Pomo Picks

What to Watch, Read, and Listen to to Take Your Mind Off the Apocalypse: Week of May 20

The Portland Monthly team shares the non-pandemic content keeping us sane this week.

By Portland Monthly Staff May 21, 2020

"Next, we're going to try to squeeze the buttocks." –Bloodsport star Jean-Claude Van Damme

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).  

Little Weirds

I entered lockdown with sweeping ambitions to polish off all the unread literary fiction collecting dust on my bookshelves as bait for potential suitors, and now here I am, two months in, giggling at musings about mice and public nudity from one of the stars of Venom

OK, I'm being reductive. I have a disease where I think that any celebrity who shares more than one of my interests would choose to be my friend (hmu Harry Styles), and Jenny Slate has long lived at the top of that list. I loved her for the five minutes she got to be on SNL, I saw Obvious Child twice at Cinema 21 to drink in her bighearted twitchiness, I spent the better part of my late teens thinking about Marcel the Shell with Shoes On. Something about her residency at the intersection of gentleness, chaos, and wide-eyed wonder has always stricken a chord with me, and it's all there in Little Weirds, her I-guess-it's-a-memoir essay collection from late last year that she bills as "a book that honors [her] fragmentation by giving itself to you in pieces."

Some of the fragments are a little too twee, sure, and the proceedings don't have much of a unifying concept to hold them together, but every time I crack open my copy (brought to me—very quickly—by Broadway Books in a charming handwritten envelope), I am assaulted with serotonin. What a delight to spend time in this discursive world that zooms from pathos to poetry to body humor and consistently, stubbornly chooses light over dark. A sample essay, in its entirety, called "Touch vs. Smack":

I don't want to smack anything on the ass and say LET'S GO.

I want to touch something on the side of the face and say WILL YOU PLEASE TAKE ME?

See also: gorgeous observations about a mundane trip to Norway, a running series called "I Died" where her cause of death can range from coarse men to lightning strikes, an indelible piece about a weekend trip with female friends called "Beach Animals" where she and her posse “[take their] picture in front of the fireplace like three lieutenants from an army of dazzling women, here on earth to gallop through your beach house and make you feel crazy, baby!"

As someone who's felt himself calcify more and more each day during These Unprecedented Times, it's nice to have a book on my nightstand that feels like a genuine axe for the very frozen sea within me. To the Lighthouse—I see you, I haven't forgotten you, keep our date in your calendar. Just give me a little more time to play, first. Conner Reed, Arts & Culture Editor

Multi-Platform Jean-Claude Van Damme Content 

For 10 weeks now, we've kept up a Friday family ritual that has become our pillar for normalcy. 6:30 pm: Step away from the computer with eyes dry as dust to make some fun dinner like steamed mushroom buns or homemade pizzas, crack open the booze, and, at 8 pm sharp, send an email off to a dozen friends. That group, which I’ve lovingly dubbed Quarantine Camp, is the same 12 friends each week, who open the 8 pm email to find a link to a Netflix Party. We do what we call “Cocktail half-hour,” catching up on the week and emotional levels in Netflix’s side chat window (mainly it is an opportunity for terrible puns). At 8:30 sharp, I hit the play button that controls all of our computers, and we dive into another gloriously awful camp film.

Over the last two and a half months, some have been better than others. Killer Klowns from Outer Space brought intense joy with its ridiculous plots. The original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles brought out a lot of personal stories and some “I had that shirt!” shouts. Tremors consisted of 90 minutes of us trying to figure out if the kid in it was Wayne from The Wonder Years without anyone allowed to Google it. There have been misses, too: Money Pit didn’t have enough ridiculousness to really make fun of, and Scary Movie’s cultural cringe was too much to bear. But last week’s? Oh, last week's took the cake.

One of the Quarantine Campers suggested the Jean-Claude Van Damme movie Bloodsport. My knowledge of JCVD is slim. My first real memory of him is that my middle school bestie was obsessed with him. Like, doodled his name on her Trapper Keeper obsessed. In the 8th grade, our tiny Salem, Oregon, school took a huge field trip to Washington D.C., where we ended up one night at Planet Hollywood. There, right in front of us, were the actual footprints of Jean-Claude Van Damme in cement for her to ogle. And when she realized that her new growth spurt had left her with feet bigger than her crush's, she cried. And I stood in the Planet Hollywood hallway consoling her about the comparative foot size discrepancy. Puberty is rough.

I said yes to Bloodsport without knowing much about it, and then I took in the film trailer, which seems primarily edited to show JCVD's ability to do splits that would make any RuPaul’s Drag Race contestants jealous:

Watching it, I learned it was based on the true story of U.S. Army Captain Frank Dux going to an illegal underground martial arts tournament in Hong Kong. There is a feisty journalist lady whose banana clip hairpiece is working overtime, a sort of lovable American oaf, and a lot of intense martial arts noises and chops. Plus very chic belts. This is not my typical film, and it was an enjoyable romp. Especially with a side window chat going with whip-smart friends making jokes nonstop.

