Since we last visited our friends at Netflix, things have taken a turn on the streaming weirdness front. The dark future that may await us was succinctly outlined in this Fast Company headline: “Netflix canceling ‘Tuca and Bertie’ is a bad sign for all the distinctive, weird shows streaming is supposed to keep alive”. The lack of love for this quirky animated comedy—a cousin to the more widely acclaimed BoJack Horseman by way of the character design of Tuca creator Lisa Hanawalt—would seem to bode ill for fans of more offbeat programming, especially with the broader success of critically reviled features like Murder Mystery and Bird Box.
On the other hand, one of the service’s biggest brands, “Stranger Things,” is simply not the kind of mainstream fare you would be likely to find on network TV. Someone with the time and patience to scroll through all of the available programming would also find such offerings as the fiercely impenetrable “The OA,” the coal-black premise of “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” the deeply uncomfortable comedy of “I Think You Should Leave,” or the shifting tone of animated anthology “Love, Death & Robots.” And the decision to welcome back “Russian Doll” for a second season suggests weird is not quite yet off-limits.
So let’s hold off for a bit on eulogizing Netflix’s middle finger to the mainstream, and let’s instead turn our attention toward two recent debuts which have tripped the weirdometer for critics. They also point to two very different possible outcomes for on-demand bizarre entertainment.
When it comes to mockumentary, there are a number of goals the filmmaker can pursue. The granddaddy of them all, This is Spin̈al Tap, joyously punctures of the legends of rock stars. A more recent example, Netflix’s own American Vandal, sets its sights on the dubious techniques and motives of “real-crime” films and podcasts. Another ongoing series, “Documentary Now!,” is concerned with replicating the look and feel of the subjects it lampoons with startling faithfulness and exactitude. The goal of “Frankenstein’s Monster’s Monster, Frankenstein” seems to be to let star David Harbour be silly. At the outset, Harbour explains that he is investigating the fateful performance that destroyed his father’s career, an early 70s live (?) TV broadcast of a curious adaptation of Mary Shelley’s classic in which the infamous scientist (also played by Harbour in full Wellesian pretentious-actor mode) poses as his own monster in order to secure funding.
It’s all very absurd. But there’s a big problem with “Frankenstein’s…”: all else aside, the program fails in its singular goal to be funny. You can tell the creators think they’re being hilarious, but nothing is believable enough to be satirical, and nothing is wacky enough to be independently uproarious. Harbour is meant to seem thunderstruck by the depravity of his father, but he just seems dumb. The father is meant to be a prodigious talent brought low by his own excesses and jealousies, but he never seems especially talented. Even the show-within-a-show can’t find the right tone: embarrassingly amateurish, apparently without any sort of direction. Meanwhile, some jokes are beaten over the head until the humor is choked out of it, like a commercial for a weapon called Chekhov’s Gun (“You’re gonna fire it!”), while others never even take off, such as Harbour’s repeated insistence that he has completely reconstructed his father’s office as part of his obsessive determination to climb inside his father’s brain (it is an unremarkable four-wall office). Set pieces are curious, but not quite amusing. If “Frankenstein’s…” is weird at all, it is for all the things that it lacks. It has no monster. It has no consistency. It has few laughs. And it has precious little reason to be.
Music videos are also pretty pointless, but back in those halcyon days when a cable channel actually thought airing them was a good use of their time, they were often damned entertaining. So the appearance of a short film showcasing a trio of tracks from Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke’s solo project, “Anima,” is something of a throwback. Yorke has always made for an awkward celebrity; he exudes aloofness, especially on camera, as in videos where he watches the action from a lofty height or makes only a silent, scornful cameo. So few things are quite as surprising as the moment roughly two minutes in when a subway train full of passengers begins performing a peculiar barely-awake-on-the-train ballet, and you suddenly notice… Thom Yorke is dancing, too.
True fans would not hesitate to call me out for such a question, since Radiohead’s video for “Lotus Flower” is nothing but a Thom Yorke dance party. Yet I maintain that this is the exception that proves the rule. Looking like a burned-out Jean Reno with a permanently jaundiced eye, Yorke is no Gene Kelly. But he commits fully, and the result is captivating.
Anima is essentially a three-song triptych, following Yorke first through a dystopian commute, then into a spectacular gymnastic climb up a very steep hill, and finally into a passionate, romantic pas de deux. Yorke’s collaborators—director Paul Thomas Anderson, and especially choreographer Damien Jalet (with whom Yorke worked on last year’s remake of Suspiria)—are fully in their element, creating nightmarish moods and then countering them with rich imagery and angular, powerful dance. As Yorke and dance/life partner Dajana Roncione pirouette around each other through the streets of Prague, they clutch each other by the head, a gesture that conflates the mind and heart and radiates a surprising intimacy. The climactic moment when Yorke finally lip-syncs to his own track is unusually powerful. It’s a thrilling journey.
Were it not for the powerhouse talent behind Anima, it probably would have been relegated to our Saturday Shorts category. But it’s worth remembering that, for a while, MTV was a kind of haven for filmmakers with a unique vision to ply their trade. Netflix is showing how it could be a new patron for ambitious musicians, as well as for writers and performers with an offbeat approach to comedy. As the service becomes increasingly hungry for content, there’s room for both. This time around, though, music is the clear winner.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“… [Frankenstein’s Monster’s Monster, Frankenstein is a] weird, wonderfully offbeat Netflix special… this is a premise steeped in absurdism or originated out of a gigantic bong, one or the other. But here’s the thing: What follows is ridiculous, start to confounding finish, and yet it is so insanely funny that such a thing actually exists and will be available on Netflix, perhaps forever, that it comes off almost as performance art.” — Tim Goodman, The Hollywood Reporter
“…it’s a reminder of the unique form of expression [music videos] can be and feels like nothing else on Netflix… It reminded me of a day when artists were inspired by musicians, and vice versa, and music videos helped to transform the pop culture landscape. The best of them influenced some of your favorite filmmakers. Let’s hope Anima truly does spark a revolution.” – Brian Tallerico, RogerEbert.com