Pomo Picks

Pop Culture Worth Your Time: The Crown, Kamasi Washington, and More

From Gillian Anderson's Maggie Thatcher to a wildly queer-coded '50s western, here's a glimpse at our queues this week.

By Portland Monthly Staff

Kamasi Washington performing at the 2020 Adult Swim Festival

This stressful year shows no signs of stopping, with reasons to panic so myriad we’re not even gonna get into them here. One thing’s clear: we all need places to put our eyes and brains that distract us, soothe us, and ready us to engage with the scary stuff more effectively. To that end, here’s the stuff filling our queues at Portland Monthly this week, from soapy British intrigue to midcentury melodrama and beyond. 

The Crown

A Facebook memory from 10 years ago popped up the other day, notifying me that back in 2010, I had been peevish when word came of the engagement of Prince William and his longtime girlfriend, Kate Middleton, dubbed "Waity Katie" by the British tabloids for how long it took him to pop the question. 2010-me was happy enough for them, but sourly noted that this severely curtailed my own chances of ever marrying Wills and becoming Queen of England. This should explain why I am 100 percent the target audience for The Crown, the sumptuously produced all-about-the-Windsors Netflix drama that has returned for its fourth season just as the pandemic is at its bleakest and I needed it most. And oh boy, does this season ever deliver.
Not since season one's depiction of scandal magnet Princess Margaret's affair with a married man nearly twice her age has The Crown been so deliriously juicy. Credit, of course, Princess Di, beautifully portrayed by newcomer Emma Corrin, who nails not just Di's impish glances through her bangs (“fringe,” if you want to be British about it) but also the bulimia and depression that overtakes her almost immediately when she realizes that she's just a well-born breed mare in her new husband's eyes, a stand-in for his one true love, the very married Camilla Parker Bowles. (Now married to the Prince of Walles, of course, and known as Camz to us royal enthusiasts.)
Special shout-outs to the location scouts—not just the state visit to Australia that Di and Charles take, or Charles's salmon fishing expedition to Iceland, but also the interiors of the various castles, each more richly appointed than the last—and to the costume designers, who manage to make Di's oh-so-'80s looks feel fresh as a daisy. Laura Ashley would approve.
The other big addition to The Crown's already stellar cast this go-around is Agent Scully, aka Gillian Anderson, playing the Iron Lady, better known as Margaret Thatcher, the ruthless first female prime minister of Britain. Anderson is the epitome of chilly, even as she ties on a ruffled apron to whip up a kedgeree for the members of her cabinet as they plot both assaults on the Falkland Islands and new ways to urge out-of-work Britons to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. Ruling over it all is the implacable Olivia Colman as Queen Elizabeth II; one of my favorite episodes of the season is the fourth, titled “Favourites,” during which the Queen embarks on a quest to determine which one of her children is her personal fave. She does this by arranging lunches with each of them and instructing her private secretary to prepare a dossier on each child: “Focusing on each child's hobbies, interests and so forth. One would hate to appear.... uninformed.”
True royals watchers already know the answer to this one, even though Tobias Menzies as Prince Philip spells it out at the end of the episode for the uninitiated: it's the vile Prince Andrew, in real life ensnared in the Jeffrey Epstein pedophile ring and demoted from all his patronages, though not entirely case out of the royal family and off the public dole. Man, I can't wait for The Crown to sink its oh-so-proper teeth into THAT subplot. In the meantime, I will simply make these episodes last as long as I can, and then perhaps start the series over from the beginning. —Julia Silverman, news editor

Johnny Guitar

As we stare the barrel down of a long, dark winter, I've been cutting the monotony with a string of Hollywood melodramas: big, ripe, lurid studio concoctions featuring stars who may as well be gods weeping in blindingly saturated technicolor. Given who I am as a person—someone whose entire undergrad MO was “How can I talk about how this thing is actually gay?”—these movies score bonus points if they wriggle out from beneath the restrictive Hays Code of the day to offer slyly political or homoerotic subtext. Enter Johnny Guitar.

