Stories of Weird Mystery

Category: Watching

So Mrs. Lincoln, How Was the Civil War (2024) Movie?

I don’t write or say much publicly anymore about politics, largely because I don’t believe most people have rational views. I think they choose a group they want to belong to, one that confers some benefit or makes them feel powerful, and then they do and say whatever it takes to be welcomed in that group.

Unlike me, the only rational being.

No, I’m kidding: my “group” is detached intellectual outsider who’s too cool to play along.

Jesse Plemons in Civil War (2024)
God, I hope nobody walks away from this movie wanting to be this guy.

So I was pleasantly surprised that the harrowing new film by Alex Garland, Civil War, threads the needle of politics with astonishing care. It reveals nearly nothing about the political stances of the combatants, uniting Texas and California as the forces of rebellion. Nobody has a stereotypical accent or point of view, and we follow journalists who are covering the conflict with as much detachment as they can.

It all comes together to demonstrate that a civil war wouldn’t go the way so many think it will, as a fun opportunity to finally live fantasies from Call of Duty and look cool with a rifle strapped to your chest. It’ll be awful and pointless and wasteful, something none of us should wish for.

There have been some ripples in the punditsphere about whether Civil War will foment the very thing it depicts, making the conflict seem heroic or cathartic. Others wonder if it doesn’t go far enough to name names. If anything, this movie is a splash of cold water warning us to step back from our melodramatic rhetoric.

Civilization often feels to me like a terrifying pendulum between our drives for comfort (“Please just keep the wi-fi working”) and lunacy (“I gotta show the man on the TV that I believe in him”).

When the lunacy becomes comfortable, that’s when we’re in real trouble.

This film doesn’t let us get comfortable with lunacy.

Brunch with the Devil

Yesterday we went to the early showing of Late Night with the Devil, a movie that on paper seems to check all of the Will Ludwigsen boxes: 1970s milieu, found/hoaxed footage, psychic phenomenon, demonic possession, hypnosis, skeptics, and dramatic supernatural comeuppances.

A still from Late Night with the Devil.

But when it started with five different production studio logos including Shudder, I got a little worried.

The film turned out to be 85% an amazing movie, with the other 15% comprised of some clumsy missteps, unnecessary explanations, and at least two more endings than it needed.

Of course, I’m suffering from a professional’s myopia here: that 15% is probably just what I’d have done differently, not some absolute or even arguable measure of quality. I’d have stuck more strictly to the found footage without as much behind the scenes, toned back some special effects, and trusted the story more.

Still, it was designed fabulously and included amazing performances, especially by David Dastmalchian and Ingrid Torelli. I enjoyed it, even with its flaws.

A lot of my (perhaps unfair) reaction to Late Night with the Devil is probably that it provoked so many ideas of how I’d have written it if the idea had come to me first. I see a lot of the ghosts of my unwritten stories out in the world, and this film called to mind one of the few writerly superstitious beliefs I still hold:

If you don’t write that story idea, it will find someone else.

I tell students that ideas aren’t all that important, that it’s the collision of the personal (their own experiences and weirdness) with stimulation from the zeitgeist that is their only real hope of originality. I absolutely believe that.

But there’s no question that we share a lot of the same stimuli in our culture, and the idea that you think is extraordinary and just for you may only be visiting. You’ve got to grab that out of the sea and club it with the oar before it swims away to someone else.

Late last year, I came upon this tweet by Bernard T. Joy, and the sick emptiness in my heart after reading it told me it was true:

I’m a slow writer. Actually, that’s not true: I’m a sporadic writer, working in sudden explosive bursts between a litany of excuses about feeling too tired, depressed, harried, or hopeless to do it.

An experience like Late Night with the Devil, one that almost but not quite pushes all my buttons, both saddens and energizes me. It’s an idea that found a different writer, but maybe if I show up more consistently, the next one will choose me instead.

My Too-Late Holiday Shopping Guide for Procrastinators

Now that it’s too late for Christmas shopping recommendations except for the truly masochistic and insane, let me share some of my entertainment highlights from 2023!

Books

I’m terrible about reading current books, so these aren’t really recent.

