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Three Glimpses of Grotesque TV

Adrian Martin

Adrian Martin finds guilty pleasure and strange connections between three new shows: Now Apocalypse, The Act and Fosse/Verdon
Three Glimpses of Grotesque TV

An in-your-face parade of polysexual humping. Avan Jogia and Beau Mirchoff in Now Apocalypse. Source: Stan.

Now Apocalypse (STARZ/Stan)

Gregg Araki is a director who sticks to his signature style and content. Entering the spotlight with the ultra-low-budget The Living End (1992) as part of the American “new queer cinema” explosion of that time, Araki swiftly set out the panoply of his obsessions. Transgressive sexuality (all combinations of bodies are possible), punk nihilism (our world is surely doomed) and unhinged conspiracy theories (aliens are infiltrating the system) – all wrapped in a flagrantly cartoonish style (with an emphasis on garish primary colours) and speckled with a thousand and one current pop culture references. The Doom Generation (1995) marked, in those years, the best of his breathless “die young, stay pretty” fantasias.

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In the period since, only once has Araki really veered toward anything resembling the cinema mainstream – the delightful stoner comedy Smiley Face (2007), which also happens to be his best film, in no small part due to the prodigious inventiveness of its star, Anna Faris. And only twice has Araki’s general love for everything fast-paced, hedonistic and superficial given way to darker, underlying themes of abuse and broken families, in Mysterious Skin (2004) and the underrated White Bird in a Blizzard (2014).

Araki has also dabbled in television, assigned to episodes of Red Oaks, Riverdale, Heathers and even the dreadful 13 Reasons Why – whether he likes it or not, he has become associated with the reigning nostalgia for 1980s teen pics. But he never seems entirely at ease in this line of work. Thanks to an opportunity provided by executive producers Steven Soderbergh and Gregory Jacobs, Araki plunged in and shot 10 x 30 minute episodes of Now Apocalypse in 40 days – and, one assumes, in total creative freedom. The cast includes Avan Jogia and Roxane Mesquida, with hip singer-activist Henry Rollins making a cameo.

Written by Araki with trendy 'sexologist' Karley Sciortino, Now Apocalypse is an in-your-face parade of polysexual humping, lurid design schemes, lifestyle satire, and - peeking in now and again, and still completely unresolved by the end of season 1 - a grand, overarching plot line involving (you guessed it) aliens, conspiracy and the looming end of humankind. In the generally static crawl of this director’s career, it’s Kaboom (2010) territory all over again. But the editing structure of most episodes - frantically intercutting between three separate, simultaneous interactions, and finding the ironic echoes and correspondences between them - generates much wicked fun, and almost dares us to forget that a story is (traditionally) meant to lead somewhere conclusive.

3 stars
★★★


The Act (Hulu)

Where Now Apocalypse flaunts its open-endedness, The Act is a real-life-crime re-creation that, true to the form, begins near its end, with the signs of a mystery – the home of Dee Dee and her daughter Gypsy Rose Blanchard, seemingly vacated. Stretching out even this initial bit of exposition, it takes quite a while to discover the gruesome sight of Dee Dee’s corpse, murdered in her bed. During the police investigation and the various neighbourhood speculations that follow on this day in 2015, we begin to flash back to where it all began: the utterly dependent relation, virtually from the moment of birth, of a seemingly very ill Gypsy (Joey King) to her intensely caring mother (Patricia Arquette).

These appearances turn out to be extremely deceptive. The situation is what one is tempted to call a textbook case of Munchausen syndrome by proxy, in which Dee Dee convinces everyone around her - as well as, for a long time, Gypsy herself - that her daughter suffers from an endlessly compounding set of ailments. Dee Dee has a set of murky motives for establishing this set-up, including (as another series of flashbacks shows) her terrible rapport with her own mother. The 'act' part - and the elaborate fraud it entails - comes at the moment in Gypsy’s development when, although becoming aware of the truth, she reluctantly agrees to stay in her wheelchair and play the part of victim.