In the post-movie nightcap chat (this is where you keep your computer on for another 15 minutes to wrap up and say goodbye), we did the seemingly mandatory thing in this digital age and hit the film's Wikipedia. Turns out the supposed true story is all a hoax and every word unconfirmed. Even most of Dux’s military service has been called into question. So when you add the joys of Bloodsport watched via Netflix Party with pals, the post-film scandal/spotlight diveand a bonus of JCVD’s coronavirus workouts available on YouTube, this recommendation’s bounty overflows. –Eden Dawn, Syle Editor

Last Week Tonight with John Oliver—Coronavirus VII: Sports

Late-night talk shows have been… rough lately. Stephen Colbert looks a little sad. Like, I kind of feel bad for him. He’s rebranded his show to A Late Show with Stephen Colbert; he’s swapped his hair fold from the left to the right and then back again—or was it right to left? It’s fine, and it's funny, but it’s clearly lacking something. Same thing with Seth Meyers and Trevor Noah. The hosts are working with new formats as best they can under the new, unfortunate circumstances. But the Trump impressions are a little stale—everybody has one, and everybody’s sounds the same. Maybe I crave the audience, as these hosts clearly do. They added an almost dangerous, unpredictable element to the shows, feeding off the host’s energy and giving life to this bizarrely addictive form of modern vaudeville.

One host who doesn’t quite miss the audience: John Oliver. The host of Last Week Tonight admitted as much in a conversation with Colbert on March 31, saying, “It’s very nice to have an audience, but I started comedy doing stand-up in England. I am so completely used to delivering jokes to absolute silence, and sometimes worse.” The show’s format honestly hasn’t changed much—save for this ominous white void from which Oliver delivers his segments. He’s covered the coronavirus (and Trump’s failed response), the US Postal Service, and even One America News with in-depth analysis and just stupid, stupid jokes. His most recent episode focuses on the sudden disappearance of sports:

Having just finished The Last Dance, the 10-part ESPN docuseries on Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls, this was the perfect segment to remind me to take a breath, know that sports will one day come back, and to watch some sweet marble races in the meantime. –Gabriel Granillo, Digital Editor

Getting Lost in Movie 20th Anniversaries

Last week was not productive. It’s not that something big happened that claimed my attention; it’s just that something big happened 20 years ago, and Vulture just had to publish a whole oral history of it, and I had to read every word, twice, and then talk to friends about it all. I refer, of course, to the May 2000 release of Center Stage, the ballet/romance/coming-of-age classic that starring, among others, figure skater Ilia Kulik and, in her film debut, Zoe Saldana (Gamora in Guardians of the Galaxy).

Center Stage

This followed the BBC’s college-film-studies-paper-esque (but in a charming way) paean to Love + Basketball on the anniversary of its April 2020 release. (Alas, the author didn’t mention the Kate Bush part of the soundtrack for some reason, or Nathalie Emmanuel dressing up as its main character for a rom-com costume party on Hulu’s Four Weddings and a Funeral series.) To prepare for the next time I’ll need to drop everything and read a similar celebration, I glanced at the film releases from 2000. I can probably skip Coyote Ugly and Duets, but I may spend the entire month of August honoring Bring It On (directed by Peyton Reed, whose since directed Ant-Man for the Marvel franchise) and Spike Lee’s The Original Kings of Comedy. Fall brings the already-throwback Charlie’s Angels and Almost Famous, with some big interrogative titles coming in December: Dude Where’s My Car? and O Brother Where Art Thou? –Margaret Seiler, Managing Editor

Learn Chinese

Learning a new language is as easy as getting constantly badgered by Duolingo notifications on your phone. Trust me. About a month after making the decision to learn Mandarin Chinese—my planned tour through China will happen one day—I can say and read things like: "I am happy. It's nice to meet you too!" Or "I eat rice and I drink tea!" The Duolingo app teaches by context alone: you're never presented with anything like a grammatical ruleset or even an explanation of why something is right or wrong. Instead, you get repetitive exercises that make you match characters to sounds and sounds to English words. If you do it enough, you start making connections and picking up rules yourself. I will never compose Chinese literature learning this way, but it is an effective brute force method of cracking open an intimidating language. 我很开心! Marty Patail, Editor in Chief

Staying In With Emily & Kumail

Staying sane these days is my central life goal. I have no interest in using this weird moment in time to learn new skills or become a different person. What I want is to be calm and comforted in the face of the daily horror that is the world. Staying In with Emily & Kumail is a lifeline to normalcy. The podcast started in mid-March, and features writer and producer Emily V. Gordon and her husband Kumail Nanjiani, an actor and a comedian. The two have deep staying indoors chops due to Emily’s chronic autoimmune disorder, which requires her to self-quarantine on a regular basis. Together they wrote, and Nanjani acted in, The Big Sick, which chronicled their relationship as they dealt with Gordon’s illness. 

This podcast offers endless entertainment suggestions and coping strategies designed to keep you occupied in a productive way inside the four walls of home, presented with honesty and a heavy schmear of self-care. Topics are far ranging, from home haircuts to video games, workouts to depression, often with smart guests like chef David Chang or comedian Nicole Byer. There’s very little science or hard news. Mostly people being totally honest about how they feel right now. And ultimately, what makes the podcast successful is the very obvious fact that these two love the hell out of each other. It comes through in every interaction and feels like a warm blanket of comfort. Sure, they are financially successful people who have no children to distract them during quarantine, so sometimes their advice is not applicable to everyone. But the core message is that can we love each other and just get through this thing together, which is my ultimate plan–coronavirus or not. Mike Novak, Art Director

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