"How To with John Wilson" is this week's recommendation.
Sorry for the two-week hiatus, folks. Sometimes life calls and you don't have time to scream about movies and TV for 1,500 words when it is not technically in your job description.
I'm back now, though. I mean, I couldn't miss this week. Not when U.S. movie theaters were put on death row this week, according to everyone on Twitter.
For those that missed it, WarnerMedia announced Thursday that all of the studio's offerings planned for 2021 would land on HBO Max the same day they are released to theaters, and at no extra cost to subscribers. They do mean all of them — that's "Wonder Woman 1984" (which lands a bit earlier, on Christmas Day), "The Matrix 4," "In the Heights," "Space Jam: A New Legacy," "Godzilla vs. Kong," and, of course, my beloved "Dune," plus others.
The films will be on the service for one month before leaving, which I guess is supposed to bully people into watching stuff before it leaves instead of letting it linger for a while? It's certainly not supposed to be a lead-in to a theatrical run; no one's going to be at the theaters for at least the first quarter of the year, and the movies will be floating around shady torrenting sites the day they are released. If there's a way people can watch these things for free, a lot of them will take it.
Anyway, the big question is what this means long-term. If these changes are only for 2021, as the studio certainly wants people to think, at least for now, then I'm good with them. I adore theaters, but it's simply not smart for anyone to be going to them right now. This move allows the tentpoles to get released while also boosting HBO Max's subscriber base by … a lot, probably. It makes sense for everyone — for the next six months, anyway.
After that, it is likely that many Americans will have received a vaccine, enough for theaters to re-open in a somewhat normal manner. Certainly by 2022. My fear is that this move is going to be *too* effective, that WarnerMedia will see the boost in subscriber numbers and think, "We should be doing things like this forever." Or worse yet, that a company like Disney will see WarnerMedia's success and decide to do the same thing with their properties.
I think those fears are valid, but I also think ringing the death knell for theaters is premature. This is anecdotal evidence, admittedly, but within my friend groups, people are valuing the theater experience more than ever. I think the demand to get out of the house and be surrounded by other people will be quite high when it is safe. Even if people have the option of watching a film like "Dune" at home right when it is released, I think many people will opt to see it in a theater for the experience of it. What remains unknown is if that enthusiasm will last beyond the first few films back in theaters. We miss going to them now, but will we start taking them for granted again in 2023? If we do, and studios keep doing this same-day release thing, THAT could spell the end. I'm especially worried that large families might never go back, or at least way less often. Why pay upwards of $60 for tickets to one movie and have to deal with buying kids food, etc., when you can watch it at home for no additional cost? (That's why Disney's decisions here will be so key.)
Vanity Fair writer Sonya Saraiya put it well: With movies, exhibits, concerts, etc., all moving online during the pandemic and companies keeping it that way out of convenience or other reasons, we're going to get a vaccine and then have nowhere to go. How messed up is that? I say this as someone who usually loves being at home: When this is all over, we need to be around each other more than ever. Seeing each other through a screen is not an equal substitute. We are not meant to walk though life anyone.
That's a message spelled out in "The Old Guard," a film that would have been a huge theatrical hit but instead was forced onto Netflix, where we all watched it alone. Someone tell Alanis Morissette to add a line about that to her song. You know the one. I'm getting bummed out, so I'm moving on. Just, please survive, theaters.
Only one recommendation since you also got the diatribe above. It's a good one, though.
"How To with John Wilson" (2020)
HBO Max, rated TV-MA, six episodes, 2.5 hours of content
There's a moment in episode two of "How To with John Wilson" where John Wilson, the series' cameraman and narrator, is chatting with a man about what scaffolding means to him. They're in New York, the scaffolding capital of the world, talking about something that most people never spend even a millisecond thinking about. But John Wilson thinks about it, and so does this guy — but not because of its looming presence over the city or its aesthetic value or anything like that.
No, this guy, who Wilson just met a second ago, tells a story of when he was tied to some scaffolding during a sexual encounter and left there overnight, going into much more explicit detail than I'm willing to write for you. It's a hilarious moment, not only because of the content but the context. "How To" has tons of these moments sprinkled throughout its six episodes. In fact, it's the appeal of the show: Watching real people reveal their true natures and juiciest thoughts to a stranger.
"How To" is a docuseries made less out of necessity than inevitability. In episode three, it is revealed that Wilson has been filming more or less every waking moment of his life for many years, or at least whenever he leaves his apartment. The show is entirely footage he shot himself, and the vast majority of it is B-roll of New Yorkers doing everyday things, some of which we would never think was interesting — or even notice — if we walked past it. A mouse sticks its head out of a pile of garbage (surprisingly cute!). People pose with food in their mouths while trying and failing to take selfies (funny!). A pair of paramedics drops a body they're carrying out of a house of a stretcher (… oh, dear God!).
Wilson also interviews people along the way, trying to get interesting stories. The magic of editing (and, I'm guessing, the influence of Nathan Fielder, who is an executive producer on the show) takes all this footage and puts a narrative to it. Episode two is loosely based around scaffolding. The finale is loosely based around making risotto. But despite the series' name, you're not watching "How To" to actually learn how to do anything. You're watching to see what kind of weird shit Wilson has found.
The show also tries to have a heart by making some grand statements about society/the nature of humanity, and while I don't mind the attempt, I don't think the series is quite as successful at this as something like "Nathan for You," where you do end up caring about the character of "Nathan" by the end of the series. I'm watching for wildness of reality, like when a woman at a Mandela effect conference (a real thing) asks the room if the internet at-large is stored on crystals.
I don't know how else to describe "How To," so just watch it and see for yourself. One or two episodes will tell you if it's for you or not. I personally think it is a fascinating portrait of the lives we as a society have lived, and it makes me yearn for the semi-distant future when we can start living them to the fullest again.