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Pop Culture Diary – 2023 weeks 4 and 5

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Life got busy, these past two weeks, leaving very little time for pop culture.

I did watch two movies with the tots, with two very different approaches to storytelling for children. Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (i.e. the 1971 film, with Gene Wilder) was a blast, and we were singing the Oompa Loompa song all weekend afterwards. But watching My Neighbor Totoro the day after really made the moralistic side of Willy Wonka stand out all the more.

All the children in the movie are punished for their sins. Augustus Gloop* is gluttonous (and doesn’t listen). Violet Beauregarde chews too much gum (and doesn’t listen). Veruca Salt is greedy and spoiled (and doesn’t listen). Mike Teevee – admittedly a bit of an outlier, because he actively chooses his fate and is quite happy about it, even if his mother isn’t – watches too much television. Even Charlie risks punishment, because he, too, does not listen (kids, amirite), but he gets redeemed because he refuses to commit industrial espionage, despite needing the monetary reward more than any of the other kids. The lesson is clear: listen to authority, and don’t let capitalism seduce you.

*did you know Augustus Gloop’s dad was played by Rory Kinnear’s dad? You can really tell!

My Neighbor Totoro, as far as I can tell at least, doesn’t have a lesson. There are no real villains. There is some stress because the younger sister sometimes runs away, but there are rewards for that too (meeting Totoro, riding the cat bus). It makes for a strange, slightly plot-less movie, but it really meets kids where they are. The two little ones were a little scared of the dust bunnies lurking in the corners at first, but eventually also a little sad to see them leave.

Watching children’s entertainment as an adult is interesting, because you see the scaffolding. Take Waffles + Mochi: it’s downright elegant how every episode matches text (a type of food) with subtext. The first episode is about tomatoes, but also about belonging, and about how some things don’t neatly fit in any clear category. The second episode is about salt, but also about the value of moderation. Pickles become a lesson about patience, rice is an opportunity to talk about ancestry (including slavery), and eggs provide a valuable tool to show that it’s okay to make mistakes sometimes.

Of course, the intended audience isn’t supposed to see the scaffolding. When I read (and re-read) the Dutch book Koning van Katoren as a preteen, I did not realize that the seven ‘tasks’ in that book neatly aligned with the party program of political party D66 (of which author Jan Terlouw was a prominent member). It’s a good sign that I didn’t: it means Terlouw wrote a good children’s book and not just a pamphlet in disguise. Waffles + Mochi works on a primary level, teaching small children about food, even if you miss the secondary level entirely. Even Willy Wonka, the most obvious of these examples the soon-to-be 5 year old caught on to some of the lessons) works as an entertaining movie, too.

But there is something pure about a movie like My Neighbor Totoro. It’s not that there’s nothing deeper, or nothing to learn – the two little girls in the movie are dealing with their mother being sick, and with fear of death. But as far as I can tell, it’s not interested in lecturing kids about anything. It’s like the dust bunnies: what matters is what the kids see, not the oblivious adults.

On to television, and the show reminding everyone just how satisfying procedural storytelling can be: Poker Face! The first five episodes stick tightly to the format: we see the murder happen in the first fifteen or so minutes, then time rewinds and we find out Charlie Cale knew and interacted with the victim and culprits pre-murder, and then she not only figures everything out but also figures out a way to get the murderers punished. But Rian Johnson and his collaborators have so much fun playing with the format.

That said, I found out (when I showed the fifth episode to my in-laws yesterday) that the show is not for everyone, and not even for everyone who liked Columbo. I think it was a little too quippy and winky for some of the people there. Also too reliant, perhaps, on a certain frame of reference. The Okja joke in episode three felt like it was aimed at a very specific audience. That audience absolutely includes me – I laughed so loud when I saw the dvd cover – but which may not include, say, people of another generation, or who know fewer movies outside the mainstream. Plus, I have to admit, I did not expect the episode with the retirees to be the most profane and violent episode so far!

I hope the success of Poker Face leads to a resurgence of procedural television that isn’t just lazy and formulaic, but that takes advantage of the form. If only because it also would make it easier to pick something to watch together with a friend who isn’t (yet) at exactly the same point!

Other things watched: the movie Willow (may check out the tv show soon, though I need to finish the other show with a character named Elora Danan first); four episodes of Only Murders in the Building (second time for me, first time for my friend); the Al-Fayed episode of The Crown (that’s what happens when you visit in-laws); the first three episodes of the humanist comedy Somebody Somewhere (which reminded me a little of Mo in its focus on a very specific community, and in its handling of grief and addiction).

Plans: speaking of Peacock shows, Girls5Eva is now on Dutch Netflix, and I’ve heard good things. Maybe this will also be the week I finally dive into The Bear? And I really should find the time to go to the cinema again at some point…

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