Directed in 1954 by incorrigible bisexual Nicholas Ray (who would go on to make Rebel Without a Cause the following year), Johnny Guitar is a gay-as-hell Western fever dream filled with eye-popping costumes and jaw-dropping subject matter. Joan Crawford stars as Vienna, a pants-wearing, tough-talking saloon owner locked in a cosmic battle with the puritanical Emma (Mercedes McCambridge, who would go on to voice the demon in The Exorcist) in the old West. The women are thinly-disguised former lovers, it seems, and the titular Johnny Guitar (a hulking Sterling Hayden) is sidelined to decoration almost immediately.

This movie has everything: Joan Crawford telling her casino lackey to “spin the wheel, Eddie—I like the way it sounds” through three layers of Velveeta; a leather-clad McCambridge holding a literal whip as she stands behind a trembling Crawford; an explicitly anti-McCarthy countenance that nods to The Crucible, which premiered the year before. It also, blessedly, has this scene, where Crawford calmly talks her lynch mob down in a ballgown from behind a piano: 

Johnny Guitar was mostly dismissed by American audiences during its theatrical release, and it's not hard to see why: marketed as a shoot-'em-up Western, it is, instead, a wordy and hallucinatory queer revenge saga bent on upending the lazy complacence of the Eisenhower years. For those same reasons, it's easy to understand how its estimation rose when French critics like Jean-Luc Godard got their hands on it and wrote breathless praise about its use of color and structural boldness. 

Thanks to Godard and filmmakers like Martin Scorsese and Pedro Almodóvar (whose Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown quotes this film directly), Johnny Guitar has become a cult classic, and it is available for all to stream on Hulu right now. Bask in its insanity, guffaw at its nerve, and fall in love with its costumes—it should warm you up for a few days, at minimum. —Conner Reed, arts and culture editor

Kamasi Washington at the Adult Swim Festival 2020

Typically held in Los Angeles, the Adult Swim Festival—like just about everything in the COVID era—shifted online this year. But we ain’t complaining, because Adult Swim uploaded performances, panels, and live-episode premieres from its two-day festival (November 13—14) directly to YouTube.
Yeah, the panels, OK, but there’s so much good music I’m still absorbing it all, including a DJ set from Kaytranada, whose 2016 debut 99.9% still regularly finds its way into my headphones; a hypnotic horror-show of a performance by Mastodon; and an appearance by Thundercat, who played at this year’s PDX Jazz Festival (wow, that feels like forever ago, doesn’t it?). But easily my favorite performance was Kamasi Washington's. The jazz saxophonist, with Sun Ra-like showmanship and intrigue, and his band performed Harmony of Difference, a six-movement suite, in its entirety. It’s an energetic, moving performance that left me vulnerable and close to tears. If this is the closest thing we have to live performances right now, I’ll take it. —Gabriel Granillo, digital editor

Leave the World Behind

Rumaan Alam’s Leave the World Behind is a book I read very, very quickly. In fact, I skimmed through it at an alarming pace, largely because I could not live with the unbearable tension created therein. Which brings me to the warning: this book is about people in a world where bad, unexplainable things are happening over which they have no control. So yeah, it’s a bit on the nose. But beyond the slow-paced and excruciating tightening of an invisible vice that Alam cranks with the precision of a master torturer, there’s so much at work: he also puts our first world consumption, our liberal racism, our smug assumptions of safety, our instinct for self-preservation, our reliance on technological crutches, our incredible vulnerability, and more on the rack.

Deeply unsettling and heart-clutchingly terrifying, rest assured that I would not be recommending this book for your current mental state were it not for the profound lesson within about being human. It holds in its 241 pages the threat of annihilation, and the ineffable beauty and connection we are privy to as it approaches. —Fiona McCann, senior editor at large

Song for Arbonne

Welcome to the second day of our second lockdown! As my job is put on hold yet again, I’m finding ways to stay sane for all the hours of “free time” (I cringe now at the word) that I’ll have. What better way to enjoy it than some creative escapism in the form of: fantasy novels! Tuning into worlds that aren’t ours has always been a hobby of mine, and it seems like some needed relief now more than ever. My current pick: Song for Arbonne, by the illustrious Canadian author Guy Gavriel Kay. This is the fifth novel I’ve picked up by him, and the sweeping poetry of his prose leaves me with a renewed love for the English language every time. I highly recommend his other works, especially Tigana and The Lions of Al-Rassan. —Ainslee Dicken, editorial intern

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