Gene Seymour’s Top Ten 2022 List of Everything Else

There’s so much stuff to keep track of these days that it’s easy to lose track of stuff that seemed so great to watch, read, or even glean. So, this took a longer time to assemble than previous lists because it took that long a time to process the maelstrom that was 2022. I’m not going to tell you what I think is missing here because you’ll all have your own lists, some of which will likely include, say, the January 6th hearings or Everything Everywhere All at Once. The Multiverse itself likely deserves a slot all its own, except how do I know I don’t have a whole other list somewhere that’s all different. But there’s no time left to figure all that out. This is what I’m going with, and, except for the very last item, I feel altogether good about it. As always, these are not in any particular order – except, again, for the last one.





Reservation Dogs – Two things, I’ve recently decided, make life worth living: a sense of purpose and an active connection with each other’s souls, no matter how remote or hostile. Such were the animating forces of Sterlin Harjo and Taika Waititi’s poignant blend of teen anomie, vacant-lot naturalism, and stoner surrealism. As with its predecessor, Season Two found its indigenous American kids adrift in their ramshackle Oklahoma hood, still grieving the suicide of their friend Daniel and still getting haphazard and not altogether lucid counsel from varied elders, living and dead. My personal favorites among the latter demographic include, among the dead, William “Spirit” Knifeman (Dallas Goldtooth), a Lakota ancestor to confused-and-abandoned Bear (D’Pharoah Woon-A-Tai), whose half-baked advice to his teen descendant include lyrics from “Carry On Now Wayward Son” (yes, that one); among the living, it’s a three-way tie between Officer Big (Zahn McClarnon), a tribal policeman who stumbles his way towards a wholly innate sense of law, order, and even (such as it is) justice; woozy, weed-mongering Uncle Brownie (Gary Farmer), and the oracular-if-shabby Bucky (the great Wes Studi), with his hard-won cosmic wisdom. Still, it’s the kids who occupy the series’ fitful center; not just Bear, but also Cheese (Lane Factor), Willie Jack (Paulina Alexis), and Elora (Devery Jacobs), whose single-minded path towards California anchored the second-season narrative, and now appears ready to affect her friends’ destinies. Whatever happens and wherever all the rest of the grownups and kids end up, I hope I see more of those rapping, bike-riding bros LilMike and FunnyBone. Even if I don’t, I’ll happily settle for more Bucky and Brownie.

 

 

 


The Philosophy of Modern Song — Don’t call it “Bob Dylan’s Pop-Rock Criticism” or apply any socio-political ideology to its 60-plus selections. More than anything else, this is the authentic follow-up to Dylan’s 2004 memoir, Chronicles, Volume One and should be acknowledged as the autobiography of a personal aesthetic. Its illustrations and its text are as illuminating, evocative, cryptic, funny, and exploratory as “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream,” “From a Buick 6,” “Positively 4th Street,” or any other Dylan song, even those with no numerals in them. Also as with a Dylan song, whatever its intentions or origins, much of the raw content of these mini-essays, addenda, outbursts, and eruptions may arouse your subconscious to something it never considered before but recognizes as familiar. And no, I’m not going to explain what I mean by that.





Star Trek: Lower Decks – I’ll always place Matt Groening’s ribald space opera Futurama first above equals among animated science fiction TV series, even above the underappreciated, trailblazing, and scarily prescient Jetsons, which marked its 60th anniversary this year. Nevertheless, after three seasons, this doughty, wily offshoot of the ever-expanding-like-the-universe-itself Trek franchise has not only leaped towards the front of this personal pantheon, but it also threatens to become my favorite among the Trek shows that streamed into being over the last five years. As its title implies, the show moves its focus away from the Alpha Dogs of Star Fleet like Kirk, Spock, Sulu, Picard, Riker, La Forge, and other Heroes on the Enterprise Bridge and more towards the scrubs, swabs, and junior grade drudges several floors down from whose ranks would routinely come cannon fodder with imperiled landing parties in previous Trek incarnations. The series’ core clique waiting and serving on the USS Cerritos (itself a relative second-stringer among Star Fleet ships) is made up of science nerd D’Vana Tendi (Noêl Wells), super-striving Brad Boimler (Jack Quaid), sweet-tempered cyborg Sam Rutherford (Eugene Cordero), and last-and-certainly-not-least Beckett Mariner (Tawny Newsome), thorny, determinedly underachieving daughter of the ship’s captain Carol Freeman (Dawnn Lewis), whose own insecurities and thwarted ambitions are of such comparable dimension that you come away from this ingenious, often touching series affirmed that even in deep space, nobody ever gets out of high school, dead or alive.