  • I re-read The Count of Monte Cristo (Alexandre Dumas) for the first time in twenty years, and this unabridged edition reminded me of how this was the equivalent of appointment television in its time, full of tangents and asides and cross-purposes to draw out the story into a pleasant weighty significance.
Cover of Joe Sharkey's book Death Sentence
  • Death Sentence: The Inside Story of the John List Murders (Joe Sharkey) tells the story of one of my “favorite” true crimes. List murdered his wife, mother, and three children in 1971 and bolted on the lam for seventeen years. He was caught in 1989 after an episode of America’s Most Wanted showed an eerie sculpted bust of his age-progressed head. What I find fascinating about his story is that he was an uptight devout Lutheran with obsessive compulsive disorder and a horror of failing to keep up appearances, much like many of my older relatives. He killed his family to “spare them” from poverty, he claimed. The book covers the case well with good detail and insight.

  • The Elephant in the Brain (Keith Simler) explains a lot of our more annoying human tendencies as artifacts of our evolutionary heritage and desire to be part of a group. I think it’s a key text in understanding how we apply so much of our higher mental powers to rationalizing our baser drives.    

TV

This is going to sound a little one-note, but Star Trek had a hell of a year with three fabulous seasons of television.

Picard Season 3
  • Picard Season Three may have pulled off the most dizzying reversal in television history from its first two abysmal seasons to a soaring and triumphant third. Showrunner Terry Matalas, a fan himself, finally understood what people wanted all along: 80% things we know and love mixed with 20% new cool shit. It’s a balance that the new Star Wars trilogy completely failed to achieve.
Strange New Worlds
  • Strange New Worlds Season Two took amazing risks with mostly fabulous results; though I still have mixed feelings about the musical episode, I’m glad they were brave enough to make it. The cast and producers are capturing the variety of the original series with a modern sensibility for continuing consequences, and this was fun to watch every week.
  • Lower Decks Season Four was still hilarious, but they faced some pretty heavy emotional consequences that demonstrated that this isn’t just a zany cartoon satire. What I like about Lower Decks is that it answers or addresses so many of the things we let pass us by unquestioned in the other iterations of Star Trek, patching holes and adding context with a sense of humor.

Movies

I don’t actually watch a lot of movies anymore, I’m sorry to say. It’s hard to sit still that long.

Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny
  • Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny was very good, though of course idiots came out to complain and demonstrate their commitment to the dogma of their childhoods by damning it as fan service. As I age, I’m enjoying stories more where heroes grapple with the longer term consequences of their lives, choosing once again to be heroic even when it costs more than it ever has.
  • The Menu was a wonderfully dark psychological study, full of surprises that turn out to be fully earned by the characters who get them.

  • I’m not sure what I’d pick for an even third film. Everything Everywhere All at Once was moving when I saw it, but I don’t remember much of it now and have no desire to watch it again. The Fabelmans should have been right up my alley (a nerdy kid learning to take command of his creativity), but it felt like it was missing a third act. Cocaine Bear was hilarious and had the virtue of delivering exactly what it said. So too did Dungeons and Dragons: Honor Among Thieves.

Looking over this list and thinking back on my year in entertainment, I feel old and unwilling to take risks on weird new things that creators are making (or re-making). I’m falling out of the demographic for profitability.

When they remake Close Encounters of the Third Kind, I’m moving out to the woods away from all human contact.

Star Trek and Me

Star Trek’s original series premiered on September 8 in 1966, and Paramount has recently dubbed that “Star Trek Day,” usually filled with a few franchise announcements and previews. This year, it’s a little tepid because of the strikes, but it still got me thinking about the influence the show had on my life.

(A few months ago, they asked some other nerds about that with heart-warming results.)

Now, it’s unquestionable that Star Wars was first and had a huge impact, especially with the ability to make my own stories with action figures. That’s one of the biggest reasons I became a writer, I suspect. Star Wars also taught me about courage and loyalty and friendship, and it had an enormous influence on my entire generation.

(I suspect you could call Generation X “the Han Solo Generation” instead because we learned to be independent and skeptical and cynical but still good at heart from him.)

As I got older, though, I saw Star Trek: The Motion Picture and The Wrath of Khan, and something about them resonated with me from the start. Thanks to my friend Norman, I went back to watch re-runs of the original series, which were always hit-or-miss for me. I really liked James Blish’s novelizations, as well as the novels by Pocket Books.

Still, the movie era Star Trek was what changed my life.

You know, these guys.

My father left us in 1986, not that we were too sad for his reign of capricious twitchy terror to end. Still, I’d learned a certain way of seeing the world thanks to him, one that relied on fear and anger for the energy to get things done.

When he was gone, there was no one to be scared of, and the sudden vacuum was both freeing and awful. In the same way that Hitler supposedly made the trains run on time, my father established a pattern for our lives that, damaging as it was, at least provided answers. Bad ones, but…answers.

