Pomo Picks

What to Read, Watch, and Listen to to Take Your Mind Off the Apocalypse: Week of May 13

The Portland Monthly staff shares the non-pandemic content getting us through the week.

By Portland Monthly Staff May 14, 2020

Like all of us, Brad Pitt is getting in some honest attempts to expand his résumé. Pictured: a pivot to meteorology.

News about coronavirus is coming hard and fast, and the Portland Monthly staff is working to bring you up-to-date information about how the crisis is affecting Portlanders. It’s vital we all stay informed and figure out how to help each other through this surreal, challenging moment.

It’s also vital that we take some breaths. Every week, in lieu of a “top things to do this weekend” post, we’re going to pause and share the pandemic-free content that’s keeping us sane (or somewhere close). 

Track Your Life with Boyd Varty

On paper, South African storyteller Boyd Varty is the kind of inspirational life-coach that might drive you nuts. He does retreats. Speaking engagements. He spends a good deal of time talking about “new consciousness.” Cynicisms aside, Varty is quite remarkable. Born to a lineage of hunters-turned-conservationists, he was raised on the Londolozi Game reserve in South Africa alongside herds of elephants, prides of lions, and packs of wild dogs. A childhood spent learning to track wild animals dovetailed later in life with a deep interest in “internal” tracking. 

Varty just completed his introspective podcasting journey, Track Your Life: 40 Days and 40 Nights, broadcast from the border of Kruger National Park. He describes it as a solo quest to “explore the mystic in nature.” Essentially, he asks the question “why do civilization’s greatest mystics (Jesus, Buddha, Muhammad—ever heard of ’em?) head to nature to find answers, and what can we uncover by going there ourselves?” It’s a charming day-by-day audio journal popping with inspirational nuggets of wisdom, true grit, and some very entertaining, poop-throwing monkeys. —Benjamin Tepler, senior editor

The Todd Haynes Retrospective I’m Forcing on My Roommate 

There are a lot of things I like about this job, but my favorite part might be talking to famous gay people on the phone. So far, that list has included John Waters, Anderson Cooper, and Todd Haynes, the sometime-Portlander and my perennial answer when someone asks who my favorite director is at a party (remember parties?).

To prove it, I own several Todd Haynes films on DVD in the year 2020, and this week (as I descended into full-on, feral, The Lighthouse–style madness) I decided to start working through them. My roommate had only ever seen Carol, Haynes’s 2015 masterpiece about Cate Blanchett in little round hats, so I decided we should start with Far from Heaven, his other widely loved melodrama. That one is about Julianne Moore in sheer purple head scarves, which I felt nicely exemplified Haynes’s range.

On the real, though: no one makes movies like Todd Haynes does. Homeboy has a degree in semiotics, and while his filmography veers wildly from melodramas to thrillers to freaky queer triptychs to one-of-a-kind experimental rock biopics, everything's linked by a central love of simple symbols and an enduring curiosity about the ways our environment shapes our identity and vice-versa. I’ve seen a lot of his movies more than once, and on every rewatch, I find something new to chew on or journal about or plug into my long-game Todd Haynes thesis.

Truly nobody asked, but in case you’re new to Haynes and you, too, want to embark on this journey with my captive roommate and myself, here’s a syllabus:

Start with Far from Heaven (available on Starz or to rent), which pays painstaking homage to the color-saturated films of Douglas Sirk and tackles most of Haynes's major concerns (domestic suffocation, gay stuff, women tearing through social constraints). Then move to Safe (available on the Criterion Channel), which explores similar themes—also with Julianne Moore—inside a nerve-fraying thriller that will echo in your head for days. Round it out with Carol (available to rent via iTunes, Amazon, Vudu—the major platforms, basically) and, if you have the time, Haynes’s excellent five-part HBO adaptation of Mildred Pierce, which stars a career-best Kate Winslet and was cowritten with fellow Portlander Jon Raymond. Once you’re done with the “women’s melodrama” unit, plug in last year's Dark Waters (available to rent), an eco-thriller that hearkens back to Safe but apes the style of Alan J. Pakula’s ’70s “paranoia thrillers” Klute and All the President’s Men