 

 

 

 



Percival Everett – Suppose Chester Himes was an actual cowboy who spent as much time working out ontological riddles as riding ranges and fishing in mountain lakes. At age 65, Everett, who claims Himes as an influence, along with Herman Melville, has published more than twenty works of fiction of startling range, deadpan humor, and formidable intelligence. This year, for instance, he published Dr. No, where he borrows both a title and a plotline from Ian Fleming’s James Bond’s novels to fashion a blackout-adventure spoof judiciously seasoned with red herrings and philosophical conundrums. If I told you it’s about Nothing, you’d still read it, right? You’d have to read it. But if I were you, I wouldn’t start with the new one, but the one just before that was short-listed for the Booker Prize: The Trees, a very different, but no less provocative and inspired comedy thriller in which cool, dry Black agents from, the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation (MBI) investigate the serial murders of white racists whose bodies are somehow accompanied by the corpses of long-dead lynching victims, including Emmett Till. It made you almost wish Hollywood had made this into a movie instead of Till. But Hollywood was barely ready for that straight-ahead story to be told on-screen. And I doubt it’ll ever be ready for Percival Everett. But you might be. (Other recommended titles: Glyph, Erasure, I Am Not Sidney Poitier, For Her Dark Skin, Damned If I Do.)


 

 

 



Nope – Though I honor the memory of Rod Serling and what he did for me as a child in the warm bath of his Twilight Zone, the grownup I am now is less drawn to those Serling-esque episodes making broad and direct sociopolitical points and more towards those Zone stories written by Richard Matheson and Charles Beaumont that were more interested in pure jolts and unsettling visions for their own sake. Maybe that’s why I think this third feature by Jordan Peele is his best thus far for the same reasons much of the word-of-mouth I’d heard when it came out was so antagonistic: it was all over the map, in both theme and tone; it didn’t sustain a straight storyline or deliver a hard, sharp point. And it left me with more to unravel and think/dream about than either Get Out or Us. Yes, there’s a racial subtext (what Hollywood did for, and mostly to its Black workers, on- and off-camera), but it’s only one of several layers in this aliens-from-outer-space movie that manages to evoke the dry-mouth aura of a 1950s drive-in chiller while being up to date with its eccentric supporting cast, especially the marvelous Keke Palmer as steely, feisty sister to Daniel Kaluuya’s dispirited horse trainer. For the record, Michael Abels’s score reaches new heights here, too. Almost as high, maybe higher, than the big black disc in the sky that causes all the trouble.

 

 

 

 


Abbott ElementaryAs I’ve previously testified in public, I was so much in love at first sight with Quinta Brunson’s tender and whimsical workplace comedy series about an economically challenged South Philly public school that I took its premature cancellation as an inevitability. Now it’s a firmly established hit which may well be single-handedly rescuing the analog network sitcom from oblivion. Somewhere, Mister Peepers is grinning – and idly wondering how he’d cope with a principal like Ava Coleman.

 

 

 



Matthew Goode in The Offer — For most of Goode’s career, I thought I had him nailed down as a pleasant, perfectly comported prototype of the British smoothie capable of an eccentric tic (in the manner of British smoothies) or even a swerve into hysteria because of, say, combat fatigue from whatever beastly war harshed his erstwhile empire’s mellow. Watching him bring Robert Evans back to life in The Offer was a massive revelation. Those who know or have seen the 2002 documentary The Kid Stays in the Picture don’t need to be told that Evans was something of a Hollywood superhero in the mid-1970s when the movie business was generally lost at sea while the art form was at its peak. Evans’ one major misfire of that decade was The Great Gatsby and what you see in Goode’s evocation discloses where he went wrong: to do Gatsby right, what Evans really needed to do was to let cameras follow him around for a year and have somebody edit all the raw footage into a feature. That hypothetical verité could have been just as innovative and grand an achievement as both Godfathers and Chinatown. As it was, Goode’s rendering of a Gatsby-esque Hollywood legend, a “Last Tycoon,” if you will, elevated an otherwise middling docudrama to near-classic tragedy.