After my father was gone, my grades at school took a dive and I lost a sense of what was actually worth caring about. When someone decides all of that for you since birth and suddenly leaves, you don’t know how to make those choices for yourself.

During middle school and freshman year of high school, my brain felt like the day room at an unaccredited mental hospital. Sometimes the manic people bounced off the walls, full of passionate glee. Other times, the depressives took over and doom darkened the windows.

I truly felt like a bunch of different imaginary people were fighting (ineptly, like with gardening tools) for my soul. None of them were particularly nice about it.

I vacillated back then between delusions of epic importance (a future President, perhaps) and terror that I was a nascent sociopath blooming into an awful genetic destiny.

In 1987-ish, I watched The Wrath of Khan and The Search for Spock probably two or three times a week after school, often with my friend Carl (who was also no stranger to teenage melodrama), but it was one time when I was alone when a certain set of lines hit me in a new way.

You know which ones, I’m sure.

Marooned in the Genesis planetoid, Saavik asks Kirk how he handled the hopeless Kobyashi Maru command test. Kirk explains, blithely, that he cheated because he didn’t agree with the conditions of the test.

“I don’t believe in the no-win scenario,” he says.

On that particular day, probably after terrible grades or loneliness or God knows what, I had the strongest epiphany of my life until that point. I couldn’t quite articulate it then, and for years, I assumed it was about believing there were always possibilities even in the darkest hour.

But I think at a different level than I consciously realized, the message I received from that scene is that circumstances are usually mutable, but even the ones that aren’t can always be…bent. You can improvise with even the bad ones.

I learned the gift of reframing: looking at disasters as chances for heroism.

So began a (slow, limping, barely-on-impulse-power-with-the-mains-offline) turn toward…well, many more years of being a reckless idiot with intermittent bursts of competence.

Star Trek provided a positive internal structure for taking action in the world. The self-talk my father had left behind like a bee’s stinger slowly faded in favor of Starfleet’s more professional kind of discipline, doing good because what was the point of doing something else?

Why be human if you’re going to still live by the tooth and the claw?

I’ve been blindsided often over the years when people are proudly and spectacularly self-interested (or when I’ve been), but I still don’t believe in the no-win scenario.

Star Trek: Rediscovery

I’m not embarrassed to tell the world that Star Trek (most of all the original series, their movies, and the Next Generation) saved me.

I could have been a far worse person and I was well on my way as a very angry teenager, but I learned that there are things we can do about disastrous events and disastrous people…and they all begin with retaining the idealism to know what is possible and remembering that there are good people, too.

Sometimes I forget how lucky I am that I crossed paths with Norman Amemiya, who reminded me how good Star Trek was and took me to conventions like Necronomicon where I saw that there were other people like us, geeks with hopes.

I’ve watched a lot of Star Trek in my 47 years, and some of it has been godawful. Some of it has been cheap, and some of it has been corporate, and some of it has been dumbed down for a “general audience.” We shouldn’t forget “Spock’s Brain” or “Skin of Evil” or that weird-ass Irish ghost episode.

But tonight I saw the last episode of this third season of Discovery, and I’m reminded of why the show matters so much to me and why this particular incarnation of it is what I need now, even with its imperfections. Perhaps it is what a lot of us need now, especially after yesterday.

It’s sometimes hard to watch Star Trek and then check the news.

The show hasn’t always done a good job of reconciling its idealism with the reality we see all around us that there are a lot of people who prefer us all being low because that’s “who we really are”: competitive animals for whom cooperation is weakness and hope is delusion. Usually, the show sweeps us under the rug as living in the dark times.

But this third season of Discovery gets it right, just when we need it most. In the fractured Federation, many have decided that it is better to embrace the “reality” of self-interest and brutality …and then the U.S.S. Discovery arrives with old-fashioned ideals of what we can be.

All my life, I’ve struggled with what I call the intractable problem of assholes, fighting the ones who intend to be mean but saving the ones who are only accidentally so.  

What this season of Discovery reminds me is that we solve that problem just like the crew of the Discovery, by finding our people one by one and then (re)building from the small corner within our reach.

We win by living what we want to be, not what we’re trying to leave behind.

That’s a lot to say about something discussed in a boardroom at CBS and likely engineered to make me feel this way. But I detect in the show and especially its actors that they believe in it like we did in the 60s and 70s and again in the 90s.

And they’re making me believe in it again, too.

© 2024 Will Ludwigsen

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