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Return of the King

Thursday 1 April 2021

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


One of the earliest and least expected cultural phenomena of the pandemic was the Netflix series, Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness, which, fortuitously, became available to stream only three days before the prime minister “instructed” us to stay at home on 23 March 2020.

Quite suddenly, the high-camp saga of zookeeper Joe Exotic, the absurdly mulleted big cat owner based in Oklahoma, his many husbands, and his gun-toting antics became the talk of the newly confined nation. For a while, it felt as though fear of Covid and fascination with Exotic were the two forces uniting us all. 

In particular, his fixation with his rival Carole Baskin, founder of the Big Cat Rescue Sanctuary in Florida, was both deranged and mesmerising to watch. Social media turbo-charged the division of viewers into #TeamJoe and #TeamCarole, in one of least meaningful and yet most compelling triumphs of trash television in recent history.

Now, with an an appropriate symmetry, as we begin the process of gradual relaxation of the third lockdown – and, let us hope, final, vaccine-propelled exit from the pandemic – the prolific Louis Theroux delivers a feature-length documentary on the whole story (Louis Theroux: Shooting Joe Exotic, BBC Two, Monday 5 April, 9pm). 

In fact, Theroux is returning to a scene he himself explored ten years ago, long before the Netflix series, in the one-off programme, America’s Most Dangerous Pets (iPlayer) – a film in which he first encountered Exotic and his world of big cats, big threats and big lies. Retrieving unused footage of Exotic from a decade ago, and reconsidering the case in the light of all that has happened since – the zookeeper is now serving 22 years in federal prison for violating wildlife laws and a murder-for-hire plot to kill Baskin – the documentary maker talks to Exotic’s relatives and Baskin herself to piece together what really happened, and why.

Not surprisingly, given Theroux’s astonishing capacity to get his sources to open up, it is gripping television. Chelsea Putman, Exotic’s niece, says that he “thought he was above the law” and that her uncle put her to work falsifying vet certificates. Yarri Schreibvogel, Joe’s estranged brother, describes him with seething rage as a congenital liar and fraudster, incapable of telling the truth about anything. 

Baskin, whom Exotic ludicrously defamed as one of “America’s biggest domestic terrorists” and accused of killing her late husband, talks of the months of death threats she endured after the Netflix series first aired. Everywhere Theroux goes, he finds the trail of human wreckage his imprisoned subject left behind him before the cell door slammed shut.

It is one of his great strengths as a documentary-maker that he goes back and re-examines his work, auditing his own performance as a storyteller: he has made three films about the loathsome Westboro Baptist Church and, in 2016, famously revisited his original documentary about Jimmy Savile (2000), to see if he had let the paedophile – by then deceased – off the hook.

A similar inquest curls through Shooting Joe Exotic. As he watches his interviews from 2011, Theroux reflects on the ways in which damaged but devious figures such as the zookeeper manipulate everyone they encounter – including himself: “Part of his M.O. was – it’s not even an M.O. – part of his ability to influence people and to recruit people was through his own unpredictability, but, more than that, [a] kind of fragility that meant that, if you were in his orbit, you were constantly tiptoeing around and attempting to placate him, or in different ways keep him together.”

This is astute – but it applies to everyone, not just Exotic’s entourage and Theroux himself. We are all, to varying degrees, complicit in the Joe Exotic myth, drawn in by its magnetic, trashy, empty-carb watchability. 

Somehow, he managed to persuade half the media that Donald Trump was going to pardon him (not even Trump went for that particular stunt). To mark the anniversary of the original series, Netflix, TikTok, and some of the most flamboyant stars from RuPaul’s Drag Race have joined forces to stage a musical – Tiger Queens – inspired by the whole improbable story. There is even talk of Nicholas Cage starring as Joe Exotic in an Amazon Studios drama series. 

Social media still blazes obsessively over the Exotic-Baskin feud – more than ever, in fact. It is far too late to tame this demented, caged beast. Even from his prison cell, the Tiger King still rules.

Do book your place at our ThinkIn on Wednesday 7 April at 18:30 BST: Never Mind the Bigots. Could punk save the 21st Century? More than 40 years after the Sex Pistols, safety pins and censored singles transformed popular culture, the punk ethos of DIY, anti-establishment social movements, and garage start-ups is returning. We’ll be joined by speakers including Celeste Bell, director of an extraordinary documentary about her mother, Poly Styrene (legendary singer of the group X-Ray Spex), and by the writer Stephanie Phillips, who is also the founder of the Black feminist punk band Big Joanie. Don’t miss it.

Here are this week’s recommendations:

WATCH

The Mauritanian (Prime Video)
Kevin Macdonald’s latest feature film is an adaptation of former Guantanamo inmate Mohamedou Ould Salahi’s diary. Detained without charge between 2002 and 2016, Salahi (Tahar Rahim) passes instalments of his journal to his lawyer Nancy Hollander (Jodie Foster, who won a Golden Globe for the role last month) both of them confronted by prosecutor, Lt Col Stuart Couch (Benedict Cumberbatch), who initially seeks the death penalty, but is soon afflicted by doubts about the case. Bafflingly overlooked in this year’s Oscar nominations, this should be your top Easter weekend movie.