 



Prey – This was the prequel to the Predator franchise than no one, not even those who don’t care about hunter-gatherers from outer space, knew they wanted until it materialized in front of them. Set in a primeval American Great Plains more than three centuries before Arnold Schwarzenegger was a gleam in his mother’s eye, the film stars the magnetic Amber Midthunder as Nuru, an indigenous young warrior itching to show her brother and the other young tribesmen that she’s as great at stalking and hunting as they are. But the first in a series of hairy, insect-faced extraterrestrial hunters begins to pick off the incredulous young braves, eventually leaving her to figure out how to protect the rest of her village from being harvested. The special effects are, in their elemental way, just as spectacular as the hi-tech pyrotechnics of previous installments. (You will believe a bear can fly.) But Midthunder is, on many levels, the most dazzling of the movie’s assets, her character’s intensity and self-possession announcing both a young woman’s coming-of-age and a screen star’s arrival.

 

 




Atlanta: The Final Season(s) – Where to begin? The crew’s WTAF adventures during Paper Boi’s (Bryan Tyree Henry) European tour, including strange encounters with, among others, a friendly-but-oddly-abusive Liam Neeson, some well-heeled gourmet cannibals, a Blackface Dutch Christmas icon, along with streams of misread signals, overpriced fashion goods, exotic and dangerous drugs, and a missing phone. Or what about the seemingly “free-standing” stories, including the one about the wealthy white Manhattanites who discover their little boy is emotionally and psychically closer to their recently deceased Caribbean caregiver? Things got even weirder when Earn (creator-producer Donald Glover) and his posse returned to Atlanta where things are as dislocated as ever; how Van (Zazie Beets) somehow ends up searching for her daughter within a sinister cult-like entertainment complex run by the exploitative, enigmatic Mister Chocolate (Glover), all of it finishing off somehow with harrowing adventures in sensory deprivation with perpetually stoned Darius (Lakeith Stanfield). And that just scrapes the surface of this layers-within-layers, worlds-within-worlds cultural excursion that resembled exactly nothing else anywhere on any screen. They say it’s over. Not in my head, it isn’t.

 






Top Gun: Maverick – This is on the list primarily for its significance as a cultural phenomenon and not so much because it’s a great, or even very good movie. Not that I didn’t like it. In fact, I liked it a whole lot more than its 1986 predecessor, when its star’s grin was devouring everything in its path, symbolizing both the era’s avarice and obliviousness. TG:M provided such a massive, exhilarating surge to theaters struggling to shake loose from the COVID-19 doldrums that some audiences used the word “great” without qualification or irony. There were great things in it, most having to do with aerial ballet. But as all-American paeans to duty go, I much prefer John Ford’s calvary trilogy (Fort Apache, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Rio Grande) and even with Ed Harris around for the first act, I’d still rather watch The Right Stuff than either Top Gun movie.

In that first act (and if I’m really spoiling things for you here, then, dammit, go watch it on a streaming channel), Tom Cruise’s Maverick flies a state-of-the-art craft based on the now-decommissioned SR-71 “Black Bird” modified to reach Mach 10. Harris’s crusty admiral is about to shut down the manned flight experiment in place of drones, which kinda sorta makes sense. But “Mav” being “Mav”, he takes the plane up into the stratosphere and not only reaches the optimum speed but decides to stretch that old envelope a tad past Mach 10, which causes the plane to break up in flight. The next thing you see is Maverick, woozily lugging his parachute into a small-town diner, chugging ice water and asking where he is to which a small boy replies, “Earth.”

