable final scene. If trauma can be passed on from one generation to the next, so too can hope, strength, and pure bad-assery. Angela Abar is on the short list of my favorite TV characters of 2019, and whether HBO gets Lindelof to return for a Season 2, carries on without him, or lets the series end with her foot ready to walk on water, her power — and Watchmen’s power — is in the beautiful potential of the infinite.

The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, Season 3 (Amazon)

Maisel is a technical wonder; the series’s already-impressive Steadicam sequences go up another level in its third season. In the premiere, Midge moves through a massive USO crowd to the stage, has a moment, then runs off again. Later in the season, a shot begins with a synchronized swimming rehearsal, dipping in and out of the water to eventually land on Midge waking up poolside, walking away as the camera cranes up, then kicking a beach ball in the face of the swimmer at the top of the pyramid. In the finale we see Midge take a long, serpentine path through her ex-father-in-law’s factory floor, pausing for conversations, a hundred parts moving in harmony around her.

Maisel is incredibly entertaining; Midge’s routines still kill, and Rachel Brosnahan remains an effervescent, motormouthed performer. Alex Borstein’s Susie is also now the fulcrum of the season, keeping Midge’s career aloft while also trying to turn Midge’s nemesis, Sophie Lennon (Jane Lynch) into a serious Broadway actress. Michael Zegan’s Joel gets a new vocation (club owner) and a girlfriend, Mei (Stephanie Hsu), who talks like every other Sherman-Palladino character. Tony Shalhoub’s Abe tries to re-discover his leftist roots in a subplot that doesn’t quite work, but Shalhoub is funny in everything. Luke Kirby brings pathos in his lone appearance as Lenny Bruce. There are many musical interludes, courtesy of Leroy McClain’s Shy Baldwin; the show zips along with little to no regard for plotting because it just wants you to have a good time. Sterling K. Brown and Cary Elwes are here!

But Maisel is also troubling, and that begins with Midge herself. As much as we’ve enjoyed watching her meteoric rise, she still needs to learn a few hard lessons. Her stubbornness and naïvete, played up to now like fun character traits, aren’t just professional liabilities but making her less likable as a character. She wanders into her old apartment without invitation from its new occupants. She brow-beats Joel about her kids attending “advanced” (rich, white) schools. She takes a job doing a radio ad for Phillis Schlafly without doing any research. She’s snobby to Mei without cause. She finally gets confronted by the fianceé (Zachary Levi) she abandoned last season. And, most consequentially, she outs her headliner from the stage of the Apollo. We want to root for her, and we often do, but she can also be The Worst. The show’s uncertain awareness of this is what keeps it from that top tier, no matter how many Emmys it wins.

American Factory

I took in Best Documentary contender American Factory on Netflix, which belies its Norman Rockwellian title with a complex and nuanced case study in globalization. When Chinese glassmaking giant Fuyao buys an old, long-closed GM plant near Dayton, Ohio, there’s hope that it will lead to an economic resurgence in a town that had taken many blows; what happens, though, isn’t a mere culture clash, but a slow-motion train wreck. Conditions are poor, language barriers are high, and the underpaid workers’ attempt to unionize are ultimately stymied by a company that learns too quickly how to get what it wants in the American capitalist system.

Directors Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert were granted unprecedented access — not just earning employees’ trust, but shooting candid scenes of Fuyao founder Cao Dewang traveling back and forth, including a bizarre visit to Fuyao headquarters by the American middle managers. The result isn’t a polemic, but a strikingly frank, un-manipulated view of an increasingly untenable situation. Yet there are points of light around the edges, like Lisa, the forklift driver who finds a cause greater than herself (before she is punished for it), and the good-natured Wong, who represents the many Chinese workers duty-bound to leave their families for two years to train Americans they know will never be as efficient.

The reasons for that, though, are manifold, and the filmmakers are clear-eyed about where the faults lie, while also having empathy for key figures on both sides. It’s really impressive stuff, more melancholy than brimstone, with a bleak warning at the end that most of these jobs are going to be replaced by robots anyway. Fuyao North America is finally turning a profit, and everyone who remains has accepted their role as a cog in the machine.

Quick Hits:

  • I’ll have full takes on The Mandalorian and Mr. Robot once they wrap up their respective seasons, so stay tuned. Similarly, we’re halfway through The Expanse on Amazon, and loving it so far.
  • We started watching the Irish series Derry Girls, created by Lisa McGee. Despite its setting (Northern Ireland during the Troubles), it’s very funny. Saoirse-Monica Jackson’s face is unnaturally rubbery.

Looking Ahead To: The Rise of Skywalker, obviously (12/20); also The Two Popes on Netflix (12/20). I might check out The Witcher series. Then the Christmas Day trifecta of Little Women, 1917, and Uncut Gems. This month is gonna have to be in three parts.

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