Concrete Cowboy (Netflix, 2 April)
Relax. This has nothing to do with the historically-terrible 1980 turkey, Urban Cowboy, one of the films that plunged John Travolta’s career into oblivion before he was rescued by Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction. Instead, Ricky Staub’s directorial debut is set in the real-life milieu of Black horse culture in North Philadelphia and the Fletcher Street Urban Riding Club (check out this amazing photo-essay by Ann Sophie Lindström), Idris Elba excels as Harp, a part-owner of the stables, who lives with his horse, Chuck, and must learn how to be a father to his son, Cole (Caleb McLaughlin), when the latter moves to Philly from Detroit. You would never guess from the traditional Western genre that one in four cowboys was black but, in addition to the dramatic chops of its lead players, Concrete Cowboy leaves you in no doubt of the depth and authenticity of that neglected American tradition.

Violation (Shudder)
Since its UK launch in 2017, Shudder has been a popular niche streaming service for horror movie fans who want more than the mainstream new release fare available on the bigger platforms. But Violation – directed by Dusty Mancinelli and Madeleine Sims-Fewer – is much more than a genre movie and has already been hailed by critics as one of the hidden gems of the year. A twisty take on the familiar revenge plot line, the movie makes considerable demands of the viewer: not least because its chronology is so disjointed and its grip on reality so intermittent. Miriam (Sims-Fewer) and her estranged husband Caleb (Obi Abili) visit her sister (Anna Maguire) and brother-in-law Dylan (Jesse LaVercombe) at a lakeside cabin. After an appalling assault, Miriam takes systematic vengeance. Though absolutely not for the faint-hearted – this is a horror movie in the truest sense – Violation is, at heart, a deeply cerebral psychological drama that will leave you full of questions and profoundly unsettled. Not to be missed.

READ

The Best Things – Mel Giedroyc (Headline Publishing Group)
It is really no surprise that Giedroyc’s debut novel is as sharp and entertaining as it is, but credit to this half of the long-running Mel and Sue double-act for matching what must have been burdensome expectations. Partly inspired by her own experience of near-bankruptcy when she and her husband bought a house they could not afford, The Best Things is an unsparingly satirical exploration of money and status in contemporary Britain. When Sally Parker’s affluent existence is shattered as her high-flying husband loses everything, she has to take control of her life and examine all her assumptions about what constitutes contentment. If that makes the book sound like a polemic, don’t be deterred: it is intensely readable and very funny. Giedroyc says it is the first part of a proposed “Leatherhead Trilogy”: in which case, roll on volumes two and three. 

The Gun, the Ship, and the Pen: Warfare, Constitutions, and the Making of the Modern World – Linda Colley (Profile)
Since the publication of her masterpiece, Britons, in 1992, every new book by Linda Colley has been eagerly anticipated – and her latest does not disappoint. Taking as its binding theme the apparently arid question of constitution-making, the historian shows, with wonderful range, anecdotage and vivid detail, how such documents are the product of particular contexts. A constitution, she writes, is like “a novel”, an often dry document that actually “invents and tells the story of a place and a people”. Constitutions are the product of upheaval and war (the gun), the global travel that spreads ideas (the ship) and the communications technologies (the pen) that make them go viral. An extraordinary and immensely imaginative book.

To Be Fair: The Ultimate Guide to Fairness in the 21st Century Ben Fenton (Mensch Publishing)
“Fairness,” writes the veteran reporter Ben Fenton, “is a procedure of reaching consensus and doing a deal with the rest of the world.” And, he argues in this thought-provoking and vividly contemporary book, we have lost the talent for fairness, the balance between competition and collaboration, that is essential for human coexistence. Most provocatively and originally, he contends that we should “[s]top trying to be right and start trying to be fair” – which, when you think about it, is a challenge to just about every aspect of modern culture and discourse. Whether or not you agree with him, this is a timely book that deserves your attention.

LISTEN

When the 2021 Brit Awards nominations were announced yesterday, I realised that last year’s awards ceremony at the O2 Arena on 18 February – only a week after the disease had been officially named ‘Covid-19’ – was also the last time I went to a live music event.

It was a fine night, too, featuring performances by Mabel, Lizzo, Billie Eilish, Johnny Marr, Dave, Celeste, and Stormzy, and an epic rendition of “Stay With Me” by the original Faces, Rod Stewart and Ronnie Wood.

This year’s nominations – in advance of the postponed ceremony on 11 May – are the most diverse in the history of the awards, in contrast to last year’s male-dominated shortlists. 

Dua Lipa, Arlo Parks and Celeste (all Creative Sensemaker favourites in the past year) scooped three nominations apiece, while more than half the nominees for female solo artist, male solo artist, breakthrough artist and British album are non-white. Four out of five of those shortlisted for album of the year are women (Arlo Parks, Celeste, Dua Lipa and Jessie Ware).

In the International male solo artist category – which he won in 1986 – Bruce Springsteen receives his 11th Brit nomination, at the age of 71. At the other end of the musical career path, Young T and Bugsey are nominated for breakthrough artist, British single, and British group – though they have not yet released a full album. Indeed, this year’s shortlists are full of great UK rap talent: Headie One, J Hus, KSI, Aitch, and Stormzy. The lesson of the #BritsSoWhite row of 2016 seems to have been learned.

I have a hunch this will be Dua Lipa’s year. Listen again to her fantastic album Future Nostalgia – which you can stream here.

Don’t forget to send your own recommendations to editor@tortoisemedia.com.

That’s all for now – take care of yourselves, and each other.

Best wishes, 

Matt d’Ancona
Editor and Partner

Photographs Getty Images, BBC, Netflix