- Why are movies about scams such scams?
- The best movie cast...ever?
- Aidy Bryant 2020
- The John Oliver episode you must watch.
- Complicated Toy Story feelings
- The biggest Queer Eye cry this season
The Elizabeth Holmes Documentary Was Inexcusably Bad
In the year of our Lord 2019, nothing is hotter than a scam. Just ask Aunt Becky. But the one thing more en vogue? Documentaries about scams that are themselves a scam. Russian nesting doll movie scams! Scams in scams in scams in scams!
The latest case is perhaps less overt than the original examples: Dueling documentaries on the Fyre Festival in which one paid for an interview with the festival founder and another was produced by the marketing company complicit in the fraud. But it’s just as exasperating. There is perhaps no scam more important, infuriating, and filled with wild details than that of Elizabeth Holmes and her $9 billion Theranos grift.
The Inventor: Out For Blood in Silicon Valley debuted this week on HBO. And it was bad. Like...abjectly bad? It was a documentary on the woman whose claims of revolutionizing the health industry—with technology that would perform a menu of blood tests from a finger prick of blood instead of a venal needle draw—earned her designation as someone who could legitimately change the world. That’s all despite the fact that the technology didn’t actually exist, she was lying to everyone from early consumers to Barack Obama and Henry Kissinger, and the media attention was all a ruse.
Holmes is a captivating figure, as The Inventor proves. Or, rather, nearly disproves. It’s hard to imagine how a documentary with source material this rich and directed by a legend like Alex Gibney could be such a chore.
There was maybe more throat clearing in the first half of this documentary than in a whooping cough clinic in the 1800s. I bring up the 19th century because the documentary does. Often. Like, all the time. Did you know about Thomas Edison? That he was an inventor? That he sometimes failed and other times invented things? You will after watching the first 45 minutes of The Inventor. Get me to the scam!
To be fair, the details of the Elizabeth Holmes saga are so explosive that the documentary ultimately works, I guess, because most of those details are included. But they’re nearly drowned out by style and a confusing misunderstanding of the hook.
Perhaps the most noteworthy thing about the documentary is the harsh close-up interviews with Holmes, conducted against a white backdrop and bright light that made her eyes not so much pop as leap through your TV set into the part of your subconscious that programs your nightmares for decades to come.
This may be a reach, but I couldn’t stop thinking about it: As eerie and effective as those shots—that obsession with her wide, unsettling, unblinking eyes—was, it seemed extremely misogynistic. It unnecessarily took attention away from the historic nature of her fraud by doing the thing we always do when it comes to women in business: focusing on her looks instead of her accomplishments. (Even if this case the accomplishment was a mammoth scam.)
Was it interesting filmmaking? Yes, and there are GIFs to prove it. But it also reduced a major controversy to a woman’s bug eyes. When was the last time a documentary made its signature motif zooming in on a man’s receding hairline? Did the Harvey Weinstein documentary at Sundance center its camera on his double chin?
It’s all the more annoying because if there was one superficial thing about Elizabeth Holmes to zero in on... it’s her voice! That deep, baritone, shitty man voice that comes off as entirely absurd every time she speaks? Fake!!! She reportedly altered her voice down several registers in order to be taken seriously. Her natural voice is much higher pitched, though any time she is caught using it, the evidence is quickly removed from the internet.
This is fascinating. It’s fascinating in terms of what in the crazy hell this woman is doing, but also fascinating in terms of what it says about gender and the business world. It also was not talked about at all in the documentary. I couldn’t believe it! I felt, perhaps appropriately, scammed.
The ‘Hustlers’ Strippers Movie Was Cast in My Dreams
In 2015, Jessica Pressler wrote one of the best magazine features I’ve ever read for New York called “The Hustlers at Scores,” a Robin Hood tale of strippers who stole from the shitty men they danced for and gave to...themselves. It is now, as it should, being turned into a movie. And that movie will star (wait for it) Jennifer Lopez, Constance Wu, CARDI B!!!, Keke Palmer, Julia Stiles, Lili Reinhart, Trace Lysette, and Mercedes Ruehl. Do they give Nobel Prizes for casting?
Give Aidy Bryant All the Awards
Aidy Bryant is so good in Shrill it should be a federal law that every American citizen write her a personal letter congratulating her. The series is such a revolutionary joy, a transgressive sigh of relief, that we should all be spending our nights on a letter writing campaign to everyone involved: the writers, directors, co-stars, costume designer, and Lindy West, whose book the series is based on.