Now I don’t claim to be an aeronautical engineer. But I’ve absorbed enough histories of test flight and space travel to know that any corporeal being who even tries to eject from a flying object traveling past Mach 5 (a.k.a. hypersonic speed) will at the very least break every single bone and rend almost every tissue in its body, even in the highly unlikely event that a parachute opens. I’ve heard explanations (a.k.a. excuses) that the plane was likely equipped with some manner of “escape pod” that broke away and carried its pilot safely to the ground.

Yes, well…


It’s only a movie, right? And a movie that works so conscientiously to please its audience as Top Gun: Maverick needs to sacrifice credulity to roll the turnstiles and leave everybody happy.

But suppose, just suppose, that what we see when that plane breaks up high in the sky is the death of Captain Pete Mitchell, USN? And what if everything we see afterwards, including – and especially – Maverick’s reunions with his ailing wingman and the embittered son of the Lost Goose, make up an extended posthumous dream sequence, a Sixth Sense with G suits and F-35s? You’d have a less satisfying popcorn epic. You might also have a resonant masterwork of American storytelling.
As it stands now, it’s likely the loudest, most ornately apportioned shout of “olly-olly-oxen-free” ever issued to the moviegoing public. Thus, it’s a masterstroke of some kind. But not quite the one we, or the movies, really needed.

On “Picard”: Hope & Dread in the Siege of Corona

 

 

 

So let me tell you a little of what it’s been like living in the epicenter of the epicenter (sic) of a global pandemic: We’ve been getting phone calls every day from people, often the same people, checking in on us to ask how we are, how we’re feeling, are we breathing regularly, when we washed our hands last, and so forth. Meanwhile we have to remind ourselves to use gloves when we push the elevator button because we don’t have enough hand sanitizer to place on each floor of our building; and in those relatively quick interludes outdoors we remember to give every dog walker and jogger a wide berth, even though we’re noticing clusters of people in Prospect Park not keeping their distance from each other as they should.

In the absence of available testing, we find ourselves wondering with every involuntary twinge of one’s joints, every clearing of one’s throat, every dull wave of fatigue whether we’re in trouble no matter how quickly such moments pass. And we seem more aware than usual of   the sirens  blaring through our apartment windows at regular intervals, night and day. That is what life is like these days in the Promised Land of Brooklyn, New York, USA and I don’t think I can bear getting more specific than that.

What I also can’t get specific about right now is how Star Trek: Picard comes to an end. The tenth and final episode of what they’re insisting is its first season plopped into CBS All Access’s streams the day before I’m writing this. I’m betting that there are a lot of housebound people, Trekkers or not, who haven’t even seen the first episode yet, but have held off on watching the series so they can dig deep into their quarantined cocoons at some point this weekend or afterwards to binge-watch the whole thing from beginning to end.

If that’s the case, this is all they need to know: the climactic episode of Picard is balm to sensibilities   battered by  dread and upheaval; so much so that it’s worth going through the previous nine episodes to get there.  Star Trek: Picard   justifies the existence of pop entertainment in our lives, especially (I can’t emphasize this enough) now. Yes, it may strike some as ridiculous whether they’re people with no use whatsoever for science fiction in any form or longtime fans so deep into the mythos of the Trek franchise as to hold every attempt to build on it to an implausibly higher standard. I am no hard-core Trekker, but paraphrasing what a friend of mine said after watching the Picard finale, this was what made us keep faith with Trek from its beginnings more than a half-century ago.

 

 

Even I wasn’t sure would this would happen back in January, when the threat of Covid-19 seemed so remote as to be inconceivable. Back then, in the immediate wake of the phenomenal success of The Mandalorian on Disney’s streaming service, Picard began its run with a general sense among science fiction buffs of “show me” as soon as it brought the legendary starship captain Jean Luc Picard (the legendary Sir Patrick Stewart) out of a bucolic retirement making wine in the South of France. Twenty years have passed since “J-L”, a stalwart, paternal compound of warrior and statesman, was last caught up in intergalactic conflict and his universe is sadder, more constricted and compromised than it was in his years at the Enterprise helm. His best friend, the wise, winsome android Data (Brent Spiner), sacrificed himself in a conflict involving the Federation of Planets and the Romulan Empire during which Data’s fellow androids – here labeled “synthetics” or “synths” for short – were blamed for mass slaughter on Mars and have been demonized by humans and extraterrestrials ever since. Trek completists may deem it necessary to see the 2002 movie, Star Trek: Nemesis for further enlightenment. But I never saw it, was in fact encouraged not to and I had no trouble following what happened here. Another point, I think, in Picard’s favor.

