NOT OPTIONAL takes a quick weekly look at worthwhile releases, some recent, some not.
Joyce Maynard, At Home In The World: A Memoir
Joyce Maynard’s overall body of work has unfortunately been defined and overshadowed by a single event in her life: At age 18, she dated the 53-year-old J.D. Salinger. At his request, she kept the details of their relationship out of her writings—she was an accomplished author herself, culminating at the time with “An 18-Year-Old Looks Back On Life” in The New York Times Magazine —for 25 years after the fact. When she finally broke her silence with 1998’s At Home In The World, the same publication that brought Maynard to Salinger’s attention compared her to Monica Lewinsky, with Maureen Dowd deeming them both “highly skilled predators” in a piece called “The Return Of The Leech Women.” (Dowd, like many others, apparently thinks that heterosexual relationships are the sole property of the male partner.) More disappointing is that she fails to see merit in the writer’s candor, which allowed Maynard to shed years of shame—placed on her first by a drunk father and overbearing mother and later by her own neurotic strive for perfection—in the most wryly engaging way, a way that gives readers exactly what they want from a memoir: a truthful and relatable text. (At Home was recently reissued with a new preface.) [Becca James]
Those enchanted by the 2002 documentary Spellbound (or even 1999’s Trekkies) will find similar charms in the children of Magic Camp, a documentary about a yearly gathering of young magicians who hope to make the hobby into a career. It’s rare to see young nerds in their natural habitats—I mean that in the best way—and Tannen’s Magic Camp is certainly that place. These kids are funny, charming, and weird in ways that movie-depicted kids rarely get to be. There’s awkwardness, sure, like ambitious teen Zoe Reiches—one of just a handful of girls in Magic Camp, unsurprisingly—working PMS jokes into her act, or a scene in which a homesick kid has a mild run-in with his roommates. But that’s part of the appeal, naturally: These are real kids with a very specific, shared dream. They don’t act like reality-TV contestants or wink at the cameras; they can’t be anything but themselves. (Magic Camp is available on-demand on several cable systems, and for purchase from Amazon and iTunes, but it’s not on DVD yet.) [Josh Modell]
Garfield Minus Garfield has gotten plenty of well-deserved attention for extracting funny, weird material from the comic strip that has graced more aunts’ refrigerator doors than any other. But it isn’t the cleverest or even the strangest Garfield riff on the Internet—that would be Lasagna Cat, a ridiculously elaborate video series produced by the two-man comedy team Fatal Farm. Each episode begins with a live-action sketch that painstakingly reproduces a past installment of Garfield. The strips seem to be chosen with an eye toward blandness, which only heightens the weirdness of the canned audience laughter. From there, Lasagna Cat segues into a music-video parody that also serves as a “tribute” to Garfield creator Jim Davis, and the production values on these music videos are excellent—the commitment to the gag is strong. Where Garfield Minus Garfield digs into the comics to unearth a layer of pathos, Lasagna Cat revels in the strip’s superficial banality. It’s been years since Fatal Farm produced a new Lasagna Cat video, but the 27 episodes provide a journey into the deepest depths of culture’s shallow end. [John Teti]
100 Ghosts: A Gallery Of Harmless Haunts
I’ve never enjoyed being scared—it wasn’t until my senior year of high school that I saw a horror movie in the theater, and even then it was The Ring—but I have always liked Halloween. It’s the old-fashioned, mildly macabre elements that hit me right where I live: fake cobwebs, cardboard skeletons with articulated limbs, cassette tapes that feature spooky sounds on one side and covers of “Monster Mash” and “Ghostbusters” on the other. Anything that throws quotes (scare quotes, perhaps?) around “spooky,” really—which is why I busted up when a copy of Doogie Horner’s 100 Ghosts arrived in the office. The simple illustrated collection takes another beloved icon of the Halloween season—the bed-sheet ghost—and runs it through a gauntlet of goofy permutations, like “undercover cop” (bed-sheet ghost with a fake mustache), “ventriloquist” (a miniature bed-sheet ghost hovering where a larger bed-sheet ghost’s hands should be), and “two kids standing on each other’s shoulders” (bed-sheet ghost with two pairs of eye holes). It’s a trifle, sure, but one that I can see myself pulling out of storage every October for years to come, thumbing through its pages to stop on “used car lot” (bed-sheet ghost as dancing windsock) and cackle like Vincent Price at the end of “Thriller.” [Erik Adams]
It seems like I’ve read a lot about Orphan Black in the last couple months, but every time I mention it to a friend, I’m met with a blank look. So I feel okay about using this space to say it again: Watch Orphan Black. The story’s anchor is Sarah Manning, a street hustler who sees her doppelganger throw herself in front of a train. Sarah assumes her life, her identity, her boyfriend—and her tightly knotted secrets, which involve even more doppelgangers. Tatiana Maslany is a wonder: She plays Sarah and two or three other characters per episode, but each character is such a thoroughly separate entity that it never gets distracting. Though Orphan Black is marketed as sci-fi and is superficially about clones, the sci-fi is soft enough to be suitable for genre skeptics—cloning aside, the world Sarah lives in is very much our own—plus it’s nice to see a woman-centered drama that’s gritty and thrilling and relies on female agency. The clones’ secrets unravel from different perspectives—the clones’, the cops’, the creators’, the enemies’—and the deliberately paced storytelling keeps the mystery interesting. BBC America is re-airing the first (and, so far, only) season in sequence beginning September 14. Season two will debut next April. [Laura M. Browning]