It’s one of those beautiful TV shows that is so good, but that also matters... but is also so good. Those things are both mutually exclusive in this case, and entirely related. In particular, there is an episode set at an inclusive pool party that, not to be hyperbolic, may be one of the most wonderful things on television ever in history of all time ever.
My voice is not necessarily the one that should be heard here, so here is one reaction, of many, that I loved when reading about the episode on Twitter: “everything about SHRILL is a breath of fresh air but the pool party episode is the most raw and powerful piece of television I’ve seen in a long time, and this scene is so resonant and uplifting and self celebratory I’m obsessed with this joy,” wrote @hattiesoykan.
Anyway, what I’m saying is that if Aidy Bryant is not a double Emmy nominee this year for Shrill and Saturday Night Live, we will march.
John Oliver’s Monica Lewinsky Interview
After five years and over 150 episodes, we’ve maybe settled into the fact that everything John Oliver and his team at Last Week Tonight do is utterly brilliant and resigned ourselves to the normalcy of it. But we shouldn’t. We should shout from the rooftops each time he holds truth to power and somehow lacerates it with a kind of comedy that isn’t pandering or cheap but as insightful as the argument he makes.
In any case, on Sunday night he did an episode dedicated to the nuances of Public Shaming and featured an interview with Monica Lewinsky, and I would argue it is the most important and best-argued episode he and the show have produced. And that’s a bar as high as the Empire State Building.
It’s been two decades and Lewinsky is still perhaps the most relevant voice on the matters at hand: What value is there in our societal impulse to publicly shame on social media and in the news any person whom we take at face value as worth a modicum of scorn? When is it in the name of making change, and when is it ratings-grabbing cruelty that ruins lives?
The answer is imperfect and so are we, which Oliver owns up to in the segment. But it is a conversation about toxicity that we have collectively resisted in truly engaging with—happy instead to shrug it all off to pundit blowhards and Twitter trolls when, in fact, we’re all complicit.
Accountability is the first step, I suppose. But actually, maybe watching this whole segment is. (Watch here.)
Meet the Breakout Star of 2019: Forky
The Toy Story trilogy is perfect. It starts as a story about wanting to play, be played with, and experience life, and ends with the acceptance of death, or, metaphorically, a life well-played. The fact that trilogy is now a fourlogy (quadlogy? quartogy?) is rather disappointing—which is something we say now fully acknowledging that we will see Toy Story 4 a dozen times in theaters and most likely sob at each screening.
In any case, the new movie trailer is out, and it introduces a new toy that is just a spork with googly eyes and pipe cleaner arms and is now the star of a major movie franchise. It is 2019, and finally I am represented on screen.
The Queer Eye BBQ Ladies Episode
I think every gay man has complicated feelings about Queer Eye. I certainly do. That said, this show does do great things for a lot of people, and chief among them is giving them that good cry. I’ve seen half of the new season, and for me the money-shot cry is the third episode, in which the Fab Five make over two sisters in Kansas who run a barbecue joint and have spent their entire lives working hard and neglecting to treat themselves. Go watch it now, and fall in love with the Jones sisters.
They embody the true appeal of this show. These are people who are sadly never on TV, and it’s nice to see them. Especially in a way where the point is to show off who they are, without mocking them. When it comes to Queer Eye, that’s a fine line, as the zoo exhibition is a bit of the point. But dignity reigns supreme, and that’s why it works. Yes, the conceit is “Haha, look, he doesn’t shave his beard” and “She’s a chick who wears camouflage” and “OMG we’re in Missouri, can you believe people even live here?” But that’s conceptual shame. The humanity of it all, maybe more in this season than ever before, shines through.
In the Jones sisters episode, a woman who loves to smile but was ashamed of her teeth gets a new smile that she no longer has to cover up. Who won’t be moved by that? The show is imperfect and will never reconcile its contradictions. It’s all too complicated. But these are people putting positivity into the world at all costs, and that is infectious. It is warming. It is, frankly, queer. And thank god for that.
What to see this week
- Us: Jordan Peele’s follow up proves Get Out was no fluke. Lupita is a goddamn superstar.
- The Act: How is Patricia Arquette this good in everything?
- Catastrophe: What a beautifully bittersweet ending to a beautifully bittersweet show.
- What to skip this week
- Pretty Little Liars: Perfectionists: I’m sorry...there’s a spinoff???
- American Idol: I watched and loved the entire original run. What’s happening now might as well be parody.