In fact, I wont bother explaining what Romulans are or why some Romulans are nicer than others or the uneasy, even threadbare alliances between interplanetary beings, whether “synthetic” or not. If you can’t ride this vehicle without a scorecard, you wont be able to ride it at all. So what you  need to know going in is that Picard finds out that Data had a “daughter”, twins in fact (Isa Briones) , who don’t know they’re artificial but find themselves targets of militant Romulans intent on exterminating all “synths.” Picard can’t save one of them from assassination, so he and a motley assortment of misfits and cast-offs go boldly back into the Final Frontier to save her sister and take her “home” to a planet of  artificial beings; her “family”.

 

 

 

 

Throughout the series’ run, I admit to being skeptical, even with Michael Chabon (The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, Summerland, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union et al) as a showrunner, that Picard would pull this   off, even when I got all perked up with Jeri Ryan’s both-guns-blazing return as Seven-of-Nine. I peeked at what the trolls and grumps were saying on-line and their complaints ran along the general lines of “Too slow” or “Too dark.” I wasn’t persuaded much either way. Even at its most bombastic, Star Trek was never about blowing stuff up ; more like talking things through and working them out. (Do you know, or care that there’s a big difference between Star Wars and Star Trek? If not, what are you doing here?) As for the “too dark” complaints? Hell, you guys were all in on Deep Space Nine, right? I called that show Trek Noir and nobody I know who’s  seen it disputes the point. Besides which, if you weren’t even mildly amused at some point by some of the more outlandish bits of self-referential humor in Picard then someone should check to see whether you came from a factory.

 

 

I’m still withholding specifics here and elsewhere because you need to see it all before seeing the end. You will have your quarrels, I’m sure, with the content and especially with how it all turns out for the title character. But that’s not my concern here, so I will leave it at this:

Somebody somewhere once labeled Gene Roddenberry’s vision as a hymn to human possibility. At its best, in all its varied iterations, Star Trek ‘s mission wasn’t so much to “seek out new life,” but to grapple with what “life” actually entails, what it means, in short, to be human. The most recent big-screen renderings of Trek tended to neglect this in favor of, you know, Blowing Stuff Up. On the small screen, Trek calms down, scales back. It remembers to take its time, take your hand and encourage you to remember that it’s all about imagining your way beyond your mundane prejudices and worst terrors.

“Fear,” as Picard says at some point in Episode 10, “is an incompetent teacher.” This is something I need to hear right now and I bet you do, too. Take the ride.

“Into Darkness” or Whatever the %$&* Happened to Science (Fracking) Fiction?

 

 

live long & prosper

 

IMMEDIATE REACTION: I had a good time. I expected to. I needed more.

By now, unless you’re sticking your fingers in your ears and going “La-la-la-la” whenever somebody brings the matter up, you’ve probably heard that Star Trek: Into Darkness is supposed to be a riff on 1982’s The Wrath of Khan. Either I’m on the wrong meds or more senile than I imagine, but wasn’t its predecessor supposed to be a rejiggered version of Khan? And if so, is this how it’s going to be from now on, all these new actors in old roles and “classic” uniforms replaying variations on the same story (e.g. evil madman seeks apocalyptic revenge for real and/or imagined crimes)?

If so, then I guess nobody wants to make Star Trek movies any more. Because, let’s face it: Into Darkness isn’t a Trek movie. It’s got all the characters from Trek and the actors who play them are all very good; in one, maybe two cases, even better than their predecessors. But it’s more a movie about Trek than it is a Trek movie. It roots around the attic, appropriating old tropes and familiar names to make the devotees nod in recognition. But what I liked most about J.J. Abrams’s 2009 reboot was its impudent intent to make everything new while remaining attentive to the basic enthusiasm for human possibility that made Gene Roddenberry’s franchise linger for so long in the collective unconscious. (From one dedicated, mildly crazed TV show-runner to another…) Abrams’s follow-up, by contrast, seems content to use Kirk, Spock, Scotty and the rest as action figures that serve the corporate model for summer thrillers; most especially, the Great American Multiplex’s persistant yearning for revenge fantasies along with the attendant surges of explosions, kick-boxing, mass carnage and the obligatory, egregious deaths of beloved father figures. (Be warned: I’m going to respect the “NO SPOILERS” mandate only so much. If you care that much about what happens in this movie, you’ve had plenty of time to see for yourselves.)

