Strange Animals 26dec2019: 10 Things I Loved in 2019 – Part 1

This is one of the two final newsletters I’ll be sending this year. We’ll be back to regular programming in the new year, and I’ll do a year’s round-up in January’s first edition, but for this time and the next, I thought I’d break format and talk about a bunch of stuff I enjoyed.

These are not necessarily my absolute favourites of the year – these are things that stuck with me, and had some sort of personal meaning, I suppose.

1. November

I wrote about this Estonian film in a previous newsletter, and I unreservedly recommend it once again. Here’s what I said back then:

It’s shot in gorgeous black-and-white, and is a fabulist story based on Estonian folk tales, taking place in a world with kratts, witches and werewolves, where you can whistle for the devil at a crossroads.

Beyond that, though, it’s a darkly funny, politically alive film that doesn’t rest on the strangeness of its tropes, and instead tries to find new ways of wringing emotional resonance and a sense of wonder from its core ideas. And possibly my favourite thing about the movie are the actors – mostly amateurs – almost all of whom have incredibly striking faces and bodies, with which they communicate a sense of the alien and the bereft that grounds the film in its stranger moments and that elevates it in the more unfocussed sections.

Something I personally loved about the film was how it revised the folk tales it was inspired by in an almost Alan Moore/Miracleman style, by taking the underlying logic of its stories and extending it as far as it could go in ways you wouldn’t expect. As a storyteller, especially when it comes to fantasy, it’s quite difficult to find something that sets up its premise and then delivers a surprising twist on it in the same space. It’s something I aspire to write, and I’m awed anew whenever I see someone pull it off.

PS: Funnily enough, November is also the name of a graphic novel that came out last month, by Matt Fraction, Elsa Charretier, Matt Hollingsworth and Kurt Ankeny, which I enjoyed to the point of writing a long essay about its lettering for PanelxPanel. It is also something I recommend, although it’s a very different beast from the film.

2. Midnight Diner: Tokyo Stories

I was surprised to look through my newsletter archives and find that I hadn’t written about this before. This is a Japanese show with two seasons on Netflix (the second one dropped just last month), and it makes for wonderful comfort tv.

It’s set in a tiny restaurant in a seemingly unsavoury district of Tokyo, and mostly features small, personal stories of people who come to the diner. There’s a bare-bones regular cast, but most stories are based around one-off characters.

My favourite thing about the show is that most of the stories don’t seem to follow the three-act structure – a lot of the time, the resolution doesn’t have much to do with the setup – but they still make for a very satisfying watch. The stories don’t necessarily end happily, but there’s always a sense of … well, not closure, but that there is a right place to leave these people to the remainder of their lives.

The show is far more about the tone and emotion than about any sort of plot-based structure. I like to watch an episode or two when I feel caged in by Western concepts of story structure.

It’s also amusing to see the patterns in the show – the wells that the writers keep going back to (there are a lot of female characters who become hosts in bars to pay off family debts, and lots of orphan children too). But what stays with me is the ability to build drama out of tiny actions that would otherwise be mundane. Almost every meal eaten on the show begins with the breaking apart of disposable chopsticks and the guest saying, “Itadakimasu”, and the sheer number of emotions that can be communicated by the same action and phrase expressed in so many different ways is a tiny wonder of television.

3. The Sheaffer 300 9312 Fountain Pen

As you’ll know if you’ve followed this newsletter for a while, this year, I started writing fiction with pen on paper instead of on the computer, and it’s fundamentally changed the energy with which I approach my writing. There’s a satisfaction to working with your hands and watching the ink form shapes, and it makes the work feel more solid. I watched Neil Gaiman talk about his writing once, and he mentioned that he wrote with a different pen and ink colour every day so he could see the day’s work at a glance, and I started doing the same.

I switch between four fountain pens (with my trusty Uniball roller pen replacing these when I travel), and there’s always an extra thrill to writing with either my Lamy Safari (the first expensive pen I bought – many years ago) and my new favourite, the Sheaffer 300 9312 fountain pen. I have a black one with silver trimmings, and I love everything about this pen.

Its weight is beautifully balanced, so it feels heavy in the hand, but when you actually open it and begin writing, it seems to lighten up, so using it doesn’t feel like work. The nib is great – I’m not an expert on what makes for a good nib, but it writes smoothly enough that I do some of my lettering practice with this pen – I always feel like I’m in control with this pen. And the best thing about it is the marvellous little snap you get with putting on or removing the cap – it’s tactile, and has a lovely sound to it. It’s something you can fidget with while you’re thinking, like the articulation of a Zippo lighter. 

