What I’m reading: December 2020

Now that I’m officially on sabbatical, I’ve been doing a lot more reading than usual. Rather than devote an entire post to reflections on each of these items, I thought I’d share some thoughts on them in smaller, bite-sized pieces.

Today I’m taking a quick look at a news story about a Hollywood research library, a podcast about the Jeffrey MacDonald murder case, and doing some follow-up on Hannibal and Mr. Robot.

Note: The following post contains spoilers for the Morally Indefensible podcast, which is a companion podcast to the docuseries A Wilderness of Error, which is based on a book of the same name by Errol Morris (long way of saying: assume spoilers for all three). There are also spoilers for Hannibal and Mr. Robot. And I guess the British TV series Vicious. 

What I’m reading for work

After searching for a decade, legendary Hollywood research library finds a new home: My interest in creative research has mostly focused on fiction writing, but it stands to reason that an enormous amount of research also goes into making movies and television shows. This article from the Internet Archive’s blog talks about the Michelson Cinema Research Library, which was run by film researcher Lillian Michelson until she retired 10 years ago. According to the article, the library’s materials were used as research for hundreds of famous movies, including The Graduate and The Birds. In case you were wondering what type of research goes into filmmaking, the article says: “Bringing this historic Hollywood design resource back to life—a largely digital life [on The Internet Archive]—can make it a global design resource for art directors, designers, filmmakers and researchers in search of information and visual inspiration.” Sounds really cool.

What I’m listening to for fun

Morally Indefensible podcast: The story of Jeffrey MacDonald, who may or may not have murdered his pregnant wife and two young daughters in the 1970s, is one with many layers and red herrings. This podcast is a companion to a series that aired on FX called A Wilderness of Error, which is itself based in large part on a book of the same name by Errol Morris. While the TV series attempts to cover all of the competing theories and explanations about what happened, the podcast focuses on a single thread related to a book about MacDonald’s case called Fatal Vision that was written by Joe McGinniss and published in 1983. To write the book, McGinniss embedded himself on MacDonald’s legal team and even seemingly befriended MacDonald—the two wrote effusive letters to each other while MacDonald was in prison. The reason this story is of interest is that it appears that McGinniss started out believing that MacDonald was innocent but at some point changed his mind and wrote Fatal Vision to reflect his change of heart. This came as a surprise to MacDonald, who felt that McGinniss’s book (and the TV miniseries that was later based on it) damaged his effort to prove his innocence. The story asks a lot of questions about the ethics of the situation (or possible lack thereof), which I found really interesting from an information literacy perspective. It’s also just a deeply weird case with a lot of unexpected twists and turns. (That said, I find the theory that one investigator developed based on evidence from the crime scene involving blood spatters to be pretty convincing as an explanation for what probably happened. Neither the podcast or the TV series offers a competing theory to explain that evidence, though there might be something in the book version, which I’m hoping to read as soon as I can get a hold of my library’s copy.)

What I’m watching for fun

Vicious on DVD (can be purchased for streaming on Amazon): For whatever reason, it’s become a holiday tradition of mine to decorate my tree while drinking a glass of wine and watching Vicious, a short-lived British sitcom starring Ian McKellen and Derek Jacobi as a longtime couple whose love for each other sometimes sounds a lot like loathing. There are only about twelve episodes in all plus a Christmas special they made to wrap things up when all the cast members became too busy to do the show anymore but what little there is of it is a lot of fun if you like bitchy humor and a bit of camp (plus jokes about Doctor Who). Particularly notable: Iwan Rheon plays the sweet, dopey neighbor Ash who moves into the apartment upstairs as the start of the series. Rheon is probably better known for playing the evil Ramsay Bolton on Game of Thrones but here he’s utterly charming and his character’s bond with Ian McKellen’s is a particular highlight of the whole series.

Hannibal on Netflix and Mr. Robot on Amazon Prime: I’ve written about both of these before but have since finished them and wanted to write a quick follow-up now that I’ve seen them in their entirety. Basically, these were both shows I had tried to watch previously and then given up on but ended up returning to because I’d seen recent news stories about them that convinced me they were worth giving a second chance. I’m glad I did. The second season of Hannibal (especially the finale) is probably one of the best seasons of television I’ve ever seen (even if I had to watch half of it through my fingers because this show is all about gore and I am decidedly not). The third season…I don’t know. On the one hand, I admire the thing for the zero fucks it so obviously gives about what you would expect or want it to be. On the other, it feels like a plane circling the airport that only comes in for a landing in, like, the last ten minutes of the last episode. I think if there had been a fourth season, I would have liked the third a lot more (which is to say, I definitely didn’t hate it). As for Mr. Robot, I’m going to confess here that the biggest reason I decided to try watching this show again was that I had read how it ended and was sufficiently intrigued that I was willing to endure the show’s messy middle to see how it got to where I knew it was going. The last handful of episodes from the final season ended up being one of the most well-earned endings I’ve ever seen on a TV series. Not just emotionally earned, but structurally earned because the seeds for that ending were planted literally from the beginning. I expected the last twist to be like most last minute plot twists: a kind of “gotcha!” moment meant mostly to send the series out on a bang. It was anything but. It’s my understanding that Sam Esmail, who created the series, had the luxury of planning it all out so that he knew where it was going to end up from the beginning and it shows. More TV series need to be allowed to function like this.

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