I evoke the image of a textbook because The Act often gives the impression of ticking off, one by one, every item in a list of diagnostic symptoms of the psychopathology it dramatises. The series is based on a BuzzFeed article by Canadian journalist Michelle Dean, who serves here as co-showrunner with Nick Antosca, and co-writer on 3 of the 8 episodes. One can easily imagine her initial, engrossing reportage expanded into a book or a feature film - but 8 hours of television? Anywhere that the makers can stretch this material, they stretch it.

The Act is grimly compelling stuff - so determinedly sensational that, for some viewers, it invites the accusation of being thoroughly exploitative while, for others (including me), it offers the guilty pleasure of perversely complicit enjoyment. The series plugs into a long tradition of American film and literature in which lower class 'ordinary folk' are projected as the repository of all things ugly and creepy. Dean and Antosca spare us nothing on this level - all the way to an excruciating scene of mother and daughter harshly spotlit on a stage, tunelessly warbling The Jackson 5’s "I’ll Be There". And when the character of Nick (Calum Worthy) appears - a nerdy teenager who fills (via Skype) Gypsy’s burgeoning sexual imagination with sadomasochistic ritual and further dissociative splitting of identity - the achievement of grand grotesquery is complete.

3 stars
★★★


Fosse/Verdon (FX/Foxtel)

The working collaboration and intimate marital life of choreographer-director Bob Fosse (1927-1987) and dancer-actor Gwen Verdon (1925 - 2000) - what could be grotesque in that subject matter? In fact, Fosse himself had already imagined - and pictured - the worst of it in his scarcely veiled autobiography, the classic 'mutant musical' All That Jazz (1980). Once you have survived, from that film, the relentlessly drawn-out spectacle of Roy Scheider as Fosse alter ego Joe undergoing open-heart surgery and (39 year-old spoiler alert) getting zipped up in a body bag - all to the tune of Ben Vereen hammily performing “Bye Bye Life” - you are ready for almost any screen extreme. This element of the grotesque was, indeed, a crucial part of Fosse’s mature, creative work in theatre and cinema, at least from the time of Sweet Charity (1969) until his final film, Star 80 (1983), by way of Chicago (1975) on stage.

Judging from its first three episodes, Fosse/Verdon, created by Steven Levenson and Thomas Kail with the full co-operation of the couple’s daughter (Nicole Fosse) and The VerdonFosse Legacy, owes a lot to the model of All That Jazz - while dialing back somewhat on its proud excesses. Like the film, the series darts about in time, shuffling the (often traumatic) highlights of both subject’s lives. (In the type of odd echo that has become increasingly common in contemporary TV, young Verdon here is played by Kelli Burgland, co-star of Now Apocalypse!) There is, again, the fatalistic sense of a countdown to death. And there is, one more time, a dazzling array of pills popped and sexual affairs consummated, especially by Fosse (Sam Rockwell).

It will be intriguing to see how far the series is willing to go in portraying the types of 'trashy' sordidness and vulgarity that Fosse himself was never afraid to embrace on screen. For the moment, Fosse/Verdon is swinging between captivating vignettes of interpersonal drama (Fosse with Verdon at the door and another woman in bed), and fantasy-shortcut depictions of the creative process. It’s made to seem as if the big musical numbers of Cabaret (1972) were caught in a single master shot (they weren’t), as if choreography magically happens with Verdon mind-reading the moves Fosse hasn’t yet shown her, and as if films are edited by people pacing a darkened room and merely snapping their fingers. However, there’s no doubting that Michelle Williams (like Rockwell, also serving as executive producer) is particularly impressive as the adult Verdon, combining both uncanny mimicry and psychological depth – as a woman, a star in her own right, increasingly cast into the shadow of her outsize auteur husband.

(Fosse/Verdon is available on Foxtel from Sunday 26 May.)

© Adrian Martin, April 2019

3 stars
★★★


About the author

Adrian Martin is a freelance film critic. Born in Australia, he created a unique role as an academic and public intellectual and is a key international figure in his field. His latest book is Mysteries of Cinema (Amsterdam University Press, 2018) and his website is www.filmcritic.com.au.