Offline Recs: Crooked art dealers, Dimes Square schadenfreude, Gatsby but make it middle class
What we're reading, watching, listening to, and obsessing over this month, with Drew Millard.
Welcome to Offline Recs, The Culture Journalist’s monthly digest of articles, music, movies, and other cultural ephemera we can’t stop thinking about — regardless of where they fit in the news cycle. This month, journalist and boyfriend-of-the-pod Drew Millard decided to return and contribute a blurb about Paul McCartney, for some reason. Note: Only paid subscribers can read this installment in its entirety
We’re All Going to the World’s Fair (in theaters and for rent online)
It’s tricky to write about this film without giving too much away. I had the fortune of knowing next to nothing about it before I saw it, save that it’s loosely billed as “horror” (“dream-logic psychodrama about youth/identity/disconnection” doesn’t have quite the same ring to it), and I recommend going into it cold.
I can tell you this much: There’s a reason this debut from nonbinary filmmaker Jane Schoenbrun was a standout at Sundance that led to a crazy bidding war for their second feature, I Saw the TV Glow, now helmed by A24 and Fruit Tree, Emma Stone’s production company. At just 86 minutes, World’s Fair is original and urgently relevant, a zeitgeist-channeling, impressionistic fever dream charting the collaborative dissociation of two people engaged in an online game.
If the word “horror” puts you off, the scares are more akin to Adam Curtis than Cronenberg (though the latter is very much a spiritual influence), undercut by a dose of tenderness and vulnerability you won’t find in either filmmaker’s work. The bulk of the action takes place on or in front of screens, but the movie is shot with the plaintive elegance of a ‘90s indie flick and scored to stirring effect by Alex G. Perhaps most remarkable is the fact that, in our climate of digital solipsism and polarizing takes, Schoenbrun dares to inhabit the complexities and gray areas of being human as we search for each other and ourselves. World’s Fair doesn’t operate in binaries, and neither does the world itself. —Andrea Domanick
Robert Eggers, director of The Witch and The Lighthouse, has a schtick: He becomes really obsessed with a specific chapter in history, then goes to almost alarming lengths to recreate every single detail of that world on screen. (On the set of The Witch, for example, actors clomped around in wooden “straight shoes,” because the footwear worn by early European settlers in New England apparently didn’t differentiate between right or left). Without giving too much away, The Northman is what would happen if you gave that kind of guy $90 million to make a movie about Vikings. It includes Nicole Kidman, extremely beautiful panoramas of Iceland (although the film was mostly shot in Ireland and Northern Ireland), and, according to an excellent Eggers profile in The New Yorker, a museum-quality replica of a period transport vessel that was presumably very expensive to build but only appears on screen once, “far out at sea, not even in focus.”
Still, as with Eggers’ other films, the most thrilling thing about The Northman is the opportunity to inhabit the psychology of the people who populate this universe, one where events in the spirit realm blend seamlessly into the physical one and dying young — especially on the battlefield, especially while exacting revenge — is seen as much more desirable outcome than living a long and happy life. “As much as I am, like, totally in love with the verisimilitude of the tangible world, it’s getting into the mind,” Eggers told The New Yorker. “To present it without judgment. Just because, it is what it is. And it’s fucking fascinating.” —EF
Who gets to decide that a painting is worth millions of dollars, while another isn’t? According to Antoine Wilson’s new novel, it’s Frances Arsenault, a fictional art dealer in 2000s Los Angeles whose legendary “eye” is just a euphemism for his blind confidence in his own somewhat arbitrary assertions, his ability to manipulate the perceptions of the collectors and gallery assistants and journalists around him through charisma and sheer force of will.
Not unlike Fuck Seth Price, which I reviewed several years back for Talk Magazine, Mouth to Mouth digs into heady questions about art, value, and human agency by way of a gripping mystery story — told from the perspective of a younger man who develops a creepy obsession with Arsenault after saving him from drowning in the Pacific Ocean. Downing cocktail after cocktail in a first-class lounge at JFK as he tells the story of his own rise to art-world prominence, he’s an unreliable narrator, but a compelling one: I devoured all 179 pages of this slim, psychological thriller in a single weekend, and I only wish there were 179 more. —Emilie Friedlander
This one’s a little inside-baseball for those of us who like to nerd out about the economics of journalism, but somebody had to do it: Donald MacKenzie, a professor of sociology at the University of Edinburgh, peels back the curtain on the opaque, convoluted, somewhat sinister world of online “AdTech” — ie, the invisible system of “programmatic pipes” through which money flows out of the pockets of advertisers and into the coffers of the publication whose article you just clicked on about someone smearing the Mona Lisa with cake. The piece, based on his research with Koray Caliskan and Charlotte Rommerskirchen, reveals that only a fraction of the money brands drop on online ads actually makes it to its destination, which is bad for the brands but especially bad for the publications that rely on these ads to keep the lights on.
In other words, media organizations aren’t just competing with Google and Facebook for a smaller and smaller piece of the online ad-revenue pie; the “pipes” undergirding these automated micro-transactions are “leaky,” and no one seems to know exactly where the money goes, though it probably has something to do with the ad-tech companies responsible for the plumbing. I checked my bank account, and the money is definitely not being routed to me. —EF
The Meta History: Museum of War, an NFT art project started by a group of Ukrainians to archive the history of the war and raise money for the country’s government, hasn’t exactly been a raging success — if you judge success in terms of a project’s floor price. But in her recent piece for VICE, Eliza Levinson transforms the story of a not-very-viral charity fundraiser into a heartbreaking exploration of what it actually means to decide that something has value in the speculative, transactional world of NFTs: “Is there room,” she asks, “for humanity on the blockchain?”
This question becomes all the more urgent — or maybe beside the point — when you consider that while corresponding with Levinson for this story, some of the artists behind the project are living in a world where shelling and air raids have become a regular feature of life; when they disappear from Telegram for a few days and finally resurface, we can feel Levinson’s relief vibrating through the page. Personally, this one also made me think about how rare it is to see media coverage spotlighting the losers of the attentional rat race, instead of the winners: How can we possibly understand the systems that we’re swimming in, the complex interplay of art and money, if we only focus on the exception, not the rule? —EF
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