4. Fleabag Season 2

Another thing I wrote about before, and which, by this point, you’re probably aware of. I watched the second season during its original serialisation, and, as much as the show itself, I treasured my experience of watching each episode a week apart.

Talking to a lot of people afterwards, it feels like it was a fundamentally different experience from watching it all at once with no gap between episodes. There were emotional lacunae at the end of many of the episodes that, for me, were enhanced by having to wait for a week to see them resolved.

It also speaks to a difference between genre storytelling and drama. As I wrote the words “emotional lacunae” up there, I realised that what I was talking about were essentially cliffhangers, but their resolution was not in discovering the solution to a mystery or in the next thing that happened to the characters, but in the choices the characters would go on to make.

As the experience of watching things all at once becomes more convenient, a lot of tv struggles with what can be done to make the audience come back the next week. The solution that a lot of tv writers seem to have found is to have ongoing mysteries that can be sprung on the viewer, sometimes to do with a character’s history or nature. The problem with that, for me, is that this tends to be an appeal to a fairly low part of the brain – the pleasure of bridging the gap between not knowing and knowing. But this is confection rather than protein. The difference between watching something like that on a binge or episode-by-episode is appealing but not ultimately nutritious (the big problem with Westworld as a show). With something like Fleabag on the other hand, the gap gives you something that doesn’t necessarily leave you once it’s bridged, because it’s fundamentally tied to human concerns instead of mechanics.

5. Game of Thrones Season 8 Episode 5

“The Bells.” Spoilers ahead, probably.

I’m not going to review this, because it’s late 2019, and you’ve made your mind up about Game of Thrones and the way it ended. This is, instead, about my personal experience.

I’ve written about this before, but at an angle, not straight on. Back then, I wrote about the experience of someone being a fan and being disappointed by something they loved. This one’s about not being a fan but being thrilled and astounded.

I started watching Game of Thrones with everyone else, but gave up midway through Season 2. Season 1 felt like a political drama I could be engaged by, but Season 2 felt more like a soap opera, which I wasn’t interested in. Suffice to say, then, that I don’t come to this as a fan of either the show or the books.

I came back to the show right before Season 8 began, because I wanted to be part of the spectacle. I wasn’t a cricket fan as a kid, but always enjoyed watching the World Cup final with friends or relatives, because the enthusiasm is catching, especially if you personally don’t have any stake in the game.

I wanted to get through all seven seasons before Season 8 actually began, but in reality, I only watched the two final episodes in realtime, and, it seems, had a profoundly different experience from everyone else. Particularly with “The Bells”.

To fans, that episode seems to have been a betrayal of their love for the show. For me, it was something unlike anything else I’d seen on tv.

Let’s leave out why my reaction differed from other people’s – my lack of investment in the show might be a reason – but I was genuinely amazed by what unfolded. It felt like a different sort of storytelling than much of the rest of the show, and something that fit with, perhaps, Fire & Blood rather than with Game of Thrones. It was an hour full of witnessed trauma. On part of the characters, sure, but also on part of an entire city, or a civilisation.

You couldn’t do this in a movie, for example, because you simply wouldn’t have enough of a runway in terms of setting up all the various characters and geography and motivations and so on. If Disney did this, let’s say, in Avengers: Endgame, they’d find themselves quickly unable to make money out of any future movies, because they’d have had to make, say, Captain America turn on the world and his compatriots in an irredeemable way with no chance of turning back. (Zach Snyder seemed to be trying something a bit like this in his DC movies, and quickly found himself not making any more.)

But you couldn’t do this in prose either. For all that prose allows you to create depth across many characters, stories and geographies, it doesn’t allow for the kind of spectacle that made this episode work. It doesn’t allow for the technical brilliance of the CGI, nor does it allow for Miguel Sapochnik and his collaborators’ visual artistry.

I don’t mean to imply with this that Game of Thrones itself ended in a perfect way – the final episode had plenty to be embarrassed by, and even “The Bells” had the entirely needless Cleganebowl.

But this episode was something that could only have happened on television, and only in this moment right before the idea of communal tv atrophies and dies.

Nos. 6-10 in the next edition, probably in the next couple of days – this took me longer to write than expected, and clocked in at 1900 words, so I’d rather not delay sending this any further.