Welcome to Creative Sensemaker, our weekly guide to all that’s best in culture and the arts – movies, streaming, books, music, galleries and much else
If you had to choose a single moment when the onward march of online streaming became impossible to ignore, you could make a good case for 17 January 2019.
That day, Netflix tweeted that 40 million households had watched You, a trashy show about a sociopathic bookstore manager, in its first four weeks on the platform. What made these viewing figures all the more remarkable was just how badly the show had done on regular TV. A paltry 650,000 people tuned in every week when it premiered on Lifetime a few months earlier. For all intents and purposes, it was pretty much a Netflix original.
But You’s belated success didn’t just serve as a shot across the bows for Netflix’s rivals. It demonstrated the unique capacity of streaming services to give slept-on releases a second chance.
It’s rarely a particularly heartwarming story. Netflix tends to go big on popcorn-on-the-sofa, are-you-still-watching fodder. Like You. Or one of its lockdown hits from last summer, Below Deck, an addictive reality show about people working on a luxury yacht, which first aired on Bravo in 2013 but found a new captive audience years later among bored Brits dreaming of sunnier climes, boozy hook-ups and strict ship hierarchies.
All of which makes the second wind of Lad: A Yorkshire Story all the more extraordinary. Set in the rugged splendour of the Yorkshire Dales (disclaimer: I was brought up in those hills) and shot for just £65,000, the film tells the story of a teenager who comes to terms with the death of his dad when he makes friends with a park ranger. It is, put simply, a masterpiece – and one that had been overlooked. The director Dan Hartley, who was born in the area and recruited the cast from the local community, made the film a decade ago and spent several years trying and failing to get a distribution deal for it.
Then suddenly it took off – when Hartley was well and truly back at his day job. It was uploaded to YouTube without his permission, and racked up 1.5 million views from around the world. Now properly released on Amazon Prime, during lockdown it has been downloaded hundreds of thousands of times. It is not one to miss. And now, thankfully, it’s harder to do so.
Here are this week’s recommendations:
(To buy any of these books, and browse further, click on the title to go to the Tortoise Book Store.)
Extraterrestrial: The First Sign of Intelligent Life Beyond Earth – Avi Loeb (John Murray Press)
What if our solar system was paid a visit by aliens? This is the serious question asked by Avi Loeb, chair of Harvard’s astronomy department, in this highly readable and (dare I say) convincing book. The interstellar object ‘Oumuamua confounded scientists when it whizzed across the lens of a Nasa telescope in 2017 – and it still does now. It didn’t act like an asteroid nor did it look like a comet, and it just happened to pass into our very limited field of vision. Loeb’s argument for why it’s likely it was sent intentionally is compelling, and his broader point even more so: it is arrogant and odds-defying to think that we are unique, but scientific orthodoxy and institutional conservatism holds the world back from fully committing to the search for intelligent life.
The Three Mothers: How the Mothers of Martin Luther King Jr, Malcolm X and James Baldwin Shaped a Nation – Anna Malaika Tubbs (HarperCollins Publishers)
So much, for good reason, has been written about three of America’s great civil rights icons, but very little about their mothers. Anna Malaika Tubbs’ fascinating debut, dedicated to “all the mamas”, is unapologetic about changing this. Tubbs stitches together the lives of Alberta, Louise and Berdis from the “margins and footnotes” of books, speeches, and other literature, with moving results. All three women were foundational to the work of their sons, and all three were forgotten by history for far too long.
Fake Accounts – Lauren Oyler (Fourth Estate)
Tortoise member, Rory Marsden, writes…
Destined to irritate as many readers as it delights, this debut novel from 30-year-old literary critic Lauren Oyler centres around a young woman who moves from Brooklyn to Berlin after the death of her conspiracy-peddling boyfriend. Although our unnamed heroine only “reluctantly” admits to being a member of her generation, this is an unambiguously millennial tale. It will probably only confirm the suspicions many have about Gen Y: Oyler’s narrator is narcissistic, superior, entitled, and social-media-obsessed to the point of catatonia. Yet she’s also breezy, self-aware, hilarious, and an unexpected joy to spend time with.
Greenland (Amazon Prime)
Gerard Butler starring in a disaster movie about an earthbound comet might not be the easiest sell for some audiences, but Greenland is strangely affecting. It does what surprisingly few films of its ilk do: it focuses less on CGI shots of pummelled landmarks and more on an ordinary family’s fight to stay alive. Most importantly, it feels realistic on a human level. It captures the inequality and selfishness which would be on display in an extinction-level event; and it captures, too, the desperate terror that people would feel. Inadvertently or otherwise, it is also timely. More than once, it resonates with our own catastrophe.
The Map of Tiny Perfect Things (Amazon Prime, 12 February)
If you don’t fancy planetary destruction, The Map of Tiny Perfect Things is a sparkling distraction of a movie which is destined to fly. It takes the familiar time-loop concept (it is to the director’s credit that there is an oblique nod to Groundhog Day in the script) and sticks in never ending déjà vu a 17-year-old who has managed to make the most of things and escape insanity to boot. The intrigue and inevitable will-they-won’t-they begin when our protagonist meets a girl going through the same predicament. As with most movies that mess with time, it will irritate strict logicians. But when it’s this sweet and likeable… who cares?
Possessor (DVD, iTunes)
Tortoise editor Peter Hoskin writes…
Ah, it’s a Cronenberg movie. But what’s this? Not a movie by David Cronenberg, the director of Videodrome (1981), Dead Ringers (1988) and other masterworks, but one by his son Brandon. The two men must be wearying of the comparisons by now, yet the comparisons are there to be made: Possessor, a tale of assassination done by mind control, walks the same territory of body horror, psychological investigation and corporate satire that Cronenberg Snr walked all those years ago. But it does so with panache, with an understanding of 21st-century dynamics rather than 20th-century ones, and aided by a brilliant central turn from Andrea Riseborough who, much like Elisabeth Moss, has a knack for delivering big, intense performances in quiet roles. In other words: long live the new flesh.
Start Walkin’ 1965-1976 – Nancy Sinatra
An essential retrospective, this new compilation is an ideal way into an artist who escaped the long shadow of her father with a career which took in pop, folk rock, country, psychedelica, a striking image shift – where this collection begins – and one of the classic Bond songs. Her lasting influence, by now, is unavoidable, most notably on Lana Del Rey, the Americana superstar who once styled herself as a “gangster Nancy Sinatra”. But here, the high-points of Sinatra’s own remarkable career get the comprehensive treatment they deserve.
In Praise of Shadows – Puma Blue
Textured by the insomnia that the artist experienced for nearly a decade, and lightened by his emergence from it, Puma Blue’s debut album has a haziness that makes you want to go on a twilight walk with your thoughts. What could be indulgent ends up extraordinary, and here it helps that Puma Blue’s voice is liquid gold. It’s an album for these slowly lengthening days, best listened to before spring fully arrives.
Good Woman – The Staves
The Staves – three sisters from Hertfordshire – have always sounded lovely, but on Good Woman, their third album, they are also at their most defiant. Made during a period of life upheavals (the death of their mother, the birth of one sister’s first child, a breakup experienced by a second), the album marries brutality with hope, and despite its bite it still sounds oh-so-beautiful.
Thank you to Rory Marsden for his recommendation. Please do keep sending them to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Take care – and stay safe.
Photographs Chris Hodgson/Rogue Runner Films, Netflix, Amazon Prime