What to Watch While Self-Isolating (Nathan’s picks)

Like Jane, who posted her recommendations yesterday, I’ve been spending a fair amount of the quarantine watching films and TV shows. At times, self-isolation indoors has led me to rewatch the comfortable in an effort to create the illusion of stability in a time when things are changing everyday. At other moments, bored by the same four walls, I’ve looked for escape to the faraway, the unfamiliar, the new. Here are my picks for both:

Shtisel (2013-) 

Shtisel is a quiet Israeli soap opera, set in an ultra-Orthodox community in Jerusalem. Centering around one rabbi’s family, Shtisel gives a three-dimensional look at a tight-knit, oft misunderstood group. The themes and tensions are hardly new – familial strife, forbidden love, grief, the difficulties of adjusting to a new job and finding one’s place in life – but their manifestation is refreshing in its playfulness and calmness. We are not intruders into these hidden lives, but are invited warmly to understand their complexities. Dialogue in Hebrew (and some Yiddish), subtitles in English; two seasons, 12 episodes each, available for streaming on Netflix. 

Fleabag (2016-19) 

If you haven’t seen Fleabag yet, this is your sign. Everyone else has already binged it twice and you’re missing out. Phoebe Waller-Bridge, a discomforting genius who wrote and stars in the show, plays a fourth-wall breaking, almost-put-together young Londoner. We follow her mishaps and misdemeanors through a series of affected relationships, meeting her inarticulate father, indecorous stepmother, neurotic sister, vulgar brother-in-law, and a stream of romantic interests who seem to be trying to outdo one another in their mediocrity. Not everyone will laugh at the same jokes, but I promise there’s something that will leave each viewer in stitches. The first season is good, the second season is perfect. Two seasons, 6 short episodes each, available on Amazon Prime. 

Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold (2017)

Joan Didion has been something of an obsession of mine since last summer, and I was recently pleased to find Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold, a documentary about her life, on Netflix. Directed by the author’s nephew, Griffin Dunne, the film tells her story through interviews, quotations, and photographs, dwelling on moments of her life with intimacy. Didion at 82 is still cogent and witty, and the long quotations from her works, selected with care and often read in her own voice, captivate the viewer and recall the most beautiful moments of her prose works. That being said, I have many more thoughts about the documentary and am working on a piece that will elucidate some of them further. But that is for another time, when you all have watched the documentary. 94 minutes, available on Netflix.

Conan Without Borders (2018)

Coronavirus and quarantine may have interrupted my hopes to visit Israel and Sardinia this spring, but I’ve found another form of escapism in travel shows like Conan Without Borders. Late night host Conan O’Brien has become a favorite comedian of mine through his “remotes”: irreverent travel(v)logues that take him to Italy, Korea, Mexico, and beyond. Despite the general buffoonery, there’s always a touch of humanism at work; Conan interviews taxi drivers in Haiti who have strong words for President Trump and residents of both Israel and Palestine. 6 episodes, available on Netflix; short videos also on YouTube. 

Address Unknown (1944)

It would be hard to call William Cameron Menzies’s Address Unknown a “great” film. This is a Hollywood B-film, a melodramatic noir dealing with the uncomfortable topic of American Nazi sympathizers, and a film that has been largely forgotten by film scholars and critics alike. Still, I think there’s value in watching films that aren’t universally beloved: if nothing else, they give you something to judge the great ones by. I had the pleasure of seeing Address Unknown on 35 mm film in an old theater in Vienna this year. The film portrays the decaying friendship between a Jewish art dealer in San Francisco and a businessman who, upon his return to Germany, becomes infatuated with Nazi ideology. (Fun fact: The film is adapted from an epistolary short story by Katherine Kressmann Taylor, who was born and raised in Portland, Oregon.) 72 minutes, decent quality video on YouTube

Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)

Let’s be honest. This is one of those films you know you’re supposed to watch, but at nearly three hours, it’s understandable why you haven’t gotten around to it. But now, thanks to quarantining, you finally have enough time to sit back and take in this epic Spaghetti Western. Once Upon a Time in the West is Sergio Leone‘s dramatization of the end of an era for the American West: the arrival of the first trains from the East, the disruption of the good/bad/ugly triad with the new evil of a greedy railroad tycoon. In a narrative move not unlike Anna Karenina, Leone distills the epic scope of the era into a focused drama played out between five characters. Once Upon a Time in the West also provides an important contextual and aesthetic link to the modern Western, ranging from Paul Thomas Anderson‘s There Will Be Blood (2007) to Quentin Tarantino‘s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019). 165 minutes, available on Netflix and Amazon Prime.


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