Go after the musicians next: start with quasi-Bowie biopic Velvet Goldmine (another renter), featuring Toni Collette, Christian Bale, a nude Ewan McGregor, and brain-melting production design; then go to I’m Not There (again, rent), a bold-as-hell Bob Dylan exploration where six actors, including Cate Blanchett and Heath Ledger, play different aspects of Dylan's persona. Top it off with Superstar: the Karen Carpenter Story (available on YouTube), Haynes's notorious 45-minute student film that told Carpenter’s story using Barbie dolls and landed itself a music rights lawsuit

Finish up with a pair of triptychs: first, Poison (available on Kanopy and Prime), the 1991 cult favorite that juggles a ’60s sci-fi homage, a magical realist fable, and a beautiful, disturbing Jean Genet adaptation. It’s probably his queerest film, and definitely his most controversial. Come in to land with Wonderstruck (available on Prime), a criminally underrated 2017 family flick that toggles time periods to tell a heart-swelling story about family, New York, and the Museum of Natural History. —Conner Reed, arts & culture editor

Invisible People by Chicano Batman (and accompanying Sam Sanders Interview)

It’s hard to pin down what Chicano Batman’s sound is exactly. It’s a little bit funk, a little bit psych, a little bit neo-soul. But it’s all vibe. 

Since 2008, the four-piece Los Angeles-based band has been crafting a sound that uniquely represents their eclectic city and deeply political music that harbors messages about social justice, class, and race. Their latest album, Invisible People (released May 1), is the band’s best to date (here’s the obligatory “in my opinion”): a perfect cross-pollination of the sounds that influenced them and a push toward something wholly Chicano Batman. It’s one of those albums ripe for deconstruction, which is where It’s Been a Minute with Sam Sanders comes in.

Sanders has been one of my favorite NPR personalities for some time (but, here’s the thing—nobody, um, can replace Ira Glass), and in this episode from May 12, he chats with singer Bardo Martinez and guitarist Carlos Arévalo of Chicano Batman about the new album, their new sound, and the social justice themes that permeate the band’s history. It’s a great, weighty interview that cuts to the heart of the band’s interests, while breaking down a few tracks from the new album—and it’s only 22 minutes long. —Gabriel Granillo, digital editor

Some Good News

Having kids during a pandemic is both a curse and a blessing, I have decided. A curse because, oh my god, the home-schooling and all the eating and the half-filled cups of water everywhere and the battles over screen time, and then you realize they have turned on YouTube notifications and your computer will bleep at you every time someone named Randumb posts a new video, which appears to be 17 zillion times a day. And a blessing because you have no choice, really, but to be present and in the moment with them, to be positive and hopeful, because if the kids fall to bits, then it’s all over, right?

To that end, my 11-year-old twins and I have joined the brigade of Americans who are on the Some Good News train, tuning in to the weekly YouTube videos posted and hosted by John Krasinski, who will always be Jim from The Office for me, though I understand he has gone on to do much other good work. Each week, Krasinski pulls together moments of hope and joy from around the world and spotlights them in a news-lite program, replete with celebrity cameos (yes, I do need Brad Pitt as my meteorologist right now). 

 We were hooked in when the original Broadway cast of Hamilton performed the show’s opening number for a delighted young fan who missed a performance because of coronavirus. Recent weeks have featured Oprah and Jon Stewart offering life advice to members of the class of 2020 who’ve been denied their graduations, and the entire cast of The Office (minus Stanley and Toby. JUSTICE FOR STANLEY AND TOBY!) re-created the iconic wedding aisle dance from Pam and Jim’s wedding for a couple who’d gotten engaged during quarantine but couldn’t celebrate with their extended family. It's a nice reminder, for both me and the kids, that there are bright sides and common decencies and kindnesses to be found, even at this oddest, most uncertain of moments. —Julia Silverman, news editor

Being Reminded of Systemic Sexism in the Marvel Cinematic Universe

Like many other families staying at home who are lucky enough to have streaming services on the telly, we are working through the Marvel Cinematic Universe, those 20 or so superhero films from the past 12 years with crossover characters and storylines that all lead up to some dramatic conclusion. (Shhh! Don’t tell me what it is!) We’ve opted for the order in which they are set. The alternative is to watch them in the order in which they were released, though you could also watch them in order from awesome to lame—when I finish I can tell you what that would be.