True, I wasn’t bored. Which surprises me since there was so little about In Darkness that was new, either in the plot points germane to the Trek mythos or in the usual heavy machinery assembled for standard-issue popcorn phantasmagoria. In fact, I bet the hard-core Trekkers (sic) had themselves a fine time pointing out all the scenes, set pieces and dialogue that had some connection with any and all of the varied Star Trek TV shows and movies. I bet if they tried really hard — and, trust me, so many of them don’t need to try – the SF-movie savants could point out references to other big-ticket movies in their favorite genre. Independence Day cornered the market on such shamelessness, only no one to this day considers it shameless. (It’s a classic, doncha know?) Whatever you call it, this sampling would be barely tolerable if it weren’t offset by the pleasure you get from watching the cast settle into their retrofitted characters. Chris Pine’s Kirk, though properly brash and impulsive, doesn’t yet have the William Shatner strut, though he seems to be quietly assembling his own brand of hauteur to carry into future episodes. Zachary Quinto’s Spock here shows more of the character’s original diffidence;  of all the new actors, he’s the most thoroughly comfortable in his (tinted) skin. I still do not buy the office romance between Spock and Zoe Saldana’s Uhura for a nanosecond, but I am loving how she’s taking advantage of Trek 2.0’s greater breadth and depth of her character’s conception. I wish there were much more of John Cho’s rigorously circumspect Sulu, Anton Yelchin’s super callow Chekov and Karl Urban’s somewhat constrained Bones McCoy. I can’t yet tell whether Abrams and his team aren’t quite into the idea of McCoy, which would be a fatal mistake, or whether Urban doesn’t yet have a handle on him. The writers do seem very fond of the idea of Scotty rendered by Simon Pegg as a puckish grump with overcompensation issues. The revision plays to Pegg’s strengths and I’m guessing this series has bigger plans for him than they do for Urban – which would, again, be a big mistake since Trek’s classic verities are rooted in the tug-of-war between the hyper-passionate ship’s doctor and the coolly rational First Officer.

But I’m no longer sure Abrams really cares about the foundations of the old Star Trek as he does in critiquing, if not subverting Roddenberry’s vision. Let me put it another way: Why bother doing the Khan story, not once, but twice? Is it just to show how you can build a better Enterprise? As much as we love these characters in action no matter who’s playing them, it wasn’t just who they were or what they did, but what they represented to us back in 1966: Hope for the future. We’ve not only made it further out in space, but we seem to have managed to make ourselves better, smarter, more tolerant people. We figured out how to live together so well that we seem to be able to get along with people from other planets without being freaked out by the shape of their ears. Now what? That’s what we came for every week. What do we do with this wider perception of our own humanity as we head out yonder? Just as important, what DON’T we do? What is it about this expanded knowledge that keeps us from acting as stupid as some of the beings we encountered on this five-year mission, human or extraterrestrial?

These are the kinds of questions we counted on science fiction to engage, if not necessarily answer. And while we dug watching Kirk and the crew in all those cool martial-arts matches with Klingons and Romulans, the action sequences were access points for the question we knew Star Trek had to ask at some point every week: What does it mean to be human? Into Darkness is into the action sequences, but they seem placed there to sustain our thirst for retribution, which the movies seem to have been exploiting ever since (I’m going to say) 9/11. We no longer seem interested in seeking new life and new civilizations, but in kicking ass and taking names of those bullies who slaughter innocents and blow up our buildings. This yearning for the big win over terror may be who we are. But is it who we want to be? If Abrams and his co-writers are serious about this five-year mission the Enterprise is about to begin, maybe they’ll allow us to find out. But I don’t hold a lot of hope about this. Maybe that’s who I am.