Fucks you up.
Everyone talks about the romanticized notion that great art comes from tortured souls. It’s an idea that’s existed since Plato, and has been examined through several scientific studies. The results? Mixed. But I’m not interested in whether or not to produce truly good art across any of the endless mediums that exist in this ever-evolving world, someone has to be plagued by deep emotional or physical turmoil. I want the after effect: what truly good art (a subjective determination) does to us.
Most review columns, including ones I’ve written, follow a pretty generic formula of examination and analysis. This then leads to either recommendation or suggested avoidance. These ratings normally place the piece in question on a scalable table, usually running from 1 – 5 or 1 – 10 or something along those lines. When we watch or read or experience something, we usually know right away where on this scale the experience will land. Sometimes, maybe not.
When I review something, I always look at two big umbrella questions: how did I feel while I was experiencing it? And how did I feel about it in the time that followed? Sometimes I’ll burn through a book in a day because it was such a good read, but then forget the details only a day or two later because it didn’t stick with me. Despite how good it was, and how much I enjoyed it at the time, there was no lasting effect (Feed; Mira Grant). Other times, a book will be eh while I’m reading it, but afterwards it lingers. I start thinking about lines or scenes when I'm done reading it (Last Night in Nuuk; Niviaq Korneliussen). Art in either of these areas usually garners a 4 on those review scales we talked about. Maybe, if the reviewer is feeling generous, a five (or if they’re feeling the opposite – a three).
Then there’s the stuff that you truly enjoy while you’re experiencing it and are still talking about for a few days after. These are the five-star reviews. (Fight Club (the movie); Milkman, Anna Burns; Control (PS4)). This is the stuff we look for, the good art. Now again, good is subjective, especially in the realm of entertainment. Good books to you probably suck for me, and vice versa. I once mentioned Requiem for a Dream in a meeting and a director looked at me with her lip curled and asked how I could ever like something like that. But that’s the beauty of there being so much out there. There’s some for you and him and her and me and them.
So, we all look for the five-star stuff that’ll make for a great weekend on the couch reading with whiskey or wine and the dogs at our feet, or provide for a perfect movie night with popcorn and boxed candy we bought at the grocery store to make it feel like we're at the cinema.
But what about the better stuff?
The trouble with finding the truly great art, the art that fucks us up afterward, is we never know it’s going to happen until it does. It could be while we’re watching it or right after or even a few days later when it creeps back into our subconscious and we realize we’ve been existing in this odd haze of going through the motions but our minds have been completely elsewhere. Everything outside the world we just left is simply kind of muted.
I consider myself lucky; I’ll usually have this happen maybe three or four times a year – sometimes less, sometimes more. It’s never frequent enough to reduce the impact, and rarely so distant from one another that I’m afraid it won’t happen again. It’s come from video games (The Last of Us Part I & II), books (Never Let Me Go, Kazuo Ishiguro), and movies (Burn, Burn, Burn). Most recently, it happened with a show: Undone.
Undone is an animated comedy-drama series created by Kate Purdy and Raphael Bob-Waksberg, and starring Rosa Salazar. It follows Alma (Salazar) after she gets into a nearly fatal car accident. Through the accident and its aftermath, Undone, explores the idea of reality through Alma’s new relationship with time and how she uses this to try and find out how her father really died.
The show is done through a style of animation called rotoscoping, where animators trace over motion picture footage to produce realistic action. It’s trippy to say the least, and takes a little bit of getting used to, but after half-an episode, the characters seem realer than most of the ones on non-animated shows.
I don’t want to go too far into Undone’s story (I actually do, but I really don’t want to spoil anything for anyone because it should be experienced as blindly as possible), but the creators and writers of this show should be commended for the way they handled certain topics, and the way they ended the season. Alma’s story is tragic and yet hopeful at the same time. And I think it’s this balance that the creators strike—similar balances seen in The Last of Us series, and other great art like Fleabag—that acts as the sledge hammer shattering our state of mind. Because let’s face it, all of our lives are tragic in some way or another. Whether it’s incessant, periodic, self-inflicted, circumstantial or random, tragedy is there. But it’s also the hopefulness that we look for. Hopeful that the storm will pass, the waves will calm, and the clouds will part. Calm seas may not make skilled sailors, but we can all appreciate safe harbor every now and then.
I strongly recommend Undone. And, while I can feel the fog starting to lift, it was great to find that all-enveloping experience again, and I’m looking forward to the next one. I hope every one of you finds the same.