I’d already seen two Iron Man and two Guardians of the Galaxy titles, plus Black Panther, but most are brand-new for me. I’m not really a comics or superhero person, and I would not say every movie is quality cinema: for every Iron Man 3 there is, unfortunately, an Iron Man 2; for every pop-culture-riffic reference in Captain Marvel or the Guardians series there’s, you know, Thor.

A handy, incomplete MCU list the family has been using.

So my main source of entertainment as I watch has been shouting out, “Holy crap! I didn’t know ______ got some of that sweet, sweet Marvel money!” with each unexpected appearance by an actor I recognize, and then turning to my family and offering an excellent feminist-killjoy lecture on how the fact that there are so many more roles in these films for white men of various ages and sizes than for other types of humans is a sign of the ingrained sexism in Hollywood, society, and even myself (why do I know his name but not hers?). The kids love it! They definitely don’t roll their eyes and ask me to cut it out so they can hear the movie.

Just how out of balance is this? Here are the names that have filled in the blank so far.

White men: Hugo Weaving, Toby Jones, Tommy Lee Jones, Stanley Tucci, Dominic Cooper, Jude Law, Clark Gregg (I did not call out Clark Gregg, who, I have since learned, is married to Jennifer Grey; I called out “that guy who had the accident and was such a jerk in Michael Clayton,” but that is Denis O’Hare, who just looks exactly like Clark Gregg), Jon Favreau, Garry Shandling (RIP), John Slattery, Stellan Skarsgård, Anthony Hopkins, Harry Dean Stanton (RIP), Powers Booth (RIP), Guy Pearce, Sir Ben Kingsley, Miguel Ferrer (RIP), Christopher Eccleston, Gary Sinise, Robert Redford, James Spader, Andy Serkis (I had already seen him in Black Panther but forgot), Paul Bettany, Martin Donovan, Michael Douglas, Bobby Cannavale.

Not white men: Derek Luke, Djimon Hounsou, Annette Bening, Natalie Portman, Kat Dennings, Rene Russo, Idris Elba, Colbie Smulders, Jenny Aguttar (the thing I called out was “Sister Juliet!” for her role on Call the Midwife), Rebecca Hall, Anthony Mackie, Julie Delpy, Michael Peña, Judy Greer, T.I., Garrett Morris, Wood Harris (though the name I shouted out was Avon Barksdale, his character on The Wire). —Margaret Seiler, managing editor

Escape at Dannemora

As of today, I'm halfway through the jaw-droppingly excellent, seven-episode Escape at Dannemora. I put this series up there with BoJack, Better Call Saul, and the second season of Fargo, which, if you know me, is the highest praise I can bestow. Paul Dano, Patricia Arquette, and Benecio del Toro turn out award-worthy performances. The cinematography, full of rich, deep shots captured with telephoto lenses, is terrific. The music is great. The script, based on an actual prison break in New York in 2015, is edge-of-your-seat gripping. 

The twist: Ben Stiller made it. Yeah, the one who also got in a gasoline fight with his model friends. You know, Simple Jack? It's a dramatic about-face, but it's kind of not surprising at all that he's capable of this. More unfair than anything else. Escape at Dannemora is a Showtime series, but it's currently available for free to Amazon Prime members. (Side note: RIP Jerry Stiller, Ben's hilarious and talented father, who died this week. I recall seeing him in person once at a taping of King of Queens—surprise, it was not filmed in Queens—and he seemed like exactly the type of person you wished he was.) —Marty Patail, editor in chief

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